Apple iPhone 6s Plus Smartphone Review
It's just like the iPhone 6s, except really, really big.
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In the world of smartphones, bigger isn't necessarily better. It's just bigger. But when your smartphone becomes your go-to device for staying in touch, staying informed, and capturing photos, a bigger display can come in handy. This is a truth Samsung more or less stumbled on with the original Galaxy Note, and now even Apple has come around.
Of course, being big isn't enough. And addition to being absurdly big, the new Apple iPhone 6s Plus (MSRP $749-$949, unlocked) is also absurdly powerful, absurdly gorgeous, and unfortunately, absurdly thin on battery life.
If ever there was an iPhone big enough to make you feel ridiculous, this is it. But if you’re willing to plug your phone in every night and put up with frequent down-to-the-wire, 2%-on-the-train-home days, there is so much to love about the latest iteration of the iPhone. If its size suits you, there’s a good chance the rest of it will, too.
Note: This is the first and last time I’m going to be using the term phablet in this review. You’re welcome.
Design & Usability
Is that an iPhone 6s Plus in your pocket or are you just carrying around a dictionary?
Let’s get one thing out of the way right from the start: Your iPhone. Seriously, move your gigantic phone; I can’t see your face.
Jokes aside, the new iPhone 6s Plus clocks in at around 6x3 inches with a monolithic 5.5-inch screen that is somehow even bigger than it sounds. Part of that is the width of the phone, which when combined with the rounded, smooth edges makes it almost impossible to hold one-handed. It also looks downright silly when you hold it to your head to make honest-to-goodness phone calls.
As a result, this is a device that you absolutely must handle before reaching for your credit card. For some people, it'll be exactly what you've been waiting for—especially if you've been toiling for years with an aging iPhone with a puny 3.5-inch screen. For most people though, the 6s Plus is just one awkward bridge too far.
Even my editor, who actually enjoys phones like the Samsung Galaxy Note 5, found the 6s Plus cumbersome because of the width, so make sure you love it before that return policy is up. Luckily for people who don't mind the size, the iPhone 6s Plus is a delightfully designed device comprised of well-thought out angles, curves, and materials.
Seriously—this thing just feels right. Its corners are rounded off in such a way that they never dig into your palms, and its uniformly aluminum body gives it a decent amount of heft, but not so much that its weight is distracting or inconvenient.
The button placement is conscientious; moving my hands from the screen to, say, the power button on the side of the device rarely gave me pause. Given the ridiculous size of the 6s Plus, I consider this to be somewhat of a minor miracle. Most other actions will require a second hand, but that's par for the course with phones this big.
But design is not all function, and form is increasingly rising to the top of everyone’s priority list. Apple clearly cares a ton about adhering to the principles of excellent design, and it shows; Apple understands how to make an elegant phone better than anyone in the game.
I said it in my 6s review, and it bears repeating here: I encourage everyone to play with fire and leave their iPhone out of a bulky, clumsy-looking case. Is this a smart move? Heck no—leaving an iPhone unprotected is like tickling the dragon’s tail. But it feels so, so wrong to cover up this bad boy’s badass looks. Live dangerously, and hold on to your Apple Care policy for dear life.
Hardware & Performance
Top-of-the-line with one major drawback
In terms of sheer performance, every new iPhone has been a bit better than the last, and that holds true again here. Like previous "S" versions, the iPhone 6s Plus takes the existing iPhone 6 Plus and enhances it with some faster guts and improved software. These off-year models are not revolutionary, but they're often the phones that tend to feel fresh for the longest.
Let’s start with the new A9 processor, which decimated each and every test we threw at it. This is a smartphone that’s fully equipped for multitasking, ripping through countless browser tabs, and running your mobile game of choice with ease.
Basically, you’re unlikely to find a better, faster-performing phone than the 6s Plus. It has bumped into the ceiling of what’s possible for a consumer-oriented product, providing a buttery smooth user experience whether you're a basic user or like to dabble in more advanced tasks.
But with great power comes great disappointment...at least that seems to be the case with the 6s Plus’s dreadful battery performance. Our battery tests—one lightweight test based on video playback and another based on heavy, processor-intensive work—both revealed the iPhone 6s Plus to be a bit of a slouch in the battery life department.
Here’s the bottom line: You will almost certainly be able to squeeze a full day’s worth of juice out of your 6s Plus if you’re not a seriously heavy user. If you own an iPhone 6 or iPhone 5s and are happy with the battery life, you'll likely be just fine with the 6s Plus, too. Casual usage—browsing the web, posting stupid memes to your friends’ Facebook walls, that sort of thing—will keep you frittering away your day until well after dinnertime.
But if you’re the kind of person who blows through three episodes of Sanford & Son on the train ride to work, or makes frequent use of the GPS, you will absolutely want to get some kind of backup power source. It’s an absolute beast of a phone in almost every way, but it's a beast with a voracious appetite for power.
The two biggest additions to the iPhone experience this generation are 3D Touch and Live Photos, which I broke down extensively in the iPhone 6s review.
In short, 3D Touch uses a pressure sensor underneath the screen to recognize how hard you're pushing on something. Push a little harder than normal on an address, for example and it'll give you a "peek" of the map where it is, without taking you out of the app you're in. Push again and it'll "pop" you through to that info. This also works with home screen icons, letting you do things like "take a selfie" with one press of the icon.
3D Touch is something that could (and should) make serious industry waves, but it's in its infancy. There aren't that many apps that make use of it yet, but because Apple controls the hardware for iOS so completely, app developers know that eventually every iPhone will. That's important, and it's a marked difference from the world of Android, where such a marriage of software and hardware would take much longer.
Live Photos is far less exciting: Essentially, it’s an extra bit of software that records a brief, animated GIF-style video that plays the moments immediately before and after a photo is taken. It's a novelty that I only found fun when using the front-facing camera for selfies and the like. Thankfully, you have the option of toggling it on and off so it won’t sap your storage.
As long as Apple's had its fingers—OK, its entire hand—in the smartphone pie, it's understood the importance of imaging. The 6s Plus continues this tradition, featuring an improved camera that produces true-to-life color and maintains razor-sharp clarity.
Unsurprisingly, the 6s Plus struggles with low-light photography, but in fairness, it performs better in these conditions than previous iPhones—something helped by the addition of optical image stabilization. Most impressive to me is the phone's ability to maintain a fantastic amount of detail even when the surroundings are starved of light. A dimly-lit bar, for example, comes through with a respectable amount of clarity, even when the phone's flash is disabled.
The 6s Plus also aced our auto-white balance tests, which attempt to figure out how a camera sensor adjusts to different lighting conditions. Fluorescent lighting, for example, is much cooler than daylight, but it's a camera's primary function to capture colors as they appear to the human eye regardless of the temperature of the light source.
Whether in daylight, tungsten, or fluorescent lighting, the 6s Plus renders color accurately and without an unnatural amount of over-saturation. While some manufacturers opt for more saturated images that customers tend to prefer, Apple has always opted for lifelike colors. They may pop a little less, but they're more accurate.
It's not all gravy though. While it's not any worse than previous iPhones in this regard, the dynamic range—the range of tones from dark to light that a camera can capture—is still very limited on the iPhone. It's not much better on top-tier phones like the Samsung Galaxy Note 5, but it's better.
That's not helped by the fact that Apple still doesn't offer a real way to capture RAW photos with iOS. While Apple's target audience certainly isn't asking for RAW, a number of photographers—us included—would love to have the capability to preserve as much dynamic range as possible when taking photos.
RAW wouldn't even need to be a default feature on the iPhone. Apple could treat it the way it is now treating 4K video—also new—and leave it off by default. Speaking of the 4K video: it's extremely sharp, with lifelike colors and good overall quality. The one drawback? It'll fill up your puny 16GB of internal storage in no time.
I went ahead and made a checklist of simple, easy-to-understand reasons why the iPhone 6s Plus might be a good fit for you over, say, the iPhone 6s:
- You can't get enough of really big smartphones.
That's pretty much all I can come up with. Look—if nothing's going to get in the way of you and a new iPhone, both the 6s and the 6s Plus are the best Apple has to offer. With that said, I think the only reason to spring for the Plus is its ginormous size. While it can eke just a little bit more battery life than the 6s, it's not a notable difference.
So, if you're dead set on getting an iPhone, we recommend that most people opt for the smaller iPhone 6s. Now, this would usually be the time in my review where I put the smartphone in question up against its competitors and rattle off the reasons why one would be better than the other. I might tell you to check out the equally-as-huge Samsung Galaxy Note 5, whose battery runs circles around the 6s Plus and whose camera might be the best on the market today.
But you and I both know the truth: If you've already decided you want an iPhone 6s Plus, it's probably because you want a big iPhone. And this—or last year's iPhone 6 Plus—is the only way you're going to get that. After all, its two most defining characteristics—its namesake and its size—also happen to be the two most polarizing features in the world of smartphones. So if you want a 6s Plus and think you can cope with the size, then go for it.
That said, I can't stress enough how important it is to pick one up for yourself. Seriously, go to the store and pick one up. Ask a stranger to use theirs. Trust me, they won't find it weird. They'll know why.
P.S.: Don't buy the 16GB model.