Apple unveils iPhone 6S with 12-megapixel camera, new rose gold color; preorders begin Sept 12 (hands-on)

Just as we expected, Apple announced the next versions of its best-selling smartphones, the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, at its annual launch event in San Francisco. Also as we expected, the iPhone 6S looks identical to last year's 4.7-inch iPhone 6, reserving its most important changes for the hardware interior.

True, there is a new color now, called rose gold (it basically looks like a blush pink, same as the new Apple Watch color option that the company announced). But as far as looks go, this extra shade is the extent of the 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-based company has long established: significant changes come in the even years and incremental updates in the odd. It's a move that could alienate buyers as much cheaper "premium" handsets compete with titans like Apple for marketshare.

However, significant updates to the iPhone 6S' camera technology, a new form of pressure-sensitive navigation called 3D Touch, and a faster processor all combine to keep the next-generation phone looking competitive enough to counter other top-tier handsets as we approach the year-end holiday rush.

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 has achieved more inner strength. This time it uses a different grade of aluminum for its chassis, one that's also used 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.

Brand new 'force' touch
Apple has included a variation of Force Touch, which you find in different capacities on the Apple Watch and on some Mac trackpads. Called 3D Touch here, the iPhone 6S phones will adopt the same pressure-sensitive capability that calls up secondary menus and actions when you press and hold the screen.
The iPhone 6S features a pressure-sensitive display which adds more functionality to its apps.

Press down and you can pull up context-sensitive menus, switch apps, or examine photos. But it's a subtle riff on what already exists on iPhones: tapping and holding.
Another use is to access shortcuts from the home screen for your most frequent actions, say messaging a friend. And if you're in your email inbox, applying fingertip pressure to an element in the message will surface more information, like maybe the flight number on an emailed travel itinerary, for instance. (Apple called this concept "peeking in" during the live demo.)
Pressing harder on an app will likewise generate more options, like viewing all the photos of a contact's Instagram photo stream. In the context of a game, pressing harder could zoom you in to get closer to the action.
(Apple hasn't explicitly sad this, but we're thinking that renaming Force Touch as 3D Touch makes for better PR. "Force," while accurate in that you're applying pressure, has some pretty negative social connotations. But that's just us.)

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.

The iPhone now has a 12-megapixel camera that can shoot ultra high-def 4K video.

Touch ID
The second-generation sensor promises to snap open the phone faster than before. Hopefully fingerprint authentication will also speed up.

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 LTE, Wi-Fi connections

Apple says it'll have the fastest forms of LTE Advanced, if that's supported where you live, and will also include support for the latest, greatest Wi-Fi networks.

iOS 9 all the way

The two new iPhones will run on iOS 9, mining all of those software enhancements, like a smarter Siri and up to three hours longer battery life, plus a new Low Power Mode. The updated operating system, which is currently in public beta, will arrive for phones on September 16. Meanwhile, read our full rundown of iOS 9 here.

Pricing and availability

The iPhone 6S (and its 5.5-inch twin, the 6S Plus,) will be open for preorder on September 12, with phones arriving in stores around the globe on September 25.

In the US, the 16GB version that starts at $200 on contract (the 6S Plus will cost $300 on contract).

In the UK, the iPhone 6S costs £540 (16GB), £620 (64GB) and £700 (128GB). In contrast, the 6S Plus will go for £620, £700 and £790, respectively.

In Australia, the iPhone 6S costs AU$1,079 (16GB), AU$1,229 (64GB) and AU$1,379 (128GB). The 6S Plus will go for AU$1,229, AU$1,379 and AU$1,529, respectively.

iPhone Upgrade Program

A little differently this year, Apple also introduces a pricing plan 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

Big enough changes?

Every year we ask ourselves if the enhancements to the S-series of iPhone are worth the purchase. This year, like every year, the answer is that it depends which phone you currently have.

If it's an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus, the only truly compelling upgrade is to the camera, which certainly sounds like a huge jump on paper. The iPhone 6 already takes terrific photos, so there's a lot of promise there for mobile photographers and avid selfie-shooters who can benefit from that front-facing flash. However, you don't really gain a whole lot of other functionality besides.

If you're holding onto an iPhone 5S or earlier, the iPhone 6S is going to feel fast, fresh and powerful by comparison.

However, if you already use a premium Android phone, the iPhone 6S won't offer too much that's brand-new in the form of novel features. Google's voice assistant already outperforms Siri on search accuracy and breadth of things it can do, and that will only expand with the next version of Google's Android software.

Are features like live photos and 3D Touch compelling enough to upgrade?

Apple's 3D Touch will be a neat addition, though not a crucial one. Mostly, phone owners interested in switching from Android to iOS will do so because of other motivations, like wanting to stick with the same software environment if they have other Apple devices, or because they want to try out a new software look and feel.
Ultimately, the iPhone 6S is shaping up to be a very nice incremental upgrade to an already high-performing handset. For the really novel changes, though, prepare to wait another year.

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