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

Apple's iPhone 4S, at first glance, seems largely to be a refreshed iPhone 4. It is, but it also is not, thanks to three powerful new features that transform what has been the world's most popular smartphone into a vastly improved new version of itself.

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The top three features of iPhone 4S--the features that impact whether you should upgrade or not--are its much faster processor, its new Siri voice assistant, and iOS 5, the latter of which is not unique to iPhone 4S. The iOS 5 software update similarly upgrades, for free, the functionality of the existing iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4, as well as 2009 or newer models of the iPod touch and iPad.

Upgrade the software, or the hardware too?

The fact that Apple makes iOS 5 a free upgrade for its mobile devices, first introduced just over two years ago, is the most compelling reason not to buy the iPhone 4S, as nearly all of its software features also work on previous models. However, the knowledge that Apple fully supports its previous devices with its latest software releases (the very day that iOS is released) is also a reason to consider upgrading, because buyers can be reasonably confident that Apple won't abandon them in six months or a year with the release of iOS 5.5, and make it only available on the new "iPhone Prime."

The best Google can do for Android users is promise an intent to deliver "the latest Android updates for 18 months after first launch [of a device], if the hardware allows it," at least from participating hardware makers and carriers in the US. Historically, Android users have waited about 3-6 months to get a new release on their phones after it comes out.

HP similarly abandoned Palm's first generation of less than 18 month old devices in its webOS 2.0 release, and Microsoft drew a line in the sand that obsolesced all existing Windows Mobile devices when it released its new Windows Phone 7 last fall. This summer, RIM announced that its minor BlackBerry OS 6.1 update would be renamed BlackBerry OS 7 and would only be available on a few brand new models. That makes Apple's ability to deliver smartphone updates for at least two years (the term of users' contracts!) quite unique in the industry.

Apple has made choosing whether to buy the new iPhone 4S or simply upgrade for free to iOS 5 a difficult decision. On one hand, by adding a lot of new features to iOS 5 that existing users can avail themselves of for free, it's made it tempting for existing iPhone buyers to contentedly live through their existing contract. Apple also continues to sell its iPhone 3GS and the original iPhone 4, both of which which will attract new users who want iOS 5 features with the least upfront cost.

At the same time, Apple has added some key features to the top of the line iPhone 4S that will tempt users into buying the latest and greatest, which is differentiated primarily by its A5-powered speed (discussed on page 2), greater storage capacity options (now that the new "$99 iPhone 4" is limited to 8GB, iPhone 4S is unique in offering 16, 32 and 64GB models) and Siri voice assistant (discussed on page 3). There's also a nicer camera and other minor features unique to the new hardware, including AirPlay Mirroring and Bluetooth 4.0 (discussed on page 4 along with a recap of iOS 5 features).

Late 2010 iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPhone 4S feature comparison

Why isn't there more new stuff in iPhone 4S?

A wide variety of pundits initially expressed their dissatisfaction with Apple's iPhone 4S unveiling, complaining that there wasn't a new form factor, a larger screen, or support for LTE mobile networks. However, a recent survey of smartphone users indicated that those things are not important or influential buying considerations, and initial sales of iPhone 4S are setting new records, making it clear that customers do want the latest iPhone.

Users who want a fast mobile data connection may be better served with an LTE MiFi device, which relays 4G data as a WiFi signal to multiple devices, including iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Macs and other PCs and devices. This not only shares your connection, but centralized the power hogging nature of the new next generation networks, rather than packing a battery drain in each of your devices.

Similarly, while some new high end Android phones are now delivering 4 or 5 inch screens, this seems to represent a minority of phones sold. According to metrics maintained by Google, 72 percent of the Android installed base are currently using "normal" sized phones (at least 470x320, but less than 640x480) with "high" dpi (~240dpi), definitions that are pretty loose but correspond to models between the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4.

The next largest segment (18 percent) is "normal" sized screens with a "medium" dpi (~180), closer to the now free iPhone 3GS. Google also notes there are more "small" screen devices (4 percent) than "large" screen devices (screens "at least 640x480" make up just 3 percent) in the wild. This indicates that the market for big screen phones is not really that significant, and that the devices people pick from the various Android offerings are very close to the limited selection of models Apple chooses to sell.

Change vs popular familiarity

When you have a dog of a product, you need to dramatically alter it and perhaps even change its name if you want people to consider buying it. Palm did just that in 2009 when it replaced its creaky old PalmOS with the dramatically revamped new webOS; Microsoft did something similar in replacing Windows Mobile with Windows Phone 7 last year, and this year Apple is hoping users forget any negativity attached to MobileMe by renaming and dramatically reconstructing its suite of online services under the new moniker iCloud.

But when you already have an extremely popular product, history indicates you shouldn't shake things up too much. The most obvious example of this was New Coke, a product that market research strongly suggested would help make Coca-Cola more competitive with its increasingly popular alternative. Instead, it did little to recruit Pepsi drinkers while alienating the people who preferred Coke's existing product.

Between 1997 and 2002, Steve Jobs similarly struggled for five long years to incrementally replace the classic Mac OS (which had been widely recognized as being archaic and desperately in need of a replacement since the early 90s) with NeXTSTEP, before he could finally declare Mac OS 9 dead and Mac OS X the only platform for developers should focus their efforts on. To make NeXTSTEP palatable to Mac users, Apple had to make the new operating system more familiar, and at least as functional in areas like DVD playback and overall user interface performance.

In 2007, Microsoft experienced a similar backlash when it replaced Windows XP with the significantly rejiggered Vista, with controls in unfamiliar places and various other changes users didn't like, even if many of those were actually net improvements. Apple similarly caught flack from users with the third generation "fat" iPod nano in 2007 before reverting a tall skinny design for two years until the existing sixth generation square touchscreen iPod nano was introduced last year.

Earlier this month, Netflix gave up its plans to change its DVD business after customers complained that they liked things they way they were, and Microsoft is on the cusp of dealing with similar questions about how well a web centric Zune interface incompatible with existing Windows apps is going to replace the classic Windows desktop on future PCs and mobile devices next year.

Change is often far more difficult that it appears it should be. It's therefore a tricky balancing act for Apple to take its existing iPhone 4 and make any changes that might turn users off. And so, nearly across the board, Apple made no extraneous changes to its flagship smartphone apart from addressing a few things that were universally regarded as problematic or as not really valuable.

Addressing the weak spots

Every generation of new iPhone (and its iOS) has appeared to be aimed at erasing the top three (and only the top three) complaints of the previous model, changes which have also happened to be the top three advantages held by competing products.

The second generation iPhone 3G added 3G mobile service, GPS and lowered the price dramatically, while iOS 2.0 added third party apps, enterprise features and push messaging, making the iPhone competitive with Palm OS, Symbian, BlackBerry and Windows Mobile, while also holding its own advantages in usability.

The third generation iPhone 3GS added more speed, RAM and a better camera capable of video, while iOS 3.0 added a sophisticated text selection method for copy/paste, MMS and tethering, Find My Phone and expanded Bluetooth support, again matching the top unique features that other mobile platforms and their devices held over the iPhone.

Last year's fourth generation iPhone 4 provided a much improved Retina Display, a faster processor, and a much better set of cameras with flash, while iOS 4.0 added Multtasking, FaceTime and Spotlight search, again bringing Apple's smartphone into parity with the formerly unique features of webOS and Android competitors.

This year, Apple similarly looked at the three weakest spots of iPhone 4 and determined they were its overall speed, camera and Voice Command. Apple subsequently released iPhone 4S with the same multicore A5 processor as iPad 2, a significantly better camera, and an entirely new voice interface, which leverages cloud computing to deliver not just voice recognition, but actual assistant functions powered by unique artificial intelligence processing.

In software, Apple identified iOS 4's weakest spots as being its MobileMe cloud services, its forced attachment to iTunes and its modal notifications system, and fixed all three as the primary new features in iOS 5.

Therefore, there's very little in the way of controversial changes in either iPhone 4S and its iOS 5. Apple didn't make questionable, disruptive changes to its product or platform because it didn't need to; iPhone 4's first competitor in the smartphone area is the company's own iPhone 3GS. Apple could raise the stakes by simply making its two year old model even cheaper alongside a cheap new 8GB iPhone 4, threatening competitors with the potential for taking all three medals in this year's smartphone Olympics.

On page 2 of 4: S is for Speed