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iPhone 4S review

Sections: iPhone, iPhone OS, SDK and hacks, iPhone/iPod touch/iPad, Reviews

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Provides: Smartphone capabilities
Developer: Apple, Inc.
Minimum Requirements: Mac or PC computer with iTunes account
Price: $199 16GB, $299 32GB, $399 64GB, all with two year contract
Availability: Now

iPhone ScreenshotThe iPhone 4s has been out for two weeks now in the United States, and is launching on a rolling schedule around the world through the end of 2011. With over 4 million sold in just its first week of availability, the device seems to be a hit. For the more cautious among you, the news from early adopters is uniformly positive—the iPhone 4s is a solid iteration of an already successful device. Here are some thoughts on it after two weeks of use.

The Device

The big story (scandal?) when the iPhone 4S was released was related to its lack of novelty. It is exactly the same on the outside as the iPhone 4, but as one of the most attractive, functional, and recognizable phone designs the world over, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Beauty in this case is much more than skin deep, because the iPhone 4S is packing the A5 processor first used in the iPad 2, a slightly bigger battery, brand new antenna design, and a camera that combines a bigger sensor with more advanced optical elements.

The Camera: Professional photographers will need to look elsewhere, but tourists, family shutterbugs, and those documenting insanely cute pet/baby/flashmob scenes will find plenty to love. The 8 megapixel sensor captures images that are crisp and detailed, while the f/2.4 aperture, five-element lens group, and IR filter produce fantastic images even in low light. The A5 provides a big boost for the image processing as well, giving more natural colors with more advanced white balance processing and Face Detection for autofocus capabilities in group shots. The A5 also provides sufficient oomph in processing for incredibly stabilized 1080p video, utilizing data from the camera’s accelerometer to reduce shaking, which makes for vacation videos that are more pleasant and less nausea-inducing. The LED flash is still woefully inadequate for anything but a pale glow on close objects, however, so keep realistic expectations of the camera’s abilities in a dark room.

iPhone 4S camera sample shots

Siri: With the pleasant lilting voice of an intoxicated Ikea saleswoman, Siri is billed as Apple’s intelligent virtual assistant, capable of a number of useful chores, including reading your incoming texts, transcribing your spoken replies, checking your calendar, playing a selection from your music library, finding you directions, finding you a groovy nightclub in the vicinity, and a number of other tasks. To activate Siri, simply hold down the home button and speak when prompted. Siri has a wealth of resources at her digital fingertips, including your iPhone’s contact/calendar data, Wolfram Alpha’s semantic search engine, Google Maps, Yelp reviews, and the ability to set reminders for you based on time or location, such as “Remind me to call Mom when I get home tonight”. She even has something of a personality built-in, which has naturally received its very own (slightly NSFW) Tumblr. Best of all, Siri’s speech-to-text recognition capability is built-in throughout the iPhone, so anywhere you would normally type you also have the option to dictate.

Siri Finding Tea

Some additional items of note in the new iPhone:

  • Battery issues: There seem to be a small percentage of users experience abnormally quick power drain on their new phones. These seem to be contained to users who upgrade from a previous iPhone, so it may be a setting that is corrupted/changed in the migration process. Various fixes and tips have been reported, as well as Apple engineers contacting bloggers who have written about the issue.
  • Hot Potato: Jokes about a svelte Siri aside, the iPhone 4S can be quite a little hottie. The new antenna design places one antenna on each of the long ends of the iPhone; one transmits while the other receives. During heavy use, such as surfing while talking, these antennas can get warm, though never uncomfortably so. Maintain a solid grip or use a bumper if you are prone to sweaty palms, or you may find your iPhone slipping away. The plus side of this antenna design is the complete removal of the Antennagate “grip of death”, and one of the most consistently reliable AT&T iPhones ever.
  • Good Vibrations: Intended as an accessibility feature, but also useful for the creative, iOS 5 lets you create custom vibration patterns for individual contacts from within their contact card. Simply enable Custom Vibrations and then get tapping (bonus points for melodies more complex than the Star Wars Imperial March or Chopsticks).
  • Size Matters. Period: WIth a new 64GB option, the iPhone is finally approaching a storage capacity where it can serve as both phone and iPod to serious music lovers with large libraries.

iOS 5

iOS 5 has over 200 new features, ranging from improved notifications to iCloud to a slick new feature called simply Newstand, which collates all the subscription apps you own like magazines and newspapers into a special folder that lets you easily browse the content stored in these apps (much like an old fashioned newspaper stand – very quaint!).

Standout features of the new OS include:

  • iMessages may cause a one-time interruption in a conversation thread, especially when using the service for the first time on an iPod Touch or iPad when you previously had a conversation going with one of your contacts. Luckily, the new conversation will be available instantly across all iOS devices, and the old thread remains on your iPhone where the original SMS exchange occurred.
  • Notifications now require a little more work to stay on top of, as there are per-app notification preferences. These are unified under the Notifications pane in Settings (what is up with the HAL-style icon?!), where you can set preferences for an app’s notification behavior, including: show/hide messages in the notification center, display new messages as banners that auto-dismiss or alerts that require your interaction, and whether the app displays badge icons and pushes alerts to the Lock screen. It is worthwhile to pay attention to any critical app’s notification settings, as you would not want an alarm clock app to send notices politely to the Notification center and nowhere else. Accessing the notification center is as simple as swiping down from just above the iPhone’s screen.

iOS 5 Notifications

  • Photostream pushes your device’s pictures up into iCloud, and from there to all iCloud-subscribed devices. This means pictures snapped with your iPhone are automatically available on your iPad and your Mac, where they are saved permanently. The best part: Photostream updates Aperture or iPhoto even when those apps are not open, so your pics are safely stored everywhere.
  • Wireless sync cuts the iTunes cord, providing syncing of apps, pictures, music, ringtones, movies, iBooks, etc. between your Mac and your iDevice without wires. Whenever your Mac and iDevice are on the same WiFi network, the iDevice shows up in the Devices list in iTunes, where you can manage its settings and kickoff a sync. One word of caution, though: there is no wireless backup to iTunes, so make sure you activate iCloud backup to ensure your devices are recoverable in the event they are lost or damaged.

For iPhone 4 owners, the iPhone 4S does not represent a substantial enough improvement to justify breaking contract for an upgrade (and Apple likely wants to avoid making you too insanely jealous at being stuck with your phone for another year). Apart from the camera/processor combo, there is nothing that you can do with a 4S that you can not do with your current phone—even Siri runs fine, and she will likely find her way to iPhone 4 and iPad 2s soon enough (she’s still in beta, and a true lady worth waiting for). iPhone 3GS users who are coming due for an upgrade, or holdouts from the iPhone 3G (your reviewer included) should run, not walk to the nearest Apple store and make the upgrade now. While the 3GS technically supports iOS 5, the software runs slowly and does not present a compelling experience. iPhone 3G users are meanwhile stuck with iOS 4.2, and the weight of public ridicule at their dinosaur devices must surely be reaching a tipping point.

With a still-killer design, improved guts, and an operating system that polishes and continues to refine the best smartphone platform anywhere, the iPhone 4S is a worthy successor and all around an extremely useful smartphone. BlackBerry, Android, or original/3G/3GS iPhone users need not wait, because the 4S is both new and improved.

Now you just have to decide: do you want it in white, or black?

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iPhone 4S review

Buy the iPhone 4S

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