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.
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More than in prior years, your personal perspective on the iPhone 4S is going to depend a lot on what you were expecting going in: a revolutionary update, or an evolutionary one. If you wanted a revolutionary piece of hardware with a half-dozen major new features and a new body design, you’re not going to find it here, but if you held off on the iPhone 4 in hopes that Apple would do better, the iPhone 4S will thrill you. Apple has remedied the antenna problems that crippled the iPhone 4’s data performance in areas with weak signal strength, and it has improved enough of the chips inside that the iPhone 4S feels like a miniature iPad 2, minus the screen real estate. It has created a single model capable of acting as a world phone almost everywhere, and expanded the U.S. network options by adding Sprint as a carrier partner. Properly protected, this is a great cell phone that doubles as a great pocket still and video camera, a great gaming device, and a great pocket computer, leveraging strengths such as GPS-aided location services and new cloud-based Internet access to content in ways that make everything even better. Judged strictly on what it can do, and how well it does almost everything, it’s easy to see the iPhone 4S as an excellent device, the reason it’s the first iPhone to merit our high recommendation.
On the other hand, the iPhone 4S is by no means a mandatory upgrade for iPhone 4 owners, nor representative of the cutting edge of cell phone technology. At a time when its competitors are throwing long passes in the form of 4G and LTE phones with bigger screens and other sorts of frills, Apple has effectively chosen to run the ball, contenting itself with slow and steady gains rather than something more miraculous. Users in cities where AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint are already running next-generation cellular networks will find themselves stuck at 3G speeds when using the iPhone 4S, a particular issue for the latter two networks and any others around the world that may have moved forward to LTE technologies not included in this device. Additionally, even the best of the iPhone 4S’s new features isn’t yet a game-changer, and all of them build upon features that generally worked well in last year’s model; the unit’s more aggressive battery drain is also a noteworthy consideration that retreats somewhat from gains made in last year’s model. Finally, Apple hasn’t properly addressed the iPhone 4’s glass jaw—its easily damaged body. As we said last year, a device that follows Dieter Rams’ principles of good design shouldn’t just be easy to recycle; it should be made to last, and like the iPhone 4, the iPhone 4S truly depends upon a well-built case and user care to a greater extent than rivals made from less easily damaged materials. Apple’s decision to roll out new “AppleCare+” insurance plans for $99 with $49 per incident fees is every bit as bad as charging users $199 for replacement phones, if not worse because these plans profit from foreseeable flaws that Apple deliberately created.
But if you can put aside the issue of durability and the never-ending question of when something better will come along, it’s easy to see the iPhone 4S as a truly great phone. In some countries, Siri will be enough of a selling point to put smiles on the faces of new users; only the software’s dependence on Internet servers is an issue we’d consider potentially problematic. From our perspective, however, the iPhone 4S’s real strengths are in the polished, stable core features of iOS 5.0, the over 500,000 apps in the App Store, and the ecosystem of accessories that work with the new device. Whether it’s being held in your hand, plugged into your car, or beaming media wirelessly to speakers or a TV, the iPhone 4S does such a great job that the only things we could hope for are the rumored changes that didn’t materialize this year: a slightly larger screen for those of us with larger fingers, true 4G/LTE support for faster cellular data speeds, and a less fragile design. Until Apple finds ways to make these things happen, there are plenty of reasons to highly recommend the iPhone 4S, and a decreasing number of reasons to wait for something better to arrive.
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