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 960×640 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.
If you’ve been following Apple for any length of time, you already know that the company releases two types of sequels to existing products: “revolutionary” ones that break substantially from past designs and components, or “evolutionary” ones that look more or less the same as prior models but work better—faster, more capacity, or better battery life—for the same price. Most people hope that each new Apple release will be something revolutionary, but history has shown that most of its updates are of the evolutionary variety. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. When Apple evolves a product, it tends to fix issues that were problematic in an earlier big new design, and it delivers greater value for customers because looks alone aren’t going to be enough to sell the internally revised version.
That, in a nutshell, is the iPhone 4S ($199*/16GB, $299*/32GB, $399*/64GB). Despite an extended and ultimately crazy season of speculation, which saw even The New York Times printing rumors that Apple was about to unveil a teardrop-shaped iPhone 5 with a bigger screen, Apple instead released a device that looks, feels, and works almost exactly like 2010’s iPhone 4. Appearing 16 months after its predecessor, the iPhone 4S struck long-time Apple watchers as a “plan B” release—what the company was able to bring to market after reported production delays—but one that Apple would not have to apologize for, as it hadn’t officially promised anything more. Fully appreciating the iPhone 4S requires you to ignore the claims that Apple executives had soured on the iPhone 4’s delicate body and were rushing something new to market; depending on the dates of your prior cell phone contract cycle, you’ll also need to be willing to accept an October-vintage update that in past years would have arrived like clockwork in June.
Instead of dwelling on what could have been and what might or might not be coming in the future, we look at the iPhone 4S as the broader marketplace does, and ask two questions. First, “is the iPhone 4S a better iPhone than the prior model?” For a variety of reasons, the answer is “definitely yes”—it is the best iPhone ever made, the first to ever earn our high recommendation—though it hasn’t improved across the board, and still has a couple of noteworthy gotchas. Second, “is it worthy of a purchase if you’re an existing iPhone user, or solely if you’re new to the iPhone family?” The answer to this one is more complicated. Original iPhone, iPhone 3G, and iPhone 3GS users will find the iPhone 4S to be a major and worthwhile update, but most iPhone 4 users will be absolutely fine holding off for the next model. Given the delay in iPhone 4S’s release, it’s now unclear whether a sequel will arrive eight, twelve, or sixteen months later, but our suspicions are that an iPhone 5 is a year or less away.
Unlike reviews based on a single device provided for free by Apple, our comprehensive review is based on tests of multiple iPhone 4S units, all purchased directly from Apple, AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint. We tested the iPhone 4S when the device was actually hitting these networks, so we were able to see what actual data and server performance were like for the new device’s Internet-based services. Because so much remains the same from the iPhone 4, our review focuses primarily on each of the device’s new features, offering detailed looks at its new rear 8-Megapixel still/1080p video camera, Siri voice assistant and dictation features, improved processor and wireless performance, and its long-awaited dual-mode worldphone design—a feature that lets Apple sell a single phone that works on CDMA and GSM networks, so any iPhone 4S can be used in the United States or overseas without worries as to widespread international network compatibility. We also dive deep into the iPhone 4S’s battery performance, which has improved in some areas and declined in others. The drop-down page menus above and below lead to all of our testing results, which will help you make a more informed decision as to whether to purchase or pass on the 4S. Enjoy.
[Editor’s Note: The iPhone 4S was re-rated on November 6, 2013 to reflect its declining strength relative to Apple’s subsequently-released iPhone models.]
What’s New: The iPhone 4S’s Packaging, Body, and Accessory Compatibility
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 960×640 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.
What’s New: The iPhone 4S’s Chips and Capacities
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 (1920×1080 pixels) from the iPhone 4’s 720p (1280×720), 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.
What’s New: iOS 5 + Siri
Previously known as iPhone OS, Apple’s iOS is the operating system at the heart of all iPhones, iPod touches, and iPads—the pioneering multi-touch tapping and gesturing interface, complete with Home Screens and “app” icons that even toddlers have been able to figure out. We’ve exhaustively discussed the latest iOS 5.0 release in our Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iOS 5.0 article, so if you want all the little details, you can find them there. From a user experience standpoint, the iPhone 4S is nearly identical to the iPhone 4 with iOS 5, so what follows is only an abbreviated summary of where Apple’s mobile operating system stands today.
Thanks to iOS 5, it’s now possible to open an iPhone 4S and begin to use it without ever connecting it to a PC or Mac, a feature Apple has called PC-Free setup. While Apple’s Mac and PC program iTunes remains a viable and fast way to activate the iPhone 4S and fill it with music, videos, photos, and software, it’s no longer a mandatory part of that process; you can now rely completely upon Apple’s iCloud servers for everything from e-mail to backups to storage of your contacts, documents, music, TV shows, and apps. As long as you have an Internet connection and Apple’s servers are working, it all just works.
Like the iPhone 4, the iPhone 4S is based upon “apps”—small programs that work together to do various things—and there are now quite a few of them pre-installed on a freshly activated device. In addition to 25 different icons spread out across two initial Home Screens, you can now swipe down from the top of the screen to reach an additional feature called Notifications Center, swipe to the left of the main Home Screen to find the Spotlight search feature, and double-click on the Home Button to access a swipable bar with additional features, including the aforementioned wireless audio-video-photo-sharing feature AirPlay and a screen orientation locking feature. iPhone 4S has the same 960×640-resolution Retina Display screen and impressive off-center viewing angles as the iPhone 4, which combines with software tweaks to make apps, photos, and videos look considerably more detailed than the earlier iPhone 3GS when viewed up close. Our test iPhone 4S units’ screens had an ever-so-slight yellower tint than our iPhone 4 units, but Apple now sources screens from multiple companies for its devices, and this will likely vary between production runs.
Following both the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4, the iPhone 4S includes core applications for phone calling, e-mailing, web browsing, and media playback, plus separate media and app stores, instant messaging, photo, video, and voice recorders, mapping, stock and weather tracking, calendar and contacts management, and even clocks, a calculator, a compass, a notepad, and a reminder system. There’s an app to manage online gaming, an app to browse YouTube videos, and even an all but secret app—hold down the Home Button for two seconds—that has let the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4 make calls and play music by recognizing your voice. iOS 5 now does so much that there’s actually a need to remind people of all of its capabilities, and with over 500,000 additional apps in the App Store, those capabilities are almost limitless.
There’s one key difference between the iPhone 4S and its predecessors: “Siri,” the product of Apple’s purchase of a third-party developer and iOS app of the same name. Designed as a “personal assistant,” Siri uses speech recognition technology to listen to your voice, figure out what you’ve said, and respond back with the information you’ve requested. The original App Store version of Siri could look up restaurants, movies, events, local points of interest, and weather, call you a taxi, send out dictated tweets on Twitter, and check flight status. Its interface consisted of speech bubbles and dialogue boxes on a white background, with clunky push to talk and push to stop talking buttons. Apple discontinued support for Siri just in time for the iPhone 4S’s release, and hasn’t said whether it will re-release it for other iOS devices, though hacks and the original app have obviously proved that it’s possible.
While its soul is very similar on the iPhone 4S, Apple has given Siri a major audiovisual overhaul, and expanded its voice recognition capabilities. Siri now pops up automatically against a handsome dark gray linen background when you hold down the Home Button for two seconds, appearing as a swirled metal microphone button. The button’s center glows purple when it’s listening to your voice, then automatically processes what you’ve said when you stop talking, using an animated glowing ring to indicate that it’s working. Then Siri puts text and graphics on the screen for you—both handsomely illustrated, including some new iPhone UI elements that we hope will carry over to iOS 6—while using text-to-speech to say the words aloud. Siri can also activate automatically whenever you hold the phone up to your face without making a call; this feature and Siri itself can be turned off in the iPhone 4S’s settings.
Once Siri is activated, you’ll hear the same chime that was previously used for Voice Control, and see a text prompt: “What can I help you with?” Tapping on an “i” icon to the right will bring up a list of the new things Siri can do, including integration with most of the core iOS 5 applications, plus Safari web searches and Wolfram Alpha data and calculation lookups. Some of the old Siri features are missing—Twitter support and flight status among them—and Siri’s support for foreign languages is extremely limited at the moment. Apple is calling the software “beta” for the time being, and promises to expand its capabilities considerably in 2012.
For the time being, if you’re in a country and speaking a language/dialect supported by Siri, the experience ranges from “pretty good” to “impressive.” It’s compelling enough to see Siri correctly interpreting simple commands such as “tell me what movies are currently playing around here,” “how do I get home?” or “play All Together Now,” then properly providing on-screen information or accessing your iPhone 4S’s media content. Some of this was possible in the prior iOS app, and it works at least as well now that it’s built into the iPhone 4S. But then there’s a second wow level, which comes when you say “send a text message to my wife” and Siri already knows who your spouse is from your contact information—if it doesn’t, it recognizes the word “wife” or “husband,” then asks you to identify the person so that it can remember her or him for next time. There are innumerable examples of this sort of smart artificial intelligence at work and in play, including scripted responses to joke questions that might be asked of a computerized assistant, each amusing at least once or twice as a party trick.
Siri isn’t perfect, and its integration with iOS 5 isn’t complete: for instance, saying “listen to my voicemail” brings up the response, “I couldn’t find voice mail in your music,” or “I can’t help you with voicemail.” There are times when you ask Siri to retrieve information from the Internet and it fails either modestly or dramatically, and other times when it surprises you by pulling correct (or rarely incorrect) information from WolframAlpha, Yelp, or Safari-based resources.
Siri radically reduces the need for standalone calculator applications by handling spoken math problems, and for other apps that otherwise required typing. You can ask it to find a place on a map or provide directions to a destination from your current location, and it just works—in our testing, almost always accurately on the first try.
Then there’s the third wow factor: dictation. Full voice dictation has been integrated into Siri, so that you can actually speak the message you’re sending; alternately, you can find a tiny microphone key off to the bottom left of the iPhone 4S’s space bar. Tapping this key replaces the keyboard with a gray box, a purple microphone, and a Done button. After a chime, you can speak, hit the done button to indicate that you’re finished, and watch as whatever you’ve said is transformed into on-screen dictation.
The point at which Siri goes from “cool trick” to “next big deal” will likely hit you at either the second or third “wow” point above. When you try the dictation feature and see that virtually every word has been transcribed correctly, with only modest needs for editing and correction, you begin to realize that you could actually compose entire essays by just speaking to the iPhone 4S. We dictated entire paragraphs worth of text to Apple’s built-in app Notes and word processing application Pages, and the biggest thing that was missing was punctuation. (Note that if you speak the words “period,” “comma,” or “smiley face,” they’ll be added into the document.) With the right app—and we’re sure such a thing is coming—a person could create a text and video blog merely by recording videos and letting the iPhone 4S process the speech. Siri’s not quite there yet, but the possibilities are tantalizing, and for now, sending nearly edit-free iMessages and dictating text without punctuations feels like a big step forward.
There’s only one major caveat here: Siri is completely dependent upon an active Internet connection to Apple’s servers. If you don’t have an Internet connection, or if Apple’s servers are having problems, Siri’s a non-starter. And it’s hard to know how much of an issue this is going to be in the future. By the end of the first night the iPhone 4S was publicly available, Siri just stopped working, a problem that popped up again on its second night—during these outages, each attempt to ask a question was met with a “can’t reach the server” response. While Apple was wise to slap the “beta” tag on Siri, the company doesn’t have a history of releasing half-baked products that stop working so quickly—except when those products are dependent on Internet services, in which case its track record of outages is unfortunately quite spotty. It remains to be seen whether Apple will properly scale its servers to handle the influx of Siri traffic it will be receiving, and how much users strain the servers by leaning heavily upon it. Additionally, some of Siri’s services have been discovered to be country-specific, including map and restaurant searches, limiting the value of the feature for some users outside the United States.
It’s worth noting again that Siri can be disabled, and probably should be if all that you need is simple phone dialing or media playback assistance, particularly if you can’t rely upon an active Internet connection. Voice Control is capable of handling these things offline, and continues to work well. Most users who buy the iPhone 4S and are capable of using Siri in their countries will want to do so, however, and as the average query only demands around 50 Kilobytes of data, it’s not going to kill anyone’s limited data plans, either.
What’s New: The iPhone 4S’s 8-Megapixel/1080p Rear Camera
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—1920×1080 resolution versus 1280×720 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 640×480 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.
What’s New: The iPhone 4S’s Cellular Performance + Battery Life
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.
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.
iPhone 4S (as re-rated late 2013)
iPhone 4S (as originally rated)
Company and Price
Company: Apple Inc.
Model: iPhone 4S
Price: $199/16GB, $299/32GB, $399/64GB with New 2-Year Contract, $449/$549/$649 without