iPhone 6S Plus review

Apple's iPhone 6S Plus punches stronger than ever, if you've got the mitts for it

The battery life took a hit, but Apple’s iPhone 6S Plus is the best iPhone to buy.
The battery life took a hit, but Apple’s iPhone 6S Plus is the best iPhone to buy.
The battery life took a hit, but Apple’s iPhone 6S Plus is the best iPhone to buy.

Highs

  • Same gorgeous look and quality build
  • Big camera upgrades make a difference
  • 3D Touch livens up iOS 9
  • Stronger aluminum construction

Lows

  • Smaller battery
  • Entry-level 16GB storage is insufficient

DT Editors' Rating

Typically, Apple’s S year upgrades aren’t too exciting, but this year, it’s really gone all out with the new iPhone 6S and 6S Plus. The improvements aren’t plentiful, but they are meaningful, which is more important. The camera upgrade is perhaps the best of all, though the increase in processing power, RAM, and functionality in iOS 9 are all key differentiators.

Once you scope out all the new features, it really boils down to one question: Should you upgrade to the iPhone 6S Plus? As with any phone, it depends on which phone you have now, and how much you’re paying for it. Here are our first thoughts after a few hours of using the iPhone 6S Plus.

It looks the same, but that’s a good thing

The iPhone 6S Plus is just as big, bold, and bright as last year’s phablet. Its 5.5-inch screen sports the same number of pixels as last year’s iPhone with a 1,920 × 1,080-pixel resolution and a density of 401 pixels per inch. Although most of Apple’s Android competitors opt for Quad HD resolutions of 2,560 × 1,440 pixels these days, the iPhone 6S Plus still holds its own against the likes of Samsung’s Galaxy Note 5 and S6 Edge Plus. Of course, Samsung’s displays are technically sharper, but you won’t notice the difference unless you’re a real screen snob.

The iPhone 6S Plus’ 1080p screen may sound like a throwback to 2014, but it should save you on battery life in comparison with Quad HD phones, and the iPhone needs all the help it can get in that department. 1080p is good enough for an S series iPhone, but we wouldn’t be surprised if Quad HD were in Apple’s future plans.

Touch ID is much faster and a lot less finicky on the iPhone 6S Plus. Although it’s probably only a fraction of a second speedier, the added quickness matters, especially when you use Apple Pay.

Thanks to 700 series aluminum, this year’s iPhone should be strong enough to survive your skinny jeans.

As far as build quality goes, the iPhone 6S Plus is actually made out of a new aluminum alloy. It’s supposedly stronger and more durable, which is particularly important on the iPhone 6S Plus, which suffered from the #bendgate scandal last year. Bend tests from Square Trade and others are forthcoming, but this year’s iPhone should be strong enough to survive your skinny jeans (thank God).

The final change in the iPhone’s visual appearance comes in the form of a new color option: rose gold. Depending on whom you ask, this color actually looks quite pink, but don’t worry fellas — It’s really just a warm tone of gold. If you preordered the rose gold version for a bit of flash, you’ll be well satisfied. Even so, we suspect women will be most interested in the new color option.

3D Touch adds meaningful depth to iOS 9

The coolest new iOS 9 feature was not available on the day the new operating system came out, because it simply doesn’t work on older iPhones. If you oohed and aahed during the press conference when Apple showed off 3D Touch, your time has come. 3D Touch is exclusively available on the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, and it really changes the way you navigate your iPhone. Of course, unless you’re an Apple Watch user who’s familiar with Force Touch, you probably won’t even realize it’s there until you accidentally long-press an app that you’re trying to delete.

To activate 3D Touch, you have to press firmly on an app icon or link. There are two main levels of pressure you can apply, and they perform two different actions. Apple calls them Peek and Pop.

  • Peek: If you lightly press down on a photo in your gallery, a link in iMessage, or any number of other items, you get a pop-up preview window allowing you to “peek” at the page ahead.
  • Pop: Once you’re Peeking at an item, if you press a little harder, you’ll feel a vibration and then the next page will “pop” in.

Both of these interactions feel natural enough that they shouldn’t cause any trouble, though they do make iOS more complicated — adding functionality seen on Android phones with press-and-hold actions and the old Menu button (now extinct). Not everything follows a Peek-and-Pop model, though. You can 3D Touch icons on the home screen, and menus will pop out of them, much like right-clicking an item with a computer mouse.

When you press on the Phone app icon, for example, a list of your top contacts will open, so you can speed dial without entering the app. Same goes with just about any Apple app, including the camera, which brings up the option to take an emergency selfie; the gallery app, which shows you search, pics from one year ago today, your favorites, and more; the clock app, which reveals options to set an alarm, stopwatch, or timer; and so on.

You can also use 3D Touch on links to webpages and addresses, as well as emails in your inbox. It’s pretty fun to long-press, which brings up a preview of a link or photo in the gallery app. This is the Peek function, and it takes the mystery out of links. You can take a quick look and ignore it, if the link’s lame, or simply continue pressing to move from the preview to real life. It’s especially useful in email, though it works only with Apple’s Mail app. The same goes with address links — they’ll direct you to Apple Maps (which may actually work better, by the way, thanks to improvements in iOS 9).

3D Touch could revolutionize the way we interact with iOS forever.

As developers keep working with iOS 9, more apps will make use of 3D Touch, but right now, it’s limited to Apple apps and a few partners. Don’t worry, though — the iPhone will let you know if an app doesn’t have 3D Touch by vibrating. The vibration honestly reminded me of a vigorous headshake. It’s as if Jony Ive’s saying, “No, not that app!”

If misused, 3D Touch could overcomplicate iOS. We hope Apple will keep developers reigned in. Overall, though, 3D Touch makes navigating the iPhone 6S Plus more fun, lively, and fast. It could revolutionize the way we interact with Apple’s operating system, and I personally look forward to seeing where it goes next.

Faster CPU and more RAM, but same ol’ 16GB of storage

The iPhone 6S and 6S Plus are powered by Apple’s new A9 chip, which is a 2GHz dual-core 64-bit ARM processor. Apple finally doubled the RAM, too, so the iPhone 6S Plus is zippy and fluid. Apple claims this new processor is nearly twice as powerful as the chip in the iPhone 6, and it seems fast. Of course, last year’s iPhones were fast, too, so it’s hard to tell. We’ll need to do more testing and play a game or two before we pass judgment on the A9 chip.

Sadly, for the third straight year and fourth straight iPhone, Apple has stuck with 16GB as the base memory in the iPhone. Selling a 16GB phone is almost cruel in 2015. You will quickly fill it with photos and apps, which take up more storage space all the time, especially with the new 12-megapixel camera. And since Apple’s updates require several gigabytes of free space to install, you likely won’t be able to keep your phone up to date after a year or so. Spend an extra $100 and get the 64GB model.

Finally, better cameras!

The most important update to the iPhone 6S Plus comes in the form of the cameras. The rear camera is 12 megapixels, a huge increase over the old-school 8-megapixel shooter that the iPhone’s had for years. The upgrade makes for stellar pictures with greater detail and clarity, but also allows you to snap 4K video. You’ll have to go to Settings > Photos & Camera and scroll down to video recording options to toggle it to 4K at 30fps. It’s set to 1080p at 30fps by default to save space on the itty bitty 16GB iPhone 6S Plus. 4K video is yet another reason you’ll want to opt for the 64GB model, as is Live Photos, a cool feature that’s like Harry Potter photographs come to life.

Live Photos can be magical, and it’s cool to have a GIF factory in your phone.

Live Photos essentially record an extra 1.5 seconds before and after you take a photo, so that a short moving image (like a GIF) is created. Live Photos sound gimmicky as hell, but they are fun. You can grab a quick GIF of your cat playing with a feather toy, your dog wriggling with excitement for dinner, or your kid playing in the yard. Live Photos have the potential to be magical, and in a day when everyone loves GIFs, it’s cool to have a built-in GIF factory in your phone. To activate Live Photos, just tap on the bull’s-eye in the camera app. Beware, though: Live Photos take up space quickly, so again, if you’ve got a 16GB iPhone 6S, you’ll run out of space faster than I can say, “I told you so.”

We’ve only just started testing the iPhone 6S Plus’s camera, but so far, we’re impressed. The level of detail the new sensor captures is amazing. A shot from the 22nd floor of our office building looks pretty sharp and crisp, even when you zoom right into the tiny cars on the street below. That level of detail isn’t visible with the iPhone 6 Plus from last year. Close-ups look sharper, too, and color reproduction appears accurate.

Apple iPhone 6S Plus
Jessica Lee Star/Digital Trends
Jessica Lee Star/Digital Trends

Of course, we’ll need to test the camera at night, low-light, and other more challenging conditions than broad daylight to fully evaluate it. Look out for more analysis of how it compares to Android phones’ cameras soon. Our initial findings indicate that it’s on the same level as the excellent LG G4 and Samsung Galaxy Note 5 in terms of image quality.

The last camera improvement is the front cam, which finally takes Instagramable selfies with its 5-megapixel shooter. Although Android users have had better selfie cams for ages, the iPhone is making a huge jump here, from 1.2-megapixels to 5. It’s finally on par with most Android flagships.

A shrunken battery doesn’t do anyone favors

Apple has never made battery life a priority, and that’s still the case this year. The iPhone 6S Plus packs a smaller battery than last year’s model. Yes, you read that right. The battery is actually smaller. Why? Because the hardware for 3D Touch takes up more space, and Apple dare not exceed the thickness of last year’s iPhone by more than the 0.01-inch it added this year. As such, the battery is 2,750mAh, which is a small decrease of 165mAh.

No it’s not horrible, and your iPhone 6S Plus won’t die more suddenly than last year’s iPhone 6 Plus, but it’s the principle of the thing. No iPhone should have a smaller battery than its predecessor. iPhone battery life is already worse than most Android phones — although this year’s crop also sacrificed battery size for slimness, and pays for it with iPhone-like battery life ratings — and it shouldn’t be that way. Ask most users if they’d spring for a slightly thicker iPhone if it would last double the time it currently does, and they’ll all say, “YES!”

Regardless of my personal opinion on the matter, we’ll need to test this phone out more to determine whether the battery change hurts the iPhone 6S Plus dramatically.

Conclusion

Although a pair of better cameras, a faster processor, and a cool new interface trick may not seem like much, these improvements really take the iPhone 6S Plus to the next level. The camera upgrades are arguably the best thing about the S update this year, but 3D Touch is a close second. As with any flagship phone purchase, the iPhone 6S Plus is not cheap — especially if you heed our advice and get the 64GB model ($850 big ones).

It’s honestly debatable whether anyone with a flagship phone from 2014 needs to buy a new one in 2015. If you have a iPhone 6 Plus, you should probably hold out for the iPhone 7, although we’re not sure what improvements that’ll bring. If you’re living with an iPhone 5S, 5, or (heaven forbid) an iPhone 4S, the iPhone 6S Plus is well worth the upgrade.

Highs

  • Same gorgeous look and quality build
  • Big camera upgrades make a difference
  • 3D Touch livens up iOS 9
  • Stronger aluminum construction

Lows

  • Smaller battery
  • Entry-level 16GB storage is insufficient
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