Review: Apple iPhone 4S

Apple gives the iPhone a more human touch. (October 17th, 2011)

Much is riding on the iPhone 4S. It's not just Apple's usual stoking the fires of expectation: it's the new iPhone entering a market that's virtually turned on its head. Android is usually out front in share, and once exotic features like dual-core processors and big screens are virtually table stakes. With a seemingly safe outside design, then, Apple is counting not just on speed but on camera quality and a potentially revolutionary voice command system to take back its earlier place. But are those enough? We'll judge in our iPhone 4S review if Apple is back out in front.

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Apple

Price: $199 (2 yrs, 16GB on US carriers)

The Good

  • Dual-core chip keeps it faster than rivals.
  • Excellent rear camera for quality, speed.
  • Siri makes voice commands natural, accessible.
  • iOS 5 helps Apple catch and maybe pass rivals.
  • iCloud syncing and backup.
  • Long battery life.
  • Still a great display.
  • 64GB option.
  • Good feel in the hand.

The Bad

  • Siri only goes so far; no third-party apps, not enough voice feedback.
  • Call quality just so-so.
  • Might benefit from a larger screen.
  • 3G stops at 14.4Mbps; no real 4G yet.
  • Design still somewhat fragile.
  • Video a bit prone to CMOS effects.

Design

It's the look of the iPhone 4S that has drawn the most flak: many were initially disappointed just because it looks like its ancestor, even if there's a lot of change on the inside. If you've read our original iPhone 4 review, you'll know most of what there is to know about the design. It's still worth exploring in the light of some key antenna changes, which we'll touch on later, and rivals that have appeared since the iPhone 4 first set foot in the world.

Even 15 months on, the basic design of the iPhone 4 and now 4S is still one of the nicest-feeling in the industry: between the glass and steel, it almost feels like jewelry. Stacked up in comparison, the Galaxy S II, while solid, definitely feels cheap with its nearly all-plastic exterior. Apple's design is slightly thicker overall at 0.37 inches than the 0.33-inch Samsung phone, but it's actually slightly thinner in absolute terms if you factor in the Galaxy S II's hump. No matter who you listen to, it's a lot thinner than the iPhone 3GS that we suspect many iPhone 4S buyers will be trading in.

In the hand, it still has a good grip and control. The design's hard-edged, Braun-razor-like shape 'bites' into the hand and is easy to hold whether it's up to your ear during a call or at waist-level while you check Twitter. The power, mute, and volume buttons are easy to hit and provide good feedback while feeling like they'll outlast the phone they're attached to. Our only concern with the buttons is the new support for using the volume up button to take a photo in iOS 5. What makes it good for volume occasionally leads you to jerk the phone out of position as you take the shot, since you have to apply more deliberate pressure.





Taking all the advantages of the iPhone 4 design also brings the faults. Apple may have wanted to improve reception with the glass back, but it still creates a design that's more fragile than the Galaxy S II or most other phones using plastic or aluminum. The completely flat back makes just resting it on a desk a slightly dicey proposition, as you risk a minor scratch if you drag it along the surface before you pick it back up. There's a good reason that AppleCare+ is now an option with accident coverage. Those of us prone to dropping or otherwise abusing our phones could end up cracking the glass and making a trip to the Apple Store for a fix.

Some will also make the usual complaints that have been true of every iPhone since 2007. There's no removable battery and no removable storage, so you can't extend the longevity or storage if you run out. HDMI is only available if you get an adapter, too. We've found these arguments becoming less and less relevant over time: there's both improved battery life and a healthy ecosystem of battery sled cases, and HDMI on any phone still usually needs an adapter cable.

Most importantly, there's now a 64GB iPhone: if you're willing to spend the $399 on contract ($849 contract-free) for it, you can get more storage than any phone has ever had. Most Android and BlackBerry devices can't even read the 64GB microSDXC card they'd need to match Apple, and the card's (official) $200 price will quickly make it more expensive to upgrade.



Sound on the design is mixed. It's a fairly loud speaker in normal use, but the inset design tends to lead to an all-or-nothing sound quality: either it's clear and loud or heavily muffled. If you get a case, get one that lets you expose the speaker to the outside. As a speakerphone, it does work well.

The display

Apple's choice of a 3.5-inch screen size has usually been fine with critics, but this year it's been a sticking point. Most have been pushing Apple to go to four inches or even larger, so when Apple revealed an external design that was identical to last year's, some thought it had lost the plot.

There's some merit to this. Having used a number of four, 4.3-, and even 4.5-inch Android phones, the iPhone 4S does feel slightly small. The larger screens have a definite advantage for comfort; they're easier for onscreen keyboards and better for games, since you're less likely to press the wrong onscreen button and can see more of what's going on if a game has always-on controls. You tend to sit further away from the screen, too, so it's more relaxing if you're on the couch or just don't have the best eyesight.





And yet, after using the iPhone 4S extensively, we can see why Apple wasn't in a rush to go to a larger screen size. One advantage of the current size is the ease of reaching every corner of the screen one-handed. Larger phones often force you to use the device two-handed to reach every part of the interface. Likewise, it's more pocketable. The Galaxy S II easily fits because of its thinness, but it's the exception, not the rule. The HTC Sensation, Motorola Droid Bionic, and other 4.3-inch phones are considerably bulkier. Apple could go larger in the future, but for now, we're happy with the size.

Apple's edge in display quality helps soften the hit even if you want a larger screen. The iPhone 4S' display is unchanged from last year, but that still means an extremely dense 640x960, IPS (in-plane switching) LCD. While the pixels aren't quite invisible, the display is so sharp that they might as well be; even very small text is readable, and photos leap out at you with detail. IPS, in our minds, is also generally superior to Samsung's Super AMOLED Plus, if just slightly. It's not as high contrast, but nor does it have that slightly oversaturated look; the iPhone is just that bit more color-accurate and produces a gorgeous picture that feels slightly more true to life. We also found it somewhat easier to see in bright daylight, which contrasts with an inherent AMOLED problem that even Samsung hasn't entirely solved yet.

Consequently, the iPhone still feels like it very much belongs in the modern era for displays. Most of its peers use at most 540x960, but on a larger surface. That's workable, but the difference is noticeable. We'll see how this changes once the Samsung Galaxy Nexus (possibly the Nexus Prime) and its kind arrive with big 720x1280 displays, but for now, we still like the iPhone 4S' window to the world.

iOS 5: core features

Every iPhone release is mated with a major iOS revision, and the iPhone 4S is the debut phone for iOS 5. We've looked at it before, but now that we're dealing with the final edition, a revisit is in order.





The most noticeable difference comes from the moment you open the box: you no longer need a computer to get started. Instead of being asked to sync with iTunes first, you're walked through a quick process of setting your regional info as well as your iCloud backup and sync preferences. You can still sync with iTunes later if you like -- that's what we did -- but if you're annoyed by desktop sync or just don't have much content you want to keep while offline, you're now free to get working right away. We suspect that this independence will be the most useful in China, Japan, and other countries where computer ownership is less common: in many cases, the iPhone might be the closest to a computer that the buyer might have.

That also means on-the-spot updates. Gone are the days of downloading 700MB firmware updates on iTunes; you now just have to download the much smaller changed files and can do it directly from the device itself.

Once up and running, the changes to the interface are at times subtle but quickly end up feeling like a greatest hits collection of additions from other mobile operating systems. Apple's handling of notifications is the most conspicuous: quite simply, it's borrowed from Android. That's not a bad thing, however. New alerts usually appear as subtle banners while you're using an app and then fold into the Notification Center, effectively an equivalent to Android's notification bar. Rather than pile up and get lost, app notices are now elegantly put out in front of you, and you can jump to exactly the app you needed.

Apple has smartly gone beyond the basics as well. Similar to some custom Android implementations, there are live widgets in the Notification Center. Right now it's limited to weather and stocks, but it's known to be technically possible to add more. Should Apple open it up, we can see apps getting their own custom tools. The lock screen is also finally more than just cosmetic: in a more advanced take than Samsung's TouchWiz, notifications of any kind will show up in the lock screen's free space; you just need to swipe and the phone will unlock directly into that app. You quickly get acclimated to it, and while it's not original, it's a good implementation that catches Apple up to its peers in a big way.





iMessage is another instance of borrowing a good idea, only this time it's made visibly better. There's little secret that it's Apple's answer to BlackBerry Messenger, and it does everything you'd hope for: messages arrive encrypted and in real time, and they come with live notifications of writing, delivery, and (optionally) being read. Unlike RIM's arbitrary one-device, cellular-only, PIN-code based system, though, an iMessage account can sit on any and every iOS device you have. We started a conversation on an iPhone and could finish it on the iPad. The BlackBerry PlayBook will get native BBM soon, but it remains to be seen if it will work on more than one device at a time.

Apple's approach isn't perfect; it can't use Facebook, Twitter, or other non-traditional sources for contacts. However, it's surprisingly organic. iMessage 'just knows' if a contact has iOS 5, and you start messages with contacts based on their e-mail address. We only know a few iOS 5 users so far, but just like BlackBerry Messenger, it's incredibly addictive and much cheaper if you would normally text often or wanted to text to another country. If there's something that could break BlackBerry owners from their habits, iMessage is it, and the recent four-day BlackBerry outage is a reminder that RIM's super-centralized system leaves it vulnerable where Apple is safer.

Other features of the OS aren't quite as big breaks from Apple's norm, but they quickly add up. We got the most mileage from Reminders; although it won't replace Evernote, it's simple to use and has a clever geofencing feature to trigger reminders based on when you get close to a location, not just at a set time. Twitter sign-on is integrated on a base level, so you can share directly from many built-in apps and sign on to third-party apps more quickly than you would otherwise. Newsstand magazine aggregation and Safari Reading List updates aren't as useful here as they are on the iPad, but they do help if you find yourself reading frequently on the iPhone. Wi-Fi syncing is finally here and lets you keep the iPhone up to date when it's docked beyond the computer.



AirPlay mirroring could be a minor ace in the hole. While it showed up on the iPad 2 first, the 4S is the only iPhone that supports the feature. It lets you not just feed out audio or video to another source but the direct footage, showing you even apps that have no built-in AirPlay support. Android still doesn't have a true equivalent to this, and it's a real boon if you're giving a presentation and don't want to tether. Although you won't play games on it, there's relatively little lag.

Siri

By far the signature element of the iPhone 4S is its new voice command system, Siri. Apple bought it in 2010 when it was just a web-oriented app, but it's now a full-fledged part of iOS that can handle everything from basic calls and music up through to more complex tasks like setting reminders and creating calendar appointments.

The system is based on a combination of Nuance's natural language recognition and the Siri app's ability to recognize actions in context. In practice, it means it can not only respond to direct commands but understand the intention, including more abstract commands and follow-ups. You can ask what the weather is, but you can also ask "will it rain?" and Siri will know you wanted an answer about the daily forecast in the nearby area. Follow afterwards with "how about in New York City?" and Siri will know from the recent conversation that you wanted the same info, just for a specific area. Get a text message in and you can not only have it read by voice but simply say "reply, sure I'm up for it" without having to type or clarify who you meant.





Siri can associate contacts as family members just by asking, and the syntax it recognizes is fairly broad. It can even recognize out of order speaking sometimes, so if you're not eloquent when you speak, it will still usually get you the answer you want. We noticed that the system was fairly tolerant of outside sound, too; you won't want to speak during a concert, but it has understood us in situations where we wouldn't think it would work.

Where it shines is when it can produce results that would normally require a fairly protracted process. You can "where's a good sushi restaurant?" and get results automatically sorted by rating and distance. Ask how to get to a location and it both assumes your current location and knows the address if you can only identify it by its name. Make a calendar appointment and, if there's a conflict, give you the option of moving the new appointment to a new time. Wolfram Alpha and Wikipedia engines are even built in, so if you're looking for calculations, stock values, or definitions, you don't have to load up the proprietary apps or web pages. At its best, Siri is a definite time saver, especially if you want to avoid using your iPhone in the car or would rather not pull it out during a run.

Having said this, there's clearly some points where it has room to grow. Some situations, such as asking for a basic weather forecast or running Wolfram or Wikipedia searches, won't speak out the results and require a look that you might not afford. The speech recognition itself, as good as it is, can be caught out as well: ask it about the capital of Uzbekistan and it won't understand what you mean. And we're wondering why Siri isn't enabled by default and has to be switched on (if very easily).



There are some technical limits, too. Apple's system is using its recently established, massive datacenters to handle the requests; travel abroad without roaming or take a flight without Wi-Fi and you're back to using the much simpler Voice Control engine first seen in the iPhone 3GS in 2009. Siri also only recognizes English, French, and German as of the iPhone 4S launch. No third-party apps currently hook into the voice system. And perhaps the most frustrating for non-Americans, it can't yet answer commands for locations outside of the US. Many of these will improve, but not in earnest until 2012.

We're not entirely certain why Siri is iPhone 4S-only, either, since it can technically work on the iPhone 4. Cynics will likely saythat Apple is simply trying to spur more sales of the newer model by withholding features, and profit is certainly a goal, but our experience also makes us think Apple is trying to set baseline expectations. Certain commands clearly institute a short but noticeable wait while Siri and its servers talk to each other, which leads us to believe that Apple wants the fastest processor and Internet connection possible to speed up the response.

Even so, it stacks up quiet well against the competition. Samsung and others often preload apps like Vlingo to provide some of the same intent-based commands, and every Windows Phone 7.5 device has some voice guidance support. In our experience, though, they're not as convenient and not as complete. Apple knows exactly what hardware and software it's targeting where Vlingo and even Microsoft have a degree of guesswork. The iPhone 4S' voice features are certainly more advanced than what Android 2.3 and 3.2 can do, since Google stops at simple voice searches and dictation -- which Apple also has, and which works well.

iCloud

Whatever your opinion of Android versus iOS, Google had an early and unambiguous lead in cloud services. Android users just have to sign in with their account and get access to all their calendars, contacts, e-mail, and more, even if it's a completely new phone. Apple has always had an advantage for local sync, but as the emphasis has steered away from computers to mobile, the iPhone has been hurting. MobileMe did very little as it cost money for what Google did for free and wasn't doing nearly as much.

iCloud changes that, at least in theory. At a minimum, it syncs calendars and contacts, as well as e-mail if you're willing to get a me.com address. Photo Stream gives room for the 1,000 most recent photos as well as permanent space for albums, and there's 5GB of space for free to store data that falls outside of that area, such as app data and settings, documents, messages, and the raw camera roll. Heavy users can pay for more, peaking at 50GB extra for $100 a year; given that it matches what Apple used to charge just for basic MobileMe access, it's a big improvement. If you let it, then, iCloud can store more than your iPhone can fit and, combined with iTunes re-downloads, could potentially let you skip local syncs altogether while still coming back from the brink if your phone is wiped clean.



How does it work in practice? At this early stage, it's a success, but a qualified one. We liked not having to worry about whether or not a new calendar appointment or would show up as well as having an always-up backup. Our experience was fairly painless, and we liked that we could fine-tune the iCloud backup to just touch on the specific items we wanted to keep. That said, there have been reports of sporadic iCloud connection problems as well as some instances of iCloud being over-aggressive in setting itself as the authority, removing info that it shouldn't have. If you have information that you absolutely can't afford to lose, it would be worth making a separate backup before linking your iPhone or other devices to the cloud.

Photo Stream has its own separate set of quirks. Once photos are linked to the stream, you lose some of your control over deleting those files. It also becomes something of a firehose: you can't filter which photos go to the stream, so you may end up inadvertently sharing the photos from the nightclub romp across your devices in the same stream as your family vacation. Even though none of these are automatically public, it's an important consideration if you have family members trying to share the same iCloud account.

Still, on the balance, iCloud helps Apple catch up and in some ways pass Google with the iPhone 4S. Google's experience with the cloud still gives it the edge both in maturity and breadth online: Apple gave up its public photo and web hosting in moving to iCloud, for example, where Google hasn't had problems keeping either. But Apple now has those core sync areas largely covered, and it's still much better at handling local sync without any official Google equivalent to iTunes on the horizon.

Performance: processor and 3G

Apple is still very new to designing its own processors, but it's quickly developing a reputation for punching above its weight class for performance. The iPad 2 is already faster than just about any other tablet, even though its A5 processor had to go against graphics powerhouse NVIDIA's Tegra 2 and some good showings from TI's OMAP chips in devices like the PlayBook. Some have been expecting a repeat in phones, although it's believed the iPhone 4S' chip is actually clocked lower, as low as 800MHz -- a possibly worrying sign when the Galaxy S II is clocked at 1.2GHz and some very high-end phones are coming in at 1.5GHz.

As we've learned from the desktop, though, the superficial numbers don't explain everything. Detailed benchmarks in the GLBenchmark graphics test and SunSpider browser JavaScript test have shown the iPhone 4S not just being faster, but almost exactly twice as fast as the Galaxy S II that was considered the gold standard. The browser gap is mostly Google's fault, as Android 2.3 only uses one processor core in the browser, but it still means that the iPhone 4S loads pages faster and doesn't change the unambiguous lead for Apple in graphics, where the dual-core PowerVR SGX543 is in an entirely different league.





That performance isn't always as easy to notice in practice, but the difference is there, including if you're coming from the iPhone 4. Whether they use a lot of JavaScript or not, web pages tend to load noticeably faster. Apps load a bit sooner. In day to day experience, the 4S just doesn't seem to slow down, even if you've left a large number of apps running in the background. Although iOS 5 isn't as robust for multitasking as Android, it's very good at producing something that feels subjectively faster. That's still true with half as much RAM, at 512MB versus the 1GB common to most Android flagships.

Games aren't night-and-day in terms of performance, but it's clear the iPhone 4S is sitting on a lot of potential, as evidenced by Infinity Blade's visual upgrade. The same advanced texture lighting effects and antialiasing (edge smoothing) that work on the iPad 2 work on the iPhone 4S, and they haven't manifested on Apple's peers yet. With A5-optimized games like Infinity Blade 2 and Rage's id Software working on much more optimized titles coming, the iPhone is still the go-to for mobile gaming and probably will be through at least the usual crop of new competitors in February.

It's in cellular data speeds where the tables turn, although not as much as you'd expect. Apple has only gone to the lowest possible HSPA+ (High Speed Packet Access) spec, at 14.4Mbps. While that's twice as fast as the iPhone 4 and a noticeable difference, it's not as aggressive as the 21Mbps on the Galaxy S II and a handful of other phones, let alone the LTE (Long Term Evolution) from phones on Verizon and (soon) AT&T. This is also only on the GSM version; if you're in the US on Sprint or Verizon, or KDDI Au in Japan, you're using a CDMA version whose EVDO (Evolution Data Optimized) Revision A speeds are more likely to get you a usable but slow 1-3Mbps at best.



Apple does make up for this somewhat in real-world conditions. Speed tests on the Rogers network in Canada showed about a 2Mbps difference in download speeds: the iPhone was getting between 5.2Mbps and 5.8Mbps where the our most recent test, the Galaxy S II, topped out at about 7.5Mbps. Upload speeds were also identical at a near constant 1.2Mbps. Your speeds will vary depending on the carrier, but we found that the faster speeds mostly mattered on the edge, such as downloading a large app, rather than being a constantly visible difference. With uploads the same, we didn't have a problem sending large batches of photos.

It's also hard to entirely fault Apple given some of the sacrifices its rivals have had to make to get faster speeds. Early adopters of LTE phones on Verizon know this all too well. As much as the devices have gotten better over time, phones like the HTC Thunderbolt are known to get as little as four to five hours of battery life when they're using their full 4G speed, and newer phones are only somewhat better. The iPhone 4S mostly struggles against phones that have struck a balance between battery and speed, again like the Galaxy S II, where a somewhat faster speed comes with a relatively small hit.

Camera apps and quality

Photography on smartphones has reached an unusual threshold: it's now good enough in some respects to challenge point-and-shoots that people were shooting with two to three years ago, and in some cases to compete with the better of today's compacts. Software is an important ingredient in that, and not just because of Internet access. Smartphones have sometimes been the first to get features that improve photography itself. The iPhone 3GS, for example, arguably popularized tap-to-focus.

Apple very conspicuously had that in mind with iOS 5 and the iPhone 4S. On a pure software basis, it's now much faster to get to the camera and take a shot. A double-tap of the home button brings up a shortcut to the camera on the home screen that lets you snap a photo without having to unlock the phone. Composition also brings in some more professional and even unique features. Grid lines are a given, but you can now lock the autoexposure and autofocus just by pressing and holding on an area of the screen, compensating for a bright sky or a dark foreground much like you might on a DSLR. We also liked the rapid, multi-subject face detection, although it's less often needed on a phone.



The iPhone 4S specifically addresses a creeping problem with shooting speed in smartphone cameras. When Apple's Senior VP Phil Schiller joked that Droid Bionic users might "go get coffee" while waiting to take a photo, he wasn't entirely kidding. Many phones, including earlier iPhones, can take a few seconds just to be ready to shoot, making it very likely you'll miss that crucial scene. Not so the iPhone 4S: the camera's not quite ready instantly, but it's usually ready when you are. It's much faster from shot to shot as well. While you won't be shooting sports photography, the iPhone is now quick enough to take multiple photos of an important moment. Only a few Android phones, mostly T-Mobile's HTC Amaze 4G and myTouch 4G Slide, have this kind of speed.

Some post-shot editing is now available, too, although it's fairly mild. Most of this is limited to the magic enhancement (effectively, auto levels from Photoshop), red eye reduction, and cropping. Still, it's more than what iOS 4 had, and it's useful if a photo needs just slight retouching before it goes out in e-mail or on Facebook.

Image quality itself has taken a leap over the iPhone 4. Using the same Sony eight-megapixel, backside-illuminated CMOS sensor as the Sony Ericsson Xperia arc and Xperia neo, the iPhone 4S is noticeably better in most areas. It can shoot better in low light, including some moderately dark environments where we would have expected a blurry shot. The new five-element lens is sharp and catches very fine details where even some other high-end phones can produce a slightly smeared look. Color is noticeably more balanced and usually produces the real color we remember seeing. Many phones' photo colors are either oversaturated or washed out, so to get it just right is no mean feat.

That lens goes on to encourage some shots that are often difficult to pull off, most of all macros. The lens has a wider f2.4 aperture versus the f2.8 of its ancestor, which lets it take in much more light and produce a shallower depth of field, or the amount of area that can be kept in focus. What you get is a pleasing effect with crisply focused subjects in front and a soft background that improves the effect. We honestly saw photos that we'd have been happy to take with a much more expensive camera, and for that matter were better than the phones that were using the same sensor.

Back camera shots











Front camera



A few flaws do still exist. We've noticed that there can be some visible, though not intrusive, noise even in fairly well-lit scenes. It can sometimes be hard to get a dark foreground to brighten with autoexposure lock if the background isn't itself bright enough, although HDR (high dynamic range) mode can help offset this. And very occasionally, we've seen the camera blur a shot that should have been stable. Considering that even phones with better cameras like the HTC Incredible S and Galaxy S II don't always get that far, though, it does a good job.

Our main disappointment is the front camera, whose VGA (640x480) resolution is the same as last year and is really just useful for self-portraits and FaceTime video calls.

We did encounter an odd software problem with export. A few of our first direct photo and video transfers from the phone were partly corrupted on their way out when they reached iPhoto. As the files themselves are fine when e-mailed out, though, we suspect that may have either been a one-time hiccup or a software-specific bug. We'll watch it closely to see if it reoccurs.

Video is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the faster processor and puts the iPhone 4S on par with the best phones of the year. Apple's choice of a better image sensor helps here to some extent, since you get all the good color balance and sharpness. Many 1080p phones often end up losing detail, but not here. The CMOS sensor doesn't appear to be quite as good for motion as we'd like, though. There's a slight but noticeable ghosting effect on some subjects. By its nature, current CMOS sensors also produce the infamous "tower of Jell-O" effect, where the sensor can't quite keep up and subjects appear to wobble and stretch if you pan quickly. You won't be shooting an action movie just yet, although there's image stabilization that goes a long way towards averting the jittery look of so much mobile video.







We encountered an odd limitation or glitch with video uploading, too. At least when on 3G, it wouldn't let us upload video directly from the phone at a higher resolution than 720p. We're going to see if we can collect fresh footage and try again on Wi-Fi. It's not a dealbreaker, but when you jump to 1080p, it would be ideal to export that in every situation.

Call quality, the new antenna, and battery life

If there's an area where the iPhone 4S falls surprisingly short, it's in the phone where it earns its name. Call quality isn't bad, but it's only just average. There's a slightly muffled tone on both ends of the call, and Apple's only real edge is active noise cancellation to minimize background sounds. It's easy to understand, and the speaker is reasonably high volume; it's just not as piercingly clear as the Galaxy S II, which right now is our reference for what call quality should be. Speakerphone use is better, in part because the speaker placement on the bottom, not the back, gives the sound an unobstructed path.

What some might appreciate is, ironically, what they're least likely to notice. The 4S has a new, dynamic antenna system that switches between two antennas depending on which one will get the best reception, even if you're in the middle of a call or a data transfer. It won't usually improve service in a given area; we've checked reports, and a New York City or San Francisco AT&T user, or a fringe area Sprint or Verizon user, will still risk dropping calls. Apple has, however, tamed the steep signal drop-off by grabbing the phone too tightly or bridging the gaps on the unique external, steel band antenna. We couldn't make it go down by more than one to two bars. We would have ideally seen this a year ago, but we're glad to know that we can pick up the phone from virtually any position without feeling anxious.



Longevity thankfully is unchanged, if not better. Despite what many think at first, a dual-core processor can actually lead to more battery life by more efficiently managing tasks and simply finishing them faster. The iPhone 4S' official battery life is about the same as before with an extra hour of 3G voice. While testing that would be difficult, we can say the iPhone is surprisingly resilient. We worked the phone hard for most of a full day, with dozens of photos, some video, frequent data use, games, and calls, but the device still had about a quarter of the battery's charge left. More realistic use could let you stretch out the use of the phone for two days if you're careful.

Such performance isn't unheard of in the Android or Windows Phone worlds, but it's certainly rare and explains exactly why Apple didn't rush to adopt LTE. The runtime isn't the longest we've ever seen from a smartphone; the BlackBerry Bold 9900 gets closer to that title, although it's using a much smaller screen and a thicker body. For the display, speed and slim profile, it's still an acceptable tradeoff.

Wrapping up

If you ask someone who was disappointed with the iPhone 4S introduction what would have been different if it had been a 'true' iPhone 5, they wouldn't have much to actually say. A larger screen? A thinner shape? More often than not, it comes across as a psychological hurdle. They want it to be superficially new, whether or not it's actually changed underneath.

Again, some of that criticism is fair. Android right now is moving at a breakneck pace. The industry started out 2011 with 4.3-inch screens and dual-core processors still novelties, and now this is nearly the bare minimum for a high-end phone. They're gradually adopting features like NFC (near-field communication) and offering Internet speeds that are sometimes as fast as a good landline connection. If everything lines up, the Galaxy Nexus will be closer to a miniature tablet in your pocket, with all the power that entails, than a phone. Apple should be thankful it took as much a leap forward as it did in 2010, since the iPhone 4S still has some advantages in resolution and pocketability; they're just no longer the breakthroughs they used to be.



But we can't help but feel Apple has been clever by targeting the most difficult aspects of the phone experience to get right: the subjective, human experiences that mean the difference between swearing at your phone and swearing loyalty to it. Siri plays a large part in that. There's something to be said for setting your alarm for the next day just by using your voice, or asking your phone if it can sing and getting back HAL 9000's rendition of "Daisy" from 2001. It's about snapping photos of your kids that you'd be happy to put in a frame on the countertop or post on Flickr.

Rivals like, yes, the Galaxy S II can be good or even outstanding, but they're very much tailored to the technically savvy set. The kind of person that knows what DLNA means (Digital Living Network Alliance, if you're curious) or feels stifled if she doesn't have the complete freedom to replace every stock app with one of her own. That liberty, as refreshing as it can be if you're aware of it, is sometimes more theoretical than real -- and it often comes at the expense of how discoverable those features are to everyday people. Those we know who have Android, BlackBerry, and Windows Phone hardware often don't realize they have voice commands available, let alone have an inclination to use them. More flexibility in apps doesn't matter if there are fewer apps you sincerely want to use.

The iPhone 4S' main challenges, then, aren't so much competitors, though that concern is real, as just courting those who are already satisfied with the objective features of their phones. If you have an iPhone 4, it will be harder to justify buying an early upgrade, especially if you're not a power user. Outside of Siri, there's little that you'll get in software alone. The performance improvements are nice, but most who bought an iPhone 4 or a reasonably high-end smartphone in 2010 or 2011 won't necessarily cry out for a new phone.



Apple, we believe, is aware of this. It's not chasing after the chronic upgrader. Instead, it's looking for the person at the end of a two-year contract, the person who bought a middling or low-end Android phone and is regretting it, or the person who's never owned a smartphone before. Come at it from an iPhone 3GS, a BlackBerry Curve, or an LG Optimus S, and it's just as good as any dual-core HTC or Motorola or Samsung smartphone, if not better for being less intimidating and skipping that need to be charged twice a day.

We wouldn't drop everything to get the iPhone 4S if we'd just bought a premium device, but we're still giving it a high mark just because it hits all the right notes. It's fast, it has a great camera and a still superb display, and it has an easy to use interface that has addressed some of the key gripes users had while adding some distinct touches of its own. iCloud and Siri may be familiar, but they each go beyond the norm to make their features accessible and, importantly, worth using regularly. You don't have to remake the look of a phone to make it a big improvement, and while there are now a few Android phones we'd genuinely love to own, we can still say there's a good reason why the iPhone is sometimes the point of reference for everyone else.

by Jon Fingas


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