THE GOOD Improved speed, better cameras, always-on Siri, and pressure-sensitive 3D Touch display compared to last year’s 6 Plus. And it has slightly better battery life, a bigger higher resolution screen, and optical image stabilization for photos and video that can make a difference.
THE BAD It’s really big. It costs more than the smaller iPhone. Other phablet-sized phones offer longer battery life.
THE BOTTOM LINE The iPhone 6S Plus has a few key advantages that give it an edge for serious iPhone users, but its big body still may not fit for a lot of people.
I don’t usually like really big phones. I want phones that can fit in my hand. But last year I switched from an iPhone 6 to 6 Plus, to see what difference it made it my life. Its advantages turned out to be really useful: a bigger battery, a larger screen with higher resolution. And I realized, when I switched back to an iPhone 6, that optical image stabilization made a difference, too… sometimes.
I missed the surer, clearer pictures in low light that the Plus gave in a pinch in darkened press rooms during live events. (For better or worse, that’s the sort of place where I need good smartphone photography in a pinch.)
And yes, I came to love the Plus for its pro-type features, and even for its near-tablet feel. For videos, and games. But as a normal phone, its size never seemed truly comfortable to me.
Just like last year, the new iPhone 6S Plus and iPhone 6S are nearly similar except for a few key advantages on the larger model. The Plus gets you a 5.5-inch display instead of the 4.7-inch one of the iPhone 6S. And while the Plus’s camera sensor and resolution is identical to that on the smaller iPhone, it adds optical image stabilization, which can deliver more blur-free photos in certain light conditions (especially if you’re zooming). Unlike last year’s Plus, that stabilization works when shooting videos, too. And you get a bigger battery that lasts just a bit longer. It costs more, but its perks are worth it if you’re a mission-critical user of your phone camera.
But oh, that size.
I’d probably use a Plus over a 6S. But for most people, I still think the smaller 6S is the way to go.
What do I mean by “it’s too big?”
For some people, the Plus might not be too big at all. But for many others I’ve talked to, it is. There’s nothing wrong with a 5.5-inch screen, but the 6S Plus — like the 6 Plus before it — seats that screen into a phone that has a larger top and bottom bezel than many big-screened Android phones. End result: it’s wider and longer than similar 5.5-inch competitors, albeit thinner. See the photo below for comparison, next to the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 and last year’s Nexus 6. The Note 5 is a tiny bit less wide and tall, but has a larger 5.7-inch screen. The thicker and ever-so-slightly wider Nexus 6 has a 5.9-inch screen.
The width and length usually make more of a difference to me, and my pants. I have pretty large jeans, and my pockets accommodate the Plus fine. Other people I know don’t have that luck.
The Plus still doesn’t fit easily in one hand, either. I find myself using a pinky tucked underneath.
You do get a 5.5-inch 1,920×1,080 resolution display instead of the iPhone 6S’ 4.7-inch 1,334×750 resolution screen, which matters mostly for photos, videos, and web browsing. You can fit a bit more of everything on screen at once, as long as apps take advantage (many are, some still aren’t).
Super-powered with 3D Touch and better speed
For more on what the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus offer, read my whole iPhone 6S review. Know that the new A9 processor and double the RAM (2GB) from last year’s iPhones means faster-feeling system speed, and apps that load better when you swap between them. And the extra perk of always-on Siri means that, especially for drivers, hands-free operation works even the phone’s not plugged in.
3D Touch is the promise of a whole new type of interaction with the touchscreen: this phone has a pressure-sensitive display that does different things when you press in with your finger. Everything from pop-out menus to previews of web links before you open them, and a growing library of apps and games that are starting to make the most of this tech. It can measure a whole range of pressure gradients, which means this could be used for sketching and art apps in particular. On a larger-screened tablet-type phone, that could get very interesting. At the moment, however, 3D Touch is more potential and subtle additions than anything eye-popping world-changing. It’s definitely worth keeping an eye on, however, because iOS is bound to transform to take advantage of it down the road.
Cameras: a reason to upgrade for serious users
I’m about to show you an extreme example of why optical image stabilization matters.
I took a photo in the nearly-dark CNET PC lab using the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus.
As you can see, these photos are pretty similar. To a casual eye, not much is different. But…
I then digital zoomed all the way in on our grimy test keyboard and snapped a photo.
On the 6S:
On the 6S Plus:
That’s the difference. At maximum zoom in these conditions, no phone will take great photos. But the Plus handled the adversity better and offered a more blur-free image. In a pinch, this matters. And when you blow up larger photos, that detail will show up.
Apple also included optical image stabilization for video this year, and that might matter even more. It really does reduce jitters.
If you’re shooting videos of your kids, do you need this? Not if you’re sitting still, and not in a lot of everyday instances. But if you’re trying to shoot a great video for professional purposes, I’d say it matters a lot. Make sure you check out these photos taken with the 6S Plus by CNET’s Andrew Hoyle: lots of examples of selfies, low-light and outdoor conditions show what to expect out of the camera.
Battery life: Better than the smaller iPhone
I’d like the iPhone 6S to have the battery of the 6S Plus.
Over a regular day of use, the Plus got me enough juice so I didn’t panic. It’s an all-day experience. On the iPhone 6S, towards the end of the day, you’ll need to consider power-saving or recharging.
Our battery run test, which uses a video loop played back on the phone in airplane mode, lasted 11.9 hours, or 11 hours 54 minutes. The iPhone 6S (non-Plus) lasted 10.5 (10 hours 30 minutes). That doesn’t sound like a huge difference, but in everyday real-life use it amounted to a last-through-the-day experience, versus a need-to-recharge one. However, year’s iPhone 6 Plus running iOS 8 ran for longer on that same battery test: 13.3 hours. And there are plenty of larger-screened phones packing larger batteries that last longer than this. The Plus is the longer-life iPhone, but like the smaller 6S it could still do better.
It’s enough to matter to me, but then again, it means you’re carrying a bigger phone. What I really want is the smaller 6S to have this battery life, and for the larger Plus to last even longer.
A note on different processors in the iPhone 6S
It turns out that this year’s iPhone 6S A9 processor has been sourced out to two different manufacturers, meaning your iPhone 6S (or 6S Plus) could either have one or the other. According to Apple, battery performance between the two variants (TSMC and Samsung) only varies by around 2 to 3 percent. Others online are reporting varying performance differences. We are doing our own testing with iPhones containing both types of chips, and will update this when we have definitive answers. Our review iPhones had processors made by TSMC. So far we haven’t seen anything worrying, but will alert you if we do… and update this review.
Plus is a better travel companion
I don’t think the Plus can replace a real tablet, even an iPad Mini. But it comes close in a lot of instances, especially for reading, email, videos and games. In landscape mode, the Plus is a pretty perfect travel screen: videos and games shine. The extra bezel on the top and bottom become pretty good hand-grips, too.
Yes, it’s good enough that you probably won’t need anything else on a long train ride or flight. That proposition remains the same as last year’s Plus, but it bears mentioning if you’re considering a leap from regular-sized iPhone to Plus-land.
Some apps still don’t take advantage
It’s just about a year since Apple introduced a Plus-sized iPhone, and I still find a lot of apps that never bothered to optimize for its larger-screened, higher-resolution 5.5-inch screen. Some still don’t allow for landscape mode or clever semi-split-screen functions, either, like you see in some of Apple’s core apps like Mail. Instead of pushing for unique features, a lot of apps seem to settle for more subtle upgrades.
Does that make the Plus less desirable? I don’t think so. The Plus is really about that extra size and resolution for web browsing, reading, games, and video/photos. I’d love to see more Plus-optimized apps, but I don’t know if they’ll emerge at the rate I’d like, or make the Plus feel more like an iPad. The Plus really is very much a sibling of the smaller 6S.
Conclusion: If only this phone were a bit smaller
You’re paying up for the Plus, and if you consider what it offers, the $100 USD increase — or £80-90 in the UK, AU$150 in Australia — at every storage capacity versus the 6S isn’t unreasonable. (As with the smaller iPhone, skip the entry-level 16GB model, and pay up for at least the 64GB version.) But it also means a more expensive iPhone, and I still say that most people don’t need its extra perks. Its speed and performance, except for battery, are largely the same as its smaller sibling.
If the Plus shaved its bezels down and got just a bit smaller and more hand-friendly, maybe this would be the ultimate phone for me. I actually want an iPhone somewhere in between the 6S and 6S Plus — perhaps a 5- or 5.2-inch screen, but very little of anything else to get in the way. Could it happen? I hope so, in the iPhone 7, which should get a redesigned body.
Or, if the dimensions of the Plus shrunk down a bit to accommodate that large screen in a slightly smaller frame. It can happen, especially if the home button were removed (or shifted).
If you’re a serious iPhone user or someone who relies on their phone camera for work, you should get the Plus. If you can live with its size.
Even a year later, I’m not completely sure I can. But I envy its advantages.