updated 05:15 pm EDT, Tue October 4, 2011
iPhone 4S claims minor edges over Galaxy S II
Apple with the iPhone 4S launch finally put out its answer to the Galaxy S II. Some might say it's catching up: both have dual-core processors, eight-megapixel cameras, and 1080p video. But Apple isn't necessarily just bringing itself up to par; we'll see in a quick breakdown where the 4S might be pulling ahead as well as where it has room to grow.
On paper, Samsung looks like it may still have an edge. Apple hasn't said what changes it's made to the A5 on the iPhone, but the 1.2GHz Exynos isn't necessarily faster. Any design changes and the OS itself can make a difference. We know that Apple is using a dynamic clock speed to ramp up performance when needed, but it also has a much faster graphics chip. The iPad 2's dual-core PowerVR SGX543MP2 is known to be twice as fast as the Galaxy S II's Mali-400; even if Apple has to scale down the A5 to fit, it will still be noticeably better.
Photography and videography could also be different. While the cameras are numerically very similar, Apple has software advantages: faster shooting, grid lines in still shots, and multi-face detection. Video is image stabilized and has live noise reduction, too. More importantly, the iPhone is simply faster at getting to the camera: users can get to the camera right from the lock screen. Until Ice Cream Sandwich reaches the Galaxy S II, users have to unlock the phone and find the camera app like anyone else.
Screen quality is more subjective. We were very spoiled by the 4.3-inch Super AMOLED Plus on the Galaxy S II we reviewed -- it's one of the best-looking displays ever on a phone -- but it's not perfect. While very acceptably sharp, at 480x800 it's a noticeably lower pixel density. The iPhone 4S is now considered small in an era where four-inch screens are common, but at 640x960, it's higher density even than the Korea-only Galaxy S II HD LTE and LG Optimus LTE.
Moreover, some just like smaller phones. Ask those with smaller hands or who just prefer a tight grip which phone they would prefer. Larger screens help with readability from a distance, but they don't help every instance and do take up bulk. Not many phones can claim to have a dual-mode radio (for CDMA and GSM) as well as 64GB of storage in such a size, either.
We won't get into the merits of iOS 5 versus Android 2.3. Siri does have an unambiguous edge over Samsung's choice of Vlingo, however. Both are useful. Only Apple's, however, promises natural, multi-app guidance. We'll have to test both to make sure, but we're hearing that Siri works as well as promised and is almost Star Trek-like in what it supports.
Where does Apple fall short? By far the most important gap is in design. Apple will still have the higher build quality, but Apple has for once knowingly conceded in the thickness wars. Depending on which version you get, the Galaxy S II is as thin as just over 0.33 inches. That's only slightly thinner, but it's symbolic and helps mitigate some of that larger screen area.
Apple also clearly doesn't value the front camera. It's still VGA, just 0.3 megapixels, where Samsung has as much as a two-megapixel sensor. The difference won't always matter, but it's the difference between strictly functional and having some room for creativity.
Depending on your carrier, the Galaxy S II can be faster online. AT&T and T-Mobile owners get 21Mbps and even 42Mbps data. Sprint is the only one that might be caught behind with WiMAX. Still, performance will depend on real-world speeds. As some AT&T users will attest, some areas don't get much from the peak speeds, and T-Mobile owners don't always have as much coverage. LTE? It's unambiguously faster, but with limited coverage and battery life as short as four to five hours on some of Verizon's LTE Android phones, it's not ready to match up with Apple's battery expectations.
If there's a real danger, it's just that the iPhone is a by-the-numbers upgrade. We knew what to expect, and even Siri wasn't entirely unanticipated. An iPhone 4 owner perfectly happy with the performance just won't have a reason to upgrade, as will those who just bought an Android phone in the past year. But to say Apple's just breaking even or even lagging is as much of a stretch. It's potentially faster, it's more pocketable, and it may stay on top for software. Sometimes, it's what's you see in practice that matters more.