The iPhone 4S Review

I, along with nearly every other Apple enthusiast, was waiting dutifully for an iPhone 5. Apple served up a reworked iPhone 4 dubbed the iPhone 4S. The world let out a collective ‘meh’. The world then proceeded to buy more iPhone 4S devices in it’s first weekend in the wild than any other device Apple has ever made. Go figure.

Having had my iPhone 4S now for a week, I feel I have had enough time to give it a proper review, so here we go.

Insides and Outsides

On the outside, the iPhone 4S looks just like it’s older brother. It sports the same stainless steel band, and same glass back. While this design has some drawbacks (namely, being dropped and shattering on either side), it is widely recognized as one of the most beautifully designed hand held devices ever produced. It has a great feel in your hand. It is small, yet it has a great weight to it. Not heavy, but substantial. That said, if you drop it on to a hard surface, you will be quickly looking up how much it costs to replace the front or back (or both parts) of your beautiful phone. In the 15 months I owned my iPhone 4, I dropped it probably 3 or 4 times. Each time, I had a case on it, so I was good. If I hadn’t had a case, I would have been screwed.

On the inside, Apple has changed just about everything. First off, the single core Apple A4 chip gets upgraded to the dual core Apple A5 chip. More processing power is always a welcome thing (well, at least as long as it doesn’t ruin your battery life, but more on that in a bit). Apple decided to hold steady with 512MB of RAM in the iPhone 4S, the same as the 4.

One of the biggest (or only) gripe people had with the iPhone 4 was it’s susceptibility to the ‘grip of death’. Just about every phone’s Achilles’ heel is revealed when you cover the area where it’s antenna is exposed. But Apple was called out on it, primarily because the iPhone 4 put black bars on the stainless steel cage where the antenna resides, almost as if to say to people ‘squeeze here!’. They did, and as a result, we had Antenna-Gate. No harm, no foul. The iPhone 4 still ended up selling more handsets than just about any other smartphone.

With the 4S, Apple redesigned the antenna system, and it now features 2 distinct antennas. Are 2 better than 1? In my testing, definitely. Running my iPhone 4 and my iPhone 4S side by side over a weekend, it was clearly visible that the iPhone 4S was able to hold more bars in places that the iPhone 4 wasn’t able to hold any. I have yet to drop a call on the 4S, where I would drop calls on the 4 daily (and yes, my carrier is AT&T). Antenna-Gate may have been a perception problem, but in the real world, the iPhone 4S ‘fixes’ the iPhone 4′s antenna issue, period.

Say Cheese!

The other big improvement in internals for the 4S is the upgraded camera. Sure, we’ve gone from a 5MP sensor in the 4 to a 8MP sensor in the 4S. But as anyone will tell you megapixels are just one facet of digital photography. Apple has upgraded the optics (the lens) of the 4S, and is using a new sensor that lets in considerably more light. The end result is that the 4S camera seriously improves upon the already device leading quality of the iPhone 4.

Of course, with Apple, hardware is only ever half of the equation. Add in the improvements to the Camera software in iOS 5, and you now have a device that seriously threatens the entire point and shoot category. With the iPhone 4S, I now have a device that can take an amazing photo, run it through any number of post processing filter apps (Camera+, Hipstamatic, Instagram), and immediately share it with the world via 3G or wifi. Point and shoot cameras are going to have to add photo editing and sharing via Wifi to their bag of tricks if they are going to want to stay relevant.

Siriously

The other iPhone 4S only feature is Siri, your personal digital assistant. As someone who has used Macs for over 20 years, I remember the System 7 days of playing with Voice Control. Holding down the Escape key on my Macintosh and telling my computer to ‘tell me a joke’ or ‘open textedit’ were cool little novelties that were more about the promise of a voice controlled computer than the reality of one.

Now, Siri isn’t HAL, or the voice interface of a Starfleet vessel. But she is the biggest leap in voice controlled computing since that early proof of concept back in the System 7 days. I think the most impressive thing with Siri is that Apple can easily and quickly build this out to be the defacto interface for the iPhone (or the iPad or the Mac). Touch interfaces are great, but voice is even better.

I remember at a point in my childhood when our family received our first touch tone phone. It was sometime in the late 70′s. It was a seemingly simple upgrade, but in reality, it made life easier. It was a paradigm shift from the previous rotary dial phones. When I use Siri, I get the same feeling I had when I first used a touch tone phone, in that I can easily see the day when voice activated computing replaces touch and input device computing as the predominant method of interaction with computers. If Apple can keep improving on Siri, and offer up an API to other developers to tap in to that awesomeness, we could be 5-8 years away from that reality.

This is a serious, flying car type of technology advancement.

Battery Life

Apple claims that the 4S battery life is about on par with the iPhone 4. In my week of testing, I can attest that it is not. With my iPhone 4, in a normal day of usage, I would end the day with generally 50-60% of battery. With the 4S, that number is more in the 30-40% range. With the iPhone 4, if I forgot to charge my battery at night, I’d have enough battery left over the next day to get through just about an entire work day before I’d run out of juice. With the 4S, if I forget to charge that battery at night, I’m looking at about enough juice to get me to mid day the next day.

I’ve tried all sorts of different tricks to improve the situation. On a suggestion from a Twitter follower, I disabled Siri’s ‘enable *****’. It had no visible effect on battery life.

Apple is using a larger battery in the 4S than it had in the iPhone 4. But, when you look at the upgraded internals, you can clearly see what is at play here. You have a dual core processor now versus the single core processor you had in the iPhone 4. You have two antennas in the iPhone 4S whereas in the iPhone 4 you had one. You have a camera that takes 10MP images (routinely between 1.7MB and 3.0MB in size), versus a 5MP shooter that took images between 700KB and 2MB in size). These improvements are going to drain the battery faster.

The biggest area I’ve seen a decrease in battery life is in stand-by mode. With the iPhone 4, I could take the phone off the charger at 7AM and leave it sitting in stand-by mode until the evening, and still be in the upper 80% range for battery life if I hadn’t used the phone all day. With the 4S, sitting in stand-by mode, it seems to drop a good 10% every 2 hours. If I was a betting man, I’d attribute this to the improved dual antenna setup. If this is the trade off we have to make to have better call reception, so be it. But it is a little concerning that the bar for battery life on the iPhone has been lowered, when just about every other feature is improved. If you’re the kind of person who religiously puts their phone on a charger every night or even during the day, it won’t be a big deal. If you are like my wife, who routinely forgets to charge her phone at night, it will be a bigger issue.

Odds and Ends

With the 4S, Apple touts improved 3G network speeds that put it in the ballpark of what is considered 4G. At present, AT&T is the only provider who is taking advantage of this. In my tests however, I never saw download speeds better than 3mbps. Of course, location is going to play the biggest role in this. Here in Atlanta, we have what is considered to be one of AT&T’s strongest networks. This has yet to translate in to faster speeds anywhere I’ve tested.

Another thing to consider, related to network speeds: If you routinely shoot and send photos with your iPhone, the upgraded megapixel count will be a blessing and a curse. 8 megapixels is 60% more than 5 megapixels, so be prepared for your photo uploads to Facebook and Flickr to take 60% longer.

The iPhone 4S records 1080p video footage, an increase from the 720p footage that the 4 was capable of. More importantly, Apple has added image stabilization to the 4S, which results in significantly improved results. In my testing, I’ve yet to encounter the ‘jelly roll’ effect that was present in the iPhone 4 (and many other digital recording devices).

Apple has changed the vibration element on the 4S from what was used in the iPhone 4. The 4S vibration feels very different from it’s predecessor. I’m not sure if that’a good or a bad thing, but it is definitely a different feeling.

Bottom Line

The iPhone 4S takes the beautiful form factor of the iPhone 4, and improves upon its internals in just about every way – except for one (battery life). If you value speed, and use your iPhone camera as your primary point and shoot camera, the iPhone 4S is a compelling upgrade.

If you are an iPhone 4 owner and occasional shooter, and don’t see Siri as a must have feature, there is less here to recommend. Owners of the 3GS who skipped the 4 will be blown away by this upgrade. For them, it’s a no brainer. Android users who aren’t obsessed with their 4+ inch screens will find a good bit to lure them in with iOS 5 improvements as well.

With the 4S, Apple has established a pattern of releasing an iPhone with an upgraded form factor (the 3G and the 4), and on the next release, taking that form factor and improving the internals significantly. Whether this pattern holds true for the next release is anyones guess, but it is my opinion that the iPhone 4S leaves little to be desired in a smartphone.

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Pros: Increased speed, point and shoot quality camera, and Siri make this a compelling upgrade.

Cons: Battery life is reduced compared to the iPhone 4.