With each passing year, Apple releases a new iPhone. And with each passing year, I’m faced with the question of upgrading.
On one hand, I want to be practical and save money. My phone still works great and runs the latest version of iOS without limitation, so it’s not imperative that I upgrade.
On the other hand, the nerd in me wants the new phone for all the new functionality that comes with it. (Not to mention the fact that, as a writer who covers Apple at close range, my livelihood depends on keeping up with the latest and greatest.) It’s the quintessential first-world problem, to be sure, but the dilemma is real.
Much has been written about 2015 being another “s” year for the iPhone. Generally speaking, these phones retain the prior model’s exterior design, but are fitted internally with better, faster guts. In my experience, the “s” models have been among the best iPhones I’ve ever owned, due in large part to the advent of groundbreaking new technologies. The iPhone 4s in 2011 introduced Siri; two years later, in 2013, the iPhone 5s brought with it Touch ID. Not only were these features cool and exciting — so much so, in fact, that I upgraded solely for them — but, accessibility-wise, they made using my phoneeasier than ever before.
The new iPhone 6s with 3D Touch continues this trend. I used a review unit from Apple as my everyday phone for several weeks and, in my time testing it, have found it to be yet another stellar ‘s’ year update.
My aim with this article is to critique the iPhone 6s from the perspective of a person with disabilities, focusing on aspects of the phone which I feel influence its accessibility.
Using And Carrying The iPhone 6s
I’ve argued in the past that although conventional wisdom dictates that accessibility mostly refers to software, it applies just as aptly to hardware. The kinesthetic value of an iPhone — how it feels to hold and use it — is just as important as the accessibility of the software it runs. As someone with both vision and physical motor impairments, it’s equally important that my phone, as an object, be as comfortable in my hand as possible.
Compared to my personal iPhone 6, the 6s is identical in appearance and feels just as good in my hand. There are differences, however. Other reviewers have suggested that the increase in weight from the 6 to the 6s, caused by the addition of the Taptic Engine sensors, is barely noticeable. I disagree with that notion. I find the increased weight of the 6s to be very noticeable. It isn’t so pronounced that it negatively impacts usage, but it’s there. In other words, the 6s isn’t heavy, per se, but there is more heft to it than the 6.
Another difference between the 6 and 6s is the material from which it’s made. Apple says the new phone is made out of 7000 Series aluminum, touting it as “the same grade of aluminum used in the aerospace industry.” Like my 6, I prefer to keep the 6s in a case (a midnight blue silicone case, also on loan) for protection and added grip. (Grip is key, as the weaker muscles I have caused by cerebral palsy make me prone to dropping things.)
Sans case, however, the 6s is definitely “tackier” than its predecessor; the metal has a different texture to it. Despite this texture helping me hold the phone more securely, I feel better using a case. As the old saying goes, better to be safe than sorry.
The 6s Plus deserves mention here, as well. Over the last several months, I’ve seen many peers on Twitter and on podcasts extol the virtues of the iPhone 6 Plus, saying that its higher density screen and longer battery life are such revelations that they traded up from the regular 6. This made me question which 6s I wanted to test, as I thought about trying the Plus again. Then I remembered what I wrote on TidBITS:
As I was testing the iPhone 6 Plus and taking notes for this review, the phrase that kept coming to mind was “good enough.” The regular iPhone 6 is substantially larger than any iPhone before it, but it still feels like an iPhone. From an accessibility perspective, its 4.7-inch screen is plenty big and bright, but the iPhone 6 is also more manageable to hold and carry around. It has some issues, but it’s good enough.
Though I may revisit the Plus in the future, its main problem for me today is the Faustian bargain it presents. Yes, the Plus offers me the larger screen and other advantages, but I get an unwieldy phone as a consequence. If my vision were the only disability I needed to accommodate, the choice would be simple. The thing is, I have physical motor issues to consider, too. The Plus is a beast that’s difficult for my hands to tame. Put together, these factors make the question of which trade-offs I’m willing to accept more complicated — agonizingly so, since my eyes love the Plus’s screen.
Right now, the regular 6s is the better choice all around. While I do miss the Plus’s bigger, higher resolution screen, better battery, and optical image stabilization, the regular 6s remains good enough. It’s easier to use one-handed and carry around. Most of all, it still feels like an iPhone, as opposed to the “iPad Nano” feel of its big brother.
3D Touch is the hallmark feature of the iPhone 6s, and I’m a fan. Apple bills 3D Touch as “the next generation of Multi-Touch,” and it works very well — for the most part. There are two parts to 3D Touch: Quick Actions and Peek & Pop. Both features are very well done, but Quick Actions has proven to be more of an accessibility aid than Peek & Pop in my usage.
Quick Actions work pretty much exactly how I hypothesized. They really are shortcuts to commonly used actions, which saves me from the tedium of multiple taps. More critically, these shortcuts save my eyes and fingers from expelling so much energy in finding and pressing the button to, say, post a picture to Instagram. It seems like a trivial thing, but it makes a huge difference for those with special needs who may take longer to navigate an app’s UI. I appreciate the efficiency boon Quick Actions offers as much as anyone, but that it’s also a bona fide accessibility gain is icing on the cake.
So far, the majority of my Quick Actions usage comes from some of the iPhone’s built-in apps: Messages, Mail, Camera and Phone. (My favorite is Messages, as it gives you access to your three most recent conversations.)
As for App Store apps, as a heavy user of both Twitter and Facebook, I enjoy using Quick Actions to quickly post a tweet or update my status, respectively. Furthermore, I enjoy being able to quickly import a photo to VSCO Cam for editing, as well as adding new calendar events in Fantastical. Conversely, there are apps that I hope add 3D Touch support soon. For example, it’d be great if I could jump to my favorite groups in Slack or request a ride in Uber with a simple Quick Action.
One third-party app that makes particularly good use of 3D Touch is Voice Dream Writer, by indie developer Winston Chen. Voice Dream Writer is a Markdown text editor for iOS (and Android) that lets users write using their voice, along with typing. The app also will read text aloud, which is helpful for proofreading.
Accessibility-wise, Voice Dream Writer is notable in two ways: Not only does it support 3D Touch, but it makes writing prose easier for blind and visually impaired writers. It’s useful for the non-disabled too, who may like to use speech-to-text or just tire of constantly mashing on a keyboard.
I had the chance to speak with Chen by phone recently about Voice Dream Writer and how it leverages 3D Touch. He told me he feels 3D Touch is most beneficial to VoiceOver users, as he believes VoiceOver and 3D Touch working together provides an enriched experience. Chen also explained how users can use a force-press to adjust fast-forwarding, whereby a hard press on the fast-forward button will double the speed. If you lighten your touch, the speed returns to normal, a behavior similar to that of old cassette players. It’s a very clever implementation of 3D Touch.
3D Touch is made even more accessible by its deep integration with many of iOS’s accessibility features. Specifically, Apple has engineered 3D Touch to work with VoiceOver, Large Dynamic Type, Switch Control, and AssistiveTouch. (Also of note: It’s possible to bring up Quick Actions when using Zoom.) VoiceOver users are able to use standard VoiceOver gestures to cycle through a list of Quick Actions, as well as “peeked” content, such as maps and URLs.
Regarding Large Dynamic Type, I tested this by setting text size to smallest and biggest, respectively, and the Quick Actions interface responded accordingly. Switch Control users are able to assign various movements to invoke a 3D Touch action. Finally, AssistiveTouch users are able to define a 3D Touch press in the AssistiveTouch menu.
Beyond the individual accessibility features, Apple has added global 3D Touch settings to the Accessibility preferences (Settings > General > Accessibility > 3D Touch) on the new iPhones. Users are able to adjust the pressure sensitivity of the display in three increments: Light, Medium, Firm. There’s also a nice picture of flowers that is used to test the sensitivity of presses. Press it, and the photo will pop up; let go, and it goes away.
Having fiddled with these settings, I’ve settled on Light as my preferred level. I don’t relish the idea of jamming my finger into the screen, so I like that a delicate touch does the trick. I can see Light (or even Medium) being popular with those who suffer from RSI or other muscle-affecting conditions.
As for Peek & Pop, my opinion is less effusive. As I wrote earlier, I think Quick Actions is more attuned to accessibility. Peek & Pop feels more like a feature of convenience, though I do enjoy peeking into albums in Apple Music and photos in Instagram. (Also nice: the swipe-up gesture to reveal available actions. Examples include liking a photo on Instagram and acting on an email.) It reminds me of Quick Look on OS X. I wish you could zoom in on a Mail message to read it, for instance; then again, you can zoom by just “popping” into full screen and using pinch-to-zoom. Still, it’d be nice if you could double-tap to zoom in the preview.
Overall, I’m bullish on 3D Touch. Like with Markdown and Apple Pay, 3D Touch is one of those things that isn’t created expressly for accessibility, but is designed so well that everyone can use it without needing special modes or settings. My hope is that it eventually makes its way to iPad, and I’m interested in trying Force Touch on the Mac. It’s early days yet for 3D Touch — I find myself pressing on every icon to see if more third-party apps support it.
My only gripes would be that I get frustrated by inadvertently activating “jiggle mode” (to move/delete apps) when I mean to access 3D Touch. Also, I think Apple missed an opportunity to borrow the force-press-to-clear-notifications gesture from Apple Watch. It’s a natural fit for 3D Touch, but alas, it isn’t there. It’s a curious omission on Apple’s part.
I wish it existed on iPhone because, in accessibility terms, the current method of clearing Notification Center is a chore. This is due to the X and Clear buttons being small to see and tap, which results in eye strain and requires a level of fine-motor precision I don’t have. (There’s also the convenience: Two taps are needed to clear notifications on the phone, whereas you press once on the watch.)
I’ve been very pleased by how much Siri has improved, and for good reason. Siri is much more adept at quickly and accurately parsing my commands. This improvement is made even more impressive considering I have a speech impediment. As a stutterer, Siri has historically been frustratingly bad at understanding me, so its progression is refreshing.
On the iPhone 6s, Siri is better in a couple of ways. First, Apple has added a tutorial whereby you train Siri to learn your voice, using queries such as “Hey Siri, what’s the weather like today?” This accomplishes two things: It prevents other voices from accidentally prompting Siri, and, more importantly, it opens the door to hands-free communication. From a technical standpoint, Apple told me “Hey, Siri” is made possible by the M9 motion co-processor being built directly onto the A9 chipset. (Previously, the co-processors were discrete chips.)
Second, that Siri on the new iPhones is hands-free and ever-present has an obvious accessibility benefit. For users with physical motor delays, the act of pressing and holding the Home button for Siri may be problematic — this may be due to reduced dexterity or low muscle tone. The iPhone 6s, however, alleviates those problems. It’s now possible to interact with Siri simply by voice, making it more accessible and inclusive than ever.
At a macro level, the addition of “Hey, Siri” marks a significant step forward for Siri’s usefulness as an accessibility tool. Not only is it improving technically at recognizing non-standard speech patterns like mine, it also is removing literal friction for those with motor issues by allowing someone with a 6s to summon Siri without touching the Home button. I’ve long maintained Siri has great potential as an assistive technology, and its recent advancements move it closer to fully realizing that power.
Battery life on the iPhone 6s seems on par with that of the iPhone 6, but it should be better. In my mind, if there’s one reason for Apple to boost battery performance on the iPhone, it would be screen brightness.
As someone with low vision, I absolutely need my iPhone’s (and my other devices’) screen to be set at max brightness, as it’s easiest for me to see the screen. The first thing I do with every new device I get is crank up the screen brightness; to me, max brightness is a de facto accessibility feature. Of course, the trade-off is that my battery takes a hit from having to keep the screen so bright all day long.
Toning down the brightness to preserve juice is an untenable compromise; I need all that light in order to use my phone effectively. Nonetheless, I admit to feeling pangs of guilt because I know my phone’s battery has to work harder. Hence, a bigger battery would make me feel better about having my screen so bright.
I can’t imagine being the only one who needs maximum screen brightness, and I *know* I’m not the only one wanting a better battery. It seems battery technology improves at glacial speed, but I think it would behoove Apple’s battery team to address this. Maybe next year.
Some Random Observations
As others have reported, the new iPhones are crazy fast. Touch ID is especially impressive; it’s so fast now that I have to remind myself to use the Sleep/Wake button when checking the Lock screen.
“Trackpad mode” with one finger is easier to maneuver than on the iPad, which requires two fingers. I don’t use it, though, because I find the cursor to be too small to see comfortably.
I don’t like using 3D Touch to access the multitasking UI. It’s uncomfortable, so I instead double-click the Home button.
Speaking of 3D Touch, I love the feedback you get when an app doesn’t have Quick Actions. It’s as if the system is telling you, “uh-uh,” in a way similar to the wrong password “head shake.” Both are great examples of delight and playfulness in UI design.
The vibration motor, powered by the Taptic Engine, is great. It has a more pleasant, almost soothing feeling than the old kind did.
The camera is phenomenal yet again.
The ad, “The Only Thing That’s Changed Is Everything,” is awesome. It’s fun, light-hearted, and perfectly captures what’s new about the iPhone.
I wrote at the outset of this piece about the “dilemma” of upgrading my iPhone every year. The logic against doing so is and will always be valid, but the truth is that updates like the iPhone 6s makes my decision a no-brainer.
The reason I want to upgrade my phone so often isn’t so much because I’m a nerd or I need it for my job. It’s because my iPhone is the “remote control” of my life. My phone is an indispensable tool, and I want the best tool.
The iPhone 6s fits the bill. It’s the best, most accessible remote control yet.