SAN FRANCISCO—The first thing you notice when you pick up the new iPhone 6s and 6s Plus is that both models are almost indistinguishable from the current iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. They are two millimeters thicker and a tiny bit heavier than their siblings, which—along with the new, stronger 7000-series aluminum alloy—implies that Apple felt the need to bulk the device up in response to the Bendgate issue from last year. Regardless, those differences are imperceptible in the hand. That’s why I predict the new Rose Gold color will sell well—it’s the only way to show strangers that you have a new device. When it comes to functionality, Apple has made just two major changes, to the cameras and the multi-touch functionality.
The new iPad Pro is a much greater departure from what came before. The whole point of the tablet is to be a larger version of the iPad Air 2, but it still feels surprisingly big when you pick it up. The 12.9-inch screen offers a significant amount of extra surface area—in fact, it’s designed to be the size of two iPad minis side-by-side. That allows the iPad Pro to run and display two apps simultaneously, which is a trick that many tablets—and even some phones—have been doing for some time now.
First, the iPad Pro
The new tablet is fast and highly responsive, and on first look the screen is impressive (though we’ll reserve final judgment until we see it in our labs). There seem to be two natural ways to use the device—either propped up on a table or resting on your arm like a clipboard, but in contrast to the smaller iPads, it feels awkward to hold it in two hands like a book.
Perhaps that’s why Apple felt the device needed two accessories: the Smart Keyboard and the Apple Pencil (the name got laughs during the announcement). The Keyboard serves the iPad Pro in tabletop mode. It snaps on magnetically, but only on one side, where there is a power and data connection. It’s pretty easy to type on—the keys are responsive and have a satisfying amount of travel. Still, it folds up rather awkwardly and everyone who I saw try it had some trouble setting it up.
The Pencil seems ideal if you plan to cradle the iPad Pro in your arms. Drawing and writing longhand with the Pencil is far more precise than with a finger, but don’t expect it to translate your chicken-scratch automatically. According to an Apple representative at the event, it doesn’t perform handwriting recognition—although third-party developers could make that work. The Pencil has an internal rechargeable battery with a Lightning charger under a cap where an eraser would be in a real pencil. Apple claims you’ll get about a full day’s use per charge—and you can charge it directly from the iPad Pro. But don’t expect the Pencil to work with other iPads. This $100 accessory only works with the Pro.
The iPad Pro presents a dilemma to the shopper. If you get the 128 gigabyte Wi-Fi-only version with the Smart Keyboard, you’re at $1,120, that’s more than $100 more than a 130-inch MacBook Air with similar storage. Add the pen and you’re in MacBook Pro territory. Seems a lot to spend on something that’s sort of like a laptop, but still not quite a laptop.
New Phone Cameras
When it comes the iPhones, the most noticeable hardware upgrades arrive in the cameras. The rear-facing iSight camera went from 8 megapixels in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus to 12 megapixels in the new versions, and it can now also take 4K video at 30 frames per second. The front-facing Facetime camera has been improved from 1.2 megapixels to 5 megapixels. We asked Apple if we could take a few quick photos with the devices to display here, but they wouldn’t let us offload any images from the devices—so that will have to wait until we get them in our labs a few weeks from now. Apple did show us some of the photos they had taken with the phones, and these all looked—unsurprisingly—gorgeous.
We also tried out the Live Photo function, which automatically captures a few seconds before and after a photo to animate it. This is something HTC pioneered a few years ago with its One (M7) phone. It’s a cool effect, but it can be a bit tricky to use if you’re used to taking quick snapshots. All of Apple’s pre-made Live Photos of waterfalls and smiling children looked almost spookily alive—just like the pictures in a Harry Potter newspaper. But when we took one spontaneously at the event, it looked jerky and unplanned. If people want to use this functionality effectively, they’ll have to keep the phone steady and convince their children to hold those smiles a little longer.
3D Touch Enables New Gestures
Apple loves its branding, so I'm not sure why the company isn’t just sticking with the “Force Touch” name for this technology, which it uses for the Apple Watch and the MacBook. The underlying effect is essentially the same. The new 6s and 6s Plus have sensors built into the backlight that can detect force, and haptic feedback that makes if feel as if you have pressed a button when you push into the screen. If you’ve tried the new MacBook, you’ve experienced the effect—when the device is off, it feels as if you’re pushing against a solid object, but when you power it on, the screen (or in the case of the MacBook, the trackpad) seems to give a little when you press it.
It’s kind of fun and non-intuitive at the same time. Press on app icons in the home screen, and mini shortcut menus pop up (the phone app shows you contacts from your favorite list, for instance). Tap on an email and you can preview the attachment. Or you can look at photos you’ve taken without leaving the camera app. But it’s not always clear where in iOS 9 you can use 3D Touch: Sometimes a push just gives you a shivering feedback, as if to shake you off of an interaction that’s not possible.
And the feature can also create problems. Since there are only so many ways you can touch a touchscreen, and all of them tend to do something, 3D Touch can collide with other parts of the interface. For instance, when we rested our finger on the screen too long without pressing down, all the icons started shivering—inviting us to rearrange or delete some of them. Regardless of that quibble, though, it’s clear that Apple’s onto something here.
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