Storage makes the iPhone 6S/6S+ entry level model crippled beyond buying for most, but more expensive SKUs may be worth the sticker

The Apple, Inc. (AAPL) iPhone 6S is here -- or more aptly, it will be here on Sept. 25. The phone is seeing some rather cynical reviews, but I'm sure the device will sell well and be a hit among Apple's faithful.  USA Today perhaps summarized such mixed reactions best, commenting -- "Even if we got through the event feeling "meh," we couldn't look away."

The tepid reaction is mirrored in Apple's share prices that have remained stuck in the $110-115 USD range for most of the month.  Versus the last few years where the iPhone launch brought a boost in share prices, this time around the investor sentiment seems to be "hold".

This apathetic reaction can come across almost as outright cynicism. It stems from the perception that while the iPhone remains a top notch smartphone in nearly every regard, critics have a rosy view that the iPhone was once pushing the boundaries of mobility, but is doing so no longer.  I would argue this reaction is largely factless and emotional.  The iPhone has always evolved at a plodding, methodical pace towards greatness (the first gen. model, for instance didn't even allow most third party apps!).

Perhaps no device is so wrapped in frustratingly irrational reaction as the iPhone.  This problem is so severe that a device which is beautiful in many ways is victimized by its fans own views and imaginative revisionist history.  Which is unfortunate because save for one very substantial flaw (more on that shortly), the iPhone 6S and 6S+ are objects of beauty.

The iPhone remains on the cutting edge in terms of its hardware spec and it offers a solid pitch in services.  The iPhone 6S is Lebron James of phones -- great, but very beatable.

Unfortunately, the interesting and true narrative of the highs and lows of the iPhone is overshadowed by the buzz about the iPhone's supposed stagnation.  To put it simply there is no stagnation.  That said, there is a small truth in the confusion.  While the iPhone continues to evolve steadily, the shift has been that the marketing hype around the device has with time outpaced the evolution of its features.  When no one had an iPhone it was a great surprise, but when everyone has one it becomes a villain of sorts.  Every launch is loaded with unmeetable expectations.

That said the new iPhone is truly disappointing in at least one regard.  At $199 USD on contract for an iPhone 6S or $299 USD on contract (!!!) for an iPhone 6S+ you get all of 16 GB in internal storage.  Yes, that's not quite as bad as you have access to the iCloud and all of Apple's streaming services (e.g. Apple Music).  But still, 32 GB of internal storage is pretty much a must for all flagship phones that don't have an Apple logo on them.  

iPhone 6S

If Apple truly wanted to lead, it could make the base model pack 64 GB of storage (w/ upgrades of 128 GB and 256 GB).  Going from 16 GB to 64 GB would add all of 6 dollars and 40 cents (80 cents per gigabit) to Apple's bill of materials at the spot prices listed on DRAMExchange.  Of course that's just a crude estimate, but suffice it to say Apple is being very, very cheap when it comes to internal storage and it's doing so at its users expense.

That said, Apple also deserves credit for being way ahead of the pack when it comes to mobile graphics.  With a reported increase of 90 percent in graphic processing speed, the A9 is approaching low end discrete desktop GPUs in pure power.  

iPhone 6S

Again, this makes the miserly internal storage allotment more of a shame, as the graphics subsystem is approaching the point where the most premium games may require in the >10 gigabytes of storage for their textures/models.  Further, while it's probable that the graphics subsystem is using persistent storage for high latency backup paging files, as the Windows 10 DirectX backend does.  And again, such an application will be hurt if users run through their 16 GB allotment and have no free space.

But all that said, the iPhone is likely to remain the phone to have if your purchasing decision primarily revolves around premium mobile gaming.  In past generations rival system-on-a-chip (SoC) makers like Qualcomm Inc. (QCOM) and NVIDIA Corp. (NVDA) haven't been able to keep pace with the graphical performance of Apple's SoC series.  And with the Apple A9, that gap appears very unlikely to close.

With that in mind, let's look at how the iPhone stacks up.

Gaming / Graphics -- A+

Aside from the above memory issue, graphics are arguably the iPhone 6S and 6S+'s strongest selling point.  Apple claims that the A9 SoC delivers a 90 percent increase in graphics subsystem performance than the A8 SoC found in the iPhone 6/6+.  That's roughly double the graphical output of the last generation -- on paper, at least.

Moreover, I would estimate that the true performance gap will be even more substantial due to a factor most will overlook -- screen resolution.  By avoiding the flash of quad-HD (QHD) displays that Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd. (KRX:005930) (KRX:005935) are so enamored with, and sticking with its existing resolutions (1,334 x 750 pixels for the 6S; 1080p (1,920 x 1,080 pixels) for the 6S+), Apple will have a lot more spare graphical power at its disposal.

QHD, of course, isn't entirely meaningless.  Some users with good vision will be able to appreciate the subtle visual improvement, particularly on large screen (> 5 inch) devices and particularly for certain kinds of rendering (e.g. text).  The problem is that it in many cases will fail at its intended purpose -- making things look better, as the processing power needed to deliver such a high resolution, comes at the cost of framerates and/or algorithmic detail.

iPhone gaming

Thus I would argue that for the mobile gamer the iPhone is an unbeatable device, not only because of the dominance of the A-series SoCs graphically, but because Apple is a adopting a smarter strategy.

Productivity / Enterprise -- B

At its press event Apple followed a similar strategy as last year, which is to say that it largely emphasized enterprise use by parading out various academic and corporate partnerships as case studies.  It's an interesting and rather effective pitch technique.

That said, the iPhone in terms of mobile device management (MDM) and security/encryption doesn't make any quantum leaps over the previous model or over its arch-rivals (Google Inc.'s (GOOG) Android and BlackBerry Ltd.'s (TSE:BB) QNX (which remains still somewhat relevant in the enterprise space)).

Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) is actually making a much stronger case for enterprise with unmatched features like Continuum for its upcoming Windows 10 smartphone operating.  By contrast the iPhone is obviously no slouch on enterprise (and possibly better all around in this space than Android), but this particular release doesn't advance things on that front.

With 70 percent more processing power, Apple should potentially have a slight compute advantage on many flagship devices, but in general computing power isn't exactly a major concern in terms of mobile productivity these days, aside from a handful of specialized cases.

Storage -- D

16 GB with no external storage option for a flagship phone is outright pathetic.  There's no other way to put it.  I felt 16 GB was pretty meager THREE YEARS ago on my Nokia Oyj. (HEL:NOK1V) Lumia 900.  Even with the cloud (in that case Microsoft Skydrive), the small internal storage made it a massive headache in terms of wasting my time on micromanaging file space.

Music, photos, apps, PDF downloads -- they all eat up storage space.  My HTC Corp. (TPE:2498) One (M8) at 16 GB only barely avoids being a headache thanks to its external storage.  And unlike some, I don't download a lot of large apps like high-end mobile games.

If you're thinking about buying the entry level iPhone 6S/6S+, my advice is simple -- don't.  With no external storage option, 16 GB is going to become a serious annoyance at some point during your usage cycle.  My advice is to pony up the extra cash for a 64 GB model ($299 USD for the 6S; $399 USD for the 6S+) or don't buy an iPhone at all.

Entry level storage is the one area where the iPhone 6S/6S+ are massive failures versus their Android and upcoming Windows 10 competition.

Camera -- A

The camera of the iPhone continues to be a strength.  While the resolution 12 megapixels is technically up 50 percent from the previous model (which had an 8 megapixel sensor), I would argue that those numbers don't accurately describe the quality of the camera.  After, all with an 8 megapixel sensor Apple's image quality bested many Android phones with cameras in the 12-20 megapixel range.

Ultimately Apple's autofocus, color, and clarity are only match by a couple of rivals -- Microsoft's Lumia line (which uses the camera technology it bought from Nokia) and Sony Corp. (TYO:6758) (which makes sense, seeing as the last gen. iPhone used a high end Sony sensor, after all).

Perhaps the iPhone's greatest strength is also in the imaging speed and ease of use.  When it comes to mobile photography, Lumias or Sony Xperias may deliver comparable or better images, but it's sort of like pitting a high end point-and-shoot camera against an SLR.  In the hands of an expert willing to put in patient work the SLR will produce better results, but for most the high-end point an shoot (in this analogy, the iPhone) wll for most produce a much better outcome.

For those who take a lot of pictures, the iPhone will be on your short list.  It is likely to vie for the title of best smartphone camera for this generation, as it has in prior generations.

Telephony -- B

The iPhone 6S/6S+ has LTE Advanced, but there's not a whole lot of wow factor in terms of telephony.  Traditionally mobile cellular performance has been a weak point on the power front.

The Apple A9 still appears to be using an external modem, which in power efficiency represents an inferior solution to the on-die modems that Qualcomm incorporates into its Snapdragon chips.  There is an upside -- with an external solution (most likely from Broadcom Corp. (BRCM)) the iPhone will likely support a broader range of mobile bands versus the on-die modems in Snapdragon SoCs.  But also expect cellular data to eat up more battery than with the latest Snapdragons.

Services -- A-

Apple services remain a strong selling point -- Apple's metaphorical "walled garden.  But a lot of the equation revolves around whether you're willing to pay for service.

Apple Music is free for the first three months, but then costs $9.99 USD/month.  That's reasonably competitive with rival premium streaming services, but it's still more than many will want to pony up.

Google's Play Store for Android surpassed the Apple App Store last year in terms of apps.

But the numbers alone fail to paint the full picture.  In terms of premium and paid apps, Apple still has a slightly lead over Google Play although it's clear that lead is slipping.  Probably the biggest concern for Apple is not the raw number of apps in the Play Store, as it should be able to the quality over quantity argument for some time now.  A bigger concern, I would argue is the fact that in terms of free apps premium content on Android suffers less from secondary charges like in-app purchases and ads.  In contrast Apple's premium "free" apps in some cases fish much harder for a payout.  The push for secondary payouts is also occurring on Android, but anecdotally I'm seeing Android's premium "free" content is still a bit freer in many cases.

In terms of cloud storage Apple's iCloud prices dropped modestly [source -- 9to5Mac]:
  • 5 GB: free
  • 20 GB: $0.99/month
  • 200 GB: $3.99/month
  • 500 GB: $9.99/month
  • 1 TB: $19.99/month

Google Drive's prices are:
  • 15 GB: free
  • 100 GB: $1.99/month
  • 1 TB: $9.99/month
For the mid-tier (100-200 GB), Apple has matched Google Drive's price per terabyte.  But the iCloud is still a bit more expensive than Google Drive, as its free storage allotment is three fold less than Google's and a 1 TB space costs twice as much.  That said, Apple also deserves some credit for having two more tiers than Google, giving users a bit more flexibility.

Probably the biggest services advantage of iOS at present is Apple Pay.  While Google Wallet is scrambling to up its NFC payment game, Apple Pay is very ubiquitous and useful.  It's not usable everywhere, but for users in urban or dense suburban areas, it's ubiquitous enough that you may be able to stash the wallet and just use your phone.

UI -- B+

"3D Touch", a pressure sensitive form of multitouch arrives in the iPhone after making an appearance in the Apple Watch earlier this year.  Apple dwelled heavily on the feature as it's arguably one of the few features exclusive to the iPhone.  That said, the feature is largely analogous to the proximity-based "hands-free" touch on Samsung devices (and perhaps on upcoming Windows 10 phones, according to rumor).

Extending multitouch with either force sensitivity or proximity sensitivity allows new forms of UI interaction.  Apple, for instance is attempting to have a relatively uniform UI language for force touch.  A lingering soft touch peeks at content and/or brings up context menus, while a hard click opens it.

Ultimately I commend Apple for its application of 3D Touch.  The use of lingering touch seems much more natural/intuitive on the iPhone than the clumsier tap vs. hard click interface on the Apple Watch.  In a weird way it reminds me of interaction with force feedback joysticks on various gaming consoles.

So definitely Apple is onto something good there.

My concern in terms of the UI is primarily in that the addition of new kinds of interaction -- no matter how well done -- inevitably does introduce some complexity.  For both old and new iPhone users, the application of force-dependent touch may require some getting used to, and for the "it just works" crowd, that learning curve may be the subject of consternation.

And then there's overall pastel/minimalist look of iOS 9.  While subtly distinct, Apple continues to track along the same design path as Google and Microsoft.  Microsoft was the first to embrace this general design language with Windows 8 in 2012.  Many hated Windows 8 for its look alone and iOS 7 when it first came out drew similar reactions.  

iOS 9 isn't exactly going to alienate fans any further -- especially because with Google's highly similar minimalist "Material Design" look, there's no escaping this look.  Still, I would imagine some iPhone users continue to pine for the days of Jobsian skeuomorphism in today's world of ubiquitously flat UIs.

Design -- B-

The predictable upgrade to 7000 series alloy was indeed announced.  (My revised guess that it's some manner of aluminum 7003 alloy still seems probable.)  This is good because your phone will be much less likely to bend (as the alloy has a much higher strength.

The phone may be a bit more susceptible to pitting and erosion due to the inherent weaknesses of this class of alloy, but Apple may mitigate that fully via its heavy anodization process.  Potential pitting/corrosion issues are something to keep your eye on.  But in grand scheme of things with Samsung eating up the stock of higher strength 6000 series alloy (namely aluminum 6063), Apple's decision to use a 7000 series alloy is probably a wise one.

The iPhone 6S/6S+ are otherwise almost identical design-wise compared to their predecessors.  The only other noteworthy new development is the arrival of the "rose gold" option.  This colorized alloy body isn't quite as pink as some leaked images indicated (those images may have been authentic, just poorly color balanced).

The actual result is somewhat subtler than some might hope.  Nonetheless, the Asian market is big on this kind of pastel look, so I expect the pink model to be a particularly hot seller in China, Apple's largest market outside the U.S.

Other -- B

Apple's iPhone Pencil announcement for iPad was a bit of a snooze.  Samsung has already been there and done that for nearly half a decade now with the Galaxy Note.  Microsoft's Surface line has also had a pencil for some time now.  Apple will of course try to pitch its Pencil as special and different.  But it's a stylus.  Duh.

Annoyingly, it doesn't seem like the Apple stylus... err... Pencil works wth the iPhone?  What the...  Well, customers will just have to deal with that and use their stubby fingers or third party styluses.  Apple Pencil is arguably more like the art stylus line from Japan's Wacom Comp., Ltd (TYO:6727) so it should see some nice applications art-wise.

For those hoping to the iPhone 6S+ would get some sort of unique stylus boost, though, keep dreaming for now.

Otherwise, the only other thing worth mentioning perhaps is the Apple Watch.  While I would argue for most -- Apple fans included -- smartwatches are a largely unneeded and perhaps obstructive device, for a select crowd, the Apple Watch may be a selling point.

Apple probably has the most appealing smartwatch, I would argue, although some Android fans would surely say otherwise.  Sales support my assertion, or at least that Apple is better at marketing its smartwatch.  I would argue it's more than just marketing as some Android brands like Samsung have their fair share of rabid adherents.  Apple Watch's sales speak to the fact that the form factor generally lacks ubiquitous mass appeal (in part because of using smart watches or other wearables in public still comes off as antisocial/rude in the eyes of most), but that said that Apple has a solid smartwatch (hence its class leading sales of several million units).

For those who have an Apple Watch or want one, the iPhone 6S/6S+ offers more value as it is tightly integrated to the watch.  (A similar argument could be made with Samsung's smartwatches, of course.)

Overall -- B+

The iPhone is good, great even, but Apple's tight-fistedness when it comes to storage really hurts its pitch.  Ultimately the woeful storage of the entry level model nearly removes it from the discussion.  For the higher end 64 GB and 128 GB models, the iPhone 6S and 6S+ are compelling devices.  While the media may be "disappointed" that there isn't some super new selling point, the iPhone remains one of the best devices on the market -- if you're willing to throw the extra cash at Apple to decripple the device storage.

"What would I do? I'd shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders." -- Michael Dell, after being asked what to do with Apple Computer in 1997

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