What's Hot: Much improved cameras, more rigid aluminum for less bend, significantly faster, Touch ID much faster. 3D Touch shows promise. Easier to buy unlocked thanks to full retail sales and Apple Upgrade Program.
What's Not: Same as always: expensive, no microSD card slot and battery is sealed inside.
It's Apple's best iPhones ever. Each year Apple tells us this, and thankfully for them (and consumers), they've been right. Of course most products do improve with each iteration, but we didn't expect to see significant bumps in an "s" year, Apple's off year where they often don't add significant new features and never implement design changes. This year the new Apple A9 CPU is one of the bigger speed bumps we've seen (more significant than the A7 to A8). RAM has doubled and the cameras have gotten a serious resolution bump. And then there's 3D Touch, a new way of interacting with the touch screen. The LTE 4G radio is even faster, matching the evolution of cellular technology and the phone still supports WiFi calling and VoLTE. There's a new color too: rose gold, which is actually pink. The new Touch ID sensor recognizes fingerprints so quickly you won't believe it's actually doing anything (it is).
Apple has further simplified the hardware models used in the US, and most folks will get the same model since it supports all LTE US bands and both GSM and CDMA. At time of activation it will be unlocked if you paid full retail or locked if you've selected a carrier contract or carrier payment plan. Apple's new iPhone Upgrade Program finance program nets you an unlocked iPhone and you'll make monthly payments to Apple for 24 months, though you can trade in your iPhone for a new one every year. This works similarly to some carriers' payment plans, but Apple includes Apple Care in the deal for roughly the same monthly installment amount as the carriers.
Apple's still not breaking from the "s" equals no design change on the outside. The iPhone 6s and 6s Plus designs are unchanged from the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. Cases for the 6 and 6 Plus will in general fit and work perfectly with the 6s and 6s Plus. The phones have gotten .2mm thicker and a few grams heavier--this is the first time in memory that Apple's allowed their products to grow rather than shrink. We're glad to see their obsession with thinness has limits and that they're willing to add new features even if it means a slight size and weight increase here and there.
Why did the phone get almost imperceptibly thicker? The new display with 3D Touch sensors and Taptic engine is a wee bit thicker and heavier (you likely wouldn't notice those differences if someone didn't tell you). 3D Touch is somewhat akin to the new Force Touch trackpad in MacBooks. Press harder on an icon in the home screen and you'll see a popup menu of actions, and the background will blur to give focus to that menu. So if you 3D Touch on the Photos app icon you can go straight to your newest photos or your favorites. 3D Touch on Mail and you can go straight to composing a new message, visit your inbox or check your VIP messages. If you hard press on a Live photo (Apple's new animated photo feature) in the Photos app, you'll see the full animation. This only works with Apple's own apps right now, but 3D Touch is open to 3rd party developers, so I'm sure we'll see more apps make use of it soon.
If you're in mail you can do a peek and pop to preview a web page in a link, saving time and giving you an idea if that link is safe. This new pressure sensitivity also allows for more natural drawing--press hard and you get a thicker line, just like a Wacom digitizer in a Samsung Galaxy Note 5 smartphone or in a Windows tablet with that tech. It's still a strictly capacitive display though, so you're still stuck with either your finger or a relatively thick capacitive stylus for drawing. In contrast, the Wacom digitizer uses a thin point, precise pen for input.
Display, Still Retina IPS and Lovely
To look at the displays, you'd never guess there's new tech underneath. These are 16:9 Retina IPS laminated displays with the same dimensions and resolutions as last year's models. That means 4.7" and 1344 x 750 (326 PPI) for the iPhone 6s and 1920 x 1080 (401 PPI) for the iPhone 6s Plus. The displays have wide color gamut, excellent 1300:1 (6s Plus) or 1400:1 (6s) contrast ratios and are very bright at 500 nits. They're the only smartphone IPS displays that don't make me long for the Samsung Galaxy S6 and Note 5 family. Viewing angles are excellent and better than average even for IPS thanks the "Dual Domain" pixel technology, and Apple says they're using an even more scratch resistant Ion-X glass.
7000 Series Aluminum, Prettier in Pink?
iPhones are scratch-prone, and aluminum is a relatively soft metal. Apple's moved to the supposedly more expensive but harder 7000 Series aluminum with higher zinc content to resist scratching and bending (remember Bend-Gate?). SquareTrade Labs says their tests show that the new phones are 50 to 60 percent more rigid (less likely to bend). I've been using the phones naked for a week and haven't gotten any scratches yet, but it's still an aluminum alloy and I'd expect it eventually will, just not as badly as the old model. The new aluminum is a bit silkier and grippy, and the iPhone 6s Plus doesn't feel like a slippery bar of soap as did the iPhone 6 Plus.
Last year gold was the hot new color, and you can still get it this year along with silver with a white front and space gray with a black front. The new color for 2015 is rose gold, which is unabashedly pink. It has the same matte aluminum finish as the other colors and it has white contrasting antenna lines. I personally am enamored with it on the iPhone 6s, but find it a bit much on the big iPhone 6s Plus. That's me--you may be different and that's why Apple offers color choices. Undoubtedly as with gold last year, rose gold will likely be hard to find in stock for some time after launch.
Performance and Horsepower
Smartphones get faster every year, though that progress has gone from insanely faster to a little faster in many platforms. Why? It's hard to make CPUs and graphics super fast without generating lots more heat, and phones have little room for heat dissipation. Witness the slowing of Qualcomm Snapdragon speed improvements, and this year's Snapdragon 810 turning some phones into hand warmers. Then there's NVIDIA's Tegra CPUs that are indeed some of the fastest mobile chips on the market, but they're too hot for phones and so are only used in tablets. Samsung's latest Exynos chip in the Galaxy S6 and Note 5 shows improvements over its predecessors, but it's not the quantum leap we've seen in the old days.
The Apple A9 is a dual core, 64 bit chip that is actually significantly faster than the A8 used in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, yet it's no hotter and it seems to have even better battery life (Apple is using smaller batteries this year without diminishing runtimes). In terms of performance, it beats most current CPUs on the market. The Tegra K1 (another dual core, 64 bit CPU) comes the closest in performance, but it's only available in tablets. This is quite a big processor leap for an "s" year, and we're impressed with Apple's SoC (system on a chip) engineering. The iPhone 6s and 6s Plus (they use the same internals) beat the Samsung Galaxy S6 and Note 5 except in multi-core performance (the Exynos CPU in those phones is an 8 core design with 4 high power and 4 low power cores vs. the iPhone 6s' two cores). Even then, the A9's single core performance is much faster than the single core Exynos in those Samsung phones. The iPhone 6s and 6s Plus graphics scores in cross platform benchmarks are at the top of the heap, though it will be interesting to see what Qualcomm comes up with in the coming year before the iPhone 7 and Apple's next CPU refresh arrive.
I don't often hear folks complaining that their recent generation iPhone is slow, so the value of these speed improvements might not excite you that much. But it does allow Siri to handle more complex queries quicker and it affords 4K video recording and even better gaming. Some iPhone 6 Plus owners felt their phones were never as fast as the smaller iPhone 6 thanks to the greater number of pixels the iPhone 6 Plus had to push. This should be moot now, given the speed improvements in the iPhone 6s Plus.
Apple has also doubled RAM to 2 gigs, thank goodness! 1 gig of RAM was simply an embarrassment in a flagship phone with a complex feature set and multitasking. 2 gigs gives the iPhone room to breathe, and as with the iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 4 with 2 gigs of RAM, you'll see more fluent multitasking and fewer tab reloads in Safari. Yes, some new Android phones have 3 and even 4 gigs of RAM, but they also have heavy skins over Android in some cases, which consume RAM. Apple also has an advantage since they design and control both the iOS 9 OS and the hardware--they can optimize and streamline the experience. Given how inexpensive RAM is and how healthy Apple's profit margins are, I suspect that if they felt more RAM would make a serious difference in performance, they'd have given us more.
Storage for the base model, is still what I can only call borderline offensive. For high end phones whose prices start at $649 and $749 respectively, the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus really should have more than 16 gigs of storage. Really. Most competing Android flagship phones have 32 gigs, and the iPhone, as ever lacking a microSD card slot, really needs more. The only consolation is that $100 more nets you 64 gigs of storage, which is a healthy bump and plenty of room even for power users. There's the 128 gig option for yet another $100 ($200 above the base model). As a consolation, cloud storage is all the rage and everything from Microsoft's OneDrive to DropBox and iCloud provide additional storage. Netflix and Amazon Videos are streaming video services and then there's Apple Music, Spotify and more for streaming music. That said, we'd like to see Apple include more than 5 gigs of storage with their free iCloud plan--that's simply stingy when other services offer much more storage for free.
iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus Video Review
iPhone 6s Plus vs. Samsung Galaxy Note 5 Comparison
iPhone 6s Plus vs. Nexus 6P Comparison
Big news here, the front FaceTime camera moves up to 5MP from 1.2MP, making it competitive with Samsung and LG's front cameras on the latest Galaxy models and the LG G4. As you might imagine, video chat looks much sharper, be it FaceTime or Skype, and selfies look much more like normal photos rather than a slightly noisy and low contrast mess. The front f/2.2 camera lens isn't overly wide angle, which means your features won't be as distorted, but you won't be able to fit a gang of pals in behind you. The front camera can record 720p video (we're not sure why Apple didn't offer 1080p as well). If you want to blind yourself, you can use the new front flash feature that uses the display (overdriven up to 3x brightness) as a giant flash. The iPhone even adjusts the display color to achieve a pleasing white balance.
Sample photo taken with the iPhone 6s Plus.
The rear 12MP camera offers a 50% resolution increase from the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, and as you might guess, there's more fine detail and sharper images. For those who crop photos, this will be a godsend. It also makes the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus more competitive with the Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 edge+ as well as the LG G4 (all 16MP) in terms of resolution and detail. Overall exposure, colors and rendering haven't changed from the last generation iPhone 6, and that's not a bad thing--those were all very well handled already. Photos from the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus look very sharp indeed, with somewhat warm and natural colors that remind us more of a dedicated digital camera rather than a camera phone. Still, the f/2.2 lens is the weak point: it's not that Apple's lens is weaker than the competition, but rather all camera phones have tiny pin hole lenses whose optics don't hold a candle to a dedicated camera.
Though few of us have 4K displays, 4K video recording is a hot marketing feature for smartphones. Apple's jumped on the bandwagon, and the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus can record 4k video at 30 fps. For those who have 16 gig iPhones, the 1080p at 30 or 60 fps is still available and will use approximately one quarter of the space. That said, 4K videos do look better and when down-converted to 1080p you'll see sharper video with less artifacting. When recording in 4K you can zoom without much loss in quality (our video review has a sample 4K video where I demonstrate zoom). You can take photos while recording video (8MP photos if recording 4K video) and as with the last generation, only the iPhone 6s Plus has optical image stabilization that will dampen the effects of shaky hands. Tip: to enable 4K video recording, you'll have to go to the Settings app and look for the recording resolution setting under Photos & Camera.
So how good is the rear camera in these phones? Very good for a camera phone, and as a serious photographer, I'm not a fan of camera phones in general. It can't replace a dSLR or higher end point and shoot when it comes to optical zoom, dynamic range, bokeh (blurred backgrounds) or lens quality, but it's darned good for a phone. It holds up well against the LG G4 and Samsung Galaxy S6/Note 5 family even though resolution is a bit lower. As ever, the iPhone 6s Plus will have an edge over the 6s in low light because it can use OIS and thus use lower shutter speeds for more pleasing exposures.
Battery life remains the same as the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, which is to say passable on the iPhone 6s and very good on the iPhone 6s Plus. The bigger iPhone has a larger battery; hence the continuing battery life divide. Apple's battery life claims (generally accurate) are the same as the previous gen models, despite slightly lower battery capacity. We assume Apple had to slim down the batteries to make room for the 3D Touch hardware. The iPhone 6s has a 1715 mAh battery (down from 1810 mAh), and the iPhone 6s Plus has a 2750 mAh battery (down from 2915 mAh).
The iPhone 6s Plus in landscape mode.
Apple has added a low power consumption mode designed to get more from the phone when the battery is getting low, and this can extend runtimes by an hour (some Android phones have a similar feature). In our tests with the battery in "normal" mode, the iPhone 6 lasted a full day on a charge (8am to 11pm) with moderate use. Games will greatly diminish runtimes, and long GPS navigation sessions will moderately shorten runtimes. The iPhone 6s Plus lasts 1.5 days on a charge with moderate use. If you use the phones lightly, you'll get more. If you use them vigorously and/or receive lots of email and notifications, you may get less. As ever, the battery is sealed inside, so you'll need access to an AC outlet or an external battery pack to charge on the go.
Apple sold 13 million iPhone 6s and 6s Plus models in the first weekend. We're surprised you're even reading this review--the iPhone is still hot enough that folks buy it sight unseen and sans reviews. Android aficionados will claim that people are "iSheep", but I have more faith in humanity. Folks buy iPhones because they're excellent products that are beautiful, well made and they're fun to use. Security is relatively excellent and the app selection in terms of quality and quantity is still unparalleled. This year's iPhones are faster than ever, have an uncannily fast Touch ID sensor that makes securing your phone completely painless and the cameras are great. If you're not among the 13 million, go ahead and join them: these are excellent phones.
Price: starting at $649 for iPhone 6s and $749 for iPhone 6s Plus
Display: iPhone 6s: 1344 x 750 Retina IPS display (326 PPI). 1400:1 contrast ratio. iPhone 6s Plus: 5.5", 1920 x 1080 full HD IPS Retina display. 401 ppi, 1300:1 contrast ratio. Both have 500 nits brightness. iPhone 6s Plus supports both portrait and landscape modes via accelerometer. Both models have an ambient light sensor, proximity sensor, compass, barometer, gyroscope and fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating.
Battery:1715 mAh Lithium Ion in iPhone 6s. 2750 mAh Lithium
Ion in iPhone 6s Plus. Battery is not user replaceable.
Performance:Apple dual core A9 1.86 GHz, 64 bit CPU (ARM compatible, custom Apple design). Multi-core PowerVR graphics. 2 gigs RAM.
Size:iPhone 6s: 5.44
x 2.64 x 0.28 inches. Weight: 5.04 ounces. iPhone 6s Plus: 6.23 x 3.07 x 0.29 inches. Weight: 6.77 ounces.
Phone:Supports both GSM and CDMA with CAT 6 LTE 4G (Qualcomm X7 radio).
Camera:Rear (main) camera: 12 MP with 1.22 micron pixels, BSI sensor, 5 element f/2.2 lens and True Tone LED flash. iPhone 6s Plus has optical image stabilization (OIS). Can shoot video at 4K @30fps and 1080p @30 and @60 fps, and slo-mo video at 120/240 fps. Has front-facing 5 MP 720p camera with BSI sensor, f/2.2 lens and face detection that can be used with Facetime video calls and Skype among others.
in speaker, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
GPS: GPS with GLONASS and digital compass. Has M9 motion coprocessor.
WiFi 802.11b/g/n/ac (dual band 2.4GHz and 5GHz), NFC and Bluetooth 4.2.
Software:iOS 9 operating system and core applications. Siri, iCloud, Apple Maps, Safari web browser, email, Messages for text/MMS messaging, Stocks, iTunes, App Store, Phone, Clock, Calculator, Photos, Camera, Voice Memos, Reminders, Contacts, Calendar, Notes, Compass and Settings. iLife and iWork suites are included as a free download from the App Store.
Storage:Available in 16, 64 and 128 gig capacities.
In the Box: iPhone, charger, Lightning USB cable and EarPod earbuds with inline mic.