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It is easy to take annual smartphone launches for granted as we enter the ninth year of the iPhone era. Whether introduced before cheering employees in a bespoke theatre built inside a larger auditorium, as Apple’s iPhone 6S was, or in an atmosphere-free warehouse in a trendy part of town like Google’s Nexus this week, tech journalists used to life on the “bleeding edge” can struggle to muster the same excitement as in years gone by.
That goes double when the biggest change to the appearance of the device is that it now comes in a bright metallic pink. But most smartphone buyers do not live on the bleeding edge. Apple said in July that only a third of its customers had upgraded to the iPhone 6, last year’s model. So while the iPhone 6S may seem too similar to its predecessor, it is a giant leap forward compared with a three-year-old iPhone 5, thanks to its fingerprint reader, bigger screen, voice-control and overall speed.
In 2015, we are spoilt by ever-thinner phones with faster processors and better cameras. But while iPhone owners are outnumbered two to one by Android buyers, Apple’s ability to persuade customers to pay higher prices gives it capacity to finesse the smartphone experience in a way that few others seem able to replicate.
3D Touch acceleration
The iPhone 6S’ 3D Touch is a prime example of this. Many apps’ functions can now be accessed directly from their home screen icon by pressing gently, such as opening a new email, getting directions home or phoning a favourite contact.
In the same way that unlocking a phone with a passcode rather than a tap on the Touch ID button now seems laborious, 3D Touch shaves fractions of a second from each of the scores of interactions we have with our phones every day.
My favourite 3D Touch feature is in email. Instead of tapping into an email then swiping back to the inbox, a squeeze of the screen shows a preview “peek” at the message, which disappears again when you release or “pops” into full view if you press harder. But it does not work quite as well everywhere in iOS: for instance, “peeking” at a website when clicking a link takes too long to load.
It is a little soon to tell whether 3D Touch is as revolutionary as the iPhone’s original touchscreen pinches and swipes. But some third-party developers are already supporting it, including Instagram and Shazam.
3D Touch is just one aspect of an iPhone that is noticeably faster than its predecessor, let alone older models. Touch ID unlocks the phone with no discernible lag after pressing the home button. Loading web pages, opening apps and sending messages all seem much nippier.
Siri is also more efficient. The virtual assistant can be awoken hands-free with a “Hey Siri”, even when the phone is locked, and its answers can now be set to silent text only. Saying “Siri, remind me of this email later” adds it to your to-do list, complete with link back to the note — a function that works across a growing number of apps, from Safari pages to Foursquare restaurants.
The iPhone 6S’ other big upgrades are to its camera and photos. This is one feature where the Plus-sized model has an advantage over its smaller sibling. Alongside an increase in megapixel count and the ability to film in 4K in both devices, the iPhone 6S Plus brings last year’s optical image stabilisation feature to video. On a weekend hike, the 6S Plus steadied the jolts from my plodding feet to produce smooth, vivid shots.
I was less impressed with another heavily promoted feature, Live Photos. These three-second clips give a hint of the movement before and after a photo was taken. I like the idea but playing back the image was much jerkier than a regular video, and the file effectively doubles the storage space consumed, so I imagine using it only in particularly lively moments.
Apple refuses to say what the “s” in its iPhone updates stands for, but “speed” is the 6S’ standout feature. All that time saved by its accelerated interface probably adds little to the sum of human productivity, given many of those taps and swipes will be to check Facebook or play Candy Crush. But now we are used to instant digital gratification, the iPhone brings swift satisfaction to our impatient fingers.