The iPhone 4S, Apple’s latest and supposedly greatest iPhone ever, was unveiled two weeks ago in a relatively small room in Apple’s HQ. Before the announcement it was felt among the technology media world that this new device need to be an absolute monster to peg back the Android super-phones. Although no device has come close to matching the iPhone’s sales, Samsung is getting closer every time it launches a new Google-powered smartphone. The two technology giants are stuck in a fierce legal battle, and Sammy is creating some potential iPhone killers. With 30 million units of the Galaxy S and SII having been sold already, and the Nexus Prime on its way, Apple should be concerned.
What was eventually unveiled was what looked like a cross between the CDMA iPhone 4 and its GSM brother. From the outside, there were no remarkable differences. It looked the same, felt the same, and had the same display. No 4-inch Retina display, 4G or curved aluminium back in sight. It was an anti-climax to say the least. But now the phone is here in flesh, does it disappoint, or does it shine past its mediocre specs?
Being the one really distinguishable feature between the iPhone 4 and 4S, Siri is the only place to start. Apple’s newly created and intelligent voice-controlled assistant harks back to visions of technological advancement set during the 20th century. Whether it’s speaking to replicators to serve you dinner or talking to an artificially intelligent car, it’s something we’ve dreamed of for years. Having a software that not only recognizes words and sentences, but understands context, then deciding on the most suitable response is unbelievable. It’s not artificial intelligence, but it’s the closest thing to it that we’ve ever had on a phone. And it works great, for the most part.
The most obvious part of Siri is the app itself. You access it by pressing and holding the home key, and when the microphone icon pops up on screen you’re free to ask, comment or demand. It can be used to create calendar appointments, set reminders or alarms, check the whether, find out answers to questions, search the web or find local businesses. The only problem for me, being based outside the US, is that currently, Siri only locates businesses in the States, so that’s one service which isn’t available to test. The rest of it works great though.
I was afraid that it would be a little gimmicky, merely something to impress your friends with or to geek out over. Stand around some science-fiction fans and tell it to “open the pod bay doors” or “beam me up” and Siri’s responses will delight every trekky or trekker out there. (Apparently there’s a difference between the two, one likes Star Trek, the other likes living life as Spock. Unfortunately for you, Siri doesn’t yet understand Klingon.) Once you get past the fun, and the amusement has worn off, you’re left with a pretty useful piece of software. Opening Siri to ask for a Reminder to be set on a certain day at a specific time is so much easier than doing it the manual way. Even setting alarms, or organizing calendar events is simpler. If those were the only few tasks it could accomplish, I’d still be pleased.
It’s not just its own separate app though. It’s integrated heavily in to the OS. Anywhere you can use the keyboard, you can tap the little microphone and speak out to write text messages, emails, tweets, Facebook updates – whatever. The best part is that you don’t have to speak like a robot for it to understand what you’re saying. You can speak normally – unless you have a thick accent of course. (There are reports that Siri struggles with people speaking English to it, when it’s not their native tongue.) However accurate it can be, it’s not perfect. Every now and then you speak a word like “they’re” and it’s not sure what to do. Or, if you pronounce a word like “sloth” different to the way it thinks it should be, it comes up with various alternatives.
One slight annoyance is punctuation. It doesn’t do it automatically, and although asking that of a smartphone would be a little unrealistic, I’m still disappointed that it doesn’t. In order to get any punctuation in whatsoever, you need to speak it. So you need to say “question mark”, “period/full stop”, “coma” or “exclamation mark” for it to enter the desired characters. (Side note – if you’re British, don’t say “period”, it will write the word.)
Overall, I am impressed. It’s a million miles away from the inaccurate and headache inducing Voice Control feature of previous models. Although it has its problems, and imperfections, it’s pretty darn great. It’s become my default way to set alarms, reminders, find out the weather or search for answers. And when something becomes a default way to do things previously achieved differently, you know it’s a success.
Camera and Video Recording
The second most noticeable improvement over the iPhone 4 was the camera. The 5MP snapper was replaced with an 8MP sensor, with an extra lens, higher exposure and a more natural color representation. Simply put: it’s a success. Over the weekend, I posted a comparison article showing the differences between the two cameras, and if you have a good quality display you’ll see the difference like night and day. The iPhone 4S is sharper, cleaner and shows colors as they should be. I never thought the iPhone 4 camera took poor pictures, but next to the 4S they look over-saturated and unrealistic.
Shutter speed got a boost too, even though many felt it was perfectly fine as it was. Compared to many Android phones the iPhone 4 was definitely no slouch. Next to its successor though, it looks decidedly slow. The other improvements on the camera are down to iOS 5. These features are available to anyone with the newest version of iPhone software. For instance, being able to slide the camera screen away and access your Photo Stream or Camera Roll instantly. You can also add a grid to the screen to help with object positioning (rule of thirds) and switch on HDR. There’s also the option to share via twitter directly.
Video capture, on the other hand, is not perfect. Although the sharpness of the moving image is undeniable, it seems to skip frames and become a little juddery when the camera is in motion. Panning is far from smooth. Sound recording is decent, but again it’s not wonderful, to me it sounds a little muffled. On the plus side, it does have image stabilization which helps when filming while walking or running along. The footage below was filmed as a brief test to see what the end result was like, and I was left a tad underwhelmed – before realizing I shouldn’t compare it to HD footage from a DSLR. Compared to most HD recording phones, it’s brilliant.
A5 Processor – “S” stands for “Speed”
Comparing the iPhone 4 and 4S it became clear that the newest model is quicker, as it should be. The load time of apps, web pages and other content is shorter. Fact. The only problem is that the iPhone 4 is fast too. iOS is such a low intensity operating system that it doesn’t need a hugely powerful 1.5GHz dual-core processor that you may find in some of its competitors. In fact, if the 4S didn’t have Siri, it probably wouldn’t need dual-core at all.
I think we’re going to have to wait some time before the difference in performance becomes really clear. And even then, it’ll only be plainly visible when highly detailed games are released. Games like Infinity Blade 2, which is due out before the end of the year. Certainly – for now at least – the new processor is not a reason in itself to upgrade from the iPhone 4 to the 4S.
Overall experience is smooth and lag-free. No surprise there, it’s something we come to expect of all new Apple product launches. It’s only when the new operating systems get loaded on to older generation devices that we see hints of sluggishness. (iOS 4 running on a 3GS is a complete nightmare.) The iPhone 4S brushes off any app with ease, and handles Apple’s “multitasking” without any fuss. Thumbs up, for sure.
New Antenna/Call Quality
Apple mentioned a “dual-antenna” system during the iPhone 4S announcement and we all just gobbled it up without question. This supposedly new technology is one a direct attempt to restore confidence after the whole “Antennagate” scandal of last year. According to the promotional video, this system supposedly enables your phone to switch between antennas to guarantee the strongest signal available to your device. This should mean many fewer dropped calls, and no “death grip” issues. It’s essentially an iPhone 4 for left-handed people. To test whether or not the antenna made any difference, I conducted a short test.
In day-to-day use I’ve not had any dropped calls, unexpected signal outages or any issues whatsoever with connectivity. My only problem is that my carrier has really slow 3G on the best of days, so connecting to the internet outside a wireless network can become a chore. (I hope you’re reading Vodafone, sort it out.) It’s definitely improved the device. More importantly, it can put to rest any fears that the public may have of receiving no signal. You’d be amazed at the amount of times I still get asked “do you get signal on the iPhone 4?”
In terms of actual call quality and clarity of sound, there’s nothing to write home about. It’s fine. Nothing spectacular. It has the same noise cancellation microphone as the previous model, and it appears to have the same earpiece and speaker. 4S sounds a little louder, but not better. It’s steady, and does the job.
The 3.5”, 960×640 resolution Retina display is exactly the same as the one found on the iPhone 4. Since it’s the same screen, you’d expect its performance to mimic that of its predecessor. It doesn’t. The new CPU/GPU combo inside the A5 processor makes everything appear cleaner and sharper. Whites are whiter and there appears to be more definition. I put both displays up to maximum brightness to compare. The whites on the iPhone 4 screen look just a tiny bit pink compared to the iPhone 4S. It just goes to show, you can have the highest resolution display ever made, but without the right processor, it’s not perfect. I am being very nit-picky here. The difference is barely noticeable.
Normally, when writing a phone review, I’d prefer to write about the form factor and design first, but as it’s essentially the same as the iPhone 4, I left it until later on. The device is 9.3mm thin, making it one of the slimmest smartphones on the planet. It’s glass front and back and steel chassis give it a solid, quality feel but do make it a little weighty. At 5 ounces it’s hardly the lightest phone in town. That being said, I’d substitute lightness for quality build any day of the week.
Like I’ve said previously, I am not a fan of the flat glass back. Although it looks great, it’s not practical in any way. A curved, textured back is much more suitable for my needs/wants. It would feel better in hand, and be nowhere near as slippy. Without exaggerating – the iPhone 4 and 4S are capable of sliding off completely flat surfaces, especially when you have kids running around the house. Small vibrations are enough to encourage a drop from a chest of drawers, or desk.
I do absolutely love the solid metal buttons. There’s a reassuring click when you flick the mute switch, just to let you know it won’t be falling off, or detaching itself anytime soon. The same can be said of the home/lock key and volume buttons. It’s little touches of quality and attention to detail like this that attracts all of us who enjoy Apple’s products.
Final thoughts: Should you upgrade from the iPhone 4?
Overall, its a great, solid phone. It’s not going to wow anybody with specs, especially with devices like SII in the market, and the rumored Nexus Prime being unveiled very soon. But, in terms of day-in day-out performance, it’s right up there with the best of them. It works fantastically well.
Should you upgrade from the iPhone 4? No. Simple answer. The camera is better, the device is quicker and it has Siri. But I don’t see any of these as being enough to convince anyone to pay an early termination fee on their contract and signing up a new one when next year’s device is likely to be another show-stopper. If you have a 3GS it’s another story. The improvement in speed and quality will be immediately noticeable, and unless you’re considering trying a different platform, it’s a no-brainer.
iPhone 4S: great device, but not spectacular.