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iPhone 6s review

Updated Dec 19th, 2018 9:06PM EST
iPhone 6s Review
Image: Zach Epstein, BGR

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When I reviewed the iPhone 6 last year, I explained how different reviewing an iPhone is compared to reviewing other smartphones. Reviews typically have a great deal of influence over readers, giving them a good sense of a device’s strengths and weaknesses before it even launches. Smartphone shoppers then use this information to help guide their purchases. With the iPhone, however, reviews don’t carry anywhere near as much weight with readers. Instead, people make decisions more often than not based on Apple’s marketing and its general aura. At least, that’s typically the case.

This year, things are different. I have never received emails from so many people on the fence about whether or not they should buy a new iPhone 6s or iPhone 6s Plus. Hundreds of emails from iPhone owners wondering if the 6s is a worthy upgrade from the 6, and from Android users debating whether or not to switch.

What is perhaps most surprising about the timing of this shift in sentiment, interestingly, is the fact that the answers to these questions are easier in 2015 than they have ever been in the past.

DON’T MISS: 10 killer iPhone 6s tricks you need to know

First, let’s work through the obvious: the iPhone 6s is the best iPhone Apple has ever made. There. It has been said.

Apple releases a new iPhone each year and it’s always the best iPhone Apple has ever made. The company switched up its game plan a bit in 2014 and released the same phone in two different sizes, so now the title of “best iPhone ever” is shared by two devices at a time.

The bottom line is if you by a new iPhone within a year of its initial release, you’re buying the best iPhone Apple has ever made… unless it has a “c” in its name.

What I find most interesting about the iPhone 6s, however, is the margin by which it bests its predecessors. The new 6s looks exactly like last year’s 6, doesn’t it? Apple’s “S” upgrades are supposed to be incremental updates, aren’t they?

With the iPhone 6s, the face may be the same but the game has most certainly changed. Apple’s 2015 iPhone marks the biggest jump over its predecessor that Apple has ever produced.

This is going to surprise plenty of people since the phone is just an “S” update, but it’s true. In nearly every measurable area where performance is concerned, the iPhone 6s isn’t just better than the iPhone 6, it crushes its predecessor (along with every other smartphone on the market); the phone is as powerful or even more powerful than several recent MacBook models. Then add on one of the most impressive smartphone cameras the world has ever seen and 3D Touch, a whole new way to interact with a smartphone, and you’re packing quite a punch into a package that measures just 5.44 x 2.64 x 0.28 inches.

Let’s take a look at what’s new.

Each year, Apple’s new iPhones have one key feature that serves as the star of the show, and this year it’s 3D Touch.

This novel new feature was five years in the making behind the scenes at Apple, as we learned from former Apple engineer Avi Cieplinski. Without getting too technical, 3D Touch is enabled by a combination of software, new hardware integrated into the display assembly, and a reinvented vibration mechanism, or “taptic engine,” that is far more precise than the vibrate motors in other phones. Together, these elements create a system that can measure the amount of pressure applied when the screen is tapped or swiped, and the phone can trigger different actions based on that pressure. The new iPhone also gives precise haptic feedback in conjunction with 3D Touch.

It’s pretty great.

There are a few standard functions that users will have to familiarize themselves with in order to get the hang of 3D Touch. There are long light taps (tap lightly and hold), long firm taps (apply more pressure and hold) and firm swipes. Then, there are also peeks and pops: a peek is a long light tap that opens new content in a floating window above whatever screen you’re on. A pop is when you apply firmer pressure to that floating window while still holding your tap, which opens the window into a full-screen view.

Here are a few examples of the functionality afforded by 3D Touch:

  • A long firm tap on the Messages icon pops up a “Quick Actions” menu with options to open directly into a conversations with one of three recent contacts, and a fourth menu item lets you open directly into a blank compose screen.
  • In the Calendar app, a long light tap on a day lets you peek at your full agenda with that day at the center of the window. Apply firmer pressure to open to that view in the calendar.
  • A long firm tap on the Camera icon lets you open the Camera app and quickly take a selfie, record a video, record a slo-mo video or capture a standard photo with the phone’s main camera.
  • A long light tap on any conversation in the main Messages list view will pop open that conversation in a floating peek window. Apply firmer pressure to open the conversation.
  • Still in the Messages app, a long firm tap on a contact’s image on the left-hand side will pop open a Quick Actions menu that will let you quickly call, message, FaceTime or email that contact. A long firm tap in the Contacts app, or on the contacts tab of the Phone app, will pop up a similar menu.
  • A long firm tap on the Notes icon lets you open the Notes app directly onto a new text note screen, a new photo note screen or a new sketch note screen.
  • A firm swipe from the left edge of the display in toward the center of the screen will open the phone’s app switcher. Continue swiping all the way to the right side of the display to instantly switch back to the last app that was open, You can do this repeatedly to switch back and forth between apps.
  • A long firm tap on the Safari icon lets you open Safari directly to the reading list, the bookmarks screen, a new private tab or a new standard tab.
  • Inside Safari and many other apps, a long light tap on any hyperlink will open the new page in a peek window. Apply firmer pressure to pop open that window in a new Safari tab.

3D Touch is a fantastic addition to iOS. It’s the biggest advancement we’ve seen in smartphone input since the capacitive touchscreen itself. It’s not perfect though, and I find that 3D Touch suffers from the same problem on the iPhone as force touch on the Apple Watch: Where does it work?

Apple’s iOS interface on the iPhone 6s offers no indication whatsoever of where Quick Actions or any other 3D Touch gestures are available and where they are not. This leaves the user to figure things out for him or herself. Think about that: 3D Touch is the flagship feature of Apple’s 2015 iPhones, and you’ll have no idea where you can and cannot use it out of the box. In fact, some users won’t even know 3D Touch exists — it has only been a few days since the new iPhones launched, and I have already met an excited iPhone 6s Plus owner who had no idea what 3D Touch was.

It’s a difficult problem to solve, but I would have liked to have seen Apple solve it before introducing this great new technology, not after. 3D Touch is a great addition that enhances the iPhone experience. Burying this feature does users a disservice.

Another big draw for this year’s iPhones are the new cameras, which have been improved both in terms of sensor size and general image quality.

The main camera on the iPhone 6s is a new 12-megapixel unit with a five-element lens, an ƒ/2.2 aperture, a sapphire lens cover and a true tone dual-LED flash. Compared to earlier iPhones, the new camera has been improved in every conceivable way.

We have published a few articles on the site with photo samples, and it was obvious even from these down-sampled images that the iPhone 6s camera has taken iPhone photography to the next level. But seeing images captured by the new iPhone camera at full resolution on a high-quality monitor is a different experience entirely.

Samsung’s camera on the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy Note 5 leapfrogged the iPhone 6 in terms of overall photo quality, and now the tide may have turned again, depending on who you ask. In my unscientific tests, the camera on the iPhone 6s/6s Plus and the camera on the Galaxy S6/Galaxy Note 5 were neck and neck.

In some lighting scenarios, the 6s camera came out on top. In others, the Galaxy S6 and Note 5 camera was clearly superior. In general, I find that images captured on Samsung’s latest flagship phones were brighter and in some cases more clear, while images from the iPhone 6s had more accurate color reproduction and less noise (especially in the case of the iPhone 6s Plus).

Compared to any other popular flagship smartphone on the market, Apple’s new iPhone 6s camera is a huge leap forward. Video is also wonderfully crisp in full HD or 4K on the 6s, though I found that the jump in quality over last year’s iPhones was much greater with still images than with videos.

The gap between smartphone cameras and DSLR cameras may never close entirely, but it has never been as narrow as it is right now.

Around front, Apple’s FaceTime camera has received a substantial upgrade as well. The 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera has been replaced by a new 5-megapixel unit with an ƒ/2.2 aperture and a nifty new “Retina Flash” feature. This causes the phone’s screen to light up when a selfie is captured, thus illuminating the subject’s face. It works surprisingly well, though Apple isn’t the first company to use a screen as a selfie flash.

Much has been made of Apple’s new Live Photos feature, which was one of the few things that Apple actually managed to keep a secret ahead of its big iPhone event earlier this month. Some dismiss it as a gimmick while others exalt Live Photos as a fantastic new feature. Reality, of course, lies somewhere in between.

The new Live Photos feature is enabled by the fact that Apple’s camera app is constantly recording behind the scenes at 15 frames per second while in standard image capture mode. When the shutter button is pressed to take a still image, the iPhone 6s also saves a 3-second video alongside the photo, 1.5 seconds from before the shutter button was pressed through 1.5 seconds after it was pressed. The resulting video is saved with sound, and can be viewed at any time with a firm press on the image in the Photos app.

I had mixed results with Live Photos, just as I expected I would. Sometimes the clips come out very well, and they’re fun to watch. Other times, the resulting videos are just awkward, and they do precious little beyond taking up valuable space in your iPhone’s storage.

While 3D Touch and the new upgraded cameras have stolen much of the buzz, the performance improvements baked into Apple’s new iPhone 6s are just as impressive.

Last year’s iPhone 6 is often overlooked when websites discuss the most powerful smartphones on the market. But don’t let the phone’s specs on paper fool you; when you combine that snappy dual-core A8 processor and 1GB of RAM with a comparatively low-resolution 720p display and a silky smooth platform like iOS, the result is a surprisingly fast phone that topped all other flagship models last year in key performance tests.

You won’t believe how fast the new iPhone 6s is.

Yes, Apple’s new iPhone once again clobbers the competition in performance tests, but numbers on a screen don’t do this phone justice. Apple’s new A9 processor combines with 2GB of RAM and the new optimizations in iOS 9 to provide what is hands down the fastest and most fluid smartphone experience available today.

Apps open effortlessly and transition animations are as smooth as can be. Multitasking is practically instant, which is nice now that Apple has introduced a new app-switching gesture; firmly press on the left edge of the screen and swipe inward to switch back to the last app you were using.

Apps themselves are much more responsive now as well, and Apple’s next-generation Touch ID sensor has been sped up dramatically. I couldn’t believe how quickly Apple’s new Touch ID sensor read my fingerprint after I first set up the phone. You can’t even really look at the lock screen anymore when you wake the phone by pressing the home button — by the time the screen turns on, it’s already unlocked and transitioning to your home screen.

Everything is faster.

Apple says the new A9 chipset provides 70% faster processor speeds and 90% better graphics performance than its predecessor, but again, these are just numbers on a page. Moving from an older iPhone to the iPhone 6s, or from an Android phone to the iPhone 6s, is night and day.

Of note, things have changed a bit on the outside, as well.

Maybe Apple didn’t want to deal with another wave of “Bendgate,” or perhaps the company is simply always working to improve the quality of its products. Whatever the case, the housings on this year’s iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus are made of a stronger aluminum than last year’s models. They look the same, but the 7000 Series aluminum Apple used for this year’s enclosures is much stronger than the metal used on the 2014 iPhones. The new handsets are also much heavier than last year’s models, though most of the added weight can be attributed to the new taptic engine and other hardware associated with 3D Touch.

Of course, no smartphone is perfect, that applies to the iPhone 6s just as it does to any other phone.

For starters, Apple’s class-leading Retina display is no longer a class leader. Apple changed the game when it first introduced a Retina display, and the company started a pixel war that will wage on for years to come. In 2015, however, Apple is no longer winning that war.

Similarly sized smartphones at the high end of the market now have much higher resolution displays than the iPhone 6s. Some may consider it overkill, and it may in fact be overkill in many cases, but the difference between the 720p screen on the iPhone 6s and the Galaxy S6’s 2K display is very noticeable.

Now, that’s not to say the iPhone 6s has a poor display. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Colors are incredibly vibrant, the contrast is phenomenal and images and graphics are quite crisp. But the clarity just isn’t on par with class leaders anymore, and you can see the difference when you place the iPhone 6 next to a premium Samsung phone with better pixel density.

The difference is even noticeable when you look at the iPhone 6s’ 326 ppi screen next to the 401 ppi panel on the iPhone 6s Plus, which has a full HD 1080p display.

Beyond the display, my three biggest complaints about the iPhone 6 remain on Apple’s new iPhone 6s. This is understandable, of course, since the 6s design is nearly identical to last year’s model.

First, the antenna lines on the back.

Apple’s current aluminum iPhone design requires gaps in the metal in order for radio waves to pass in and out of the housing. Radio waves are sort of important when it comes to smartphone functionality, as Apple learned when it first launched the iPhone 4.

I really don’t like how the plastic antenna lines look on the back of the iPhone, though. I’m definitely not alone. Is it a huge deal? No. Is it a deal breaker? Hardly. They don’t fit with Apple’s design aesthetic at all, however, and I have no doubt that Apple would have gone in a different direction if it had been able to find a better antenna design solution that was feasible technically and fiscally.

Second, the camera bump on the back.

Here’s another example of Apple choosing to value thinness over functionality. Some have called the protruding camera lens on the back of the phone an “appalling” design compromise, but I wouldn’t go quite that far. I don’t think it looks particularly good, but I take issue more with the problems that exist because of it, rather than its appearance.

Two problems arise because of the camera bump on the iPhone 6 and now, 6s. The phone won’t sit flush on a flat surface like a table, so it wobbles when you tap it or go to pick it up. Far more importantly, the camera lens makes direct contact with any surface the phone is sitting on. It’s just begging to be scratched, and though the lens is made of strong sapphire crystal, it often does get scratched unless you use a protective case.

Had Apple made the phone a few millimeters thicker, the camera lens could have sat flush with the rest of the phone. Oh, and my third big complaint about the iPhone 6 and 6s could have been addressed as well: Battery life.

Apple’s iPhone 6s is a class leader in so many ways. In fact, it’s the most powerful phone in the world. Where battery life is concerned, however, the iPhone 6s falls short of much of the competition.

The phablet version of Apple’s iPhones can easily get me through even the longest, busiest of days. Last year’s 4.7-inch iPhone 6, however, cannot. If I spend most of my day in the office connected to Wi-Fi and use my phone sporadically, I can often get away with charging it once a day. If I have a busy day full of running around to meetings, the phone is dead shortly after sundown unless I charge it at least once.

So far, the iPhone 6s’ battery life has mirrored my iPhone 6 just about exactly. It might be marginally better since it’s fresh and my iPhone 6 is a year old, but it’s effectively the same: I have to charge my phone more than once during a heavy day of usage.

Again, if Apple had made the phone a few millimeters thicker, it might have been able to fit in a larger battery and offered users better battery life. Battery life is, after all, the most important feature users list in just about every survey that asks people to list their top priorities in a smartphone.

What a year 2015 has been for phones. Samsung’s Galaxy S6 is a tremendous feat of design and engineering, easily making it the best smartphone Samsung      has ever made. The more recent Galaxy Note 5 is equally impressive. The new OnePlus 2 is a premium smartphone at a low-end price, making it a tremendous value. The same can be said of the new Moto X Pure Edition from Motorola. LG’s more recent flagship phone is fantastic, Sony debuted a great new smartphone recently, and Google just took the wraps off of its new Nexus phones.

No iPhone has ever had stiffer competition than the iPhone 6s. And yet no iPhone has ever bested rival smartphones so decisively.

It all boils down to the same key elements that have always made iPhones so great: design, attention to detail, and software. Apple’s iPhone 6s design is stunning and modern, the fit and finish are completely unrivaled, and iOS 9 offers a simple yet powerful and versatile user experience that cannot be matched. Add to that a third-party app ecosystem that is still superior to rival platforms, and you have the complete package.

Then, take that package and make it insanely fast, silky smooth, and toss in all of the great new software features Apple has introduced with iOS 9, along with the new hardware features I just covered in this review. The result is a smartphone experience that is unmatched.

Apple’s new iPhone 6s certainly has a few pain points, and I’ll be looking for Apple to correct them in next year’s iPhone 7. The pros outweigh the cons by a big margin though, and there is still nothing out there that can match Apple.

They try and try and try, but there’s still only one iPhone.

Zach Epstein
Zach Epstein Executive Editor

Zach Epstein has been the Executive Editor at BGR for more than 10 years. He manages BGR’s editorial team and ensures that best practices are adhered to. He also oversees the Ecommerce team and directs the daily flow of all content. Zach first joined BGR in 2007 as a Staff Writer covering business, technology, and entertainment.

His work has been quoted by countless top news organizations, and he was recently named one of the world's top 10 “power mobile influencers” by Forbes. Prior to BGR, Zach worked as an executive in marketing and business development with two private telcos.