First look: The new iPhone 6S Plus impresses

The latest iPhones from Apple may look like last year's models, but that's a disguise; they deliver major changes in hardware

The latest iPhones from Apple -- the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus -- are finally in customers' hands -- including my own 128GB Space Gray iPhone 6S Plus. Unlike last year, I went for the larger of the two phones, and I'm glad I did.

This year's release -- unveiled by Apple on Sept. 9 and finally available to customers on Friday -- is the second generation to feature the 4.7-in. and 5.5-in. displays. Although they're ever so slightly larger and heavier, by and large the new models look just like their predecessors, although there is a new "Rose Gold" color.

Rose Gold iPhone 6S Plus Ken Mingis

This year's iPhone's look just like last year's -- with one exception. They're now offered in Rose Gold, in addition to Space Gray, Silver and Gold. (This is the 6S Plus.)

Other than appearance, the new iPhone 6S models are completely different. From the use of a new 7000 Series aluminum alloy to help create a sturdier, less bendable casing to updated cameras, a faster Touch ID system, and pressure-sensitive multitouch display, the latest iPhone represents more than a typical evolutionary update. No wonder Apple is saying early sales will break past records.

The iPhone 6S is faster, too; a lot faster. Last year's iPhone offered a significant performance leap over its predecessor, and that change was perceptible in even normal use. This year's model offers an even bigger jump, due to the improvements in Apple's custom-built A9 processor and the increase from 1GB of internal memory to 2GB. Apple says the new chip is 70% faster than last year's, and graphics are 90% faster. It certainly feels like it in routine use.

There is a lot to discuss concerning the new iPhones, much of which I'll detail in my formal review after I've spent serious time with my new phone. But there's a number of things I've noticed about this new model right off the bat, all of them good.

Size matters

When I chose the iPhone 6 over the 6 Plus last year, I did so because I didn't think I'd really enjoy carrying around the larger phone. After spending some time with a 6 Plus, however, I realized how wrong I was. I quickly grew accustomed to the Plus' larger display, and going back to my own, smaller iPhone 6 at the end of the review period felt like going back to the iPhone 5. I missed that screen.

This year I bought the iPhone 6S Plus -- doing what many would-be buyers did and ordering online at 3 a.m. on Sept. 12. The 6S Plus is definitely heavier than the iPhone 6 I'm accustomed to -- and it's 20 grams heavier than the model it's replacing. But it isn't anything that can't be tolerated, and that weight is a necessary trade-off for the new haptic engine and pressure-sensitive screen in the new phones. Plus, the finish on the case is still top notch: gorgeous to look at, and the device feels good in hand.

That pressure-sensitive display, one of the real advances in this year's models, wouldn't be anything without clever software support. That support, built into iOS 9, allowed Apple to introduce 3D Touch.

3D Touch in use

3D Touch is groundbreaking. In addition to the the usual swiping and tapping on the screen, you now get more features by pressing a little harder. A light press -- a Peek" -- brings up one set of options; a firmer press -- a "Pop" -- allows even more. Right now, it's used mainly for accessing shortcuts in apps right from the Home Screen (which saves you a step or two by immediately jumping right to the app functionality you wanted). It's also used for switching between applications.

3D Touch Ken Mingis

3D Touch pops up a new menu when you press on an app's icon -- what Apple calls a "Peek." Press down harder and you have even more options.

Peek and Pop, which are Apple's terms for the different options available preview and open items, respectively, in apps like Mail. But it's not all about navigation. There's also a fun implementation of 3D Touch on the Lock Screen. Choose any of Apple's Live wallpapers and when you press down on the Lock Screen, the image comes to life and then reverts back when your finger is lifted. It's very cool.

In general, 3D Touch is very well implemented, but you can tell its potential isn't yet being fully tapped. I can't wait to see where this goes once third-party developers add it to their apps. (Out of the box, 3D Touch features were only implemented in Apple's own apps, though this will change now that the iPhones are in customers' hands.)

Live Photos

The same effect is used in the new Live Photo feature. When turned on, still images that you capture on the phone include a bit of video from just before you took the picture, and just after. Then when you press on the still image, it springs to life, showing movement and sound.

I've seen various reviews, both positive and negative, for Live Photo, and after spending the afternoon hiking and taking photos and video, I can understand why. The feature is hit or miss. Sometimes, a picture looks great -- and the video that's recorded a second-and-a-half before and after the photo is taken creates something straight out of Harry Potter when you press the display. At other times, it's evident that the Live Photo animated portion isn't at the same resolution as the image, and at 15 frames per second the motion is a bit jumpy.

I wish Live Photo supported 24 frames per second at a higher resolution, but I suspect this is a feature that will improve over time. In the meantime, it's easy to wow friends by showing them a Live Photo — but only the good ones.

Live wallpapers Ken Mingis

The new Live Wallpapers provided by Apple for the new iPhone 6S and 6S Plus move when you press on them in the Lock Screen.

New cameras

Both cameras in the new iPhones have been updated. The rear facing camera is now a 12-megapixel model, and it works great with the built-in optical image and video stabilization. They really make a noticeable difference. Footsteps as you're recording video on the go are less jarring, resulting in videos that don't bounce around as much. And the new camera can shoot in 4K. Not surprisingly, video taken using the iPhone 6S' camera looks stunning on this display.

The front-facing camera has also been upgraded to 5 megapixels. And to make taking those higher-quality selfies even better, the phone will light up the display screen to act as a pseudo-flash.

Touch ID

Finally, I have found Touch ID to be really fast. Super fast. Even though I wear the Apple Watch, sometimes I reach over out of pure habit and hit the Home button to see the time on the iPhone's Lock Screen. (It's an old habit that's difficult to break.) But the TouchID sensor in the new iPhones is so fast that the display is turned on a split second after I touch the Home button. By then the Home Screen has already flown into view and I've missed the chance to see the actual time.

The speed improvement is very impressive, because I didn't find Touch ID to be slow before. The improvements will be particularly welcome for those who use Apple Pay.

One related note for new iPhone 6S owners: There seems to be a bug in iOS 9 that can cause a brief lag after you log into the phone. I've noticed it a couple of times for my first two days of use; other owners have seen it more often.

Final thoughts

Of course, I'll have a better feel for how these new iPhones perform after spending another week or so with my 6S Plus. But it's immediately clear that the difference in quality and performance across the board this year is astounding. Apple routinely improves on the iPhone's features and performance year in and year out, regardless of whether a new case design is part of the equation. But this year's advances go beyond the expected evolutionary changes you'd expect.

If you have any phone prior to last year's model and are considering an upgrade, you should absolutely consider the iPhone 6S or 6S Plus. And even if you have last year's models, the arrival of 3D Touch, better cameras and faster hardware will make this a tempting purchase.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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