The iPhone 4S wasn’t quite what many expected, and to be fair, we did contribute to the iPhone 5 hype by reporting on the various pre-launch rumors, but now the iPhone 4S is here, and it is selling well. The question is: how good is it, and is it for you? While the hardware changes are few, some are significant, and the iPhone 4S has the advantage of using a largely proven design, which is “mostly” compatible with existing accessories. It also has the most apps, and often the best apps. But is that enough to counter a relentless Android eco-system that improves day after day? After the announcement of the Droid RAZR and the Galaxy Nexus, this is a legitimate question.
In this review, I will go over the pros and cons of the iPhone 4S, including the new A5 processor, the low-light camera and of course… Siri, Apple’s virtual assistant. Are you ready? Let’s take the iPhone 4S for a ride.
We all use smartphones differently, so it’s important that I tell you what I do with my smartphone: I typically check my email often with the built-in email app (via Microsoft Exchange), and I reply moderately because the virtual keyboard is slow, even on large displays. I browse the web several times a day to check on news sites, but I rarely watch movies or play music. I don’t call much – maybe 10mn a day, if at all. On the “apps” side, I have a couple of social networks, a receipts manager, but I rarely play games or do something super-intensive. This usage pattern will affect battery life and the perception of what features are useful.
External design (“same same”, excellent)
iPhone 4 legacy: the iPhone 4S looks, and feels, just like an iPhone 4. Although there are minor differences that may make some smartphone cases not compatible (my Belkin transparent case is not compatible for example), both phones feel extremely similar. I don’t think that covering this aspect further will do any good (you like it, or you don’t), except for one aspect: the display size.
Display: For those who aren’t playing with smartphones all the time like we do, you should know that the current trend is going towards larger displays of 4”, 4.3” 4.5” or even 5”. As of now, the iPhone 4S has kept the same 3.5” format than its predecessors, with the same high resolution (960×640) that is still one of the best today. However, 1280×720 pixels displays are scheduled to come out next month, so the sharpness of the the Retina display won’t be so unique anymore.
Resolution aside, the sheer size of the display can be an important factor in the level of comfort of a smartphone. It makes text and virtual keyboard keys bigger and that increases both comfort and productivity, which is why so many iPhone die-hard fans were hoping for a bigger screen. To put it simply, the “one size fits all” design policy of Apple doesn’t quite work anymore. Just like they do with laptops, Apple will eventually have to cater to the needs of their clients who want a larger display.
It’s really up to you to decide which form factor works best for your own usage, but I would strongly recommend looking at larger alternatives – just for the sake of making an informed decision.
Good design sells: a large number of people who want to get the iPhone 4, do so because it is a nice object. We can argue about its size, thickness and even weight, but in the end, it’s only fair to say that despite its age, this is still a beautiful smartphone design, possibly the nicest one out there. The downside of all this glass and metal is that it makes the iPhone 4 much heavier and fragile/brittle than other phones. Look at the iPhone 4S versus Galaxy S2 drop tests, this pretty much says it all.
Display quality: as it has been the case since the iPhone 4, Apple is using an LCD IPS display, which is one of the best out there. It is very bright and has great color accuracy. It’s nemesis, the AMOLED display has superior contrast, but colors are often too saturated (some would say psychedelic), which some people like, while others don’t.
Networks & Carriers (many!)
Sprint: The recent availability of the iPhone 4S with Sprint brings more choices to iPhone users, but the differences can be subtle, so I’ll share with you how I thought of it for myself: AT&T is the legacy carrier, so chances are that many 3G and 3GS users would be tempted to stick with it, to avoid the hassle of changing carriers. However, if your 2-yr contract has expired, there is little downside to switch network.
International GSM for all: AT&T runs on a GSM network, which has been typically been handy when roaming worldwide, and for resale value (as I could resell internationally to someone who would unlock the phone, somehow) – that was my pre-iPhone 4S thinking.
Some iPhone 4S have support for both CDMA and GSM, CDMA users from Verizon and Sprint can roam on GSM networks worldwide so the 4S has changed the game for international travelers.
“Legit” unlocking is now an option: AT&T has clearly stated that it would never unlock any iPhone (this is outrageous, and a mistake), while both Sprint and Verizon have pledged that customers with an account in “good standing” may get a GSM network unlock after 6-months. This means that you can use a foreign SIM card and get cheap rates (voice+data) outside of the USA. That said, U.S GSM networks (basically T-Mobile+AT&T) would still remain out of reach of Verizon+Sprint customers.
To me, this is huge, because this means that I can unlock my phone to use SIM cards worldwide, and even resell my iPhone 4S to a GSM user anywhere in the world, when I’m done with the phone. Obviously, I could also jailbreak my phone to unlock it, but I really dislike the hassle of re-doing this every time I update the OS. The availability of the Jailbreak may also not fall in line with my travel plans…
Data speeds: Finally, I should add that AT&T’s HSPA+ should *in theory* be faster than Verizon and Sprint 3G in terms of peak download performance. However, in my case, the AT&T network if often clogged and within the city of San Francisco and Boston, my experience has been that Verizon’s iPhone 4GS offers a comparable experience with better coverage (using email, some web browsing and Facebook mainly). Results will vary depending on who tested it (and where). Sprint was generally the slowest iPhone 4S network in the independent reports that I looked at.
The iPhone 4S is a 3G phone on Verizon and Sprint, and a 3.5G (HSPA+) phone on AT&T’s network. Remember that with Verizon and Sprint, you cannot use voice and data simultaneously. It is usually not a big deal, but some people really like searching for stuff on the web while carrying a conversation.
T-Mobile USA: network-unlocked iPhone 4S will be available in November, but they unfortunately don’t support the frequency used by T-Mobile to run their HSPA+ “4G” network, so you would be stuck with the older data protocols. In short, it will work, but the network will be slower than it normally would.
Hardware Changes (few)
As the iPhone 4S is just an update of the iPhone 4, there are indeed very few changes in the hardware. The most significant changes are:
The A5 dual-core processor: already used in the iPad, the A5 chip finally made it into a phone. It has an excellent graphics processor (GPU) embedded in it and its two processing cores (CPU) should help speed things up, if applications support multi-threading.
The 8MP camera, and low-light sensor: Although good, the iPhone 4 was getting endangered by phones like the Galaxy S2, which could shot images that are much less noisy. It made sense that the iPhone 4S came with a better sensor, optics and software. Its Omnivision’s OV8830 sensor uses BackSide Illumination (BSI), a sensor-building technique that allows more light to reach the sensing elements. Apple has also changed the aperture (how big the hole is) from 2.8 to 2.4 (lower is better), to let more light come in.
The combination of new sensor and A5 processor allows for 1080p video with some form of digital stabilization, which helps alleviate the tiny shakes from your hand.
Software changes: iOS 5
The iPhone 4S also came with the iOS 5 software update (that you can also get on the iPhone 4, and select older devices). I’ll go over the biggest changes, but keep in mind that older (and cheaper) iPhones also have most of these features, with the notable exception of Siri (more on Siri later).
Notifications (Android-style): the new notification system is a very welcome upgrade from the previous one, which was very intrusive, one. Now, notifications can bet set to appear in a discrete way as banners and lists, or in a blocky way as dialog boxes. I typically use the dialog box for the (rare but most) important notifications, and the list for the frequent, but unimportant notifications.
The good news is that you can choose for each app how notifications will appear. Even better: the “new” list view will seem very familiar to millions of non-iPhone users, because it looks very much like Android’s notification system…
iMessage (great!): while iMessage isn’t really the sexiest new feature, It is one that adds real value to the iOS phones. It works by intercepting SMS messages before they are sent. If the recipient is another iOS phone/device, then Apple routes the message itself and it’s free. If the recipient is not an iOS device, the carrier routes the message as a real SMS and it is billed at the normal rate form your plan.
It is possible to have a hint that the message will be free by looking at the color of the Send button: green=paid SMS, blue=free iMessage. Once the message has been sent, the color coding of the conversation “bubbles” is the same. The advantage of iMessage is that it is dead simple and completely transparent to the user. Nice work!
PC Free: with iOS 5, the iPhone becomes PC-free, which means that you can set it up and use it completely without having to connect it to a PC. This is probably easiest for new users who start from scratch, but current users who sync with iTunes should not have any issues either. If you already have an iCloud backup, you can restore your data over WIFI, however, I got impatient (it can take hours) and preferred the initial USB sync. That’s really up to you.
WIFI Sync (finally): starting with iOS 5, iPhones can sync over WIFI instead of USB. This is just about time, because other platforms had this functionality for some time. It obviously did not prevent iPhones from selling, so we guess that it’s not that big of a deal. Still, it’s a welcome addition.
Siri: amusing, promising, but definitely not “magical”
Because there is so much excitement (or downright craziness) around Siri, I think that it deserves to get a big chunk of text in this review. I think that there is a huge gap between what’s being advertised and unfortunately what’s being reported, and what we’re seeing on the ground. My goal is to provide a realistic picture of what Siri is, and what it can do for you.
What it is: Siri, is a personal assistant, according to Apple. As such, you can talk to it and ask it to perform tasks such as searching for items, adding or modifying calendar items, insert dictated, search for restaurants etc… First of all, Apple has done a great job selling it: I’m seeing people who love it, comment about it and defend it vigorously while they have actually never tried it.
I too, love the… “concept”. But what can you really do with Siri in the real world? Apple has done a terrible job at explaining what exactly you can do with Siri. That’s too bad because Siri can be great for some things, and terrible at others.
How it works: First, it’s important to understand that Siri has 3 components:
2/natural language processing
3/voice synthesizer (text to voice).
Most people are “wowed” by 2, but I would not discard 3 because it’s actually reliable and useful, but unfortunately too limited in its current form (no email/book support).
The first step that Siri takes is to understand the words that you say, which is the “voice recognition” part (#1). There is room for failure here, and Google is probably better at this than Apple. In fact, the Siri creators have said that they were using a 3rd party recognition code. Once the words are understood, it’s time for the “natural language processing”, when Siri tries to actually “understand” what you mean. That’s the real value of Siri.
And it works better than most generic “artificial intelligence” (AI) apps that you may have seen because Siri tries to understand what you say, but in the context of smartphone usage. This is the real Siri trick: because Siri is natural processing language in a very narrow context, it has a better chance of understanding what you want.
(My) measure of success: I measure Siri’s success by comparing how much work (taps) it saves me, or if it can help me do something that I would not have done otherwise (when I’m driving etc…). You may have a different metric. After all, if I’m hiring an assistant, that person should save me time, right? If I have to go back and redo a bunch of things, that would be a poor assistant.
What you can do with it: In my experience, Siri is very good at setting alarms (“wake me up at 10am tomorrow”), calling someone (“call john smith”), initiating a simple web search (“search for used cars”), add calendar items (“add meeting with Joe tomorrow at 11am”). If you love using Siri in other contexts, please add a comment, and share your experience. I’d love to try things, and it will help other users too.
I know that there are tons of videos of someone having a conversation with Siri on the web, but frankly, I find using my smartphone as a “pet” to be a ridiculous idea at best. That said, I don’t judge. There’s nothing wrong with it, if that’s a form of entertainment.
Syntax error: of course, Siri is only as good as the voice recognition and the natural language processing, which form two-layers of stuff that can break. How well Siri understands you will mainly depends on how clearly (from Siri’s standpoint!) you can pronounce your words/phrases. In general, it’s best to use words from the dictionary, and if you use foreign words, foreign names or technical lingo, things will break very quickly. For instance, try to get Siri to understand “Hubert” (pronounced U-bear) and you’ll see what I mean. British/American/Australian accents are logged as separate languages in the settings.
Languages are associated with location: if you want to use a language that is not the country’s main language (ex: you’re an American living in France) you won’t be able to fully exploit Siri’s full potential. Why? because Siri uses 3rd party services (like Yelp, Google and others) to perform the searches it needs. That’s why so few languages are presently available. Every deal with every 3rd party service needs to be signed for every country. That was the main reason why Siri (the company) had a hard time before being bought by Apple.
It is just simpler for Siri (the software) to assume that if you’re using it in French, it’s because you *are* in France. The best way to use Siri today is to speak American English in the USA. That’s where you get the best searches and services.
If you are one of the 30M people who speak Spanish in the USA, there’s no Spanish option yet – and even if there was, none of the connected services are in Spanish, so I’m not sure how that would work anyway.
To be fair, this setup is not completely illogical. If I use Siri in English while being in mainland China, would the Chinese-language results be useful to me as an English speaker? Probably not. That said, Apple should be clear with this kind of details, so that customers can make an informed decision.
Security issue: by default, Siri is setup to be convenient and practical, and that means that you don’t need to unlock the iPhone 4S or enter a password before using Siri. That’s great, but at the same this, this means that someone can get your contacts information from Siri, or send SMS and emails with your account – even when your phone is locked!
To prevent this, you have to go to Settings>General>Passcode Lock and turn Siri OFF. I completely understand the reasons for setting it up as it is because in 90% of the cases it’s not a big deal, but I thought that you should know how to plug this.
Reading… SMS: SMS are the only thing that Siri can read for now (Siri told me when I asked to read my emails), and that’s a bummer because emails would have been darn useful too, but it’s a start. Reading is much more reliable than voice recognition as you are smart enough to figure out when Siri is reading something funny. I’m sure that reading will eventually be extended to apps as well.
I like the “idea” of Siri, but as Apple says, the software is pretty much in “beta”, which means that they are still working on it, and that often mean “don’t criticize it too harshly yet”. Unfortunately, the reality is quite far from the promotional videos, and I think that Apple should do a better job of showing actual usage models, instead of “selling dreams”.
Siri can be genuinely useful down the road, and today I wouldn’t set an alarm or create a calendar appointment without it because it does save a bunch of taps. However, I also know that I may have to go back and correct some comprehension errors that Siri did in the process. If anything, I recommend going to a store to try it for yourself, but make sure that you come up with real, useful tasks to test Siri instead of treating it like a Tamagochi (virtual pet).
iCloud (turbulent start)
With iOS 5, Apple has introduced a new service, called iCloud, which basically allows the synchronization and management of users’ data on Apple’s remote servers. iCloud serves two main purposes: sync and backup your data.
iTunes in the cloud: iOS users have complained about having to tether their iPhones to a computer, and about the fact that iTunes is slow. You can think of iCloud has having the iTunes functionality, but on remote servers (in the cloud). iOS devices are now fully independent devices that don’t need a PC connection. Maybe the “post-PC era” term won’t sound so OFF now.
On one hand, it’s convenient as it can push/pull all data/songs/apps incrementally to all your iCloud devices, on the other hand, it’s a paid service when using more than 5GB of data. Given that the iPhone 4S starts at 16GB, you will quickly form your own conclusion. Fortunately, it’s not an “all or nothing” proposition: you can select which bits (contact, music, backups…) you want in iCloud, and therefore manage your storage needs that way.
OS Integration: Of course, there are many cloud storage services that offer better price/GB, but in the end, none of them will ever have the level of integration with the operating system (OS) that iCloud has. In essence, iCloud is a threat for every cloud services on iOS devices because it is simpler, and better integrated. Note that for computers, iCloud works on Mac and PC (Vista or Windows 7+, XP is not supported).
Shaky start: I can’t honestly talk about iCloud without saying that the initial launch was a bit of a mess, which reminded me of MobileMe, also known as “MobileMess”. It has been reported that Steve Jobs himself said to the MobileMe team that they should be “ashamed of themselves” for creating a product like that.
It has been widely reported that some iPhone users lost content, or got their phones bricked while tried to sync/restore from iCloud. While some of it can be attributed to overloaded servers, this is not an excuse. With a monolithic user base of hundreds of millions of users, should we expect to potentially lose data at each major update? This is very un-Apple like, and I hope that a service that claims to be a “backup” service will do better in the future.
Remote Management: iCloud also replaces MobileMe and lets you find and wipe your lost device from a web interface. I hope that you never have to use it, but when you lose a device, it’s a small consolation to know that you data has been wiped.
During our totally non-scientific surveys, we have found that most users we talk to like to use these “killer apps”, so no smartphone reviews can proceed without checking how they work.
Maps: The mapping experience is very decent, and it is similar to the iPhone 4. The peak performance may be faster with HSPA+ (“4G” with AT&T) and the maps may be drawn a bit faster thanks to the dual-core processor, but overall, my experience is very comparable to the iPhone 4.
When the original iPhone came out, it had the best Google Maps experience in the mobile world. Now that Google is a direct competitor, the collaboration between the two companies isn’t what it used to be (to say the least!) and Google Maps on iPhone had been lagging. The result is that the iPhone mapping experience, while good, is inferior to Android’s. There are three things that I want to see on my iPhone 4S:
*Voice directions: this is a free Android-only feature that can be replicated on iPhone 4 only with the acquisition of expensive navigation apps – unless you think that Mapquest for iPhone is good enough (which it isn’t).
*Map caching: Google Labs has an option to cache the maps for a whole city, which is great for performance, and when the network is not available. You can also cache maps for several cities.
*Access to my places in Google Maps: during my previous trips, I have created custom Google Maps that features places that I have saved. I can access them on an Android phone, but not on the iPhone.
In the end, it seems like Apple should have its own mapping system, because relying on its #1 competitor for this functionality is just not going to work in the long run. It will be nice for Apple users to have those features, even if the back-end is not Google Maps but something else. [Google Maps official blog]
Skype: There’s no change here. The Skype experience is very similar to the iPhone 4’s. Skype may be a little snappier, but I have not noticed something much different from the iPhone 4. Normally, you should benefit from the better camera light sensitivity in dark conditions, but don’t expect the video quality to improve much even over WIFI on a local network, the receiving party still had a fairly blurry image. In short, you can tell that this is Skype on a mobile.
Email : With iOS 5, formatting has become a bit fancier as you can now use Bold, Italic, Underline and mark text as being a quote. Messages can also be flagged (at last), and there are minor mailbox/account management features, but none of those are important on a daily basis.
The iOS support for email and Exchange is good, but the Blackberry platform remains the best one for hardcore email users. After Blackberry, I really like the Windows Phone 7 email experience, and finally iOS and Android can fight for which will be last. The good news is that most users will find the experience to be good enough for their usage, and only high-productivity seekers will be picky on this one.
Web Browsing : The web browsing itself hasn’t changed much, but with iOS 5, it is now possible to save a page to the Reading List for offline reading. Other than that, it’s pretty much the same than what we had on iOS 4.x. Normally, the web browsing experience should be a bit faster, but I couldn’t really tell in real-world usage – probably because the data download remains the main performance roadblock.
As you may know, Flash isn’t supported on iOS. While it doesn’t bother me too much, it may be an issue for many people who go on websites that are flash-based, or provide flash content that is not available in HTML5 format. It really depends on your habits, so take a minute to think about this. At least, we’re getting some good Flash humor out of the whole situation.
While the screen resolution makes everything very sharp, it’s so small that it’s not always readable, at least not comfortably, because letters can be so small.
Virtual Keyboard: the virtual keyboard hasn’t changed one bit. Overall, I really like its responsiveness, but it is very small (due to the screen size), so it is in general not as comfortable to use as larger touch phones.
On Android, the virtual keyboard quality can vary widely, so it’s hard to generalize, but phones like the LG Optimus 3D have very fast keyboards, while others may have slower ones. Note that real-time corrections or suggestions may get in the way and slow things down considerably on Android.
I still consider the Windows Phone 7 virtual keyboard to be the best one in the industry. It is extremely responsive and does a great job at guessing what you’re trying to type.
Facebook: Although the Facebook app has gotten faster and better recently, it has nothing to do with the handset itself but rather with Facebook’s internal code improvements . You will benefit from the same improvements with the iPhone 4 and earlier models. Right now, this is still the best version of Facebook overall, but if you are a hardcore Facebook user, I would encourage you to look at the Windows Phone 7 integration as it is extremely good. [Facebook for iPhone]
Photography / Video (excellent)
Full size photos of this section are available on our Ubergizmo Flickr account.
Less noise: The new camera of the iPhone 4S is undoubtedly one of the highlights of this new device. As it stands, it is simply the best one that I have seen on a mobile device, even surpassing the Galaxy S2, which was already very good. Of course, the new sensor and larger aperture are a big part of it, but don’t underestimate how important the software is too.
When compared to the iPhone 4, there’s no question that the iPhone 4S performance is better. This may not be very obvious if you are just using photos on the web (800×600 or less), but images are much less noisy than they are on the iPhone 4 (they were very noisy), and the iPhone 4S’s HDR capabilities help make the gap with the Galaxy S2 even more noticeable in difficult lighting situation.
1080p video: In terms of video, the 1080p capture is very clean, but with all the hype, I had been expecting the stabilization to be better. Yet, this is the best that I have seen on a mobile phone as well. I think that the Galaxy S2 is very close, but the iPhone 4S may have a slight light sensitive advantage on this one.
In any case, imaging is one of the best improvement from the iPhone 4. I don’t really care about megapixels, but the additional light sensitivity and larger aperture did get the job done. The 1080p video recording can exploit this without any issue. If you really care about imaging, this is actually a good reason to jump from the iPhone 4.
Night vision? Does the iPhone 4S camera see in the dark? Not really. In fact, in terms of luminosity, it’s a bit better than the iPhone 4, but don’t expect any miracles, the main improvement is that low-light photos will be a bit brighter, not too grainy, and sharper. That’s already pretty good!
Music, video (huge library): Given that iTunes is the largest music retailer in the world, and that there are scores of content available, getting “legit” content is certainly not a problem with Apple. Using content coming from a computer may be more complicated, however. If you want to copy videos, you have to find a format that iTunes will like, or maybe you can find an app that will play more formats. In any case, iOS is usually less tolerant than Android on this topic. I have some files here that iTunes just won’t accept.
When it does, it can play 1080p files without any problems, and with iOS 5, I can even play them back on the big TV via Apple TV. In terms of image quality, the high-resolution IPS display offers a very crisp image, which is great – but the screen may be a bit small for watching movies, at least, that’s my take.
Gaming (plentiful and fast!): in terms of gaming, iOS has a very furnished library, so finding games is pretty easy, and even the most demanding game in the store should run very smoothly on the iPhone 4S, for two reasons:
1/ the iPhone 4S has a very fast graphics processor, which is many times faster than the iPhone 4’s
2/ in general, game developer want to make sure that games work well even on older-generation hardware, and you’re unlikely to find a lot of game that push the iPhone 4S to its limits. Here are a few: Infinity Blade II (not released yet), Real Racing 2 (available), Shadowgun [store link], Galaxy on Fire 2 HD.
However, the new hardware is still useful for existing games: games that run at 25/30FPS on an iPhone 4, can run at 60FPS on an iPhone 4S. Infinity blade is a good example. I’m certain that many games will now run at the maximum frame rate (60fps). In the longer term, this is really good news because developer will start thinking about games that are way beyond current capabilities.
External speaker quality (very good): in terms of sound quality, the iPhone 4S remains among the top phones, side by side with the LG Optimus 2X and the Motorola Atrix. If you are careful not to block the speakers with your fingers, you should be able to enjoy a powerful and clear sound – for a mobile, of course.
When talking about the performance of a consumer electronics device, I always try to separate the “measured” and “perceived” performance. Measured metrics are obtained by running synthetic (not always life-like) benchmarks to stress specific parts of the system.
On the other hand, “perceived” performance is the user observation and perception of performance. Although they should correlate, I would always place perceived performance as being the most important one. After all, what is performance good for if you can’t tell?
IE Fishtank: this is an HTML5 graphics test, and it shows that both iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S are doing very well. Back in the days, the iPhone 4S wouldn’t even run this test, so this reveals how much Apple has improved HTML support for its phones. After all, they need it as they don’t support Adobe Flash.
Geekbench is a better CPU metric, and here we can see that the iPhone 4S about almost 2X faster than the iPhone 4. This is mainly due to its dual-core nature, but don’t forget that few apps actually use multiple cores, so software support will definitely be something to keep on your radar.
Linpack: is another CPU metric, and shows that in some tasks, the new A5 processor can be 4X as fast. Again, these are synthetic numbers, so take them with a grain of salt.
Finally, GLBenchmark Pro 2.1 Offscreen is a gaming graphics test. Although clearly not as good as a real game, this test offers an interesting insight into graphics performance. This test reaches the “7X faster” level that Apple has been advertising on their website, so there is clearly a basis for their claim. Unfortunately, most games are optimized for iPhone 3GS, but you will still benefit from the new hardware in the form of faster frame rate (usually 2X), which is always cool (I love 60FPS).
Interestingly, I find the perceived performance difference to be lower than I expected. That’s partially because iOS has always been fast with scrolling, keyboard etc, so most of the day-to-day things that I do with the phone feel the same than on my iPhone 4.
When you start using games (most hit the 60FPS mark now, which is great!), or demanding apps like photo or video processing, you should see a sharp increase in performance. Again, it comes down to the software. Note that iOS 5 has noticeably slowed down my iPhone 4 for normal tasks, so this is something that should be taken into account as most people will upgrade at some point.
Battery life (lower than iPhone 4)
Update 10/28: I have noticed that the iPhone 4S consumes more battery than the iPhone 4 in standby mode. I’m not sure what’s behind that, but there are a few theories that I’d like to investigate. This is something that was not obvious during the initial test, but I’ll recommend caution until I can pinpoint the cause – hopefully early next week. In yesterday’s tests, in 9hrs of stand by, the iPhone 4S lost 16% of battery life, while the iPhone 4 lost only 2%. Standby time is very important because most of the time, you phone is in standby mode.
Update 10/31: After running more overnight depletion tests, I have more details to share: In my case, the background apps seem to have caused the huge difference (14%) in overnight depletion, and that’s why I didn’t notice such a difference the first time. If I kill all the background apps on both phones, the difference is reduced to about 4% over a 8-9 hours period, which is not too bad from my point of view.
Remember that battery life will vary considerably depending on what applications you are using, but because iOS has a relatively limited multitasking, it is also good a clamping down on background apps.
As a result, I don’t need to babysit apps and features as much as I would do with an Android phone. Also despite what both Apple and Google say, you do have to mind about the background apps. The mere fact that they are launched, even in the background, means that they occupy memory and the OS does need to spend a bit of time just to check on them. Someone who doesn’t mind about background apps can end up with dozens open, and when it comes to power, every bit counts.
Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t provide any means of quickly closing all the background apps. Samsung does on its recent phones, but this is not yet a standard feature on Android either, but Android has 3rd party apps for that.
Conclusion (very good)
To make a long story short, the iPhone 4S is about the camera, the processor speed and Siri. You can get all the other software features on an iPhone 4. The extra speed is pretty awesome when it comes to gaming but for more ordinary tasks, it is not as perceptible as the benchmark numbers would lead you to believe.
The iPhone 4S is a solid smartphone, and it is still the design leader (in my view), even if designs from competitors like Samsung are quickly becoming great as well. To me, the most important iPhone 4S changes are really the camera and the fact that Verizon and Sprint users can now roam free on GSM networks worldwide, this is great for selling the phone in a few years too. Few other phones let you do that.
The lack of 4G LTE is a disappointment, and this will certainly come back to bite Apple’s in the behind, because LTE can play a key role in the overall user experience. (For more, read our 4G networks story)
Hardware-wise, the iPhone 4S will be outgunned by Android phones that are coming out in weeks (Galaxy Nexus, Motorola RAZR). The iPhone 4S is just powerful enough to catch-up to, and slightly get ahead of, the Samsung Galaxy S2 which came out in April/May of 2011, but Android phones will steadily rise in power until the iPhone 5 actually comes out.
So… should you get it? It depends. Here are a few typical situations that you may be able to relate with:
- I own a iPhone 3G/3GS, I like Apple products, and my 2-yr contract is over
- You are the perfect customer for an iPhone 4S.
- I own an iPhone 4, and I wonder if I should upgrade
- Unless you have a good reason to upgrade, don’t. Overall, the iPhone 4 experience is very close, even if the 4S processor is faster in synthetic benchmarks. The camera or the GSM unlock are the only reason why I would upgrade from an iPhone 4. You can get almost everything else by simply upgrading to iOS 5. Just wait it out.
- I’m hesitating between the Galaxy S2 and the iPhone 4S
- I know! I get that question a lot. I’ll do another post for this, but frankly, you should really be waiting for the Galaxy Nexus and upcoming Android phones. They’re out next month! The Galaxy S2 is a great phone too, and the only downside is the slightly shorter battery life. Read my Galaxy S2 review!
- I really want LTE on the iPhone, what’s next?
- Me too… unfortunately, I’m assuming that Apple found the battery life to be too challenging for now. I believe that this may come back to haunt them as (thin) 4G LTE handsets start to appear, like the RAZR or the Galaxy Nexus, but we don’t know yet if those phones have the LTE “battery curse”.
- I’m a professional who uses the iPhone’s camera for work, is it worth the upgrade?
- Yes. If you use this device’s camera in your work because you take photos or videos on the go, it’s worth it.
- I travel internationally a lot, and I want to use foreign SIM cards
- The iPhone 4S with Verizon and Sprint will get the job done! Remember that they are locked by default, and that the GSM-unlock process is a courtesy from the carrier.
- Should I wait for the iPhone 5?
- Well, it may come out in March, or it may come out in June, nobody knows for sure, we it’s almost certain that it is well under way. My advice is: buy technology when you need it, not when you want it :)
I tried to cover the most important aspect of the iPhone 4S, but if you have more questions, please drop a comment, and I’ll try to address them ASAP. I know that this review came out a bit later than usual, but I wanted to book enough use time with the phone. I’d rather publish a useful review than rush for the initial traffic spike. Hopefully this will help readers for the next year or so.
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