New iPhone adds a touch of class

iPhone 6S fixed 920

Apple Inc.’s new iPhone 6s is here, and so are the crowds lined up outside the smartphone stores on Boylston Street.

Still, the 2015 iPhone rush lacked the fervor I witnessed last year. At the giant Apple store, the usual crowd of hundreds were wrapped around the block. They could have spared themselves, and strolled down to the Verizon shop where there was hardly any line at all, or the AT&T store where I bought mine. Last year, at least 50 people were parked outside; this year, barely a dozen.

Even many iPhone patriots regard the latest model as a minor upgrade, not to be compared with last year’s game-changer. And they have a point.

Last year, chastened by the immense popularity of Samsung Corp.’s giant Android phones, Apple finally gave customers what they wanted – big iPhones.  But the iPhone 6 wasn’t just bigger; it had a superb camera, a deliciously sleek, thin body, and excellent battery life.  No surprise it’s become the best-selling phone in Apple’s history.

The new 6s looks virtually identical to last year’s model; I have to look at the S logo on its back to tell the two apart.    And with the new iOS 9 operating system installed, the old iPhone 6 offers many of the same upgrades to the phone’s user interface.

But things get a lot more interesting when you touch the new iPhone’s screen, and press down.  It’s Apple’s new 3D Touch feature, and it’s as cool as I’d hoped.

If you just touch and hold an icon, without pressing down, you get the usual “shimmy” effect, with all the apps dancing on the screen and waiting for you to delete some of them. But with the 6s, you can push down on certain icons to activate a time-saving submenu of features.  It’s like clicking the right mouse button on a desktop computer, only easier.

Push the Camera icon, for instance, and the submenu asks if you want to shoot video, or take a selfie.  There’s no more fussing around inside the camera app – you’re taken directly to the function you want to use.

It creeped me out at first use.  When I pressed, the phone seemed to creak, as if it was flexing under pressure.  I remembered reports that the supersized iPhone 6 Plus would bend if carried in a back pocket.  Actually, what I’d felt was the phone’s haptic vibration system, which gives a little pulse when you press the screen, not unlike the feel of clicking a mouse.

For now, only a handful of apps respond to 3D Touch requests, but there’ll be plenty more soon.  And good luck to Android phone makers on trying to copy this feature.  It’ll give Apple a significant edge for  quite awhile.

The camera app features some more noteworthy improvements.  I’m not much for selfies, but Apple was smart to boost the resolution of its front-facing camera.  And you can use the entire screen as a flashbulb that blazes with brilliant white light when you hit the shutter button – very smart.

I was a bit less impressed with Live Photos, a feature that shoots a three-second-long series of still photos with a tap of the shutter.  It’s not a new idea, and to my mind not all that useful.   But it’s there, and it works.

In all, the iPhone 6s is a major upgrade that doesn’t seem major until you try it.  The lines outside the retailers this morning may have been a little thinner than usual.  But Apple’s smartphone rivals can take no comfort from that.  By adding potent new features to an already superb product, Apple has built a phone that’s pretty much untouchable.

 

Hiawatha Bray is a technology reporter for the Boston Globe. E-mail him at h_bray@globe.com.
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