Just as we expected, Apple announced the next versions of its best-selling smartphones, the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, at its annual launch event in San Francisco. Also as we expected, the iPhone 6S looks identical to last year's 4.7-inch iPhone 6, reserving its most important alterations for the hardware interior.
The biggest, and most noticeable change to this year's set of phones is "3D Touch," a pressure-sensitive display technology that lets you push in to do new things on your phone. After getting a chance to check out the new iPhone 6S and 6S Plus briefly at Apple's San Francisco event, these were our impressions.
The same stick that some use to beat iPhone fans still exists: yes, visually this is almost identical to last year's redesigned iPhone 6, with the same ceramic metal feel and slightly protruding camera that means you can place it side by side with the iPhone 6 and not really notice the difference. The only marginal change is the additional thickness, very likely included to accommodate the new 3D Touch technology on the screen. Compared to other phones on the market the iPhone 6S still manages to mix that feeling of premium build with a light and thin phone – it's a joy to hold. Apple's nod to the improved build with reinforced 7000 series aluminium is clearly a direct result of the iPhone 6's "Bendgate," in which the phone was discovered to be slightly prone to changing shape if pressure was applied. While Apple doesn't need sympathy, it was still a bit harsh that it got singled out for this issue when many other handsets could also bend if you tried.
Apple has included a variation of Force Touch, which you find in different capacities on the Apple Watch and on some Mac trackpads. Called 3D Touch here, the iPhone 6S phones will adopt the same pressure-sensitive capability that calls up secondary menus and actions when you press and hold the screen. Another use is to access shortcuts from the home screen for your most frequent actions, say messaging a friend. And if you're in your email inbox, applying fingertip pressure to an element in the message will surface more information, like maybe the flight number on an emailed travel itinerary, for instance. (Apple called this concept "peeking in" during the live demo.) Pressing harder on an app will likewise generate more options, like viewing all the photos of a contact's Instagram photo stream. In the context of a game, pressing harder could zoom you in to get closer to the action. We're not sure why Force Touch was rebranded as 3D Touch, and it's not necessarily a clearer term for what it does. After using it for a bit, though, it's undoubtedly something you'd want on every smartphone, all things being equal. In a couple of years, it seems like it would become as standard as multitouch is today. But the way it feels ends up coming across as pretty subtle. Menus gently pop up, photos slowly come alive. Like on the Apple Watch, the Taptic Engine haptics, which control the phone's buzzes and vibrations, emits more of a gentle pulse than a jarring vibration. Pressing in didn't cause a realistic, hard mechanical "click" in the same way that the new MacBook trackpads do. Instead, the implementation seems designed to feel invisible and comfortable, not weirdly magical.
The expected upgrade from the iPhone 6's camera has arrived: the iPhone 6S has a 12MP snapper and it looks like it'll deliver in spades. The need to jump in megapixels was rarely warranted for a brand beyond the need to impress consumers with higher numbers, but this year things are starting to jump forward. The new Live Photo option, which takes a 1.5 second photo either side of the shot, feels more like a gimmick than a really useful option. You have to remember to activate it, but it's really impressive that it doesn't seem to affect the shutter speed – it should take a while either side, but it buffers while you're taking the picture.
Apple's A9 chipset
As per usual, Apple's thrown in an upgraded chipset in the shape of the A9, and as expected it brings with it a number of changes. The phone will run faster and the gaming experience will, once again, be better than anything we've ever seen. It's a 64-bit architecture, which means some efficiency when opening and closing apps (although their size is larger and therefore take up more space on the phone, which makes Apple's decision to keep the 16GB variant of the phone all the more infuriating). That 64-bit system still can't be used properly as we don't have the necessary 4GB of RAM needed to make use of it. Word is, it has another 1GB of RAM from last year, with 2GB now powering things nicely under the hood and creating a decent snap under the finger – along with making games and apps run that much more smoothly at the same time. It might not seem like much of an upgrade, but I bet it blitzes the iPhone 6 (and especially the iPhone 5S) in the speed tests.
The two new iPhones will run on iOS 9, mining all of those software enhancements, like a smarter Siri and up to three hours longer battery life, plus a new Low Power Mode. The updated operating system, which is currently in public beta, will arrive for phones on September 16.
Pricing and availability
The iPhone 6S and its 5.5-inch twin, the 6S Plus, will be open for reorder on September 12, with phones arriving in stores around the globe on September 25. In the US, the 16GB version costs $650 outright and $100 on contract (see monthly instalment pricing below). The 64GB version goes for $750 outright, and $200 on contract, and the 128GB model costs $850 all-in and the same $200 on contract (carrier contract rates may vary, so check yours for the final word). In the UK, the iPhone 6S costs £539 (16GB), £619 (64GB) and £699 (128GB). In contrast, the 6S Plus will go for £619, £699 and £789, respectively. In Australia, the iPhone 6S costs AU$1,079 (16GB), AU$1,229 (64GB) and AU$1,379 (128GB). The 6S Plus will go for AU$1,229, AU$1,379 and AU$1,529, respectively.