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After a longer wait than usual, Apple’s new iPhone is finally on the market and the iPhone 4S is already being well-received despite some initial disappointment about it having the same form factor as last year’s . In this review, we’ll see if the snappier processor, better camera, iOS 5, Siri and iCloud are enough for the to compete in a rapidly-improving smartphone world.
The iPhone 4S is finally here, so let’s take a deep dive in the review.
Have you ever seen an iPhone 4? Well, the iPhone 4S pretty much looks exactly the same. The antenna looks the same as the Verizon iPhone 4 version and the SIM card slot on the right spine is now on every version but it's essentially identical to last year's mode. That's not too bad in my book, as I still think the iPhone 4 and 4S form factor is one of the best in the business even if I still yearn for a slightly larger screen. The improved internals and boosted camera definitely mean that you're not just getting a minor update.
Part of me wishes that we could have gotten some sort of change to design of the device, even if it's really minor. I really think something as trivial as offering it in multiple colors beyond black and white could make the look more exciting, as I would love a midnight blue iPhone 4S.
Like the iPhone 4 before it, the iPhone 4S is a symphony of glass, metal and glass. I normally cover my iPhone 4 in a case (a cool one made by Uncommon), so I don't actually get to appreciate how beautiful the industrial design is: it fits incredibly in your hand, looks very attractive and continues to epitomize what a premium device can look like. If you're jumping from an iPhone 3GS or other non-iPhone 4 device, you're in for a treat when you pick up and interact with the iPhone 4S.
While I still enjoy the iPhone 4S and think it's a beautiful design, I can't help but think it is a tiny bit stale. While the display on the Super AMOLED Plus may not pack the pixels per inch of the Retina Display, it provides amazing colors that are a joy to look at. We're also seeing a new class of screens roll out which are delivering amazing clarity with much larger real estate. These devices have shown (me, at least) that smartphones with a large screen can be manageable, easily slip into a pocket and be just as thin as the iPhone 4S.
Overall, if you love the form factor of the iPhone 4, then you're going to adore the iPhone 4S. If you're pining for more screen size, then you're probably going to have to look elsewhere.
While the iPhone 4S may not have a radically redesigned form factor, Apple didn't skimp on the internals with the iPhone 4S and it really comes through in the performance. The iPhone 4S features a dual-core A5 chip that's in the iPad 2 and it makes opening apps, loading the web browser, scrolling through home screens and countless other operations super smooth. I originally set up this iPhone 4S as a new iPhone and it was quick as you would expect but even after I restored my hundreds of apps and gigs of content, it was still blazing fast.
An advantage that Apple has over nearly all of its competition is that it makes the hardware and the software, so iOS 5 was built to maximize the hardware in the iPhone 4S. Even if competing devices have a 1.5 GHz processor and more than the 512 Mb of RAM in the latest Apple smartphone, that doesn't necessarily mean that the end-user experience will automatically be better than what the iPhone 4S delivers. Apple is boasting that that the iPhone 4S packs twice the power of the previous model and that it has 7 times the graphical prowess. I really can't wait for developers to take advantage of the extra hardware and I know that Daniel is looking forward to what this new Apple iPhone will mean to gamers.
We'll talk about the improvements to the camera and the ability for the iPhone 4S to be a world-roaming device in sections below but let's focus on what's not in the latest Apple smartphone: NFC. One of the most exciting topics in the industry is mobile payments through NFC but this Apple smartphone won't be able to participate in that. I'm not convinced that this is a deal-breaker by any means though.
I secretly believe that Apple is working on its own mobile payment plans using the Bluetooth 4.0 chip that's inside the iPhone 4S but even it will eventually use NFC, it's not like the iPhone 4S is missing out on much right now. NFC mobile payments are exciting but essentially non-existent in the United States. Things like Google Wallet and ISIS are in its infancy and I'd be surprised if these were widespread by the time your two-year contract with the iPhone 4S is complete. Now, if the iPhone 5 doesn't have it, then I'll be miffed.
The iPhone 4S also doesn't have 4G but I'll talk about that in a separate section. It may not look like much has changed with the iPhone 4S but the internal improvements will lead to an excellent user experience.
Apple iOS 5 is probably the most important update the iPhone has received since the second version which brought the App Store, as the iPhone 4S has software which adds great new features to an already impressive foundation. For those of you who have never used iOS, you should know that it is a very mature, visually-pleasing operating system which has a wealth of high-quality apps and can easily make calls, send e-mails and texts, as well as browse the web in a simple, yet powerful way. The App Store selection is still larger than the Android Market and while that may be changing, the iPhone is still where many innovative startups go first to develop for.
You're immediately hit with a major benefit of iOS 5 when you turn on your iPhone 4S, as you're greeted with an activation screen instead of that dumb prompt to connect it to iTunes. For a company that values the end-user experience, it's a shame that it took the iPhone so long to have this, especially since Android and Windows Phone make it a breeze to set up a new device. Anyways, you simply click through some menus, enter your Apple ID and then you're off and running with your new iPhone 4S. You'll have the option to restore an older iPhone over-the-air but I suggest plugging it in at some point to transfer your content if you have a ton of app and media that you want on your new iPhone.
Another major upgrade with the iPhone 4S and iOS 5 is the revamped notification system. Previously, I always felt the push-notification system on the Apple smartphone was clumsy and heavy handed because a pop-up would show up on top of whatever you're doing and you'd have to immediately address it. Now, a text message or other notification will smoothly appear at a top bar and you can choose to address it at that time or not. If you want to view those notifications, you swipe down from the top of the screen and you'll be hit with a notification window that shows you an Apple weather and stock widget along with your notices grouped by app. Yes, it's similar to the Android experience but I consider that a good thing.
You can also view notifications from your lock screen and sliding that notification to the right will launch you directly into the app. Keeping that sliding interaction metaphor on that screen is smart and you'd be surprised how much time being able to dive directly into that program can save you. I'd still like the ability to dismiss individual notifications but you're stuck with clearing all the notifications per app at once. Still, this is a much-needed improvement and it will make your life easier.
The iPhone 4S and iOS 5 also have improved on some existing apps while also adding news ones which should make for more pleasant experiences. Well, maybe not Newsstand, as this is essentially just a fancy folder which holds your news and magazine apps but you can't delete it or even hide it in another folder easily. Thankfully, the new Reminders app is a very useful way to give yourself notes and there's even some fancy geo-fencing features which could in handy if you wanted to call your office after you've left a certain location, for example.
The iMessage service is basically Apple's version of BBM and it's a great way to communicate with other Apple owners via text and pictures without having to worry about being nickle and dimed by your carrier. It's integrated with your messages app and one neat thing is that I've found Siri will automatically use iMessage if you're trying to text someone it detects has the iOS 5 software. There's now deep Twitter integration throughout the platform, so once you give it your username and passwords, it makes sharing your photos and websites via Twitter a breeze.
Existing apps like Mail and Game Center now have more teeth, as the gaming hub is getting much more social with recommendations. As for the Mail app, look forward to the ability to add rich text formatting, dragging addresses and the ability to search for content within entire messages. I primarily use Google mail services, so I do prefer what Android offers in terms of e-mail clients but the iPhone 4S can definitely deliver the goods when it comes to mobile messaging.
As with iOS 4, you can double tap the home button to bring up the multitasking bar at the bottom and the increased horsepower in the iPhone 4S makes this speedier. While users will be spending much more time in the revamped notification window, the basic layout of the platform is what you'd expect: a bunch of static icons across multiple screens. It's definitely been successful but part of me longs for the ability to have widgets on screens or to have more ambient information like what you get on the Live Tiles in Windows Phone Mango.
Apple likes to say that its products "just work" and that's due to the harmony between the hardware and the software. While that's true to a certain degree, don't let the marketing fool you into thinking that the iPhone 4S isn't still a computer that can be vulnerable to computer things. For example, I've had a heck of a time trying to use my Google Voice app on here, as the app will just crash and constantly go back to the home screen before I've completed setting it up. You can argue that it could be Google's fault for that but the larger point is that you'll still see some app crashes once in a while, even from Apple's own apps but it's not a huge deal, as no platform is perfect.
Some major components of the iPhone 4S and iOS 5 include Siri and iCloud, so each will get its own dedicated section. The iPhone 4S with iOS 5 is a smart evolution of the platform, as it adds multiple new apps, features and interaction metaphors without ditching the polish and visual appeal which made the iPhone such a hit.
There are times where the Siri voice-controlled personal assistant really blows my mind and feels like the beginning of a new age in how we interact with all of our computing devices. For real. The simplicity, beauty and polish of it means that it will probably resonate with more users than Google's Voice Actions or even something like Vlingo, which has been doing a great job on its own on similar voice-controlled tasks. Unfortunately, I believe that Siri is more sizzle than steak at this point and it only delivers on a fraction of its enormous potential.
Basically, Siri is trying to be your personal assistant on your phone that you interact with using natural language. Instead of yelling pre-defined prompts at it, you can simply hold down the home button until the icon pops up and say something like, "Tell Jamie I think we should grab a drink later." It's intelligent enough to comb through your contacts and it can transcribe your words to compose the text message. You can also tell it to set a reminder for you about getting this drink or put it in your calendar - if it conflicts with another appointment, Siri will tell you about the conflict.
It's not just about being able to use your voice to send texts, e-mails or even to play music, or even having your messages read to you, as we've had those capabilities in smartphones for a long time but where Siri shows its massive potential is delivering answers to questions you pose using normal language in a natural way. The examples Apple shows off are things like, "Do I need a sweater in San Francisco today?" and it will display the weather forecast for you. You can then continue the conversation by adjusting the city and it will recognize you're still talking about weather and give you the new forecast in a different location.
Whether it's giving you the weather, recognizing that you're looking for food in a certain district of a city or letting you set your alarm with a few words, Siri really shows off what Apple does best: bringing advanced technology to the mainstream in such a painless and beautiful way. Interacting with your computers through speaking naturally is not a new idea, as anyone who has seen Star Trek believes there is value in this, but when it actually works, it's an amazing thing.
My mind knows that it's capturing my voice, sending it up to a server to parse that information, comparing it against databases from Yelp, Wolfram Alpha, Google Maps and Apple, or sending that command to one of the existing integrated apps on the phone but the way it works and is presented really does feel like magic. I've had my Keanu Reeves moments with it. The problem is that it doesn't work all the time.
While I appreciate that Siri is packed with humorous answers for things it doesn't know and this gives it somewhat of a personality, that gets old very quickly and doesn't make up for the fact that it doesn't work as it's supposed to all the time. If you're like me, you'll probably talk at Siri for the first hour to test its limits and see its hilarious missteps but will then barely use it because it will be faster, more efficient and more accurate to do it yourself with your fingers. I'll likely use Siri to show-off in front of people, or to send or hear messages when I'm in the car but I'm not sure if it will work its way into my day-to-day life in a meaningful way. As you can see from the video below, it will misunderstand words and that defeats the purpose of using it.
Voice recognition technology has to be bulletproof for it to really be useful and Siri isn't even close to that at this point. If this was something that happened once in a blue moon, I'd live with it but I've found that it makes mistakes quite often unless you adjust your speech pattern in a very slow, command-driven way. It loses the promise and magic of actually being able to use natural language.
I understand that voice recognition is hard and it's even harder when you're aiming to have natural language recognition. When you combine voice recognition with natural language and include context and geolocation, I'm not surprised that Siri doesn't fully deliver on its promise. In fact, Apple has even said that it's in beta - normally Google's jam - and it will only improve with time. I sincerely hope that it does because this could be the starting point for a brand new interaction metaphor with our devices that could become every bit as important as the multitouch interface that the iPhone debuted with. The difference is that Apple nailed multitouch on its first attempt with the iPhone but it hasn't with Siri on the iPhone 4S.
I'm still not sure why Siri isn't on other iOS 5 devices yet, as I can buy the argument that the iPhone 4 may not have the processing power to handle it but the iPad 2 definitely does. I sincerely hope that Apple continues to improve on Siri and bring it more of its products because it could be the start of something very special.
Apple's iCloud is a major push for the company into cloud computing but it's a slightly different approach than some of its competitors. Google and Microsoft look at the cloud as a hard drive in the sky to augment your mobile but Apple's iCloud uses the cloud as a conduit to deliver your content across all of your Apple devices without having to connect it or sync it with a computer.
Sound complicated? It's not really and that's the beauty of iCloud. It enables Apple to let you set up your iOS 5 device without having to plug it into a computer and it also makes it much easier to keep track of your content no matter what device you're on. As long as it's an Apple iCloud device, of course. This includes your photos, apps, contacts, calendars, documents and you can even back up your device to iCloud each night over WiFi, which makes it much easier to recover your data and content if you lose or switch iDevices.
While I eventually just used my computer to sync all my apps up, I originally set up my iPhone 4S as a new iPhone. If I wanted to have a fresh break from my apps and other content, I could go into the App Store or iTunes, click on the Purchased tab and individually download the music, media and apps that I have already paid for. If you're like me, you probably have a lot of baggage with your iOS devices - apps, media and other content that you don't actually want - and iCloud gives you a way to start fresh on your new device but not lose access to the stuff you really want. Even if that were the only thing it offered, I'd dig iCloud.
There is much more to the iCloud though, as there's iCloud.com to give you access to your Mail, Calendar, Find my iPhone, and documents from within a browser. I'm not in love with the performance of these web apps when you're outside of Safari but it's nice to have this information available to you in other form factors and backed up. The value of this is obvious, as you can start working on a document on your iPhone while you're coming home and then have it ready for you on your Mac laptop at the exact same spot you finished on your mobile. Apple iCloud also allows you to back up your phone and to synch with iTunes over WiFi and both of these are much-needed features.
All of those things are good and will be convenient but I'm convinced that the breakout feature for iCloud will be PhotoStream, especially with the improved camera on the iPhone 4S. While it's easy to share photos via Facebook and Twitter or to sync photos via iTunes or iPhote, I'd guess that most people's mobile phone shots are still graveyarded on the device. With Photo Stream, you'll be able to throw your photos to the cloud and then download them to your other Apple products in a smooth and easy way. If you happen to own an Apple TV, you'll also be able to display Photo Stream on your television. Windows Phone Mango and Android also have the ability to back up your photos automatically to the cloud but I feel like Apple's approach and marketing prowess will make Photo Stream a must-have feature of the iPhone 4S.
Apple's approach to the cloud differs from Google and Microsoft because your iPhone 4S or iOS device will still need a healthy amount of on-board storage. Luckily, you get 5 GB of cloud storage for free but this doesn't count apps, TV shows, music or other iTunes content. If you're the type who loves having tens of gigs of access at your fingertips, I'd suggest augmenting iCloud with Box, which is offering iOS users 50 GB of free storage for a limited time.
I don't care how good a mobile browser is, if a webpage isn't properly optimized for these smaller form factors, it's going to look janky on your screen. With the new Reader feature, you can simply tap on the icon in the URL bar and it will lay out the story in a very clean format that strips out the ads but still includes the pictures. These stories can then be e-mailed out, saved for later a la Instapaper, or even tweet out the article thanks to the deep Twitter integration.
It's still an iPhone, so don't expect Flash support in the traditional means but I've found that most of the sites I frequent have optimized for mobile devices like the iPhone 4S, so your mileage may vary. Overall, the iPhone 4S has an excellent browser.
Apple's iPhone set the bar for multimedia capabilities on a phone and the iPhone 4S continues that tradition with a few minor tweaks. The iPod icon is gone, as your music rests in the music app and your TV shows and movies will be on your Videos app. Of course, you can download music, television shows, movies and podcasts from the iTunes store and the on-device process for browsing, buying and downloading content is as smooth as ever. Siri can also be used to play your music but it can't help you with videos. Videos look really nice on the 3.5-inch Retina Display but again, a larger screen at the same quality would be nice for watching videos on the go.
On a side note, the unit we bought has a bum speaker but even with just one, the sound has impressive volume and good quality. I'll hit the Apple Store soon to replace it and update you on if this makes a difference.
You should know the deal by now with the multimedia capabilities on the iPhone 4S and iOS products: it's a smooth and seamless experience if you live in the iTunes ecosystem. If you prefer to get your content from other places, it's still possible to get your content on the iPhone 4S but you do have to jump through more hoops.
The iPhone 4 had a great camera and quickly became the most popular camera on Flickr but the camera on the iPhone 4S blows it out of the water in every aspect. The iPhone 4S has an 8-megapixel camera which produces better photos and videos and it's much easier to use.
The dirty little secret about the iPhone 4's camera with the previous software is that it could be a pain to actually get to that camera app. Great photography is all about capturing that magic moment which you sometimes can't plan for and shooting that moment on the iPhone 4 used to go like this: Hit the unlock button, slide to unlock your screen, tap on the camera app, wait for that dreadful iris to open and then you can take your shot. If you're hoping to take multiple shots in succession, be prepared to wait a bit in between shots. While we're only really talking about ten seconds of fractions of a second when it comes to the shutter lag, that time can be the difference between a good shot, a great one and missing the shot entirely.
Thankfully, the iPhone 4S fixes many of those issues with a combination of hardware and software. First of all, there's an 8-megapixel camera in this one with a better sensor and as you'll see in the photos below, pictures look absolutely gorgeous. The colors are rich and true to life, the clarity and detail is stunning and even low-light shots look spectacular. We'll be pitting this against devices like the myTouch 4G Slide and the Galaxy S II in a photo fight but the photos below will show you how much better the iPhone 4S can shoot than last year's model. Apple's iOS 5 also lets you do some minor photo-editing on the device and it can be convenient but don't expect PhotoShop-style tweaking on your device.
The software also makes it much easier to access your camera, as double-tapping the home button on the lock screen will give you an icon to quickly hop into your camera. If you have a pin code set up, you'll be able to access the camera to take pictures but you won't have access to the rest of the device or even the gallery. The combo of iOS 5 and the additional horsepower in the iPhone 4S also means that shutter time between shots is almost non-existent. There are a lot of really great camera phones out there now and the iPhone 4S would have to be among the first devices you bring up when discussing the subject.
The top pictures are from the iPhone 4S and you'll notice how the colors are richer and more true to life, show more details and even the low-light pictures come out well. The bottom set are of the same subjects but taken with the iPhone 4 (all pictures taken in the standard mode and have been resized).
The front-facing camera is the same quality as the last one, meaning it's solid for making FaceTime calls and taking some self portraits. It's not great by any means but it definitely gets the job done.
The Apple iPhone 4S can now do 1080p HD videos and that's a nice way to stay in lock step with what the competition is doing. We thought the videos turned out great but the audio quality can have issues in wind, so an external microphone is necessary if you're really trying to shoot some high-quality video with this thing. On top, you'll find the iPhone 4S 1080p HD video and below that you'll see the 720p HD video from the iPhone 4. We're also throwing in the 1080p HD video from the Samsung Galaxy S II, Epic 4G Touch on Sprint for some more context.
The iPhone 4S is available for AT&T, Sprint and Verizon and it's really nice that each one has the ability to roam if you're in another country, although you're going to have to watch out for those pricey international data packages. We used the AT&T version because it's supposed to be the one with the fastest mobile data speeds but I wasn't blown away by the speeds in my testings in the San Francisco Bay Area. The AT&T iPhone 4S is technically capable of download speeds up to 14.4 Mbps down but I rarely cracked more than 2 Mbps down in San Francisco, where AT&T is notorious for its service. Basically, AT&T"s iPhone 4S should be the fastest of all three but depending on your carrier's coverage and strength where you live, you may not notice it on a Verizon or Sprint iPhone 4S.
The iPhone 4S doesn't have 4G in it, even if Apple likes to point out that its phone gets the same download speeds as some other phones with the "4G" label. Still, Verizon 4G LTE can and routinely does deliver much faster download speeds in my experience but Apple chose not to dive into 4G with this model because the impact on battery would be too great. As for Sprint and its WiMax 4G, Sprint is moving to LTE as well and the global market for WiMax is small, so I never expected Apple to have WiMax in its iPhone 4S despite what some Internet reports said.
As for the call quality, I found the iPhone 4S provided excellent voice quality throughout the San Francisco Bay area and I didn't drop a single call. Callers sounded clear and non-distorted and while they could tell I was using a cell phone, but said I sounded loud and clear. If my experiences with the Verizon iPhone 4 are any indication, I can safely assume that the CDMA models will also deliver above-average voice quality.
The iPhone 4S is promising better battery life than the previous model but it all depends on how you use it. I don't care what phone it is, if you're constantly pushing e-mails from three accounts, using streaming music services, heavily using location-based navigation and browsing the web thoroughly, the battery life is going to suffer. I was able to get it down to 50 percent in about 4 hours with super-duper heavy usage. With more moderate usage (including listening to on-board music), expect to get through at least a full day -
The Apple iPhone 4S is going to be a blockbuster hit and I wouldn't be surprised to see it ship 25 million units by the end of the year but does that mean you should buy one? The lack of external design changes may put some off but the improved hardware inside, the much better camera and iOS 5, iCloud and the interesting Siri means that this is definitely an excellent smartphone.
If you're rocking a 3GS or below, there should be no doubt about buying the iPhone 4S. If you've never had an iPhone and want to know what the fuss is about, pick up the iPhone 4S and you'll understand. Now, if you're on an iPhone 4 and don't have a contract upgrade coming your way, you may be able to stick it out with iOS 5. The iPhone 4S is noticeably faster in every way than the previous model and Siri is a powerful if half-baked addition, but I still think the iPhone 4 with the latest software provides enough value to hold onto for another year or so. If you're a shutterbug, then you probably should pick up the iPhone 4S because the camera is stellar.
Who shouldn't buy the iPhone 4S? Well, obviously, if you're partial to Android, Research In Motion or Windows Phone, the iPhone 4S probably won't change your mind. Those who love living on the bleeding edge of technology may also opt for 4G LTE phones or smartphones with larger displays and NFC.
Is the iPhone 4S a quantum leap that changes the way we think about mobile computing again? Probably not but part of that is because Apple has set the bar so high. Still, the iPhone 4S is what you'd expect from Apple at this point: a really nice improvement to an already excellent product.
Well, you've heard what we have to say, now sound off in the comments.