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.
There’s a lot that could be said about the new rear camera in the iPhone 4S—some good, some not so good—but we’re going to cut to the chase and say this: taken as a whole, it’s better than the one in the iPhone 4. While we wouldn’t agree with Apple’s sponsored reviewers that it’s a full replacement for a good point and shoot camera, the new lens, sensor, and processor inside the iPhone 4S collectively take two big steps beyond last year’s model. In fact, the differences in this camera are enough that serious photo and video snappers shouldn’t think twice in picking the iPhone 4S over the iPhone 4; photographers will find this single feature enough to justify the $100 price premium over the iPhone 4, while getting other bonuses in the process. (See our full gallery of iPhone 4/4S comparison photos here.)
Apple has swapped the iPhone 4’s very capable 5-Megapixel sensor and four-element, f/2.8 lens for an 8-Megapixel sensor and five-element, f/2.4 lens. Without diving into the minutiae of photography, these specs mean that the iPhone 4S can gather more light than the iPhone 4, capture images with greater detail, and do so faster than before. Less than two seconds can elapse from the time you press the Camera application icon to the time you take your first shot, with less than one second before you snap the next one, impressive turnaround given that the device is saving relatively large images for a phone. Again, the iPhone 4S’s camera performance is not in the same league as good point-and-shoot digital cameras, which can snap multiple photos every second—while offering users true zoom lenses, besides. The iPhone 4S’s lens is stuck at a roughly 32mm equivalent when shooting stills, and uses a fake digital zoom feature to achieve a zoom-like effect in still mode; the lens is roughly equivalent to a 50mm lens during video recording,
Overall, still photos taken by the iPhone 4S were better than the iPhone 4’s, but not without their own issues. Outdoors, the two cameras are the closest to comparable, as both sensors and lenses can gather plenty of light: only when you really zoom in on their photos do you begin to see more grain in the iPhone 4 images. Zoomed out, the iPhone 4S images often look as if they have a yellow tint outdoors or indoors, making pictures look just a little unnaturally warm versus the iPhone 4’s bluer tint; we tested multiple iPhone 4S units, white and black, and the results were the same. But the iPhone 4S’s rear camera also exhibited slightly better contrast, such that more details are apparent in light and dark areas of an outdoor scene.
There’s no question that the iPhone 4S does better as a still camera indoors, particularly in moderate to weak lighting conditions. Without a flash, the same shot at the same second appears noticeably grainer on the iPhone 4, such that the iPhone 4S’s slight yellow tint becomes easy to ignore. Shadowy and darker elements in images become more obviously noisy on the iPhone 4; the iPhone 4S obviously has an improved dynamic range. Interestingly, pictures taken with the flash on in a dark room looked better color-balanced on the iPhone 4S than the iPhone 4, surprisingly losing their tendency towards a yellow tint. Though Apple is using backlit CMOS sensors that are dramatically better in low lighting conditions than four- or five-year-old pocket cameras, neither the iPhone 4 nor iPhone 4S was able to take usable pictures in pitch-black rooms without flash assistance.
The iPhone 4S is also a decidedly better video camera. Apple has upgraded from the iPhone 4 720p maximum resolution to “full HD” 1080p—1920x1080 resolution versus 1280x720 before, or 2.25 times the number of pixels. Our tests found that the iPhone 4S’s videos not only actually achieved noticeably better levels of detail when capturing the same scenes, but also benefitted at least somewhat from new anti-shake processing in the iPhone 4S: a test video recorded in windy conditions bobbed up and down on the iPhone 4, but was steadier on the iPhone 4S. Only the iPhone 4 video camera’s color rendition, which is a little punchier to the 4S camera’s more subdued tones, and its tendency to more quickly acquire a correct auto-focus lock, were sometimes winning factors for the older model’s videos. (Watch our comparison iPhone 4 video and iPhone 4S video here.)
If you’re thinking of giving up your old video or still camera for the iPhone 4S, there are a few caveats here. Neither camera did wonderfully with macro photography—the iPhone 4S was capable of bringing out greater detail in closer subjects, but failed as often as it succeeded at trying to achieve a proper macro lock. The iPhone 4S still has no zoom capability in movie mode, and its still camera’s digital zoom mode is mediocre at best, merely blowing up the same image it captures without zoom activated. Moreover, though both the still and video cameras have made strides in overall performance, their color rendition remains decidedly cell phone-like, though the iPhone 4S is a bit better than the iPhone 4. As we suggested above, we wouldn’t trade a great modern point-and-shoot camera for the iPhone 4S, but then, the iPhone 4S comes close enough to deliver great performance for all but travel and archival-quality photography, and even so, the convenience of having it around means that it will wind up taking an increasing fraction of these shots for users, too.
Note also that the iPhone 4S’s front camera remains roughly the same as the iPhone 4’s. It’s stuck at 640x480 resolution, and in our test models, leaned more towards ruddy reds than the iPhone 4 front camera’s slight yellow tint. While it’s adequate for FaceTime calling and capable of 30 frame per second updating—better than some of the higher-resolution cameras we’ve seen on competing devices—it’s not fantastic. Perhaps we’ll see a 720p-capable FaceTime HD camera on the next iPhone, but then again, maybe not.