Apple iPhone 4S Review

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Apple iPhone 4S

“While we have a hard time recommending an upgrade for current iPhone 4 users, the new additions prevent the iPhone from becoming antiquated in a quickly churning smartphone market.”
  • Ultra-capable camera
  • Siri voice assistant is handy, novel
  • HSPA+ delivers speed boost
  • Same gorgeous Retina display
  • Solid, attractive design
  • Still nowhere near 4G LTE speeds
  • No expandable storage, replaceable battery
  • Fragile glass back necessitates case

The most iconic and beloved smartphone in the world just got better. While it may not have been the Android-slaughtering superphone that many fans expected, the iPhone 4S brings a faster processor and graphics chip, Siri voice control, a backside-illuminated 8-megapixel camera that now shoots 1080p video, and a new “world phone” design that can operate on both CDMA and GSM networks, with faster HSPA+ speed on the latter. The question is: Will it be enough to hold the Android hordes at bay, and is it worth an upgrade for existing Apple fans who have already poured their savings into an iPhone 4?

apple-iphone-4s-screen-angleSame old, same old

As with the leap from the iPhone 3G to the 3GS, the iPhone 4S is an exact clone of the iPhone 4 from the outside. Considering how much time Apple spent tuning this design the first time around and even retooling factories to be able to even make it in white, it should really come as no surprise that the company intends to milk it for a second generation.

At the risk of rehashing our iPhone 4 review, it’s two slabs of glass, bonded together with a thin metal band that runs around the edge, forming a sandwich just 9.3mm thick. Fragile as it seems, it remains one of the most solid-feeling and substantial phones on the market.

Aside from the standard Apple home button below the LCD, the metal band plays home to all the hard inputs, including separate volume up and down buttons on the left, a hard switch to toggle silent mode right above it, a headphone jack and power button on the top left and right, and a discreet door for SIM cards on the right side, which you’ll need a paperclip to eject. A standard Apple dock connector and two speaker holes round out the bottom. The back offers the only clue you own the most up-to-date piece of Apple kit: That shiny “iPhone 4S” stamp, right above a bunch of ugly icons indicating FCC compliance and other fine-type bureaucratic drivel. A thin metal ring runs around the new camera, which appears to be no larger than the camera on the iPhone 4.

If you can ignore the stinging lack of “new phone” status, this rehashed glass slab design has already proven both beautiful and reasonably practical on the iPhone 4, broken backs aside. You’ll need a case to both protect the rear glass and give it some extra grip, but an army of Chinese factories are already pumping out enough different styles that you could try one every day for the rest of your life and never have to slap the same case on twice. You can remind your iHating friends that there are, after all, benefits to conformity.

apple-iphone-4s-rear-camera-angleThe iPhone 4S actually weighs 140 grams this year, up from 137 grams on the iPhone 4, but you’ll obviously never feel the extra weight and the phone goes from pocket to hands to ear without ever feeling too big or heavy. It’s fairly obvious why Apple hasn’t boosted screen size beyond 3.5 inches: This size just feels right.

The magic is in the guts

Perhaps this sounds familiar: 3.5-inch IPS display with 960 x 640 resolution, front-facing VGA camera for FaceTime, assisted GPS, Wi-Fi, and 16GB or 32GB of internal storage. All carryovers from the iPhone 4 that remain in the iPhone 4S.

Perhaps this doesn’t: A5 dual-core processor, 8-megapixel rear-facing with 1080p video capability, Bluetooth 4.0, Siri voice control, eight hours of talk time, and HSPA+ capability for download speeds up to 14.4Mbps. All new for the iPhone 4S.

Rather than revisiting many of the factors that make the iPhone 4S the same as its predecessor, we’ll assume a working knowledge of the iPhone 4 and address how the new features impact the iPhone 4S.

Is it really faster?

Apple claims the dual-core A5 chip in the iPhone 4S is up to twice as fast the A4 in the iPhone 4, and the GPU is up to seven times as fast. As you might expect, is a hefty load of marketing BS being shoveled straight into your face. While there might be a single artificial benchmark that the 4S can zip through seven times faster than the 4, the real-life difference is much more subtle. But still real.

Take Google Maps, an app you’re likely to need to open in a hurry when you’re running late. The iPhone 4S consistently opened it under a second — about 0.88 seconds to be exact. The iPhone 4, meanwhile, typically took more like 1.55 seconds. The same situation repeats itself over and over again as you use both phones.

Fractions of a second saved? Yes, but they add up, and the net result is simply that the iPhone 4S feels noticeably faster and more responsive. And as game developers start to tap into that power, the best it can do is only going to look more and more impressive.

Point-and-shoot killer

As Apple is quick point out, the iPhone is already the most popular camera of choice on Flickr, so clearly the 5-megapixel shooter on the iPhone 4 carried some clout. Despite resolution well below what most Android phones of the same period offered, the camera’s backside-illuminated sensor gave it color and low-light performance far above many higher-res models, and built-in HDR processing helped it limp past its inadequacies, too.

With the iPhone 4S, Apple has upped the ante to 8-megapixel stills and 1080p HD video, and made it easier to get snapping, too. From the lock screen, double tapping the home button introduces a camera shortcut for opening the app more quickly, and the camera itself seems to become usable about a second quicker than the camera on the iPhone 4 does.

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In practice, both cameras look the same as you shoot — you’re simply not going to notice the difference on a 3.5-inch screen. Crack open the videos or stills on a desktop, though, and the iPhone 4S asserts itself as the clearly superior shooter.

More resolution, more detail. Still images have an extra degree of clarity and sharpness, and videos have a crisp look in 1080p that 720p can’t quite replicate. But Apple’s still only catching up to the level of detail that phones like the HTC myTouch 4G Slide could already offer. More importantly, the iPhone 4S camera has higher dynamic range — it does a better job capturing detail in photos that have both very light and very dark details. With HDR turned off to test the raw capabilities of the camera without processing, the iPhone 4S consistently turned in lifelike pictures where the iPhone 4 would blow out greys and other light tones into pure white. Even the myTouch 4G Slide, another of our favorite cams, couldn’t quite manage these difficult shooting scenarios as well as the iPhone 4S. It also did a better job of capturing more accurate color — in some scenes where the iPhone 4 tilted a little too far red or blue, the iPhone 4S did a better job teetering between the extremes in the neutral zone where it belongs.

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If there’s one complaint we have though, it’s this: The iPhone 4 actually has a wider angle in video mode than the iPhone 4S. This gives the 4S a “zoomed in” look that can be problematic while indoors and trying to fit a lot of people into a shot.

For a lot of casual photographers, the iPhone 4 and its ilk have already replaced the need for a point-and-shoot camera. With the iPhone 4S, the need to carry a separate cam gets even more remote. Unless you need optical zoom, the 4S will happily execute your day-to-day memory making with results that will make you smile, even on a big screen.

Siri

Let’s face it: If you just laid out $200 to upgrade from the iPhone 4 to the 4S, you need something to show off to your friends other bragging about a “dual-core processor.” That’s where Siri comes in.

Perhaps the most novel and visibly cool feature of the iPhone 4S, Siri acts as a “virtual personal assistant,” allowing to you to control your phone through voice commands. If you’re thinking back to existing voice control systems that let you dial a number by saying someone’s name, or even the voice integration on Android that will transcribe your words into text messages, this is a bit more sophisticated.

siri-what-questions-you-can-ask

Siri can play songs from your library, set meetings, alarms and appointments, find directions, transcribe emails, find stock quotes, scribble down notes, search the Web, and even unearth rudimentary facts like the population of Sweden. Imagine driving down the road and handing off your phone to a passenger to look something up. That’s pretty much Siri’s job in a nutshell.

siri-questions-iphone-4s

More impressive than what it can do is how it does it: You can actually talk to Siri like a person because it understands natural language. Rather than remembering rigid commands like “Tell me the weather,” you can ask any number of more natural ways. “Is it raining?” “How cold is it outside?” “What’s the weather?” “Do I need an umbrella?”

siri-notes

As long as you understand what Siri can and can’t do, it does an excellent job parsing related requests, and it’s ability to transcribe voice commands is perhaps some of the most accurate we’ve seen, even with a little background noise. Fast-fingered whippersnappers can likely outperform Siri’s speed because of the “think” time from command to execution, but we envision Siri opening the world of smartphones to less tech-savvy users who can’t already jam text in at lightning speed.

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That said, it’s still a ways from the soothing voice of the Starship Enterprise computer that seemed to perfectly understand Captain Picard’s every command in Star Trek, and know just what to do. Asking “What else can I say?” instead of “What can I say?” inexplicably trips Siri up. Sometimes it leads things in the wrong direction: Asking how much an Xbox 360 costs prompts it to list nearby toy stores, rather than offering to search the Web. Sometimes you just reach the limits of what it can do, like when you tell Siri you need a flight to Tokyo. “Sorry, Nick, I can’t help you with flights.” Don’t worry, though, Siri is more than happy to direct you to Apple.com if you ask about a MacBook Pro.

HSPA+

Apple didn’t make much of the HSPA+ capabilities in the iPhone 4S at launch, and unlike many Android competitors on AT&T, was too sheepish to even label it 4G. Surprising, considering HSPA+ may be the biggest improvement over the previous model.

Maybe Apple decided to leave it alone because even bringing up iPhone 4 speeds on AT&T to compare to would have been an embarrassment. In a series of network tests conducted indoors and out in downtown Portland, we weren’t able to get the old dog past 0.3Mbps. Meanwhile, the iPhone 4S returned 0.4Mbps as its slowest result, and actually managed to hit 3.0Mbps at times, averaging somewhere around 1.0Mbps. The new model at its very worst, in other words, outperformed the old model at its very best.

Of course, it’s worth noting that none of the speeds we measured came anywhere near the 14.4Mbps theoretical peak for the technology, and even that unattainable summit looks low beside Verizon’s 4G LTE tech. The Droid Bionic, for instance, consistently delivered between 18Mbps and 22Mbps, making the iPhone 4S look like a meat wagon next to an Indy car.

Reception on the iPhone 4S seemed to match the iPhone 4 wherever we carried it, though we never got a chance to test in the most remote areas where Apple’s new antenna-switching tech would likely benefit the 4S. Unless you were one of the few who experienced dropout issues with the iPhone 4, don’t expect to see much of a difference with the new device. Call clarity, likewise, was identical.

Battery life

Despite increasing in speed for this year and keeping the battery the same physical size, the iPhone 4S actually has better battery life than the iPhone 4. Apple advertises eight hours of talk time (up from seven), 200 hours of standby, six hours of 3G Internet use, and 10 hours of Wi-Fi Internet use (up from nine). Realistically, it’s a small boost and not one that’s likely to break the iPhone from the need for a nightly charge, but welcome nonetheless.

Conclusion

After all the rumors, speculation and outright fanboy fantasies preceding the launch of the mythical “iPhone 5,” it’s easy to see what ended up being called the iPhone 4S as a disappointment. No LTE. No bigger screen. No slimmer shape. But if taking one of the best-selling smartphones ever and adding new features is a disappointment, maybe that bar was a little too high to begin with. The iPhone 4S adds a number of useful features to its capable predecessor, including a much-needed speed boost and the uniquely intuitive Siri voice assistant. While we have a hard time recommending an upgrade for current iPhone 4 users, the new additions prevent the iPhone from becoming antiquated in a quickly churning smartphone market, and maintain its position as the smartphone of choice for nongeeks.

Highs:

  • Ultra-capable camera
  • Siri voice assistant is handy, novel
  • HSPA+ delivers speed boost
  • Same gorgeous Retina display
  • Solid, attractive design

Lows:

  • Still nowhere near 4G LTE speeds
  • No expandable storage, replaceable battery
  • Fragile glass back necessitates case

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