Testing: iPhone 6S Plus (After Years on Android)

By Norman Chan

I got the iPhone 6S Plus last Friday--my first iPhone since the 5. It's strange to go back after two years.

I was on board with the iPhone when the first 4GB gen 1 model was released in 2007. I bought every new model through the fifth generation: the 3G for wireless speed, the 3GS for performance, 4 for high-resolution screen, 4S for Siri, and the 5 for the elongated formfactor. But two years ago, Android phones started to look really appealing, starting with my testing of the first HTC One. The high-resolution screens, highly-integrated Google services, customizable lock and home screen, and increasing refined OS of subsequent Android devices convinced me to stay. Since then, I've been very happy with phones like the Nexus 5, OnePlus One, Moto X, Samsung GS6, and most recently, the LG G4 (love that camera).

So when I bought an iPhone 6S Plus to test and review for the site, it felt like a strange and awkward homecoming. Not only is there new hardware and hardware-specific features here to evaluate, this isn't the same phone interface I was familiar with using on a day to day basis back in 2013 on the iPhone 5. Even though I had followed iOS's updates through version 7, 8, and most recently iOS 9 on my iPad Mini, I had a lot to re-familiarize myself with on the phone side. The past three days has also been an exercise in reconfiguring my brain to not look at the phone from purely an Android user's perspective. There are some aspects of the iOS user experience I can directly compare to Android, but Apple's UX paradigms are just fundamentally different in many areas (most notably the use of home screen as app manager and single dedicated button). Not better or worse, just different. It's like the comparison between two languages--being bilingual requires adapting the lexicon and grammar of one to another.

Over the next month, I'll be sharing that experience of testing the iPhone 6S Plus from those multiple perspectives. We'll start with some early impressions and the data migration process.

When I test a new Android phone, transferring my data between devices has been made relatively easily with Google's automatic setup assistant, introduced in Android 5.0. The Tap & Go restore feature uses NFC between two phones to copy over all of your accounts, apps, and backed-up data. On the iOS side, this feature is built into iCloud--you can restore from backups saved to Apple's servers, or locally in iTunes. For the iPhone 6S, I didn't just want to retrieve iCloud data backed up from my iPad Mini--I wanted all of the information from the LG G4. Apple has a Move to iOS in the Google Play store that does just this. It's actually a licensed rebrand of an existing Android app, previously named Copy My Data. (Its makers have a similar app called Device Switch in the App Store for migrating from iOS to Android, too.) Move to iOS worked well enough; a passcode allows the phones to pair over a Wi-Fi connection, and moves contacts, Hangouts history, photos, bookmarks, calendars, and mail accounts over. It even sorted my Android photos into appropriate camera roll albums, for panoramas, high-speed video, and screenshots. Text and hangouts messages are what I cared about most, since it's annoying to lose conversation threads when migrating. So far, so good.

Move to iOS doesn't migrate apps, of course. If you're moving to iOS from Android for the very first time, you'll still need to set up an Apple ID and find the iOS versions of your Android apps in the App Store. Move to iOS could've done a better job of this by compiling a list of my Android apps (maybe sorted by frequency of use), cross referencing a database, and outputting a list of download links to the App Store of corresponding apps.

With the migration complete, I stowed away the LG G4 and focused on using the new iPhone. Here are some early testing notes.

The Camera is Pretty Good

Smartphone cameras are a big deal, and a huge part of why people upgrade phones. The iPhone 6S Plus has a new 12MP camera sensor, which is actually the same physical size. I've compared the image quality on Will's iPhone 6 Plus with my Android phones before, and the big differences to not are color tone reproduction, noise reduction, and dynamic range. These things matter a bit more on the iOS side when you don't have a RAW image to work with, either.

Macro: iPhone 6S on the left, LG G4 on the right (click to enlarge)

But for the majority of people, the photos you take to share on social media (ie. cropped, filtered, and then compressed) are going to look great on these phones. In some quick comparison shots between the 6S and LG G4, color reproduction looks better on the iPhone, but the G4 in low light gave me more detail and less noise.

Low light: iPhone 6S on the left, LG G4 on the right (click to enlarge)

3D Touch is Great

Another marquee feature of the 6S is 3D Touch (aka Force Touch on the Apple Watch). It's used to really good effect here, as a way to directly access individual app features and preview content in feeds. You can't think of it as a right-click; 3D touch is a shortcut menu. Unfortunately, there are only a handful of apps (mostly core iOS ones) that support it, and there's no visual indicator in an app icon to let you know when you can press harder to access a shortcut. Also, I'd like users to be able to configure to some extent what those shortcuts are, or even to hide the options that you never use. 3D Touch also surprisingly doesn't work on the lock screen or in Control Center--glaring omissions.

With Peek and Pop, I've really enjoyed using it to preview email, since I manage my messages by marking them as read/unread. I haven't found it useful to preview web links, though. You can also adjust the pressure sensitivity of 3D Touch--medium setting is what I like so far.

Taptic Feedback is Awesome

Coinciding with 3D touch is a new haptic feedback motor--the same Taptic system found in the Apple Watch (and new MacBook trackpads). It's a much better notification system than the old buzzy vibration motors, and I've yet to miss one with the phone in my jeans pocket.

The big questions is whether the Taptic motor can convincingly simulate a "click" when used in conjunction with Force Touch. It's not quite the same unbelievable click feel as on the MacBook trackpad, but it is a really good approximation. My brain was never fooled into thinking I was actually clicking into the screen, but the response does feel localized (even if it actually isn't) to where you're pressing. You also can't get it to provide the taptic response when typing on a keyboard (it should be an accessibility option, in my opinion).

The Home Screen is Limited

A big difference between iOS and Android is the approach to home screens. On iOS, the home screen is where all the apps live and where they're managed, regardless of how often you use them. The only way to manage them is to put them into folders. On Android, the home screen is more like a Desktop with application shortcuts, with app listing and management living in the App tray. The difference is totally fine--organization can work well on both--but one thing I wish Apple would let me do is turn off auto-arrange for my apps. I don't want to have to have 24 apps on my primary home screen just to have icons accessible at the bottom of the screen. Thumb reachability is important to me for quickly launching my most frequently used apps, and top-aligned apps on the home screen is something to get used to.

(I know you can tap the home button twice to bring the screen down, but that's a usability compromise.)

I Miss Widgets

This is something that may take much longer to get used to. Email and Calendar at a glance on my home screens was one of the things I liked most about Android OS. Instead of swiping down my screens to see my email, I just launch the app now. Boo.

I Miss Google Now

Yes, I can download the Google app and get Now functionality on iOS. It's just one additional step to tap to launch the service as opposed to being able to swipe to the left from home screen. Time will tell if that makes me much less inclined to launch it--convenience goes a long way to making a useful service actually used.

I Miss a More Functional Shade Menu

OK, only one more gripe about a feature I miss from Android. Control Center is more functional than ever, but still missing some essential shortcuts (hotspot, data/location toggle, etc). More importantly, those shortcuts are fixed. It would be pretty simple for Apple to allow you to switch them around--at least the four app shortcuts at the very bottom. And as I mentioned earlier, no 3D touch functionality here.

The notifications could also be better grouped. iOS 9 added the ability to sort notifications by time received as opposed to app, but that then doesn't let me swipe away all notifications from a particular app (eg. Twitter) when I still want to manage emails there. Android's lock screen notifications are sorted by both app and time--the newest notification bumps a whole group to the top of the list, but I can still batch clear based on apps.

Universal Search Could Use Better Web Ties

In iOS 9, search is better linked between Siri, documents, contacts, photos, and even apps in the App Store, but the thing I want to be able to get faster access to is web results. Right now, in-browser web search results feels like the last resort option for Siri (even Bing Search results get more prominent placement), as if it's the thing Siri will send you to when you've stumped it. Many times, I query voice assistants (Google Now, Alexa, Cortana, Siri) with the intent of performing a web search, and would like that to be the default option when there's no contextual response Siri can give me from its knowledge graphs.

Always-On Siri is Useful

Siri actually feels like it's gotten better and more reliable since I last used it regularly, though. And the iPhone 6S has the option to let Siri listen for your voice commands when the phone is off and not plugged in. I've used this half a dozen times while driving to make phone calls, and it's nice that I didn't have to make sure the phone was tethered to a power outlet. It's not quite as useful as Amazon Echo since it can't tap into existing home automation services--you have to have HomeKit compatible or certified systems for it to work. I'm really curious to see how Siri will work with the upcoming Apple TVs.

Touch ID is Really Fast

iPhone 6S reviewers were right about this one--Touch ID is really fast on the new phones. Fast enough that if I'm not paying attention, I don't even see the lock screen most of the time. That makes the lock screen notifications pretty useless, since you have to unlock the phone to take action on email and messages anyway. I wish there was an option to add a 1-second delay to Touch ID for those of us who want it, but I doubt that'll ever be the case.

Can anyone explain why TouchID is still limited to five fingers? Is that a point where the database of fingerprints start to interfere with accuracy and create false positives? Seems arbitrary to me. I've added my thumbs, index fingers, and pinky (for when I'm eating wings), but will have to remove one for giving my significant other a spot on my Touch ID list.

The Plus Model is Big

This thing is heavy! Maybe not all that much heavier than last year's iPhone 6 Plus, but definitely leaves a bigger footprint than the phones I've been carrying. It's still really thin--thinner than the Galaxy S6--but it feels hefty in the hand and sticks out of my back pocket. 1080p really is a sweet spot for phones this size, and I'm finally convinced that the downscaling doesn't adversely affect text rendering. I also bought the white version of the iPhone 6S, but I think the black model is my favorite. That's the only design where from certain angles, the screen blends in seamlessly with the bezel, making the front of the phone look like one single piece of black glass.

Those are some early impressions for now. I'll be testing other things like performance, video stabilization, and battery life in the coming weeks. If you're and Android user curious about iOS 9 and the iPhone 6S, what would you like to know about it. And if you just got a new iPhone, what has your experience been? I'd love to know--leave a comment below!