What's hot: Still beautiful, much faster A5 dual core CPU, better camera and Siri.
What's not: No 4G, glass front and back more likely to crack if dropped.
Reviewed October 14, 2011 by Jacob Spindel, Chief iOS Corespondent
The iPhone 4S needs no introduction. It has sold so many pre-orders that it has already been declared a smash hit even before it was available for sale. Now, at long last, we’ve gotten our hands on one, and it lives up to the hype, and then some. The iPhone 4S isn’t the largest upgrade the iPhone series has ever seen, but nonetheless, in this time of transition for Apple, it proves that the company still has what it takes to make one of the greatest smartphones on the market.
On the surface, the iPhone 4S resembles its predecessor, the iPhone 4. It maintains the same 4.5 inch by 2.31 inch by 0.37 inch design, although it is nominally heavier at 4.9 ounces. It is available in black and white versions (and yes, the white version is actually available this time) for AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint. It also maintains the same dock connector, volume, and home buttons, in the same places, as well as the beautiful 3.5-inch 960 x 640 pixel retina display. It’s not AMOLED, but its 326 ppi pixel density and 800:1 contrast ratio are gorgeous and easily viewable both indoors and out.
Also like the iPhone 4, the 4S features WiFi 802.11b/g/n, but unlike the 4, the 4S has been upgraded to Bluetooth version 4.0, which enhances its battery life.
In addition to the 16 GB version for $199 and the 32 GB version for $299 (with contract), Apple has introduced a 64 GB model for $399, which is handy for those of us who crave extra storage space for apps, music, and video (the exact amount you can store depends on your choice of apps and encoding settings).
Faster! Faster! More Intense!
Under the hood, however, the iPhone 4S is a major upgrade. It features a dual-core A5 processor with 512 MB of RAM, rather than the single-core A4 found in the iPhone 4. So what does that mean exactly? This phone is FAST. Opening apps, multitasking, typing on the on-screen keyboard, and swiping through windows are all an instantaneous breeze. iOS devices have always felt snappy, but the 4S feels faster than ever.
iPhone 4S Video Review
Here's our video review of the iPhone 4S (the AT&T version was used for this video). We'll add a video review of the Verizon iPhone 4S in a few days.
iPhone 4S on AT&T vs. Verizon Wireless Comparison:
Calling and Data
Apple has addressed the sometimes-controversial antenna from the iPhone 4 by implementing a dual-antenna system in the 4S, in which the phone intelligently selects between the two antennas to find the stronger signal strength. Using the not-so-reliable “bar marks,” we got 3-4 bars of 3G coverage on the 4S in a moderate coverage area, versus 2-3 bars on earlier iPhone models.
On AT&T, Apple has also updated the 3G connection to 14.4 Mbps HSDPA (although 3G speeds are unchanged on Verizon and Sprint). Using Ookla’s SpeedTest app on AT&T, we averaged speeds of 289 ms ping / 3.75 Mbps download / 1.07 Mbps upload in the Portland Oregon area and 159 ms ping/4.9Mbps down/1.08Mbps up in the Dallas area.
These are respectable scores, and some marketing departments (hello AT&T and T-Mobile) might even like to call them “4G,” but the fact remains that for now, the iPhone is still a 3G phone. Now that true 4G LTE phones are becoming commonplace on Verizon and should arrive on AT&T in the next few months, this may be a sore spot among some potential buyers, but Apple does have its reasons for waiting on 4G; the availability of 4G is still somewhat limited, and 4G chips tend to wreak havoc on battery life and increase phone size. You may agree with Apple here, or you may not, but they made a conscious decision that 4G wasn’t ready for prime time - it’s not as if they simply “forgot” 4G or couldn’t figure it out.
Voice calls were crisp and clear, including on speakerphone. This is a marked improvement over the iPhone 4, whose call quality wasn't very good. In fact, we absolutely love the iPhone 4S as a voice phone. Although dropped calls continue to plague some iPhone users on AT&T, in our tests, iPhone 4S didn't drop more calls than other non-iPhone AT&T phones.
The iPhone 4S is a true world phone that has both CDMA and GSM radios built-in, regardless of which carrier sells it. That means Apple can make one piece of hardware that AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and overseas carriers can sell, with only software customizations. The phone uses the usual (for Apple) micro SIM for the GSM side of things, and it's quad band GSM with 3G on the 850/900/1900/2100Mhz bands (T-Mobile's 3G bands are missing). It has EV-DO Rev. A 3G for use on Verizon, Sprint and overseas roaming in CDMA countries like Korea. Should you travel overseas, you can either pay your carrier's international roaming rates, or get the GSM side unlocked so you can use the SIM card of your choice (Verizon will provide an unlock code, but not AT&T). So far, Verizon is the only carrier stating that they'll unlock the iPhone 4S for customers in good standing. That doesn't mean you can pop in an AT&T SIM though; the Verizon iPhone's firmware blocks using AT&T SIM cards.
It’s A Sony!
Another major upgrade to the iPhone 4S is its 8-megapixel Sony camera with redesigned optics, autofocus, geotagging, and an LED flash, plus onboard photo editing. It can shoot video with audio up to 1080p at 30 frames per second and also features image stabilization. (The phone also has a VGA FaceTime camera on the front.) The camera is also much faster than most cell phones, allowing you to fire it up and take a picture within about one second.
Photos taken with the 4S’ camera are impressive and colorful without being oversaturated. Likewise, videos are crisp and detailed. Whereas most cell phone cameras are the camera you use in a pinch since it is likely the only one available, the camera on the 4S is good enough that novice to mid-range photographers may actually want to make it their primary camera. Video quality is noticeably better than the iPhone 4, and low light photos are better thanks to the 4S' fast F/2.4 lens and backside illuminated sensor. That's a great compliment considering how good the iPhone 4's 5 megapixel camera is. The iPhone 4S camera holds its own vs. better 8 megapixel camera phones on the market like the HTC Amaze 4G, and bests the Motorola Droid Bionic's slow and less colorful 8 megapixel shooter.
The iPhone 4S’ non user-replaceable lithium-ion battery is rated for 8 hours talk time on 3G, 10 hours of video playback, 40 hours of audio playback, 6 hours of 3G data usage, 9 hour of WiFi data, or 300 hours of standby. In our tests, we found these estimates to be roughly on target. If you use your iPhone frequently throughout the day, you’ll probably make it to the evening, although especially heavy users may want to buy an external battery. People who don’t use their iPhones very often... don’t really exist.
Two’s Company, Five’s iCloud
The iPhone 4S comes preloaded with iOS 5, and while this is not a review of iOS 5, it’s worth noting that that gets you access to over-the-air updates, iCloud automatic syncing, revamped notifications, and a hardware shutter button (volume up) - nice! For iCloud syncing you can select from email, notes, contacts, calendar, bookmarks, photos and videos, backups over WiFi, and you can deselect any you don't need. The version of Mobile Safari in iOS 5 has been shown to improve browsing speeds even on the humble iPhone 3GS.
The iPhone 4 on top of the iPhone 4S: notice the new two piece vs. single piece antenna.
But wait, there’s “one more thing” - by now, you’ve probably heard of the iPhone 4S’ new personal assistant, Siri.
Longtime Apple fans may find Siri eerily similar to the “Assist” button from back in the days of the Newton... you know, just press Assist, write, in your own words, something like, “Please schedule a meeting on Friday,” and it gives you a message back saying something like, “Confirmed, I have just sold your car.”
So if Apple wants to venture into “humanoid assistant” territory again, this time they’d better get it right. Thankfully, they did. Siri's roots hail back to a DARPA project that was privatized after a decade, and Apple bought that company. With Siri, all you have to do is hold down the Home button and tap on the on-screen microphone, and you can give voice commands setting up appointments, adding reminders, checking weather, asking for information, or numerous other commands, all in natural English. In our tests, Siri worked amazingly well. We did have some issues with server lag or unresponsiveness, but accuracy was unbelievably good, both in terms of understanding the words we were saying and in terms of interpreting what we meant. Siri is also a source of entertainment, much like the world's first computer shrink Eliza-- try asking Siri "what's the meaning of life" to see what I mean.
The 4S also has an option to let you dictate text into apps instead of using the on-screen keyboard.
To Siri, With Love
OK, it's not the iPhone 5, but Apple managed key improvements that bring the iPhone up to date and keep it competitive with Android and even the still young but impressive Windows Phone 7 Mango. It's no bull, the phone is twice as fast in terms of CPU performance and more than twice as fast for graphics. In fact, in our tests, it beats most Android phones on benchmarks. For GSM users (that means AT&T in the US), data speeds are also twice as fast as the iPhone 4 and iPhone 3GS. iOS 5 likewise adds competitive modern features like OTA updates, a cloud syncing service and much improved notifications. The iPhone 4S' most significant innovation is Siri, the voice-activated personal assistant. It works remarkably well for so many tasks and it doesn't require scripted commands. Siri may well be the future of computing.
Price: $199 for 16 gig, $299 for 32 gig and $399 for 64 gig with a 2 year contract on all US carriers. No contract pricing starts at $649 as does unlocked GSM version.
Display:Retina Display: 3.5" capacitive IPS multi-touch display running at 960 x 640 resolution, 326ppi, 800 to 1 contrast ratio, 500 cd/m2 max brightness. Supports both portrait and landscape modes via accelerometer. Has ambient light sensor, proximity sensor, compass and gyroscope.Fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating on front and back.
Ion rechargeable. Battery is not user replaceable. Claimed talk time on 3G: up to 8 hours. Claimed standby:up to 8.3 days.
Performance:Apple dual core A5 CPU, baseline clockspeed 800MHz (lower power version of the same A5 CPU used in the iPad 2), 512 megs RAM.
x 2.3 x 0.37 inches. Weight: 4.9 ounces.
Phone:GSM quad band world phone 850/900/1800/1900MHz. Quad band 3G HSDPA/HSUPA 850/900/1800/1900MHz. CDMA dual band digital with 3G EV-DO Rev. A.
Camera:Rear (main) camera: 8.0 MP with autofocus lens and LED flash. Can shoot video at 1080p, 30fps. Has front-facing VGA camera that can be used with Facetime video calls over WiFi.
in speaker, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
jack. iTunes player built-in.
WiFi 802.11b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.0.
Software:iOS 5 operating system and core applications. Siri, iCloud, Google Maps, Safari web browser, email, threaded text/MMS messaging, Stocks, YouTube Player, iTunes, App Store, Phone, Clock, Calculator, Photos, Camera, Voice Memos, Reminders,Contacts, Calendar, Notes, Compass and Settings.
Storage:Available in 16, 32 and 64 gig capacities.
In the Box: iPhone, charger, USB cable and earbud headphones with inline mic.