Review: Apple iPhone 4S (16GB/32GB/64GB)
Pros: An improved version of last year’s museum-quality iPhone 4, featuring considerably improved camera and processing hardware, as well as impressive new voice recognition software. Retains the impressive 960x640 Retina Display, FaceTime video calling capabilities, and 802.11n Wi-Fi features of earlier iPhone 4 models while adding dual-mode GSM/CDMA hardware, a Bluetooth 4 chip, and fixing prior antenna performance. Noticeably faster at displaying web pages and running apps, with considerable improvements in game graphics and video output; 1080p wired and 720p AirPlay wireless screen mirroring are now options. Available in two attractive color schemes, now with three different storage capacities. Reasonably priced given the technology inside.
Cons: Smudge, scratch, and shatter issues continue to await users who avoid cases. Lowest capacity version remains cramped, particularly given 1080p video recording capabilities of new rear camera. Cellular and battery performance varies between carriers, with particularly noteworthy issues during use of Sprint’s 3G network. Siri voice system depends upon active Internet connection and localized country support, both initially at least a little shaky. Carrier policies on foreign SIM card use remain ambiguous.
If you’ve been following Apple for any length of time, you already know that the company releases two types of sequels to existing products: “revolutionary” ones that break substantially from past designs and components, or “evolutionary” ones that look more or less the same as prior models but work better—faster, more capacity, or better battery life—for the same price. Most people hope that each new Apple release will be something revolutionary, but history has shown that most of its updates are of the evolutionary variety. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. When Apple evolves a product, it tends to fix issues that were problematic in an earlier big new design, and it delivers greater value for customers because looks alone aren’t going to be enough to sell the internally revised version.
That, in a nutshell, is the iPhone 4S ($199*/16GB, $299*/32GB, $399*/64GB). Despite an extended and ultimately crazy season of speculation, which saw even The New York Times printing rumors that Apple was about to unveil a teardrop-shaped iPhone 5 with a bigger screen, Apple instead released a device that looks, feels, and works almost exactly like 2010’s iPhone 4. Appearing 16 months after its predecessor, the iPhone 4S struck long-time Apple watchers as a “plan B” release—what the company was able to bring to market after reported production delays—but one that Apple would not have to apologize for, as it hadn’t officially promised anything more. Fully appreciating the iPhone 4S requires you to ignore the claims that Apple executives had soured on the iPhone 4’s delicate body and were rushing something new to market; depending on the dates of your prior cell phone contract cycle, you’ll also need to be willing to accept an October-vintage update that in past years would have arrived like clockwork in June.
Instead of dwelling on what could have been and what might or might not be coming in the future, we look at the iPhone 4S as the broader marketplace does, and ask two questions. First, “is the iPhone 4S a better iPhone than the prior model?” For a variety of reasons, the answer is “definitely yes”—it is the best iPhone ever made, the first to ever earn our high recommendation—though it hasn’t improved across the board, and still has a couple of noteworthy gotchas. Second, “is it worthy of a purchase if you’re an existing iPhone user, or solely if you’re new to the iPhone family?” The answer to this one is more complicated. Original iPhone, iPhone 3G, and iPhone 3GS users will find the iPhone 4S to be a major and worthwhile update, but most iPhone 4 users will be absolutely fine holding off for the next model. Given the delay in iPhone 4S’s release, it’s now unclear whether a sequel will arrive eight, twelve, or sixteen months later, but our suspicions are that an iPhone 5 is a year or less away.
Unlike reviews based on a single device provided for free by Apple, our comprehensive review is based on tests of multiple iPhone 4S units, all purchased directly from Apple, AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint. We tested the iPhone 4S when the device was actually hitting these networks, so we were able to see what actual data and server performance were like for the new device’s Internet-based services. Because so much remains the same from the iPhone 4, our review focuses primarily on each of the device’s new features, offering detailed looks at its new rear 8-Megapixel still/1080p video camera, Siri voice assistant and dictation features, improved processor and wireless performance, and its long-awaited dual-mode worldphone design—a feature that lets Apple sell a single phone that works on CDMA and GSM networks, so any iPhone 4S can be used in the United States or overseas without worries as to widespread international network compatibility. We also dive deep into the iPhone 4S’s battery performance, which has improved in some areas and declined in others. The drop-down page menus above and below lead to all of our testing results, which will help you make a more informed decision as to whether to purchase or pass on the 4S. Enjoy.
[Editor’s Note: The iPhone 4S was re-rated on November 6, 2013 to reflect its declining strength relative to Apple’s subsequently-released iPhone models.]