Review : Apple iPhone 6s, iPhone 6s Plus, part 1

Apple leads the way again with 3D Touch, speedy and efficient A9 SoC

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Product Manufacturer: Apple

Price: From $649

The Good

  • Outstanding design and build quality
  • 3D Touch is a major step forward
  • New camera, video capabilities are impressive
  • Taptic Engine is unsung hero

The Bad

  • Battery life same as before
  • Low-light photography no better than iPhone 6
  • 16GB as base model is passé
  • Charge times could be improved
Since its introduction in 2007, the iPhone has always been considered the benchmark by which all other smartphones are judged. It provided the clearest and most visionary articulation of where mobile technology was headed, but in a shipping product years ahead of its time. It achieved this by a marriage of hardware, software and ecosystem, that has evolved beyond imagination over the past several years. The arrival of each new iPhone always heralds what's next in meaningful new technology, and the new iPhone 6s models are no exception. In fact, in some ways, the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus are the most exciting new iPhones since the original iPhone. Read on to see what has got us so excited.

Design and build quality

The least surprising aspect of the iPhone 6s designs are that they continue with the same design language of their predecessors. However, as much as things have stayed the same, they have also changed considerably. Apple has upgraded the 6000 series aluminum used in the construction of the iPhone 6 models, to a new custom 7000 series aluminum it developed over a four-year period for the Apple Watch Sport model, introduced earlier this year. This was not a trivial undertaking -- it required completely retooling its production line to produce the revised unibody shell, which is not far short of what it would have taken to design an all-new body. It also required the re-engineering of how it applies the anodized finish to the iPhone 6s models as well.



The result is a much stronger, more resilient, and robust design than before. Not that we will use it without a case, but it certainly feels like an iPhone that can withstand the rigors of everyday use without a case. Some of the predictable bending and drop "tests" have confirmed that this is a very torsionally rigid design, with exceptional build quality. The addition of Corning's Gorilla Glass 4 has also helped in this regard, being now almost sapphire hard and also much more resistant to typical wear and tear. Now available in four colors -- space gray, silver, gold and rose gold -- iPhone 6s users will really appreciate just how well made and finished the iPhone 6s is when it's held in the hand.



Part of the reason the new iPhones feel sturdier is that both models are now also slightly thicker and heavier than before, even if they don't look much changed. The 4.7-inch iPhone 6s is now 0.28 inches (7.1mm) thick and five ounces (143 grams) in weight (up from 4.55 ounces/129 grams for the iPhone 6). The 5.5-inch iPhone 6s Plus is now 0.29 inches thick (7.3mm) and 6.77 ounces (192 grams) in weight (up from 6.07 ounces/172 grams). This is not insignificant, and is more noticeable in the already-weighty iPhone 6s Plus. The additional thickness and weight gains are due in part to the addition of the new 3D Touch display array, with the 7000 series aluminum and other structure-strengthening changes. This could influence your decision to buy the 4.7-inch 6s, instead of the 6s Plus, but this will need to be weighed against the additional features of the 6s Plus outlined below.



3D Touch display

The overall resolution and viewing quality is unchanged from the iPhone 6 models, at least to the naked eye. The 4.7-inch 6s Retina HD display continues with a 760p resolution and a pixel density of 326ppi, while the 5.5-inch 6s Plus display continues with a 1080p resolution and a pixel density of 401ppi. They both continue to look sharp, with excellent color saturation, brightness, contrast and viewing angles. As a viewing experience, they remain perfectly adequate, even if 5.5-inch devices like the new Sony Xperia Z5 Premium are packing an insane 800ppi pixel density into its 4K Ultra HD panels. Native 4K resolution on a 5.5-inch device might be nice to have, but for every higher resolution 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch Android device, the iPhone 6s models will continue to outperform them in gaming tests.



However, the new 3D Touch technology is the big news story for the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus upgrade. It is a three-way technological solution that relies on a new layer of capacitive pressure sensors placed underneath the LCD panel, working in unison with new features added into iOS 9 to take full advantage of the new hardware, which includes Apple's Taptic Engine. The new vibration method provides varying degrees of haptic feedback, to give you the sensation of different levels of feedback from applied pressure. The result is what Apple calls the next generation of multi-touch technology, and is a massive leap forward in user control and interaction.

As with just about anything to do with Apple hardware innovation, software plays a big role in bringing it to life. Apple has given iOS 9 some software tweaks (currently unique to the iPhone 6s line), that really makes the 3D Touch hardware not only useful, but revolutionizes the way you interact with your iPhone. As when Touch ID was first introduced, once you have tried it, you never want to go back to a iDevice that doesn't support the new technology. Not only does it fundamentally change the way you interact with your iPhone through the iOS operating system, but it is already starting to change the way that you interact with other apps, including games.



There are several ways in which 3D Touch has been implemented in iOS 9, although the primary ways to use it include "Peek and Pop," "Quick Actions," and "Quick Actions within apps." Peek and Pop lets you dip into and out of your content without leaving where you are when in an app. For example, in Mail, you can use Peek and Pop when you are in the Inbox to quickly glance at the contents of an email, without leaving the Inbox to go into the actual contents of the email itself. However, if you want to read the contents of the email once you have "peeked" at it, you can press more firmly to "pop" into the contents. It works extremely well, and helps you to get things done faster. The same principle is applied across many system apps, and is something we will take a closer look further at in a separate story.



Quick Actions are also super useful, though it does take a while to get used to using them and learning how they work with the different system apps, if they are in fact implemented in them to begin with. The fundamental principle with Quick Actions is that they give you a shortcut to the things you do most in apps, without actually having to launch the app first, and then navigate around to the function as you would normally. For example, a force touch on the Camera app gives presents you with a menu from which you can select "Take Selfie," "Record Video," "Record Slo-mo," or "Take Photo."



This makes it much quicker to launch straight into the most used functions in the Camera app, and will go a long way to making sure you never miss that special moment you want to capture. As with Peek and Pop, we will take a closer look at the many other ways Quick Actions works from outside an app, and within it, to make using the iPhone easier, and more responsive to your needs than ever before.

3D Touch can also be used in several other ways, including using it to create pressure sensitive drawings in apps, for Markup in Mail, and bringing to life Dynamic wallpaper with varying levels of pressure sensitivity. Another is to use a firm press to turn the keyboard into a trackpad, which makes moving the cursor around the iPhone a pure joy. In a move that suggests Apple may drop the Home button sooner, rather than later, you can now use a firm press to the left of the Home screen to enable the multitasking view. Overall, though, as we predicted, 3D Touch is outstanding, and the way that Apple has implemented it is even more awesome than we thought it would be.

Taptic Engine

As we pointed out recently, the Taptic Engine is very much a key addition to the iPhone 6s, helping to further differentiate it from the iPhone 6. It provides the haptic feedback response that is vital part of the of 3D Touch experience. When you Peek into an email, the first force touch results in haptic feedback that is not otherwise felt when touching the display, while the deeper press to actuate a Pop event also combines with haptic feedback to give you a physical sensation when enabling the function. Similarly, you also get haptic feedback when enable a Quick Action. It oscillating motor is much faster than typical oscillating motors, making it highly responsive, and also very refined.



If you have your iPhone 6s on mute, with vibrations, you will now be able to tell the difference between the vibration when receiving a message, to receiving an email. It might not be as glamorous as 3D Touch, but it is no less important in making the iPhone 6s a groundbreaking device.

Performance

Apple has a substantial advantage over the competition when it comes to mobile silicon, and iPhone 6s and 6s Plus users will reap the benefits of this. Under the late Steve Jobs, the company acquired two fabless chip designing companies in PA Semi and Intrinsity. Apple targeted the two companies because they had expertise in optimizing chip architecture, adding seemingly diametrically-opposed capabilities of making them faster, while at the same time reducing power consumption.



With the rise of mobile over the past few years where the competition is fierce, coupled with limited advances in battery technology, it's clear that Apple made a couple of very wise investments. Designing, or co-designing silicon, is in Apple's DNA, and has been since its days jointly developing PowerPC chips with IBM, and in co-founding ARM originally.

Apple's special relationship with ARM yielded massive dividends when it beat Qualcomm and Samsung, among others, to market by 12-18 months with the first 64-bit ARM-based to ship in a smartphone, in the Apple A7 found in the iPhone 5s (yes, "s" models have a history of major leaps forward technologically). It really caught the competition off-guard, so much so that they were all publicly trying to downplay the significance of the advancement, while the alarm bells were ringing back at their head offices.

The argument the competition put forward was that the move to 64-bit would only really make a difference when paired with 3GB or more of RAM. What they did not acknowledge, publicly at least, was that there were other significant performance and efficiency gains to be made, thanks to the more-efficient ARMv8 instruction set, as well as additional processing bandwidth the new chip architecture provided. Thus, despite running dual-core designs, Apple was achieving excellent performance per watt, and always faster in the key metric of single-core performance -- despite being clocked much lower than the 32-bit quad- and then octa-core designs it was competing with, and generally with less RAM as well.

The Apple dual-core, 1.85GHz Apple A9 SoC builds on this technological advantage, with Apple's third revision of its 64-bit architecture dubbed "Twister." Apple, as we know, has split its orders for the A9 chips between Samsung's foundries and TSMCs, which may result in minor performance variations in processing and in battery life. While this is the first time that Apple has split its production between two suppliers using slightly different lithography methods, either iteration of the chip scorches the competition in both outright performance and in performance per watt. This is why Apple was able to reduce the battery size slightly in the new iPhone 6s models to accommodate the Taptic Engine, while at the same making a big jump in performance.

Apple says that the A9's dual-core processors deliver up to 70 percent faster performance than the already impressive A8, while its new PowerVR GT7600 GPU delivers "console-level graphics performance" with a huge 90 percent performance improvement over the PowerVR GX6450 it replaces. As you can see from the benchmarks below, Apple's A9 SoC is the leading mobile chipset on the market.





In the next part of this two-part review, to be published tomorrow, we'll examine the improved cameras, Touch ID 2, the battery life of the devices, the connectivity, the built-in apps, and of course iOS 9 -- and deliver our verdict on the total package.

-- Sanjiv Sathiah