By Brandon Miniman | October 31, 2011 11:48 AM
The iPhone 4S is part of an interesting tale. It was the device thought to come in addition to a new iPhone 5. The 4S was supposed to incrementally increase the specs found on the iPhone 4 and offer a lower price point, while the iPhone 5 would provide a huge jump in design and power. When Apple unveiled the iPhone 4S with no iPhone 5, it was clear that for at least the next ten or twelve months, it would be considered Apple’s flagship phone. While many were disappointed, the iPhone 4S has gone on to be one of the best selling phones of all time in just a few weeks. But with more choices than ever for smartphone shoppers, does the iPhone 4S still have a place as a premium device? Read our full review and find out!
Unboxing the iPhone 4S is no different than unboxing an iPhone 4. You get the same accessories (a wall charger, USB cable, and white ear buds) in virtually the same box. The only point of differentiation is the “S” branding (reused from the days of the iPhone 3GS) plus an iCloud logo.
The iPhone 4S is powered by the A5 dual-core 1GHz chip found in the iPad 2, though our guess is that the chip might not run at the full peak 1GHz speed, and instead probably cap out at 800MHz. Apple claims that the A5 provides 2x the CPU speed and 7x the graphics prowess than the iPhone 4 (take a look at our comparison video below to see whether this is true). Beyond that, the iPhone 4S has 512MB of RAM, 16/32/64GB of storage, 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0, a digital compass, gyroscope, cellular data provided by HSPA+, HSDPA, or EVDO Rev-A (depending on whether you version you choose). The screen is unchanged–it is 3.5″ with 960×640 resolution, providing a 326ppi pixel density, which is still unrivaled by any other phone on the market right now. Powering everything is a battery that is slightly larger than the iPhone 4, providing 8 hours talk time. More on battery life later.
From day one, the iPhone 4S is available in white, unlike the iPhone 4 where it took many months for the white version to start shipping. Why choose white over black? It’s a matter of personal preference, but white does a better job at hiding finger prints.
While the iPhone 4S has the same design as the iPhone of last year, it’s still a handsome device thanks to colored glass that opposes the metal bands of the antenna configuration. New to the iPhone 4S is an improved dual-antenna system: no more “grip of death”.
Apple says the camera optics of the 4S are vastly improved over the 4. We agree. It has a larger f/2.4 apperature to allow more light into the sensor, providing improved performance in low light situations.
And of course, we now have Siri, which is generally useful, but its real promise will be fulfilled in the future as technology improves to make it smarter. See below for more remarks on Siri.
The iPhone 4S ships with iOS 5, which brings forth a lot of new features. Chief among them is a new notification system, iCloud, Siri, iMessage, Reminders, improvements to the photo app, and some other goodies. Let’s dissect each of these new features in more detail.
Previously, notifications in iOS were very disruptive. They’d come in as pop-ups that would interrupt you from what you were doing. Now, notifications have three ways of being customized.
First, you can choose whether a notification pops in as a banner, a pop up, or you can turn them off completely for a given app. The banners are great except that they obscure UI elements when they appear as shown above. And because you can’t “wipe” them away like in Windows Phone 7, you have to wait until they disappear, which takes several seconds. As you can see in the screenshot above, the notification is covering up the “Messages” back button. Very annoying. Update: after some experimentation, we found a way to dismiss banner notifications in iOS 5.
Second, you can utilize the Android-like Notification Center to manage all of your notifications which is accessible if you swipe down from the top. The trouble with this is that you cannot selectively remove notifications. Rather, you can only clear entire categories of notifications with the tiny X button. I didn’t find the notification center particularly useful, so I left it turned off by selectively entering the Notification setting for each program, and turning Notification Center to off.
Third, you can have notifications appear on your lockscreen. Not only that, but the program’s icon becomes a slider so that you can instantly enter the program that has sent you a notification. This is very useful, but if you’re streaming a lot of notifications, this area might become cluttered.
Even if you’re not entrenched in the Apple ecosystem with an iPad or Mac, you can still benefit from iCloud because it works with PC with a special application. For most people, the best feature of iCloud is the Photo Stream: take a photo on your phone, and whenever it is connected to WiFi, the photo will upload to the cloud, then be available on any device you have set up with iCloud, whether that’s another iPhone or iPod Touch, an iPad, a Mac, or a PC. For example, on my PC, I have my iPhone 4S’s photos going into a folder within a Pictures directory called “iPhone 4S photos”. While there are services available for Android, for example, that does the same thing, Apple has created something that works well and works easily across multiple devices and platforms.
There are some downsides to Photo Stream. It will only save the last 30 days worth of photos. Also, videos are not uploaded. Worse of all, you cannot delete photos from your Stream: your only option is to reset it altogether and delete everything. Hopefully these issues will be rectified in an update.
iCloud works with other things too like contacts, calendar, bookmarks, email, notes, and documents. Most people have another syncing option for contacts, calendar, and email, like Exchange or Gmail, so this sync is not necessary. Bookmarks only works with Safari. Notes is useful, and so is documents, especially if you use a Mac. iCloud also ties into Find my Phone, a great service (previously available) that allows you to track your phone on a map and remote wipe it, should you lose it.
Siri is sort of useful. It’s great if you’re in a situation where talking to your phone isn’t rude or awkward. It’s also useful if you want to set up a quick appointment or reminder. For looking up information, it seems to take equal effort to just open Safari and search Google.
The real promise of Siri comes in the future when it understand more about your preferences (what kinds of food you like, where you like to shop, etc). What becomes even more exciting is when Siri can carry on a real human conversation. Imagine if Siri could call a restaurant for you and make reservations. This technology isn’t too far off, as scary as it might seem to have your phone act on your behalf.
iMessage is essentially the same as BBM on the BlackBerry platform. It lets you carry on a real-time text, video, or photo chat with multiple parties. It’s carried over your data connection, so it’s free, which might help you reduce your SMS bill. Not only that, but it works over all iOS 5 devices, so you can have a conversation on your iPad, then continue on your iPhone. iMessage is especially useful when making plans with friends: instead of texting multiple people, you can send just one message in a group chat.
Reminders is similar to any task program, but you can set geo-fences, which is super cool. One of the best uses of Siri is to say something like “Remind me to call Mike when I get to the office.” If you’ve associated a contact card with your name and addresses (for home, work, etc), Siri knows where you live and will literally sense when you are near your office, and show you the reminder.
Photo Editing & Other Goodies
In the photo app you can now crop a photo, reduce red eye, and auto-enhance. These features have come with photo editing apps on other smartphones for years, so in this respect, the iPhone is just catching up.
Also new to iOS 5 is Twitter integration, which means that you can share websites, photos, videos, and other bits directly to Twitter without having to enter the Twitter app. It’s a bit odd that iOS 5 didn’t also include Facebook integration.
Another great new feature of iOS 5 is Reader in Safari. Reader will strip away ads, graphics, and other distractions, and provide you with just the text of a web page, almost as if you’re reading a printed page. This is super handy for complex websites that require a lot of panning and scrolling to get the best view of the text.
A final additional feature of iOS 5 which seems to be an annoyance more than a benefit is Newsstand. It’s a new folder-like shortcut that sits on your homescreen, that you can’t remove, and into which certain magazines and publications will go. For example, the New York Times app goes into Newsstand, even if you want to set it as an icon outside of the Newsstand folder. That said, Newsstand is kind of cool because it shows you the cover of all of your content, and lets you easily access new magazine and newspaper content from the Newsstand section of the App Store. It’s like a hub of daily content on your device.
Apple claims big leaps in processing and graphics power from the iPhone 4 to the 4S thanks to the inclusion of the A5 dual-core chip versus the A4 chip found in the original. Are these performance claims true? In the above video, we tested the 4S’s speed in four areas: start up time, opening apps, gaming, and internet performance. The former three areas all saw significant improvements with the A5 chip found in the 4S. However, web browsing performance seemed almost the same across both devices. This might have to do with iOS 5 being better optimized for web browsing performance, or perhaps the operating system isn’t perfectly tuned to take advantage of both processing cores.
The iPhone 4S’s camera takes photos at 8MP, which is 3264×2448 resolution. As always, Apple doesn’t let you choose to take smaller shots, as this would add a layer of complexity that most people don’t want to deal with.
The pictures speak for themselves. In every shooting condition, the iPhone 4S performs admirably. Couple the photo quality with quicker access to the camera with a double-tap of the home button when the phone is locked, plus the ability to use the volume + button to snap a photo, and you’ve got a winning combination.
The iPhone 4S records video at full 1080p and also has an anti-shake feature which goes a long way in smoothing out video. Above is an indoor shot filmed with overhead florescent lighting. The colors are accurate, and the camera does a great job focusing on close-up objects.
The 4S’s camera espcecially shines outdoors. Notice how the microphone was able to pick up the audio of a flock of geese flying overhead. Also notice the fantastic contrast of the sky above the grass. Impressive!
CALL QUALITY/NETWORK SPEED
We tested the 4S on AT&T, and saw pretty impressive data speeds: up to 6mbps down in some places, with bursts as high as 10mbps found by another Pocketnow editor in Washington state. Upload speeds were a pretty consistent 1.5mbps.
In terms of call quality, the iPhone 4S provided clear calls with no loss of signal created by holding the phone the wrong way. We experienced no drop calls, though certainly if you go to a place like New York or Las Vegas where AT&T’s network is still weak, you’d have some trouble (on any phone, for that matter).
Apple claims that the battery life of the 4S is a bit improved over the 4, and we don’t agree. With heavy use, expect to barely get through a day. With some battery management (turning down screen brightness, adjusting phone sync schedules, etc), you’ll easily get through a day. This is worse when compared to the iPhone 4, which could handily make it through a full day with heavy use and very little battery management.
PURCHASING AND AVAILABILITY
In the US, you can buy the iPhone 4S from AT&T, Verizon, or Sprint in 16, 32, and 64GB capacities for $199, $299, and $399 respectively. Head on over to the Apple store to choose your model of choice.
+ Incredible camera
+ Siri is useful today, holds huge promise tomorrow
+ Significantly faster than iPhone 4 in daily use case scenarios
+ Display is still the clearest thanks to unrivaled 326ppi density
+ Can be configured with 64GB of storage
- Hardware design feels dated
- iOS 5, despite improvements, feels dated
- New notification system needs work
- iCloud only saves 30 days of photos; cannot selectively delete
- Battery life is worse than iPhone 4
For most people, the iPhone 4 was the ideal phone: it provided premium hardware with software that anyone could learn, it had great battery life, a fantastic camera, and a reasonable price. The iPhone 4S continues this legacy. It’s absolutely one of the best smartphones that you can buy right now. But of course, we’re not going to see another iPhone until late next year, and by then, the “other” smartphone choices are likely to be far more impressive than what Apple has done with the 4S. We’re going to see quad-core phones with 720p displays, terrific battery life, and new software innovations.
If you ignore the fact that the iPhone 4S might quickly lose its relevance in 2012, which, for some people, doesn’t matter, and if you have no ideological adversity to Apple’s iOS operating system, the iPhone 4S is nearly perfect for what it is, and we highly recommend it.
We rate the iPhone 4S 4.5/5.