72 Hours With the iPhone 6s

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Fall means new iPhone season. This year, it’s the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus. Based on the model names, they’re more iterative improvements on last year’s models than major overhauls. But Apple‘s marketing is at odds with its nomenclature, proclaiming in site language and advertisements that “the only thing that’s changed is everything.”

The most obvious additions are a force-sensitive screen, an upgraded camera, and photos that can act like GIFs, presenting a quick burst of movement captured before and after the shot was taken. Less obvious is a faster processor, and a more durable choice of aluminum for the body and glass for the screen. Do all of those changes add up to a dramatic step forward for the world’s most popular phone, and a reason to jump ship from another manufacturer? Or is the 6s just something to get if you’re already in the market for an iPhone — any iPhone — and your contract allows for a hardware change? We spent three days with the 6s to decide.

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Day 1: At 143 grams, the 6s is 14 grams heavier than the iPhone 6 — it’s only apparent when you hold the respective phones in either hand. But you won’t notice the increased heft. What you will notice, though, is how fantastic 3D Touch is. Press slightly harder than normal on an email, and a preview window will pop open. The same goes for email attachments, and applying pressure to many apps (with more on the way) will bring up a menu of shortcuts. Similar to Apple’s tweaks to Mac OS, this is the kind of seemingly small feature that quickly becomes central to how you operate the device.

After a few awkward hours, our smartphone muscle memory was reconfigured to do more pressing, and less tapping. Setting a new alarm, for example, used to mean opening the Clock app, tapping over to Alarm (it defaults, annoyingly, to the Timer), and pressing the plus button. With 3D Touch, a press on the app icon gives you the option to create an alarm. It’s only a miniscule amount of time and interaction you’re saving, but multiply that by countless interface operations throughout the day, and suddenly you’re blazing through apps and emails at a noticeably faster clip. 

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Day 2: The idea of Live Photos is interesting — by capturing footage before and after you snap a photo, Apple can turn every shot into a GIF-like moving image. This looked appealing during the company’s September event, but the Live Photos previewed there were suspiciously well-stabilized — subjects moved, while the camera stayed perfectly still. Sure enough, Live Photos that aren’t taken while the phone is mounted on a tripod are a shaky, off-putting mess. Instead of swiping through stills of smiling faces in your photo library, you’re presented with squiggly mini-clips of erratic camera movement. And because Live Photos aren’t a big enough blunder, they also eat up more of your memory, which is in even shorter supply if you’re taking advantage of the 6s’s new ability to shoot videos in 4K. That footage, by the way, can be breathtaking, provided you have enough light to capture the richer detail and colors without digital noise. But who cares about 4K, or the generally improved camera, when Live Photos is so infuriating? Granted, you can turn the feature off. It should be an opt-in situation, though, not an opt-out. And by the end of day two, we were able to pull off less disastrous Live Photos by changing the way we capture images. While 3D Touch changed our interaction with the iPhone for the better, Live Photos simply made us self-conscious.

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Day 3: The iPhone 6s is undeniably quicker than its predecessor at loading web pages and opening apps. This is a benefit that will diminish with time, as sites (and advertisers) eat up more computational resources. For now, though, Apple’s new 64-bit A9 processor presents a significant boost in speed. The upgraded M9 co-processor enables something that’s either spooky, or cool, or both — it keeps Siri alert, and ready to assist, at all times. That’s more anthropomorphic than a natural language processing system deserves, but Siri is, in fact, listening at all times. When you prompt it with a, “Hey Siri,” the program will respond just as if you had held down the home button. It’s a feature that Google pioneered (its version: “Ok Google”), so Apple is playing catchup. And maybe you’re too paranoid to keep this feature running. It’s genuinely useful, though, especially if you’re as addicted to listening to podcasts while doing chores as we are. When an episode ends, you don’t have to dry your hands or peel off your work gloves to pull up something else. Tell Siri to do it. Apple, as well as Amazon and Google, have yet to fully deliver on the promise of ubiquitous hands-free computing. But minor tweaks like this are a step in the right direction.

Maybe that’s the best way to sum up our experience with the 6s. It’s forward movement, which can come across as faint praise, until you try out 3D Touch. It’s an interface upgrade that’s so instantly useful, Apple is practically daring the competition to imitate it, and risk another round of epic litigation. It’s also a feature that’s more than a software tweak, since it required new hardware (96 pressure sensors in the display). It’s not enough of a game-changing feature that existing iPhone 6 owners should necessarily trade up, or enough to convince committed Android partisans to defect. Like Apple’s best user interface innovations, it’s a glimpse of what’s to come, for an entire category of devices. Whether it happens now, or another year or two, it’s inevitable — you’ll learn to resent the tap, and embrace the press. Also we didn’t test whether the body is less likely to get dinged, or the screen more resistant to cracks. We like this phone too much to destroy it just yet.

[From $199 w/contract, or $649 without; apple.com]

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