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.
Two words are enough to sum up the original iPhone 4 design: “beautiful” and “delicate.” Made with two sheets of glass sandwiched against a solid-feeling stainless steel frame, the iPhone 4 was described by Apple as the most precise device the company had ever made—a reality apparent in every beveled edge and microscopic-meshed grating cover. Measuring 4.5” tall by 2.31” wide and 0.37” deep, iPhone 4 weighed 4.8 ounces and felt like a dense brick, packed with as much advanced technology as Apple could muster in 2010. A 3.5” screen with 960x640 resolution was dubbed the Retina Display, and though it was covered in the same easily smudged glass as its predecessor, it delivered unparalleled levels of detail for a phone’s screen. But it was equally obvious that the glass-bodied device would be even easier to damage than its predecessors, and over the last year and a half, that’s proved true: every iLounge editor save one has had to replace either a front or rear glass pane. This has generally come at some expense: Apple charges $29 or $199 to fix a device, depending on whether the cheaper rear or more expensive front glass has broken.
At first blush, very little has changed for the iPhone 4S: it has the exact same dimensions as the prior model, now weighing 4.9 ounces compared with the 4.8-ounce iPhone 4—this three-gram difference is imperceptible, though the new model oddly feels a little more hollow when you tap on its 3.5” screen and feel vibration rather than the prior model’s utter stiffness. More obviously, the iPhone 4S benefits from two iPhone 4 updates Apple released earlier in 2011. Initially, Apple released only a black iPhone 4, following it up with a white version only after eleventh-hour production problems had been resolved. Similarly, the first iPhone 4 was only compatible with GSM networks, so Apple later released a slightly modified “Verizon” or CDMA version with small tweaks to the steel antenna band, shifting the volume button and ringer switch a millimeter or so from their prior locations. Many case manufacturers had to redesign their original iPhone 4 cases as a consequence, badging the revised versions as Verizon or CDMA-compatible.
So while the iPhone 4S looks the same as the iPhone 4, it’s actually an aggregation of different models: the central silver antenna band looks like the CDMA iPhone 4’s, but has a SIM card slot in the same place as the GSM version’s. Both white and black versions are available, and apart from different model numbers on the lower rear glass—plus all but invisible changes to the rear camera—they’re indistinguishable from the CDMA iPhone 4. Because of the antenna changes, discussed later in more detail, the iPhone 4S works almost everywhere in the world, without the need for carrier-specific versions. Additionally, virtually every case designed to work with the Verizon/CDMA iPhone 4 will work perfectly with the iPhone 4S, as well.
Only small changes have been made to the iPhone 4S’s packaging and pack-ins. Apple’s otherwise white boxes depicted the black or white iPhone 4 against a black background on the front; the black or white iPhone 4S is shown on the same angle against a white background. The letter S has been added to the silver foil iPhone 4 name on the left and right sides of the box, and what used to be silver foil Apple logos on the top and bottom have become one Apple logo and an odd little iCloud badge, respectively. Carrier-specific rear stickers have been merged into universal version generally omitting carrier details—one of our boxes was a little different from the others—and the included Finger Tips and warranty booklets have been modestly updated for the iPhone 4S.
Pack-ins are basically the same from model to model. You still get the same Apple logo stickers, a pair of rubber-cabled Earphones with Remote and Microphone, a USB to Dock Connector cable, and Apple’s Compact USB Power Adapter; in some countries, a different power adapter may be supplied instead.
One change is that every U.S. iPhone 4S model comes with a micro-SIM card, regardless of the carrier it’s sold for. This is a big change for Verizon and Sprint, which do not use SIM cards for their CDMA devices; their included micro-SIMs enable the iPhone 4S to roam on international partner networks, with no special functionality in the United States. There are conflicting reports as to whether Verizon and Sprint will leave the iPhone 4S unlocked—enabling users to pop any provider’s micro-SIM in as needed—or whether they will lock and then offer unlocking services in the future. In any case, none of the U.S. iPhone 4S devices we purchased includes a SIM card removal tool, an omission that began with the iPhone 4; a stiff paperclip can be used to pop the compartment open.
We tried inserting an active AT&T micro-SIM into the Verizon and Sprint iPhone 4S slots, and vice versa, and were presented with a “SIM not valid” error message in each case. “Only compatible SIM cards from a supported carrier may be used to activate iPhone,” they said. Given the iPhone 4S’s worldphone billing, users shouldn’t be left with any post-purchase ambiguity about a given unit’s ability to work with additional SIM cards, particularly when a device is purchased at unsubsidized pricing.
Overall, most people will see the packaging, body, and pack-in changes from the iPhone 4 to the iPhone 4S as minor, but with only tiny exceptions, they range from unobjectionable to positive. To the extent that cases and other accessories that worked with the iPhone 4 continue to work with the iPhone 4S, the lack of a radical body redesign is actually a good thing, though the iPhone 4S’s easily damaged glass remains a major concern. We continue to strongly recommend the purchase of a protective case; in our extended testing, hybrid rubber interior, hard plastic exterior designs such as Speck’s CandyShell provide much better anti-drop protection than the thin hard plastic shells and slider-style cases that companies have been churning out en masse since the iPhone 4’s introduction.