Oct
18
2011

iPhone 4S Review

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iPhone 4S: MacStories Review

It’s been over a year since Apple launched the iPhone 4, and in the meantime Apple has been busy preparing iOS 5, iCloud, getting deals for iTunes Match, and integrating voice technology into their next generation smartphone. iOS 5 has already captured 25 million users in less than a week as iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch owners update their devices to take advantage of free syncing technologies and a revamped notification system. Apple’s iCloud recently went live, syncing data, contacts, and other information between Macs, iOS devices, and Apple’s servers. Hardware remained in Apple’s sights as well — the iPhone 4S launched with brand new guts and was available in white from day one. It’s been a very busy year for Apple, but you’re all here for one reason:

What’s the iPhone 4S like?

The Design

Ladies and gents who follow me on Twitter are well aware that I’m fed up the lament surrounding the iPhone 4S design or lack thereof. I notice, however, that complaints are in the relative minority. Alternatively, complaints are mostly heralded from industry analysts that nobody could give a rat’s butt about. Geeks, technology pundits, and analysts who live in the fast paced world of constant and repetitive smartphone iterations hoped for more considering the sixteen month wait. If competitors can put out five flagships phones in a year, why can’t Apple make one? The iPhone 4S was already doomed to failure. Consumers would be uninterested in a refresh and would instead buy a smartphone with a larger display, a faster processor, and more RAM.

Nope. The iPhone 4S was Apple’s best launch ever.

Whether iPhone 4S sales are due to iPhone 3GS upgrades or new interest from new Apple customers, I think many will share the same opinion I have on the hardware design. New owners will tear away the shrink wrap and open Apple’s minimalist packaging to find the same glass and steel banded phone that Gizmodo unveiled way back in 2010. Yet, no picture on the Internet can really capture what a great piece of hardware Apple has made.

Reviewers will tell you the iPhone 4S design feels dated. They’re geeks. They have early access to this hardware and have equally geeky demands. But many, many customers are getting their hands on the iPhone 4S for the first time. The design is timeless. For many it’s new.

As a new iPhone 4S owner, it’s crazy to think this design is a year old. The original iPhone, the 3G, and the 3GS were all good looking phones, but the iPhone 4 design in particular has set the bar so high in both style and material choices that no competitor has matched its luxury at its price-point. Competitors’ mold-stamped handsets look boring and plain in comparison to something that looks hand crafted. It’s obvious why Apple continues to pour their soul into this product.

The glass glistens. Light leaves interesting reflections on the concave home button and the beveled speaker port. Mesh grill patterns are consistent from the front to bottom speakers. The rings surrounding the camera, flash, and headphone port are consistent visually and materially. Volume and wake buttons blend into the steel band. No button wiggles unnecessarily, providing a satisfying click when pressed. The back of the phone — perhaps the most beautiful element — is polished with mirror-like elements that simply dazzle. Surrounding edges holding the glass in place keep the faces just above the surface it’s set down upon to prevent scratches. I can’t think of another phone that was designed with so much care. The iPhone 4S is solid and compact, and I reckon most people would be surprised at the heft.

Arguably the glass, while beautiful, is prone to breaking for owners who fumble phones a lot. We’ve all seen photos of cracked displays and fractured backings thanks to an accidental mishap, and perhaps such quality materials shouldn’t be used in a phone. In first handling the 4S, you’ll likely be careful with your new prized possession, well aware that it could scratch with one false move. It does feel very fragile — holding it for the first time is akin to being handed a glass trophy after an adrenaline pumped martial arts final. One false move… But over time you’ll become like the rest us, unafraid to slip the naked gadget into your pocket or place it on a table without fear of marring the handset’s design. Even with premium, delicate materials, a good caretaker won’t likely see a scratch with casual use.

I cannot see how the iPhone 4’s design is tired or showing its age. Aesthetically, it’s iconic, relevant, and feels great in hand. Looking at the design MacRumors mocked up several months ago, I’ll take the iPhone 4S over something as symmetrically and materially wrong as the best iPhone 5 guesses. It feels right, and most importantly it still feels new. If unwilling to purchase a phone off contract, current iPhone 4S owners would likely be satisfied with this design for another two years.

Every button, edge, and hole drilled on the iPhone 4S isn’t just to serve some individual function. Everything is part of a greater whole that makes each millimeter feel vastly important with its contribution. Again, pictures don’t do the phone justice. From the piano black to the pearl white iPhone 4 design, Apple’s reflective mockups just can’t show off how this phone shines.

The Hardware

Ignore the racket about bigger and better displays. It’s hogwash. I can’t make the assumption that Apple will or won’t release an iPhone with a larger display in the future, but I can comment on what Apple is currently delivering. If you ask me, don’t buy an iPhone or wait for a future model if you really want a 4″ display. There’s no promise Apple will deliver that form factor in the future. Just excessive rumors and hype.

I’m of the impression that many people underestimate the size of the iPhone 4S’ display. Three inches sounds comparatively much smaller than four inches — somewhere the whole 3.6 inches gets lost in translation. It’s a big display, but not a giant display, providing ample room to thumb through apps, read a book, play games, and watch video. The size is just right being unisex, pocketable, and comfortable in hand.

Apple’s Retina display should of interest to customers with poor eyesight. While crisp colors, sharp text, and fuzz-free images will dazzle anyone who hasn’t seen a display of this clarity before, it’s for these reasons that the iPhone 4S becomes an excellent smartphone choice for consumers often reaching for magnifying glasses. The high pixel density lends itself to being literally “retina friendly”.

The Retina display may be old news, but it is worth emphasizing that this is still one of the best (if not the best) display available on a smartphone.

Of the new hardware in the iPhone 4S, three specific improvements offer solid differentiation from the iPhone 4. An innovative antenna design, A5 processor, and 8 MP camera encompass everything someone would want from the fabled iPhone 5. Apple skimped on nothing.

Dual Antennas

Call quality on the Sprint iPhone 4S between other CDMA smartphone callers was excellent, lending itself to Apple’s new two-antenna design that eliminates the ‘death grip’ and improves call quality. Currently no other smartphone has the capability to send and receive transmissions on dual antennas. Where Sprint coverage dropped out on my old Motorola phone, the iPhone 4S maintained a respectable three bars. I have a full five when I’m at home, upstairs. I’m very satisfied.

Given this review is specific to the Sprint iPhone, I should quickly address data speeds and concerns about general usability. Verizon tends to fluctuate between 1.5 Mbps and 3.5 Mbps depending on the time of day in my area, which is perfectly acceptable. It’s the same speeds you’ll get on an entry DSL plan. Broadband, LTE, WiMAX, and other technologies have spoiled us with 6 Mbps and greater speeds, especially in areas where these are commonly available. Until LTE is available in major cities on all of the iPhone carriers, Apple isn’t likely to adopt the technology.

With that in mind, I’m seeing less than 2 Mbps on Sprint. On the eve of the iPhone 4S launch I was getting 700 Kbps, with it settling at 1.3 to 1.5 Mbps over the weekend. Unscientifically, this is pretty much what most customers have seen based on feedback from around the web. It’s not bad, but it’s not going to blow you away either. However, I was able to play the occasional YouTube video, stream a 5by5 podcast driving down the highway, get feedback from Siri quickly, comfortably browse Twitter, and visit my favorite sites (which all happen to have mobile versions of their site optimized for iOS). YouTube was hit or miss, and web browsing on desktop sites is slow, but it’s not unusable. For common things you’d do with a smartphone (Twitter, Gowalla, Foursquare, Instagram), the network is fine. As Brad McCarty has said on the The Next Web, it’ll get better. If AT&T has coverage in your area and fast data is of importance, get the AT&T iPhone 4S. Otherwise, stick with your favorite LTE enabled Windows or Android handset.

A5 Chip

The iPhone 4S does get a little warm with constant use, especially when playing movies or games. That’s the speedy A5 chip working hard, providing a lag free experience for your favorite games and titles. Everything is super snappy. Where Twittelator Neue and Tweetbot may have some jerky animations on the current iPod touch, the iPhone 4S makes these applications near buttery smooth. Apps launch quickly, performance is snappy, and the A5 can drive graphically intense games on par with XBOX or PSP titles.

Camera

The Camera is the real winner here. I’d argue it’s a true point-and-shoot replacement, especially since iOS has numerous apps available to give you control over exposure and focus as you shoot. I could give point-and-shoot camera owners the benefit of the doubt and say that they do use the basic camera controls to adjust white balance and take macro photos, but I’m going say it’s probably in auto-mode most of the time. Out of the box, this is the experience the iPhone 4S provides, and the camera quality is very good. Surprisingly good. The first thing I did with the new iPhone 4S was take a few pictures. I giggled like a schoolgirl, but that’s probably because I’m a nerd.

But what about all those fun easy mode effects point-and-shoots offer? Instagram is much better.

The stock camera Apple provides is fast, easy to use, integrates with the volume up button (a feature removed in Camera+), and can capture movies as well. It’s commendable that Apple could stuff such a good camera in a body less than a centimeter thick. While I couldn’t take pictures as well as the professional who captured some amazing photos for Apple, I’d like to think I came pretty close.

Apple’s camera soaks in a lot of color — it’s stupidly easy that I can capture photos I’m happy to share. It even captures objects in motion and freezes them in time. Sure, I’ll take photos where whites are too bright or the subject is too dark, but I chalk this up to my lack of experience.

Just browse Flickr or Camera+ to see how people are utilizing the iPhone 4S to its fullest.

The 8 MP camera will eat up space on your iPhone 4S if you’re not careful. Taking around 200 photos ate about a gigabyte of storage, with photos taking up 4.5 to 5 MB per picture. Keep in mind that roughly 3 GB is consumed by iOS itself when purchasing an iPhone 4S. With 13 GB of usable storage space available on the 16 GB model, you could take over 1000 photos and still be in the clear. For most people who will take 40 or 50 pictures when partying or about town on special occasions, the 16 GB iPhone 4S will suffice. If you take a lot of pictures, spring for the 32 GB or 64 GB models. The upfront expense is nominal compared to the two grand you’re committing to for the contract.

Then we have HD video recording of the 1080p variety built in. The 1080p itself isn’t as standout as the claims of improved image stabilization, a claim made possible thanks to a gyroscope built into the phone. The stabilization focus doesn’t quite solve the wobbly or jelly screen motions — a side effect of small CMOS sensors — but it does take the bite off hand shake and bumps in the road. Home videos will be home videos, and you’ll still have to make your best attempt to steady the iPhone 4S when shooting. I don’t necessarily have an issue with Apple’s claim as stabilization does what it’s supposed to do to a point, but I worry that consumers think this will create shake-free professional videos. It doesn’t.

If you’re considering recording lots of HD video, I’d argue the 64 GB iPhone 4S would be your only comfortable option. A 5 minute, 1080p recording ran at 912 MB (about a gigabyte). If you were to record an hour of video, you’d use up about twelve gigabytes, or almost the entirety of the 16 GB model. Comparatively, You could record up to five hours of 1080p video with the 64 GB iPhone 4S.

The quality of the 1080p video itself can be measured if you own an iPad 2. Just as there is noise when recording 720p video from your tablet, you’re going to see the same thing on your television when playing back video from your iPhone 4S. A 1080p recording can record “up to 30 frames per second”, but realistically that’s going to be in the mid-twenties. You’re not going to have a crystal clear 1080p recording, but you will have a very good 1080p recording that can be later edited in iMovie for the iPhone.

If there’s a reason to upgrade from the iPhone 4, it’s for the camera. Photos come out unbelievably good.

The Battery

Battery longevity has become a point of contention amongst new iPhone 4S owners, with several carrier comparisons and results being shared on the Internet in hopes to discover what’s exactly causing shorter than average battery life. Many customers have reported that the iPhone 4S gets less battery life than the iPhone 4. Apple advertises that you can get six hours of data browsing and moderate use over 3G, and nine hours over Wi-Fi. Of course, using apps to stream media and playing audio over Bluetooth will shorten battery life even further.

The iPhone 4S offers 200 hours on standby, 8 hours on talk, and 40 hours of audio playback before you kill the battery. Apple is generally spot-on with their own evaluation of battery life with their products, and in my test I’ve found that battery life comes close to Apple’s findings.

Over the weekend, a day of browsing the Internet, Twitter, taking pictures, and listening to music gave me about seven hours of battery life switching between 3G and Wi-Fi. That’s a pretty average day for a lot of people, but you’re looking at a midday charge if you use your iPhone 4S moderately.

Apple recommends that you run the battery down once a month from a 100% charge to keep the battery in good shape. If you’re looking to get the most out of your iPhone’s battery, check out Apple’s battery page.

Miscellany

Let’s talk about some other features you might care about in a smartphone. We’re talking about notifications, the ambient light sensor, the vibration motor, muting, and speaker quality.

Unlike many smartphones on the market, Apple does not have a notification light on the face of the phone. Instead, Apple’s Notification Center will offer a glimpse into incoming activity via the lock screen. Sliding a notification’s icon to the right enables you to view details about that notification, sending you into the application to deal with it. If you want to check email or incoming calls, you’ll have to press the sleep/wake button at the top of the phone to check. If you’ve muted your phone, it will vibrate occasionally until you access the lock screen to check your notifications.

The face of the phone is equipped with an ambient light sensor that’s supposed to adjust the brightness of the display depending on how bright your surrounding environment is. It is finicky. As you use the phone, I wouldn’t expect the display to gradually brighten or darken in real time. Instead, you’ll have to sleep and wake the iPhone for it take effect. While the lock screen tends to always be very bright, unlocking the phone will reset the brightness based on your environment.

Above the volume buttons, you’ll find a switch that mutes the phone. Instead of being notified by sound, the phone will notify you via quick, gentle vibrations. The vibration motor in the iPhone 4S is very good. Vibrations are stronger than from the iPhone 4 — although it won’t shake off the table or spook you when an incoming call is made. For the visually impaired and the curious, custom vibration patterns can be assigned to contacts to notify you of whom is calling.

That brings us to the microphone and built in speaker at the bottom of the phone. On the left we have the microphone, and on the right of the dock connector we have the built-in speaker. For gaming and an occasional YouTube video, the built-in speaker is pretty impressive. The speaker can get considerably loud, and while it won’t replace my stereo speakers, it’s great for brief couch or office listening.

Siri

On top of solid hardware, we’re left with iOS 5 and the app ecosystem. With plenty of iOS 5 coverage, I don’t need to delve into the in and outs of Apple’s mobile software too much. Icons are square. Double tapping the home button gives you quick access to the camera from the lock screen. Pull down to get notifications. You get the picture — it’s solid software.

The iPhone 4S, however, comes with a unique feature not found on Apple’s other mobile hardware. Siri, a virtual assistant found by pressing and holding the home button, awaits your every command. It won’t fetch the paper like Fido, but it will help you set alarms, send text messages, and record reminders when your hands are full. Be aware that Siri prominently works in the United States.

I can tell you that Siri will let you know what the weather is like for the week, but repeating the common commands will get boring quick. I trust you geeky readers have already seen things that Siri says and have watched many YouTube videos. Yes, yes, “Open the pod bay doors”. Fascinating from the perspective that Siri’s creators have a sense of humor which will likely grow overtime, and impressive in that it understands geek cultural references. Siri will find directions, a good burger joint, and it’ll even figure out what you should tip the waiter. No need to ask your girlfriend to get out the cheat sheet from the purse — Siri replaces her forever. At least until you forget your phone or your battery dies, which ever happens first.

Siri becomes interesting when you start to get really specific with questions. Siri is good at finding the best seafood joint, but what if I’m looking for fried oysters? It would be impressive if Siri could somehow search local menus for any mention of the delectable appetizers, but instead Siri looks for reviews mentioning fried oysters then sorts the results by ratings. So if someone says, “These fried oysters are the best!” Siri will find it. Even if there’s a place less than five miles from me that serves oysters, Siri won’t mention it unless its seen in a review.

In telling Siri I wanted to buy a movie, I was prompted with the location of the nearest theater rather than the nearest Redbox. “I want to see a play.” Siri found nearby playhouses — not exactly what I wanted. Siri did, however, find numerous fast food restaurants when I asked for drive-thru. You can go back and forth like this with Siri. You can purposely outsmart the software, but I think something like my play question was completely valid. Sometimes the results will be wildly successful, and other times Siri will misinterpret what you’ve said. The potential to eventually learn and understand the context of what I’m asking is astounding.

As an assistant, Siri will find its place in the office. It’s good at scheduling meetings and making phone calls, and will correctly associate hard to pronounce names with your contacts. Where general bookkeeping involved having to create entries on your Mac using something like Fantastical for calendar entries, Siri simply creates entries and associations with voice.

Siri especially excels at dictation. A new microphone icon is present in the iOS system keyboard that enables users to dictate text in text fields. You dictate like this:

Chris — comma — new paragraph — the new camera in the iPhone four S is fantastic — exclamation point — new paragraph — dash Cody

Cool right? The result looks like:

Chris,

The new camera in the iPhone 4S is fantastic!

- Cody

That’s dictation at work. It’s fairly easy to use, and yes, you have to remember to insert your punctuation as you speak (Nuance dictation works the same way). It does take some getting used to, although it can be learned relatively quickly with practice. If typing on a keyboard is a concern, Siri is friendly for those with arthritis, carpal tunnel, or repetitive strain injuries.

Unfortunately, Siri can’t assist you with changing settings on the iPhone 4S itself. Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and Airplane Mode cannot be enabled or disabled with voice alone (I’d really like this change). Although, Siri will look for nearby open Wi-Fi host spots if you ask nicely.

Siri has no problem playing back audio saved in your device’s library. Tell Siri you want to listen to Rock, and your iPhone 4S will start playing random songs in the rock genre. Like contacts, hard to pronounce band names, songs, and playlists are often figured out with enough context. While Siri can’t play songs based on rating, you can change tracks or play your favorite music just by saying what you like. The best scenarios for this play out when driving, or when wearing headphones with your iPhone 4S in your pocket.

The downside to Siri is that it is completely dependent on having a network connection. Provided you have 3G coverage, a Wi-Fi connection, or that Apple’s servers aren’t buckling under the weight of 4 million new iPhone 4S owners, Siri will work as advertised. Put your iPhone 4S in Airplane Mode, and Siri will immediately beep off. I wish there was some processing on the phone for basic tasks, but unless Siri can process your voice even the most simple commands won’t work.

In Summary

It’s the phone that comes with everything Apple’s been working on for months on end — a single product launching with all of its newest services in a form factor that fits in the palm of your hand. It is Apple’s flagship product, and the height of Apple engineering. The competition is fierce thanks to fast adoption of new technologies, and the iPhone 4S might not be what you’re looking for if a larger screen and access to LTE technologies are important given the options. With that said, I think it’s a solid phone for anyone looking for the overall best premium smartphone experience, and it’s now available on Sprint in addition to Verizon and AT&T. Hopefully you find the above review helpful in making an appropriate purchasing decision when shopping for a new smartphone.

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Tags:iOS 5, siri