Apple’s iPhone 4S is a solid follow-up to the popular iPhone 4. As an owner of the 4, I would not race to upgrade.
The 4S is a refinement of a very good idea, and I don’t think you jump to buy a refinement unless you are 1) desperate for the under-the-hood changes or 2) Cannot wait to switch from one carrier to another (AT&T to Verizon or Sprint, say).
The iPhone 4S looks exactly like its predecessor, which caused some confusion in this test. I constantly picked up the wrong phone. At one point I inadvertently changed the settings on my iPhone 4, thinking that I was holding the new one.
Much of what’s new on the 4S is due to iOS 5, a major update that includes iMessage and the updated notification system. These changes are significant and, by and large, excellent. I love seeing my notifications stacked up on the home screen, accessible by swiping down from the top of the screen.
That area also includes the lovely weather and stock widgets. It’s a smooth experience, seeing your local weather stream by. There was one glitch: when I select weather details while holding the phone in landscape mode, the detail switched to portrait mode. It seems odd that Apple didn’t set it to follow the phone’s orientation.
iMessage works well. Getting unlimited free MMS and SMS with anyone else using iOS 5 is a nice feature. It worked fine for me and I never had to think about switching between iMessage and standard text message. It all happened in the same window. There is one feature I found semi-creepy: iMessage lets you see when someone else is typing a response to you.
Twitter is integrated into iOS 5, putting Twitter notifications inside the Notifications Center and letting me Tweet photos directly from my photo album. I’m an avid Twitter user, but these are not life-changing updates for me.
Siri: The Intelligent Assistant is a true wonder. Throughout a week of testing, Siri surprised me with her ability to understand me and my needs.
Siri is not sentient. The voice recognition technology works best when talking about the weather, the calendar and appointments, contacts, phone calls, email, notes and reminders. By baking Siri into the system, Apple has provided a wealth of context. This makes Siri more powerful than any voice recognition system that relies on web search results alone.
With all of your personal information at her fingertips, Siri has only to understand your words and match them to the matrix of detail about your activities, the people you know and location.
There have been countless stories about all the fun you can have with Siri. Trust me, I asked her a variety of odd questions just so I could get an entertaining response. For example, I asked her favorite color. Siri’s reply: “I don’t know how to say it in your language. It’s sort of greenish, but with more dimensions.”
Ultimately, these responses are parlor tricks. Siri’s true power comes into play when you can’t touch your phone, but still need to get stuff done. I tested Siri in a variety of situations and quickly learned its limits. The iPhone 4S microphone is quite good — I almost never had to shout, or even carefully enunciate, but noisy environments like the streets of Manhattan did offer a challenge.
I usually solved this by holding the phone much closer to my mouth, or up to my ear as if I were making a call (you can set Siri to automatically activate with this action) and shouting a bit.
Siri also doesn’t know who you are until you tell it. You identify yourself under General Settings>Siri>My info, and select yourself from your contacts. Siri never did learn how to properly pronounce my last name.
I also did something with my iPhone 4S that I’ve never done with any previous smartphones: Turn on location services. Without them, Siri is somewhat neutered; you couldn’t ask her “Where are the pumpkins” and get a list of pumpkin patches near you, as I did. Siri also fails spectacularly without network access; she appears to talk to Apple’s servers almost constantly.
Siri is still in beta. She should get smarter as she learns the nuances of my voice and the details of my life. Apple promises that Siri will crowdsource and improve for everyone. In the meantime, it’s a very useful tool, and one of two reasons why an iPhone 4 user might choose to upgrade to the 4S.
Pretty Pictures and More Power
The other reason is the camera. Yes, it has three more megapixels than the last iPhone camera, but the addition of lenses (now up to five) and a wider aperture makes this camera significantly better than the iPhone 4′s. I spent time taking the same image with each phone.
Naturally, the iPhone 4S images are larger, but the difference goes beyond mere file size and the number of pixels in each image. The 4S captured truer colors, and its faster images sensor gave me good photos even in relatively low light.
I’ve never been particularly dissatisfied with the camera on the iPhone 4, but when I zoomed in on photos from the two phones, I couldn’t help but notice how my iPhone 4 photos blurred out key details. (See the photo comparison gallery for comparison shots.)
The 4S’s most noticeable changes, of course, are inside. There’s the more powerful A5 chip and the new HSDPA radio for 3G+ download speeds. Unfortunately this is for GSM customers only, so AT&T customers should enjoy the faster download speeds, but not Verizon customers like me (or Sprint customers).
Still, my Verizon iPhone 4S performed faster. When I ran a series of Speedtest.net tests, I saw downloads speeds double (and sometimes even triple). Uploads were faster as well. Since I’m not accessing HSDPA, I can’t account for the speed boost. Perhaps it’s related to the more powerful CPU and updated Safari browser.
Call quality, by the way, on the Verizon iPhone 4S was as good, if not better, than what I get with my iPhone 4. And no, it never dropped a call.
Apple demoed some impressive GPU performance at the iPhone 4S rollout. Epic Games showed off Infinity Blade 2, featuring live game play so detailed it looked as if it was comprised of cut scenes. Sadly, Infinity Blade 2 isn’t available until December. When I asked Apple about other apps that might showcase the new graphics performance, they told me there was nothing available yet — I’d have to watch for better performance on my current apps.
Since the most graphically intensive app I own is the original Infinity Blade, I played that. I noticed how well the phone rendered reflections. Unlike on my iPad 1, the game never stuttered. This would account for my breezing through the first five levels and coming closer than I ever have to defeating the Boss.
Cloud and Concerns
I also set up iCloud on the phone. As soon as the phone connected to my home or office Wi-Fi, photos I’d taken would go off to the cloud and end up in my photo stream — instantly visible on my iPad (also upgraded to iOS 5).
I could also sign into iCloud on my computer, but my photos didn’t appear there. I didn’t have any luck syncing iCloud with my contacts — which I am able to load on the phone through Gmail (when set up as an Exchange account).
Battery life is more or less on a par with the iPhone 4 — unless you’re using Siri a lot. I spent a couple of days asking her lots of questions and noticed, by the afternoon, that the 4S battery might not make it to bedtime uncharged. As noted above, Siri is still in beta, so Apple may be working on power management.
I did notice one odd little difference with the iPhone 4S: When I tap the back, there is a distinct vibration. I believe I’m nudging the little motor inside the phone that makes it vibrate for notifications. When I tap the back of the iPhone 4, I do not feel the same vibration. It’s another indication that things really are different inside the iPhone 4S.
Should you buy the Apple iPhone 4S? If you’re in the market for a new smartphone, yes. It’s powerful, feature rich, easy to use and takes great photos and video. It’s also now on a wider variety of a carriers which makes it more accessible to more consumers.
Is it better than any Android phone on the market? That’s a tougher question. There are devices like the new Motorola Droid Razr that are thinner and lighter. They match up on processing power (both have dual-core CPUs), but the Razr, like many new Android handsets, has a bigger screen (which I find also makes these phones wider and more unwieldy).
The Razr does not have higher screen resolution, however. The iPhone’s Retina display is 960 x 640; the Razr is 960 x 540. Android phones have voice recognition, but nothing approaches the deep integration you’ll find in Siri. iCloud is a welcome benefit, but not yet a game changer. There are more apps in the Apple App Store, but Android is not far behind.
Personally, I prefer Apple’s consistent and cohesive environment. The Cupertino company has done a stellar job upgrading its OS and made enough adjustments in the iPhone 4S hardware to keep it competitive well into 2012 — when the iPhone 5 may well blow it away.
iPhone 4 Pumpkin Photo
This photo was taken with the Apple iPhone 4. While this phone takes great photos, it has a tendency to pump up the colors.