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Apple iPhone 4S Review

MobileReviews
by Sascha Segan, 07 May 2012Reviews

What do you do with your phone? If you're like most people, you make some calls, take some photos, and send some texts. Maybe you kill time with some games, check Facebook or Twitter, and look things up on the Web. If that's you, then the iPhone 4S is your phone: it's the best cameraphone, the fastest Web-browsing phone and one that has finally licked the iPhone's calling problems

Physical Features and Call Quality

The phone comes in six models: 16GB, 32GB and 64GB, in black or white. The 16GB model comes in at £499 without a contract, and each additional storage option bumps the price up by £100.

The iPhone 4S looks almost exactly like an iPhone 4. The only way to tell them apart is in the fine print on the back. It's still a work of art, an improbable black (or white) glass slab with a metal band around it, cool and hard in the hand. Other phone-makers imitate, but none of them have pared their phones down to this pure industrial solidity.

Of course, with the 4's body come some of its flaws. The glass front and back are prone to cracking if dropped frequently; I've seen more cracked iPhones than any other variety of device. And while Apple considers the 3.5in Retina Display perfect (and it's gorgeous), I personally find the virtual keyboard too small to easily type on when it's in portrait layout.

Apple has killed the "death grip," at least on the Sprint model. The phone switches between its top and bottom antennas depending on which one is receiving better signal, which means it'll ignore whichever one you're covering with your hands. I was able to get data speeds to drop by gripping the phone from both ends in a bizarre two-handed clench, but really, nobody uses a phone that way.

Call quality through the phone's earpiece was excellent in my tests. The earpiece goes loud, there's a touch of side tone, and I didn't hear any distortion at high volumes. Transmissions through the mic were sadly rather tinny, but they were perfectly loud and the mic blocked background noise very well. The speakerphone is fine for indoor use, but not loud enough to use outdoors; transmissions through the speakerphone were very clear.

The iPhone 4S paired easily with an Aliph Jawbone Era Bluetooth headset, and I found that by pressing the button on the headset, I could issue an unusually wide range of voice commands. The Bluetooth headset also worked for music.

The iPhone 4S got 7 hours, 33 minutes of 3G talk time and it delivers on Apple's promise of longer battery life - as long as you have strong wireless signal.

Internet and Web Browsing

The iPhone 4S is strictly a 3G phone. But pour some data into this baby, and wow, it'll go. As long as Adobe Flash isn't a key part of your life, the iPhone 4S is the fastest Web phone ever. The great browsing speed comes in part from the new iOS 5, which we found made browsing much faster on all iPhones. It also comes in part from the dual-core A5 processor, the same one used in the iPad 2. There aren't a lot of third-party apps that take advantage of the dual-core processor and new GPU yet, but it's key to some of the phone's best experiences, such as the 1080p camera, AirPlay video streaming to Apple TV devices, and the browser.

iOS 5 and Siri

iOS 5 is huge. It deserves its own review, and it has one. As with so much else about the iPhone 4S, the theme with iOS 5 is that it makes things better and faster without changing iOS's controlling paradigms. Almost every app has been improved somewhat, not to mention integrated with iCloud. But you're still jumping between strictly sandboxed apps that don't share information well. I've always been annoyed at how iOS can't integrate Facebook calendars or contacts into its address book and calendar apps, for instance.

Siri is unique to the iPhone 4S, though; you can't get it with iOS 5 on other devices. On the surface, Siri appears to be a voice-command app. Hold down the home button and ask it a question, tell it to look up a number, make a note or search for a business. Siri is also supposed to work using the phone's proximity sensor by just raising the phone up to your head, but I found that failed at least a quarter of the time. Siri works really well with a Bluetooth headset, although you often have to look at the screen to see results.

But here's the real story with Siri: it's not an app, it's a service. The intelligence is on the server side, and it will improve. No actual processing is done on your phone. That means Siri doesn't work when you're offline, but it also means it can be continually upgraded, minute by minute, without touching your individual device.

For instance, Siri can calculate tips, but doesn't understand the phrasing "split X ways." If it gets enough failed queries with that phrasing, Apple's Siri team will add it to the vocabulary.

I am concerned about one thing, and that's the famous "egg freckles" problem. I'm a pretty clear speaker, but several times, Siri misunderstood what I was saying. It took "a hundred and twenty five dollars" for "eight hundred and twenty five dollars." And it failed with my own name, my sister's name, my mother's name, and the band "Matt & Kim" (as it doesn't recognise the ampersand as being the word 'and'.) I could get it to recognize my name by pronouncing it as "saaaas-cha" rather than "sah-shuh," but that's just not how my name is pronounced! Since Siri is a service rather than an app, though, I expect that will improve.

I might as well also mention that Apple has the best app store in the business, with hundreds of thousands of high-quality, easily searchable apps for every desire. The wealth of commercial GPS apps, for instance, more than make up for the lack of free voice navigation on the phone, and there are more great games for this platform than for any other mobile OS.

I played Need for Speed Underground on this phone, and it was easy to control thanks to the high graphics frame rates afforded by the new GPU. I also played Galaxy on Fire 2 HD, one of very few games optimized for the A5 processor. It pushes a tremendous number of pixels, very smoothly. It's safe to say the A5 with the iPhone 4S's screen will enable Retina gaming, where game graphics are almost too detailed and realistic for the eye to perceive.

Camera

Apple addresses the two biggest problems with camera phones: speed and dynamic range. The camera has a larger sensor, a larger five-element lens, and a larger f/2.4 aperture than the iPhone 4, along with a backside illuminated sensor and an IR filter to improve colours. The camera app loads in under two seconds, and it takes most photos instantly. I only occasionally ran into about half a second of autofocus delay.

Outdoor shots are uniquely well-balanced. On most cameraphones, a bright background-a bright sky, for instance-is either blown out, or renders the entire foreground dark. Not here. The iPhone 4S has enough dynamic range to capture outdoor shots as attractively as a pocket digital camera. In extreme situations, you can also kick in the HDR mode, but I didn't find it necessary.

Low-light performance was also very good. Images appeared brighter than on competing cameras, though they weren't entirely immune to low-light blur. The iPhone has a standard LED flash, as well.

The video camera takes 1080p video at roughly 30 frames per second, indoors and out. It has image stabilisation, which works very well outdoors, but was shakier in my low-light video. There's a VGA camera on the front that takes sometimes-noisy photos, but can handle low light well. It's obviously for quick social-networking self-shots and FaceTime chatting.

The camera has no options, though. Most importantly, there's no way to take photos or record videos at reduced resolution to save space. This can be a real issue with the 1080p video, which clocks in at about 180MB per minute. Most people don't need that resolution; my MacBook Pro's screen isn't big enough for it!

Verdict

The iPhone 4S makes simple tasks easy and does them very well. It takes excellent photos quickly. It connects clear calls. It plays great games. It displays Web pages well. And it has Siri, an intriguing voice-command system that, like Motorola's Webtop technology, is clearly just at the very beginning of a long and interesting life.

The iPhone 4S brings most people what they want, very elegantly. For that, it's worthy of our Editors' Choice. The iPhone 4S is a no-brainer upgrade from the 3GS. For iPhone 4 owners, I think it really comes down to how much you need the improved camera

Pros: Excellent Web speeds; Terrific camera; Solid call quality; Siri is intriguing; Lots of apps.

Cons: Poor social-networking integration; On-screen keyboard is quite small.

Score: 9/10

Manufacture: Apple Inc.

Specifications

Operating System: iPhone OS

Screen Size: 3.5in

Screen Details: 960-by-640 16.7M-color IPS LCD capacitive touch screen

Camera: Yes

Megapixels: eight-megapixel

Camera Flash: Yes

802.11x: Yes

Bluetooth: Yes

Web Browser: Yes

Form Factor: Candy Bar

Network: GSM, CDMA, UMTS

Bands: 850, 900, 1800, 1900, 2100

High-Speed Data: EVDO Rev A

Storage Capacity (as Tested): 64GB

Processor Speed: 1GHz

  • Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
  • Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc.

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