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In depth review: Apple's iPhone 4S running iOS 5

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You should now know if you want an iPhone 4S

If you're not impressed with Siri and don't have any pressing needs for the additional speed of the iPhone 4S, then you should be happy with your existing iPhone 4 or 3GS, and can save your phone subsidy until next year. There are a couple other unique advantages to iPhone 4S, but they're not likely to sway your opinion. As noted from the start, lots of other features of the iPhone 4S are available in iOS 5, a free upgrade to existing iPhone owners and installed on the alternative, $99 iPhone 4 or "free" iPhone 3GS.

Antenna, global roaming and Sprint

iPhone 4S uses a new antenna design that extends the CDMA's iPhone 4's dual "antenna diversity" design (designed to meet Verizon's requirement that cellphones on its system have two receive antennas) to now include both transmit and receive diversity for both CDMA and GSM-type networks. This should improve the quality of iPhone 4S reception in areas where the signal is weak, help counter attempts to demonstrate purposeful signal attenuation, and make the phone more resilient to changes in signal that might otherwise cause a call to drop.

Externally, the new iPhone 4S looks essentially identical to the CDMA iPhone 4, apart from having a SIM slot.

Armed with a Sprint, Verizon and AT&T iPhone 4S, AppleInsider will be reporting on how well the three models work in actual use in different cities, including the troublesome San Francisco wireless market.

Only AT&T (in the US) will benefit from the phone's new support for 14.4 Mbps HSDPA downloads (as the new capability is irrelevant to CDMA networks), but AT&T doesn't have lots of full-speed HSDPA built out yet. Its capacity is latently in place in many areas, but currently its network appears to be tuned to provide reliable speeds that are above Verizon/Sprint's top potential speed of around 3Mbps, but rarely high enough to max out the existing 7.2 Mbps potential of the iPhone 3GS or iPhone 4.

Regardless of your US carrier, it should be possible to tap into 14.4 Mbps networks in other countries, thanks to its GSM slot. Sprint and Verizon appear to include their own GSM roaming SIM, but both indicate they'll unlock the SIM card slot for subscribers in good standing to allow them to use cheaper SIM card options when traveling overseas. AT&T hasn't committed to allowing you to unlock the iPhone 4S for use with alternative SIM cards, and don't expect that to change.

Improved camera and 1080p video recording

Apple has enhanced the already very good rear camera of the iPhone 4. Apple says the iPhone 4S camera is faster and offers more pixel density using the same "backside illumination" sensor design that collects more light for "increased sensitivity and a shorter exposure time," resulting in less blurry motion and better low light shots.

It also supplies new optics that open a larger f/2.4 aperture for light while filtering out infrared spectrum for more accurate color. When recording video, Apple says iPhone 4S adds "temporal noise reduction" to reduce graininess in low light as well as steadying shots with video stabilization. In both photos and video, it is readily obvious while capturing that iPhone 4S records far less noise, resulting in less grain and more detail.

Apple also alludes to image signal processor functions proprietary to the A5, which it credits for "zero shutter lag." This claim also appears to be true. Hold up an iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S, and you can take 4S pictures about as rapidly as you can tap, while the 4 hesitates each time for an onscreen shutter-animating pause, either while trying to focus or while saving the picture you've taken. The A5 is also credited for performing face detection to ensure the people in your shot are kept in focus.

HDR, a feature Apple introduced last year on iOS 4, is much faster on iPhone 4S. Rather than involving about a five second second lag every time you take a picture with HDR enabled, iPhone 4S performs the HDR processing almost instantly, allowing you to take another shot within two seconds. Without HDR on, you can rapidly capture shots about once a second, a little faster than you can compose them. Nagging delays are all but eliminated.

While a snappier shutter is a welcomed change, my favorite enhancement is a much improved macro focus. iPhone 4 doesn't seem to like taking closeups. I can never get its its touch to focus to stick on the subject I want, particularly when taking a nature shot where the flower is moving in the breeze or the bug is crawling. iPhone 4S allowed me to finally capture a closeup of one of the huge family of spiders that moves into my backyard every October, something that iPhone 4 always left a blur in front of a focused background (click to open full sized images).

There are a dozen other photos to check out in the album at the end of the review, comparing iPhone 4S to iPhone 4, showing the difference of an iPhone 4S standard shot and an HDR version. Click on the image below to review the album pages.

Apple hasn't claimed to have improved the front facing camera, which it says "has been tuned for FaceTime. It has just the right field of view and focal length to focus on your face at arm’s length." Unfortunately, while it does work acceptably for FaceTime chats, it doesn't offer great resolution as a general purpose camera, so outside of FaceTime it isn't worth much. This is unfortunate because if you're talking a self portrait with a friend, your only options are blindly snapping a shot with the rear facing camera or seeing what you're doing onscreen and ending up with a poor quality picture.

The front facing camera also lacks an LED flash. However, the rear flash, while functional in some settings, tends to deliver unflattering shots, and when attempting to shoot in total or near total darkness, doesn't seem to do a very good job focusing. While iPhone 4S does a better job of taking low light pictures and videos compared to iPhone 4 (which was already fairly good), its flash, despite improvements, is still rather weak. In many cases it just makes shots look worse when they'd turn out alright without a flash.

Still, it's nice to have a flash option available, and it can double as a flashlight for general illumination and serve as a visible alert for calls or alerts, thanks to a new iOS 5 Accessibility option. It can not (yet) come on and stay illuminated or flashing when you have unread messages, a feature common to BlackBerry devices that many of its users miss when they defect to other platforms.

Third party ranks iPhone 4S as top pick for both stills and video

Indoor, lighting controlled camera tests performed on printed images of photos taken by a variety of popular smartphones and published by PC World, pitted the camera of iPhone 4S against iPhone 4 and a variety of high-end Android smartphones (T-Mobile MyTouch Slide 4G, Samsung Galaxy S II, HTC Sensation 4G and Motorola Droid Bionic).

The site concluded that in terms of still photos, "the T-Mobile MyTouch Slide 4G remains the best phone camera we've ever tested for still-image quality, but it now has some serious competition. The Samsung Galaxy SII (we used the Epic Touch 4G version for Sprint in these tests) and the new Apple iPhone 4S finished right on its heels. In fact, the results were so close in our lab tests--only 0.7 point separates the top-ranked MyTouch Slide 4G from the third-place iPhone 4S--that you could argue for any of those three phones as the best overall."

Each of the cameras in the top three displayed their own strengths, with the site reporting "T-Mobile MyTouch Slide 4G took the sharpest-looking shots and had the most accurate-looking colors; the Samsung Galaxy SII captured the most evenly exposed photos with and without its flash enabled; and the iPhone 4S had an impressive lack of distortion and the most evenly balanced scores across the board for exposure, color, sharpness, and distortion. Without a doubt, the star feature of the iPhone 4S's camera is its automated white balance, which is extremely accurate."

It added "video quality was an entirely different story. The T-Mobile MyTouch 4G Slide went from first to worst, while the Samsung Galaxy SII posted the highest overall score--even better than the Nikon Coolpix P300. In low-light situations, however, you'd be much better served by the Motorola Droid Bionic (which posted one of the best scores we've seen for low-light video quality), or the Apple iPhone 4S (which continued its impressively consistent jack-of-all-trades ways with solid scores for both bright-light and low-light video)."

Playback of 1080p video, AirPlay Mirroring, Bluetooth 4.0

In its last three iPhone models, Apple has jumped from 480p video capture and output to 720p on iPhone 4 and now 1080p on iPhone 4S. The new iPhone 4S can now also play back 1080p video stored as H.264 using High Profile level 4.1 up to 30 frames per second.

The new phone also supports 1080p video output and display mirroring via either the VGA or HDMI dock connector adapter cables. Using wireless AirPlay, iPhone 4S supports 720p output. These specifications are identical to the capabilities of iPad 2 released this spring.

Another new feature that just made it into the latest MacBook Air and is now debuting on iOS is support for Bluetooth 4.0. Right now that means very little because the standard is just beginning to get adopted, but Bluetooth 4.0 promises to deliver low energy peripherals that can work from minimal batteries, expanding the potential for wirelessly connected devices.

iOS 5 features

Other capabilities of iPhone 4S are part of iOS 5, almost all of which are also available on both the iPhone 3G and iPhone 4. These include AirPrint wireless printing (which only works with specific printers unless you install a third party app on your Mac to expand functionality to any printer you have set up to share from your desktop) and the aforementioned AirPlay wireless audio and video distribution.


iOS 5 also provides PC Free support that makes it easy to set up new devices and configure your Apple ID for iCloud services, ranging from iTunes, iBooks and App Store purchasing (and the downloading of previous purchases), wireless Backups (for subsequent cloud restore), signing into FaceTime and GameCenter, as well as using Find My Phone and the new Find Friends app.

iCloud also includes push messaging, calendars, contacts, notes, and bookmarks from MobileMe as well as the new Documents & Data and Photo Stream. Note that if active, PhotoStream will upload every picture you take and every screenshot you capture on your iPhone and throw it into your PhotoStream. There's currently no way to delete individual pictures from this automatically cloud-synced album, so be careful about how you configure your photos and what photos you take.

iOS 5 also includes the new Notification Center for managing incoming alerts and reminders; support for the new iMessage for WiFi texting between iOS devices; Twitter integration on a system wide level for single sign on access to tweeting from any app that supports the protocol; the new Reminders app for to-do tracking of time and location-based events; an enhanced, faster Safari browser with support for Reader and Reading List features from the desktop version; enhanced new Photo editing features that allow users to crop, enhance and correct red eye problems right on the phone; and a Newsstand central repository for subscribed periodicals, updated automatically as new editions come out.

Outside of the features in iOS 5 and the new hardware described above, iPhone 4S works largely like the previous iPhone 4, offering FaceTime, Phone, and other features detailed in last year's reviews of iPhone 4:

iPhone 4 Review: 1 - Hardware Fit & Finish
iPhone 4 Review: 2 - the Phone & FaceTime
iPhone 4 Review: 3 - Camera Photos & Videos

iPhone 4S in Review

The latest iPhone model takes Apple's smartphone lineup into a similar release cycle as its MacBooks and iMacs: incremental advancements in areas such as speed (along with a variety of new features and other improvements to take advantage of the additional power) and storage, occurring between far less frequent complete redesigns.

Apple doesn't develop a brand new MacBook Air enclosure every year because it doesn't need to; the one it has looks and works great already. So it should not really come as a surprise that the design of iPhone 4 will be around for some time, being tweaked and improved upon at more regular intervals. Most Mac owners don't buy a new computer every year, and iPhone owners are just as unlikely to always need to replace their phone every time Apple pops out another one (although many will buy it anyway).

Deciding to upgrade

Overall, the features of the iPhone 4S are not likely to push most existing iPhone 4 users to rush out to buy a faster version, even if it is much faster, because the current version is already usably fast. iPhone 4S is snappier, and does run the impressive and useful Siri voice assistant.

However, the existing iPhone 4 already has nearly as good of a camera, almost as much storage (although some might be attracted to the new 64GB option) and thanks to iOS 5, benefits from nearly all of the new software features iPhone 4S delivers. The only really compelling reason to jump from iPhone 4 to iPhone 4S is if your existing phone is cracked, or if you have a friend who could benefit from a hand-me-down, or if you just gotta have it.

If you have an iPhone 3GS, the leap in features and speed is vastly more significant, and you are also more likely to be eligible for a subsidized upgrade. If you still have the original iPhone or iPhone 3G, you can't even upgrade to iOS 5, so what are you waiting for? It's nearly 2012, get on the ball.

New buyers

Apart from those considering an upgrade from an existing iPhone, iPhone 4S offers the best iPhone experience for a price that's not much more than the entry level new iPhone 3GS or iPhone 4. It's hard to recommend that anyone consider buying iPhone 3GS in 2011 (it's far slower, has a much worse camera, and even lacks FaceTime, among other things).

Two years ago, I recommended that buyers not opt for the iPhone 3G and pick the iPhone 3GS, which while $100 more expensive, was a much better phone. Two years later, the value of the iPhone 3GS has been erased by opportunity costs, making it impossible to recommend that anyone fall for the "free" offer of iPhone 3GS, although many will (it's still, incredibly, the second most popular smartphone among new buyers in the US). Remember that you're not just comparing $0 to $99, but really a subsidized $400 purchase to one that costs $500.

Why would you pay $400 for a two year old phone that you'll be stuck with for the next two years, when you can instead get something vastly better for just a little more? Don't throw away the bulk of your subsidy on an obsolete phone, because you only get to spend that allowance once. Keep in mind that across two years of contract, a $100 premium amounts to less than $4.20 per month. The free iPhone 3GS is also tied exclusively to AT&T, at least in the US.

As the second tier of Apple's lineup, the new 8GB iPhone 4 model offers many of the features of iPhone 4S, but lacks the same speed, global connectivity, and doesn't have much storage. If you can afford at least the $199 iPhone 4S, you get a much snappier phone, the cool Siri voice assistant feature, and twice the RAM for your music, videos and apps. Again, consider that you're not just paying $99 rather than $199, but that you're essentially throwing down $599 rather than $699, when $400 of that being spotted by your carrier in advance.

Spending yet another $100 or $200 on the 32 or 64GB iPhone 4S starts to get rather high end, and that additional storage is the only differentiating feature on those models. Still, $399 is a pretty good deal for a 64GB iPod, and you get the world's best smartphone for free in the same package when you sign a service contract.

Contrasting alternatives

Compared with alternative high-end smartphones, iPhone 4S packs a superior display, similar speed and camera quality, and has a definite edge in apps and in fitting into Apple's iTunes ecosystem of content. That includes wireless AirPlay and HomeSharing. It also plugs into iCloud to deliver connected messaging, content, documents, backups and updates, and iOS delivers more free updates much more frequently than other mobile platforms, providing unique features like AirPrint, Game Center, Newsstand and the best mobile browser.

Among low end choices, there are increasingly fewer options that are cheaper than Apple's free iPhone 3GS or $99 iPhone 4, although there's still plenty of low end phones that are coupled with very cheap service plans that are much less expensive over a two year contract than the data-requisite iPhone.

Alternatively, some people will prefer features and abilities available on competing smartphones. Apart from Android, other mobile platforms are increasingly difficult to even suggest as viable alternatives. RIM's BlackBerry OS 7 can only really recommend its physical keyboard-based BBM features, while Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 requires a wait and see approach, given that Nokia hasn't yet played its hand in delivering hardware. WebOS and Symbian appear largely out of the picture at this point.

Some Android phones, however, offer superior front facing cameras, larger displays (some are truly enormous), access to fast 4G LTE/WiMax networks, less fragile plastic or rubberized cases, and options like SD card slots and battery packs you can exchange (although external battery packs seem to make more sense).

In general, Android offers more opportunities to customize and tweak the appearance and it ties into Google services like GTalk, Latitude, Voice, and Maps Navigation, which are either separate apps on the iPhone or aren't available at all.

Of course, if those things are important to you, you probably didn't come here to read a review of the iPhone 4S, but rather skipped right in to comment on it instead.

iOS 5: Rating 5 out of 5

A free download for exiting iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4 users: an awesome deal.

5 Stars

iPhone 3GS: Rating 1 out of 5

Tied to AT&T and wastes your subsidy. Does not make much sense to buy this in 2011.

5 Stars

iPhone 4: Rating 3 out of 5

Popular, very functional lower end alternative to iPhone 4S, with limited 8GB storage and no Siri.

5 Stars

iPhone 4S: Rating 4 out of 5

No brainer if you're due for a subsided phone, but not really an essential upgrade if you're not.

5 Stars

Solid construction and feel
Great battery life
A5 processor delivers lots of speed, little pauses vanish
Siri is an impressive, functional, intuitive new native interface
New 1080p camera improves upon a very good camera
Price competitive with similar smartphones

Front facing camera weak, flash limited in usability
Fragile front and back glass panels
No large screen options

On the next page: iPhone 4S Album