Apple iPhone 4S: What's In It For You vs iPhone 4?

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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.

  • Dual-core A5 processor brings the iPhone up to par with the competition
  • Upgraded camera works well in low light conditions
  • Siri lives up the hype
  • Supports 1080p video recording
  • Dual antennas
  • No real 4G speeds
  • Glass back makes us nervous
  • 3.5-inch screen 
  • Apple's full proprietary experience still applies

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