iPhone 6S Review: Better Than the Best?

iPhone 6S
image credit Apple Inc.
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Update: check out the new iPhone 7 model.​​

The iPhone 6 struck the right balance between size and weight, added key new features like Apple Pay, and improved foundational elements like battery life and storage capacity. Does the newer iPhone 6S measure up to the very high standard set by its predecessor?

Better Than the Best? Maybe

It's a cliche to say that every generation of the iPhone is the best ever, but that was true for the iPhone 6 more so than ever before.

I'd argue that the 6 was the perfect version of the iPhone. It's hard to top perfection, and I'm torn as to whether the iPhone 6S series has done it.

As with all "S" models, the improvements are hard to see but easy to experience and translate to a fantastic device. The only things that keep it from definitely being superior to the 6 series are minor: the 16GB introductory model offers far too little storage, it would be great to get the optical image stabilization from the 6 Plus and 6S Plus on this model, and battery life hasn't changed. 

Improvements Everywhere

As you'd expect, there are improvements everywhere, starting at the phone's heart. The 6S is built around Apple's 64-bit A9 processor, this time backed by 2 GB of RAM, doubling the 1GB in the previous generation. You'll also find the M9 motion co-processor and improved 4G LTE and Wi-Fi networking chips for faster performance.

The cameras—already among the best on any smartphone and the most popular camera of any kind in the world—are substantially improved, too.

The back camera jumps from 8 megapixels to 12 and adds the ability to record video in ultra-high definition 4K resolution. The user-facing camera offers 5-megapixel photos, compared to 1.2 megapixels on the 6 series. Even cooler, the 6S's screen now functions like a camera flash, emitting a pulse of light to improve selfies in low-light environments.

These improvements add up to deliver substantially better photos and videos. As with the 6 series, though, the 6S offers software-based image stabilization, while only the 6S Plus sports optical (i.e. hardware) stabilization. That feature delivers superior photos in some scenarios.

The cameras combine with the 6S series' other major improvement—the screen—for one of the phone's most eye-catching features.

3D Touch: A Major Breakthrough

Perhaps the most headline-grabbing feature of the 6S series is Live Photos, which transforms still photos into short animations (this article has full details about how Live Photos work). Live Photos are triggered by pressing hard on the 3D Touch screen built into both models.

3D Touch allows the screen to understand how hard you're pressing it and respond to different levels of force. A tap is still a tap. A light press triggers a "peek"—a preview of content such as linked-to website without going to that site or an email without opening it. A hard press triggers a pop—a shortcut on an app icon or making a peek into the main content you're viewing. It's a revolutionary feature that unlocks new interface options and makes the iPhone able to support a new, more subtle range of interaction.

It works as smoothly and intuitively as you'd expect. While it takes a few tries to master, and it can be easy to forget about from time to time, expect it to be a deeply integrated (and widely copied; watch for it on next year's Samsung Galaxy phones) feature in all future iPhones.

The iPhone 6S Plus: A Micro-Review

As with the 6 series, the 6S and 6S Plus aren't terribly different. The main areas in which they differ are screen size (5.5 inches on the Plus vs. 4.7 on the 6) and the attendant physical size and weight, battery life (the Plus offers more), and the already-mentioned camera. Given the slight areas of differentiation, I'm not going to review the 6S Plus separately.

The 6S Plus is just as great as the 6S. The major factor that will determine which phone is best for you is size. Some people prefer the larger screen and the real estate it offers for productivity and improved video and games. To others, the phone is simply too big for their hands or pockets/purses. 

If you think you might want a 6S Plus, check out both models in a store. You'll know pretty quickly which is right for you.

What Should Be Better in the iPhone 7

There's not a lot to complain about in the 6S series, but Apple should improve the following things in the iPhone 7 series:

  • Storage at the Low End—The introductory 6S model offers only 16 GB of storage. In a world where 1 hour of 4K video takes up 21.9 GB and the base iOS install uses 2-4 GB, this is far too small. The 7 series should start at 32 GB.
  • Image Stabilization—As mentioned above, it would be ideal to see the 7 series pick up optical image stabilization in the lower-priced models.
  • Touch ID Responsiveness—The Touch ID fingerprint scanner on the 6S series is faster than the scanner on the 6 series, but it's still a little flaky, failing to recognize fingers too often. 
  • Battery Life—The 6S series' battery life is good, but not any better the 6's. Apple is obsessed with making its devices thinner; I suspect a lot of us would be happy to accept a slightly thicker iPhone in exchange for one with more battery life.

The Bottom Line

The iPhone 6S series isn't the major leap forward that the 6 series was. That's not a surprise: full-number models are always big jumps, while "S" models are refinements on their predecessors.

That's been Apple's pattern for years and isn't likely to change soon.  

That means that the 6S, while a terrific phone, isn't quite as big an improvement over the 6 as the 6 was over the 5S. If you're in a position to upgrade at a discounted price, or are using an iPhone older than the 5S, the 6S is a no-brainer upgrade. Do it today. If you've got a 6, though, it probably makes sense to check out the iPhone 7.