Deep dive review: The iPhone 6S Plus delivers the goods

Top-notch performance, better cameras and the arrival of 3D Touch make it a great choice.

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Better camera systems

The new iPhones both sport cameras with notably better specs. The rear iSight camera can now shoot 12-megapixel images with 1.22 micron-pixels, and can now shoot panoramas up to 63 megapixels. Otherwise, things are pretty much the same as last year.

In the Camera app, there are options for burst mode and timer photos, and there is still fast autofocus with Focus Pixels, plus face detection and geotags. HDR mode remains a great option if the background and foreground offer too much contrast in light, and the True Tone flash -- for better color matching in low light -- is still here. Don't be surprised to see a lot of noise in low-light photography, though.

Video recording has been beefed up, including a new 4K video mode (that's a resolution of 3840 x 2160 at 30fps). To push 4K video even further, Apple updated iMovie for Mac and iOS to support 4K video editing. Of course, the option to shoot 1080p video remains at 30fps or 60fps, depending on your preference. And there is now cinematic video stabilization for 1080p and 720p shooting modes, and the ability to take 8MP images while recording 4K video.

Video recording still has continuous autofocus, face detection and True Tone flash. Slow-motion video is also supported: 120fps at 1080p or 240fps at 720p. It's here where I'm most disappointed; I was hoping for 240fps at 1080p -- maybe next year.

It's fair to say that the iPhone 6S Plus' rear camera has everything that made last year's model so nice for photography and video, but it also shares the same wart: The camera lens still protrudes from the rear of the iPhone, causing the phone to rock slightly when it's on its back. The sapphire lens cover ensures that no scratches blemish your shots.

The iPhone 6S Plus has optical image stabilization for photos and videos (unlike the iPhone 6S) and it does make a significant difference, especially in video -- for instance, it minimizes the usually jarring effect of walking while shooting.

The front camera also received a major upgrade including a flash -- but not the kind of flash you'd think. There is a chip in the new iPhones that let the display "flash" up to three times brighter than in normal operation. It's clever, it solves a problem, and it does so without modifying the iPhone's case.

In addition, the front camera now shoots 5-megapixel photos, up from last year's 1.2 megapixels.

Performance and battery life

The new iPhones sport a third-generation 64-bit chipset made by either TMSC or Samsung. Apple asserts that both new iPhone 6S models offer a 70% increase in CPU speed as well as a 90% increase in GPU performance compared to last year's models. It certainly stacks up well against Android devices that, on paper at least, should be faster.

What does that mean in the real world? For me: I recognized that this model was fast almost immediately. There really isn't any hesitation moving from one task to the other -- animations cleanly transition and items load without the slight hesitation I saw in previous models, especially when switching between apps. The data is pretty much already loaded by the time the app switching animation is finished. You're no longer waiting for the app to catch up when you switch back to it. This is especially noticeable with Safari, which does not have to reload a Web page like it used to when you switched back to it.

The cause for this much smoother UI could be that this is the first iPhone to ship with 2GB of RAM. This may not seem like much to Android users -- some Android devices ship with 4GB of memory -- but on the iPhone, the additional memory makes a huge difference in real world use and performance.

Speaking of performance, Apple's Touch ID feature has received a hardware update and the result is incredibly fast scanning times. How fast? With the iPhone 6 and 5S, if I wanted to check the time on the lock screen, I would press the Home button to turn on the display. If I wanted to log into the phone, I would leave my thumb on the Home button a split second longer, and within a second from the initial press, the Home Screen would appear. On the iPhone 6S Plus, pressing the Home Button to activate the screen brings up the Home Screen before the display has finished lighting up.

One thing I really like about the Plus is that I don't have to worry about battery life. I'm on my phone more than most throughout the day and the iPhone 6S Plus lasts hours longer than what I became accustomed to with the iPhone 6. For the first time in years -- for the first time since the invention of the smartphone -- I haven't had to worry about battery life. I'm ending my days with 30% battery life or more, when I would run out with the iPhone 6.


Prices and storage capacities haven't changed. Subsidized service plans with a two-year contract offer the iPhone 6S for $199 for the 16GB model, $299 for the 64GB model and $399 for the 128GB model. The iPhone 6S Plus is priced at $299 for the 16GB model, $399 for the 64GB model, and $499 for the 128GB model, subsidized.

Carriers are shifting gears in an effort to entice smartphone customers to sign up with them, as has Apple. More and more carriers seem to be moving away from subsidized pricing in an effort to keep customers by making it easier to upgrade every year. This can result in a bit of sticker shock -- for example, without a subsidized plan, the iPhone 6S Plus starts at $649 for the 16GB model.

To ease the pain, Apple is offering a new upgrade program it rolled out this year, a move that prompted Samsung to follow suit. The iPhone Upgrade Program starts at $32.41/month over 24 months (though you have the option to turn in the phone for a newer model after 12 payments). The plan also offers AppleCare+ coverage for two years, which includes hardware support, coverage for two incidents of accidental damage and screen replacements.

Bottom line

The new iPhones do something remarkable: They leapfrog last year's models in every measurable and meaningful way while rocketing to the top of the smartphone performance wars. In other words, if cutting-edge technology, high-end style and top-notch build quality are important -- and for most buyers considering an iPhone, they are -- the new iPhones hit all the marks. They also provide a stable platform with regular and predictable annual updates, so the OS fragmentation that's seen as an issue with Android devices is less of concern for iOS devices.

That may not be enough to tempt Android owners to jump ship, but the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus certainly give current iPhone owners enough new features to consider upgrading -- even if they bought a new iPhone last year.

Every year, Apple is tasked with one-upping itself. Some years represent more of a jump than others; this may be one of the best.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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