The iPhone 6S Plus promises richer interactions with a pressure sensitive screen, a better camera with new “Live Photos” and longer battery life, despite it having a smaller capacity battery. Does it deliver?
In the tick, tock upgrade cycle, the iPhone 6S Plus is Apple’s phablet tock. It’s a speed bump on the design of last year’s iPhone 6 Plus with a few new features thrown in to try and entice buyers.
Spot the difference
Side-by-side it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between 2014’s iPhone 6 Plus and the new iPhone 6S Plus – unless you have a rose gold one that is.
There’s a small “S” stamped on the back, the device is 0.2mm thicker and 20g heavier, but everything else on the outside looks the same.
The extra weight and thickness is noticeable compared to both the older iPhone and its competitors. At 7.3mm thick and 192g heavy, it is thicker and heavier than Samsung’s 6.9mm thick, 153g Galaxy S6 Edge+ and heavier than Google’s new 7.3mm thick, 178g Nexus 6P.
The iPhone 6S Plus feels nice to touch, but is more difficult to hold than competitors due to its relatively thick bezels. They make the phablet wider and taller than competitors with the same size, or even bigger, screens.
Apple has used harder aluminium for the iPhone 6S Plus’s shell than on its previous model, and while I can’t attest to its durability – I’ve only had the iPhone a week and it is undamaged – it is a little less slippery than the 6 Plus.
The 5.5in 1080p screen, despite being pressure sensitive (more on that later), looks identical to the iPhone 6 Plus. The LCD display is colour accurate, but not quite as vibrant as some AMOLED rivals. It has a pixel density of 401 pixels per inch (ppi) making it similar in sharpness to phablets such as the OnePlus 2.
The 5.7in screens of Samsung’s and Google’s new phablets both have much higher pixel densities of 518ppi, while LG’s 5.5in G4 screen has 538ppi. The difference in screen density is visible side-by-side at screen sizes 5.5in and up – text appears sharper – but most users will be satisfied with the crispness of the iPhone 6S Plus’s screen.
- Screen: 5.5in 1080p (401ppi)
- Processor: dual-core Apple A9
- RAM: 2GB of RAM
- Storage: 16/64/128GB; no SD card
- Operating system: iOS 9
- Camera: 12MP rear camera with OIS, 5MP front-facing camera
- Connectivity: LTE, Wi-Fi, NFC, Bluetooth 4.2 and GPS
- Dimensions: 158.2 x 77.9 x 7.3 mm
- Weight: 192g
As snappy as an iPhone can be
The iPhone 6S Plus has Apple’s new dual-core A9 processor with an integrated motion co-processor and 2GB of RAM. Apple says that it is 70% faster than the A8 in last year’s iPhones.
Performance is as snappy as any iPhone can be, although still feels sluggish compared to Samsung’s Galaxy S6 because of Apple’s use of fixed-speed animations moving into and out of apps and other actions.
The increased speed over the 6 Plus was only noticeable when loading or switching between large apps or games, or when accessing the Siri suggest features new to iOS 9. As yet, there aren’t many apps written to take advantage of the extra performance, but some games are coming with better graphics for A9-equipped phones.
The phone generally stays cool, but it got noticeably warm while in congested situations in London, where the mobile phone network is oversubscribed.
Call quality was excellent, as was Wi-Fi calling, which worked as advertised on EE’s network and could also be shared with other Apple devices such as iPads and Macs.
I found battery life has managed to get both better and worse, as standby time has improved over the iPhone 6 Plus, but the battery drains slightly faster with the screen on while browsing, for instance.
The iPhone 6S Plus lasted 25 hours on average with hundreds of emails and push notifications, three hours of browsing, several hours of music playback via Bluetooth headphones, a couple of pictures and light spot of gaming. You will need to charge it once a day and occasionally it won’t last until bedtime.
That’s about the same as the iPhone 6 Plus and worse than most other competing phablets. I found the low battery mode made little impact on the remaining battery life when it hit 20%, but the milage may vary depending on how you use it. A full charge took about an hour.
The iPhone 6S Plus runs iOS 9, which is available on the iPhone 4S and all newer Apple phones. The OS is slightly more responsive on the 6S Plus in some places, including Siri suggest, but there are very few features exclusive to the new iPhones.
Siri can listen out for the hotwords “Hey, Siri” and wake up the phone. This feature was available on other iPhones only when plugged in. You need a quiet environment to set it up, and even then it struggled to learn my voice, requiring repeated mutterings of the pre-defined phrases to get it locked in.
For more information see the iOS 9 review.
Apple’s new pressure sensitive screen is the marquee feature for the iPhone 6S Plus. It allows more gestures based on how hard you press the screen.
Apple’s peek and pop gestures allow you to preview an email without opening it by pressing slightly harder, or enter the email fully by releasing that increased pressure and doing it again. A similar thing can be done with messages, images, links in Safari, contacts in the phone app and so on.
Most of the time it just shows you what you would see if you tapped the email, link or message normally. It’s meant to be quicker than popping in and out of messages, but the only time I found it useful was previewing days in the month view of the calendar app.
Icons on the homescreen can also be 3D touched to pop up a quick action menu. Mostly this means actions such as start a new message, search or view the last action. Tapping then takes you straight into the compose screen of Mail or Messages.
Third-party apps can also implement it. I only found Evernote, which allows you to launch straight into the camera to create a photo note, to usefully implement the feature.
More apps will come, and 3D Touch might become a killer feature, but for now it’s a novelty that quickly gets old and has a relatively annoying learning curve as you stab the screen to see what works and how hard you have to press.
The iPhone 6S Plus has a new Touch ID sensor, which is much faster than that on the iPhone 6 or 5S, unlocking the phone almost immediately. It’s one of the fastest and best fingerprint scanners on the market, rivalling Huawei’s very fast scanner.
I found it was as accurate as the iPhone 6 Plus, recognising my thumb almost every time.
The excellent vibration system that feels like someone is tapping you on the wrist on the Apple Watch has been added to the iPhone. It works very well in the hand, giving much sharper more defined haptic feedback. It’s also quieter when on a desk, but I found it wasn’t strong enough in my pocket. I missed texts and emails as the alert was over in an instant.
You can change the vibration pattern to something a bit more aggressive like those used for phone calls, which helped, but then it didn’t feel as good in the hand. Swings and roundabouts.
The new 12-megapixel camera is excellent and is one of the best on the market, with similar picture quality to Samsung’s Galaxy S6 and LG’s G4.
It captures images with good detail and colour balance in good light, often resulting in slightly more natural, if a but muted, photos. Low light performance is also good, but neither are a vast improvement over the iPhone 6 Plus.
Video capture is good and the camera can record in 4K taking up around 300MB per minute, roughly three times the space required for 1080p video. The switch to enable 4K video is buried in the settings menu so most will probably never try it.
The front-facing camera has been boosted to five megapixels from 1.2MP, but the photos are still not exactly fantastic. They will do fine for small shots, but are not a patch on those captured by the rear camera. The flash screen feature works OK for close-ups, but forget anything at arms length or further away.
Apple’s Live Photos are new for the iPhone 6S Plus. They capture 1. 5 seconds of video before and after taking a photo and are very similar to HTC’s Zoe feature from 2013.
They are an interesting novelty, which work OK for portraits but will likely not be used much by most. They take up twice the storage on the phone and are difficult to share or upload beyond Apple’s walled garden, much like HTC’s Zoe. They can be used as wallpaper on the phone, but only animate when pressed on.
I also found that it could slow down the speed of the shutter, meaning I missed a couple of photo moments and more often than not caught video of the subject moving out of frame or the camera going down.
The iPhone 6S Plus costs £619 for 16GB of storage, £699 for 64GB and £789 for 128GB in silver, dark grey, gold and pink.
Phablet competitors such as the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+ costs £600 for 32GB of storage and the LG G4 costs £325 for 32GB.
No one should buy the 16GB storage version as it is just not enough space for today’s apps, music, photos and video, particularly if shot in 4K or taking Live Photos.
The iPhone 6S Plus is the best phablet Apple has ever made, but only just. It is not a significant upgrade over last year’s 6 Plus, with most of its new features take it or leave it affairs.
It is also not the best phablet available, but most prospective buyers will be upgrading from an existing iPhone and so are unlikely to consider the Android competition.
The new Touch ID fingerprint scanner is significantly faster. The pressure-sensitive screen is interesting on paper, but in practice has no killer application. The Live Photos are a novelty, but difficult to share and may prove to be something tested then just left off.
Users upgrading from an iPhone 5S or older iPhone are in for a treat, however, as the phone is better in almost every way.
Pros: fast fingerprint scanner, good camera, good screen, Taptic Engine, extended standby time
Cons: battery life of only a day, expensive, heavier, big bezels around the screen make it more difficult to hold