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The iPhone 4S is the latest model in the smartphone series that needs no introduction: Apple’s iPhones. Since popularising the touchscreen smartphone with the original iPhone in early 2007, Apple have released updated iPhones with new and improved features at a rate of one per year.
One of the key features and advantages of iPhones is that they are smartphones suitable for everyone, whatever their level of comfort with technology. The intuitively designed interfaces ‘simply work’, so picking up and touching the phone is all that’s required to learn how to perform most tasks.
The Apple iPhone 4S is the fifth generation model and was announced in October 2011 in what proved to be the most controversial iPhone launch to date. With rumours before the event pointing to a radically re-designed ‘iPhone 5’, some fans and commentators were disappointed with the almost unchanged exterior of the iPhone 4S, to the extent even that Apple’s stock suffered a drop.
Despite its shaky start, pre-orders raced in and the iPhone 4S became the fastest selling iPhone to date. Users and critics alike found that beneath the familiar exterior was a wide range of exciting new features and significant hardware improvements, making the iPhone 4S a critical and commercial success.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” they say, and Apple have taken the message to heart. The look of the iPhone 4S will be familiar to anyone who’s seen an iPhone 4, because the two are all but identical on the outside.
For the uninitiated, the body of an iPhone 4 or 4S is formed by two slabs of dark glass – the phone’s front and back faces. Sandwiched between these is a strip of metal that protrudes slightly around the phone’s edge, so that when viewed head-on the phone’s faces are circumscribed by a thin metallic band. It’s an iconic, minimalist design with very few exterior buttons, switches or ports.
Given the undeniable aesthetic appeal of the design, it’s difficult to be overly critical of Apple’s decision to leave the exterior of the iPhone 4S largely un-tampered with. From the first moment you hold an iPhone 4S you’re aware that you’re holding a premium product. From the cool, solid surface of the black glass to the chromed rigidity of the stainless steel band, there’s not a millimetre of give in the construction of this phone and the overall impression is of a product that’s been built to the very highest of standards.
Of course, nothing’s perfect and the design of the iPhone 4S is not without its detractors. Anyone who remembers being admonished by parents for leaning against newly cleaned windows with their grubby fingers can tell you that glass picks up fingerprints very easily. Since carrying around a cloth and a bottle of Windolene isn’t overly practical, owners will have to resign themselves to living with some smudges on the surfaces of their iPhones.
It’s been noted by iPhone 4 owners that the front and back panels are tremendously resistant to scratches and marks from normal daily use and can even survive small drops without signs of trauma. Unfortunately, when damage occurs it tends to be catastrophic. We’ve all seen pictures of iPhones dropped from just a touch too high and shattered – a heart-breaking sight!
There are a few very slight differences between the 4 and 4S. The antenna built into the metal rim has been redesigned and as a result there are a few more of those little black bands, now two on each side. To accommodate the black band at the top of the left side, the volume control keys have been nudged oh-so-slightly further down the edge of the phone.
Aside from those minor changes, the outside features of the iPhone 4S remain the same. There’s the same power key and 3.5 mm headphone port along the top edge, the same port for charging and connecting to a computer along the bottom edge, and the same micro SIM card port on the right edge. There’s still no access or support for adding micro SD cards or changing the battery yourself.
The iPhone 4S boasts a number of upgraded features over its predecessor. There are big improvements to the internal hardware which I’ll discuss further in the ‘Performance’ section of the review, but also a few additions that are ‘features’ in the more traditional sense.
Apple’s marketing at launch made quite a fuss over the new camera of the iPhone 4S, pointing not just to an increased pixel count (up to 8 megapixels), but to advanced optics and faster shutter response. I’m pleased to report that on examination, the iPhone 4S’ camera does not disappoint.
I found image quality to be excellent. Tested outdoors on a clear sunny day, the camera succeeded in capturing sharp and clear images with impressive light and dark balance. Colour reproduction was likewise excellent, neither too saturated nor too dull.
Indoor testing yielded even more pleasing results. Even in relatively low light and without flash the camera of the 4S focused without difficulty and produced sharp, colourful images with good contrast levels.
I’m personally not keen on flash photography, which I find tends to produce quite cold and stark images. That said, the flash of the iPhone 4S works as well as any I’ve encountered on a smartphone and is useful enough in extremely low light. Oddly, I found that some photos taken with the flash looked quite ‘hazy’, as if they were taken through a light fog, though this was not common.
The camera app itself is as intuitive and effective as you’d expect from Apple. The shutter really does respond very quickly and Apple have included a neat feature to allow you to choose the focus of your picture – just tap the point on the screen you want to focus on.
The next feature of the iPhone 4S that demands attention is Siri. Siri is Apple’s ‘intelligent assistant’ and according to the sales pitch is somewhere between a robotic secretary and a genie in a bottle, emerging from the iPhone to grant your every wish.
Extravagant claims aside, Siri is essentially a voice interface for the iPhone designed to be able to understand ordinary spoken English and respond ‘intelligently’. The idea is that instead of having to speak like a robot into the microphone (“Check. Today’s. Weather.”), you’ll be able to speak naturally and be understood (“Will I need an umbrella today?”).
So does it work? Well, yes and no. The interface’s ability to understand numerous different wordings of the same commands is impressive, but it’s far from perfect. By Apple’s own admission the product is still in ‘Beta’, but there are a few too many rough edges for me to really envisage using it regularly in its current state.
My first gripe is that not all functions are implemented in all regions. Siri will happily send a text message for you or look something up on Wikipedia, but ask it to find you a local business and you’ll be politely told that it can only search for businesses, maps or traffic information in the United States. These are fairly major omissions and sadly detract from the usefulness of the interface.
Voice recognition is not yet perfect either. Feeling annoyed at our American cousins, who get all the cool stuff first, I asked Siri to look up the ‘War of 1812’ on Wikipedia. Maybe Siri was reluctant to stir up old animosities by researching the last conflict between Great Britain and the United States, but what it gave me was a page of search results for “The wall of eight in 12”. If this was a deliberate mistake, then I admire Siri’s diplomatic spirit. Somehow I doubt it, though.
Gripes aside, Siri is an impressive work in progress. Apple is often at the forefront of innovation and this feature is still a little raw, but it has huge potential. I can see it becoming more and more useful as the software is refined and improved.
While this is the new iPhone with a range of shiny new features, it also inherits a number of noteworthy features from the iPhone 4. It would be remiss of any reviewer to talk about either the 4 or the 4S without mentioning the screen.
Apple’s Retina Display is as market leading today as it was when it first appeared on the iPhone 4, with its resolution of 960 x 640 resulting in a pixel density of 326 ppi and remarkably sharp and clear reproduction of graphics and text. The images generated by the display seem to float right upon the surface of the glass, and viewing angles are superb.
If there’s a complaint to be made about the iPhone 4S’ display, it’s not regarding its first class quality but rather regarding the size. When the iPhone 4 was released in 2010 a 3.5” screen was perfectly respectable, but since then trends have generally moved towards larger screens on smartphones.
Flagship competitors in the Android world like the Motorola RAZR, HTC Sensation XE and the ever-popular Samsung Galaxy S II all have screens upwards of 4”. To a lesser extent, Nokia have joined the trend for larger screens with their top-end Lumia 800 boasting a 3.7” display. Unfortunately, next to these the 3.5” screen of the iPhone 4S is beginning to look a tad undersized. Bigger isn’t always better but my feeling is that the iPhone’s display could be just a touch bigger to strike the right balance.
The new iPhone comes with a choice of either 16, 32 or 64 Gigabytes of internal storage, depending on the model you select. Like previous iPhones, there’s no way to expand this storage once you’ve bought your phone, so choose wisely!
iPhone 4S users, like all iOS 5 users, also get 5GB of storage through Apple’s new iCloud service. In a nutshell, iCloud backs up various information like contacts, apps, documents and pictures to ‘the cloud’ and automatically syncs them to other devices connected to your account.
The impression I got overall from the iCloud services was of a work in progress. Syncing between different devices works just fine, but there is some fairly basic functionality that seems to be absent or difficult to achieve.
Take photo backing up for example: I easily found the option to turn on photo backups and backed up the few test shots I’d taken. I deleted one or two of the more disposable ones and set about trying to restore them from the cloud. This turned out to be tricky.
After searching first the phone and then support forums extensively, I came to the conclusion that the only way was to begin a complete restoration of the phone’s data – I couldn’t just pluck a few pictures from the cloud. Likewise, I couldn’t find a simple way of viewing my backed up photos from a non-iOS 5 device and others have noted that once uploaded, there is no way to delete individual photos from the cloud. These issues don’t detract from the usefulness of the syncing service for those who own multiple Apple devices, but they seem basic and it’s disappointing they weren’t included.
Finally, let’s say a few words about the App Store. The App Store is arguably what made the iPhone great, and with several years of development and expansion under its belt it now offers an unparalleled range of downloadable applications covering almost every niche imaginable. To paraphrase the famous Apple ad: If you can think of it, there’s an app for it.
The strength of the App Store is certainly in its diversity. With over 500,000 apps available at the time of writing, there is no area that’s underrepresented. Naturally, quality and usefulness vary significantly, but Apple’s strict approval process keeps the worst of the tosh out and user reviews are only ever a tap away.
The general convention on Apple’s App Store is for apps that come with an up-front fee – usually ranging from under £1 up to a couple of quid. This contrasts with the competing Google Android Market, where the convention is for most apps to be free, but supported by in-app advertising. Which system is best is largely down to personal preference, though few would deny that Apple’s Store has the edge in terms of range and usual quality.
The Apple iPhone 4S has received major hardware upgrades over its predecessor. The phone uses the same A5 system-on-a-chip employed by the iPad 2, which has a dual core 1GHz central processing unit (CPU) and a dual-core graphical processing unit (GPU). At the launch of the iPhone 4S, Apple announced that the A5 chip was capable of producing ‘up to two times more power and up to seven times faster graphics’ as compared with its predecessor, the A4 chip used in the iPhone 4.
It’s difficult to directly test and benchmark hardware that’s running a bespoke operating system, as the processor of the iPhone 4S is with iOS, but even where it’s possible the figures don’t generally tell you much beyond how well it performs the benchmarking tasks. What’s more important is how well the phone performs in your hand, doing the things you do every day.
I can happily report that the iPhone 4S excelled at more or less everything I asked of it. Interacting with the interface and menus is a wonderfully smooth and snappy experience, without even a hint of lag.
The iPhone 4S browser renders even relatively complex webpages in no time at all and scrolls smoothly and quickly around. A maximum of 8 simultaneously open tabs is allowed and this produces no discernable impact on the speed of the browser. Top marks!
The phone handles its pre-installed maps application beautifully, scrolling fluidly without lag and plotting routes even to relatively distant locations in no more than a few seconds. The GPS is fast and accurate, although not the most precise I’ve encountered (atmospheric conditions could be having an effect on this, however).
So, satisfied that the iPhone 4S’ hardware could handle common tasks like browsing, plotting routes on the maps app, etc. with ease, I set about finding something more challenging for it to get its teeth into. In my search for graphically demanding/impressive apps, I discovered Infinity Blade II, which is the game launched alongside the iPhone 4S to show off the best of its graphical capabilities.
I enthusiastically purchased and downloaded the app, keen to see what the iPhone 4S could do with all that power under the hood. The game itself is interesting, if possibly not entirely to my tastes – it seems like a cross between fruit ninja and a very weird Japanese RPG – but this isn’t the place for reviewing games.
The graphics are really quite magnificent, for a handheld device. In just the first few minutes we’re treated to lovely golden sunbeam effects, shining metal surfaces and individual cherry blossom petals floating in a breeze. And the iPhone 4S produced all this without breaking a sweat, and would even happily multitask between running the game, browsing – whatever you asked of it.
Actually, to say the phone didn’t break a sweat isn’t entirely truthful. I noticed no lag, no staggering and no slow-down, but while running the game I did notice that the 4S warmed noticeably, particularly at the back. It never reached uncomfortable levels, but it was definitely heating up with the exertion. All processors heat up when they’re worked, of course, so this is merely an observation and not a criticism as such.
Finally, we come to the contentious issue of battery life. Thankfully, the iPhone 4S performs quite adequately in this category, for a smartphone. It’s not going to revolutionise the industry by offering as much standby time as that Nokia you had in 2002, but the 1432 mAh battery of the iPhone 4S lasted me comfortably over 24 hours of relatively heavy use while I was poking and prodding at the phone’s various features.
With light use, it can happily power through two to three days before it begins to complain- fairly standard for a modern handset. Once I’d tested how long it would last without a charge, of course, I went back to plugging it in before I went to bed like everyone else who owns a smartphone.
Ease of use is arguably one field in which iPhones have always lead the market. Apple’s design philosophy in making these phones has always been to build devices and services that ‘just work’. The iPhone 4S naturally carries on this tradition.
From the first switch on, the iPhone 4S guides you smoothly through the process of getting yourself started and set up. You’ll be walked through your language, location, networks and other settings. A nice addition to iOS 5 is the ability to get your new iPhone set up without having to connect to a computer with iTunes.
If you’ve had an iPhone before, you can easily restore settings from your last iPhone either through iTunes or iCloud to get your 4S looking nice and familiar. If not, though, don’t worry – the majority of the important stuff is made easy and the rest is just tweaking to get the phone looking the way you like.
Oddly, the one thing I found difficult to get organised was the transfer of contacts from another phone. I’ve done this with countless phones and it’s generally very easy, but with the iPhone 4S it was a bit of a struggle.
If you already have an iPhone or if you have an Outlook account with all contacts tidily arranged, there are obvious and easy ways to transfer them over. If not, there are still ways of transferring contacts but none that is especially simple or intuitive. I eventually succeeded by exporting my address book to a .vcf file, emailing it to the account linked to my iPhone and then opening the file to import the contacts. It’s an effective method but not a graceful one and I discovered it as much by luck as anything, which shouldn’t really have been necessary.
Thankfully, the difficulty I had with contacts was not repeated in other areas. The experience of using the iPhone 4S, like all iPhones, is generally a very easy and pleasurable one. From the smooth response of the touchscreen to the intuitively and intelligently laid out menus, everything about the iPhone’s interface is geared towards usability above all else.
Getting email set up is simplicity itself. An ‘@me.com’ address is automatically set up with the initial configuration of the phone and is easily accessible from the Mail shortcut along the bottom of the homescreen. Getting extra email accounts added to the Mail app is also a breeze. I had my Gmail account linked in within a minute or two, with no more technical information required than my username and password.
You can add a personal finish to your iPhone by changing the homescreen background, and rearranging the order of homescreen icons is as easy as holding your finger on them for a moment or two and then dragging them to your desired position. There isn’t as wide a range of customisation options in iOS as in competing operating systems like Android or BlackBerry OS, but what’s there is very accessible and functional.
Syncing services come courtesy of iTunes and iCloud. iTunes provides a pretty comprehensive back up and syncing service via PC, but much has been said in the past about it so I won’t cover old ground again here. I mentioned earlier in the review some disappointment with the features of Apple’s new iCloud over-the-air syncing service. While it’s true that I found a few features lacking, I have to admit that the features that are implemented work very well with a minimum of input from the user.
Although I’d like a tad more control, there’s something quite comforting about knowing that when I head to bed, leaving the iPhone plugged in and idle, it silently backs up my pictures, messages and documents so that if a freak power surge fries its circuits in the night, its replacement can pick up right where it left off.
To simulate the experience (without frying an iPhone), I performed a manual back up and then a factory reset. On setting up the freshly erased iPhone 4S I was able to restore from iCloud and, as if by magic, all my contacts and pictures reappeared. Although some of the limitations irked me, this is certainly one of those features that ‘just works’.
Notifications have also received an overhaul in iOS 5 and are now handled mainly through a pull-down menu from the bar along the top of the display. It’s a system that’ll be familiar to anyone who’s used an Android phone as it’s more or less identical to Android’s notifications handling. I don’t think there’s any shame in absorbing a good idea from a competitor to improve your product and Apple have done a good job of implementing the system, so more points to the iPhone 4S here.
Naturally, being an iPhone the 4S has a firm handle on music and video features. One of the great advantages of an iPhone is that you effectively get a smartphone and all the features of an iPod in one package. The iTunes Store has a vast library of tunes for your downloading pleasure and Apple’s software makes it easy for you to convert your CD collection into ones and zeroes to be carried around in your pocket.
Music playback through the speakers is ok, so long as you don’t try to pump the volume up too high. Don’t expect to be blown away by crystal clear, high fidelity audio, but the little speakers can produce a nice and balanced sound at medium volume levels. Push the volume up to max, though, and you’re likely to hear some distortion and some distinctly tinny sounds – a flaw sadly present in nearly all smartphones.
The iPhone 4S doesn’t come with pre-installed apps for either Twitter or Facebook, but official apps for both are available for free from the App Store. Both work nicely and feature push notifications, so you’ll get notified the moment one of your friends comments on your latest hilarious status update. Of course, the vast scale of the App Store also means that if the official apps don’t take your fancy, there are a ton of third party social networking clients lining up for your attention.
So, what’s the verdict on the iPhone 4S? Apple are pitching it as ‘the most amazing iPhone yet’, but its reception at launch was distinctly mixed, even if it did go on to sell millions of units in a few short days.
Well, there’s no doubt that the iPhone 4S is a five star phone. It is a pleasure to use; the fluidity of the interface combined with the gorgeous retina display with its bright, floating images generates a unique and wonderful user experience.
Everything that went into making previous iPhones great is still here, and more besides. The new camera is undoubtedly one of the best I’ve encountered on a smartphone and should turn the heads of amateur photographers everywhere. The processing power of the A5 chip is hugely impressive and can easily compete with anything on the market.
On the other hand, I found Siri to be disappointing in its present state. Apple have promised to bring full functionality to countries beyond the US but the wait is on-going and for the moment Siri sadly feels incomplete.
The iPhone 4S is an evolutionary step for the iPhone brand, not a quantum leap forward, which might explain the disappointment that surrounded its launch. Some fans were expecting a completely re-designed and game changing new iPhone 5, and the iPhone 4S just isn’t that.
Shrug off any disappointment and judge the iPhone 4S on its merits, though, and beneath the familiar exterior you’ll find a significantly improved combination of software and hardware that makes the iPhone 4S a worthy upgrade and without doubt the most amazing iPhone yet.