The new iPhones are finally here.
As in every other "S" year, the new 6S andlook the same as their predecessors -- in this case, 2014's and models. But you'll notice the changes as soon as you start touching them. The transformations underneath are plentiful: new front and rear cameras, faster processors and more memory, a stronger metal body and always-on Siri.
But the biggest change is called 3D Touch: the touchscreen is now pressure-sensitive. Push in, and you can actually make things happen: new options pop up on the screen, offering you shortcuts without needing to actually go into an app. And that's just for starters.
Is that a big deal? In theory, yes. But its potential might take some time to be fully realized. That's all part of the plan: Previous "S" phones brought us Siri and Touch ID, for instance -- features that started out as novelties before becoming a core part of the iPhone experience the following year.
We're just beginning to review these new iPhones, but here's how 3D Touch works...and why it's more important than it might initially seem on the surface. We'll also delve into other features of the new iPhone, along with our initial impressions.
For a real-time look at how both new iPhones work in everyday life, check out my ongoing Twitter diary.
3D Touch: An extra dimension
It's hard for phones to pull off new tricks these days. What we know as a smartphone has become completely commodified stuff: touchscreen, apps, fast processor, camera. But we've grown used to touchscreens and how they work. You tap, you swipe. Apple's new 3D Touch adds a force-sensitive element to the touchscreen.
Why is it called 3D Touch as opposed to Force Touch, the name for similar tech in the Apple Watch and the new MacBook trackpads? As Apple explains it, the iPhone screen sensors can tell where you're pressing as well as how deep. Those are your three dimensions -- horizontal screen position, vertical position and depth.
3D Touch's biggest use out of the box is a way to create app shortcuts. Press in on apps that work with 3D Touch, and they pop out a new little menu. I can open mailboxes in mail, look at my movies in Videos, jump to an album in Music, or mark my location in Maps.
Most people are used to just tapping an app to open it. These menus let you jump ahead a bit, or even do things without opening the app. Will they save time? I'll have to see. Already, they make my front page of apps more dynamic: I can pull up menus almost like I would on Mac using the top toolbar.
Apps can allow "peeking in" to stuff in the app: press in on an email header, and see the whole email! Press in on a text message, and see the whole thread. Photos or news stories in the News app pop up for a quick preview, or links in emails and messages. Email or messages can be sorted: swipe left or right and you can trash or file messages.
With Apple's new, which automatically capture a few seconds motion and audio in regular snapshots, pressing down turns these still shots into little living moments.
You could theoretically, however, build all these "peeks" and shortcuts into iOS without pressure-sensitive 3D Touch: tap and hold could be used, if the delete-an-app function already assigned to that were moved somewhere else on the phone. But 3D Touch makes it all feel immediate: it's a second layer on top of the existingwe know.
Pressure-sensitive game controls, or art tools: The possibilities are wide open
There's a lot more 3D Touch could do. Instead of just a single layer of pop-up interaction, you could have multiple layers. Some games already take advantage of 3D Touch's analog-like range of sensitivity. AG Racer, a high-speed racing game, turns the one-finger thruster into a variable-pressure gas pedal. I could push down and speed up, or let up a bit around curves.
You can easily imagine other uses: All art apps should update to allow for pressure-sensitive brush strokes and sketching. Game controls could change function depending on how hard you press on a key. Music apps could have pressure-sensitive keyboards.
The new iPhones are the first to adopt this technology, but it's a clear shoo-in for iPads, and possibly all Apple products down the road. And Apple's shortcut tools could expand, and deepen, in the next version of iOS: It could relying on 3D Touch so much that even the venerable Home button might not be needed anymore. It's small steps, but 3D Touch clearly improves the entire concept of touchscreens.
Design: Feels (mostly) the same
No surprise, but the new iPhones have nearly identical feel and design. Put one in someone's hand -- assuming he or she missed the "S" logo on the back -- the only way they'd know it's a new model is that they're a tad heftier: the new models each weigh about 11 percent more, thanks to the new screen technology used (more on that later).
True, there is a new color now, called "rose gold" (it basically looks like a blush pink, same as the new Apple Watch color). But as far as looks go, this extra shade is the extent of the changes you'll be able to visually detect between this year's and last year's phones.
Apple's emphasis on hardware upgrades over design development follows the pattern that the Cupertino, California-based company has long established: Significant changes, including exterior design overhauls, come in the even years and more subtle internal updates in the odd.
Aerospace-grade aluminum and sturdier glass
Apple says that its phone may look the same as last year's model, but its iPhone 6S duo have achieved more inner strength. This time it uses a different grade of aluminum for its chassis, one that also has applications in the aerospace industry. They call it Series 7,000, and it's the same aluminum alloy Apple puts into its Apple Watch Sport. The company clearly hopes this reinforced material will help deflect against future "Bendgate" backlashes, where some customers complained that their 5.5-inch iPhone 6S phones "bent" after being sat on.
Apparently, a new type of chemically strengthened glass also tops the iPhone 6S, though the company hasn't confirmed if this is cover material from Corning's Gorilla Glass line or not.
New hardware inside
The biggest news here is the hugely upgraded front and rear cameras and video capability, but there are a few other tidbits here and there as well.
Cameras and video with more megapixels
A 12-megapixel camera is a huge jump for Apple, which has been holding onto its 8-megapixel sensors in its iPhone for years. Autofocus will pick up the pace, according to Apple, and color accuracy is a point of pride.
The 5-megapixel front-facing camera now brings the iPhone 6S on par with a lot of today's competing handsets. Of course, it includes the company's proprietary voice chat feature, FaceTime video. Here's something wildly different, though. Instead of including a dedicated flash for the front-facing camera, which only a few phones do, Apple is using the home screen to light up instead. This is meant to increase the brightness of those selfies even in low-light situations.
A few test selfies we've take so far looked really good, with crisper, richer color and details than previous iPhones.
A new feature you'll see in the camera, Live Photos, is a default mode that turns stills into a video or GIF -- basically, images that move. It's an automatic thing; all you have to do is take the picture like normal. When we took some shots in the crowded demo room, the iPhone seamlessly added Live Photo motion and sound. The Live Photo motion came out more like stop-motion or time lapse, however, than true video. It's also important to note that one Live Photo is about twice the file size as a regular photo -- and that it's similar to some other "motion photo" and short video alternatives already on the market. Couple that with the 4K video capabilities (more on that later), and you'll definitely need more storage space to accommodate.
Apple also joins rival phone makers in including 4K video recording, at 3,840x2,160-pixel resolution. You'll be able to take 8-megapixel camera photos while recording at this ultrahigh resolution. (The immediate benefit of shooting 4K video would be watching them later on a 4K TV, or a similarly high-res computer display.)
Just like last year's phones, the iPhone 6S Plus is the only model here with optical image stabilization, which helps correct blur from shaking hands -- especially when shooting objects at a distance.
Apple promised a faster second-generation fingerprint sensor at the iPhone's unveiling, and -- indeed -- it's zippier. In addition to unlocking your phone with lightning-fast speeds, this means your Apple Pay checkouts at Walgreens, Whole Foods and elsewhere will be even quicker.
Under the hood, we have an upgraded, proprietary A9 processor that continues Apple's theme of mystery when it comes to exactly what's going on in there. Though it's impossible to appreciate during our quick demo, what we do know is that this is Apple's third-generation 64-bit chip. Apple claims that the A9 is 70 percent faster than last year's A8 when it comes to the usual computing tasks (like opening an app, for example), and 90 percent faster at graphical tasks, like gaming.
Faster 4G LTE, Wi-Fi connections
The new iPhones have the fastest forms of LTE Advanced, if that's supported where you live, and they also include support for 802.11ac Wi-Fi, as well as MIMO technology (multiple input/multiple output). Long story short: it should deliver the fastest available Wi-Fi and better bandwidth -- when you're using compatible, state of the art access points.
Battery expectations: Same as last year
Don't expect a battery boost in the iPhone 6S. Apple has rated the 6S with the exact same battery expectations as its predecessor: 10-11 hours of Web browsing or 10 hours of HD video playback. In fact, the new iPhone has a slightly smaller battery in order to accommodate the extra space for that fancy Taptic Engine and screen tech. Despite the battery being a bit physically smaller, however, Apple has pledged that better power efficiency in the new hardware will yield the same rundown times as its older sibling.
As with last year, the larger size of the iPhone 6S Plus will give you longer battery life -- though that, too, is identical to the ratings of the 6 Plus from last year.
iOS 9 all the way
The two new iPhones run on iOS 9, mining all of those software enhancements, like a smarter Siri, better transit options in Apple Maps, an improved version of Notes, a bit of additional battery life, plus a new Low Power Mode. The updated operating system hit most earlier iPhones and iPads on September 16.
The iPhone 6S and its 5.5-inch twin, the 6S Plus, are available in stores around the globe as of September 25.
In the US, the 16GB version costs $650 outright and $100 on contract (see monthly installment pricing below). The 64GB version goes for $750 outright, and $200 on contract, and the 128GB model costs $850 all-in and the same $200 on contract (carrier contract rates may vary, so check yours for the final word -- we've rounded up the most prominent deals here).
In the UK, the iPhone 6S costs £539 (16GB), £619 (64GB) and £699 (128GB). The larger 6S Plus goes for £619, £699 and £789, respectively.
In Australia, the iPhone 6S is AU$1,079 (16GB), AU$1,229 (64GB) and AU$1,379 (128GB). The 6S Plus sells for AU$1,229, AU$1,379 and AU$1,529, respectively.
iPhone Upgrade Program
Apple has also introduced a new pricing plan, for the US only for now, that starts at $32 per month (for the 16GB version iPhone 6S) for 24 months, with the option to upgrade to a new iPhone each year, say from the 6S to next year's 7, to the 7S, and so on. (Apple sales numbers are healthier when you don't hold onto your phone for two years or longer.)
By way of example, US pricing breaks down like this. You'll need to check local retailers for support where you live.
||iPhone 6S||iPhone 6S Plus|
Stay tuned for additional hands-on testing and impressions.
CNET Editor Jason Parker contributed to this story.
Editors' note: A version of this story was published on September 9, 2015, and has been updated extensively since then.