iPhone 6s/6s Plus: Does The Upgrade Make Sense?

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The post-release hype has died down (a little), but do Apple’s latest smartphones make sense if you’re upgrading?

As always, that’s a question that’s best answered by looking at where you’re coming from in smartphone terms. If you’ve never used or owned a smartphone before… then where have you been, precisely? That aside, just about any smartphone is likely to blow you away, and if you can afford the iPhone’s premium asking price, it’s an easy recommendation.

But what if you’re coming at it from an existing smartphone? Here’s my thoughts on the upgrade path from three different viewpoints; if you’re coming from an iPhone 6, if you’re coming from an older iPhone and if you’re transitioning from an alternate OS and pondering options, primarily Android handsets. Sorry Windows Phone/Blackberry/Firefox users. Maybe next time.

Is the design better?

Now there’s a loaded question. Tell me, how do you define “better”, precisely?

The reality here is that the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus are, with the exception of the newer Rose Gold colour, pretty much identical to last year’s design. If Rose Gold gets you tingly in all your special areas, then more power to you. But in most other respects it’s the same design, right down to the same rather slippery back. As with last year’s model, I’d say a case would be a very wise investment.

Worth upgrading if you’re a 6 Owner: Nope
Worth upgrading if you’re an older iPhone owner: Yes, for the larger screen.
Worth upgrading if you’re an Android owner: Not in the premium space, no.

Is it faster?

The iPhone 6s/6s Plus runs on Apple’s A9 ARM processor, and it’s undeniably a faster and better processor than previous iPhone generations. The thing there is that this is exactly what you should expect out of a new premium device. As processors improve, the systems that they run on should improve as well.

For those who love benchmarks, here’s how the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s plus compare on Geekbench 3 in my testing.

[table]
Geekbench 3 Benchmark Scores,
, Single Core, Multi-Core
iPhone 6s, 2540, 4410,
iPhone 6s Plus, 2491, 4391,
[/table]

A very slight bump towards the iPhone 6s, which slightly surprised me; at a guess the smaller screen size gives it just a tad more breathing room. The issue with benchmarks, however, is that they don’t always reflect the reality of using the device. I’ve been switching between the 6s and the 6 over the past few weeks, and the observable difference is slight, if it exists at all. Some of that could come down to the fact that as yet few if any developers are really coding for the A9 architecture. I’ve certainly not seen too many apps that are “6s/Plus” only.

Worth upgrading if you’re a 6 Owner: On its own, probably not
Worth upgrading if you’re an older iPhone owner: Yes
Worth upgrading if you’re an Android owner: Again, on its own, probably not (and for much the same reason)

Is 3D Touch compelling?

3D Touch is the much-heralded “new” feature for the iPhone 6s generation. It allows for a “deeper” touch mechanism, by more forcefully holding a digit to the screen, as though you were pressing into it. Doing so brings up a secondary, app-specific menu or option, from photo selection to quick mail browsing. I’m still not entirely convinced it’s something that couldn’t be done in software alone, but Apple’s definitely trying to make force-based touch a thing that’s happening, given it’s in the 6s/Plus, the Apple Watch and the new Magic Trackpads announced this week.

3D Touch mostly works, but not always; every once in a while it’ll misread my force touch as a wish to rearrange or delete apps, which is a little irritating. It’s also, rather like the A9, very early days for the feature, which right now is being presented as part productivity tool, part novelty. It’s certainly not a bad thing to have, but right now developers would be insane to develop purely for 3D Touch applications, because the market size is quite small. This time next year, when we’re facing an iPhone 7 and a larger 3D Touch market, that might be a different matter.

Worth upgrading if you’re a 6 Owner: Nope
Worth upgrading if you’re an older iPhone owner: Not on its own, but it’s a neat “extra”
Worth upgrading if you’re an Android owner: I wouldn’t switch for it.

Is The Camera Any Good?

In a word, yes. Apple’s pretty much always had at least “good” cameras in its iPhone models, and the 12MP camera on the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus, which also gains optical image stabilisation, is a very decent shooter for the average camera person.

I’m not quite as thrilled by “Live Photos” as many others are, however. Live photos works by keeping the video portion of the camera always running when the camera app is live, and then storing a segment of video before and after the shutter was pressed to form the Harry Potter-esque “live” part of the video. HTC had similar with its “Zoe” camera on the HTC One models, and like there, it’s a gimmick. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s undeniably gimmicky, especially as right now, there’s really not much of a good way to widely share your “live” photos, and if you do enable it — it appears to be on by default — you’ll also be chewing up storage space to do so.

There’s also the issue of comparison. Many have pointed to DXO’s rather exhaustive analysis of camera quality, which suggests relatively identical performance to last year’s model. Your actual real world usage will naturally depend on your skill as a photographer and the conditions you’re shooting in, but I’d certainly say that if camera optics are important to you above all, there’s a lot of very stiff competition in the Android space from units such as the LG G4, Samsung Galaxy S6/Edge/Note 4 and the Sony Xperia Z5, which I’m in the middle of testing right now.

Worth upgrading if you’re a 6 Owner: Nope
Worth upgrading if you’re an older iPhone owner: Not on its own, but it’s a neat “extra”
Worth upgrading if you’re an Android owner: I wouldn’t switch for it.

What about battery life?

Did you hear the one about the iPhone’s battery life? Yes, of course you did, because iPhones going flat is something of a running joke, although depending on your perspective that may be an issue of overuse and saturation rather than battery quality.

Apple made some strides in this department with last year’s iPhone 6 Plus, because it’s easier to pack more batteries into a larger phablet-style device, and the same runs true for this year’s iPhone 6s Plus. Running Geekbench 3’s Battery Test with the screen dimmed, the 6s Plus managed a respectable 7:48:10 run time for a battery score of 4681. There’s an easy day of battery life in the iPhone 6s Plus.

What if, like me, you’re not so much a fan of larger phones?

I’ve got some bad news for you. In the same test, a brand new iPhone 6s only managed a relatively paltry 3:52:10 for a battery score of 2321.

Ouch. That’s not good in the “premium” space, any way you slice it, and my own usage also reflected the iPhone 6s’ inability to particularly run for a whole day. Yes, there’s been some controversy over which A9 chip you get, with some claiming the TMSC A9 has better battery performance than (ironically) the Samsung A9, although Apple denies this. I will give Apple this; Low Power Mode in iOS9 makes a lot more sense to me than the smartphone lobotomising power saving modes of many other competing devices. But you can get Low Power mode in older devices that still support iOS 9.

Still, battery life is something Apple’s needed to address for years, and it still hasn’t.

Worth upgrading if you’re a 6 Owner: No
Worth upgrading if you’re an older iPhone owner: You’re not getting anything “better” — but probably not anything “worse”, either. Let’s call it a draw.
Worth upgrading if you’re an Android owner: Probably not, although Low Power mode is the best iteration of a battery saver I’ve seen to date.

Conclusions: Is it worth upgrading?

The iPhone 6s and 6s Plus still have some distinct advantages in their DNA that make them compelling prospects. App developers seem to flock to Apple first in terms of releases, and the stronger hold over apps generally means that the iOS version of a given app is a little smoother than its Android equivalent, although that’s not always true. Equally, many iOS users are very comfortable in the iOS environment, and the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus are the latest and “best” iPhones to date.

That being said, there’s nothing here that I couldn’t have said in previous years. If you only upgraded last year from to an iPhone 6 or iPhone 6 Plus, there’s not really enough here to justify dropping more than $1,000 on a new smartphone.

If you’re coming from an older iPhone generation, then the differences are more stark, and it’s a worthwhile upgrade. Just don’t expect any battery life miracles.

If you’re coming from Android, leaving aside ecosystem differences, you’ve got some tough choices to make. The iPhone 6s and 6s Plus are nice handsets, but there’s some very easy Android equivalents, many of which are markedly cheaper than even the entry level 16GB iPhone 6s.

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