The “S” year is always a tricky one for Apple. The company has to show that a phone that looks exactly like last year’s model is new, revolutionary, different, and the best ever. And from the outside, the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus do look exactly like last year’s units, unless you choose the pink “rose gold” color.
But hold down on the screen a little too long and you’ll notice the difference. This isn’t the first phone with force touch (or “3D Touch,” as Apple calls it), but, as is usual with Apple, it’s the first phone where the feature was properly thought through. It’s right-clicking! For decades now, we have all understood that when we right-click on something, we’ll get a contextual menu. iPhones have them now, too. The little contextual menus I found attached to Mail, Maps, Facebook, and Instagram on the iPhone 6s’s home screen were all smart, consisting of features I actually would want to jump to. And just tapping on the screen doesn’t prompt a force-click. Digging into apps, I found the “peek” and “pop” features to be a little less intuitive than the contextual menus, if only because I wasn’t always sure which apps supported them.
The other big changes I saw were in the cameras. The rear camera is now 12 megapixels —the existing 8-megapixel camera was already great, so I’ll need to take a closer look to tell the difference. I really liked the front-facing “selfie flash,” though, which flashes the screen a brief, brilliant white to improve your 5-megapixel, front-facing selfies in low light.
I’m a little more hesitant about “Live Photos,” which attach 3 seconds of video to each one of your photos. Apple implemented them well; I love how as you flip through the gallery, you see little bits of motion. But the 3-second videos mean you’ll have to change your photo-taking habits—holding a camera still for a little while longer—and while they’ll play on Apple devices, it doesn’t look like they’ll work with other platforms or services like Google Photos or Facebook. HTC built the same feature in 2013, calling it “Zoe,” and ran into enough interoperability problems that it never took off. Of course, Apple’s ecosystem is big enough that it might be able to make this happen all by itself.
I didn’t get a chance to figure out how well the A9 processor works compared to the A8. While Apple says it’s 80 percent faster, that’s something I’ll have to check through benchmarks and Web page loads. It will almost certainly push the iPhone back to having the fastest processor in a smartphone, beyond the Galaxy S6.
The phone now defaults to recording 4K video, which looks and acts just like the old 1080p video did, except that it takes up a lot more storage. Perhaps that shows the A9 at work. Your 16GB iPhone will seem even tighter. Don’t buy one; get the 64GB model.
For anyone who’s keeping track, other manufacturers had these features first. In addition to HTC’s Zoe, BlackBerry had force touch on the Storm in 2008, LG brought us the screen-flashing “selfie flash” in 2014, and 4K video has been around in a bunch of phones for a while. Just like the Diamond Rio played MP3s three years before the iPod.
Apple’s brilliance has always been in taking these technologies and making them usable and intuitive. That’s often through very subtle judgments, like making sure you don’t accidentally force touch when you mean to tap. It can also be through better communication; HTC was never quite able to explain Zoe, and Apple has a better chance with Live Photos.
Should you buy the new iPhones? Well, not the 16GB model if you know what’s good for you. There are two categories of people who should jump on the new units. If you really love photography, especially taking selfies, the new cameras are a no-brainer. Also, these are the first iPhones with T-Mobile’s Band 12, which dramatically improves coverage in some parts of the country, so T-Mobile folks need to get on board.
As for everyone else, stay tuned for a full review later this month.