While much of Wednesday’s Apple press conference was of interest to me, news of new iPhones—despite being evolutionary and well-telegraphed ahead of the event—was perhaps of the most interest. Part of it is that iPhone is of course Apple’s most successful product, by far. But part of it is that after years of coasting, iPhone—in both hardware and software—has finally started making major leaps forward again.
As expected, the iPhone 6S—and its bigger, phablet-sized cousin, the iPhone 6S Plus—is a minor update to its predecessor. This may have been disappointing in the past, but given how excellent iPhone 6 was, I feel this is both necessary and understandable. (That “6S” sounded like “success” every time the name was said onstage is, I’m sure, coincidental.)
For iPhone 6S, Apple has bolstered the color choices by one, adding a new rose gold (e.g. pink) to the previous silver (white), space gray (black) and gold versions. But the form factor is, of course, utterly identical, with the same buttons, slightly raised camera, and so on. Cook admitted that they “may look familiar,” but noted Apple had also “changed everything,” on the inside for the most part.
The 6S body is now formed from a harder, more durable aluminum that presumably won’t bend as easily as is the case with the iPhone 6 Plus, in particular, which was so pliable the term “bendgate” was invented. (The glass on the front of the phone is likewise more durable, for the same reason.) It is powered by a new A9 chipset—no surprise there—which includes an integrated motion coprocessor for the first time. And it includes an improved Touch ID sensor, though I’ve always found the original to be pretty amazing.
The camera is, of course, what would drive me to consider upgrading. For the 6S, Apple bumps the camera from 8 megapixels to 12, as expected. But the firm says it held off increasing the number of pixels produced by its iPhone cameras until it could do so without degrading quality, and iPhone 6S apparently achieves this goal. I am eager to test this.
(Apple also talked up 4K video recording and the new 5 MP front-facing camera, plus a software feature called Live Photos that appears to be a rip-off of Living Images, from Microsoft’s Lumia Camera app for Windows phones. Not that anyone would ever accuse Apple of not inventing something, of course.)
The biggest new feature, however, is 3D touch: the new iPhones feature a force-sensing touch screen that can differentiate between different pressure levels. So while traditional touch screens can handle gestures like tap, swipe, and pinch, Apple’s new 3D touch screens also support new gestures like peek (what I think of as “tap and hold,” a sort of right-click for touch) and pop (e.g. “tap and hold and then keep holding”).
While it’s not clear why these new gestures required new screen technology—tap and hold is pretty common today in Windows, for example—it appears that some form of tactile feedback will help the user understand what happened. It is, another words, a form of haptic feedback, which I find annoying on other phones. Apple being Apple, I suspect this implementation is superior.
The onstage demo of this technology during the press conference further bolsters this assumption. What sets apart 3D touch is deep integration with the underlying iOS software. So in an app like Mail, you can just tap and hold to read an email message in a pop-up window rather than select as before, read the message, deal with it in some way and then go back to the inbox. With 3D touch, everything happens on the same screen and seems more natural, with common actions available with simple gestures. These 3D touch interactions are available throughout iOS 9 and its apps, and popular third-party apps are already onboard too.
Apple didn’t change the pricing or storage options this year, but I am disappointed they continue to promote subsidized pricing, which makes it seem like the iPhone 6S starts at just $199. It does not: a base iPhone is really $650, while a maxed out iPhone 6S Plus with 128 GB of storage will set you back $950.
More intriguing is news that Apple is getting into the phone installment plan game. Through its U.S. retail stores only, customers will be able to essentially lease an iPhone 6S/Plus on a two-year installment plan at a price of $32 to $48 per month (depending on version) and then get a new iPhone a year later. These phones are unlocked and have universal radios, so they work with every carrier. Given our love of mortgaging the future here in the U.S., I suspect these plans will be very popular.
Apple will begin accepting preorders for iPhone 6S and 6S Plus on Saturday, September 12, and the devices will be made available for sale two weeks later, on September 25 in 12 markets. Availability will be worldwide by the end of 2015. And if you use other iPhones or iOS devices, you can get iOS 9 on September 16.