Sunday, 11 October 2015

Why I Returned My iPhone 6S

So after two weeks, I returned my iPhone 6S to the Apple Store. Actually, it was a few hours beyond Apple's two week return window as I bought the 6S during the morning launch. They weren’t going to hold that against me. 

For now, I’ve gone back to my iPhone 5S. This post is going to be about some of the reasons what I liked about the 6S, what I didn’t like about it, and what ultimately made me decide to return the phone. It’s a two week personal mini-review of sorts, though you already know the conclusion.

What I Liked About The 6S

Screen Size! Coming from the 5S, of course the most obvious difference with the new phone was the jump up from a 4.0” display to 4.7”. A lot of things are nicer on a bigger phone display. Keyboard typing feels less cramped and watching a video on my phone actually feels like something I would want to do. Light reflectance seemed to be reduced on the new 6S as well. Overall, it was a nice display in daily use.

New Cameras! This was a big draw for me. I wasn’t so much fussed about the improvements to the rear camera. 8MP -> 12MP is basically irrelevant to me. I almost never blow up photos from a smartphone to a size where more megapixels would make a difference. Honestly I would prefer if they kept megapixels down to improve low light sensitivity, but it seems like most people just like their numbers bigger. Eight megapixels good, twelve megapixels better? Don’t get me started on 4K video recording. 
for a 84-inch screen, 4k resolution isn’t fully apparent until you are at least 5.5 feet or closer to the screen. For a “tiny” 55-inch screen, you’ll need to be 3.5 feet or closer. ~ 
4K video is just another industry marketing buzz word that offers no perceptual improvement that could actually be perceived by users in normal scenarios, much like ultra high DPI phone displays or 24bit music files. But feel free to disagree.

Improved autofocus on the 6S is a nice touch, though oddly enough in the two weeks I had the 6S I actually ended up taking very few pictures.
I was actually more excited about the improvements to the ‘selfie’ camera. Not that I take a lot of selfies, but I do the occasional Periscope stream and it would be nice to have the front facing camera on a somewhat similar level of quality to the rear camera. Again, I didn’t actually end up testing the 6S’s selfie game all that much in two weeks. I guess I have to work on my vanity.

Touch ID! This was probably the second most noticeable improvement over the 5S: the fingerprint reader was now so accurate that I almost NEVER got a misread, even right after washing my hands. This is compared to the 5S, which I find will reject even slightly wet fingers. That sounds weird, but isn’t.

In fact, the fingerprint reader on the new 6S was sometimes TOO fast. I found that in many situations where I simply wanted to bring up the lock screen to change the currently playing track or glance at notifications, the sensor would read my print with no delay and unlock the phone. I know the phone wants to flex its fingerprint reading muscles, but it should do a better job of differentiating between hitting the button quickly to bring up the lock screen, and laying down a finger to unlock the phone.

Still, that’s an easy software fix, and in day to day use it was a blessing just to have basically zero read errors.

3D Touch! I think 3D touch is a great idea. Touch interfaces don’t have any concept of mouse hover or right click, which is how we’ve been able to build up more complex interfaces on PCs without putting a million buttons everywhere. Touch and hold (for instance, rearranging app icons on the home screen) is a poor substitute, because it feels awkward and is too often accidentally triggered. Pressure sensitive touch is a really intuitive way to bring up contextual menus.

While I didn’t have many applications that used it to its full potential, I did find myself using it most commonly to jump right into writing a new tweet on Twitter, or scanning an iTunes Card barcode, or identifying a song on Shazam. I also used it to preview web links just to check for headline updates, etc. It wasn’t a game changer, but I feel like as time goes on it will be better supported and very useful. At the very least, I hope it will allow them to clean up the Music app, which frankly is a mess of interface buttons now.

What I DIDN’T LIKE About The 6S

Screen Size! Yeah, I know, I know. Everyone likes big screens on their phone. Even I can see the attractions of a larger display. Maybe I have withered tiny T-Rex hands though, but I just don’t find screen sizes above 4.5” very comfortable. I’ve had enough bad experiences with dropping phones to grip my 5S like a hand grenade: fingers wrapped around the left edge of the phone, with the thumb able to reach any point on the screen including the home button.

With larger phones (and I had the same experience during my brief  dalliance with a Nexus 5) I’ve found that you must hold the phone by balancing it on the pads of your fingers. This feels okay, but it means you have less grip on your phone. I don’t feel quite as secure with this arrangement around town. You can curl your little finger under the bottom edge of the phone to add stability, but for me this meant that I could no longer reach the top area of the display, where important things are, like say, I dunno, the URL address bar. And yes, I know that Reachability exists. Reachability is a thing where you double tap on the home button so that the iPhone slides the entire screen down so that you can reach the top of the interface. Reachability is an ugly, awkward design hack.

Where a larger display becomes particularly awkward to use is situations where you want to raise the phone parallel to your face - using it in bed for instance. It doesn’t help that the aluminium casing of the phone, or the official Apple Silicone Case, offer very very little friction. I ended up switching to a clear rubber/plastic case for most of my two weeks. That helped, but not enough.

On the last two days of my 14 day return window I switched back to my 5S just to work out if I really was going to be happy with going back to a smaller phone. I was surprised to find that my immediate reaction wasn’t one of frustration at being forced down to the smaller display. Sure, it’s smaller. Sure I would have to use Reader view for more websites in Safari.

But actually my strongest feeling, returning to a smaller phone, was relief. Here is a phone that I could really comfortably use in one hand. Feels good man.

Unfortunately, I’m in the minority here. The market has signalled very strongly that they prefer larger phones. I’m increasingly sounding like a cranky old man who can’t cope with all these newfangled giant phone sizes. I find that even ’smaller’ phones, like the 4.6” Sony Xperia Z5 Compact, have the same problems that I’ve listed above, though the Sony is a little better since it is has narrower bezels. And with the larger displays, developers are making apps that look increasingly cramped on small displays. Again, I repeat: the Apple Music app is a mess on a 4” display.

I've played with the original 4.5" Moto G. I liked that. I really liked that. Can we please have that screen size for a flagship or a near flagship phone? Please? Pretty please?

Battery Life I was expecting the 6S to have better battery life than my now two-year old 5S. It did, a bit. But it wasn’t an improvement big enough to make any practical difference to how I used the phone. On a heavy use day I was still down to 50% by midday and charging with a portable charger by mid-afternoon. Maybe I could delay plugging in the charger by half an hour or an hour. I had a Samsung chipped 6S, if that makes any difference.

What’s The Buzz? This was actually not my biggest problem with the 6S, though it’s the one that I was most vocal about. My 6S unit produced buzzing over the headphone jack during processor activity, which I could hear in a quiet room with sensitive earphones. I checked the noise, and checked the Apple Store demo units for the noise, and it was present on every single model I tested. I even did recordings of the noise from 8 demo units of the 6S and 6S+. I must have looked pretty crazy doing it. I’ve also received a few user comments from people who have noticed the noise on their units. The issue isn’t specific to my unit, and it seems either batch specific or design related.

Early on I got in touch with Apple Support, who escalated the issue to engineering, but honestly as time went on I got more discouraged. I don’t expect Apple to openly acknowledge a performance regression that is only going to be an issue for a tiny minority of users. Some users have even heard the noise on their car stereos using cassette adaptors and the like. We're doing a bit of detective work in this Head-Fi thread.

Apple never made any claims about the iPhone being some amazing audiophile player, so I’m not going to criticise them in the same way that I criticised the Sony NWZ-ZX1, though I think an intermittent buzzing noise on the 6S is much worse than the consistent hissing on the Sony. Maybe Apple will quietly make a revision on future units to reduce the noise. 

In the end I was asking myself - if Apple could suddenly fix the noise, would I still want the phone? And the answer was, no, not for the

Price! The 6S cost me well over a $1k Australian dollars. I know that things can’t be perfect. The exchange rate has made electronics prices in Australia pretty ugly. But my personal purchasing power aside, it’s the most expensive phone I’ve ever bought. I pretty much expect, for the price, that it would offer me a substantial improvement, across the board, in my day to day use of the phone. It didn’t quite. It gave me a bunch of upgrades that were nice to have, in a package that I found more physically awkward and disappointing on the audio side of things. Maybe my feelings have been poisoned by the whole buzzing issue, but it is what it is. I liked the 6S, but none of the improvements felt like essential upgrades. Maybe phones are just really good now.

I would like to have a nicer camera, and better battery life, and a better fingerprint sensor and a smaller display. And it doesn’t even have to be an iPhone! I could get all of those things at the more palatable $899 AUD price of the Sony Xperia Z5 Compact. Switching to Android might mean I have to rebuy a bunch of new apps and sell my Apple Watch, but now that Apple Music is being ported over to Android my biggest potential pain point with Android is gone.

Then again, I could just not upgrade at all for now. Wait around and see what happens. Maybe they will release a new iPhone 6C with the same physical dimensions as the 5S, but narrower bezels to accommodate a slightly larger display. Maybe they will release a smaller Android phone that I’ll be stoked about. Who knows? Save tomorrow for tomorrow; think about today instead.

For now I’ll just stick with my 5S. Maybe put the money saved towards a Playstation 4 or something. I feel like, in terms of sheer joy per dollar value, that’s a better proposition.

Let me know what you think, but please in the comments, don’t recommend phones that are larger than the 6S. I know you mean well. GET OFF MY LAWN