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The iPhone 6S Plus delivers the goods

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

Apple’s new iPhone 6S Plus looks just like last year’s 6 Plus — but looks in this case are highly deceiving. While the 2014 model represented a major new step in design and performance, this year’s version, which arrived on Sept. 25, delivers changes to just about everything you can’t see.

Existing features of the 6S Plus (and its smaller sibling, the 6S) have been improved and there are even a few groundbreaking features thrown in for good measure.

Unlike the 2014 iPhone launch, when numerous issues — including anunstable iOS 8, a botched software update that killed cellular coverage for some iPhone 6 models, and, ugh, “Bendgate” — put a damper on things, this year’s rollout went smoothly. Apple reported that it sold over 13 million iPhones in the first weekend of retail sales; the iOS 9 update has been generally responsive and stable; and, only a few weeks after release, Apple asserted that over 50% of iPhone users had the latest version installed on their devices and that over 13 million phones were sold in the weekend following the launch.

Look and feel

The iPhone 6S Plus looks just like its predecessor: A smooth aluminum casing curves to meet the glass-covered front with the display framed in white or black; for the case, you now have the choice of Rose Gold along with the previous colors of Space Gray, Silver and Gold.

The Home button, which also doubles as the Touch ID fingerprint scanner, still sits centered at the bottom of the display. The power button remains on the right side, with volume buttons and a mute switch on the left. The latest models are slightly heavier and slightly thicker: The 6 Plus was 0.28 in. thick and weighed 6.07 oz. while the 6S Plus is 0.29 in. thick and weighs 6.77 oz. It’s not much, but you can feel the difference. (The iPhone 6S is now 0.28 in., which is .01 in. more than last year’s model, and weighs 5.04 oz., as compared to last year’s 4.55 oz.)

The new case uses 7000 Series aluminum and has been strengthened at the points where last year’s models were susceptible to bending.

Apple also used a dual ion-exchange process on the glass for the new display that, Apple execs say, increases the strength. The glass shields a 4.7 in. (for the 6S) or 5.5 in. (for the 6S Plus) Retina display, with 1334 x 750 pixels at 326 pixels per inch (PPI) crammed into the smaller display, and 1920 x 1080 pixels at 401 PPI in the larger iPhone. I was able to compare my iPhone 6S Plus to a 6S owned by a co-worker; both are bright and show off a great range of colors without overdoing saturation.

Working in concert with updated software and a brand new Taptic Engine is the 3D Touch function. 3D Touch isn’t new to Apple; it debuted earlier this year on the Watch as Force Touch and on Apple’s MacBook and MacBook Pro laptop trackpads. It’s an effective way to interact with the iPhone: Any type of pressure on the glass is measured by the capacitive sensors, and specific actions can be triggered based on how hard you press down.

And it’s cleverly integrated throughout the operating system. (Note: 3D Touch is a feature only available on the new iPhones. iOS 9 may run on the previous generations, but only the new phones support this feature, which Apple is specifically touting in new TV ads.)

3D Touch in-depth

There are a variety of scenarios in which 3D Touch can make a difference. Let’s say you want to message a friend. The usual steps are tap to open the Messages app; go back a step to the main friend list; scroll through the list; tap the friend; type the message. To do the same on an iPhone with 3D Touch, you press firmly on the Messages icon on the Home Screen, and a list of the three friends you last messaged appears; below the list is an option to start a new message.

If you want to mark your parking spot, you normally tap to open the Maps app; tap the triangle to the lower left to get a lock on your position; tap to the lower right to open the Options drawer; and then tap Drop a Pin to mark your location. With 3D Touch, you press firmly on the Maps app on the Home Screen and tap Mark My Location. Done. (There are also quick shortcuts for Search Nearby, Send My Location and Directions Home.)

Apple’s done selfie-takers a solid with this one. To take a selfie shot from the Home Screen in an iPhone without 3D Touch, you tap open the Camera app, swipe to Photo mode, tap on the Switch Camera toggle at the upper right, and then tap the shutter button. With 3D Touch, you press firmly on the Camera app on the Home Screen and select Take Selfie. (Other options include Record Video, Record Slo-mo and Take Photo.)

Most of the apps that come with the iPhone have support for 3D Touch from the Home Screen and each is contextually sensitive: Calendar will let you quickly add an event, Safari will let you start a Private browsing session immediately and the Phone app lets you call your top three favorites. Third-party apps are now starting to support this feature, including Instagram and Facebook. (The latter’s quick shortcuts include taking a photo/video, uploading an existing photo/video and a quick link for writing a post.)

Peek, Pop and other 3D Touch features

3D Touch brings with it a number of other new features.

First off, there’s Peek and Pop — and despite the cutesy names, they are pretty powerful new actions. Peek lets you view the contents of an email or text message from its respective list without actually having to open the message.

To activate Peek, apply a bit more pressure to the item you want to see in that list; the iPhone will give haptic feedback to acknowledge the press and a preview of the item will appear. If this is something that requires no further attention, ease up on the pressure and the window will slide into the list again so you can continue scrolling.

By swiping up on the Peek view, you can see related actions: Swiping up in Messages will let you “Mark as Read” or send a quick or custom message; in Mail, swiping lets you reply, forward or mark or move a message, or set up notifications for that email thread.

Pop is simply full screen mode to Peek’s preview. Press a little harder and the content expands to fit the entire display, with the haptic feedback to accompany it.

I found Peek and Pop to be quite useful, especially in text messages. I’m always receiving links to interesting videos or interesting websites from friends. Peek and Pop let me check out what they send without actually leaving the Messages app. And if the content truly is interesting, then I press the screen a little harder and the content takes over what I was doing. Peek and Pop also work in Safari, letting you preview websites before committing to the link. It’s brilliant.

3D Touch can also be used to switch apps. Start by pressing firmly on the left side of the screen; dragging a bit to the right will bring up the App Switcher and firmly swiping all the way to the right switches to the last app.

When editing text, a deep press on the keyboard enables trackpad mode, which lets you place the cursor exactly where you want quickly and accurately. Also, moving the cursor over a word and then pressing firmly again will highlight that word; pressing firmly twice selects a block of text. You can drag your finger up and down to select and highlight more text.

Interestingly, while there are quite a few areas in which you can find 3D Touch, there is a curious spot where you can’t. While on the Apple Watch, you can clear out every Notification at once with a firm press on the Notifications screen, you can’t do that on the iPhone. You still have to close Notifications by hand. That’s not a deal-breaker by any stretch, but it would be nice to activate a Clear All via firm press.

There are all sorts of ways to take advantage of 3D Touch, and it’s not just limited to built-in apps. Developers can also use the tech for their games, and there are drawing apps that change the sketch based on the pressure you use while you draw. Under Wallpaper in Settings, there are now nine choices in the Live section, six of which are beta fish in three black and three white backgrounds; the remaining three are variations of clouds/smoke. Select any of these for the lock screen and they’ll animate when pressed.

Live Photos

That brings us to Live Photos. When this feature is enabled — by tapping the circle icon dead center on the top of the Camera app — and you take a still image, the phone also records video and audio from a second-and-a-half before you took the picture and a second-and-a-half after. When you press on the photo that was created with Live Photo, the result is something straight out of Harry Potter: Photos that animate a bit before settling back into a still image.

In practice, the effect is sometimes really cool — other times, it’s clear that the video isn’t at the same resolution as the image and the 15 frames-per-second (fps) video comes across choppy and jumpy. In my initial look at the iPhone 6S Plus, I said that I wished Live Photos were 24fps and a little higher quality. After spending more time with the feature, I also wish the transition used wasn’t a fade/dissolve. It’s too jarring, given the high quality of the images and video the new iPhone is capable of.

One last thing: Live Photos can be used on the lock screen and, like Apple’s Live Wallpapers, can be animated with a press. Also, if you’re on an iPhone and receive a Live Photo — say, from a text message or email — you can still see the animation by pressing and holding the photo even if you don’t have 3D Touch.

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

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 devicesis 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.

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