The iPhones 6S

The pattern is pretty clear. In even-numbered years (2008, 2010, 2012, 2014) Apple releases all-new iPhone form factors: 3G, 4, 5, 6/6 Plus. In the subsequent years, they release “S” variants: iPhones that look nearly identical to their predecessors, but with improved components.

Why do they do this?

There are some ecosystem advantages to this tick-tock1 schedule. Most iPhone cases, for example, fit both the tick and tock iPhones. (The rare exceptions are certain hard cases with extremely tight tolerances. The iPhones 6S, for example, are both a few tenths of a millimeter bigger, wider, and thicker than their corresponding siblings from last year.) I think there are some branding advantages to this two-year cycle as well. iPhones are iconic devices. The devices themselves are recognizable. Keeping each new form factor around for two model years lets that iconic appearance seep deeper into the mass market collective consciousness.

Releasing a new generation of iPhones every year — year in, year out — is an aggressive pace given the scale and scope of the iPhone, and its importance to Apple financially. Sure, other handset makers put out dozens of different models every year. But Apple is playing an entirely different game. With one exception — the iPhone 5C two years ago (a phone which, as time goes by, seems more and more curious strategically) — Apple has never made a new iPhone other than a new top-of-the-line industry-leading flagship. In the same way that automobiles don’t change form factors every year, I don’t think it would be feasible for Apple to change the iPhone’s form factor every year. I think it takes more than a year for Apple’s design team to create a new iPhone design — at least to create a new design that is different because it is better, not merely different for the sake of being different.

The glaring downside to this tick-tock schedule is that we as a culture — and particularly the media, both on the tech/gadgetry side and the business side — are obsessed with “new”. And, well, the S-model iPhones don’t look new. This year there is a new rose gold aluminum finish, but at a glance, the iPhones 6S look like last year’s iPhones 6. Every year is an iterative improvement over the previous one, whether it’s an S year or not. But it’s hard not to see the S years as more iterative, less impressive, updates, simply because they look the same.

I think that’s a trap — a way to be fooled by your eyes. If you put aside what the phones look like, the S model years have brought some of the biggest changes to the platform. The display changes came in non-S years, of course — the iPhone 4 going retina; the iPhone 5 expanding from 3.5 to 4 inches diagonally and changing the aspect ratio; and of course last year’s 6/6 Plus expanding to 4.7 and 5.5 inches and higher display resolutions. But it was the 3GS that first improved on CPU performance and gave us the first improvements to the camera. The 4S ushered in Siri integration and a much faster camera. The 5S was Apple’s first 64-bit ARM device, years ahead of the competition, and was the first device with Touch ID. For a typical iPhone user on a two-year upgrade cycle, I think the S years are the better phones, historically.

Here’s a passage from my 5S/5C review two years ago:

Refinement, in the eyes of these naysayers, does not count as innovation. Only revolution counts. But the iPhone needs no revolution. It continues to sell better year-over-year, year after year, without lowering its prices. Every step of the way between 2007 and that lone original iPhone — running an OS with no third-party apps, no multitasking, not even copy-and-paste — and today’s world, where Apple is on the cusp of selling its 700 millionth iOS device and the lineup ranges from the iPod Touch to the iPhones to two sizes of iPad, has been about just that: refinement.

The iPhone 5S shows that there remains much room for refinement.

I don’t think it’s ever been more of a trap to approach an S-model iPhone as “just a slightly improved version of last year’s iPhone” than this year.

I used to think — and maybe it was even true — that one of the advantages to Apple of the tick-tock cycle is that during the S years, they’re already experts at manufacturing a bunch of the components. That they’ve already got a year of experience making that case, that display, those buttons. That manufacturing-wise, Apple could just swap in a few new components, like a new A-series CPU, and call it a day. But the iPhones 6S don’t use the same case as last year’s models. They’re now made out of an altogether new “7000 series” aluminum alloy. This isn’t just a new material that needs to be obtained in massive quantities, it also requires new CNC machining to carve and polish the frames. The displays are the same sizes as last year, but Apple is using a new glass that it calls “the strongest in the smartphone industry”.2 Even the Touch ID sensor is new. Everything you can touch on the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus is new.

Internally, Apple has added force sensors to enable 3D Touch. They’ve replaced the chintzy old vibrating engine with a “Taptic” engine. Both LTE and Wi-Fi now support faster speeds (and LTE supports more bands, increasing compatibility with networks around the world). The camera now supports 4K video and shoots better (and bigger) still photos. On the iPhone 6S Plus, image stabilization now works with video in addition to stills. The CPU and GPU improvements in the A9 system-on-a-chip are more dramatic compared to the A8 than the A8 was to the A7.

Apple has even — dare I say finally — increased the amount of RAM, from 1 GB to 2.

The Only Thing That’s Changed Is Everything” is the slogan of Apple’s marketing campaign for the iPhones 6S. I can’t beat that. I’ve been testing both models for 12 days, and what Apple is saying about the new iPhones is true. They don’t look new, but almost everything about them is new.

I think it’s backwards to think that in an S year, Apple simply takes the previous model and makes a few tweaks. Instead, I think what’s obvious is that knowing the basic industrial design at least two years ahead of time gives the engineering teams inside Apple an opportunity to make significant changes to the components and the materials used to construct them. The timeline for iPhones, because of the massive scale at which they must be manufactured, is such that, right now, as I’m typing this, the design for next year’s iPhone 7 is either locked down or very close to it. The company will now spend the next year hustling to make it work and put it into production so it can start shipping a year from now. But that means there are also teams already at work on the iPhone 7S slated for 2017 — and they have a massive head start in terms of knowing the shape and dimensions of the device.

Benchmarks

As usual, I’ll leave in-depth performance analysis to others, but I did run the Geekbench 3 general-purpose benchmark. All devices were running the release version of iOS 9.0. I ran the benchmark three times after restarting the device, and put all devices in airplane mode during the tests. I’ve rounded the scores to the nearest tens digit. For both the iPhone 6 and 6S, the scores for the 5.5-inch Plus models were effectively identical to the 4.7-inch models, so they aren’t broken out separately.

Test iPhone 5S iPhone 6 iPhone 6S 6S vs. 6 Factor
Single Core 1360 1610 2500 1.6×
Multi-Core 2430 2890 4340 1.5×
Memory (Single) 1420 1650 2540 1.5×
Memory (Multi) 1770 1840 2560 1.4×

Two observations here. First, there is a noticeably bigger performance increase across the board going from the 6 to the 6S than there was last year, going from the 5S to the 6. In broad strokes, the non-S iPhones are about physical style, the S models are about performance. (At the introduction of the 3GS in 2009, Phil Schiller claimed the “S” stood for “speed”. Since then, Apple hasn’t said what any of the S’s stand for, but “speed” still fits)

Second, take a look at Geekbench’s aggregate results for Android devices. (Here’s a screenshot as it stands today, for posterity.) In terms of single-core performance, there isn’t a single Android phone that beats the two-year-old iPhone 5S. Android devices fare better in multi-core benchmarks, because they have more cores (some have eight, many have four — the iPhones 6S still have only two cores), but single-core performance is a better measure for the sort of things you can feel while using a device. Apple is literally years ahead of the industry. Even if you don’t agree that single-core performance is the more meaningful benchmark, you can’t deny that iPhone benchmarks don’t look anything like the benchmarks for high-end Android devices. With the Mac, Apple uses the same Intel chips as its PC competition. On mobile, though, Apple’s in-house chip team has given the company a tremendous advantage over the rest of the industry.

Speaking of the Mac and performance, again looking at single-core performance, Geekbench results put the iPhone 6S at roughly the same score as a 2012 or 2013 MacBook Air. Even more intriguing is a comparison to the new single-port MacBook:

Test iPhone 6S MacBook
(1.3 GHz)
MacBook
(1.2 GHz)
MacBook
(1.1 GHz)
Single Core 2500 2631 2420 2295
Multi-Core 4340 5268 5018 4464

The new iPhone 6S beats the new MacBook in single-core performance on Geekbench, and is within spitting distance in multi-core. That’s astounding. I can’t wait to see the scores for the iPad Pro later this year.

3D Touch

3D Touch can be used in a few ways:

  1. Quick Actions: The pop-up menu you see from the home screen when you press on an app icon.

  2. Peek and Pop: Press a little to get a peek, press harder to pop whatever you’re peeking at open. This works mostly on list items. So in Mail, from your list of messages, you can peek to look at a message, then pop to open it all the way up. It works almost everywhere in Apple’s own apps: Messages, Camera, Maps, Weather, Safari (page previews on links), Notes, Calendar, and more. It pays to explore.

  3. Multitasking: As an alternative to double-pressing the home button, you can now press on the left edge of the display. Press-and-swipe all the way across and you switch back to the previous app you were using. Press-and-swipe just a little and you’re left in the “card view” where you can switch to any previous application. The former is like hitting Command-Tab just once. The latter is like hitting Tab repeatedly while holding down the Command key. This is quickly addictive, and a great accommodation now that the iPhones are bigger than they used to be — you can switch between apps without changing your grip to allow your thumb to reach the Home button.

  4. Trackpad Mode: Press on the keyboard and it turns into a trackpad. iPads running iOS 9 can trigger this trackpad mode, too, with a two-finger swipe on the keyboard. Doing it with a single finger on the iPhone, though, is a tremendous boon to text editing. This might be the single best new feature for text editing on the iPhone since the addition of selection and Copy/Paste in iOS 3 in 2009. In addition to moving the insertion point around, you can press again and switch to selection mode — like double-clicking the mouse button on a Mac. Trackpad mode is a once-you’ve-used-it-you-can’t-go-back addition to iOS.

There are other uses for 3D Touch as well. When drawing in the new Notes app or using Markup to annotate an image in Mail, you can press harder to draw thicker strokes. (The same also applies when drawing Chinese characters on Chinese handwriting keyboards.) If you press on one of the new “dynamic wallpapers” on the lock screen, it animates for a few seconds, like a Live Photo. (Or you can set your lock screen wallpaper to a Live Photo you’ve taken yourself. But Apple’s “dynamic wallpapers” have a higher frame rate than the live photos you can take yourself; they’re obviously like live photos, but they’re not the same thing as the ones you can take with the iPhone 6S camera.)

The wallpaper animation is gimmicky, but fun. Most of the other uses for 3D Touch, though, are legitimate productivity gains. I find myself using the shortcuts on the icons for Messages (to jump to one of your three most-active recent threads) and Camera (to choose which mode to start in: front-facing self-portrait, video, slo-mo, or still) frequently. It’s habit-forming.

Peek-and-pop for, say, reading email — I wasn’t too sure about that at first. But watching Tim Cook’s appearance on Stephen Colbert, I took note when Cook claimed it helps him get through his inbox faster. I tried it again, and noticed for the first time that while peeking, you can slide the message left or right to trash or archive it. It really is an efficient way to triage messages, especially ones that you can’t get the gist of from the two- or three-line preview in the message list itself. And, you can drag a message up to get an activity sheet with additional actions, like Reply, Forward, Notify Me, and more. The productivity gain with this workflow is that you don’t have to go “back” after finishing. Peek, swipe to the side to archive, and it’s gone. Anywhere you can peek, try sliding the peek around.

I have only two bad things to say about 3D Touch. First, Apple missed an opportunity to borrow a great feature from Apple Watch. On Apple Watch, you can force touch in the notification list and you get an option to Clear All. 3D Touch has no effect in iOS 9’s notification list, and there remains no way to clear all notifications at once.

Second, I find myself triggering the Quick Action menu inadvertently when I want to enter “jiggle mode” on the home screen, to either delete or move an app. Tap-and-wait long-pressing has always been a little frustrating to me. I don’t like to wait. I’m impatient. So when I go to move an app on the iPhone 6S, I press on it, and more often than not, I press hard enough to register as a 3D Touch. For apps that don’t have any Quick Actions (which is to say, as of this writing, all third-party apps), what happens next is that you get a wee bit of haptic feedback to let you know your press registered as a 3D Touch event, but that there are no Quick Actions for this app. It feels like two very quick gentle taps. This haptic feedback is very clever. There is no alert, and no sound. Just that little feedback that feels like the haptic equivalent of your phone telling you “Uh-uh”. But the experience is frustrating, because now it’s taking me even longer to enter jiggle mode: first, without thinking about what I’m doing, I accidentally trigger the “Uh-uh, no quick actions for this app” 3D Touch. Then I have to let go, purposefully tap-and-hold gently, and wait. I expect to get used to this over time, but at this point, 3D Touch and long-pressing feel like they’re at odds with each other.

Overall, it seems very clear to me that 3D Touch will spread across the entire iOS device line. Like Touch ID and retina displays, it’s simply debuting on the iPhone first.

Taptic Engine

Speaking of the new Taptic Engine, it’s excellent. It doesn’t just provide for 3D Touch feedback, but it also serves as the vibrator for notifications. It is stronger, more noticeable, and in my opinion more pleasing than any previous iPhone vibrator. Back in 2011, Apple switched to a superior oscillating vibrator in the iPhone 4S (and the Verizon/CDMA iPhone 4). All previous iPhones used a cheaper rotational vibrator. The oscillating vibrator in the iPhone 4S was noticeably nicer. For whatever reason, Apple went back to a rotational vibrator in the iPhone 5, and stuck with it through the iPhone 6. The new taptic engine in the 6S feels as good or better than the old iPhone 4S vibrator. It’s just stronger and more pleasing.

The 3D Touch feedback is well-designed. Peeks feel gentle, pops feel stronger — sort of like a half tap and a full tap. When you press something in the interface that has only one level of 3D Touch (like the Quick Action menu on a home screen icon), you get the full-strength tap feedback, which is a way of letting you know, by feel, that there’s no reason to press harder. If you feel a peek, you know you can press hard to pop; if you feel a pop, you know you’re done. Once you get used to it, peek/pop is as intuitive as the shutter button on a camera, where you can press halfway to engage autofocus and set the exposure, and press the rest of the way to take a picture.

Camera

Speaking of which, the iPhone 6S cameras are terrific. They’re fast, responsive, and accurate — accurate meaning that unedited, right off the camera roll, the color and light reproduction look like how the scene appeared to my eyes. More than any other aspect of the iPhone, the camera exemplifies the advantages of Apple’s integration of hardware and software.

I’m still not sure what to make of the Live Photos feature. Is it a gimmick? I don’t know. But I’m still shooting with the feature turned on. Technically, the way it seems to work is that the iPhone creates two files: a 12 MP JPEG (exactly the same as when you shoot a still image with Live Photo disabled), and a three-second-long MOV file. When looked at through Image Capture on a Mac running OS X 10.10.x, you see both files in the iPhone camera roll: “IMG_1234.JPG” and “IMG_1234.MOV”. Both files have same numeric index after the “IMG_” prefix, and both files have the same creation date. The MOV file is 1440 × 1080 pixels, at 12.77 frames-per-second.

Technically, of course, a MOV file is a video. But I think one of the reasons Apple is adamantly refusing to describe Live Photos as “video” is that these animated sidecars aren’t high-quality videos in and of themselves. That they are video files, under the hood, is just an implementation detail.

It’s also worth emphasizing that these Live Photos are not implemented by burst mode. You can still engage burst mode by holding down the shutter button, but you still only get about six or seven frames per second. When taking a burst of stills, Live Photo is disabled — you just get a regular series of still images, grouped together in the camera roll just like on the iPhone 6.

So the way Live Photo works, I think, is this: when you’re in still photo mode with Live Photo turned on, the iPhone is constantly capturing 1440 × 1080 video at 12.77 FPS, but keeping only the most recent 1.5 seconds. Then when you tap the shutter to capture a still, it takes a 12-megapixel still image in between capturing frames of the video. Then the camera continues capturing another 1.5 seconds of video. So you wind up with 1.5 seconds of video prior to hitting the shutter, one still image at the maximum resolution of the image sensor, and another 1.5 seconds of video from after the shutter press. Because there is only one 12-megapixel still image captured, you can’t change the “key frame” of a Live Photo.

In iOS 9.0, the timing of this video capture is hard-coded. You get 3 seconds of video — 1.5 seconds on each side of the still capture — every time. This means, however, if you snap your photo and then lower the camera, you wind up with a “droop” at the end of your live photo animation — usually a blurry view of the floor. Apple has already addressed this in the betas for iOS 9.1. In 9.1, the camera will use the accelerometer to detect when you lower the camera after snapping a shot, and truncate the animation at that point. So in 9.0, all live photos are 3 seconds long, but many will have an unfortunate droop at the end. Starting in 9.1, live photos will be up to 3 seconds long, with no droops.

You cannot edit Live Photos. Well, you can edit them, but doing so turns them into stills.

One other camera feature demands mention, and it breaks my heart. Last year, the iPhone 6 Plus, and only the Plus, included optical image stabilization. This year, OIS remains a Plus-only feature, and Apple has made it even better, because it now works with video. The advantages of OIS for video are even greater than for still images, in my opinion. You know how when you watch a video someone shot on their phone — any phone — and when they walk around, you can see the picture rock up and down with each step they take? It’s a signature of amateur video shot on consumer cameras, and it’s unpleasant to say the least.

OIS for video reduces this jerkiness. And in my testing on the iPhone 6S Plus, the effect is dramatic. It’s a poor man’s Steadicam, built right into the iPhone 6S Plus. I say that this breaks my heart because, personally, I have no interest in owning the 6S Plus — I much prefer the pocketability and feel-in-hand of the 4.7-inch iPhone 6S. I could tell myself last year that the 6 Plus’s camera was only a wee bit better than the regular 6’s, and only under certain conditions. This year, OIS for video means the iPhone 6S Plus is capable of something the regular 6S is not: shooting smooth full-size videos while you walk around or pan the camera.3

Lastly, I can’t write about the camera without complaining that the bump for the lens is still there. I understand the physics and optics involved, but it bothers me every single day that I can feel that nubbin. The best argument for forgiving the camera bump is that a vast majority of iPhone owners use a case of some sort, and with a case, the camera bump is a non-issue. But for those of us who don’t use cases, and who appreciate Apple’s general attention to every little detail, it’s a very minor but daily irritation. My number one hope for next year is that Apple can continue to improve image quality while somehow getting rid of the bump.

Miscellany

  • One thing that hasn’t changed from last year’s iPhone 6 models: storage tiers of 16, 64, and 128 GB. The units I received for testing (one 6S, one 6S Plus) were both 128 GB. I’m sure most people can get by easily with the 64 GB models. For anyone who is not completely certain that they don’t need much storage, I would recommend against the 16 GB models. It’s too easy to fill them up. I wish Apple had switched the baseline from 16 to 32 GB. 4K video is off by default (the default is 1080p at 30 FPS), but forget about shooting 4K with a 16 GB device. Apple says 4K video takes up 375 MB per minute.

    Here’s the thing that nags me whenever I complain about these 16 GB phones. My gut feeling is that they’re too small. Data from third-party app analytics suggests they’re too small for many of the people who buy them. But Apple has more data on iPhone usage than anyone, and the company is obsessed with customer satisfaction. They measure customer satisfaction through surveys as accurately and scientifically as they can. How often does Tim Cook speak in public without the words “customer sat” coming out of his mouth? If last year’s 16 GB baseline adversely affected customer satisfaction, you’d think Apple would have done something about it this year, right? The only other explanation that makes sense is that it does adversely affect customer satisfaction, but they’re willing to take the hit in the name of higher average selling prices, because of the people who wind up buying 64 GB models who would have bought a 32 GB model for $100 less if that had been an option. Again, to me, 16/64/128 is not good/better/best — it’s OK/better/best.

  • Also seemingly unchanged from last year: the effective battery life of the device. I didn’t perform any sort of battery life tests, but in heavy daily usage, the iPhone 6S felt like it got the same battery life as the iPhone 6 I’ve been using for a year. No better, no worse. Like last year, the iPhone 6S Plus clearly gets way better battery life than the regular 6S, simply because it has room for a far larger battery.

  • The 6S models are heavier than last year’s phones: the 6S is 14 grams heavier than the 6 (143/129g); the 6S Plus is 20 grams heavier than the 6 Plus (192/172g). Some of this might be due to the new Taptic Engine (which looks bigger in Apple’s see-the-components promotional video) and the sensors for 3D Touch, but I presume most of the difference is due to the switch to higher-grade 7000-series aluminum. Well worth it for the additional structural integrity — I don’t expect any complaints about bending this year. [Update: According to The Verge, most of the weight gain is from the touch sensors in the new display assembly, not the aluminum.]

    This is subjective, but it seems to me that the new iPhones feel different to the touch. It’s not dramatic, but I think they’re less slippery. I’ve gone case-less with every iPhone I’ve owned, and the only one I’ve ever dropped and had the screen crack was the iPhone 6. The larger size and rounded edges made the iPhone 6 less grip-able than my beloved old iPhone 5S. It could just be the extra weight, but in blind testing, I can feel the difference between my old iPhone 6 and the new 6S. It’s just a wee bit more tacky, and it’s either due to the material, or the wear and tear of a year’s usage on my iPhone 6.

  • Apple is billing the new Touch ID sensor as “up to 2× faster”. They’re underselling it. It’s so fast now that every single time I press it, it unlocks the phone, no matter how brief the contact is between my finger and the sensor. I can sit here and try to use the home button to get to the lock screen, and I can’t unless I purposefully only touch a small portion of the button or use an unregistered finger. It’s that fast. This actually takes some getting used it, if, like me, you sometimes use the home button just to get to the lock screen to check the date or time. With the new Touch ID sensor, the home button instantly unlocks the phone and I need to use the sleep/wake button to get to the lock screen.

  • You know those FCC-mandated regulatory logos etched on the back of your iPhone? They’re gone. Last year the FCC issued new guidelines that allow manufacturers to put all these labels in software, for display on screen, and Apple has done just that. (You can see them in Settings: General: Regulatory.) It’s such a little thing, but those little turds have always bothered me. Curiously, one previous iPhone also lacked these regulatory etchings: the Verizon iPhone 4. I have no idea why that one iPhone was able to omit them but subsequent ones were not.

    Replacing the regulatory turds is a simple “S” under the “iPhone” on the back of the phone. Previous S-model iPhones were not labeled as such.

  • I don’t plan to use one, but Apple’s new cases are very nice. Both the silicone and leather cases come in nicer colors than last year — and they complement/match Apple’s lineup of Sport and leather straps for Apple Watch nicely. They really seem to have upped their game with leatherwork. Just for kicks I spent a few days of my review period with the iPhone 6S in the saddle brown case, and I really liked the way it looked and felt. It seems like the sort of leather that will look better as it ages. The biggest thing keeping me from using this case for real, going forward, is that the raised edge along the side of the display gets in the way of performing edge-based gestures, primarily swiping to go back, and the new press-and-swipe to switch between apps with 3D Touch.

The Bottom Line

New-number iPhones (4, 5, 6) are about showing off Apple’s design prowess. The S models are about showing off Apple’s engineering prowess. Storage capacities and battery life are unchanged from last year’s iPhones. Everything else — the materials they’re made from, the performance of their custom CPU/GPU, the quality of the cameras, the smoothness of the user interface — is noticeably, tangibly improved.


  1. There might be other examples, but in tech the most well-known example of this strategy is Intel’s CPU schedule: one generation is a new microarchitecture (big new change) and the next is a shrinking of the previous one. What isn’t obvious is that the “tocks” are the new microarchitectures, and the “ticks” are the die shrinkings. So for iPhones, the S models are the ticks, and the new form factors are the tocks. That seems counter-intuitive, of course, because we say “tick-tock” but the tocks come before the ticks. That’s kind of stupid if you ask me, so if you want to call the new form factor models the ticks and the S models the tocks, go right ahead. ↩︎

  2. What does “stronger” mean? More scratch-resistant? Less prone to cracking when dropped? Both? I don’t know, and when I asked, no one at Apple would say. ↩︎︎

  3. There are a few apps for the iPhone that implement image-stabilization for video in software. Two that I’m aware of are Hyperlapse (from Instagram) and Horizon. Both apps work well, but there’s no way to cheat true optical image stabilization. These apps smooth out the motion in video by cropping the frames. So you lose some resolution and wind up with a narrow field of view. The bigger downside is that you have remember to use these apps before you start shooting. When I see something I want to capture, I’m already in the system Camera app before I think about it. ↩︎︎

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