Reviewing the iPhone 4S is in many ways a lot like reviewing the original iPhone 4, except that it's not. The device, which was just announced at a special event on Apple's campus, is very much the same phone the company released in June of 2010 — but it's also something completely new.
While much of that sameness comes from an identical physical appearance, and nearly identical specs (in some places), there's much that's fresh here. Besides packing the successor to Apple's custom A4 CPU (appropriately dubbed the A5) inside, the iPhone 4S also sports an upgraded rear camera, an improved antenna design, and a new internal radio that allows the device to perform double duty on both CDMA and GSM networks.
In reality, however, the hardware is only half the story. Maybe not even half. The introduction of the iPhone 4S marks the introduction of iOS 5 as well. The new operating system is loaded with big improvements, from notifications to how your device connects to your computer. Packed with major features like iCloud integration and an innovative, voice-activated "intelligent assistant" named Siri, it's not unfair to consider this one of the most meaningful updates to iOS we've ever seen.
For a phone that's already being touted as one of Apple's fastest-sellers, it's hard to even suggest that the iPhone 4S won't be a success. But beyond pure market excitement, is there enough in this new device to stand up to a steady wave of competition — some which is awfully fierce? I'll try to answer that question in my review below, so read on for the whole story.
Hardware / design
If this were a car, it would be a Mercedes
As I stated pretty clearly in the opening paragraph of this review, there isn’t anything notable about the exterior of the iPhone 4S in comparison with the company’s previous flagship phone. Really, if you’ve ever seen an iPhone 4 or even looked at photos, you will have a crystal clear idea of what this phone is like.
That said, the iPhone 4 design does stand the test of time (or 16 months in this case). Compared with most (if not all) of its Android competition, this industrial design looms tall. Though enthusiasts might be bored of seeing the same hardware for more than a year, this still feels like the phone to beat in the looks department. The glass back — while incredibly prone to shattering on impact — feels as sleek and sexy as ever. The metal antenna and solid, machined buttons feel high-end, expensive even. If this were a car, it would be a Mercedes.
It’s kind of incredible when you think about it. Competing phone-makers have had more than a year (a lot more considering the leaked photos of the iPhone 4 prior to its release) to best this design, and yet no one really has. As frustrating as it is to say this, no other phone on the market comes close to this level of craftsmanship, materials, or considered design.
The iPhone 4S may not be the most resilient phone in the world (I’ve broken two original iPhone 4s in accidental drops), but it probably is the most beautiful.
Internals / display
The iPhone 4S is a gorgeous device with impressive specs
Unlike the exterior, there are obvious improvements when it comes to the phone’s internal components. As I mentioned, the device utilizes the dual-core A5 CPU (the same as in the iPad 2), and based on spec monitoring software on the phone, it’s clocked at 800MHz. That’s not to say it feels slow, however. The device has 512MB of RAM onboard, which came as a bit of a surprise considering that’s the same number as the iPad 2 and original iPhone 4. You can purchase the phone in 16GB ($199 on-contract), 32GB ($299), or 64GB ($399) variations — I tested the 64GB model.
For radios, the phone has that dual-mode CDMA / GSM chipset (most likely Qualcomm’s MDM6600), Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n, and Bluetooth 4.0. The phone also touts a digital compass, GPS chip, accelerometer, ambient light sensor, proximity sensor, and three-axis gyroscope. But you knew that already, didn’t you?
The rear camera has been massively improved — and that’s saying a lot considering the original iPhone 4 sensor and lens were a pretty lethal combo. The iPhone 4S now has an 8 megapixel sensor and improved optics which the company claims delivers point-and-shoot quality photos. The phone is also capable of handling 1080p video. The front-facing camera remains unchanged from the iPhone 4, however, clocking in at a measly VGA resolution. I’ve got more on the rear camera below, of course.
The display on the 4S is Apple’s well regarded 960 x 640 Retina Display, and it looks no less impressive now than it did when the iPhone 4 was first released. One thing I did note, however, was how much less contrast-heavy the screen looks in comparison to the previous model. The iPhone 4S has a noticeably different color tone, and blacks seem far less dark. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; when comparing Dead Space (a pretty dark game) side-by-side, I found the iPhone 4S display more eye-pleasing. Still, the newer screen definitely has a slightly more green-tinted, washed-out look compared with the older device.
I wish there were more to say about the differences between this model and its predecessor, but the changes are simply very subtle
Otherwise, the phone is unchanged. I wish there were more to say about the differences between this model and its predecessor, but the changes are simply very subtle. There’s no LTE here, no larger screen, no new body design, no set of stereo speakers, it doesn’t do 3D, and Apple didn’t add a kickstand. Let’s just say it was pretty easy to take this device on the street for testing.
Still, the iPhone 4S is a gorgeous device with impressive specs. On paper, it may not stand up to the latest and greatest Android phone with 4G radios, a massive screen, and a screaming 1.5GHz dual-core CPU — but in use, it’s easily one of the most capable handsets on the market.
If you've ever thought about using a phone as a replacement for your point-and-shoot, feel free to start taking that concept seriously
Apple made a pretty big deal out of the new camera on the rear of the iPhone 4S, and after testing it for a few days, I understand why.
The iPhone 4 has a 5-megapixel shooter which — when it was introduced — was touted as being superior to other smartphone cameras. This was thanks to a bigger sensor which let an increased amount of photon information pass through the lens (a point Steve Jobs went to great lengths to explain at WWDC in 2010). There was no question that the iPhone 4 camera was an excellent shooter, but in comparison to the iPhone 4S, it’s old news.
The sensor is not only larger on the new iPhone, but Apple has further tweaked the optics to deliver better results, even in low-light settings. The company has updated the backside illumination sensor, added a fifth lens element, and increased the aperture to f/2.4 — all of which sounds more interesting if you’re a camera fanatic. Even if you’re not, however, the improvements are obvious the second you start snapping pictures.
The iPhone 4S took some of the nicest, cleanest photos I’ve ever seen from a mobile device. If you’ve ever thought about using a phone as a replacement for your point-and-shoot, feel free to start taking that concept seriously. The 4S produced crisp, balanced, colorful photos that were surprisingly low-noise and never over-saturated. The iPhone 4 sometimes seemed to be compensating for its limitations by exaggerating colors, but the iPhone 4S looks and feels like a real camera capturing true images.
You can see by this lower light comparison that the iPhone 4S’ sensor is a vast improvement over the previous model.
The macro focus on the lens was particularly impressive, allowing me to grab subjects (including really gross insects) at extremely close ranges. I did have some minor issues with the focus not wanting to take in some situations, but that may have had more to do with the focal limitations of the small lens than anything else.
As far as video is concerned, it should come as no surprise that Apple has done a similarly excellent job here too. The iPhone 4S captures full 1080p content, and does so with the same crispness and polish that it lends to its still photos. Apple has introduced a number of improvements on the video side, including image stabilization, and it shows when you’re shooting even relatively fast action. There’s not much to say except that Apple has improved on what was already a capable video solution, making it a full-fledged competitor for bulkier point-and-shoots or dedicated camcorders.
Reception / call quality
During the announcement in Cupertino, Apple made a point to call out the new (or rather, improved) antenna design on the iPhone 4S. The company claims the phone can "intelligently" switch between its two antennas providing better call quality (and presumably fewer dropped calls). In my testing, I did seem to be getting more bars more consistently, though it’s tough to say if it made any big difference in terms of call quality. As far as dropped calls were concerned, I certainly didn’t notice any pronounced issues while testing the phone in New York. I did have a few dropped calls, but I also have dropped calls on my Nexus S — so I’m a little more apt to blame the network than the device.
In terms of "death grip" worries, I was able to get the phone to start dropping bars if I tightly held it on both the bottom and top of the device (along the notches in the antenna). This is, of course, a totally absurd way to grip a phone. Of course, I was never able to really get the iPhone 4 to show a big drop in signal, so perhaps it requires a special touch.
The long and short of it is that in my testing with the iPhone 4S, I didn’t feel that it exhibited any behavior that wasn’t consistent with the performance of most devices I’ve used on AT&T’s network. On Verizon or Sprint, your mileage will obviously differ.
As far as download speeds are concerned, while Apple may boast about its improved HSDPA 14.4Mbps maximum, I didn’t see much of a boost in most places I tested the phone. At home with four out of five bars on 3G, I never saw my downstream peak above 2.2Mbps, while my upstream held solid at around 1.5Mbps. That’s consistent with other AT&T devices I’ve tested, but paltry compared with LTE devices I’ve used in the same spot. I’m sure there are some locations where you’ll see a bump, but just as with the previous phone, data rates are clearly limited by what the network can provide.
The company claims the phone can switch between its two antennas providing better call quality
Battery life / performance
I found the battery performance of the phone to be impressive
As with the iPhone 4, the 4S is definitely no slouch in the battery life department. In fact, Apple claims that the new phone is capable of an extra hour of talk time while on 3G. What the company is less vocal about is the fact that the phone has lost an hour of Wi-Fi browsing time.
In my real world testing of the device, those numbers seemed to balance each other out, and overall I found the battery performance of the phone to be impressive. Even after a heavy day of use (about 16 hours of making calls, browsing, downloading apps, syncing, listening to music, game playing, and more), I still had juice on the phone when I plugged it in before bed. The 4S is more than capable of going through a full business day without needing a charge, and if you’re a lighter user, you’ll rarely have to worry about it.
As far as processor performance is concerned, the iPhone 4S isn’t kidding around… though don’t expect mind-blowing speed differences between this device and its predecessor. In fact, when comparing a graphically intense game like Dead Space side-by-side, I didn’t notice a dramatic difference in frame rates. The 4S definitely had slightly less of the occasional stutter, but it wasn’t night and day.
On the other hand, apps seemed to open a little bit faster, and the camera response time is noticeably improved. The 4S is definitely a snappy device, but if you’re going from the last version to this, it feels like a tweak, not an overhaul. It’s possible that newer software (Infinity Blade 2, for instance) will take better advantage of the A5′s capabilities, but that remains to be seen.
As I said in my intro, the big story with the iPhone 4S isn’t so much about the hardware as it is the software. iOS 5 is a huge update — maybe Apple’s biggest ever — and there’s lots to unpack. It’s also important to note that most of these improvements will be found on the iPad and iPad 2, iPod touch 3rd and 4th generation, iPhone 4, and iPhone 3GS — it’s not just the 4S that’s getting an update.
For starters, don’t expect a completely new look and feel to the operating system. iOS 5 is nearly identical to the last version of the OS, save for some pretty notable improvements in functionality.
The biggest and probably most desired (at least by more tech-savvy users) is improved notifications. Gone are the maddening, intrusive pop-over notifications we’ve been living with since the first version of iOS. Now when you get a message or new email, you see a notification at the top of your screen which doesn’t interfere with what you’re doing on the phone. You can swipe towards the left of the screen on these messages to make them disappear. Needless to say, this is a welcome change from older versions of the software.
Apple also takes a page right out of Android’s playbook and now utilizes an almost identical "window shade" to collect all of your notifications which you can open by swiping downward from the status bar. Inside the shade (Apple calls it the Notification Center), you’ll find updates from your apps (which you can order manually or by most recent), and Apple has even included a couple of widgets for weather and stock information. You can manage your notifications app-by-app, and touching one of the messages takes you to that application.
Apple has also introduced notifications on the lock screen. When an item appears on your list and the phone is locked, you can drag that specific notification across the screen to jump straight into the app. It’s actually pretty handy, though hardly an original concept. Samsung Android devices with TouchWiz do pretty much the same thing.
The company has also included a new messaging component to its standard crop of SMS and MMS messages called iMessage. This service is unique in that it works across devices (so the iPad and iPod touch get the app too), and it syncs your communications on all of the devices you use with the same account. Many people (including yours truly) have described this as a BBM killer — and in use it definitely feels that way.
Not only is the service free and works across 3G or Wi-Fi connections, but it does more than just send texts. You can include photos, videos, locations, and contacts, and it will tell you when messages have been read by the recipient or when they’re typing something back. Oh, and it’s really fast. Messages were delivered almost instantaneously. If you’re a BlackBerry user who’s been reluctant to leave because of BBM, this may be the piece that pushes you over the edge.
Apple has also added some new applications to the mix. Reminders is a to-do list with some extra functionality, like the ability to set locations as triggers for alerts. So you can tell the phone to remind you about something when you arrive or leave a specific location. It’s a pretty neat trick, though it takes some getting used to to make it a part of your workflow. The Reminders app also ties in nicely with Siri (a lot more on that in just a bit).
There’s also a new content app called Newsstand, which is like iBooks for periodicals. At the time of this writing, Apple hadn’t flipped the switch on the service yet, so I didn’t have a chance to test it out. When it is live, you’ll be able to get new issues of your favorite magazine or newspaper downloaded automatically to your device in the background.
The company has also made tons of little nips and tucks all over other pieces of the OS. Twitter integration is now built-in, so you can Tweet links, photos, or videos without having to jump into the app. The photos application has been updated to allow basic photo enhancement, red-eye reduction, and cropping.
Safari has been updated to include tabs in the iPad version, and is generally way faster on the iPhone 4S than pretty much any other mobile browser I’ve used. In a side-by-side comparison with the last generation iPhone, the 4S seems blazing. The new phone scored a 2246.8 in SunSpider, while the original iPhone 4 clocked in at just 3591.3. Apple has also added its own take on Instapaper for the browser called "Reading List," which lets you save articles to read later in a cleaner text layout. It can also reformat a page you’re viewing in the browser to make it more streamlined (and interestingly, to compact a multi-page article into a single page).
Finally (and mercifully) Apple has cut the cord on syncing by adding Wi-Fi syncing options that let you manage your phone almost entirely without a cable attached. As long as you have the latest version of iTunes, you can sync apps, music, video and settings over your local network without plugging in. You have to set the service up using a cord to start, but then you’re able to access and sync your device whenever and wherever you want (on your network, that is). You can also now set up a new device out of the box with nothing more than an internet connection.
"PC Free" (as Apple calls it) worked mostly without issue for me, though there were times when I couldn’t get my laptop to recognize my phone on the network. A reboot seemed to fix the problem, and it’s possible I was having issues because I was syncing two different phones to the same laptop.
The new software pieces are very welcome, but there are things about iOS that have begun to feel dated to me. In particular, the OS still feels stuck in this mode of use where you’re constantly jumping in and out of applications blindly, either to get information, or catch them up to the present. That can be frustrating when you’re trying to keep up with something like Twitter. Though the app will alert you that you’ve got new messages to read, it doesn’t download your content until you’ve opened up the program and let it refresh. The same is true for mail, and even messages you receive in IM or IRC apps. And I know I’ve said it a million times, but the fact that Apple still doesn’t provide auto-updating icons on its homescreen seems crazy to me. Yes, we now have a weather widget in Notification Center, but why doesn’t the icon change too? I feel like there’s an entirely new market for developers just waiting to make "widget icons" (think realtime clock faces like those just added to the iPod nano), yet Apple seems reluctant to give users more information on their home screens.
That lack of glanceable information coupled with the delay of having to open an app to get information creates a feeling of disconnect for me that I find bothersome. Having been using a Nexus S prior to the iPhone 4S, I couldn’t help but notice the pause — however small — that Apple’s OS puts between you and realtime content. Every time you open an application, even if it’s saved your state, you still feel like you’re moments behind where you’re supposed to be. For the broad user base Apple wants to hit with these products, this will probably never be an issue. But I do think there are places in iOS 5 that still need work.
iOS 5 is a huge update, and there’s lots to unpack
Siri is probably one of the most novel applications Apple has ever produced
The other, major new piece of software on the iPhone 4S (and in this case, only on the 4S) is Siri. Siri, as I said in the intro of this review, is something that Apple refers to as an "intelligent assistant," and is probably one of the most novel applications the company has ever produced.
Siri’s premise is quite simple. Utilizing a combination of voice recognition, logic processing, and text-to-speech, the software can interpret requests and follow conversations. Through Siri, you can use natural language to get directions, send text messages, schedule reminders or appointments, get suggestions on where to eat, and lots more. Not only does Siri understand what you’re saying to it, it understands the context in which you’re saying it — so for instance, if you try and schedule a meeting on top of another meeting, Siri will warn you and ask if you’d like to change the time of your new appointment, and it’ll listen as you tell it a new time.
Siri can also process and answer basic and not-so-basic questions utilizing the WolframAlpha engine (like, "how many cups are in a gallon"), and the software pulls in Yelp data to help you find things like restaurants or movie theaters. When in doubt, Siri will do a web search based on your questions.
Siri also learns things about you and the people around you. You can tell Siri who your wife or brother is. You can tell Siri where you work and live. The software will read or write text messages using voice commands, and can also take dictation in any field where you can use a keyboard. If you ask it things like "do I need a raincoat today," it understands and responds as a human being would. You can tell it to wake you up at a certain time and it knows to set an alarm, and if you ask Siri how to get home from somewhere, it’ll give you directions in the Maps application.
The crazy thing about Siri is that it works — at least most of the time — better than you’d expect it to. It understands and responds to you in a way that’s so natural it can sometimes be unsettling. The software even has a good sense of humor. Asking it "what is the meaning of life?" will bring up a number of responses, both serious and not so serious. The first time I asked, Siri simply said "42." If you ask Siri if there’s a god, the software points you in the direction of the nearest church (oddly, no synagogues, Buddhist temples, or mosques are suggested).
That’s not to say the software (which will be released in beta) is without issues. There’s still clearly a lot of work to be done on the voice recognition side of things, and a lot of pieces you might expect to work aren’t wired up just yet. For instance, you can ask Siri to list movie theaters nearby, but the software won’t tell you specific movie times or help you buy a ticket. Another ding is that in order to figure out questions and answers, Siri has to communicate with Apple’s servers. That’s fine if you’re on Wi-Fi, but there were a few times on 3G that the software seemed to take forever to process a question and deliver results. Apple told me that they were making some changes on the server side during the testing period, so it’s possible that some of that slowness had to do with issues unrelated to the basic tech at play.
Siri can be helpful, but was also frustrating at times. Seeing the software mangle a request or fail to understand what action you want it to take can be maddening, but I think that frustration actually speaks to how advanced the software is. Siri is capable of doing so much that is complex that I started giving it more credit than was probably due. I expected Siri to be smarter than it is right now, because… well, it’s already pretty damn smart.
I think that says volumes about what to anticipate from the software moving forward. Siri may not be finished yet, but it already feels like something straight out of science fiction.
Apple's cloud service tries to pull it all together
The final piece of the iPhone 4S puzzle is iCloud. While not strictly a service just for the new iPhone, iCloud is being introduced along with iOS 5.
So what does iCloud do exactly? Well for starters, it does pretty much everything MobileMe did before it — meaning web-based email, contacts, and calendar. Those three services will also sync to your devices. But iCloud does a lot more than that.
The service promises to keep your photos, music, and settings synced across devices, using the iCloud servers as a way point and container for most (but not all) of your content. Essentially what it does is keep a running tab of content you’ve created, or apps and music you’ve purchased from iTunes. All of that content is beamed up to the cloud, and then back down to your phone, iPod touch, or iPad.
To help you visualize how this works, here are a few use cases:
- You take a bunch of photos on your phone. Since you’re using Photo Stream to sync these to iCloud, they get beamed up to Apple’s servers. Later, when you open your laptop and start up iPhoto, the application pulls down all of those photos onto your local storage. The same thing happens when you use your iPad with the same account and Photo Stream turned on.
- You buy an app on your iPhone. Later, you want to put that app on your iPod touch. You’ll have access to that app on any of your devices in a list of purchased software in the App Store. All you need to do is download the app to your device.
- You buy a new song in iTunes. If you have iTunes in the Cloud turned on, that new purchase will sync down to all of your devices registered with the same account. No fussing with syncing individually anymore. The same goes for video and iBooks content too.
- You’re working on a document on your iPad in Pages. With iCloud, that document will be saved on your iPad, then accessible through icloud.com for download, or will be synced to your other devices running Pages. Every time you update that document (unless you’re doing it in Pages on your laptop), it will be synced to the cloud.
Essentially, this is a rather static service which is constantly moving your content from your devices, up into the cloud, and back down to devices. It’s not Flickr or Gmail — it’s a way to keep content and devices in sync without hassle. In its current state, it works quite well, though there are some catches in the service that you should probably make a note of.
For starters, you get 5GB of storage for free, which doesn’t count your apps, music, books, TV content, or Photo Stream images. You can upgrade that storage for a nominal fee (starting at $20 a year for a total of 15GB, up to $100 annually for 55GB of cloud storage). Secondly, the way iCloud handles your photos is that it will keep 1000 photos in the cloud for up to 30 days. If you go beyond 1000, or past 30 days, you start to lose your content unless you move it to a device (say your laptop) or to a folder in your Camera Roll. If that sounds confusing — that’s because it is. Also, there’s no way to view your photos or share them online at this point.
I don’t quite get why Apple is putting a cap on how many photos you can store or for how long. Perhaps I’m just used to services like Picasa or Flickr, but I rather like the concept of having my photos stored somewhere in perpetuity, and I like being able to share those photos to other people easily.
There’s one other issue with Photo Stream that I find a little disconcerting. Once your pics have uploaded to Photo Stream, you have no way to delete individual photos. You can delete all of your photos and turn off the service (thus allowing you to delete on your devices), but you can’t choose single files to delete by hand. The moment you finish taking photos, they’re upped to iCloud where they basically cannot be manipulated. It’s actually a bit upsetting — it feels like you don’t have full control over your content.
By the end of October, Apple will introduce one more component to its iCloud offerings, which is iTunes Match. For $24.99 a year, that service will find every song you’ve ever purchased on iTunes and make it available to stream on your devices, and will also upload or match anything else you have in your collection — whether you’d purchased it in iTunes or just ripped a CD. The switch hasn’t been flipped on iTunes Match, so I didn’t have a chance to test it out.
In all, the basic iCloud service (which is free) should go a long way to simplifying the experience of moving content to and from devices. It’s not perfect by any means, but it solves many of the problems that iOS users have struggled with since the introduction of the first iPhone.
- Camera is stunning
- Retina Display is still best in class
- Siri software is incredibly cool and surprisingly useful
- iOS is beginning to show its age
- Improved 3G speeds don’t seem very improved, especially compared to LTE devices
- Glass and metal design is beautiful, but easy to shatter
The iPhone 4S is an astoundingly good phone, but the gap between this year's model and last year's model isn't as wide as Apple would probably like
This is the easy part, kind of. If you're an owner of an older iPhone, or someone looking to switch to an iPhone from a different platform, there's never been a better Apple device to buy. The iPhone 4S is an astoundingly good phone. Between the hardware (both inside and out) and the software (iOS 5 as well as third party offerings), it's just kind of an awesome package. The lack of LTE, a larger display, or a new design may put off some buyers, but that won't change the fact that the 4S is a force to be reckoned with.
It's not exactly the same story as with the release of the iPhone 4, where you felt like competitors had to go back to the drawing board completely, but Android and Windows Phone device makers will certainly be scratching their heads trying to figure out how to best what Apple is offering.
The iPhone 4S is a great device for some, but what if you're thinking of upgrading from an iPhone 4? That's a tougher call. The phone is faster, to be sure, and has an amazing camera. And of course, you can't get Siri unless you have a 4S... but I just don't know if any of those reasons are compelling enough to convince previous buyers to upgrade. The concept is a particularly hard sell for Verizon customers. The gap between this year's model and last year's model isn't as wide as Apple would probably like.
For this review, I returned to the iPhone after a fairly long period of using and testing other devices. Spending a week with Apple's newest phone, I'm reminded again of just what makes the company's products so special. It's not specs, services, or apps. This phone is not perfect. Certainly it can be improved. But there is something here, beyond the screen and CPU, beyond iCloud, something under the surface. Some intangible spark.
Is this the best phone ever made? That's debatable. But I can tell you this: the iPhone 4S is pretty damn cool.
More times than not, the Verge score is based on the average of the subscores below. However, since this is a non-weighted average, we reserve the right to tweak the overall score if we feel it doesn't reflect our overall assessment and price of the product. Read more about how we test and rate products.
- Design 8
- Display 10
- Camera(s) 9
- Reception / call quality 7
- Performance 8
- Software 9
- Battery life 8
- Ecosystem 10