In early Oct 2011 I waited with baited breath for the announcement of the new iPhone. The delay in the announcement meant that anticipation was even higher than usual, if that was possible. However, the wind was taken from my sails as Apple’s Tim Cook added an ‘s’ to the existing iPhone 4; “I’ll give this one a miss”, I said …….. Yet one month later my white iPhone 4S arrived unlocked directly from Apple.
Having had a few days to play around with the very familiar iPhone 4S here’s my take on Apples new baby. This review will focus on what’s new and unique to this generation of iPhone.
Firstly, as alluded to, the 4S is practically identical to the iPhone 4 visually but it would be remiss of me not to point out a few subtle changes to the design. Last years ‘ antennagate’ issue has been addressed with the introduction of a new antenna design. I have detected a notable improvement in signal strength even at home where I usually struggle on any network and call quality (yes this a phone after all) is very good. Basically, the fix works and with the death grip gone you’re free to enjoy your iPhone naked if that’s your thing. For those of you that are more protective of your new 4S you need to be aware that the mute switch and volume up and down keys have moved slightly and this may affect some old iPhone 4 cases. Otherwise it’s iPhone 4’s long lost twin.
Obviously Apple could not release an almost identical phone with out changing something and it’s what’s inside that counts, so they say. Lets start with the camera. On the first few iPhone’s the camera was an after thought. It seemed that Apple didn’t know how to marry sleek design and the practicalities of a decent integrated camera. With the introduction of the iPhone 4 this changed and they produced their first decent attempt, providing you could guarantee good light. With the iPhone 4S Apple were now emphasising the camera as serious competition for other smart phones and even other dedicated entry level point and shots. Well I’d say in all but two departments they have really pulled it off. With a mega-pixel upgrade from 5 to 8MP, improved optics in the form of an extra lens, a larger f/2.4 aperture and some techno wizardry in the form of ‘backlight illumination technology’, photos in the low light that crippled the iphone 4 now really hit the mark. Couple this with the iOS 5 software functionality and face detection and I cant see me rushing to pack a dedicated point and shot for everyday use any time soon.
However, it has to be mentioned that some other smart phones are on a par and Apple users, of which I am one, are often guilty of wearing large blinkers when Apple implements ‘similar’ technologies, swallowing apples ‘magical mantra’ whole heartedly. The Nokia N8 highlights the two shortfalls that I mentioned earlier, the lack of optical zoom and even more so a proper flash on the iPhone 4S just make it fall short of the mark. But that said iPhone 4S produced quality shots time and time again …. very quickly!
Whilst discussing the camera I have to mention the full HD video capabilities and video stabilization of the iPhone 4S. These new features coupled with the camera’s better optics really do add to the iPhone’s capabilities. The quality bump is very noticeable, the video stabilization works very well and with airplay mirroring (if you have apple TV) you can fill your HD TV with your cinematic wonders, before you buy that app to make it look like something shot on a 1960’s cinecam.
Both the still and movie shooting are extremely responsive which I presume is in no small part due to the introduction of the the new 1 Ghz A5 dual core processor. First introduced on the iPad 2 there is a noticeable speed increase something I didn’t honestly think I’d be aware of since the previous iPhone 4 was no slouch in the speed department. Apps, even processor intensive games, open faster giving the whole iOS an almost instant feel. The rendering of web pages in Safari is particularly crisp. Other smart phones do offer this type of processing power or more (the Samsung Galaxy S 2 being one of the most notable) so it all comes down to that personal preference in operating systems as to which one you’ll choose.
Almost all the software features of iOS 5 even iCloud have been made available to iPhone 4 and 3GS users, the most notable exception is the now infamous ‘Siri’. Although still in beta (which is very ‘Google’) Apple has gifted iPhone 4S users a personal assistant to give you more control of your life. Some reviews of Siri offer it up as a quantum leap in functionality, personally I was more skeptical as many of these same reviews spent a lot of time asking Siri about the ‘meaning of life’, or ‘how much wood could a woodchuck chuck’ which, although amusing (and enjoyed by my two sons) doesn’t really do it for me. However, Siri does indeed have some very useful purposes enabling you to create quick alarms, reminders, send texts and emails, weather updates etc. But its the way you can do these things that’s the clever part you can speak ‘naturally’ to Siri, “‘wake me up at 9 tomorrow” will result in an alarm being set. “Tell my wife I’ll be late” will result in a text being composed to your wife to that effect. It will also quickly search the web and the integrated keyboard dictation is very accurate indeed.
Where as all the new internal features of the new iPhone 4S are either matched by other smart phones, many would argue bettered by current or soon to be released Andriod or Windows mobile phones, Siri sets a more distinct marker in the technosphere. Now we will all commence conversing with our iPhones….or will we? Well the jury is still out, I think. In the comfort of my own home or reading back texts in the car I will use Siri, nonetheless I cannot imagine myself verbalising instructions to my phone in public, for now anyway. It must be acknowledged that Siri offers an alternative, it understood my accent the majority of times (approx 80-90%), it’s labour saving and very accessible and has functionality, such as the ability to complete local searches and integration with apps is added I can predict more and more people becoming less reserved.
There are a few other welcome upgrades in the iPhone 4S. The new bluetooth low powered 4.0 standard has been implemented. We will have to wait on new accessories to be released to really test this out. We also now have Glonass, the Russian GPS system, as well as assisted gps making geolocation even more precise. Finally, you can now have your iPhone with 64gb of internal storage to store your movies and music.
The battery in the iPhone 4S has had a minor increase in capacity but there already have been complaints flying in regarding battery life issues with numerous suggested fixs. An official acknowledgement hasn’t come from Apple but a fix is on the way in the form of a software update. Personally I haven’t noticed any issue with the battery and am getting marginally better performance over the few days I’ve had the phone.
So, is the iPhone 4S worth the upgrade? Well it really depends what you are looking for and is dependent of your personal utilisation of your phones functionality. The camera is excellent and a bona fide alternative to a compact point and shot. The upgraded processor was a pleasant surprise and as app makers make use of the increased power I’m sure it will become even more relevant. Siri isn’t the novelty act I expected to see but isn’t high end theatre yet either. It has real promise if they don’t make the google mistake of leaving it a ‘beta toy’ for too long.
If you have the iPhone 3G/S its a no brainer but iPhone 4 users may want to be more patient than me and wait for that iPhone 5 unless the camera and Siri are essential. Will other smart phone users come flocking to the iPhone 4S? That debate goes much deeper than purely phone specification, but if any users are tempted I don’t think they will be disappointed. The build is the same as the iPhone 4 but is that a bad thing? The iPhone 4 was/is a quality product the 4S is an even ‘S’marter choice.
About the Author:
Sean McCloskey, is a long time enthusiast of all things tech. Sean is particularly interested in end user experience and design.