iPhone 6s Plus review
Welcome to our iPhone 6s Plus review.
Our iPhone 6s Plus review evaluates the design, features and specs of Apple's new iPhone 6s Plus smartphone. This is still an early review, based on the two to three days we've had to play around with the iPhone 6s Plus (plus that brief hands-on time at the iPhone 6s Plus launch event), but we're starting to get a strong idea of the device's strengths and weaknesses. We'll update our review and verdict again once we've spent more time with a review sample of the 6s Plus, and had the chance to thoroughly test out its speed and battery performance in our labs.
The iPhone 6s Plus is Apple's newest top-of-the-line phablet: a big, 5.5-inch smartphone with a super-fast processor and a new pressure-sensitive screen. Apple unveiled the 6s Plus (along with its sibling, the smaller iPhone 6s) at a launch event on 9 September, and it's now available to buy. Here's our hands-on review of the iPhone 6s Plus: our early impressions of the latest Apple phablet.
Thinking about buying a new iPhone? Here's how the new ones compare with the old ones: iPhone buying guide 2016.
iPhone 6s Plus review: Design/build quality
As is traditional with 'S'-class updates, the iPhone 6s Plus has essentially the same physical design as its predecessor; looking at an iPhone 6 Plus and 6s Plus side by side, you'd struggle to tell them apart.
The 6s Plus is fractionally wider and thicker, and a little heavier too; these changes are to accommodate the components needed to power the new 3D Touch screen. But you're extremely unlikely to notice the extra volume, or to care much about the extra 20g. (The new screen tech more than justifies the compromises required to include it, as we will see in due course.)
To be more precise, here's how the 6s Plus compares physically with the year-old 6 Plus:
iPhone 6 Plus dimensions and weight
iPhone 6s Plus dimensions and weight
"The iPhone 6s Plus is ever-so-slightly thicker than the iPhone 6 Plus, but only by two-tenths of a millimetre, so definitely not noticeable when you're holding it," says Susie Ochs, a US colleague of ours who got hands-on time with the iPhone 6s Plus at the San Francisco launch event.
Our own verdict is that it's essentially the same - you're not going to be aware that anything's changed. Your choice of case will have far more of an impact on the phone's pocketability than the minor physical changes since last year's model.
The iPhone 6s Plus remains a remarkably slender and lightweight device, given the generous proportions of its 5.5-inch screen, and one that feels comfortable in the hand. That doesn't mean its dimensions are right for everyone, however: if you have small or even medium-sized hands, you'll probably find that you can't reach the entire screen with a single thumb the way you could on a 4- or even 4.7-inch screen. You can treat the 6s Plus as a two-handed device, like an iPad mini, but Apple has also added a clever interface feature called Reachability that pulls the screen downwards when you double-tap.
These considerations are the same as for last year's model. But one major change to the physical design concerns the thickness and material of the metal chassis.
'Bendgate modifications': Series 7000 aluminium and reinforced sides
The 6 Plus suffered from an (almost certainly overstated) problem known as Bendgate, which saw a handful of users complain that their devices had bent as a result of being placed in a tight pocket for some time. The 6s Plus bears obvious clues that Apple took this issue to heart. Its metal chassis is both thicker around the vulnerable, bend-prone areas, and made of a stronger aluminium alloy.
Previous iPhones have been made of 6000-series aluminium alloy, whereas the 6s Plus is made of the stronger (and lighter, and costlier) 7000 series. The new iPhones are clearly tougher to bend than their predecessors, and the fact that Apple has been able to make this change without increasing the cost from last year's models is impressive.
We haven't tested this feature to destruction, but plenty of reckless early buyers have. And it's been found that, whereas the 6 Plus could be bent by hand if the owner put their mind to it and was fairly strong, the 6s Plus requires quite exceptional efforts to do likewise. One bend-tester had to recruit his colleague for a helping hand, and the two of them were only just able to bend the new iPhone after several alarmingly strenuous attempts:
Whether or not you believe that Bendgate was overstated (and we do), it's indisputable that the 6s Plus is demonstrably tougher than its predecessor - while costing no more and weighing very little more. This is an impressive feat.
Read next: Apple rumours & predictions 2015
iPhone 6s Plus review: Screen
The specs of the iPhone 6s Plus's display are identical to those of its predecessor. Like on the iPhone 6 Plus, we're looking at a 5.5-inch touchscreen with an (exceptionally high) resolution of 1920x1080 and a pixel density of 401 pixels per inch (ppi). Considering that the Retina-rated 326ppi of the iPhone 4 and onwards was once supposed to be the sharpest a human eye could perceive, 401ppi is nothing to be sneezed at.
A 5.5-inch screen is huge by iPhone standards, of course, and if you're not familiar with the iPhone 6 Plus it's worth restating that a display of this magnitude is fabulous for gaming, movies and TV.
The single most important upgrade in the new generation of iPhones - both in terms of genuine tech-culture significance and trivial 'wow' factor - is 3D Touch, without a doubt. This is essentially the Force Touch pressure-sensitive tech seen in the Apple Watch's screen and the 12-inch MacBook's trackpad, but upgraded to produce separate interface commands in response to three levels of pressure rather than two. (In certain contexts, at any rate. In some apps you'll find that your options are limited to just 'tap' or 'deep tap'. Indeed, at this point you'll find that most non-Apple apps haven't got any 3D Touch functionality at all.)
So you can tap the display of the iPhone 6s Plus normally; or you can do a harder/deeper press; or you can press it harder still - and each level of pressure will (potentially, depending on the app) do something different. If you're worried about judging precisely how hard to press, there is haptic feedback - a brief gentle buzz under the screen - that lets your fingers know what is going on and whether or not further pressure is required.
(We're not blown away by the clarity or strength of the feedback, and it's worth stressing that it isn't anywhere near as obvious a sensation as the fake click you get on the Force Touch trackpad. When you're tapping an icon or element near the top of the screen, in particular - presumably because you're further away from the buzzer unit - you often feel almost nothing at all.)
Interface commands vary from app to app, but the unifying principle behind the three types of tap is that the first activates an app or command in the traditional way. The second activates a 'Peek', previewing whatever you're touching, whether an email, a map view (by Peek-tapping on a set of directions), a web page (by Peek-tapping on the URL) and so on. Further actions & gestures are possible from the Peek view, such as marking an email as read or deleting it, but you can return to wherever you were at any point by lifting your finger.
Finally, pressing deeper still closes the preview and opens whatever you were tapping in the relevant app.
This seems handy (following the same principle as interactive notifications, allowing you to interact with another app without leaving the one you're in currently), but potentially handier (because simpler to grasp) is the ability to Force Click app icons on the Home screen in order to see a short menu of commonly used instant actions, in effect allowing to to jump straight to a specific function of a specific app with a single tap. You can Force Click the camera icon, for instance, and see the options to record video or take a selfie. Force Click the Facebook icon and you'll see the option to post a status update. And so on.
(If you want to edit the quick-actions that come up in the mini-menu when you do a harder press on the icon for Phone, Messages or FaceTime, incidentally, take a look at our quick tutorial: How to edit the 3D Touch shortcut menus for Phone, Messages & FaceTime.)
These are the two main aspects of 3D Touch that Apple has talked about so far, but there are more to discover. If you do a deeper-press on the keyboard when typing in a tweet or email, for example, you gain control of a virtual cursor:
No doubt you'll find more 3D Touch features, and we're optimistic that 3D Touch is going to explode once app developers get their thinking caps on.
Our colleague Susie Ochs was impressed by the numerous interface features enabled by 3D Touch. "I think 3D Touch has the potential to make Apple's large-screened phones easier to navigate with one hand," she says.
But Ochs had concerns about user-friendliness - at least at first.
"During my hands-on time, I found myself 3D Touching a message, and then lifting my thumb to see what it says," she reports. "But of course, the message preview vanishes, so I 3D Touch it again. And again, and again. It would be quicker to just tap the message to open it…
"Early adopters of the Apple Watch had mixed feelings about Force Touch on that device. It's unbelievably handy, but not exactly intuitive - there's definitely a long learning curve before your brain remembers where to Force Touch and what you'll find once you do, since every app can use it differently. In my short hands-on time with the iPhone, I had the same problems [with 3D Touch], but hopefully once the iPhone 6s is in my possession full-time, 3D Touch will quickly become second nature."
The Apple Watch, of course, offers only two pressure levels: a standard press and a harder press (which would be referred to as a Force Click on the 12-inch MacBook, but doesn't produce quite the same sensation on touchscreens). In effect, you can view the deeper press as a sort of right-click: if you're in an app and unsure what you can do at a certain point, give a deep press a try and some sort of secondary menu will probably pop up. It's reasonably intuitive.
The iPhone 6s Plus offers three degrees of pressure - corresponding to a normal tap, Peek and Pop in many apps - which makes the interface more complex again. We fear that the iPhone's legendary clarity, the proverbial way that toddlers can pick up an iOS device and instinctively use it in roughly the right way, is in some danger. (My physically indelicate toddler loves to play with my Apple Watch, but operates entirely using the deeper press, which means things don't tend to work in quite the way he wants. Then again, his use of the Home button on my iPhone 5s is always aggressive enough that Siri is activated.)
It's possible that 3D Touch will become culturally all-pervasive, widely imitated and discussed and understood by most within a few years at most. Conversely, it could remain as a secondary interface layer that's available to iPhone users who get past the beginner stage, provided that apps can be used to a decent level of functionality without knowing that Peek and Pop exist. (That does appear to be the case with most of the apps shown off so far, unsurprisingly given that they will also need to work on non-3D Touch devices for the foreseeable future.)
Either way, a little time and perspective is required before we can judge how smart - or foolish - the addition of this relatively complex layer on top of the iOS interface turns out to be.
For our favourite 7 new features made possible by 3D Touch, take a look at this video:
Read more: How does Force Touch work?
Macworld poll: What do you think of 3D Touch?
Are you impressed by the new features made possible by the 3D Touch interface on the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus? We'd like to hear your thoughts.
iPhone 6s Plus review: iOS 9
Aside from the new hardware features, it's worth pointing out that numerous significant upgrades arrive with new versions of the iPhone's iOS software each year. iOS 9, which is pre-installed on the iPhone 6s Plus but can be installed on existing iPhones too, offers a plethora of new features, including:
- Proactive contextual assistance (shortcuts to apps and contacts that iOS has observed that you tend to use a lot at the current time, links to locally trending news stories and the like)
- Low Power Mode for preserving battery
- A dedicated News aggregator app
- Public-transport directions in Maps
- Split-screen multitasking (although the most advanced version of this is limited to the iPad Air 2 at present, it's possible that a high-powered iPhone 6s Plus could make the cut too - we can but dream)
All the iPhones going back the iPhone 4s can update. But as the newest generation, the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus can look forward to more iOS updates in future than any of the older models.
Read our iOS 9 review for more details of the new features you can expect.
iPhone 6s Plus review: Camera
For the first time since the iPhone 4s, Apple has increased the megapixel rating of its iPhones' principle (rear-facing) camera, from 8Mp on both iPhone 6 models to 12Mp here. (It can also shoot 4K video.) The front-facing camera gets a bigger bump, going from 1.2Mp to 5Mp.
In both cases, however, Apple almost played down the importance of the numbers - or at least insisted that it wasn't interested in specs like these for their own sake. The company insists that it refused to increase the megapixel ratings until it was satisfied it could do so without compromising on quality.
Susie Ochs "didn't get to fully test either in the demo room, of course, but the shutter speed is crazy fast, and zooming in on the demo photos on each device revealed tons of detail."
While we're excited to do some long-term testing of the 12Mp camera in the iPhone 6s Plus (not to mention that 5Mp selfie camera), a more immediately fascinating addition is a feature called Live Photos.
They're not videos, Apple insists, but you certainly can't call them still photos. They're something in between.
Live Photos are taken normally - assuming you've got the Live Photos option enabled, every photo you take with an iPhone 6s Plus will be a Live Photo - but by automatically recording and storing video of the 1.5 seconds before you click the shutter and the 1.5 seconds afterwards, iOS 9 packages up 3 seconds of video with the still shot. You can choose to animate the photo at any point, generally by deep-pressing it.
When you're swiping through your photos, any Live Photos will advertise their nature with a very short animation; deep-press them and they will do the full (but still only three-second) animation. You get the single-image sharpness of a still photo but the life and interest of a short video.
You can set a Live Photo as your lock-screen wallpaper, and deep-pressing will cause the animation to trigger. We understand that they can also be exported as Apple Watch wallpapers, although we've not had a chance to try this.
Our experience with Live Photos so far has been a bit hit-and-miss. The resulting videos have been rather lacking in smoothness, and often seem to glitch somewhat (repeating part of the three-second chunk at the beginning and end). And we're not taken any particularly memorable clips. We're still getting used to the feature, though, and much of its appeal lies in the occasional gold that can be discovered beneath the dross of boring or bad photos. It only needs to work well from time to time to earn its keep. If you wanted a proper video, of course, you'd just take one.
Susie Ochs reckons Live Photos "are just plain cool", and feels that parents will enjoy the feature more than most.
"I have a 3-year-old," she says, "and a lot of my photos of him wind up blurry because at least some part of his body is in motion virtually all of the time - the boy is a walking wiggle. I don't think you get to scrub through a Live Photo frame by frame and pick out the single still image that's not blurry, but getting to see an animation of one of his wiggles would beat any blurry photo, or one where his eyes are closed."
Apple was keen to play down fears that Live Photos will be storage killers, and the fact that they are just three minutes should limit the damage they can cause in this respect. But those plumping for the 16GB iPhone 6s Plus would probably be advised to exercise caution when taking - or keeping - Live Photos.
Read next: iPhone 6s Plus vs Samsung Galaxy Note 7
iPhone 6s Plus review: Specs
We've covered most of the major upgrades in the iPhone 6s Plus, but let's quickly cover the remaining specs. Many are improved from the iPhone 6 Plus.
A9 chip with 64-bit architecture
Embedded M9 motion coprocessor
5.5-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit widescreen Retina HD display with 3D Touch
1920x1080-pixel resolution at 401 ppi
1300:1 contrast ratio (typical)
500 cd/m2 max brightness (typical)
Full sRGB standard
Dual-domain pixels for wide viewing angles
Fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating on front
Support for display of multiple languages and characters simultaneously
Rear-facing iSight camera:
New 12-megapixel iSight camera with 1.22µ pixels
Autofocus with Focus Pixels
Optical image stabilisation (iPhone 6s Plus only)
True Tone flash
Panorama (up to 63 megapixels)
Auto HDR for photos
Hybrid IR filter
Backside illumination sensor
Sapphire crystal lens cover
Auto image stabilisation
Improved local tone mapping
Improved noise reduction
4K video recording (3840x2160) at 30 fps
1080p HD video recording at 30 fps or 60 fps
720p HD video recording at 30 fps
Optical image stabilisation for video
True Tone flash
Slo-mo video support for 1080p at 120 fps and 720p at 240 fps
Time-lapse video with stabilisation
Cinematic video stabilisation (1080p and 720p)
Continuous autofocus video
Improved noise reduction
Take 8MP still photos while recording 4K video
Front-facing FaceTime HD camera:
720p HD video recording
Auto HDR for photos and videos
Backside illumination sensor
Built-in rechargeable lithium-ion battery
Talk time: Up to 24 hours on 3G
Internet use: Up to 12 hours on 3G, up to 12 hours on 4G LTE, up to 12 hours on Wi?Fi
HD video playback: Up to 14 hours
Audio playback: Up to 80 hours
Standby time: Up to 16 days
Dimensions and weight
Macworld video: Reacting to the iPhone 6s Plus launch
iPhone 6s Plus preview: Price & availability
The iPhone 6s Plus is available in three storage flavours:
- 16GB model: £619
- 64GB: £699
- 128GB: £789
You've got four colour finishes to choose from: silver, gold, Space Grey and the new rose gold.
The iPhone 6s Plus went on general sale on 25th September 2015, although as usual with iPhone launches you should probably expect periodic shortages for the first few weeks. Apple says it will restock stores on a daily basis, however, so you should be able to get hold of a device if you get up early.
Macworld poll: Will you buy an iPhone 6s Plus?
That's pretty much it for our iPhone 6s Plus review. Are you convinced?
iPhone comparison reviews
If you've enjoyed this article, perhaps you'd be interested in more iPhone buying advice? We've written a series of comparison reviews, which set various combinations of iPhone against one another, head to head:
- iPhone 6s vs iPhone 5s
- iPhone 6s Plus vs iPhone 6 Plus
- iPhone 6 vs iPhone 6s
- iPhone 6s vs iPhone 6s Plus
- iPhone 5s vs iPhone 6
- iPhone 5s vs iPhone 6 Plus
These may be useful if you're trying to device between two specific iPhone models.
Read next: Want to know what to expect from the next iPhone Plus? Read our iPhone 7 Plus release date and new features rumour roundup for the latest clues.
iPhone buying guide, autumn/winter 2015
And for a broader look at Apple's current iPhone range, take a look at our iPhone buying guide video for autumn/winter 2015:
Or, if you'd prefer to see our buying advice in written rather than video form, head over to our iPhone buying guide article.
But now, on to the verdict!
"The only thing that's changed is everything," says Apple. Not quite true, it must be said, but there are certainly more significant upgrades and rethinks in the iPhone 6s Plus than we'd expect from an S-class update.
3D Touch is a major change, with immense potential. We can see it going in either of two directions: becoming a baffling distraction for beginners and a rarely used gimmick for the rest, before being quietly phased out a generation or two down the line; or unlocking umpteen new interface improvements, inspiring the imagination of genius app devs and saturating tech culture until we can barely imagine smartphones without it. I suppose it could fall somewhere between the two, but a positive outcome seems likely at this point. Still, it cannot be denied that Apple risks complicating its famously simple interface with this added layer of interactions.
The increase in camera specs is nice to have (front- and rear-facing!), although judging the real-world benefits calls for more prolonged testing. More immediately appealing is the new Live Photos feature: very cool, if unlikely to produce long-term changes to the user experience as profound as those instigated by 3D Touch (and still a bit hit-and-miss in our experience).
Other than these, you're looking at a carbon copy of the larger member of Apple's most successful ever iPhone generation, with a slender (and now reinforced) body and a giant screen. Pretty much all of the things that made the iPhone 6 Plus a bestseller still apply, with the added wow factor of 3D Touch, Live Photos, better cameras, a faster chip backed by more RAM and, apparently, a faster and more reliable edition of Touch ID (a winning prospect for those who, like me, find the fingerprint sensor in the iPhone 5s a source of despair). This is a speed demon with a charming bag of new tricks.