The next iPhone doesn’t teleport you to your meetings. It can’t defy gravity, and it won’t brush your dog’s teeth. And it turns out most people are OK with that.
The iPhone 6s is… an iPhone. The best iPhone yet. But it’s also proof that smartphone innovation has plateaued and what we demand most in our newest phones are improvements to the essentials.
Save for a new pink color option and some new touchscreen and camera tricks, Apple’s latest phones—which go on sale this Friday—look and feel exactly like the blockbuster iPhones released a year ago. You know, the ones bought by everyone from my hairdresser to my mom and millions of people in between.
The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus were a raging success because they took care of so many of the complaints users had about the iPhone. We finally got bigger, better screens, a great camera and an easy way to pay wirelessly, all in a sleek aluminum design. In fact, the 6 has felt almost like the perfect smartphone.
So, if the last iPhone’s hardware was just that good, the next iPhone should address the final, remaining complaints we have with smartphones, right? That’s how I decided to evaluate the new phones.
This last week, hundreds of people online and in person shared with me what annoys them most about their smartphones, and what they’d want most in their next ones. Over two weeks of testing both the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, I confirmed that Apple has addressed many of the big complaints, but done nothing to address the biggest.
Better Battery Life?
Let’s get this out of the way first. The No. 1 thing people want in a smartphone is better battery life. And the iPhone 6s doesn’t deliver that.
The 4.7-inch 6s will get you through the day, but you’ll struggle to make it til bedtime with moderate to heavy use. And it seemed to drain even faster than my 6 when I used the new processor-intensive camera features like Live Photos. The bigger 5.5-inch 6s Plus lasted longer and is the best choice if you’re a heavy user and want some juice left over at the end of the day. (Of course, battery life on any smartphone generally degrades over time.)
Still, there is no battery improvement over last year’s iPhone 6 models. In our grueling test; which loops a series of websites with brightness set at around 65%, I found the 6s and 6s Plus get no more—but also no less—battery life than their predecessors. (iOS 9 itself adds an hour of savings to the iPhone 6, and has Low Power Mode.) Strangely, although Apple says that the 6s Plus gets hours more battery life than the 6s, repeated testing on multiple devices reveals a slimmer difference. In a Web surfing test, the 6s on average lasted for 8 hours, while the 6s Plus went 20 minutes longer. In a video playback test, the difference was an hour.
Here’s the real kicker: To accommodate the phone’s new touchscreen technology, the new iPhone 6s is an unnoticeable 0.01 inches thicker, and a slightly noticeable half-ounce heavier, but the battery is actually slightly smaller. I’d happily buy a thicker iPhone, if it meant more time away from the power outlet.
There’s no innovation at the power outlet, either. While other phones employ wireless charging and rapid charging technology for added convenience, the new iPhones still require you to plug in your phone and wait at least two hours (nearly three for the Plus) to charge to 100%. Samsung
’s latest phones charge up in 75 to 90 minutes, and the new Moto X Pure takes just over an hour.
More Speed, Less Lag?
We now do so much on our phones, older models—and even the iPhone 6—have a hard time keeping up. It was a complaint I heard more than I had expected. The iPhone 6s’s new A9 processor and 2GB of RAM result in a noticeable boost—even over the iPhone 6. Exporting an HD video was three times as fast, scrolling through Facebook
and Web pages was smoother and jumping between tons of open apps felt noticeably quicker.
Unlocking your phone is also much speedier. The new Touch ID fingerprint sensor is at least twice as fast. You barely place your finger on the button and you’re in.
The 6s’s most innovative hardware feature also speeds up your phone navigation. But it’s still a bit mysterious.
“You know, I really wish I could press harder on the screen.” Yeah, not one person I surveyed said that, but as Steve Jobs famously said, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” That’s where 3D Touch comes in.
Press hard on some app icons or other spots and you get quick access to shortcuts. I had to remind myself to use 3D Touch at first, but after two weeks, it’s becoming part of my iPhone muscle memory. In Mail, I now press hard on a message to preview it, then swipe left to delete. I love how you can hold down on a link to see a preview of the website, without leaving the app you’re in. Press harder and you can “pop” into that app. Third-party app support could make it even more useful.
However, in other places, I’m simply faster at using the now-antiquated methods. It’s speedier to double-tap the home button than to awkwardly press down on the left side of the screen to switch apps. 3D Touch also doesn’t yet work everywhere I want it to. Why can’t I hold down the Wi-Fi button in the Control Center to jump into Settings?
More Storage for Photos and Video?
No iPhone 6 owners I spoke to complained about the camera. (Good thing, since my colleague Geoff didn’t find anything extra special about the new camera anyway.) In fact, only a handful of people requested a better camera. What did come up… a lot? More space for the thousands of amazing photos we now take with our phones.
If there were ever an iPhone that needed more storage, it’s this one, yet Apple continues to rip off customers with a 16GB base model ($649 without payment plan/contract), rather than offer a 32GB one. The new 12-megapixel camera on the 6s captures sharper, higher-resolution photos—and they’re generally 1MB bigger. The new 5-megapixel “selfie camera” photos capture my mug and the side of my arm more clearly, yes, but those also take more room.
The absolute best thing about the 6s is Live Photos. While capturing a still photo, it also captures a bit of live action. They’re awesome for reliving fun moments, especially of an active puppy or child, and anyone with an iOS 9 iPhone or iPad can view them. But they generally take up two to three times as much space as an iPhone 6 pic because they also save three seconds of video. Sure, you can turn them off, but you won’t want to.
Though the camera’s video defaults at 1080p resolution, you can also capture very crisp 4K video. A crazy-high-resolution video of my puppy looked stunning on my new Samsung 4K TV, but it also took up six times the space of a typical 720p video. Apple markets iCloud Photo Library as a way to expand storage on phones that run out. But this is simply not a good excuse for not providing more space.
A Phone That Doesn’t Break?
It’s now the norm for people to have a big crack adorning their iPhone’s screen. In fact, according to SquareTrade, an electronics insurance service, 15% don’t repair them, probably because they just assume it will only happen again.
Cases are a huge protection help, but what would help even more is a completely shatterproof, indestructible iPhone. The 6s isn’t that—but it is more durable.
The exterior is now made out of a stronger “aerospace industry” aluminum alloy. (Yes, this should prevent the iPhone 6s Plus from bending.) And the display is made of a new glass, which Apple claims is the most durable in the smartphone industry. I couldn’t exactly throw these review units on concrete, but when I tried to bend the phone, I felt far less flex than I get with the iPhone 6.
If you have an iPhone 6, you won’t be overly jealous of those who get a 6s—maybe just a tad envious of those Live Photos. If your iPhone is more than two years old, this is the phone to get. Just make sure to pay Apple’s ransom for the 64GB version.
The story of the iPhone 6s is the same as the 5s, or the 4s before it. It is a slightly better iPhone—that must be what the S stands for. And like its “S” predecessors, it doesn’t address all complaints. That’s what the iPhone 7 is for—right, Apple?
Write to Joanna Stern at email@example.com