VERDICT / Were it not for its uncomfortable heft, the iPhone 6s Plus would be the best phone on the market. If you can get over its size, its rich capabilities will have you grinning.
But even in a big pair of hands, this phone is comically large. Were its size not such an obstacle, we’d happily place the iPhone 6s Plus ahead of its squatter sibling; as it is, it’s still the best iOS phablet around.
These days, it seems every flagship smartphone we review is a phablet. Motorola’s new Moto X Pure Edition, the OnePlus 2, the LG G4, Samsung’s Galaxy Note5 – big-screen phones are dominating store shelves and online marketplaces. Like it or not, it seems that 5.5 inches is the new normal.
The iPhone 6s Plus would have been ludicrously large two years ago, but now it’s just a big phone. The problem is that other big phones have sculpted their designs to mold to our hands; the 6s Plus remains a very uncomfortable slab. It has a 5.5-inch display, yet it is wider and taller than competing phones with 5.7-inch screens. The rounded edges, so easy to hold on the smaller iPhone 6s, seem to cut into your palms here. That’s not a fault of the edges; rather, the lack of rounded back cover prevents the 6s Plus from nestling in your palm and overemphasizes the phone’s massive scale. Put a cover on the thing – something you want to do lest it slip from your fingers – and it graduates from large to outrageous.
If you’re okay with its size, though, the phone is absolutely worth it. Like the iPhone 6s, the 6s Plus doesn’t pack the same number of pixels as its competition – with a 1080p screen, it doesn’t have the same pixel density as 1440p phones like the LG G4 – but we never missed those absent pixels. The display is sharp, accurate and vibrant, and though it doesn’t have quite the same richness of color as an AMOLED screen, it handles better under sunlight.
One of the few differences between the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, screen size aside, is the camera. While the core attributes of the two phones are the same – 12MP, an ƒ/2.2 aperture, a 5MP front-facing camera and so forth – the 6s Plus’s larger frame allows room for built-in optical image stabilization (OIS).
OIS physically moves the camera’s components within their housing to compensate for the shake of your hand or the jostle the phone takes when you tap the shutter button. While the iPhone 6s uses digital stabilization, running photos through special algorithms to remove blur, the 6s Plus actively changes the path that light takes through the camera itself. This sharpens the photo before a digital file is ever created.
Granted, unless you have particularly shaky hands you probably won’t notice a ton of difference between the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus. Still, if you want the best-of-the-best smartphone camera, OIS is the way to go.
When we benchmarked last year’s iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, both phones rose decisively above the competition, but the bigger 6 Plus edged out its little brother. With the A9-powered 6s and 6s Plus, Apple once again takes the performance crown. This time, though, the two siblings’ roles are reversed: The iPhone 6s Plus performed slightly worse than the 6s, managing about 97 percent its speeds. We’re betting this is because the Plus has to drive more pixels with the same processor.
Regardless, both models far outpace the competition’s top smartphones: Samsung’s Galaxy S6 and Note5. Though the iPhones’ computational capabilities are about on par, their graphics processing is staggeringly fast – thanks to the Metal API and some impressive silicon, the iPhone 6s Plus stormed through our benchmarks, churning out frame rates over twice as high as what the Note5 could muster.
We ran the iPhone 6s Plus through five different testing suites 10 times apiece, then smart-averaged the results, discarding high and low performance spikes that can throw off scores. You can browse through a selection of our findings in the benchmarks comparison tool near the top of the page, but the takeaway is clear: This phone is fast.
Given the iPhone’s history of weak battery life, we felt like cheering when we put the 6s Plus through its paces. The phone packs a 2750 mAh battery cell – significantly smaller than last year’s 6 Plus – yet it outperformed the Galaxy Note5 handily, managing over 10 hours of consistent web browsing in our casual use test. We made it through entire days with ease, and though we had to lean on Apple’s new low-power mode once or twice, days usually ended with about 30 percent power remaining in the tank.
If you’re a heavy mobile gamer, expect less-impressive results. Our intensity test runs the phone through a simulation of constant high-end gaming and graphics rendering, and the 6s Plus shut down after six and a half hours. That’s three hours longer than the iPhone 6s managed but three hours shorter than the Galaxy Note5. Given the performance differences between the 6s Plus and Note5, this wasn’t a surprise; Apple’s phone appears to deliver far smoother gaming experiences at the cost of battery life.
Like all iPhones, the 6s Plus doesn’t have an easily removable battery or support rapid or wireless charging. You can’t hot-swap cells if you’re running low, nor can you quickly fuel up if you have 20 minutes to spare – it took us over an hour to get a 50 percent charge.
Along with the usual assortment of included tech – Bluetooth 4.2, an NFC chip for Apple Pay, a bevy of positional sensors – Apple upgraded our favorite fingerprint scanner to be even quicker and more accurate. How it measures up against Google’s recently announced Nexus Imprint remains to be seen, but for the moment, Touch ID is the best biometric security we’ve used on a phone.
Of course, the true standout feature in both new iPhones is 3D Touch. Thanks to a pressure-sensitive layer beneath the display, the phones can now sense how hard you’re pushing down on the screen. There are a few playful uses for 3D Touch, like animating the phone’s new wallpapers forward and backward, but the two primary functions the technology brings to the table are peek and pop.
When you press down on something that supports 3D Touch – Apple’s included apps are great for this – you can peek into its contents. The Mail app is a perfect example: Press on an email message in your inbox with enough force and you can peek into the message itself, read the first few lines of text and decide whether it’s worth your time. Release your finger and the message reverts to normal in your inbox, still marked as unread. Push harder and the message pops to full screen, fully open with all the controls you expect to have. Swipe up while peeking at the message and you get a selection of options – Reply, Forward, Mark Unread and so forth.
Peek and pop have been called the right-click of smartphones, and it’s an apt description. Once non-native apps start supporting it, 3D Touch could well mean faster navigation and management of your email, photos, podcasts and documents. For the moment, however, it’s little more than a novelty. We have high hopes for the technology, but hopes they remain.
Plus-size screen, plus-size battery, plus-size performance, plus-size girth – the 6s Plus seems determined to earn its moniker. In some ways, that’s a good thing: We were delighted by its longevity and blown away by its processor. Even so, too much of a good thing left us craving a phone a little comfier to hold.
If the word “phablet” doesn’t rouse your disapproval, the iPhone 6s Plus is the best iOS smartphone you can buy. If you prefer something more manageably sized, there’s always the iPhone 6s.