/A Retrospective Review: The iPhone 6S.

A Retrospective Review: The iPhone 6S.

As of this writing, we’re currently in the 7th month of 2017, and in a few short months, Summer will have come to an end, and my somewhat faithful mobile companion will have been on the market for two years.

Normally, any phone I own doesn’t make it half a year let alone a year before I replace it for something completely different and proceeding to never look back. Furthermore, if you found me in 2015 and told me that I’d be gladly toting a two year old phone in 2017, I’d have called you crazy.

Yet, here we are. I’ve flirted with many a different phone, and I still feel a connection to my 6s Plus that I just haven’t really felt with any other phone.

So, let’s talk about the 6s Plus (and the 6s, I’ve used both), and how I feel it holds up in 2017 almost two years after it was announced.

From a hardware standpoint, there’s really not a whole lot going on that makes the 6s feel like any less of a phone than the iPhone 7. The 7 didn’t do much to deviate from the design language set by the iPhone 6 way back in 2014. Sure, you can spot the differences pretty easily; a reworked antenna band design, different camera lens design, and different color choices make the 7 easy to spot from a crowd of previous generation iPhones, but the 7 still maintains the same rounded aluminum chassis that the 6 introduced in 2014.

As such, the 6 doesn’t feel dated in the slightest. Although that may change with 2017’s iPhones, that remains to be seen.

Under the hood, a lot has changed between then and now. The iPhone 6s uses the A9 processor, which is a dual-core CPU. The 7 uses an A10 Fusion, which is a quad-core CPU (that works like two dual-core CPUs. One is for low-power operations, the other for pure performance). And while the benchmarks would have you believe the A10 is head and shoulders above the A9, the truth is that you’re not going to really notice in day-to-day use unless you use some intensive apps that require the CPU grunt that the A10 can handily provide.

Get this, too: The A9 still beats anything Qualcomm is putting out in single-core performance (which is where the magic sauce is). You can toss all the cores you want at the problem, single-core performance matters a bit more than these people would have you believe; just ask AMD back when their flagship silicon was the AMD FX series. Multiple things hamstrung the FX chips but one of the huge ones was lackluster single-core performance in comparison with their Intel counterparts.

The real star of the show for the 6s is the NVMe-backed storage. Thanks to Apple slipping in that neat little addition, the 6s has been able to punch way above its class even two years later. The phone feels wicked fast. Now, I still believe nothing will beat the speed of iOS 6 paired with the iPhone 5 way back in 2012, but goodness, the 6s (and by extension, the 7) comes real close. Storage speed makes a huge difference and is one of the big reasons why the 6s is able to age with such amazing grace.

Compare and contrast with even the iPhone 6, or iPhone 5s when they shared the stage with their more powerful brethren. I actually had a 128GB iPhone 6 Plus around the time the 6s launched, and the phone had already begun to feel dated performance wise, though again, that was only helped by the 6s shipping with the significantly faster storage. (Seriously, storage speed makes a world of difference in perceived speed. Take an old PC and drop an SSD into it and I guarantee you that you’ll be absolutely floored by the performance delta.)

Better yet, these under-the-hood changes allow for the 6s to have some amazing potential longevity in the grand scheme of things. Apple’s iOS devices typically receive an unparalleled amount of support over time. A good example is the iPhone 4S, which saw iOS 9 when many people thought it’d be dropped in at least iOS 8. The iPhone 5 is the same way: It got to see iOS 10 all the way through and is only just now getting dropped from software support with iOS 11. Both of these devices shipped with iOS 5 and iOS 6, respectively, meaning they both saw four major version updates and all of the bugfix updates in between. That can’t be mentioned enough.

If we look over at the Android side of things, the difference becomes even more profound: My Galaxy S7 Edge was decently fast with random bits of lag here and there (as Samsung’s take on Android is wont to do), but when it got the Nougat update (almost a half year after it actually released), it became much slower in day-to-day tasks. Performance was still decent-ish across the board but the random lag spikes made prevalent in the update made the S7 feel slower than it actually was. That whole debacle is what caused me to go back to iOS.

(To disclose a fact: I haven’t spent a lot of time with the Exynos version of the S7, so I cannot verify the claims that they’re a good bit faster than their Qualcomm-equipped counterparts. I feel it’s important to note, though, as there is apparently a significant performance delta between the two versions. Also, any device running a clean version of Android such as the Nexus 6P, Pixel, or the various Motorola phones will have a much much easier time keeping pace as the load is a lot lighter on those phones. I mean, for good example, my Nexus 6P easily outran the LG G Flex 2 and HTC One M9. Though admittedly the latter two phones had the flawed version of the Snapdragon 810 so maybe this is less to do with the software after all. This is a novel for another article.)

I could write endlessly about how the iPhone 6s still performs stupidly well in 2017, but all you need to know is that the 6s is still a serious contender of a phone in the performance department. I’m definitely sure there are some very nice improvements to be had in the 7 and the A10 Fusion chip that Apple has gone with, but it doesn’t make the 6s feel obsolete like the 6s did to the 6.

Coming around to some other features, the camera performance of the 6s is still sublime. It still takes great low-light shots, and the optical image stabilization of the 6s Plus has saved my bacon many a time when my hands are too shaky to take a decent shot. This is where vanilla 6s owners may feel slightly behind the times, as the iPhone 7 does feature OIS where it was previously limited to the Plus variants.

The iPhone 7 Plus also has its telephoto lens, but the 6s Plus still holds its own (in my opinion) with zoomed shots. It’s a world of difference if you do a lot of zoomed shots but for the occasional zoomed photo the digital zoom of the 6s/Plus won’t kill you with mediocrity. The iPhone 7 does also have a slight edge in low light but none of this is to say the 6s has a terrible camera strapped to its back, it still takes excellent shots.

Wrapping this retrospective up and taking a look at the big picture here, I might be ruffling some feathers by saying this, but I believe the 6s is the last truly great iPhone we have before us (barring Apple potentially knocking it out of the park in a couple of months). The 6s was truly a no-compromise phone. It took the sleek design of the 6, and fixed everything wrong with it. It added the Taptic Engine, which has to be felt to be believed. It had rudimentary water resistance, so if your phone got splashed there was a better chance of it surviving the encounter. The battery life was easily good enough, and it has a headphone jack.

You never, ever felt like you were giving up anything with the 6s. It had everything and delivered on all fronts. And, if you’re on T-Mobile USA, it was the iPhone that finally gave you Band 12 LTE after Android phones have had it for at least a year prior.

The successor to the 6s isn’t exactly a bad phone per se; I’d argue it’s still a decent phone and your dear author has been tempted by the red/matte black color many, many times. (So, so hot. Ugh.) But the 7 has a load of trade-offs all around: You’re asked to give up your headphone jack in exchange for dongle hell, or Bluetooth and all of its foibles. You’re asked to again worry about which iPhone 7 you’re getting, as (at least in the US), Verizon and Sprint models will work on every carrier, but the T-Moible and AT&T variants will not work on Verizon/Sprint/any CDMA carrier due to their Intel-sourced modems (that are, in and of themselves, of inferior quality to the Qualcomm modems).

Sure, you get a beefier Taptic Engine and full waterproofing, but you end up having to ask yourself if it’s worth what you lose. The 6s never, ever presented that question. The 6s said “here’s everything including the kitchen sink”.

Getting down to the point, however: Would I recommend the 6s/Plus in 2017? Without a doubt, if you’re looking for an iPhone that delivers everything, it’s a no-brainer. Yes. The 6s/Plus is still a hell of a phone, and it’s even cheaper if you buy used. If you can fit into the compromises and trade-offs presented by the iPhone 7, those aren’t exactly bad phones, but the 6s is easily the iPhone for you if you can’t. It gives you enough of everything, and with the NVMe storage, 2GB of RAM (plenty for iOS) and Apple’s impeccable track record with software update longevity, the 6s will remain a viable device for years to come.