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.
While Apple has historically shied away from pitching the techie details of its pocket devices, the lack of changes to the iPhone 4S’s exterior forced Apple to focus this time on pitching the differences inside—a strategy it previously used when updating the iPhone 3G to the iPhone 3GS. Of the internal changes, the one Apple emphasizes is the “dual-core A5 chip,” which it says “delivers up to two times more processing power,” with “up to seven times faster graphics.” While the A5 chip inside the iPhone 4S is slower than the one introduced in the iPad 2, it’s faster than the A4 chip in the iPhone 4, and even with relatively few early optimized applications, it’s obvious that the iPhone 4S is a very powerful, fast little phone. The graphics processor is a PowerVR SGX543, the same chip used in Sony’s upcoming PlayStation Vita handheld, but with two processing cores rather than four, placing the iPhone 4S inbetween the Nintendo 3DS and PS Vita in horsepower.
CPU and GPU
Judged strictly on the numbers, the iPhone 4S certainly trumps the iPhone 4: GLBenchmark 1.1.7 showed processing improvements almost across the board, with 1.7x to 7x performance in many categories. Apple has reduced the processors’ clock speeds a little to reduce power consumption in the iPhone 4S relative to the iPad 2, but since the iPhone 4S’s screen has fewer pixels to update, its processors can get away with being a little slower and still deliver similar performance. Apple has kept the RAM at 512MB, the same as the iPhone 4 and iPad 2.
Raw numbers and tech specs aren’t as important as the practical improvements iPhone 4S offers over the iPhone 4. During general device navigation and using most small applications, the experience feels extremely similar between these devices: the iPhone 4S opens apps faster, transitions more quickly between screens, and on a high-speed (Wi-Fi) connection, displays full web pages more quickly, the latter difference more obviously apparent than the rest. In some areas, Apple has optimized its older devices enough that you mightn’t initially notice huge speed differences between even the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4S when activating the camera or taking pictures. But under the hood, the iPhone 4S is doing a lot more—processing 8-Megapixel photos in the same time the iPhone 4 handles 5-Megapixel images or the iPhone 3GS saves 3-Megapixel ones. On processor-intensive tasks such as video rendering, which we tested with Apple’s iMovie, the iPhone 4S was able to complete the same 720p video processing task in less time, or a more demanding 1080p task in the same time as the iPhone 4 took for a 720p video. It’s worth mentioning that only the iPhone 4S is currently capable of even rendering movies at 1080p resolution.
Similarly, for 3-D games, the iPhone 4S can either display the same polygonal artwork at a much higher frame rate, or more detailed artwork at a comparable frame rate. Practically, games can look virtually identical on the iPhone 4S’s screen to how they look on the iPad 2’s—a considerable improvement over last year’s iPhone 4. In tests of Epic Games’ Infinity Blade, the iPhone 4S displayed graphics that were nearly identical to the iPad 2’s, even though the tablet’s processors higher clock speeds. While the differences between the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S versions of Infinity Blade aren’t hugely obvious from screen shots, the iPhone 4S benefits from more advanced lighting effects, and additional games—including the upcoming December release of Infinity Blade 2—are being built specifically to leverage the horsepower of Apple A5-powered devices. Video output through the Dock Connector port has been upped to a maximum of 1080p (1920x1080 pixels) from the iPhone 4’s 720p (1280x720), as well, which enhances the iPhone 4S’s ability to display full HD videos and games on an external display.
Thanks to the A5 chip, the iPhone 4S also gets another software feature that was added to the iPad 2: screen mirroring. Using either an Apple Digital AV Cable or a Wi-Fi connection to an Apple TV running 4.4 or newer software, the iPhone 4S can display everything from its Home Screen interface to apps and games on your HDTV, automatically rotating its output as the device’s orientation changes. Screen Mirroring is activated automatically when an iPhone 4S is connected to the Digital AV Cable, or with a complex button and gesture combination (double-tap, swipe twice left to right, hit the AirPlay button, select an AirPlay device, then switch on Mirroring) for AirPlay wireless mode.
Unlike the iPad 2, the iPhone 4S’s Home Screen interface is solely displayed vertically, which means that you’ll need to keep turning the device to switch from the Home Screen into widescreen games and apps, and that there will be very large black bars on your HDTV when the iPhone’s in portrait mode. Almost everything is presented with these bars, even when the iPhone 4S is in landscape mode, except for videos recorded with its rear camera, and apps specifically designed to output at a TV-friendly aspect ratio. That aside, video output from the iPhone 4S is crisp and detailed, with a little frame rate lag relative to its appearance on the device’s own screen—the frame rate drops a little more over AirPlay wireless than over a wired connection, and the maximum video resolution similarly falls from 1080p over the Digital AV Adapter down to 720p over AirPlay. We noticed that screen mirroring of games over AirPlay was a little less smooth on the iPhone 4S than on the iPad 2.
Wireless: Bluetooth 4.0 + 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi
It’s also worth noting that the iPhone 4S is Apple’s first pocket device to support the latest Bluetooth wireless standard, Bluetooth 4.0, which thus far has appeared in very few devices other than the most recent Apple computers—the refreshed MacBook Airs and Mac minis were amongst the first devices to sport Bluetooth 4 chips several months ago. The good news is that Bluetooth 4 chips are backwards compatible with all prior Bluetooth accessories, so the iPhone 4S can still communicate wirelessly with common Bluetooth 2.0 and 2.1-based speaker systems, headphones, iOS devices, and computers. We had no problems getting the iPhone 4S to pair with the older Bluetooth accessories we tested, and as a general rule, everything worked and sounded the same.
On the other hand, Bluetooth 4 is enough of a question mark at this point that Apple has essentially buried the feature’s existence in its list of tech specs, and is not yet selling any Bluetooth 4 accessories—there are virtually none in the marketplace right now, and while ultra-low power consumption is promised as a benefit of Bluetooth 4, it is not yet implemented in anything we could test. We were able to try the iPhone 4S with a Bluetooth 3.0 accessory, Bluetrek’s Carbon headset, and we noticed decidedly faster pairing, just as Bluetrek promised would be evident, though audio quality was unchanged. Rumors suggest that Apple plans to leverage Bluetooth 4 as a wireless transaction technology across its latest devices, but nothing has been announced in that regard, and like so many Apple rumors, it could easily prove to be incorrect.
Nothing appears to have changed in the Wi-Fi department between iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S. Both devices support 802.11b/g/n (2.4GHz), and achieved the same bandwidth speeds when connected to a broadband Wi-Fi router. Though the iPhone 4S’s processors can render web pages and other Internet-acquired data more quickly on its screen, Speedtest.net’s app confirmed that download and upload speeds were identical between the two devices. We had the same experiences with Wi-Fi-dependent AirPlay reliability using the iPhone 4S as we did with the iPhone 4, namely that connections with our Apple TVs were robust, while third-party speakers occasionally experienced signal drop-outs, an issue that is apparently common enough and accessory- rather than iOS device-specific.
Capacities and Chip-Related Conclusions
For the first time in history, Apple has expanded the iPhone lineup to include a 64GB model, bringing the iPhone 4S to capacity parity with the 2010-2011 fourth-generation iPod touch. The 16GB iPhone 4S has 13.6GB of usable capacity, versus the 32GB model’s 28.2GB of capacity, and the 64GB model’s 57.4GB. While these differences between marketed and actual capacity are widely accepted these days by users, it bears mention that the iPhone 4S’s actual capacities are a little lower than peer-sized iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4G models. This is most likely because of the addition of Siri, a new software feature discussed in the next section of this review.
Overall, while the chip-related changes to the iPhone 4S aren’t obvious in any way from the outside, they collectively make the iPhone 4S a better device for virtually everything than last year’s model. Whether you’re browsing the web, editing videos, or playing games, the new model will show its higher speeds and power in a collection of subtle ways that add up to a superior experience. Similarly, additions of big new features such as 1080p video output, AirPlay screen mirroring, and Bluetooth 4 support have the potential to make the iPhone 4S a considerably cooler device when used with current and future accessories. As similar as it may look to an iPhone 4 from the outside, the iPhone 4S definitely has a lot more to offer inside.