iPhone 4S ReviewWritten by John Thompson on November 1, 2011 · Filed under Review, Tech
If the blogosphere was to be believed in the build up to Apple’s new iPhone, I should be sitting down to review an incredibly thin new device right now. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. From afar, the iPhone 4S is indistinguishable from the iPhone 4. In fact, it’s indistinguishable up close as well, except for a slightly altered antenna around the edge of the device.
That doesn’t mean to say that this upgrade is insignificant, though. Far from it, in fact. Shipping with the brand new iOS 5 and improved internals, the 4S makes for a solid upgrade to what many consider to be the world’s best smartphone. If you’re thinking of making the jump yourself, read on to see what I make of Apple’s latest and greatest.
The iPhone 4S retains the design of its predecessor, moving away from the plastic case that was used for the iPhone 3G and 3GS models. Both the front and back of the unit comprise mainly of glass, and the glass over the front of the phone is developed from the same technology that brought us Gorilla Glass, to ensure that it doesn’t easily scratch or smash on the move.
Typically of Apple, the design is very sparse, and the front consists of just four main parts: the home screen button, located underneath the screen; the screen itself, which is the same retina display used in the iPhone 4; the front facing VGA camera and the call speaker.
Around the back of the device, you’ll see the rear camera (more on that in a short while) located next to the LED flash, which made an introduction for the first time in the iPhone 4.
The outer edge of the iPhone 4S is dominated by the steel antenna, which has been adapted to support both GSM and CDMA networks. For us Brits, that doesn’t mean an awful lot; all of the networks in the UK run on GSM anyway. For those living in the USA, however, it means that there is no longer a separate device for those wanting to use the iPhone on Verizon instead of AT&T. Updates will be rolled out simultaneously for those on both networks, and it makes production a lot more efficient for Apple, too.
As you would expect, Apple’s 30-pin connector is located at the bottom of the device (although you now also have the EU compliant micro USB adapter as an optional extra), with the microphone on the left hand side of it and the speaker on the other. The microSIM slot is located on the right hand side of the antenna, and you’ll find the hold and volume buttons opposite.
As there are no major changes in the design between the iPhone 4 and 4S, a lot of the incentive for people to upgrade will come from what’s inside. As you’d expect, the 4S has received a spec bump during our wait for its release, and these improvements deliver a 7 times increase in graphics performance.
That improvement in graphics performance comes from the introduction of Apple’s dual core A5 chip, which has been around since the introduction of the iPad 2 earlier this year.
Interestingly, the RAM in the iPhone 4S remains at 512MB, the same amount that was in the iPhone 4. There was initially a rumour that Siri was only on the iPhone 4S because the iPhone 4 didn’t have enough memory to cope with it, but this clearly isn’t true. Whatever the reasons for Apple keeping the amount of RAM the same, it certainly doesn’t affect performance.
If you’re in the US, you will be able to take advantage of the antenna upgrade in the 4S, which now allows the device to receive data at up to 14.4mb/s, up from 7.2mp/s in the iPhone 4.
The rear camera unit has seen a major upgrade, and is in fact one of the most noticeable differences from the iPhone 4. The 4S now has an 8-megapixel sensor, up from 5mp in the iPhone 4, and it now has a larger aperture so that more light is let in to the lens. The result of this is a phone that takes photos like no other phone that I’ve used before. Pictures from this thing look really good, and it makes a decent attempt to get as much detail out of a dark setting as it can, although I would still use a dedicated point and shoot in the dark every time.
The two pictures below were both taken with an iPhone 4S. The picture on the left had good lighting conditions, but the photo on the right was a little more difficult for the phone to handle, as there was a big difference to lighting across the shot, with the crowd appearing darker at the bottom of the image. In both cases, the pictures did not look like they had come from a mobile phone, which is a great testament to the camera on the 4S.
If you tend to take more videos than photos on your phone, then you’ll no doubt be excited at the fact that the new camera in the 4S supports video recording up to 1080p quality. The previous iPhone capped out at 720p, so it’s certainly a big step up. Thanks to the new dual core chip in the 4S, you will be able to watch that 1080p video back on your phone as well. Also, thanks to video stabilisation technology present in the new device, your shots won’t look like they were taken from the top of a roller coaster.
Note: For a full review of iOS 5 for the iPhone, please see our dedicated review. You’ll just see the cliff notes here. If you want to read about Siri, then feel free to skip to the ‘Siri’ heading in this article.
The iPhone 4S ships with iOS 5, and the highly anticipated software update certainly doesn’t disappoint. When you first switch the phone on, you’ll notice that all of the setup is handled on the phone itself, and for the first time since the iPhone was launched back in 2007, you won’t need to connect to iTunes before you can begin using your new device.
The notifications system has received a complete overhaul, and the notification center can be accessed through a gesture: simply swipe your finger down from the top of the display, like you would in Android, and you will see all of your notifications that are waiting for you. For the first time ever in iOS, you can now view widgets as well. Weather and stocks widgets will appear at the top of your notifications if you want them too, although this hasn’t been opened up to third party developers yet, so options are limited for now.
iOS 5 also ships with Reminders, which is a new to-do list application. Battling with the likes of Things, Reminders is fully integrated with Siri (which we’ll talk about in a short while), so you can dictate things for it to remember and it will remind you at the time you’ve requested. Reminders also works with GPS locations, so you can set a reminder to do something when you get home, or get to work, which is a very cool feature that’s missing from apps such as Things.
If you like to take a lot of photos on your phone, but don’t often get the chance to transfer them to your computer, then you will no doubt be using Photo Stream a lot. Using iCloud, all of the photos that you take on your phone will automatically be uploaded to iPhoto on your Mac, where you can edit and share them. If you’d rather do everything on your phone, or you’re a Windows user, then you can use iOS 5′s photo editing features, which will allow you to enhance and crop photos right from your phone without exporting them anywhere.
For social network lovers, Twitter is now integrated in to the operating system as well, which makes it a lot easier to share things straight from Apple’s default applications such as Safari. If you’re browsing the web and you find a page that you want to share, the ‘Tweet’ option is just one tap away. You can enter your credentials in the Settings app too, so you never have to sign in again before you can tweet. Speaking of being social, if you’re running short on text messages and you have friends who are using iOS 5 as well, then you can use the new iMessage to send messages over 3G or wi-fi. Think of it as BBM for iPhone users. You can use it to send text messages or pictures, and it blends in with the existing messaging app perfectly. Messages sent using iMessage will appear in blue instead of green, so you know how they’ve been sent.
One of the biggest, if not the biggest, selling points of the iPhone 4S is Siri. You can think of Siri as your personal assistant, but you won’t get a cup of tea from this assistant every morning. What you do get, though, is very impressive.
If you’re in the car and you need to make a call, you can do so without trying to scroll through your contact list and keep your eyes on the road at the same time. If you ask Siri to “Phone Mike”, it will call Mike for you. If there is more than one Mike, it will ask you which Mike you wish to call, and if Mike has more than one number, it will ask you if you want to call him at home or on his mobile. The process is very similar for sending a text message. You would begin by saying “Send a message to Mike”, and then say what you want the message to say. Siri will confirm that it’s got the message correct, and then send it on its way for you.
The voice commands are tied in to all of the default applications in iOS. If you need to make a calendar appointment, Siri will be able to take care of it. It will even tell you if there’s a clash, and offer to move your appointments for you if you want it to. If you’re out and about and remember that you need to do something when you return home, you can even tell Siri “Remind me to do something when I get home”, and it will set a reminder, using the GPS functionality of Reminders to remind you when you’re home.
In theory, it sounds like an incredible piece of technology, and there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s the most advanced of its kind. That doesn’t mean that it’s without flaws, though. Like all voice recognition software, it isn’t perfect. Some commands will be mis-interpreted, and sometimes it won’t know what you’re talking about, but for the most part it gets by without a hiccup. If it doesn’t know something itself, it will offer to Google it for you, and any mathematical question that you ask will be routed through Wolfram Alpha.
In the U.S., Siri can also look up businesses for you. If you ask a question such as “Where is the nearest ATM?” or “Where can I get a burger?” it will point you in the right direction without you having to type a single word. Unfortunately, this is U.S. only at the moment. Hopefully, Apple will expand business searches to the UK in the near future, but as Siri is still a young piece of technology there are still a lot of things that can be tweaked to make it a better experience.
The iPhone 4S may not be a major hardware update as many had hoped for, but the introduction of Siri is certainly a big step forward in the mobile space. This update is definitely all about the software, but the minor hardware improvements such as the dual-core A5 chip and introduction of an 8 megapixel camera mean that the hardware isn’t at all shabby.
If you’re an iPhone 4 user, then I wouldn’t recommend upgrading unless you were really interested in Siri, but for iPhone 3GS owners this is a no-brainer. All major carriers in the UK stock the 4S, so it isn’t difficult to find a good deal, either.