The iPhone 4S is 99.99% identical to the iPhone 4 on the outside. The differences, such as they are, can only be found on the left edge of the phone, where the banding of the antenna is slightly different, and the location of the mute switch is nudged perhaps a millimeter. Beyond that, it is the same piece of hardware.
When Phone Scoop reviewed the iPhone 4 last year, our review was somewhat harsh on the body and design of the phone. Looking at the iPhone 4S through 2011 lenses, we have a slightly different perspective.
One thing Apple has managed to do with the iPhone 4S is create a piece of art as much as a piece of technology. The metal band and glass design certainly has its detractors, but the quality of the materials is second to none. The feel of the glass, the metal edging, the overall weight and manufacture of the iPhone 4S are superior to most other phones. But, the sharp edges don't necessarily feel great in the hand. In fact, they can sometimes be off-putting. Even so, it is slim, small, slips into the tightest pockets, and the overall feel of the iPhone 4S is good, thanks to the excellent materials.
The front of the iPhone 4S is mostly screen, though there's a good amount of bezel surrounding it. The home button is placed in the same spot below it. The home button of our unit has a nice, definitive action to it. The click is sharp, and feels good.
The volume buttons are on the left side of the iPhone 4S, positioned close to the top. They are two separate buttons, each a bit smaller than the eraser of a pencil. They protrude from the side of the phone enough that they are easy to find, but not so much that they get caught on things. The travel and feedback of these buttons is excellent. The "up" volume button now also doubles as a camera button in iOS 5. Above them, the volume/mute switch is a bit sticky, but flips back and forth with a firm push.
The 3.5mm headset jack and power/lock button are both still on top. I thought the travel/action of the power button was fine.
We can't ignore some of this design's faults, however. The phone is still made of glass. The front surface is made of "chemically strengthened glass", and is somewhat less prone to breakage, but the back surface is not. The iPhone 4S is a fragile piece of equipment. When dropped onto hard surfaces, the likelihood that it is going to break is high. That means it is best to keep it in some sort of case or bumper. Using a case, however, negates the extreme measures to which Apple went to keep the footprint of the iPhone 4S as small as possible.
The iPhone 4S does not have expandable memory, uses a microSIM card that is not directly compatible with most other GSM phones, and it does not have a removable battery. It also uses a proprietary port for charging and data transfer, rather than the industry standard microUSB port.
The iPhone 4S carries over the same 3.5-inch Retina Display from the iPhone 4. The display looks as stunning as it did last year. Packing 960 x 640 pixels into such a tiny space means it still has a higher pixel density than most other phones. It is bright, colorful, and amazingly sharp. It's not so great outside, however, and often becomes unusable in bright sunshine. I'd also be lying if I said I was satisfied with the size. I was hoping Apple would bump up the dimensions of the display a bit. With most Android phones offering 4-inch+ displays, it's sometimes hard to find satisfaction in the iPhone 4S's 3.5-inch display.
I tested the AT&T version of the iPhone 4S, and not the Sprint/Verizon CDMA versions. The iPhone 4S works on all three carriers' 3G networks. With the Sprint/Verizon variants, data speeds are limited to 3.1Mbps under optimal EVDO Rev. A conditions. With the AT&T version, data speeds top out at a more sprightly (theoretical) 14.4Mbps — if all the right conditions come together (phone + capable tower + enhanced backhaul all in one spot).
In the few days that I've been testing the iPhone 4S in New Jersey and environs, it never surpassed the 4-6Mbps average download speeds that the iPhone 4 is also capable of achieving. This means I never tested it under the optimal conditions available from AT&T. It did, however, find the network quickly, and remained connected without fail. Data speeds were quite good. The iPhone 4S did not drop any calls during my review period, nor did it miss any. It survived the NJ vault test (the local super market), where the iPhone 4 failed. It also does not succumb to "death grip." Grab it any way you like, you won't see the signal degrade. Bottom line: the antenna is improved.
The iPhone 4S doesn't have any sort of real 4G inside. That means the WiMax and LTE smartphones on Sprint's and Verizon's networks, respectively, will offer faster data speeds. The 4S does not work with AT&T's LTE network.
The iPhone 4S takes yet another step towards becoming a serviceable voice phone. First, the earpiece produces the most volume of any iPhone so far. That means it will be easier to hear conversations in noisy places. Most phone calls were relatively clear of interference, but I noticed some scratchiness from time to time. In general, though, call quality is easily better than the iPhone 4. The speakerphone is also louder, though at maximum volumes I found it is more prone to distortion. The ringers and alert tones can be set to excellent levels, and the vibrate alert is stronger than previous iPhones.
Whoa, what the hell happened, Apple? I found battery life of last year's iPhone 4 to be excellent. Not so with the iPhone 4S. Apple claims that the iPhone 4S lasts longer for most usage (talk time, music playback, video playback, browsing), but will use more during stand-by time. This is absolutely true. At night, the iPhone 4S routinely loses 10% of its charge — even when not being used at all. For comparison sake, the iPhone 4 typically lost 1% of its charge overnight. Power evaporates really quickly if you don't properly manage your notifications. I found that turning off certain types of notifications and when/where they appear seems to help improve battery life a little bit.
Bottom line: some users may struggle to get through a whole day. I am able to, but that's only because I spent hours fine-tuning the settings. Charge it every night, no matter what.
The iPhone 4S is the first iPhone that doesn't need a computer to be set up, activated, and used. Following a series of easy-to-understand steps, it takes but a moment to go from brand new, blank iPhone to one with a carrier account and Apple account. The process is painless, and a welcome improvement over the need to connect to a computer first.
With an Apple ID (account) added the the iPhone 4S, users can choose to sync with a number of Apple's services, such as iCloud for contacts, calendar and email, or iTunes for music, book and application purchases. These can all be pushed across iOS devices over the network (be it 3G or Wi-Fi) and is great during initial set up, and keeping devices in sync afterward.
I had mixed results with iCloud. It managed to mangle/lose a number of my contacts, but synced my calendar and email just fine.
My favorite feature is automatic syncing of music and application purchases between iOS devices. If you download an app on your iPad, it automatically shows up as an available download on the iPhone and vice versa.
You can also set up the iPhone 4S to sync with your computer via Wi-Fi, though there are some stultifying limitations. First, you have connect the iPhone to a charger and plug it into a power source. Then, you have to make sure the computer and the iPhone 4S are on the same Wi-Fi network and talking with one another.
As far as I am concerned, if I have to plug it into the wall, I may as well plug it into the computer. Worse, syncing via USB cable is 10 times faster than syncing via Wi-Fi. Before you think about writing off Wi-Fi syncing, the one real benefit that Apple points out is that it is ideal for nighttime back-ups and syncing. It imagines a scenario in which you plug in your phone at night to charge, and then, in the background, it silently syncs with your computer while you snooze.
The iPhone 4S can also be found with Apple's "Find My iPhone" tool for free. It requires you to download it and configure it on another machine first. Once configured, though, you can track the location of your iPhone, lock it, wipe it, have it blast a ringtone, and see it on a map/
The iPhone 4S has a dual-core A5 processor from Apple. It is fast as blazes. I don't know what kind of pixi dust Apple sprinkled into the processor, but it is hella fast. Every action is instant. Every screen transition, every menu action, every scrolling action is smooth, fast, and beautiful.
Why is the processor meaningful? Syncing huge amounts of content to the iPhone 4S is brisker than the iPhone 4. Playing hard-hitting games such as Infiniti Blade were fast, smooth, and free of any sort of performance problems. I was able to load up iMovie and edit movies with no problem. I also used some significant sound-processing apps such as TouchWiz and SampleWiz and was able to create new sounds without taxing the processor.
The A5 chip is faster than the A4 chip by a significant margin.
The iPhone 4S ships with the latest version of Apple's mobile operating system: iOS 5. The basic behavior of the menus, home screens, and such remains the same. The biggest and most important change to come to iOS is the behavior of notifications.
iOS 5, thankfully, completely rewrites the notification functionality. Most applications that can send/push notifications (email, SMS, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) have their own notification controls for the tweaking. In earlier versions of iOS, incoming notifications popped up in the middle of the display, interrupting your current task and generally pissing most people off. With iOS 5, they more gracefully pop up at the top of the display, don't need to be dismissed, and can be ignored if you so wish. If you want to act on a notification, simply swipe it to the left and you'll be taken to the incoming message/alert. Some notifications can be sent to the lock screen. This means you phone lights up when there's a new message. Use this with care, you don't want the screen turning on every time you get an email. Text message and Twitter DMs are the only apps I granted "lock screen permission." You can also turn off notifications completely.
Notifications eventually pile up in the notification tray, which acts just like it does in Android. Swipe down from the top of the display, and you see a list of missed calls, unopened emails, and unread SMS messages. It also shows the weather, stocks, Facebook and Twitter messages, and more if you want it to. Press the notification in the tray to do directly to that message.
After using the new notifications for several days, this system is much better than the previous system, and is more flexible than the notification system offered by Android. The ability to fine-tune how each individual application notifies you offers a lot of power.
Using iTunes, or on the iPhone 4S itself, it is easy to create folders with multiple apps, to rearrange all the apps on the screens and set up a nearly unlimited number of home screen pages. Swiping back and forth isn't a problem. Doubletapping the home key opens up the fast-app switching tool at the bottom of the screen, making it easy to jump to other open applications.
The settings menu gets longer and longer with each new version of iOS. In iOS 5, users have even more control over minute application behaviors. While this menu used to be easy to navigate, it now takes a lot longer to go through. It is still easy, but if you really want to control everything, you need to keep digging.
Apple has done little to improve the phone and contacts applications in iOS, and that's a shame. The phone application looks identical to the one that shipped in the original iPhone way back in 2007.
Tap the phone icon to go to the phone app. It generally takes you to whichever phone function you most recently used. Five smallish tabs along the bottom let you jump between favorites, recent calls, contacts, the keypad, and voicemail. In-call options let you add a line, switch to Bluetooth, go to the speakerphone, and so on; nothing superlative or unique.
The contact application, too, is almost identical to iOS 1.0. It offers plenty of room for phone numbers, email addresses, street addresses, and so on, but it lacks integration with social networks, which Android and Windows Phone 7 have done very well. Even RIM integrated Facebook enough so that you can see FB messages in the native email client. Sure, you can add Facebook profile pictures and such to contact cards in iOS, but you can't see your recent SMS conversations, or Facebook comments, etc.
The lack of social networking within the contact application is a real missed opportunity that Apple will hopefully address in a later version of iOS.
I also miss being able to set calling and/or contact shortcuts on the home screen, as you can do with Android and Windows Phone devices. Some of the "people" and "contacts" widgets available on Android phones are excellent. iOS really lacks in that department.
iOS5 makes some noticeable improvements to the iPhone 4S's messaging capabilities. First and foremost is the iMessage system.
iMessage uses Apple's push servers to send IM/SMS-like messages between iOS devices. This means iOS 5 users — be they on an iPhone, iPad, or iPod — can send IM/SMS messages back and forth without incurring texting or other fees. Don't have a phone number associated with your device? No worries, you can use an email address instead (for iPad/iPod Touch owners, mostly).
iMessage offers read receipts, works quickly and reliably, and is a nice alternative to using carrier-based texting services, but it has limitations in that it only works with other iOS 5 devices. The iMessage app is the same basic application that's used for sending text/video and other multimedia messages. You can do all of this within iMessage just as with the normal texting service. The one really neat thing is that iMessage automatically tells you which of your contacts are iOS 5 users so you can send them iMessages instead of text messages.
Beyond iMessage, the email application adds a few ho-hum features, such as support for "starring" emails, and such, but the basic functionality and features set is about the same as with iOS 4. Mail now supports search within the email body, inbox add/delete, and more text formatting, such as bold, italics, etc.
The native Facebook and Twitter applications are both excellent, but you have to download them yourself, they are not included. They offer full access to both services, and function very, very well. Twitter, in particular, has also been baked somewhat into the operating system itself. For example, let's say you're browsing through your photos. In iOS 4, if you wanted to Tweet a photo, you had to open Twitter first, then use the Twitter app's tools to find the photo and send it. With iOS 5 on the iPhone 4S, this feature is built directly into the photo gallery application. Ditto for the browser and other apps.
Facetime is still available and works identically to the version in iOS 4. I find it to be among the easiest video chatting applications to use, but it is limited to chats with other iOS device users (and Mac users) on Wi-Fi only.
If you're interested in AIM, Windows Live, or Yahoo instant messaging, you'll have to go fish in the ocean that is the iPhone App Store.
By now you've seen or read a lot of the funny things that people have asked Siri. We'll spare you that and talk about Siri's practical side.
Siri is the iPhone 4S's voice-activated personal assistant and probably the biggest feature the 4S has to offer above and beyond the iPhone 4. It can be launched in several ways. The first way is to lift the phone to your head as though you're going to make a phone call. The iPhone's sensors detect this motion and proximity to your face, figure out that you're not making a call since you didn't turn the phone on, and launch Siri instead. Or, you can press-and-hold the home button when the phone is asleep to launch Siri.
(Pro tip: if you don't think you'll use method one very much, turn it off and save on battery life. You'll see immediate battery life gains if you do.)
Siri asks, “what can I help you with?” If you want to have fun with Siri, you can certainly do so. But it takes a bit of time to figure out how best to use it (or her).
First, know what you're going to ask. If you pause, or lose your train of thought, the microphone stops listening and you'll have to start all over again. I suggest composing the question in your head before launching Siri.
How does Siri do with its voice recognition? Pretty darned well. You can speak at a natural cadence and even quickly, in a think accent, and Siri will still get a lot right. (You can also dictate text directly into most text fields on the iPhone 4S, such as emails, text messages, and so on.)
I asked Siri to set a calendar appointment for November 2. Siri saw that I already have something on November 2, and asked how I wanted to resolve the conflict. I was able to use Siri to add people who had just called to my contacts, to open web pages, to perform Google searches, to define words, to dictate text messages and emails, and to access the MP3 player and so on. I asked it to tell me when the next solar eclipse will be in my town, why it is so hot outside, what color roses are, and questions that made Siri “blush”.
Siri's usefulness is really only limited by what you choose to ask it. If you ask something that it doesn't know, it will tell you so, and often suggests you perform a basic web search instead.
While it isn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, it is a really neat tool that will only get better over time. Of course, you have to also learn that it is OK to speak with an inanimate object and not feel crazy. I wouldn't want to use Siri out in public, but it's great for composing text messages from my quiet office.
The iPhone 4S and iOS5 continue to offer the absolute best mobile music player experience on any smartphone. Though the user interface of the iPhone 4S's iPod has barely changed since 2007, it is still easier to manage and easier use than all the competition. It can be used to create/edit playlists; sort via artist, genre, album, song; playback podcasts, and more. The iTunes Music Store offers an amazing selection of content that can be purchased directly from the device.
Perhaps its biggest failing (again) is its lack of social integration. You can't share songs with your Facebook or Twitter friends, can't email them to people, and can't see or send recommendations.
Of course, third-party options abound. Spotify, Slacker, Pandora, Last.fm, and Rdio are just a handful of the multitudinous apps available in the App Store.
Syncing video with the iPhone 4S is painless thanks to iTunes and the iTunes Store. Watching movies on the iPhone 4S is satisfying, though (as mentioned earlier) it would be better on a larger display.
iOS 5 has a some tools for sharing video content. First, if you have an Apple TV ($99), you can wirelessly beam any type of content (music, photos, movies) from the iPhone to the Apple TV and onto your HDTV. iOS devices can also stream media back and forth to one another. There's also an HD mirroring mode that allows you to push whatever is on the display of the iPhone to an HDTV. The iPhone does not play with industry-standard DLNA, however. You'll have to stick with Apple's “AirPlay” hardware and accessories for the most seamless experience.
The camera software barely changed between the first iPhone and the iPhone 4. With iOS 5 and the iPhone 4S, there are some welcome new features.
First, the camera can be opened from the lock screen. Double tap the home button when the iPhone is asleep, and the lock screen will let you jump straight to the camera — bypassing even your security code (when you're done, the phone locks back up). The app can also be opened from the home screen application. It pops to life instantly.
As far as shooting tools go, they are still very limited. The "up" volume button now doubles as a physical shutter button, but it is a single stage button (you can still use the on-screen button if you wish). The iPhone 4S offers touch-to-focus so you can make sure your subject is sharp. Using software tools, you can set the flash to auto, on, or off; the HDR to on or off; and turn grid lines on/off. There are separate buttons to switch to the user-facing camera for self portraits, and the video camera. iOS5 now offers pinch-to-zoom for zooming in and out.
The iPhone 4S focuses and captures pictures faster than most other phones I've tested. It's almost instant. Thank goodness.
For the first time, the iPhone offers some on-device photo editing tools. They are limited (very limited) to rotate, crop, red-eye reduction, and a generic "enhance" setting. Still, this is better than nothing. Photos can be shared via email, SMS, and Tweet, as well as sent to a printer, assigned to contacts, or set as wallpaper.
In iOS 5, you can organize photos into galleries, and arrange the galleries to your liking. The galleries show photos in grids. Opening individual photos is a snap, and you can zoom through large galleries with no hiccups, no delays, by swiping. As noted earlier, photos can be shared with other iOS devices and the Apple TV via Wi-FI.
Holy heckfire, the iPhone 4S takes amazing pictures. Not only does the 8-megapixel camera take photos quickly, but it takes photos that are in focus, perfectly exposed, balanced, and warm. I simply couldn't be more impressed by the iPhone 4S's photo quality. It is stunning. It far outclasses even the iPhone 4's excellent camera.
About the only other device that comes even close to producing images are good is the HTC Amaze 4G, but the iPhone 4S still beats it. For casual photography, the iPhone 4S probably outclasses many point-and-shoots, let alone most cell phones. Smile, shoot, and share often.
Ditto for video. The iPhone 4S shoots 1080p HD video, and the clarity and detail is fantastic. I shot some footage of my kids running around and it's the most life-like and accurate video I've ever taken of them. The quality is simply unmatched from a smartphone.
How's the performance? Great. Simply great. It is the fastest Safari browser yet, and paired with AT&T's HSPA network I had nothing but speedy and satisfying browsing experiences.
Customization is definitely one area where iOS lags badly. Yes, you can set (and create) your own ringtones, wallpapers, and alerts; and you can arrange apps/folders on the home screens however you like — but that's about it.
There are no themes, no profiles, no ringer profiles, no third-party widgets, no way to customize the menus and toolbars, and no alternate modes of operation. What you see with the menus and home screens is what you get. That's not to say that you can't make a lot of adjustments, but most of the adjustments are limited to application behaviors more than system/user interface behaviors.
iPhone App Store. 500,000 apps. Do we really need to say anything else here? Go dive in and have fun.
The iPhone 4S supports Bluetooth 4.0 with low energy. That means it's compatible with a yet-to-arrive array of Bluetooth-based sensors such as heart rate monitors, blood sugar monitors, and other health-related doodads that might want to talk to your phone. According to the Bluetooth SIG, the iPhone 4S supports Bluetooth 3.0, as well, but not the 3.0+HS (high speed) profile for fast, wireless device-to-device media transfers. Of course, you can also pair the iPhone 4S with mono and stereo bluetooth headsets. I found audio quality of both to be excellent. Oh, and you can pair with some accessories, such as Bluetooth keyboards.
The iPhone's lock screen hasn't changed much, but it still offers a decent-sized digital clock up at the top that can be used as a watch replacement.
If you're the type to play games in a socially connected way, then Game Center is for you. It supports multi-player over-the-network gaming sessions and serves as a portal to all your gaming needs. it is easy to set up a profile and start engaging with friends (or total strangers, for that matter), and enjoy gaming with others.
The iPhone 4S ships with the same-old version of Google Maps that has been around for years. It works well, but Google Maps on Android has far outpaced it at this point. It works for basic mapping and navigation, and I found the GPS receiver was very accurate, but it lags the competition.
GPS-based location services seem to grow by the day. Be careful about which apps you grant GPS powers to. It feels like every application you install wants to access your location data. Thankfully, it can all be managed with the settings tools.
Apple put a new magazine-consumption app on the iPhone 4S called Newsstand. It works with the App Store and allows you to download and read magazines on your iPhone. There is already a reasonably good number of titles available. Magazines are rated just like applications. Some are free, some are not. Buying and/or subscribing to magazines is painless if you have an iTunes account all set up. I found the experience of reading magazine suffered on the iPhone a bit. Magazine look and feel much better on the iPad, which has much more real estate for magazines to take advantage of.
Reminders is a more powerful version of the age-old To-Do list. It lets you create lists of reminders, lets you check off what's completed and what isn't, set alarms to make sure you don't forget to do them, set priority levels, and so on. It also supports location-based reminders. So, for example, say you have to attend your kid's school play. If you wander past the school, Reminders will notice that and bug you until you remember what you're up to. For the chronically-behind, I suppose it can be helpful.
There's no doubt the Apple iPhone 4S is a fantastic phone, but it isn't for everyone. While it adds some whiz-bang in the form of Siri, the fact that Apple chose to carry-forward last-year's hardware is surely a disappointment to some.
With respect to the performance metrics that count, the iPhone 4S does well. It's the best iPhone for making voice calls yet, showed strong signal and network performance thanks to the fully redesigned antenna, and still has one of the best displays of any phone (though it might be too small for some). I am disappointed by battery life, however.
The media powers of the iPhone 4S are nearly unmatched. The combination of the iPod music player, video player, and iTunes creates an unending catalog of content that can be seamlessly synced between devices. More importantly, the camera and video camera are best-in-class, with excellent performance all around.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment with iOS 5 is its lack of social skills. Apple may have integrated Twitter into some of the base features of the phone, but Facebook is (ultimately) more important. The iPhone 4S's lack of integration with Facebook across vital features such as the contacts application puts it far behind some of the competing platforms.
If you're the type who prefers more customization and control over the software, or needs a more durable device, there are certainly good alternatives out there.
Otherwise, with its excellent browser, vast app selection, attractive build quality, and zippy processor, the iPhone 4S is one of the best phones you can buy.