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Apple iPhone 6s: 3D Touch takes a bow

Those who want to skip straight to the specs will find all the details at the end of this review, in an easily digestible format. There, you’ll find sections on performance, battery life, screen quality and differences in design – everything you need to draw a direct comparison between the iPhone 6s, the 6 and its key rivals.

What those benchmark numbers and test results can’t tell you, however, is what Apple’s new phone is like to use. Because despite the fact that this is an S release – which is usually supposed to herald boosted performance, a better camera and little else – the iPhone 6s is something more. Thanks to 3D Touch, the iPhone 6s represents the biggest leap forward for smartphones since the very first iPhone back in 2007.

The reason for this is 3D Touch, Apple’s new take on touchscreen interaction. Put simply, the iPhone 6s is designed to respond not only to where and how long you press the screen, but also how hard you do it. To use Apple’s Phil Schiller’s own words, it's the next step in smartphone interaction, with Apple, in effect, attempting to sense “intent” to draw users into a thoughtless action that is entirely intuitive.

It’s the sort of intention that’s at the heart of all good interface and hardware design – the thing Apple has made a habit of executing successfully over the years – and by gum 3D Touch pulls off exactly that trick. The pressure sensitive layer, coupled with a network of sensors behind the 6s’ slightly pliable glass, is able to measure the distance between the glass and the LCD beneath with pinpoint accuracy.

That means it can not only sense that you’re pressing the screen, but also how hard you’re applying pressure. It isn’t the first time this feat has been achieved in a smartphone, but unlike Huawei, which beat Apple to the punch in launching the pressure-sensitive Huawei Mate S at IFA 2015, Apple has clearly thought long and hard about what to do with it.

In its most basic form, 3D Touch is effectively adding a right-click capability to the iPhone 6s. Press the icon of a compatible app on the homescreen a little harder than usual, and up pops a context-sensitive menu, offering options and shortcuts related to the app in question. The camera app gives you Selfie, Video, Slo-mo and Take Photo shortcuts; Safari offers up links to your reading list, bookmarks, as well as standard and private tab creation.

There are more sophisticated actions than this, though. Press the screen once – on a web link, for instance – and a preview of the webpage appears. Slide your finger up a touch and extra options for sharing and saving appear. Press a touch harder, and you pop off to somewhere else in the OS – Safari in the case of a web link. Apple calls these preview, then launch behaviours “peek” and “pop”, and while it takes a bit of getting used to, I soon found myself taking it for granted.

The list of places that 3D Touch is implemented across iOS 9 is extensive. It can be used in the email app to take a quick look at messages without leaving the list view, to view the new Live element of your photos (more on this later), and on the keyboard, where you can press then drag to reposition the cursor. In the Notes app, it’s possible to sketch with your finger and push harder for a heavier pen stroke.

From a hardware perspective, 3D Touch is beautifully implemented. You don’t have to press too hard to activate the first level of pressure sensitivity, and the iPhone’s new Taptic Engine provides a slight tickle of feedback every time you reach a pressure threshold, to leave you in no doubt over what action you’ve just performed. Even if you don’t get on with the way it’s set up initially, it’s possible to adjust the sensitivity in the Accessibility settings, although I had no problem with it at all with it at the default settings.

The implementation of 3D Touch is mighty impressive. It’s the sort of leap forward that may well transform the way we all use our phones in the future, much like the pinch-to-zoom and swipe-to-scroll gestures have revolutionised the way we interact with our mobile devices over the years. Right now, however, 3D Touch doesn’t feel quite finished, and in some places it isn’t implemented in a terribly consistent way.

That will change over time as app and (most excitingly) game developers get hold of the new technology and try out new ideas. For now, though, 3D Touch only works with Apple software and apps, but not all of them. Hard press on the Stocks, Health, iTunes Store and Weather apps, and nothing happens at all.

And there are some obvious missed opportunities, too. A two stage camera shutter button? Nothing to see here. How about a way to peek at apps in the new multitasking view. Nowhere in sight (although it is possible to now launch into the multitasking screen by hard-pressing the left-hand side of the homescreen). What about a heavier press on the keyboard to bring up numbers and symbols? No dice.

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