iPhone 4S in-depth review: don’t judge this book by its cover – Cell Phones & Mobile Device Technology News & Updates

Just two weeks ago, CEO Tim Cook took the stage to reveal Apple’s latest smartphone, the iPhone 4S. as you have likely heard, much was made about the “disappointment” many expressed in reaction to the announcement. there is no refreshed design, no larger screen, no LTE, and no elongated home button. Those changes could still be in the oven, but we certainly won’t be seeing them in 2011. what the 4S does bring, however, is not to be underestimated. How does it all add up? Read on.

The first thing that you’ll notice about the iPhone 4S is just how familiar it looks. if you never turned it on, you wouldn’t see a single difference between it and its predecessor. that means you have the same steel antenna sandwiched between a glass front and glass back. that also means you get the same 960×640, 3.5 inch display, which, at 330ppi, still has the highest pixel density of any phone on the market.

A5 processor

Once you get past the initial familiarity of its exterior, you’ll quickly realize that the iPhone 4S is a different beast from the iPhone 4. It’s not a radically-different beast, mind you, but it’s more mature than its predecessor and roars in places where the i4 merely purred. this, of course, comes from the dual-core A5 processor. the iPhone 4S follows the iPad 2 as the second dual-core iOS device from Apple.

I was expecting a moderate boost in speed, but was still taken aback at just how snappy the 4S is. having used many dual-core phones and tablets over the past several months, I was still pleasantly surprised at the zippiness of the iPhone 4S. we know that the A5 will allow the 4S to better handle intensive tasks, but it just may be the execution of the more ordinary tasks that make the biggest difference.

But those more intensive tasks are coming as well. Gaming promises to be improved with the A5, though there isn’t much to test it with at this point. A couple of recent Gameloft titles, Shadow Guardian and 9mm, which could get a little choppy at times on the iPhone 4, played much smoother on the 4S.

Infinity Blade 2, which was announced at the 4S event, will be arriving in December and will take advantage of the dual-core processor and upgraded GPU of the A5. Rockstar Games is also releasing the PC/console classic Grand Theft Auto III on both the 4S and the iPad 2 sometime soon. These two games will certainly give us a better chance to see how much the A5 can advance iPhone gaming.

iOS 5

Much has already been made of iOS 5, which we covered in-depth at its launch last week. the update adds a dramatically-improved notifications system, a data-only messaging system for iOS users (iMessage), Reminders, system-wide Twitter integration, and iCloud. iOS 5 is Apple’s biggest update since the firmware’s inception in 2007.

Of course all iOS devices from the last couple of years can update to iOS 5, but the iPhone 4S and the iPad 2 were made to run it. while there is nothing particularly problematic about running iOS 5 on the iPhone 4, the 4S’ blazing speed brings the latest update to life in ways that its predecessor never can.

Apps open instantly, home screen folders are revealed without the slightest hesitation, web pages pan and zoom in real-time, and the Notification Center slides down without a trace of lag. Even the zippier lockscreen sliding and unlocking adds to the overall experience. the iPhone 4 runs iOS 5 well, but the iPhone 4S runs it in turbo mode, and you are left with the sense that you can do anything on your phone with blazing speed.

AT&T’s HSPA+ 14.4

While the Verizon and Sprint iPhone 4S get typical 3G download speeds, AT&T has faster theoretical downloads on the 4S. Apple went agnostic about whether it could be labelled as “4G” in their presentation, but AT&T (unsurprisingly) wants to stamp the fourth G onto their iPhone with a status bar icon. 3G+ would probably be a more accurate way to describe it, but the iPhone 4S on AT&T does at least have the potential to deliver significantly faster data speeds than the CDMA version.

AT&T’s iPhone 4S does use the same HSPA+ connection as other devices on their network that have been labelled “4G,” so at least they’re being consistent. the original Motorola Atrix 4G, the LG Thrill 4G, and the HTC Inspire 4G should all get about the same speeds as AT&T’s iPhone 4S will. that means theoretical download speeds of 14.4Mpbs, though many (or most?) will find their downloads indistinguishable from traditional 3G.

I tested the iPhone 4S on AT&T’s network in Chicago. Though the download speeds didn’t reach anywhere near the 14.4Mbps that was advertised, they were still higher than any iPhone download speeds I’ve seen. as you can see to the left, I averaged over 4Mbps down, which is roughly two to three times faster than what I typically got on both AT&T’s and Verizon’s iPhone 4. others in different parts of the US have reported downloads of 7Mbps or more.

Is it anywhere near the 14.4Mbps that Apple and AT&T are boasting? Not for me, and probably not for you either. can it hold a candle to the LTE that a growing bushel of Android phones offer? No way. still, it is a significant advantage that GSM carriers like AT&T have with the 4S. the extra speed should allow you to do things on the go like watch YouTube videos, load web pages, and talk to Siri a little faster than you could on any other iPhone.

World Phone

In addition to the faster GSM downloads, the iPhone 4S also brings world phone capabilities. this means that each iPhone 4S sold has the hardware to handle both CDMA and GSM networks. So if you’re on a US CDMA network, and visit Europe, you can buy a pre-paid SIM card for a local GSM network, pop it in your iPhone, and avoid roaming fees.

An off-contract, unlocked model isn’t supposed to be available from Apple until November, but some have reported that they are already receiving this model when paying full retail for an iPhone 4S. this version won’t support CDMA networks, as they are rare outside of the US.

There has been some confusion as to how much traveling will actually be possible on contract versions of the 4S. Sprint’s PR team tossed out a real doozy last week, when they said that their model wouldn’t be unlocked for international SIM cards. then they tried to further explain it, and we ended up with something along the lines of “it’s unlocked now, but then we’ll lock it, and if you’re good, we’ll unlock it again.” the lesson here? if you’re a heavy traveler who dwells in the US, you might want to sign with AT&T, or simply get the unlocked model.


The iPhone 4S camera gets a huge upgrade over its predecessor. Though it “only” supported 5MP shots and 720p video, many found it to be competent enough to become their primary camera (as evidenced by its becoming the most-used camera on Flickr). the 8MP rear shooter in the 4S, however, easily trumps its predecessor, and unless you have professional DSLR equipment, it will likely take better pictures than any other camera you own.

The camera in the iPhone 4S is so good that, if it were the only new feature of the 4S, I would still consider upgrading. the most dramatic difference is with shots that are taken in low-to-medium lighting. the iPhone 4 struggled in these situations, but the 4S takes a gargantuan step forward. Take the example below, of two shots in medium indoor lighting, without the flash:

The iPhone 4 (left) struggled to find balance with the TV screen in the background, and the subject is too dark, slightly green, and washed out. But with the 4S (right), it’s much brighter, colors are vivid, and details are sharp. this is due to the new f/2.4 aperture, which lets in more light, and the hybrid infrared filter, which leads to more accurate colors.

Below is an unedited photo of the same subject taken with the iPhone 4S under better lighting:

Here are more examples of untouched iPhone 4S photos (these by Apple):

Still shots, however, aren’t the only specialty of the 4S’ camera. it takes much higher-quality video than the iPhone 4 as well. the updated model is capable of taking 1080p video, up from the 720p that the iPhone 4 managed. the sample below was shot on a 4S by Benjamin Dowie.

The camera’a controls also get an upgrade on the 4S. You can now pinch-to-zoom in the camera app, and it will detect up to ten faces and adjust the exposure accordingly. the A5 processor also gives the camera a boost, as you can have the camera app open and ready much faster than ever. in my tests, I was able to go from a locked state, with the screen off, to having snapped a photo in just over three seconds (iOS 5′s new lockscreen camera controls also help with this). Shots can be taken in near-rapid fire secession too.

What all of this adds up to is that the iPhone now doubles as a stellar camera for most amateur photographers. if the iPhone 4 took mediocre indoor shots and very good outdoor shots, then the iPhone 4S takes very good indoor shots and outstanding outdoor shots. it, along with recent Android phones like the Samsung Galaxy S II, is ushering in a new era of smartphone cameras. if you are planning on getting the iPhone 4S and still own a point-and-shoot camera, you might find yourself posting it on eBay soon.


The upgraded camera alone might be worth an iPhone 4S upgrade for some, but Siri is the killer feature that has the potential to change the way we interact with our devices. as I’m writing this article in my office, the iPhone 4S chimed with a text message. I didn’t want to take it out of its speaker dock, so I asked Siri to read the message. it (or she?) read the message out loud, and I replied in kind, all without undocking the iPhone or even looking at the screen. A long press on the home button was the only physical contact I had with the phone.

This is just one example of the kinds of capabilities that Siri adds. it blurs the line between voice recognition and artificial intelligence, and allows you to use your iPhone by talking to it. Things you can do include: reading/replying to emails and text messages, setting reminders, planning meetings, locating your friends, getting maps/directions (no voiced turn-by-turn navigation though), checking the weather, and much more. that list is likely to grow over the next several years, but this initial release of Siri is an outstanding – and remarkably fun – addition to the platform.

If this all sounds familiar, it may be because Siri used to be a third-party App Store app. Apple bought the company that made it in 2010, and got to work on evolving and integrating the technology. Though the app was updated a few times after being purchased by Apple, don’t make the mistake of thinking that the App Store version and the iPhone 4S are even remotely the same thing. the older version was much more limited, and it also didn’t talk to you. perhaps most significantly, it didn’t have access to stock iOS apps, like Messaging, Mail, Weather, and Calendar. this is one of Siri’s biggest strengths, and it’s going to grow by leaps and bounds as more third-party apps are eventually integrated.

You might be wondering where you might actually use Siri. Sure, it’s fun, but does it serve any practical purpose? With Siri, drivers will be able to manage many core functions of their iPhones, without even taking their eyes off of the road. the same could go for joggers, gym rats, or those answering a quick question while working. Even those who are in a situation where they could use their touchscreen may find it quicker, easier, and more natural to use Siri instead. it lets you continue to do something else, while casually performing tasks that used to require your full attention.

Siri also finally brings voice dictation to iOS, in the form of a microphone on the keyboard (much like on Android). if the iPhone has a glaring weakness, it’s that it still exclusively uses the same tap-only keyboard that it sported four years ago. Siri’s voice dictation addresses that weakness, and gives you a way to quickly produce text.

The voice recognition in Siri isn’t perfect. if you catch yourself articulating your words too casually, it can make frequent mistakes. it doesn’t, however, require a drawn-out, over-articulated, robotic speech. But you do need to pay some attention to your clarity. if you have a thick accent, you may also run into some trouble. Those concerned about this may want to try Siri in a store before upgrading.

With that said, Siri’s biggest strength is that it allows you to speak in casual language. Apple’s Siri team has done a phenomenal job of adding simple, casual speech to “her” repertoire. For example, when Siri asks if you’re ready to send a text message, you can reply “Yes,” but you can also say “Yep,” “Sure,” “Yeah,” or “go ahead.” this leads to the illusion of a conversation, and is the greatest accomplishment of today’s Siri. it makes Apple’s A.I. not only a standout iPhone addition, but a revolutionary smartphone feature that can fundamentally change how we do things.

Summing Up

You could make a long list of things that we thought the next iPhone might be, but that the iPhone 4S isn’t. After last year’s huge iPhone 4 update, many thought we’d be getting annual redesigns from now on. But when you forget about what the iPhone 4S isn’t, you realize that what it is is a much-improved version of an already-amazing phone.

Should you upgrade to the iPhone 4S? if your contract is up for an upgrade, and you know you want an iPhone, then this is absolutely the one to get. while the 8GB iPhone 4 is a great buy at $100, it’s well worth the extra $100 to get Siri, probably the best camera you’ve ever had, and a ridiculously-fast smartphone.

If you’re in the middle of an iPhone 4 contract and are tempted to pay full retail ($700) or switch carriers and rack up an early termination fee, then it’s harder to justify. it isn’t a fundamentally-altered experience from the iPhone 4, so it will depend how much you’d appreciate the speed, improved camera, and Siri A.I. Those who are itching for those features may well find it worth the extra cost, should their budget allow it.

Those torn between the iPhone and any one of the many Android super-phones will want to ask a few questions. if you want the fastest data speeds, then a Verizon LTE handset is the obvious choice. if a large screen is your thing, you’ll also want to go Android. if you’re more of a “more is more” kind of person, then the spec sheets of the Droid Bionic or Nexus Prime will likely make you salivate.

The iPhone, however, is perfect for those wanting the most seamless, hassle-free, simplified smartphone experience out there. in typical Apple fashion, it emphasizes simplicity, user-friendliness, and slickness over brawn, customizability or cutting-edge download speeds. Aside from the aforementioned screen girth and data speeds, the iPhone 4S also offers performance that matches or outweighs any top-of-the-line Android phone (at least for now).

As far as which carrier to choose, that will also depend on your wants. if you’re looking for optimal data speeds, then AT&T is the smart choice (just don’t expect a dramatic difference). if you don’t mind paying more for excellent coverage, then look at Verizon. if unlimited data is what you desire, then Sprint is the way to go.

My final suggestion, when approaching the iPhone 4S, is to wipe your brain of all of the over-the-top rumors that we sifted through during the last year. Forget what you thought the iPhone would be, and you just might find yourself looking at an iPhone that is every bit as “magical” as any device you’ve ever used.