Review by Sunetra Chakravati,
10/13/2011 12:29:15 PM
Incredibly responsive interface and touch-screen, notifications bar for events and weather, excellent camera, still the slickest hardware design on any phone, high-quality apps at an easy to navigate app store
iCloud data sync costs after a miserly 5GB, most of its best features available as a software update to older iPhones
There's a term used to describe the allure of Apple products and it was coined in 1981 by an Apple software designer. Legend goes that the reality distortion field, or "RDF", was what Steve Jobs spun to convince one of anything via charisma, hyperbole and that glistening veneer known as really, really clever marketing. And there's more than a perfectly formed teardrop of truth in that when it comes to the iPhone. We once noted that despite its glaring lacks – Flash support, customisable interface, a half-decent camera – the phone credited with mainstreaming smartphones would glamour you into forgetting about what it couldn't do, to focus instead on that handful of things it managed with flying colours.
And the iPhone 4S is a pretty, classic example. Faster processor? New software also available to older iPhones? A bunch of apps? Other manufacturers do this and release more than one phone a year.
So, disappointment right? Well, we got more than a little sucked into our iPhone 4S's RDF as soon as we tore off its shrink wrap and beheld its glass-enforced countenance. Yes, it looks exactly the same as the iPhone launched over 15 months ago, but the undeniable attraction of its bland, shiny perfection and stable of helpful apps sure enough glamours you into maybe, just maybe, considering wanting this phone.
Design If you have an iPhone 4 you can probably skip this part – the 4S is the same 115.2 x58.6x9.3mm at a comely 140g weight. This makes it one of the lightest smartphones around, yet its metal-and-glass construct feels reassuringly solid, in a way that the skinnier Samsung Galaxy S II and its lightweight plastic chassis just doesn't manage. Its outer design clones the iPhone 4, from its silver side trim and neat circular volume buttons (the '+' now also doubles as camera shutter), to the reality-defying Retina display squeezing 640x960 pixels into a 3.5-inch screen – and as a result, making it look bigger than it is.
Beneath its pretty little bonnet lies the meat of the 4S hardware upgrade. The camera is now an eight-megapixel lens with LED flash and an f/2.4 aperture that enables better lowlight photography than the iPhone 4. For comparison's sake, other smartphones claiming lowlight ability pack a larger f/2.2 maximum aperture. It can also shoot true HD video at 1080p and 30fps.
The ARM-Cortex A9 dual-core 1GHz processor is the same that powers the iPad 2, while a new graphics chip turns over visual processing almost seven times faster. With the 512MB of RAM also sported by the iPhone 4, that resulted in near zero lag performance. Where the battery life of the iPhone 4 was just about acceptable, the slightly larger 1432mAh battery of 4S pushes it just that bit longer so that it easily lasted through the work day and well into the night. We noticed an especial drain when using GPS - left on all day, it reduced battery life by a couple hours.
The iPhone 4S comes loaded with iOS 5, and with this, Apple has actually taken more of a leap than is initially apparent. Though the icon-based screens remain minimally customisable with its rows of same-sized shortcuts slotting beatifically one after the other, the introduction of a notifications bar immediately adds functionality already offered by its BlackBerry and Android rivals (functionality that, deep inside the RDF, iPhone 4 users never missed).
Swiping down from the top of the display reveals this notifications menu, which includes messages, calendar appointments, reminders and social alerts. Unlike its competitors though, this bar also includes widgets for weather and stock updates. It's a bit like a halfway house between the homescreen widgets sported by Android phones that display live info front and centre, and, well, not having them at all. If you object to any of the notifications made, you can head into Settings to adjust the programs you receive alerts from.
Apple has also taken a shine to the kudos BlackBerry has received for its free BlackBerry Messenger service - iMessage lets you send free messages, photos and video to other iMessage users, which includes anyone on an iPad or iPhone 3GS/4 provided they've upgraded to iOS 5. You can tell when you're iMessaging as opposed to regular messaging because the chat bubble of your companion converser is blue instead of green - handy to know if you're overseas and don't fancy roaming text charges. You can also see when the other person is typing, a hallmark of instant messaging and source of deep irritation to anyone who would like to impart the impression of a quick-flowing wit.
Like BBM, the same iMessage conversation can be picked up across any iOS 5 device linked to the same account, a more noteworthy plus point for the millions of iPad users than the rather more intimate sect of BlackBerry PlayBook owners. It's basically the single thing that gives it an edge over the cross-platform WhatsApp messenger - that and the cosy glow of knowing you're communicating with other Apple-lytes.
iOS 5 finally liberates your iProduct from a computer - though you'll still need an iTunes account to link and activate your iPhone, you can now connect and sync over Wi-Fi rather than USB. Upshot? Owning a computer isn't a prerequisite for owning an iPhone, or perhaps more relevantly, an iPad.
The new iCloud service adds some heft to Apple's ol' one-two. Capitalising on the fact that you need an iTunes account to even use an iPhone (as Google does with its Android phones and Gmail; Microsoft with Windows Phone 7 and Hotmail), iCloud keeps any device that you've linked to your iTunes synched with the same music, books, apps, contacts, calendar and email. You can then access your stuff from any computer or phone that has the iCloud program downloaded to it. There's a catch though - at just 5GB of free storage, it's a gyp compared to Windows Phone 7's 25GB on SkyDrive, and Google's infinite amount of cloud storage. After that there's a yearly fee - and with iPhone 4Ses coming in 16GB, 32GB and a new 64GB version, to truly back up all your data you will definitely need to pay.
The Safari browser has gotten a shot in the arm too, with tabbed browsing and new Reading List option that apes the iPhone app Instapaper. This lets you save a webpage from the phone to that eponymous reading list accessible later, and from your other devices. The fact that you sign into any iProduct with a single Apple ID is really useful here, as any Mac OS X Lion computer your ID is on can access the same Reading List menu. Of course, if you use any browser but Safari, you don't get access to this feature.
Twitter integration is everywhere – once you add your account from settings, you can sync contacts to your phonebook as you can with Facebook, plus share weblinks, photos and videos from within the relevant apps, something that's still not possible with Facebook (like it is on most other phones).
Last year, Apple bought out voice recognition app Siri and preloaded this 'digital personal assistant' onto the iPhone 4S. Siri – who can be programmed to speak in a female American accent or a male British one – lets you control the iPhone by voice commands, and recognises far more colloquial speech than similar programs. For example, instead of barking "set alarm for 6am", you can request of Siri, "can you wake me up every day at 6am?" Impressively, "wake me up in one hour" works too. One week on, we've now converted to regularly using Siri to set reminders and nap alarms.
Siri can be activated by holding down the home button or more slickly by simply holding the phone to your ear. This works even when the screen is locked.
The voice recognition facility is impressive with most words we spoke picked up by Siri, even if there was no set of commands related to them. In these cases, Siri would suggest a web search. Siri's engineers must have had a ball in the design process, as there are a ton of easter eggs to be found. Try asking it to tell you a story, for example.
You can also ask Siri for information ["what is love?"], help on decisions ["what is the best phone?"], and place recommendations [one that's doing the web rounds is "Where can I dump a body?"]. However, Siri is not set up to search businesses in the UK yet, so for now, one can only find the best place for an impromptu burial if in the US.
The jury is still out on whether voice control is necessary or more efficient but one neglected sector of smartphone users is the visually impaired. In our tests, Siri was mostly accurate in placing calls, hit and miss in dictating texts and emails and mostly accurate in launching phone apps. Being able to launch it from the lock screen helped too. The iPhone actually already comes with a few accessibility features including voice-over for text screens and larger fonts, and Siri does make it that much easier to use the phone's various functions.
It's the other 4S-exclusive feature that is independent of the iOS 5 upgrade, and for the visually impaired, it could be worth the buy.
On to that eight-megapixel camera - and to wrap up before we even start, it's excellent. The iPhone 4 took brilliant photos in daylight but tanked in low light, with a flash that though bright, overexposed and added far too much yellow. That's been rectified in 4S, as the larger f/2.4 aperture lets in more light to make those low light shots possible. Though our photos didn't perfectly reflect the scene, with dimmer areas darker than they should've been, our results looked natural. In a rather perfect analogy to Apple allure, any fuzziness even appeared to be more artistic license than sub-par hardware.
You can select visible grid lines to help you align photos for centre of focus, while a new 'Edit' option lets you crop, auto-enhance and remove red-eye. It's a small set of post-production tools compared to the snazzy effects offered by some other camera phones like the Nokia N8 or Samsung Galaxy S II, but photos emerge at a high standard – and if you want to wreak some filter magic on your snaps, there are approximately one million camera apps on the App Store to do just that.
Photos can be shared via email, text or Twitter, but to share them to other apps like Facebook or WhatsApp, you'll need to enter the respective app and select a send photo option from there.
One cunning way of saving some of your free 5GB storage on iCloud is opting for photos to be automatically saved to Photo Stream, which wirelessly pushes pictures to all your iOS 5 devices. These photos then don't count towards your storage, but you've still got them backed up somewhere - and because pictures on the Camera Roll do count, you can then delete them here.
The new 1080p video recording function is fluid and quick, and video is deliciously sharp on the 330ppi Retina display. Depending on your eyesight, it's probably better than real life, and for most casual shooters, this is going to negate the need for a dedicated camera or camcorder in one fell swoop. If you desire a little more than simple cropping and editing abilities – and if you do much night shooting – you'll still be better off with a dedicated device.
It may be a mere incremental upgrade on the iPhone 4, but with iOS 5 on-board, there's now very little offered by other phones that the iPhone 4S doesn't. The notifications bar offers a much needed hub for new events; Siri is a cool addition to the mix and perhaps surprisingly less of a gimmick than you'd expect; and if you're due an upgrade, the new eight-megapixel camera alone is almost worth getting the iPhone 4S for.
But its old restrictions apply - can't customise the interface, can't play Flash video - and things are at their most sparkly only if you play by Apple rules. iMessage is fluid and lovely but becomes more useful when you use it on your iPad; iCloud is a simple way to auto-backup, but you're likely to end up paying more for the service than on other smartphone OSes; you can only easily transfer media via bulky, bloated iTunes that requires more updates and attention than a needy child. And, Twitter integration is great, but why can't the same be offered for Facebook – like other smartphones?
You'll love this when you pick it up, but there are definite caveats to consider before you hurl yourself into the reality distortion field. iOS 5 is the real secret ingredient of its deliciousness this time around – and you just might be satisfied using it on your older iPhone.