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Apple iPhone 6S review: The oldest iPhone can't compete with Apple's newer models

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The improved camera: Live Photos, 4K video recording and more

What do Live Photos do? Apple's new camera innovation records a second and a half before, and a second and a half after you snap any shot on your phone, with front or rear cameras. I took a bunch of photos, and then forgot about it. Later on, I realized that all my photos had bits of video and audio attached. Press down, and I could see the photos become little videos, of sorts. Or animated GIFs with audio.

They don't look like normal videos, exactly: they're more like time lapses. The images skip a bit, like a flipbook. It has a bit of a magical, distancing feel. These end up seeming like little mementos.

If I forget to take a video one day, which I often do, these could act as substitutes. But where do I share them, how do I collate them? Apple is opening up ways to let these Live Photos be seen elsewhere. Right now you can send them to other iPhone users, make them your lock screen wallpaper, or send them to the Apple Watch. I want them on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat. I want these to be instant GIFs. Then I'd love them. They'll come, eventually. (Facebook, Getty Images and Weibo are three apps that should support them soon) Right now, I feel like I wouldn't really use them much; on the other hand, I could see a whole new subgenre of pet and kid photos -- again, once the sharing problem gets resolved. But they might make me stop wanting to take so many short videos.

Farmer's market bounty, using iPhone 6S.

Scott Stein/CNET

4K video recording doesn't make a huge impact on your phone or when watching on most TVs. That's because most people don't have 4K televisions -- yet. Thankfully, PC monitors do support 4K and so does YouTube. And adding the ultra high-def video format to the new iPhones puts them on better footing with GoPro cameras. That added 4K, and new extremely smooth wobble-free optical image stabilization for video (on the 6S Plus model only), push this iPhone's video chops up another notch. The only trade-off is space: as with Live Photos, 4K video will take up more precious room on the phone's internal storage. Yet another reason to avoid that too-small 16GB entry-level model.

Shot on the iPhone 6S.

Scott Stein/CNET

The rear camera takes better photos, but I didn't always appreciate much of a difference in everyday casual use. The front-facing camera, however, is miles better. Pictures are crisp! You can take flash selfies that really work, and don't blind you!

Selfie in complete darkness worked like a charm. (Flipped on side for convenient viewing)

Scott Stein/CNET

Optical image stabilization on the 6S Plus, both for photos and videos, isn't needed for normal everyday use. But it makes zoomed-in or dimly-lit photos crisper, and it keeps active videos moving a lot more smoothly. For pro use, or those who don't own any other camera other than their iPhone, I'd get the 6S Plus. Most people would be fine with the 6S.

For lots more in-depth deep dives with the iPhone 6S Plus cameras, check out Andrew Hoyle's selfie shoot-out, low-light camera test and outdoor camera test, where you can see more examples of how the 6S Plus camera fares. The 6S Plus front-facing FaceTime camera is identical to the 6S: the rear iSight camera looks a little better in low-light conditions.

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Switching between apps is a breeze.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Team speed

The S stands for speed, as has been the case for years. The 6S does it several ways: a faster A9 processor, double the RAM, speedier wireless via improved Wi-Fi antennas and access to faster LTE data networks (LTE Advanced), and quicker Touch ID sensors on the home button.

Unlocking the iPhone from Touch ID is now so fast that I barely saw the lock screen at all. One click, you're in. And if you're running multiple apps at once, like I usually am, these new phones handle app-switching a lot more smoothly...while "remembering" your previous app's status better. Jumping between Netflix, Geometry Wars 3 and Safari was a piece of cake.

3DMark Ice Storm -- Unlimited

Apple iPhone 6
17182
Apple iPhone 6 Plus
17565
LG G4
18611
Motorola Moto X Pure
19725
Samsung Galaxy S6
20778
Samsung Galaxy Note 5
24589
Apple iPhone 6S
27698
Apple iPhone 6S Plus
28080

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench3

Apple iPhone 6 Plus
1619
2881
Apple iPhone 6
1628
2947
LG G4
1046
2981
Motorola Moto X Pure
1271
3528
Apple iPhone 6S Plus
2403
4240
Apple iPhone 6S
2527
4402
Samsung Galaxy S6
1371
4608
Samsung Galaxy Note 5
1488
4939

Legend:

single-core
multi-core

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Like many other years, these speed boosts mean the phone feels snappier. iOS 9 sometimes feels a tad un-snappy on the iPhone 6, while it runs buttery-smooth on the 6S. In terms of raw benchmarks, these iPhones are blazing fast: they're faster than last year's iPad Air 2. But of course, you're using that power on a smaller screen, and with no true split-screen multitasking.

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Expect similar battery life compared to last year.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Battery life: Same as last year

One thing that really hasn't changed is one something I've wanted more of for years...battery. The batteries are actually smaller in this year's 6S and 6S Plus phones, but deliver similar battery life over a regular day of use. I needed to top off my iPhone before night on the 6S when using it heavily (and with a Jawbone Up3 and Apple Watch paired to it), just like I did with the iPhone 6. The 6S Plus can handle a whole day, and a bit more.

We ran our standard lab video-playback test, putting the iPhone 6S in Airplane mode, and got 10.5 hours of battery life. That's not what you'll use your iPhone for, but it shows that the basic battery potential lands similarly to last year's iPhone 6 using iOS 8. On our iOS 9 battery tests across devices, we didn't find that the OS upgrade affected the standard lab-based battery playback test. Its impact comes into play over everyday use.

There are new power-saving modes in iOS 9 that can eke out more use at the end of the day, and I found those to eke out a bit more of what I needed. Still, I found myself having to conserve by the time the sun set. Next year, I'd love to see batteries get a bit bigger...not the other way around.

Editor's note: This year's iPhone 6S A9 processor is made by two different manufacturers, and your phone either has one or the other. According to Apple, battery performance between the two variants (TSMC and Samsung) only varies by around 2 to 3 percent. We are doing our own testing, and will update this when we have definitive answers. Our review iPhones had processors made by TSMC, and didn't exhibit any performance issues.

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Plus advantages: battery, screen, camera perks.

Josh Miller/CNET

6S Plus: The pro phone

The iPhone I really want is the one that has the Plus features (battery life, better camera, higher-res screen) in a regular-iPhone size. Apple offers you the choice of one or the other, but not both. The 6S is sized right, and it's more than enough for nearly anyone. The Plus offers something more like "Pro" features: meaning, it'll be a better all-day battery workhorse, feel more like a tablet because of that larger screen size, and yes, it generally takes reliably better photos and videos.

I lived with an iPhone 6 Plus for months after using an iPhone 6, then switched back again. Optical image stabilization (OIS), which is only in the Plus, doesn't make a big difference for everyday use in broad daylight, but can make for much clearer blur-free photos in darker conditions or when using digital zoom. If you rely on your iPhone as your everyday camera, especially for work purposes (as I do at press events), that makes a difference. And yes, it's worth that extra $100.

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Do you lease, or buy?

Phones are like cars. Some people really don't think about what year their car is: they buy one and use it until they need a new one. Others lease their cars. They want a new ride all the time.

Apple offers a lot of options, and they're all pretty good. Last year's iPhone 6 remains a great phone, but if you've waited a while to buy a new phone, spend up and get the 6S: it has enough new things to easily make it worthwhile. If you want a 6S, get the 64GB or 128GB model. Live Photos and 4K video chew up storage space, and 16GB is not enough anyway. Want to save money? Get last year's 64GB iPhone 6 instead for the price of this year's 16GB iPhone 6S.

Get a 6S Plus if you're really serious about photos and video, as in a professional, or someone who wants to record the very best family home movies since the Plus does take better photos and videos. It's worth the extra $100 for that, the larger screen and better battery, but it won't fit all pants (or budgets). Most people will still do perfectly fine with the 6S. I'd buy the Plus in a heartbeat if it was just a bit smaller. It's really big, even compared to other large-screened Android phones.

The easiest recommendation: iPhone 6S, 64GB.

I haven't mentioned Android phones to this point. What you should know is that the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus are extremely fast compared to current Android phones, have cameras that are basically best in class (or close enough that it'll feel like the same thing), and have screen sizes that are competitive. You're picking an iPhone for its software-hardware synergy, the tuned design, and, of course, its apps and software. There are plenty of great Android phones. The iPhone is well above most of them.

Now, you might be the person who saves up to buy a new phone, waiting for the right time to upgrade. Or maybe you're part of one of the increasingly common plans that allows you to get a new phone each year. If you're the former, I'd say this: it's an excellent time to buy, unless you own last year's iPhone 6.

For the average person, the new iPhone 6S features won't be shockingly new. You could use one of last year's iPhone 6 models and be more than okay. Those are still great phones, too.

But under the hood, this iPhone's got a much better engine. It's got a lot of potential. It's easily one of the very best smartphones on the planet. And it's the iPhone to get if you've been waiting for an upgrade, or a phone plan that allows you to step into a new phone easily.

To some people, a new phone every year is worth more than any other gadget. If you're that person, you know that already. But otherwise, this is the go-ahead-and-buy-it iPhone for those who have held off so long they didn't know when the right time was. It's highly polished and refined. I can't say my life was changed using the iPhone 6S, but I can say it's a really good year-over-year hardware improvement. The 7 will undoubtedly get a facelift, but this model's got everything you need. Except, maybe, a better battery.

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