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A grand phone: Apple’s iPhone 6s Plus reviewed

By Leigh D. Stark | 5:03 pm 29/09/2015

If you’re in the market for a big phone, Apple is ready with a new phone, and if you want it to come with all the features everyone else has plus that lovely Apple touch, the news is very good.

Features

The second generation of the iPhone 6 is here, and with it a new moniker. Or an old moniker attached to a new generation, because we’ve seen Apple use the “S” before.

In 2015, you’ll find Apple’s “S” return for the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus, two variants that take last year’s basic models and upgrade them from the inside out, throwing in new screen technology, new processors, more memory, faster WiFi, faster 4G, and better cameras.

Sure, they may look the same, but the iPhone 6 Plus and iPhone 6s Plus are totally different, so what’s changed?

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For starters, there’s a new chip underneath, with the Apple A9 processor the new piece of silicon found here, featuring an M9 motion coprocessor built into the unit and paired with 2GB RAM.

Apple’s iOS 9 runs here out of the box, which is the operating system other iPhones can upgrade to if they have some spare time, but on this phone it’s here waiting for you the moment you take it out.

Connection options have been improved a little, with 802.11a/b/g/n and 802.11/ac WiFi provided here, Bluetooth upgraded to 4.2 with A2DP and Low Energy (LE), while GPS and A-GPS make an appearance alongside a limited version of Near-Field Communication (NFC) used only for Apple’s payment technology “ApplePay” which has yet to be rolled out in Australia.

4G connectivity is also part of the package, providing a high speed LTE modem in the phone, capable of netting some super fast download speeds where they count.

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The cameras have also changed, and these start on the back, with that rear camera jumping from an 8 megapixel shooter with a dual-tone flash to a 12 megapixel camera with a dual-tone flash, complete with optical image stabilisation.

Video capture has also been boosted here, jumping from 1080p Full HD movie capture to 4K Ultra HD video capture, while the slow motion jumps from a capture in 720p in the iPhone 6 Plus to 1080p in the iPhone 6s Plus.

Optical image stabilisation has always been offered by the Plus models, too, something we’re told has to do with the size of the stabilisation technology and how it will only fit in the big model, and you’ll find it in the iPhone 6s Plus again, still not on the iPhone 6s, with this now able to stabilise video if need be.

The front camera has also taken a change, with a huge jump from a 1.2 megapixel FaceTime HD camera to something a little more impressive, running with 5 megapixels instead.

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That being said, the screen is technically the same, with a 1920×1080 Full HD display spread out over 5.5 inches sitting atop this hardware, though you will find a layer of 3D Touch underneath, relying on a series of positioning sensors and haptic feedback (Apple calls its “taptic”) to work out where your finger is positioned and when this is pressed to send feedback to the body.

Buttons are limited, expected with most touchscreen phones, and you’ll find independent volume buttons along the left edge underneath a mute switch, while the power button sits on the right edge.

The home button sits on the bottom under the screen hiding a fingerprint sensor underneath.

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As for ports, Apple hasn’t provided much to work with, running with only the Lightning port at the very bottom of the handset sitting alongside a 3.5mm headset jack, while a nanoSIM tray can still be found on the right edge, ejectable via a pin ejector tool.

The battery in the iPhone 6s Plus is rated at 2750mAh and is not removable.

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Performance

It might be a new model for a new year, but the first time you see the iPhone 6s Plus, it sure won’t feel like it.

Looking at the phone and even picking it up, you’re basically looking at the same iPhone 6 Plus from last year, except with a new “S” in a rectangle on the back, and possibly a different colour if you’ve opted for the rose gold variant Apple has released in this generation.

On the outside, however, it looks the same because all the changes are just that: on the inside, because that’s where it counts for the iPhone 6s Plus.

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If you’re fine with a soft edged large screen phone running Apple’s iOS operating system, you’ll find it here, because this is basically a clone of last year’s big phone from Apple — the first big phone from Apple, no less — but with new hardware inside.

There is one change, and you’ll find it in the build, with Apple switching to a sturdier form of aluminium for the body which makes it a fraction heavier. Now, the aluminium is graded at 7000 series, slightly thicker than the 6000 series, so it should be able to withstand the few of you trying desperately to start another #bendgate just because you can.

Your hands won’t notice it, though, and that’s what matters, because this mostly feels like the previous iPhone 6s Plus, except with a good 20 grams added thanks to the heavier metal.

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Switch on the phone and you’ll see another typically beautiful display come to life, with a 1920×1080 screen light up on a 5.5 inch size, providing roughly 401 pixels per inch, past Apple’s own “Retina” grading of its displays.

Under the hood, there’s a new processor working away, with the Apple A9 chip working away alongside twice the RAM from last time, with 2GB instead of 1GB.

With this combination of parts, you’ll find the system just flies, with little to no lag when you open and close apps, jumping around and switching into various programs, and using the phone generally.

A synthetic benchmark later and you’ll find this is the fastest iPhone available, hardly surprising given that this is the latest iPhone out there, but it should still make you feel uber important, all the same.

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Mobile performance is another area Apple has changed things, and what you’re looking at here is a faster modem than in the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, with a move to Category 6 technology.

Previously, the iPhone 6 relied on a Category 4 LTE modem, a set of terms that basically meant a maximum of 150Mbps downloadable at any one time from a 4G capable network, while 50Mbps was the maximum it could do back up the pipe, you know, when you were sending information back to somewhere.

This time, the specs of Apple’s iPhone have changed, and one of them is to include support for “4G LTE Advanced”, which is a little different from just plain old 4G, it seems. While Apple won’t tell us if this is Category 4 or 6, speed tests seem to paint a picture of the latter, with 150Mbps easily possible, which is almost never found with a Category 4 modem.

For those who think this is just a pile of numbers and useless jargon, you’re not far off, but the easy way of explaining it is a larger Category number can mean faster download speeds altogether, network dependent of course.

In the case of the iPhone 6s Plus, we suspect this is a Category 6, which means speeds as high as 300Mbps are possible depending on what network you’re using, how busy it is, and where in town you are. With a Cat6 device, your speeds can max out at 300Mbps, but will often hit between 40 and 120, while Cat4 devices max out at 150 and often hit between 40 and 80.

Sufficed to say, the iPhone 6s Plus is bloody fast, and Australians living in capital cities, as well as any other place where 4G is served should find hyper-fast speeds for their new phone without any problems.

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Tested on Telstra’s 4GX network in Sydney’s CBD, we found speeds ranging from that 40Mbps mark to the 150Mbps mark, and while this isn’t the fastest mobile speed on the block — that honour goes to Samsung’s Note 5 and Galaxy S6 Edge+ devices — it is still bloody fast all the same.

You won’t be disappointed.

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Battery life is also pretty good, and it’s interesting to see the combination of a new operating system and new processor really working out without a huge loss of power.

In fact, battery life is bang on what it was for last year, with the faster chip and use of 3D Touch not really making the dent you might think it would, or even should.

We managed a good day and a half of battery life with Bluetooth switched on with the iPhone 6S Plus, and we could probably have hit that second day if we curbed our usage considerably in the second day. That sort of performance tells us performance users will have no problem seeing a full day out of the 6S Plus, while people who are a little more relaxed and aren’t reliant on wireless gadgets will easily see two days, which is pretty good.

Just make sure you let the phone run itself down naturally over the first day or two, because the battery doesn’t perform as nicely in your first day or so of ownership, with us only reaching a day of life in that time, and then boosting two the day and a half in the subsequent days.

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The camera is also impressive, and as is par for the course on Apple’s products, you can expect a pretty top notch experience with the iPhone 6s Plus.

Apple hasn’t really reworked the interface here, so you’ll find the typical swipe left and right changes what mode you’re in, allowing you to jump between photo mode, square photo mode, video mode, slow motion video mode, time-lapse video mode, and panorama mode just from a simple swipe.

Really, the part of the camera you want to look out for is what’s inside, because like people, that’s where everything matters.

Camera sample from the iPhone 6s Plus

Camera sample from the iPhone 6s Plus

Tested in day and night, the improvements to the sensor and its ability to pick up on colour are excellent, with solid light and dark recreation, and a sensor that can recreate colours really well.

Apple’s iPhone 6s Plus may not boast the highest amount of megapixels on the block, and it’s beaten by pretty much every flagship camera megapixel quantity out there, but it doesn’t really need to deal with this dilemma as the quality is just that good.

Up front, the image quality is excellent again, with no excess beautifying mode to soften things and a supported “flash” that turns the screen into a bright colour to “flash” that skin of yours.

That’s not a thoroughly new feature, and we’ve seen it before on at least one phone in the past, but it’s still a welcome addition all the same, and it’s not the only one.

Selfie without and with the screen flash. Neat.

Selfie without and with the screen flash. Neat.

You’ll find you can capture extended images with the iPhone 6s Plus if you want, and when this option is set — middle option, it kind of looks like a target — the phone will capture a second on either side of the image, grabbing a hint of video to push the image into more of a look as to what the scene was at the time the frame was captured.

It’s one of those neat inclusions that is cute, but won’t be useful to all, especially if the actions immediately before and after weren’t so much fun but rather utilitarian.

On the other hand, we’re delighted to see an update to video included here, with video capture capable of bringing in 4K Ultra HD.

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To activate this one, you’re going to need to go into the settings and switch it on, but once that clumsy technological change has been switched, you’ll find one minute consumes almost 400MB of space, so make sure you have a big phone — 64 or 128GB storage — if you plan to use this feature, which should provide more detailed video, equating to roughly 8 megapixel video.

There is one catch to the whole 4K video thing, and that’s getting the files off and over to a 4K Ultra HD screen.

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Right now, your choices are limited because neither Apple TV nor Lightning has the necessary support for the technology.

We suspect the easiest way through an Apple ecosystem to do this would be to grab the iMac 27 Retina 5K model and watch the video there, but Apple cites the use of 4K video for something other than TVs, with a “zoom mode” added to the iPhone 6s Plus, allowing you to zoom in with your fingers and see more detail that you’ve captured.

It might be something you want to get a closer look at, or even just the detail in various textures. Whatever it is, videos captured in 4K Ultra HD can do just that in the videos app on the iPhone 6s Plus.

Camera sample from the iPhone 6s Plus

Camera sample from the iPhone 6s Plus

And of course, there are other bits and bobs, like the inclusion of live wallpaper, something that is new to the world of iOS 9 and that takes advantage of the 3D Touch technology.

Apple hasn’t quite taken the live wallpaper concept Android has seen for ages with this phone, using short animations that go forwards and backwards when they’re activated rather than running all the time.

They’re cute and neat, but you probably won’t use them that often.

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The dropdown menu in iOS 9 has also changed and now features support for phone and accessory batteries, which is super handy.

If you have an Apple Watch and a Bluetooth headset, these will show up here alongside the phone, revealing how much battery life you have for all of these.

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Even the fingerprint scanner is faster, and now Apple’s home button acts like lightning, with a super-fast hold to open mechanism when your fingerprints are tested.

While Samsung has made a better effort with the fingerprint scanner in this year’s smartphones, and Oppo and Huawei each have some pretty good tech in their own smartphones, none of these companies seem to hold a candle to Apple when it comes to holding your friction ridges to a specialty sensor for scanning the ridges unique to you and only you.

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As such, the fingerprint scanner found on the iPhone 6s Plus is easily one of the best and fastest we’ve seen seen hands down.

Fingers down, even, and then off.

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About the only thing you can’t really like about the iPhone 6s Plus is the price: yikes, this is one expensive device.

There is another quibble, and that is how Near-Field Communication (and Apple’s inclusion of it) still doesn’t result in easily paired gadgets, but that’s an Apple issue across the board, with NFC being reserved for Apple Pay, which Australia has yet to see at this time.

No, our real dilemma with the 6s Plus is the price, because with a starting price of of $1229 for a 16GB and costing as much as $1529 for a 128GB, this is not a cheap phone.

Granted, a mobile plan will likely subsidise it, but you’re still not talking cheap when it comes to any of the options.

The real question, however, is if the Apple iPhone 6s Plus is worth the price. Sure, it’s expensive, but is Apple offering value?

The iPhone 6s Plus against its major competition, the 5.7 inch Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+ on the left, the 5.7 inch Samsung Galaxy Note 5 on the right.

The iPhone 6s Plus against its major competition, the 5.7 inch Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+ on the left, the 5.7 inch Samsung Galaxy Note 5 on the right.

The answer to this one is a bit complicated, but we’re going to go with “probably”, as it the iPhone 6s Plus does bundle in much of the same excellent technology we’re seeing in other flagships, without the bits and pieces we want and yet know Apple will never supply.

These are things like expandable memory, which Apple just won’t do, and more support for Near-Field Communication, which we’ve already mentioned.

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Technically, there is a lot in this phone, and while it might seem like you’re just getting an upgraded version of last year’s iPhone 6 Plus, you’ll find a more capable product, with oodles more camera capability and a new way of talking to the phone through your fingers.

About that, by the way… just what is this whole 3D touch thing?

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Using the “force”

Trust Apple to throw in something that could be confused with magic. After all, the great Arthur C. Clarke did say that ”any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, and in a year where we’re about to see another “Star Wars” movie, we suppose it does make sense to include something that Apple was at one point calling the “force”.

Back when the Apple Watch came out earlier in the year, Apple called it “Force Touch” technology, in fact, though it has a new name in the iPhone, where the company has just made it more explanative for what’s going on.

No longer using the force, this is now “3D Touch”, with the same underlying principle as to what it does in the Watch, just made bigger for the phone instead of the watch.

Depending on the size of your display, the 3D Touch panel provides pressure sensitivity, picking up on the amount of pressure you push against the screen with and interpreting it with an action.

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You might push down on an email and see a preview of that email before it totally opens, or you could push down on the camera icon and get the option to go straight into capturing a selfie. As you push, the phone pushes back, providing a small vibration to tell you what you’re doing, highlighting the difference between a push and a touch, because the two are different.

Essentially, the touch you’ve been doing for ages is the full on click you might make with a mouse, and touching something equates to a selection. In contrast, the push via a 3D Touch panel is more like a right click, providing you with a set of options, like if you right click on a file.

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These might shave a quarter of a second or even half a second off what you do on your phone, but we’re not talking about a lot of time for most of the things you’re doing, though it’s clear more apps need to add support for this, because right now, it’s just a small selection of Apple apps that work this way, and generally the Apple apps at that.

Over time, we expect this to increase, and given that you could throw in some useful shortcuts, it might do more than save time.

Some of the useful 3D touch shortcuts...

Some of the useful 3D touch shortcuts…

...and some of the less useful shortcuts.

…and some of the less useful shortcuts.

For instance, the camera has a 3D Touch shortcut for “take a selfie”, which will be super handy for those individuals keen to do just that quickly. In this example, pressing a little deeper on the camera icon reveals a faster way of getting to the image mode than opening the camera app and swiping to the right section, though again, we’re not talking about a huge leap.

It’s not perfect, that said, and what generally is in a first generation product?

However, one area might actually get you to stumble and scratch your head as to how it got out of Apple’s R&D labs, and that’s uninstalling apps.

Ever since the iPhone supported apps in its second incarnation, the iPhone 3G, Apple has made is pretty easy to uninstall apps. To do this, you had to hold an app icon down, wait for it to wiggle, and then press the “x” that would appear. Easy.

With 3D Touch, Apple hasn’t technically changed this, so that’s still the case, but it’s made a little more awkward now that the screen is trying to detect pressure, so you kind of have to press the icon while not exerting any force, making for a bit of a trying time if you want to get rid of that app you swore you’d never play again (*shakes fist at cloud*).

It’s not easy and it is a little cumbersome, and half the time when you’re trying to get rid of an app, you’ll end up doing one of the deeper touches that 3D Touch can and will invariably do.

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But it’s a good start, and 3D Touch does do something useful beyond the having off half a second you might expect it to do: it makes the iPhone 6S Plus (and by extension the iPhone 6S) controllable with one hand, allowing you to keep your other hand at bay doing something else — say holding onto something stable when you’re facing erratic public transport — and still control the phone.

If anything, that’s what 3D Touch feels like it has been made to best better than anything else: the burden of using two hands that big phones have brought back to the table.

Small phones could be driven by one hand quite easily, but big phones aren’t quite as easy, and once you near 5 inch screen sizes, one-handed operation more or less gets thrown out the window.

3D Touch brings it back, however, and if you prefer the idea of a single-handed phone, you’ll love what the 6S and 6S Plus bring to the table.

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Conclusion

The “S” releases of the iPhone have never been the ones consumers raved about. Maybe it was the fact that it was harder to tell what had changed, a fact owing nicely to the idea that the body stayed the same, and that the features were more incremental than anything else.

Apple likes to say, however, that some of its most important changes came from its S releases, generations that are basically half steps before the company goes back and redesigns the body, the thing that most people know and recognise as being totally new. For instance, Apple’s voice assistant “Siri” came from an S release, and the fingerprint reader came from an S release.

Now we’re seeing 3D Touch and camera upgrades, and these are definitely both worthy additions to an already excellent phone.

In the iPhone 6S Plus, the improvements are most welcome, and while it seems like an improved camera system was the one Apple was always destined to bring in — because customers have been asking for more megapixels on both the front and back for a while now — 3D Touch is the one that it feels like was made for the S generation itself.

All up, however, and the phone just works, providing a more complete iPhone experience under a large screen with two cameras that needed an upgrade and a hint as to what the future of one-handed design looks like.

If you’re in the market for a big phone and like Apple, you won’t be disappointed, provided you can deal with that high price. Highly recommended.

Price (RRP)

$1229 (starting price); 16GB for $1229; 64GB for $1379; 128GB for $1579; Available on plans from Optus, Telstra, and Vodafone;

Pros & Cons

Product Pros

Very well built; Performance is top notch; Battery can get two days; Camera upgrades are worth checking out and make the phone highly competitive against other flagships; 3D Touch adds an extra level of control, allowing one handed operation; Fingerprint scanner is even faster than before;

Product Cons

Expensive; No way of getting 4K video off the phone and over to a 4K TV easily; No upgradeable storage, as is typical with Apple;

Ratings

Overall

Features

Value for money

Performance

Ease of Use

Design

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