review We remember the morning of the iPhone 4S announcement quite clearly. Stumbling out of bed at an ungodly hour, blearily navigating between multiple websites that were covering the event as a liveblog, and then shaking our fist at the computer when Apple revealed that it wasn’t launching the revolutionary iPhone 5 that was everyone was expecting.
Looking back on Apple’s iPhone history, a ‘mark II’ release of the iPhone 4 should’ve been expected. But we thought that maybe, just maybe, Apple would’ve changed its planned course following all the ‘super-phone’ releases from its Korean and Taiwanese competitors this year. There is one potentially game-changing technology that Apple has reserved exclusively for the iPhone 4S, though, and that’s the unique new “Siri” voice technology. But is it enough to keep Apple in the lead? Read on to find out.
There isn’t a whole lot to differentiate the iPhone 4S from its predecessor at first, or even second glance. It has the same chemically-strengthened aluminosilicate glass panels on the front and back, stainless steel frame, and 3.5” Retina Display, and it’s available in the same choices of black and white. The only way to tell it’s an iPhone 4S is from the extra antenna notches on the top left and right edges, and the lack of antenna notch on the top – both changes due to the redesigned antenna that’s meant to eliminate the ‘death grip’ problem of the iPhone 4. The new antenna notch on the left has also pushed the mute button a little lower on the iPhone 4S – a change that renders many existing iPhone 4 cases unusable on a 4S.
A case of if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it? Sort of. A year and a bit on, and the iPhone 4‘s original design is still the classiest on the market. The 58.6mm width is a good size for cupping the iPhone securely while using it one-handed, and while the 3.5” display is now pretty small for a high-end smartphone, it still has the the highest-resolution on a smartphone to date at 960 x 640 pixels, which means you can fit more of a webpage into the screen compared to a 4.3” qHD (960 x 540) display. But we still take issue with how easy the glass panels are to smash if you drop the iPhone onto a hard surface – a vulnerability that isn’t helped by the slippery surface on the front and back.
Most of the changes in the iPhone 4S have happened under the hood. It has moved from a single-core 1GHz Apple A4 chipset to the same dual-core 1GHz A5 chipset found in the iPad 2. The five megapixel camera with 720p HD video recording moves up to an eight megapixel camera with 1080p HD video recording, and the maximum storage capacity doubles to 64GB.
But the stand-out feature that Apple is pushing on the iPhone 4S is the Siri voice technology. Apple markets this as a virtual personal assistant that lets you accomplish a range of tasks just by speaking into the earpiece. It may not sound all that impressive at first, but it’s revolutionary in that you don’t have to change the way you speak to use it. It’s smart enough to know that “wake me up in 30 minutes” and “set my alarm for 9.30am” are the same thing, will tell you if an appointment you’re trying to schedule conflicts with an existing appointment, and remembers context.
When Siri does work, it’s pretty amazing. We found it remarkably good at understanding the Australian accent – provided we enunciated our words properly – and it can tie into many of the iPhone’s built-in apps like Messages, Phone, Email and Music to do everyday tasks like telling you when your next appointment is, playing a particular song, or sending a text message or email.
Like a real personal assistant, it remembers key people in your life so you can initiate communication with them by referring to them naturally with phrases like “call my girlfriend” or “send an email to my boss”, and you can ask it to look things up for you over the web or through information sources like Yahoo and WolframAlpha. It’s even got ready responses to a variety of questions like “what is the meaning of life?” and “which smartphone is the best on the market?”, and it can be amusing to hear what Siri replies with. The fact that you can initiate Siri by holding the phone up to your ear (using the proximity sensor) is a nice touch.
But Apple has left local business search and navigation off the cards for now, which cancels out a lot of Siri’s intelligence. The Siri FAQ mentions that maps and local search will be available for additional countries in 2012, but it doesn’t specifically name Australia. Since all of Siri’s number crunching is done server-side, the quality of recognition is meant improve over the time the more you – and other iPhone 4S owners – use it. This also means that you need a network connection (either Wi-Fi or 3G) to use Siri, although there were a couple of instances that Siri couldn’t connect to the network even we had a strong Internet connection.
The iPhone 4S also runs iOS 5 out of the box (available as a free update for other iOS devices), and this introduces more new features than any other software update. There are major new additions, like iCloud, an overhauled notification system, iMessage (for free messaging to other iOS 5 users) and system-wide Twitter support, and there are lots of cool little extras such as custom SMS vibrations and alert tones, text shortcuts and the ability to mirror the iPhone’s display to a HDTV wirelessly using an Apple TV.
For the most part, iCloud finally cuts the ties that the iPhone has to the computer, letting you store all of your information – photos, documents, apps, music, PIM data and backups – in the cloud instead. Users each get a free 5GB of storage (which doesn’t include your purchased content or photos), and you can upgrade this to 10GB, 20B or 50GB. iCloud also ties all of your iOS devices together; any music, ibooks or apps you’ve purchased on any iOS device (as well as iTunes on your desktop computer) or photos you’ve shot can automatically appear on your other devices.
For most things, there’s no speed difference between the iPhone 4S and the iPhone 4. Unlocking the iPhone, launching system apps, returning to the home screen, and bringing up the multi-tasking bar and spotlight search, are all just as fast on an iPhone 4 running iOS 5, and things like scrolling through lists and zooming in and out of pages are equally responsive on both phones.
But there are certain areas where the speed difference is perceptible. The camera is ready to shoot half a second faster than the iPhone 4, and the web browser is faster at rendering complex pages. Loading third party apps and using them is also slightly faster on the 4S, and we’re expecting the performance disparity to increase once app developers start taking advantage of the iPhone 4S’ upgraded chipset.
The quality of the iPhone 4S’ earpiece seems to have improved slightly over the 4; it’s just as loud, but the 4S doesn’t distort voices as much at maximum volume and it sounds just that little bit clearer. The speakerphone seems to have gained another couple of volume levels over the iPhone 4 as well – a welcome improvement, given it used to be too quiet to hear in noisy environments.
The most significant upgrade in the iPhone 4S, in our opinion, is the camera. Apple has added a lot of improvements here, including a next-gen backside-illuminated sensor, a boost to eight megapixels, a better lens with a larger f2.4 aperture, and a beefed up image signal processor. It’s better than the iPhone 4’s camera in every regard, and it even consistently outdid our mid-range compact camera (the Canon SX30IS) with regards to colour accuracy, clarity and dynamic range.
Our first battery test, which we ran the day after we received our review unit, didn’t inspire a lot of confidence in the iPhone 4S’ endurance. From a fully charged battery at 10.06AM, it was down to 10% at 11.18PM that night, and this was with fairly light use throughout the day. But things got better after a few power cycles; when we tried again a week later, the iPhone 4S still had half a tank of gas at 9.33AM after taking it off charge at 10.43AM the previous day.
Is it worth upgrading to the iPhone 4S? Depends on who’s asking. For 3G and 3GS owners, upgrading to the 4S is a no-brainer. As well as significant performance improvements across the board, you actually get a phone that looks different to your old one.
The upgrade path isn’t as clear-cut for iPhone 4 owners. If you want to be able to leave your point-and-shoot camera at home for good, the iPhone 4S is definitely up to the task. But we wouldn’t recommend an upgrade just for Siri. At the best of times, you can do most things just as quickly yourself by launching the relevant app. By the time Siri’s recognition capabilities get better, and business and location data is available in 2012 (assuming Australia is one of the countries that gets it), you may as well just wait for the iPhone 5.
As for everyday users considering an iPhone for the first time, there’s really no better smartphone than the iPhone 4S. It’s easy to use, has the most apps and games, and has an amazingly rich set of features that outdoes any other mobile platform out of the box. Power users will probably still prefer Android due to the platform’s flexibility and wider choice of handsets, but for the vast majority of mobile phone users, the iPhone 4S is the smartphone you should be saving for.
The iPhone 4S is available in Australia on plans through Telstra, Optus, Vodafone, and Virgin Mobile.
Jenneth Orantia turned her back on a lucrative career in law to pursue her unhealthy obsession with consumer technology. She’s known for having at least half a dozen of the latest gadgets on her person at a time, and once won a bottle of Dom Perignon for typing 78WPM on a Pocket PC with a stylus.
Image credit: Apple