An iPhone 6s story

My wife Anne and I have had iPhone 5s’ for a few years and we decided it was time to update our iPhones. We’ve been looking at the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus at the Grand Central Apple store on trips to New York and have discussed the idea of a bigger iPhone to aid in readability and usability.

So, when Apple opened pre-orders on the iPhone 6s I ordered two iPhone 6s Plus’ for us. The day after I placed the orders, I changed mine to an iPhone 6s (non plus). More on why I did this below.

Given that we don’t want to upgrade our iPhones each year I didn’t see the advantage of using Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program so I bit the bullet and bought both iPhones outright from Apple directly. Frankly, I don’t think Apple has made clear whether there is any advantage in using their upgrade program if one plans to keep one’s iPhone longer than a year.

More on the new iPhones after some back story.

Bigger Screen?

Every now and then while hiking I meet up with one of the Berkshire AMC ridge runners, Dennis. Dennis has a large Samsung smart phone and in watching him use both maps and a variety of apps in the field, it occurred to me that for mapping, a larger phone would be useful.

Over the many years I’ve been hiking on the Appalachian Trail I’ve seen many thru hikers who have a variety of smart phones and a few who have cellular iPad minis which they use to look at maps, communicate with their families, post to weblogs and watch Netflix streaming movies in tents on rainy days. This is an incredible use of the iPad and it’s gotten me thinking about how to balance portability with a larger screen. Yes, one could use a smartphone to do these things but the larger screen on the iPad (mini or Air) makes them much easier. When I was thinking about this, the idea of tethering a wifi iPad to a cellular iPhone wasn’t in the cards for me as I had an unlimited data plan with AT&T.

A few weeks ago I was in the passenger seat driving into New York on a rainy afternoon. I was using Apple Maps on my iPhone 5s to see where the traffic was so we could choose our route to avoid it. It was amazing and it worked extremely well and while I could never have done this while driving, it was easy to both look ahead and provide navigation help to my friend Jimmy who was driving.

I was doing a considerable amount of multi-touch zooming on the small 5s screen and I had the realization that a larger screen would allow me to see more without so much close-in zooming. That could have been the Plus size iPhone or a cellular iPad mini or Air 2. Or, an iPad tethered to an iPhone.

Tethering

I knew there was the capacity to tether another device to the iPhone (called “personal hotspot”) but my A&T plan, grandfathered from my first iPhone, had unlimited data which did not allow tethering to be turned on (too much data for unlimited).

A few days after the New York Apple Maps experience I was having a conversation with my friend Steve who’s been using Apple products for as long as I have (1984) and who’s personal use of Apple products is much like mine. I always enjoy talking with Steve, we connect on many levels and he told me something about his family’s use of iPhones that changed the way I was thinking about this stuff.

He too had unlimited data with AT&T grandfathered from his first iPhone but decided to change his family plan to a 15GB Next plan with AT&T. He found out that even after that change, he never touched the 15GB data limit and that’s with his daughter watching Netflix streaming movies on her iPad tethered to her iPhone (spotty wifi in her college dorm room).

Most of us probably don’t look closely at our data usage on our phones but this conversation pushed me to take a look.

Anne and I both use our phones all the time but had never used more than 512MB (1/2 GB) of data combined in a month in all the time we’ve been using iPhones. This was a huge revelation and I feel a bit sheepish admitting it because I’ve been protecting this unlimited data plan for years (and paying for it).

So, I immediately changed our AT&T plan to a 15GB Next plan saving us about $50 a month. I probably could have gone down to 5GB but I’ll try this for a year and see what happens.

Once I made that change in our plan I could immediately turn on Personal Hotspot in Settings on my iPhone 5s.

Before I get into how easy all of this was I should say that for a while now, I’ve been on the fence about buying a cellular iPad mini to use as a bigger device for the situations I described above but I never did it.

A few days after talking with Steve I found myself with the same friend (Jimmy) on our way to New York again but this time on the train. I brought my iPhone 5s, my iPad Air 2 and turned on personal hotspot on the 5s on the train. I set a password and connected to the iPhone with the iPad. The entire process was incredibly easy.

I then put the iPhone aside and used the iPad all the way to New York for doing all of the things I’d be doing with it at home which I find difficult to do on the small iPhone screen.

I did this again on my way home on the train, this time plugging my iPhone 5s into a Jackery battery as it was getting low. Amazingly, it was both my wifi router and was able to get fully charged at the same time.

So, why did I change my order from an iPhone 6s Plus to an iPhone 6s? Because I knew I could tether my iPad for the times I need a bigger screen and this way I can have the convenience of the smaller phone.

I’m still considering an iPad mini for hiking and as a smaller big screen but it will not be cellular now that I know how easy it is to tether the iPad (or a Mac) to my iPhone.

iPhone 6s

Let me say this up front: the iPhone 6s is absolutely incredible. Using it reminds me of how great the SE/30 felt after earlier iterations of the Mac: it takes all of one’s familiar actions and, instead of waiting for the tool to catch up, the tool is with you all the way. In a word, the iPhone 6s is extremely fast and not just at launching apps, it’s fast at everything.

We had iOS 9 running on our iPhone 5s’ before we got the iPhone 6s’ so we were familiar with a few of the new features, like improved maps and the migration of “Passbook” to “Wallet” and many more. Still, iOS 9.0.2 running on the iPhone 6s is a different animal; the speed of the phone makes old and new features feel more natural, more in sync with one’s actions, especially if one normally works ahead of the iPhone.

One thing that bothered me about the 5s when I first got it was Touch ID. It just did not work well for me. I thought it was my old, beat up thumbs but in fact, as iOS got updated Touch ID improved in its ease of use and for the past year my 5s was recognizing my thumb print and opening almost every time on first try.

On the iPhone 6s Touch ID is completely revamped and works quickly, accurately, and does not get in the way. I’m pretty sure Apple changed the mechanism from the ground up and it shows. Brilliant.

Siri is becoming a seriously useful tool now and “Hey Siri” takes it to an entirely new level. “Hey Siri” is a new feature that allows you to train Siri to your voice so it won’t be triggered with someone else’s voice or by ambient sound. Siri, and dictation are a lot more accurate now and extremely fast. And, I’ve used Siri on cellular with one bar of service and it’s just as fast and accurate. This was never true before.

All of the radios and antennas are improved which means better reception all the way around which also helps speed. We have one or two bars of AT&T cellular coverage in our house so many years ago we bought an AT&T MicroCell which gives us excellent reception anywhere in the house. For some reason the MicroCell did not pick up the new iPhones and calling AT&T got me the all too typical response: it’s Apple’s fault, you’ll have to wait for iOS 9.1 to fix it.

Somehow, last week, with no upgrade to iOS 9.1 in sight, the MicroCell magically started picking up for Anne’s iPhone 6s Plus, then my iPhone 6s. Guess AT&T got some complaints and fixed things.

I haven’t used 3D Touch all that much yet although I can see its potential. For the most part I’m using my new iPhone the way I used my old one and it’s a pleasure in every way. Anne feels the same way about her new iPhone 6s Plus. It’s taking her some time to get used to the larger form factor but she’s enjoying being able to read books on it and use it for more of the things she used to use her iPad for. I remain glad I did not go for the bigger iPhone.

Migration Issues

Before getting the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus both Anne and I went through our iPhone 5s’ and did some house cleaning, getting rid of unused apps, making sure that everything we had on our iPhones was up to date and working well.

We both use iTunes on our respective Macs to back up and sync our iPhones and both of us backed up our iPhone 5s’ a few times prior to the arrival of the new iPhones.

One thing that we weren’t doing that I started doing on both machines is encrypting backups on iTunes. Turning on “encrypt backups” means that the stored backups of our phones on our Macs cannot be opened without a password (which gets set during the first encrypted backup). The other thing encrypted backups do is back up more passwords and settings than non-encrypted backups do which means restoring from an encrypted backup is potentially less work logging into various accounts people usually have set up on their iPhones. This is an important detail given what happened to me a bit later.

We both did one last (encrypted) backup before starting up the new iPhones and restoring our data onto them. I got the restore started on my iPhone 6s and then started working on Anne’s 6s Plus. She has a lot of books in her iBooks library and it took some doing to get them all synced correctly. I don’t know where the bugs, are, iTunes or iBooks or both but there were some small bumps in getting her new iPhone set up and fully synced with her books.

Once my iPhone 6s was finished I started it up and got through the various welcome screens and started poking around to see how things worked. All was well until I opened Wallet. I had an Apple Store gift card in Passbook/Wallet and was about to fly to LA and so, had a United boarding pass sent over from the United App (which is a piece of crap but that’s another story).

When I opened Wallet the Apple gift card and boarding pass were there, but they were over-sized, like they thought they were running on a bigger screen. I couldn’t get to the edges of them and to the “i” button to interact with the back end of them. I quit the app, ran it again, restarted the iPhone but Wallet was messed up. I did manage to add a credit card to Apple Pay and got email confirmation from my bank but had no occasion to use it and was sort of scared to given the fact that Wallet was broken.

My iPhone 6s was running fine except for this but it bothered me because I use Wallet a lot for travel and was looking forward to using Apple Pay on the new iPhone.

Even though the old iPhone 5s wasn’t working as a cell phone anymore (the SIM was deactivated when I got the new iPhone 6s started up) I could still run the 5s and check out its Wallet. It’s Wallet looked and worked fine with the same cards in it. No Apple Pay but all other cards looked fine.

So, this problem was either something wrong with the encrypted backup with iTunes or with the iPhone 6s.

I called AppleCare and got a very nice support rep named Tod on the phone. Sometimes you can tell right away that a support person is going to be good and I knew that Tod was knowledgeable, personable, and would probably help me get to the bottom of this issue.

We went through re-syncing the 5s and then I erased all the data on the 6s but before I restored the backed up data, I started up the iPhone 6s as a new iPhone so I could get to the home screen and run Wallet to see if it looked weird before I restored my 5s data onto it. In fact, Wallet looked fine. That meant that my 5s data was corrupted in some way.

Given that everything else worked fine, I restored the 5s data again and got the 6s working with a broken Wallet. I told Todd I was off to LA and would continue to work on this there, he said to call him back if I figured anything out or we needed to swap for another new iPhone. He gave me his number and extension (unusual for a support person) and was sensitive to the fact that I didn’t want to have to explain all of this from scratch to another person.

I flew off to LA, the broken Wallet in fact did work to get me through checking in (the barcode showed and that’s what counts). On the flight I decided that in LA I’d do a clean install, leaving the 5s image out of it and just build up my app collection from scratch. It took some time but in fact I did just that in LA and while it’s not a lot of fun, a clean install isn’t a bad thing to do from time to time.

Wallet was fine, my boarding pass looked fine as did my Apple gift card. But, there was a new problem: Apple Pay would not allow me to add a card. So, either Wallet was still broken like it was, or it was broken in a new way.

Other than that, the iPhone was working fine and I continued to work with it under the assumption that the problems I was having were either corrupted data (now fixed), or cloud-based and that I’d be able to fix them at some point.

When I got home to Connecticut I found a message from Todd on our land line asking me how things were going. Again, this was above and beyond and it made me feel good to know I was on a list somewhere.

I called him up and described what I’d done. He told me that in fact, a clean install was on his list of things for me to do but it’s enough work so it was a last resort. He was glad I’d done it.

I described the Apple Pay issue and we discussed the various pieces of Apple Pay. He asked me to call my credit card’s bank to see if they could see a problem on their end.

I got a great person at Chase who listened carefully, checked my account and saw that Apple Pay was in fact hooked up to my iPhone. I asked her to delete the connection so that I’d be able to try it again from scratch. She did it, saying to call her back personally if I ran into problems. Another great support person.

This did not solve the problem, Apple Pay would not accept any credit cards at all. So, I called Tod back and he had talked with an engineer in his building who had heard of this issue.

Todd told me to delete my credit card associated with iCloud, log out of iCloud, then log back in and put the card back in. I did this and then went to wallet and lo and behold, the problem was fixed and I set up Apple Pay.

Todd logged this as a potential problem, asked me if there was anything else I needed and we hung up. Case closed.

My iPhone has continued to work perfectly although I’ve not had occasion to use Apple Pay to buy something yet. I have confidence that when I do, it will work flawlessly.

Epilogue

The iPhone 6s is a work of art and hits the sweet spot of what a smartphone should be. I’m prone to hyperbole but I’ll say it: the iPhone 6s is by far the best iPhone I’ve ever used. If you’re on the fence about upgrading don’t be, this iPhone is incredible.

That said, iTunes, migration bug or not, is not a work of art and it needs the same amount of attention that the iPhone is getting. I hate to think that Apple is avoiding making iTunes great to push people to use iCloud to back up their phones. I prefer to back up to my computer, which is always backed up.

What I’ve learned in the past few weeks is that I was protecting my old AT&T unlimited data plan for no reason, that tethering is fantastic and extremely useful, that Apple has continued to improve the iPhone significantly, and that some support people can take the sting out of the inevitable bumps in the road.

7 comments

  1. Interesting look at how you use your devices.

    My wife is still using a 4s. I could never get her interested in upgrading. Now the 6s is out it’s finally time to get her a new phone. I’ve tried to get her to look at a plus since she does not have a computer at home. She jogs with her phone and I fear a 6s+ would be too big.

    I’m an unusual edge case. My previous job supplied me with a cell phone (not a smart phone). When I left that job in 2011 money was an issue. The idea of paying $100 a month for a cell plan I would never use makes no sense. I’m in wifi range 90% of the time and don’t call anyone with any frequency other than my wife. I eventually went to a iPod 5G using Line2 for calls. A T-Mobile flip phone with a pay-as-you-go account served my needs for times I was not in wifi range. I eventually bought an iPhone 5 off contract and used the T-Mobile PAYG plan on it. The idea was to turn on the data plan when I went on trips. When my wife and I are out on the weekend or on trips we rely on her data plan.

    I had planned on getting an iPhone 6s off contact, but the surprise release of the new iPod Touch changed that plan. The Bad Elf Pro GPS unit also was part of the reason. It’s a slick unit that gives me GPS ability on my iPod Touch, iPad Air or Mini.

    We were in Ireland a few months back. I walked in 3 Network store, paid 20 Euro and had 30 days of unlimited data on my iPhone 5. Like ala carte cable it’s something we’ll never get in the U.S.

    1. Jim: And thank you for discussing how you use your gear. I’m really a Macintosh user at heart and it’s the core of what I use, my central brain so to speak. The iPad Air 2 and now iPhone 6s are definitely outriggers of it. Some folks run their entire lives on an iPhone but I could never do that. Even an iPad doesn’t work for me. But, the three together is a nice mix that gives me power and portability.

      If I travelled more outside the US I’d probably try to come up with something like you’ve done or somehow find a way to be creative with SIMs.

      What’s great is that both of us have come up with solutions that work for us. No solution is perfect but what we’ve come up with works.

      Both my wife and I have found Apple’s iOS maps and Siri extremely useful for navigation in new places and as I said in my post, the traffic warnings in maps are invaluable for the times I drive in cities (rare but it does happen).

      The iPhone 6 or 6s Plus is a big phone and I’m not sure your wife will want to run with it. The 6s would be a much better choice or even the 5s which is the old, smaller form factor with Touch ID and a better processor. Many folks wanted Apple to come out with a small iPhone again with the same guts as the newest larger models. Maybe someday they will but it doesn’t seem likely at this point. I think they’re pushing the Apple Watch for people who want a very small connected device. I wear an analog watch but my eyesight isn’t good enough to make great use of an Apple Watch so I’m sitting on my hands for now. But, Siri is improved enough on the new iPhone 6s that it’s just a matter of time until the Apple Watch will do everything by voice. Maybe at that point I’ll consider one.

      Thanks again for commenting.

  2. Good morning Richard an interesting post and as always very readable. I strayed from the iPhone principally because the screen was so small (iphone4) and jumped into bed with android.

    To be fair it was a revelation the screen was brilliant and it performed faultlessly. Then the new 6 and 6+ came out and I sold the android and bought the six plus.

    This was principally for ease of use apple apps are seamless but the big issue for me was the camera. I had used the androids camera but always came away feeling I should have just used my panny or Ricoh. Then I used the 6plus and was blown away with the quality of images it can produce. I accept it’s never going to replace my digital kit but it is always with me and when I shoot with the om2 or the hasselblad I will invariably leave my digital camera at home.

    I am going to print a selection for a book making course I’m going to do. The other thing that is really relevant is that the older I get the more I appreciate images that are smaller. I’ve done the 20×24 20×16 et al, now I love prints around the 8×8,(blad) or smaller and for 35mm no larger than 11×8.

    I tend to use snapseed as the default image processing app which I love it’s so simple to use unlike the bloody LR I’m still plodding on with on the Mac.

    I shall email some of the shots taken with the 6plus hope you like em.

    1. Martin, your iPhone 6 Plus images are outstanding, really first rate and I’d say it’s earned it’s place as a real “camera.” Those images are indistinguishable from those taken with “real” cameras (so to speak).

      Glad you came back to the Apple fold although I’m also glad you tried out an Android phone for a while. Nothing wrong with broadening one’s horizons.

      I have yet to warm to doing a lot of shooting with an iPhone and my wife, who now has the 6s Plus with it’s super camera does snapshotting only with hers. But, your images are inspirational and I’ll do more. As you know, my friend Gary Sharp who’s images I embed here is a serious iPhone photographer (as well as Ricoh GR) and between the two of you, I’m now motivated to do more with my iPhone camera. Thanks Martin.

  3. Nice story, Richard. I too ordered the 6s Plus and changed to the smaller 6s, for many of the same reasons as yours (both for ordering and for changing). I haven’t regretted any of it.

    I’m moving up from a 6 (my wife graciously took my old phone and let me use her upgrade); the enhanced camera, the improved Touch ID and the slightly faster processor were all worth it for me.

    1. Rick: Thanks for wading through my rambling rant and I’m delighted to hear that we think alike on such things.

      The new iPhone is quite amazing. I think there are some kinks in iOS 9 but those will be worked out in time.

      Given that my wife and I were on the same AT&T two year plan, we both came due at the same time so I didn’t have a trickle down option. However, a good friend wanted both of our 5s’ so they’re sold which helps offset the upfront cost.

      Nice to hear from you Rick, thanks for checking in.

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