So another year passes us by marked with the release of Apple’s latest iPhone, the 6s. You almost get the feeling this annual ritual is the new Holiday Season, celebrated in glorious Apple style (reality distortion) and lovely Apple color (white – although this year with a dash of pink, oh excuse me, that would be “rose gold”).
So what’ new and different? According to Apple, “The only thing that’s changed is everything!” And how good is it? According to virtually everyone else: “The new 6s is the best iPhone ever!”
In fairness, the 6s is the best iPhone ever. Obviously. I mean come on, did you think that Phil Schiller would walk out on stage and proclaim “Here’s the new iPhone 6s, the second best iPhone we’ve ever made!” Or that Jony Ive would address the adoring audience by saying “Meet the new iPhone, almost as good as last year’s iPhone!” Of course it’s the best ever. Every year they get better, faster and more refined in every way.
But amid the hyperbole surrounding the launch and the usual crush of adoring reviews, let’s take a step back and ask a simple and honest question: how good is it really?
First let me say that I own the new 6s, in space gray with 128GB. In fact I’ve owned each and every iPhone. Every year I buy either on launch day or the day after. I obsessively study every detail of these devices. It’s safe to say I know my iPhones inside and out.
With that said here’s my conclusion: the iPhone 6s is indeed very good, excellent in fact. However, when I consider the new 6s in comparison with last year’s 6 and even the ones before that, I reach a more telling conclusion:
Taken in context with iPhones that came before, the new 6s seems rather insipid, unexciting, and frankly just not very special There, I said it, and sometimes bold and even heretical statements like this need to be said. I’ll try to explain why, starting at the very beginning.
The Purchase Experience
Apple prides itself in their customer’s overall ownership experience, and this begins with purchase. Apple pours massive effort into every iPhone launch event. As I mentioned earlier each year I buy right on launch, and this year is the first time I can honestly say the experience was notably worse than before.
Last Time: Massive Lines & Personal Pickup
Last year, for the totally revamped 6, the lines were enormous. I avoided all of that: early on the morning after launch (Saturday) I leisurely opened up the Apple Store app on my 5s and punched in an order for Personal Pickup at my local store (the Lenox Mall store in Atlanta). At 3:00PM that same afternoon I received a notification that my new iPhone 6 was ready. I went to the store, the lines were still massive stretching all the way down to the other end of the mall. I walked to the front of the line and flashed my Personal Pickup receipt. They warmly greeted me (by name), immediately ushered me in to the store, walked over to a stack of phones awaiting pickup and returned with my new iPhone 6 (my name printed and affixed on the box). They handed it to me and said “please open it and turn it on.” I did: the new phone was automatically activated, the old phone was instantly deactivated – like magic. From the moment I entered the Mall to the moment I left was 12 minutes.
This Time: Shorter Lines & Reservations
Now contrast with this year. I employed the same procedure as last year, using the Apple Store app to buy a 6s early Saturday morning after launch day. No Personal Pickup offered this time, so I made an In-Store Reservation with a specific time slot of 1:30-2:00PM. At the appointed time I showed up at the Lenox Mall store only to be directed to a line, not as long as the regular walkup line but long nonetheless, this second line being for those who had reserved their phones like I did. 30 minutes later I finally get inside the store. I choose to pay in full, it takes another 10 minutes for the Apple store employee to fetch my new phone and then he instructs me to drive over to nearest AT&T store to get my phone activated. That seemed strange. So I asked another employee: they said I should just swap the SIM cards. I even asked a 3rd one. They said I should call AT&T for instructions on how to activate my new 6s from home.
At the Apple Stores, what was once magical is now marginal (at best)Of course, I knew the simple answer is just swap out the SIM card with the old phone (the newer nano SIMs from the iPhone 5 onward allow that). In fact, over the next week I even went to two more Apple stores in two different cities curious to see what story they’d tell me about activation and sure enough, I got two different answers, a right one and a wrong one.
When you deal with Apple you don’t expect things to go backwards. But after years of steady improvement, this year the in-store purchasing experience deteriorated significantly.
But what about the actual phone?
Speed & Performance
The new 6s has a screaming fast A9 processor. Benchmarks all show it beats most if not all of the competition, and it’s certainly much faster than last year’s A8, up to twice as fast. As we all know, S-model iPhones are always quicker than their predecessors, and this year is no exception. Empirically, it’s much faster.
But performance tests are not the point, what really matters is speed in hand. Does the increase in processor speed translate to a similar increase in actual speed as you’re using the device in an every day setting?
Sadly, the answer is that it doesn’t feel that much faster. Sure, games and graphic-intensive apps will work more smoothly now. But apps don’t open twice as fast and in general things don’t happen twice as fast. In fact, for most mundane activities you do on your phone you might be hard pressed to tell the difference between the 6s and the 6.
In-hand, the 6s doesn’t feel radically faster than the 6Part of the reason is Apple’s infatuation with animation and interface effects they’ve splattered all over iOS in recent years. Those swooshes, slides and zooms in and out of apps may look cool, but they effectively truncate the performance you experience in hand. It’s like having a Ferrari and putting a governor on it, at 55mph no less. I always disable animations as much as possible (e.g. Settings / Accessibility / Reduce Motion = On). This helps, but still that screaming A9 processor is effectively (and unfortunately) being throttled by UI trickery. I wish they’d give users an option to turn more of that off.
Also, out of the gate the new iOS 9 exhibits some minor stutters and hiccups from time to time as you click on apps. The good news is these are nothing more than minor software issues which I’m sure Apple will fix in upcoming iOS updates, they always do.
But for whatever reason, the net result is that in normal use the 6s doesn’t feel radically faster than the 6. Sure, it’s a little quicker in some areas (e.g. Safari) , but in general not the kind of increase that will blow you away. People like me appreciate (and buy) every drop of incremental speed they can get. But in hand, it’s really just a marginal uptick from last year.
Now Touch ID is one area where the speed is absolutely much faster and definitely noticeable. Fingerprint scans are nearly instantaneous, the phone gets unlocked effectively just by pressing the home button. No need to press and hold, you’re in immediately.
Now this is the kind of performance increase I can use! If only it was this noticeably faster across the board!
The 6s has a camera. It takes pictures and videos. They are very nice pictures and videos. They are bigger (e.g. 12 megapixels vs. 8) than last year’s pictures and videos. Last year’s iPhone 6 also took nice pictures and videos. With measuring equipment you can quantify that the new iPhone 6s camera is better (many reviewers have). But with your eye, you probably can’t.
Most pics and vids people take with their iPhones are purposely spontaneous, ephemeral and disposable. The new 6s doesn’t dramatically enhance that in any meaningful way. This year with the iPhone 6s you can take great pics. Last year with the iPhone 6 you could also take great pics. The game is not much changed.
It’s identical. Alright, not exactly. Technically it’s a little thicker (0.2mm), wider (0.2mm) and a few grams (14) heavier, and it feels just a bit more substantial in your hand. I kind of like that extra substance. But really, it’s the same form factor. Nobody is going to see your 6s and ask “is that the new iPhone?”
Unless it’s the new pink one. Oh right, that’s “rose gold.”
OK let’s call bullshit on this once and for all. Apple can call this new color whatever they want. But it bears no resemblance to real rose gold at all. The thing is pink. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Let me be perfectly clear: what I find annoying is the pretentious name, not the actual hue.
Color aside, there was a time when an iPhone launch was a revolutionary and quantum leap forward in terms of form factor and design. That is no longer the case. Other vendors are routinely introducing significant new design elements e.g. the Samsung Edge or Nexus 6 (although admittedly with mixed degrees of success), but Apple is essentially doing the same old – both on the hardware (the 6s) and even the software (iOS 9).
So now we arrive at the crowning new technology introduced with the new iPhone 6s. 3D Touch is a big deal: it’s the marquee new feature that Apple undoubtedly spent a long time and massive effort to develop.
3D Touch is a marvel. It’s perfectly and exquisitely well executed. It works extremely well in every detail down to the haptic feedback it gives to acknowledge your slightly more forceful press to activate the feature.
3D Touch is undeniably a beautiful, elegant piece of innovative technology. However, I just don’t think it’s all that useful. In fact, I rarely – if ever – use it.
There are three main reasons why I’m finding that 3D Touch isn’t particularly useful.
Reason #1: The Flow
First, 3D Touch entails a different “flow” than the usual touches and long-presses one does on a touch screen. Over time you tend to get very good at blazing around on your phone’s screen, usually giving only the slightest glancing touches, taps and swipes as your manual dexterity improves. I usually navigate the screen with an extremely light touch, never pounding or pecking hard, just lightly tapping around in rapid succession.
The harder press to activate 3D Touch breaks that light touch flow, like hitting a speed bump. In fact, sometimes you end up doing a long-press rather than a 3D touch, so you have to press hard again to properly activate the 3D Touch feature you wanted.
Further, many of the “peeks” you produce with 3D touch you can be had just as easily and quickly with an actual touch and then an immediate swipe left/right to return (e.g. you can use 3D Touch to peek a Safari link vs. you can touch/open it and then swipe right to return to the original page). Sure, in Settings you can adjust the 3D Touch sensitivity, but a touch + swipe is always lighter (and often even faster).
Reason #2: One-Handed Operation
Second, if you use your phone one-handed, 3D Touch results in a markedly reduced effective area. Meaning, you can readily 3D Touch the area where the palm of your hand is firmly behind the phone where you’re hard-pressing. But if you try to 3D Touch on the outer areas, for example toward the top of your phone, you may not have good support on the back side, potentially causing the phone to flip out of your hand (and catastrophically onto the floor).
When operating one-handed, there’s effectively a “3D Touch sweet spot” area around the bottom of your phone where you’re gripping it securely. Certainly, within that sweet spot area 3D Touch can make for an even better one-handed operation, for example to speed dial one of your favorites or quickly respond to a recent text thread. But outside of that sweet spot, 3D Touch can be somewhat unwieldy and even a little perilous when doing it one-handed.
Reason #3: Context Menus
The third and last reason: for all the technical prowess of 3D Touch, the bottom line is that the context menus it produces aren’t all that helpful. Of course this is purely a software issue and there’s no doubt that Apple and 3rd party developers will take more advantage of 3D Touch in the future. But in the here and now, 3D Touch short cuts really don’t streamline your navigation all that much: they typically show 3-4 choices, and the ones shown often aren’t the ones you’re looking for.
In short, and to paraphrase (and shamelessly mangle) Mr. Churchill:
Regarding 3D Touch: rarely has so much technology been so well executed to produce so little added value
Meet the New Boss. Same as the Old Boss.
As I said, I own the 6s. I like it and I’m happy with it. And from a technical specification perspective, the 6s is undeniably an excellent, powerful device with impressive internals.
But in terms of the actual experience you get in hand using it day after day, it’s essentially the same phone as last year’s 6. It’s a little bit quicker here or there. It has a few extra niceties (fast Touch ID, improved camera, 3D Touch). But taken together that’s hardly the kind of stuff that stirs the senses or provokes outbursts of emotion. There’s just no wow factor here, or anywhere near here.
The iPhone 6s is simply a nice iPhone – and yes, it’s the best one ever – but nothing more.