iPhone 4S review: It's a sure thing

The initial reaction to the announcement of the iPhone 4S was muted.

First there's that name: It's the old phone's name with an S attached to it. As the iPhone 3GS taught us, adding an S to an iPhone's name can represent numerous under-the-hood improvements, but it doesn't send shivers down your spine like incrementing a number by one and unveiling a redesigned exterior with mind-blowing features that may or may not include anti-gravity.

Apple's never going to win a competition with the wildest imaginations of tech bloggers. But the company seems to be doing OK in the business of building phones. The iPhone 4, which remained more or less unchanged for 15 months as approximately a zillion Android smartphone models came and went, has consistently been the best-selling smartphone around.

Now here comes the iPhone 4S, which is more of a good thing: It takes the successful look of the iPhone 4 and tosses in a dual-core processor for dramatically improved speed, an upgraded camera, and some brand-new voice-command technologies.

Feels like an iPhone

It's a classic look, easily my favorite of all the iPhone designs to date. The fit and finish are immaculate; not a single thing about the iPhone 4S feels cheap. In terms of styling, the iPhone 4 feels like the most expensive electric razor ever made, or maybe like a finely-tuned luxury watch.

The same eye-popping 960-by-640-pixel screen introduced with the iPhone 4 is present on the iPhone 4S, too. Dubbed the "Retina display" by Apple, it's got a screen resolution of 326 pixels per inch, meaning that the average human eye can't even see individual pixels. The result is marvelous. Reading text is like looking at a printed page. High-definition videos and photos display tiny details.

With the exception of a micro-SIM card slot on the right side, the iPhone 4S is a dead ringer for the Verizon/CDMA version of the iPhone 4 introduced in February. Extremely precise cases designed specifically for the original iPhone 4 may have trouble fitting over the ring/silent switch and the volume buttons of the iPhone 4S, which are slightly shifted from their position on the GSM iPhone 4; precision cases for the Verizon iPhone 4 and less-precise iPhone 4 cases will have no trouble.

On the front of the phone there's a VGA-quality camera (640-by-480 pixels) that's designed to be used for video chatting, either via Apple's FaceTime technology or via a third-party app such as Skype or Google+. This, too, is unchanged from the specs of the iPhone 4.

In essence, only a Sherlockian attention to detail would allow you to differentiate between the GSM (AT&T) iPhone 4, CDMA (Verizon) iPhone 4, and the iPhone 4S. (Budding detectives: The symmetrical black lines on both sides of the phone are the sign it's not a GSM iPhone 4; if there's no micro-SIM slot on the right side, it's the CDMA iPhone 4; if the lines are symmetrical but the slot is there, it's the iPhone 4S.)

This does not mean that the iPhone 4S is essentially the iPhone 4 with the benefit of an extra letter. Because on the inside, the iPhone 4S is dramatically different from the iPhone 4.

Speedy 4S

Like the iPad 2 before it, the iPhone 4S is powered by an Apple-designed A5 processor. This is a dual-core processor that's one generation more advanced than the A4 processor that powered the iPhone 4 and the original iPad.

Two processor cores don't necessarily mean the iPhone 4S is twice as fast as the iPhone 4—that has a lot to do with how efficiently a device's software can take advantage of spreading the workload across both cores. But the 4S's upgraded processor definitely provides a large speed boost, akin to the upgrade from the original iPad to the iPad 2.

The results of my general-performance tests showed the iPhone 4S to be between roughly twice as fast as the iPhone 4. Apple claims graphics performance on the iPhone 4S has been boosted even more by the graphics component of the A5, with speed gains of as much as 7x. That's a best-case scenario, but my tests with the GLBench Pro graphics benchmarking app did show enhanced graphics performance. One 3D test sequence played at roughly five times the frame rate of the same scene on the iPhone 4; another was roughly double the frame rate.

Of course, many people won't be upgrading to the iPhone 4S from the iPhone 4, due to those pesky two-year phone contracts that cell carriers insist on. But a whole lot of people will be upgrading from two-year-old iPhone 3GSes. 3GS users will see an even larger speed increase, of course. The 4S had more than double the score on the GeekBench testing app, and loaded a test webpage in a third of the time.

The only iOS device in existence that can match up—and even beat—the iPhone 4S is the iPad 2. In most of my tests, the iPad 2 was slightly faster than the iPhone 4S. (The original iPad was similarly faster than the iPhone 4, in fact.) Of course, the iPad 2 doesn't fit in your pocket, unless you have unusually large pockets or are a clown, or both.

Apple claims that talk time on the iPhone 4S's battery is actually an hour longer than on the iPhone 4, but that Wi-Fi surfing will drain the battery an hour sooner. Apple says that the innards of the iPhone 4S have been entirely redesigned—so many components have changed, there's no simple explanation for the change in the company's battery-life claims. It seems clear, though, that some components are more energy efficient than on the iPhone 4 (I'm looking at you, cellular radio) while others eat more power (dual-core A5 processor).

The end result is a phone that offers largely the same battery life as the iPhone 4. However, I didn't get a chance to run any dedicated battery tests on the iPhone 4S. In general usage, it didn't seem to run out of battery any faster than my trusty iPhone 4.

A tale of two technologies

When Apple released the Verizon-compatible version of the iPhone 4 in February, the previously-simple iPhone product line got a little more complicated. That's because Verizon's network in the U.S. uses a different wireless standard (CDMA) than the networks the iPhone had previously supported, all of which (including AT&T in the U.S.) used the more common GSM wireless standard.

Verizon and Sprint both still use CDMA networks in the United States, but that fact no longer causes a product schism: The iPhone 4S can connect to either CDMA or GSM networks. That's a big deal for Apple, which no longer has to build two different versions of the same phone, but it's less dramatic a change for regular users.

That's primarily because most iPhones are sold as a part of a package deal that includes a two-year contract with a specific wireless carrier. The phone you get as a part of that deal is locked, which is to say it's tied to the carrier you got it from and can't easily be moved to a different one.

There is one scenario, however, in which this new phone design becomes a big deal: international travel. Users of iPhones locked to AT&T have always been able to travel internationally, since GSM is a cellular standard that is supported all over the world. Users of the CDMA iPhone 4 (the "Verizon iPhone," though that model will also now be available from Sprint) couldn't travel reliably with the phone internationally, since it only supported the CDMA wireless standard, which isn't that widely used outside of North America and parts of Asia.

With the iPhone 4S, this is no longer a problem. The iPhone 4S can use CDMA when in the U.S., but will switch to GSM when in a country without any CDMA networks. By default you'll pay Sprint or Verizon's international roaming rates and use their preferred overseas partners. But Sprint and Verizon will also let you buy and use local pre-paid micro-SIM cards, which offer much more affordable rates for overseas data and voice. It's a big advantage for Sprint and Verizon. (For more details, check out my story about the iPhone 4S as a "world phone.")

AT&T does have one clear advantage over the other carriers in the U.S., however: speed. In February I discovered that the Verizon 3G network was more reliable than AT&T's, but was also noticeably slower. Though many carriers are rolling out 4G networks in the U.S., the iPhone 4S does not support them. (AT&T has been slower at rolling out a 4G network, but it's got a very fast 3G network—and the iPhone 4S takes advantage.)

As a result, the theoretical maximum 3G download speed of the iPhone 4S is 14.4Mbps, double the 7.2Mbps limit on the iPhone 4. (In contrast, CDMA's theoretical maximum download speed is 3.1Mbps.) Still, in my tests I couldn't get download speeds above 4.2Mbps on AT&T's 3G network in the San Francisco area.

Antennas in action

And so, finally, we come to the antennas. Apple says that the antennas on the iPhone 4 have been completely redesigned. The phone constantly assesses the quality of its connection to the cellular network and dynamically switches between two antennas, both embedded in its metallic outer ring.

The iPhone 4, in contrast, could use only one of those two antennas for cellular coverage (the other was—and still remains—used for Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and GPS reception). This led to a peculiar result: If you held the iPhone 4 just right, covering up the bottom left corner of the device, you could attenuate the cellular signal and (depending on the strength of that signal) even lose your connection altogether.

That finding turned into a huge public-relations issue, unimaginatively dubbed "antennagate." Apple called a press conference to explain the issue and offer compensation for iPhone 4 owners who felt they'd been let down. In the end, the iPhone 4 was still a huge success, despite the fact that Consumer Reports refused to endorse it over the antenna issue.

Still, you'd figure that the criticism stung Apple enough for the company to make sure it wouldn't be burned by this particular issue ever again. And you'd be right. The dynamic switching between two different antennas means that there's no way you will be able to "death grip" the iPhone 4S unless you are trying to literally strangle your phone.

In all my tests, the old iPhone 4 "death grip" had no impact on the speed of cellular downloads on the iPhone 4S, nor did a reverse grip at the top of the phone. Only when I took both hands and performed a "death grip" that covered the entire phone (or at least touched all four corners of the phone simultaneously) did I see any signal attenuation.

The iPhone 4 antenna issue probably garnered more attention than the true scope of the problem deserved. Lots of cell phones have attenuation issues. In more than a year of heavy iPhone 4 use, I've rarely changed how I held the phone in hopes of getting a better cellular signal. It happened, yes, but no more than a half-dozen times. Still, I am happy to report that it seems that Apple has eradicated this problem entirely. If you shied away from the iPhone 4 because of attenuation issues, it's safe to go back in the water.

Higher-def camera

After the original iPhone and the iPhone 3G shipped with poor cameras, Apple seems to have been on a mission to improve the iPhone's ability as a picture taker. The iPhone 3GS had an upgraded camera, but it was really with the iPhone 4 that the iPhone's camera became worthy of the rest of the device.

The iPhone 4S upgrades the camera yet again, and while it's a clear improvement, it's not as huge a jump as the the one from the iPhone 3GS. The 4S offers eight megapixels of resolution (2448-by-3264 pixels) along with a bunch of improvements to optics and a wider (f/2.4) aperture. The iPhone 4S also shoots video at 1080p, quite a bit higher resolution than the iPhone 4's 720p. (This means all your video files will be larger. There's no way to tell the iPhone 4S to shoot at a lower resolution.)

To test the iPhone 4S's camera, I took still photos and video using Macworld's standard battery of camera tests and compared them to samples from four Android smartphones, the iPhone 4, and a Nikon Coolpix point-and-shoot camera. I prefered the images from the iPhone 4S, with the Samsung Galaxy S II coming in second. The iPhone 4S excelled in flash and exposure tests and looked better on our clarity tests. I also ranked it best on the low-light video test, though it was comparable with all the other smartphones at full-light video.

I also took the camera outside and took some shots in daylight in my neighborhood. The results were similarly impressive. I'll include, for comparison's sake, a representative sample so you can see how far the iPhone's camera has come since the days of the original model.

But there's more to the iPhone 4S's camera than just its physical components. Apple is also using the power of the A5 processor (and its integrated signal processor) in numerous ways: There's image stabilization of video as you shoot it and a face-detection algorithm to help ensure that your subjects are properly focused and exposed.

Most important, the iPhone 4S's speed and some changes to iOS 5 work to solve the biggest failing of the iPhone camera up until now, namely the length of time it takes to get from your pocket to the moment when you can take a picture. In the past, this could be a laborious process: Pull out the phone, slide to unlock, enter in a security code if you've enabled one, find the Camera app (which might even be tucked away inside a folder), launch it, and then wait as the iPhone wakes up its camera and finally shows you an image.

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