It’s yet another review of the iPhone 4S and we’re not holding back on this one.
Well, maybe a little.
The iPhone 4S is exactly the same as the 4, except that it talks back when you ask the wrong questions and like its predecessor, the 4S is still a slippery little thing and you will want to encase it to make it more secure – which has always been weird with me since encasing the 4S destroys the iPhone’s carefully thought design aesthetic – a paradox I’ve been unable to figure out.
Display & Sound
Phones are now sporting 4-inch displays and larger; Do we need to mention the bigger screens from the other competition? This means the 4S has a screen a full inch smaller than these newest models, which gives me a severe case of screen envy. However, AMOLED and VGA-based displays fades in direct sunlight, while 4S’ screen cuts easily through the daylight’s glare.
I could detect no difference in speaker sound quality between the 4 and the 4S, which means you get plenty of clean conversation without holding 4S up to your ear and no dropped calls for holding it a certain way.
Web browsing & mobile hotspot
Two improvements provide faster Web browsing in the 4S – a more powerful 800MHz Dual Core A5 (vs. a single core 1GHz in the 4) and, for AT&T customers, a doubling of the connection speed from 7.2 megabits per second (Mbps) in the 4 to 14.4Mbps in the 4S. But these are 3G, not 4G connection speeds. At least, they don’t have issues with their antennas.
To be honest, these ratings are theoretical. In actual usage testing (using the speedtest.net app available in the iTunes store and Android market), I discovered 4S supplied only around a 25 percent speed boost.
But these improvements – and whatever else Apple does to make iPhone perform beyond the sum of its parts – is enough to make the 3G iPhone 4S not only faster than the 4, but faster than the 4G Sprint Galaxy S II for loading Web pages, less buffering for video playback and uploading even high-resolution 8MP photos.
Camera & video recording
The upgrade from 5MP in the iPhone 4 to 8MP photos in the 4S is not as substantial as Apple claims it to be but I found only a decent improvement. Nothing significant as when iPhone 3GS went 4. The 4 already took surprisingly high-quality photos, the 4S a little more so. iOS 5 provides extra treats thanks to in-camera rotation, auto-fix, red-eye removal and cropping for both the iPhone 4 and 4S.
Videos are bright and colorful, but with a hint of jitter produced by the digital image stabilization which I find gimicky , but this is far less jitter than you’d get without the stabilization.
With iOS 5, the volume up button now doubles as the camera shutter release. Unfortunately, this places the pinhole camera lens on the lower right, right where you’ll be gripping the phone to reach the volume up key. You have to be wary of light bouncing off the top of your thumb into the lens as you support the bottom of the 4S as you shoot, and your free fingers wandering into the view finder.
Like previous iPhones, there are no additional settings, such as stepping down resolution for still or video, or – most annoying – self-timer options.
Keyboard & Navigation
I don’t think I need to explain this one. It’s an iPhone. The keyboard has always been designed for smaller dainty hands but, thankfully, with landscape, it solves that problem. iOS 5’s text-to-speech transcription for texting and email is decent in speech recognition but I found it less practical in many different scenarios. When I said “4S”, it thought I said “for ass.”
Everyone talks about how iPhone 4S’ real wonder is Siri but it is mostly useless. Aside from doing appointments, setting alarms, it still doesn’t get simple commands and it feels like you need to speak in a certain way to get Siri to understand you. Although it can tell you the weather, it can’t find a flight, or direct you to a product page when you want a MacBook Pro. This is just one of them. In fact, there’s a whole site dedicated to Siri’s misunderstandings and glitches just to name a few which have now turned into some hilarious jokes. Ask her for directions to “Townsend Bakery” – a highly rated and popular bakery in SF – and you’ll be directed to “towns and bakeries” around town. It is cool to ask your phone where do bury dead bodies though. Try it.
Siri saves you a lot of time and screen tapping, as long as there is no other ambient noise to distract her or distort your request, and as long as your iPhone 4S is connected to the Internet and the questions its given are no more complicated than “set my alarm to 9am”. Additionally, Siri’s communication to her cloud-based brain often results in a lag of two-or-three seconds.
During my travels to Hawaii, Siri performs horribly and my wife was tired of trying to do things the “cool” way and just rely on the good ‘ol touch keyboard. When we were at the Road To Hana wishing to get directions out of the hellish drive, Siri could not understand the landmark names. It has its limits.
New with the 4S is a larger 64GB capacity, which has allowed me to load in more than 10,000 music tracks. Don’t simply dismiss this extra-large capacity when deciding which model to buy. Bear in mind 8MP photos and 1080p video take up a lot more space than you think – one photo, for instance, can total around 3.5MB.
While time did not allow a true test of 4S’ battery, Apple has never fudged on its ratings. There are only two differences between the battery in the iPhone 4S and the 4 – you get one hour longer in talk time and 100 fewer hours (300 vs. 200) of standby. Other than these differences, both the 4 and the 4S provide the same 6 hours of Web surfing, 10 hours of video playback and 40 hours of music listening. However, we’ve noticed battery life draining much quicker than the iPhone 4. We found that the culprit centered around iOS5 – which now has an update available by the time you read this.
Pricing and availability
The iPhone 4S comes in three storage configurations from AT&T, Verizon and Sprint: $199 for 16GB, $299 for 32GB, $399 for the new 64GB configuration. For most folks, the 32GB model is the sweet spot, mostly to accommodate the heftier 8GB photos and 1080p video you’re sure to shoot.
Should you buy it?
If you currently own an iPhone 4, the only reason to upgrade is the camera and the dual CPU speed. which works only with iPhone 4S’ more powerful processor and speedier Internet connection.
For everyone else, the 4S may not match-up spec-wise with other new Android models, but why should it matter? iOS carries the most exclusive apps out of all the platforms and this is where iPhone wins every time – developers.
Phones usually have bowed in June/July. One reason for the initial geek disappointment in the 4S is that it took so long to get here, only to not be the 5. Your only question is, if the iPhone 5 goes on sale in less than a year, will you feel cheesed when Apple releases the iPhone 5 a few months from now?
What’s not to like? It’s the iPhone!