|Introduction & Specifications|
|Here it is folks, the iPhone 4S from Apple. It's not the iPhone 5 like so many people were expecting, or at least hoping Apple would unveil. You won't find any obvious outwardly design changes, like a bigger screen or a redesigned chassis. Even the back is still covered with glass, ready to dole out instant punishment to the poor sap who carelessly loses his grip and lets his phone fall to the floor. The iPhone 4S doesn't drive a stake in the heart of Android or Windows Phone 7, and it won't change the world in the same fashion that the original iPhone did back in 2007. These are all the things that the iPhone 4S isn't. The obvious question to ask at this point is, what is the iPhone 4S?
The iPhone 4S is first and foremost the last iPhone model to come out of Cupertino under the tutelage of the late, great Steve Jobs. It's as much his product as any previous iPhone device -- his sooner than expected swan song, if you will, even though it was Tim Cook who took center stage at Apple's recent "Let's Talk iPhone" event. This is the flagship phone Jobs felt confident could compete with all those newfangled Android phones boasting big screens and dual-core processors.
Well, the iPhone 4S doesn't have a bigger screen than before, or even one that's particularly large, but it does finally sport a dual-core Apple A5 processor, the exact same CPU Apple stuffed inside the iPad 2 (just clocked a little slower). Apple outfitted the camera in the iPhone 4S with all-new optics, which is now better equipped to capture memories in low light situations and can record 1080p video. It has a built-in "virtual personal assistant" that's fantastically creepy in how well it works, and it's ready to get jiggy with three wireless carriers (AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint). But do these upgrades make the iPhone 4S all that and a bag of apples? Let's find out.
We already covered the main differences, but there are a few other things that separate the iPhone 4S from its predecessor. Apple claims you'll squeeze an extra hour of talk time out of the iPhone 4S on 3G, but standby time has been reduced to 200 hours. Internet use on Wi-Fi is down by an hour (up to 9 hours on Wi-Fi compared to up to 10 hours), and the weight and dimensions are slightly different too, though nothing to lose your shorts over.
Available in both black and white, pricing is unchanged for a flagship iPhone. It costs $199 for the 16GB model, $299 for 32GB, and $399 for 64GB, assuming you sign a contract in blood and agree to pony up for a qualifying data plan. Prices are considerably higher if you're not eligible for an upgrade (or fear the sight of your own blood): $649 for 16GB, $749 for 32GB, and $849 for 64GB. Come November, Apple will sell unlocked and contract-free versions of the iPhone 4S at these prices.
Apple's decision to only upgrade the iPhone and not release an overhauled iPhone 5 hasn't stopped the iPhone 4S from receiving the usual attention that all Apple product launches seem to garner. According to Apple, pre-orders topped one million units in the first 24 hours, besting the previous single-day pre-order record of 600,000 held by the the iPhone 4. The iPhone 4S then went on to reach 4 million units sold in the next two days, making it the most successful smartphone launch of all time, Apple or otherwise. In other words, all the rage directed at Apple over the iPhone 4S launch ultimately amounted to a bunch of rabble rabble and truckloads of units sold.
|Design & Hardware|
Different box, same bundle. Included with the iPhone 4S are the exact same items Apple packages with just about every mobile device, which by now should look familiar to any repeat customer. If this is your first time wandering the Apple field, here's what you'll find:
A lint-free cloth would make life a little easier considering the amount of glass on the iPhone 4S, but in it's absence, I've just been rubbing it on my shirt (being careful to avoid the barbeque stains, of course).
The iPhone remains one of the best looking smartphones on the market today. So what if Apple didn't overhaul the exterior, this is a smartphone that's still ahead of the curve in aesthetics. Even if Apple would have outfitted the iPhone 4S with a bigger screen -- and you could certainly argue it should have one -- there would have been inevitable outcries of incompatible accessories and how it was just Apple's ploy to sell more add-ons. In other words, haters gonna hate. And if you are a hater, Apple threw you a bone to chew on. While the overall design is the same, the volume buttons and mute switch have moved a smidgen, which could still render the iPhone 4S incompatible with some cases.
By keeping the design largely unchanged, Apple also leaves itself open to the same criticisms as before, including the Fort Knox approach to locking down its iPhone. If I deem myself intelligent enough to change a battery, shouldn't I be afforded that freedom without having to pick up a special screwdriver to remove the Pentalobe screws and a spunger to pry it all apart, voiding the warranty in the process? The answer to that rhetorical query is "yes."
There's a definite trend in smartphone design to equip new devices with larger screens. Most of these are on the low end of 4 inches, but they're getting bigger and there's at least one (Samsung Galaxy Note) in the works with a 5.3-inch screen -- yes, FIVE POINT THREE FREAKING INCHES. Apple isn't oblivious to this market shift, it's just choosing to ignore it, at least for now. If you're coming from a 4-inch or larger Android or Windows Phone 7 device, the 3.5-inch display on the iPhone 4S can be a shock to the system. Having spent the last several months with the Motorola Droid X2 (pictured above, along with the HTC Droid Incredible 2), the very first thing that struck me about the iPhone 4S was how small it looked in comparison. A moment of panic set in as I wondered if this was something I'd get used to, and then I picked it up, spent a few days with it, and really began to appreciate its portability. Not everyone will feel that way, and if this is going to be your first rodeo with an iPhone, do yourself a solid and play with one before committing to a two-year relationship.
Remember what I said about Apple leaving itself open to the same criticisms? Another gripe is the lack of any expandable storage or non-proprietary ports, save for the 3.5mm audio jack. You're stuck with whatever amount of built-in storage you shelled out for from the get-go, and you'll need to use funky adapters for USB (included) and HDMI connectivity (not included).
While the form is largely unchanged, there's been a few improvements to function. One of these is that the Volume Up button now serves double duty as a shutter button. The camera, which I'll cover in a moment, is simply awesome, and it's made even better by having a dedicated shutter button to help you take steady photos.
Another welcome change is the inclusion of dual-antennas. You're now free to hold your iPhone the wrong way -- you know, by gripping it like you would any other smartphone -- without fear of dropping calls, at least as a result of your hands. If your wireless carrier sucks, the iPhone 4S won't change that.
Baby got back, just look at that sexy glass. Unfortunately, good looks are often dangerous, and this is no exception. You'll admire the glass back right up until you drop your phone on the sidewalk or cover it up with a case. I've dropped my Droid X2 a couple of times, and then picked it back up, slapped the rubber battery cover back on, and went on with my day. No harm, no foul. The iPhone 4S? An AppleCare+ or SquareTrade warranty with accidental damage insurance is almost a necessity if you don't plan to shove this thing in a protective case (and you really should).
Courtesy of the tech surgeons over at iFixIt, you can get a good look at the Apple A5 processor in the iPhone 4S. This is the main reason why Apple could justify launching another non-iPhone 5 smartphone. It's the same processor Apple uses in its iPad 2 tablet, only reportedly clocked around 200MHz slower based on benchmark performance (Apple didn't disclose the clockspeed). According to Apple, the A5 chip makes the iPhone 4S twice as fast as the iPhone 4, and it's seven times faster in graphics performance.
Apple is making much ado about data speeds on the iPhone 4S, and specifically that it supports up to 14.4Mbps downloads, which is twice that of the iPhone 4. Marvelous, right? Not so fast (literally). AT&T is the only U.S. carrier with High Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) technology, and good luck attaining speeds anywhere close to 14.4Mbps. By AT&T's own admission, "HSDPA devices commonly support peak rates of 3.6Mbps or 7.2Mbps, though typical user rates are lower than this." It's not any better over at Verizon and Sprint, both of which are CDMA only and rely on 4G WiMAX (Sprint) and 4G LTE (Verizon) for high-speed data access beyond 3G. But of course the iPhone 4S does not support WiMAX or LTE technologies.
|Camera, Software and Siri|
Without a doubt, the built-in camera is one of my favorite features of the iPhone 4S. Apple didn't just bump up the number of megapixels from 5MP to 8MP, it also outfitted the iPhone 4S with all-new optics and an extra lens. It uses a larger F/2.4 aperture to let more light through, and the end result is you can can snap larger, better looking photos in almost all lighting conditions. The difference in picture quality compared to the iPhone 4 and other smartphones is especially noticeable in low light photo shoots.
It also loads fast. From tap to snap, it took me 1.7 seconds to load the camera and take a picture. Repeating the same test on my Droid X2 took 3.7 seconds. That doesn't sound like much, but when a spur of the moment photo opportunity presents itself, 2 seconds can mean the difference between getting the shot you want and not getting one at all.
As I previously mentioned, the the Volume Up button can now be used as a shutter button. On the software side, there's a built-in grid you can turn on to help follow the rule of thirds if you fancy yourself a professional photo guru in the making. There's also an HDR function, and the ability to perform basic edits, like crop and quick color enhancements.
If you enable the HDR function on the iPhone 4S, it will capture three photos at different exposure levels, layer the shots together, and create a single photo. By default, the iPhone also saves an original image along with the HDR photo in the Camera Roll so you can compare the two.
The HDR function works fairly well, though it's not always the better option. You really need good lighting to take advantage of the HDR feature, something I'm in short supply of here in the midwest (Michigan, in case you're wondering). In the photos above, the left are the originals and the right are HDR captures. Other than resizing for the web, no post processing was performed on any of the images.
1080p HD Video Footage:
Apple also upgraded the video capabilities of the iPhone, which is now able to record in Full HD 1080p. Videos further benefit from image stabilization and temporal noise reduction technologies, both included in the iPhone 4S. The clip above shows fast moving traffic on a rainy, overcast day.
Apple's "Let's Talk iPhone" served as the launchpad for both the iPhone 4S and iOS 5. I'm not going to cover all the finer points of Apple's latest and greatest mobile OS -- there are over 200 feature additions -- but there are some points worth mentioning. Keep in mind that unless otherwise noted, these features also apply to the iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, iPod touch (3rd and 4th generation), iPad, and iPad 2.
One of my favorites is the Notification Center. It offers a pull-down curtain view of all your notifications, a feature that's old hat to Android, and one Apple was wise to emulate. I could do without the stock ticker, which I was able to disable in Settings > Notifications > Stock Widget.
Another feature I'm excited about is tabbed browsing in Safari. This is something that's old hat to everyone, and it's about time Apple included it here. I'm also enjoying Safari Reader, which cuts out the clutter and displays a website's main article in a more friendly manner.
There are three things that set the iPhone 4S apart from its predecessor. We've covered two of them already -- the dual-core processor and much improved camera optics -- and the third is Siri. When I watched Apple's promotional video for Siri, I thought, "Wow, that's really cool, but I bet it sucks. There's no way this thing works as advertised." I was wrong.
Some of you are already familiar with Siri. Prior to the iPhone 4S, a less awesome version of Siri was available in the App Store, one that didn't always work right. Apple pulled the app and integrated an improved version into the iPhone 4S, and it's truly an amazing piece of technology. Here's an example of how one of my exchanges went:
Me: Is there a Red Lobster nearby?This is a basic example; Siri's capable of a whole lot more. She's also a little sassy from time to time, and almost always accommodating. She's also able to connect the dots while keeping you out of trouble. Tell her you need to hire a prostitute, for example, and she'll let you know about any local escort services rather than directing you to the Red Light District. She responds to things like, "Beam me up, Scotty!" and once the novelty of trying to discover Easter eggs wears off, you're left with a useful piece of technology that can send text messages, set reminders, schedule meetings, and more.
* Editor's Note: This staff at HotHardware does not condone Paul's sinful ways.
|Performance: iPhone 4S, iPhone 4, iPad 2, & Android|
|To give a broad overview of performance, we called to arms a few different devices, including the iPad 2 with the same (albeit faster clocked) A5 processor inside, iPhone 4S, and a pair of Android devices, the single-core HTC Droid Incredible 2 and dual-core Motorola Droid X2. Each device was running the latest version of its OS (iOS 5 and Android 2.3).
GeekBench takes an in-depth look at both processor and memory performance, and is multi-core aware. Unfortunately it's not compatible with Android (yet), but it does allow us to see what kind of gains are possible with the iPhone 4S versus the iPhone 4. Posted above are the results for the iPhone 4S, and with an overall score of 618, it shows that there are some instances where it can run twice as fast (or nearly twice as fast) as the iPhone 4, which scored 381. For the sake of comparison, the iPad 2 scored 756.
On a side note, ignore the Processor Frequency that GeekBench displays, because it's probably wrong. There have been reports that the iPhone 4S is clocked at around 800MHz based on its benchmark scores. For what it's worth, GeekBench mislabeled our iPad 2's clockspeed at 897MHz when the actual clockspeed is 1GHz.
Hard numbers are great when you need to compare device A to device B, but what about day-to-day performance? What the numbers don't reveal is just how snappy the iPhone 4S is. This is where the iOS platform really shines, especially if you're coming from an Android device that's weighed down by a heavy skin, like some Motorola devices. The Droid X2, for example, should fly by the seat of its pants, and in some cases it does. But next to the lesser spec'd iPhone 4S, it's pretty well grounded. The iPhone 4S is snappy, apps load instantly, and there's never any lag as you navigate the UI. It feels comparable to the iPad 2, only in a smaller form factor.
As to battery life, Apple claims you can manage up to 8 hours of talk time on 3G, up to 14 hours on 2G (GSM), 200 hours of standby time, up to 6 hours of Internet use on 3G, up to 9 hours on Wi-Fi, up to 10 hours of video playback, and up to 40 hours of audio. These are comparable numbers to the iPhone 4, and in my real-world usage analysis, there's nothing to get overly excited about one way or the other. I've been able to go more than a day with what I would consider to be normal usage habits -- some calling, texting, playing with apps, shooting pics, listening to Pandora, and so forth. You're mileage will vary, of course, and if you're watching hours of Netflix movies with the screen brightness cranked up, you'll have to charge it more often.
|Back when we reviewed the iPhone 4, we concluded it was "an impressive device, there's just no two ways about it." So what is the iPhone 4S? By extension, it's an even more impressive device that's been modernized to keep up with the fast paced competition. For some, that's tough to swallow. After all, externally it's hardly different than its predecessor, and the label on the box calls it an iPhone 4S, not an iPhone 5. But to ding the iPhone 4S because Apple didn't introduce a new form factor would completely ignore that this is a faster, better equipped version of what many consider the supreme smartphone on the market. Maybe it is and maybe it isn't -- ask 10 Android users and 10 iPhone users and you'll get a 50/50 split -- but regardless, it's certainly a first-class device.
I like what Apple did with the iPhone 4S. The dual-core A5 processor gives the iPhone twice as much muscle as before, and the graphics engine gets a serious shot of adrenaline. Equally important for Apple and anyone who prefers iOS to Android and/or Windows Phone 7, these upgrades keep the iPhone from being completely passed over in raw horsepower, negating any temptation you might have to pick a platform you don't really want simply because the hardware is better. But what if you're platform agnostic?
That question is a little more difficult to answer. The iPhone 4S has some really good things going for it, primarily a sensational built-in camera that handles low light situations much better than before and shoots 1080p video. And then there is Siri, the creepily fantastic "virtual personal assistant" that's only available on the iPhone 4S, even if it is an arbitrary restriction (Apple yanked a less awesome version of Siri from the App Store). Finally, of course there's iOS 5, a feature packed OS upgrade that gets a lot of things right, and very little wrong.
There are also a few things working against the iPhone 4S, most of which are recycled complaints from the iPhone 4 and about Apple in general. By keeping the form factor the same and covering both the front and back with glass, you're a fumble away from having a tremendously bad day. With regards to the touchscreen, the Retina display is as stunning as it ever was, and at the same time it's noticeably smaller at 3.5 inches compared to smartphones approaching 5 inches in size. And you're not going to rock 4G LTE on the iPhone 4. Can you live with that for two years?
Coming from a Motorola Droid X2, I'm extremely happy with the iPhone 4S and it's an easy recommendation for anyone looking to ditch a grumpy Android phone, whether it's because it has a tendency to reboot (mine did) or feels laggy (mine really did). It's also an easy recommendation for new smartphone shoppers with no allegiance to any particular platform and who simply want a high-tech phone that's fast, responsive, and rad... so to speak. The iPhone 4S is all of those things. It doesn't end the war with Android, though, and if you're partial to Google, I'd recommend holding out for Ice Cream Sandwich.
Finally, what about current iPhone 4 owners? My advice is to ride out your contract. The iPhone 4S is a great smartphone, but unless you're eligible for an upgrade, you'll end up paying a hefty premium for a better version of what you already own, and you can install iOS 5 on your current device for free.