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.
Last year’s big surprise during iPhone 4 testing was the device’s wireless antenna performance—a debacle that came to be known as “Antennagate,” eventually pitting wireless engineers against Apple’s formidable marketing machine. Because Apple decided to place the iPhone 4’s wireless antenna on the outside of the device without insulation from the conductive hands that would regularly touch it, users could in some cases temporarily short out the antennas and bringing data speeds to a standstill. Apple temporarily offered free cases as a nearly complete solution to the problem, and quickly went to work on more lasting fixes. It was reported in July that the iPhone 4’s glass and metal design had fallen “out of favor” with Apple executives, and though it doesn’t initially appear to have changed much on the iPhone 4S’s outside, things have changed inside.
Though Apple doesn’t appear to have used one wireless chipset that was specifically pitched as a solution to Antennagate, it has adopted a very similar technology inside the iPhone 4S: a re-engineered double antenna system that can flip between top and bottom antennas as necessary to improve wireless reliability. While the exposed external antenna system is still less than ideal, the new design is less susceptible to attenuation than before, such that data speeds didn’t drop on AT&T’s, Sprint’s, or Verizon’s networks when the iPhone 4S was held normally in either a horizontal or vertical orientation. So despite Apple’s campaign to downplay the iPhone 4’s attenuation issues, its engineers have effectively removed one of the two biggest concerns about the prior model’s performance. We still strongly recommend a protective case because the past durability issues remain unaddressed, but antenna issues appear to be largely off the table for now.
Actual cellular voice and data performance was consistently stronger in our main Western New York testing area with AT&T than with Verizon, and with Verizon over Sprint. In each place we visited, the iPhone 4S offered approximately twice the speed on AT&T than it did with Verizon, while Verizon maintained a smaller edge over Sprint. Our main office in East Amherst, New York saw AT&T speeds averaging 2.5Mbps for downloading and 0.8Mbps for uploading, versus 0.6Mbps/0.25Mbps for Verizon, and 0.4Mbps/0.2Mbps for Sprint. We journeyed an hour away to Rochester, New York and saw each phone performing even better: the AT&T iPhone 4S averaged 4.8Mbps for downloading and 1.1Mbps for uploading, versus an average of 2Mbps/0.9Mbps for Verizon, and 1.75Mbps/0.8Mbps for Sprint. No matter where we tested the three phones, at what level of bars they read—and they were surprisingly consistent in this regard in the places where we tested them—the AT&T phone always did the best on average, and the Sprint phone always was the slowest.
In comparative calls using AT&T iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S models, we and our callers noted only small differences between the two models: the speakerphone on the iPhone 4S is noticeably louder than the ones on two iPhone 4 units we tested, and callers reported that we sounded a little louder to them on the 4S than on the 4—both differences could be explained by degradation of the older iPhone 4 speakers and mics, but we think that there are most likely actual improvements in the newer hardware. The differences between iPhone 4S units were less apparent. Callers told us that voice calls between the three were virtually indistinguishable when we switched from network to network, with only a small edge in one characteristic—say, loudness—that was offset by another small edge in a different characteristic, such as intelligibility. Our conclusion is thus straightforward: if you’re in an area where all three networks are available and where complaints of dropped calls are few and far between, you’ll most likely get the best performance from AT&T. If there are complaints about AT&T dropped calls where you live, go with Verizon. Pick Sprint only if you have no better option.
There are only a couple of provisos to that, and they relate to AT&T’s, Sprint’s, and Verizon’s current data and calling plans. Each company offers a slightly different combination of pricing and features, such that Sprint is presently the only company offering an unlimited data package in the United States, and the companies each have different bundles of domestic and international calling minutes. You can decide for yourself whether to choose a provider with faster but limited data, or one with slower unlimited data, but our editors have found that we rarely if ever exceed 2GB of usage in a month, and would thus be better served with faster limited data. If you plan to stream a lot of music or video over your 3G connection every month, you may feel otherwise.
It’s also worth a brief mention that the iPhone 4S’s ringer silent switch has been paired with a similar vibration motor to the one found in the CDMA iPhone 4, rather than the one in the GSM iPhone 4. At the time of the CDMA iPhone 4’s release, it became apparent that the revised motor was just as capable of producing a noticeable vibration effect, but had less of a tendency to make the iPhone jiggle itself off of a flat surface. This is a minor but welcome change.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in our iPhone 4S testing was its battery life. We suspected that something unusual was going on when Apple published its initial iPhone 4S battery life estimates, which oddly showed the new device improving in 3G talk time, standing still in 3G Internet use, and falling behind in both standby time and Wi-Fi Internet use. How could the new device improve or stand still in some categories and fall short in others that were seemingly related? After three days of non-stop testing, we had a clear answer: the iPhone 4S is generally more power hungry than the iPhone 4, and Apple has only made the slightest capacity improvement to the iPhone 4S’s battery. Moreover, whereas Apple underpromised with the iPhone 4’s battery estimates, it comes closer to overpromising with the iPhone 4S.
Cellular Data. Apple promises up to 6 hours of 3G Internet use, equivalent to its promise for the iPhone 4. Whereas our AT&T iPhone 4 previously surpassed Apple’s estimate with a 6 hour and 47 minute run time, all of the iPhone 4S units we tested fell at least a little short: each with signal strength in the 3- to 4-bar range, our AT&T iPhone 4S achieved a 5:54 run time, while the Verizon iPhone 4S pulled off a virtually equivalent 5:53, and the Sprint iPhone 4S fell markedly behind at 5:23. The good news here is that the iPhone 4S essentially matches what Apple claims, but it drains more power than last year’s model. Moreover, we didn’t see any actual download speed improvements over the three cellular networks, so it’s not as if users will be able to get more done over less time. Sprint’s poor battery performance was compounded by its slow data speeds, suggesting that users of this network will get hit with the double whammy of sluggish performance and lower longevity. It’s also noteworthy that neither Verizon nor Sprint allows cellular data to be used when making phone calls, a feature that’s only offered by AT&T.
Wi-Fi Data. Apple promises up to 9 hours of Wi-Fi Internet use, down from 10 hours on the iPhone 4, which notably had fallen well short of the company’s estimate during our real world testing last year. Whereas the iPhone 4 previously ran for 8 hours and 35 minutes on a mixed 802.11b/g/n network, our iPhone 4S achieved exactly 8 hours and 30 minutes of run time, which is to say that it still fell a little behind Apple’s estimates. (Note that we retested a 16-month-old iPhone 4 on iOS 5.0; even with its battery weakened from more than a year of daily usage, it still achieved a remarkable 8 hour, 18 minute run time.)
Cellular Calling. Apple now promises up to 8 hours of 3G calling time with the iPhone 4S, up from 7 on the iPhone 4. Last year, our AT&T iPhone 4 ran for 7 hours and 6 minutes with 3G and Wi-Fi on, adding only a little extra time if Wi-Fi was off. Apple does appear to have improved the iPhone 4S’s cellular efficiency, at least on two networks. Our AT&T iPhone 4S achieved a 7 hour and 16 minute run time with 3G and Wi-Fi on, while the Verizon iPhone 4S actually ran for 8 hours and 27 minutes, both superior to our prior results on the iPhone 4. By contrast, the Sprint iPhone 4S turned in an amazingly weak 6 hours and 27 minutes—two hours less than the Verizon iPhone. Again, all three of the devices reported between 3 and 4 bars of service during testing, though the Verizon phone notably showed four bars the most often.
It’s worth noting that Apple has dropped the promised standby time from 300 hours on the iPhone 4 down to 200 hours on the iPhone 4S, while promising the same 14 hours of 2G/EDGE calling time. However, the iPhone 4S’s settings menus currently do not include any conspicuous way to switch back to EDGE on the AT&T iPhone 4S, a feature that was previously on the GSM iPhone 4, 3GS, and 3G, but not on the CDMA iPhone 4. It’s unclear as to whether this feature will be re-enabled in a later iOS 5 update for AT&T devices.
Audio. Apple promises up to 40 hours of audio playback with the device at 50% volume and its screen mostly off, equivalent to its claims for the iPhone 4. While the iPhone 4 blew past this estimate with a run time of 52 hours and 45 minutes, the iPhone 4S only barely beat Apple’s claim with a time of 41 hours and 20 minutes—better than the company’s promise, but well below what we saw last year. Incidentally, the iPhone 4S’s audio sounded great through the highest-end headphones, speakers, and wireless systems we tested it with.
Video: Apple promises up to 10 hours of video playback with the screen at 50% brightness and the volume at 50%, the same as for the iPhone 4. While the iPhone 4 easily surpassed that number with an 11 hour, 14 minute performance, our iPhone 4S tested out at 10 hours and 32 minutes running the same videos under the same testing conditions—once again, lower than the iPhone 4, but slightly above Apple’s estimate.
FaceTime: Once again, Apple makes no promises as to the iPhone 4S’s battery life for FaceTime video calling over Wi-Fi. Our test of the iPhone 4 last year showed battery loss of 30% per hour, or 3 hours and 10 minutes of total battery life. Under the same testing conditions, the iPhone 4S turned in an almost identical FaceTime run time of 3 hours and 15 minutes—ever so slightly better.
1080p Video Recording: Last year, the iPhone 4 was able to record 720p movies for 3 hours and 3 minutes before its battery ran out. The iPhone 4S was able to record 1080p movies for a much shorter period—only 2 hours and 20 minutes—though it’s worth noting that it’s actually capturing more than twice the amount of data, such that an empty 16GB iPhone 4S will run out of capacity after roughly an hour and twenty minutes of recording at that resolution. It would be helpful for Apple to include a resolution setting option, particularly if it might reduce both capacity and battery drain.
Final Thoughts On The iPhone 4S’s Battery
While it’s easy to claim that you’ll probably still get around a day’s worth of use out of a fully charged iPhone 4S if you were used to getting that sort of life out of the iPhone 4, the reality’s not quite that simple. If you spend much of your day near a Wi-Fi network and only rely upon the iPhone 4S for web browsing and phone calling, you won’t notice a major difference—unless you’re thinking of switching to Sprint, in which case we’d be a little concerned. Similarly, if you use 3G data, plan to record or play videos, or want to listen to hours of audio during the day, you can expect greater battery drain from the iPhone 4S. Our advice for heavy iPhone users would be to keep a charger or spare battery pack handy during the day, as well as on trips.