iPhone 6S Review: Nice Refinements But Comes With Some Compromises

Another year, another new iPhone! We preordered two new iPhone 6S this year – both 64GB rose gold, one for AT&T and one for Verizon (I know, it’s complicated when it comes to wireless plans in my family). Both were delivered on launch day back on 9/25, and after over two weeks I think I’ve had enough time to make an accurate assessment of the latest offering out of Cupertino.

iPhone 6S
iPhone 6S

DESIGN

Being a “S” year model, the 6S is as expected a refinement of last year’s 6. It inherits pretty much the same physical layout – same 4.7″ (750 × 1334) retina screen in a body that’s ever so slightly thicker/taller (by 0.2 mm) and heavier (14g or 0.4oz). It’s virtually identical, so much so that my significant other’s old 6 case fits the new 6S perfectly. So if you got old accessories from last year, most likely it will all still work fine on the new phone. The heavier weight is definitely noticeable at first, but you get used to it quickly after a day or so.

The only new physical change this year is the addition of “rose gold” as a color option. Don’t let the name fool ya – it’s certainly very pink!

NEW FEATURES

This year, the main new features are 3D touch, higher resolution cameras (front and back), faster processor and graphics performance and a couple other software refinement and features.
-3D touch

This is the main event. Apple first introduced this concept with the Apple watch, when it was called Force Touch. Interesting sidenote – apparently they changed the name to 3D touch due to the negative connotation associated with “forcing” something, especially with the female customers. Anyway, this feature adds another dimension to the user interface by allowing the phone to sense different depths of touch. Basically, the phone is now pressure-sensitive, just like Wacom tablets but obviously not that many levels of sensitivity. I think out of all the features and changes, this is the most defining and important addition to the iPhone. It allows for a more intuitive flow in apps that support it. Currently, there’s only a handful, and most are Apple’s in-house apps. But it’s only a matter of time before developers start figuring out how best to utilize this additional dimension.

-Upgraded cameras
This year Apple finally upgraded the cameras – both front and back. The front camera goes from 1.2MP to 5.0MP, a very noticeable jump. The screen now doubles as the flash for the front camera. All this should make all the selfie enthusiasts out there very happy. For the back camera, Apple bumped the spatial resolution from 8.0MP to 12MP and boosted the video capabilities with 4K video and slower slo-mo video at 1080p (now up to 120 fps vs last year’s 60 fps). In the process, Apple decided to go with a similar sensor size, which resulted in smaller pixel size (now 1.22 microns vs last year’s 1.5 microns). Apple says they used “deep trench” technology to deal with the increase in noise level associated with the smaller pixels. This is where the geek/photography enthusiast inside me kind of rolls my eyes slightly – this technology has been in place in other cameras and phones for a while now and is nothing new. It’s not something magical or revolutionary. That being said, the iPhone camera is definitely one of the best mobile cameras around. The response time is great with minimal shutter lag and shot-to-shot delay. Color balance and exposure generally is good to great, and noise levels in the captured images are generally very low.

The camera user interface remains largely unchanged from last year, except for the addition of Live Photos. This feature works by basically continuously capture a 12 fps video stream in the background when you turn on the camera. When you tap the shutter button to take a photo, the phone captures that image in time along with about 3 seconds of video before and after the shot. The result is a photo that when you press down using 3D Touch will come alive. Apple actually didn’t come up with this feature – HTC did it first back in early 2013 with the HTC One M7’s Zoe feature. It’s definitely very cool, but as always there are couple gotchas. First, the resulting “image” is basically a short video, and video clips take up a lot more space than a single photo. Apple was reluctant about how much additional space Live Photo would require. From my various Live Photo clips, it’s about 2 to 2.5 times a normal photo. That adds up quickly, especially if you have a 16GB phone. This was part of the reason why we went with the 64GB version. Second, it’s hard to make use of these proprietary short video clips, specifically in sharing. This was the main problem HTC ran into almost three years ago. Apple has a much, much bigger influence obviously, and I am cautiously optimistic that they will flex their muscles and get Live Photo support quickly with the major social media and other services. Time will tell, though.
Still a bit sad that the 6S doesn’t have optical image stabilization like the 6S Plus. Electronic image stabilization is nice but I still prefer optical, especially for video.

-Upgraded Video
Finally, 4K video! Okay, so it’s something that’s a bit of an overkill at the moment, since most people don’t have 4K TV sets yet. But it’s a nice feature to have and will futureproof the 6S as 4K TVs become more affordable and more common. Just be aware of the increased storage requirement for 4K video! I do like the improvement to the 1080p slow-motion video – now up to 120fps or twice as slow as before.

-Faster CPU/GPU
The new A9 processor is very impressive, despite still being just a dual-core processor. Now clocked at up to ~1.8Ghz or so, which is a healthy 400Mhz jump from last year’s A8 at 1.4Ghz. The GPU performance is very impressive as well. I like Apple’s focus here – most apps are still single or double-threaded, and being among the fastest in performance-per-core is a good strategy vs piling on more cores every iteration. Fact of the matter is, a phone is severely limited by the compromise between battery life and heat dissipation. If I am going to do real work, I would prefer to use a powerful desktop or workstation.

One added benefit with the improved A9 is the M9 coprocessor, which among other things allow for constant-on for Siri. This means you no longer have to be plugged in to trigger the “hey siri” voice command. Personally, I am not a big Siri user outside of messing around for fun. But if you rely on Siri heavily, this could be a big improvement.

Also, finally Apple gave us 2GB of RAM! I believe this contributed equally if not more to the overall increased speed and smoothness in daily usage with the 6S. One GB RAM is just not enough anymore – hasn’t been for at least a year or two now.

-Other Misc Improvements
There’s of course iOS 9, which adds a host of features and tweaks. Biggest thing for me personally was the claimed improvement in battery life. Other improvements include a faster Touch ID (I can definitely feel the difference, pretty much instantaneous log-in now) and tougher Gorilla glass and more robust aluminum chassis to prevent a repeat of “bend-gate” from last year. They all add up to a much more refined phone compared to the 6.

Also, it appears Apple beefed up the seals in the 6s, and unofficial tests show that this phone will survive being dunked in water for a few minutes. Some are even saying up to 30 min or more. I personally haven’t tested it and will not be doing so for obvious reasons. But it’s good to know the added protection is there if I ever need it.

POTENTIAL PROBLEMS

With a little bit over two weeks of daily usage, I haven’t encountered any major issues. There are two potential problems that I’d like to point out:
1. Battery life – The 6S actually has a battery that’s about 100mah or ~5% smaller than last year’s 6. This is a bit disappointing for me. I understand the physical limitations with implementing 3D Touch, which required more space from other components. It’s just I am sure I am not alone when I say battery life is one of the few areas where we really need some improvement. Apple claims iOS 9 made up for the smaller battery, but just imagine if the 6S had a bigger battery, or even the same size as the 6. Regression is not good in this department, in my opinion.

From my personal usage pattern, the 6S has more or less comparable battery life for light usage. But more intensive tasks like video, facebook, facetime, etc, I feel there’s a slightly decrease in overall battery life. Not enough to cause alarm, but just enough to take away from the otherwise refined experience.

2. CPU Chip lottery – This is a fairly new development that came out over the past week. Basically, Apple had outsourced the production of the A9 chip to two companies, Samsung and Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC). I won’t get into the technical details since that’s a whole other can of worm, but essentially the TSMC chip from informal testing has shown to give up to an extra two hours of battery life. That is not an insignificant difference. There are apps around that you can use to check your phone’s CPU. I used Lirum Device Info Lite, which is free. If your 6S has a N71MAP CPU, then it’s the better TSMC chip. If it’s N71AP, then it’s the inferior Samsung chip. Apple’s official statement as of today is that the difference is negligible. And maybe it is for some people. But as a tech enthusiast, it’s annoying and frustrating. Fortunately, we lucked out as both of our 6S’s are TSMC chips. If I got the Samsung chip, I actually would seriously consider asking for an exchange at the Apple Store.

SUMMARY

The 6S is a very nice upgrade over last year’s 6. Refinement is the operative word here, which is what we expected from a S year model. If you have a 6 though, I am not sure if it’s worth the upgrade especially now with carriers doing away with subsidies. But if you’re coming from anything older, this is a great upgrade and should be good enough to last at least two years if not more.

Best iPhone 6S Cases by TAGreat

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