iPhone 4S Review

iPhone 4S
image credit: Apple Inc.

The Good

  • Speedy performance
  • Siri is impressive and useful
  • Improved camera
  • Greater carrier choice
  • 64 GB model (finally!)

The Bad

  •  Siri’s usefulness seems slightly limited right now
  • Battery life is a bit weak

The Price
US$199 – 16 GB
$299 – 32 GB
$399 – 64 GB
(all prices assume a two-year contract)

After 16 months of anticipation, the iPhone 4S was greeted with a collective “is that it?” from the tech press and many Apple lovers who wanted an iPhone 5. The iPhone 4S didn’t introduce enough changes, was too similar to the iPhone 4, they said. For owners of the iPhone 4, those criticisms may hold a bit of water. For everyone else, though—from owners of earlier iPhone models to those who don’t own an iPhone at all—those reactions are drastically misguided. The iPhone 4S is an excellent phone that introduces a potentially revolutionary technology.

Anyone who’s got an iPhone 3GS or earlier, or doesn’t yet have an iPhone, should seriously consider getting one.

A Smooth Transition

Many complained that the iPhone 4S is too much like the iPhone 4. That resemblance starts on the outside. The iPhone 4S uses a nearly identical case to the iPhone 4, with the exception of a redesigned antenna that corrects the antenna problems that plagued the iPhone 4. Pick up an iPhone 4 or 4S, and unless you’re looking closely at a few minor details, it’s hard to tell them apart.

Use them for a few minutes, though, and the improvements become apparent quickly.

That new antenna design—the result of two independent antenna systems that the phone can switch between dynamically to prevent dropped calls—seems to be working. I haven’t made any scientific tests, but my 4S seems to drop fewer calls than my iPhone 4. Certainly, I have fewer calls where I need to begin the conversation by apologizing for a dropped connection.

The 4S is also much more responsive than the 4, thanks to its A5 processor. This is the same processor that powers the iPad 2 and the successor to the iPhone 4’s A4 chip. The iPhone 4S is noticeably faster than its predecessor in everyday use and significantly faster in launching apps. I tested three processor- and network-intensive apps that can be slow to start and found the 4S to be generally at least twice as fast as the 4 (time to launch, in seconds):

iPhone 4S iPhone 4
Safari 1 4
Spotify 4 9
Ultimate Spider-Man: Total Mayhem 4 7

The improved speed also extended, though not to the same degree, to loading websites. Over Wi-Fi, the 4S was generally at least 20% faster than the 4. Time to load full desktop sites, in seconds:

iPhone 4S iPhone 4
Apple.com 2 4
CNN.com 5 8
ESPN.com 5 6
HoopsHype.com/Rumors.html 3 5
iPod.About.com​​ 4 4​

Another seemingly small change with larger implications can only be seen in the top left corner of the screen. There, on some iPhone 4S models, instead of seeing just AT&T or Verizon, you’ll now find additional carriers like Sprint and C Spire. The addition of new carriers means ever greater choice for iPhone users, which can only be good, and the surprise inclusion of C Spire—a small, regional carrier serving mostly the Deep South—promises that the iPhone will be offered by more small carriers soon.

One major downside of all this new power and flexibility, though, is that the iPhone 4S’s battery life is worse than its predecessor’s. It’s not unusable, but you’ll be charging the 4S a bit more often than the 4. Some reports have it that this is a software problem, not a hardware one. If so, a fix should be forthcoming (in the meantime, check out these tips on extending iPhone battery life).

The final needed and appreciated, but not obvious, change is to the camera. The previous iPhone camera topped out at 5 megapixels and 720p HD video recording. The iPhone 4S offers an 8-megapixel camera and 1080p HD recording—two big improvements. To get a sense of the significance of these changes, check out this fascinating comparison of the same photo taken with each iPhone generation’s camera. The pictures taken by the 4S are noticeably crisper, brighter, and more lifelike.

Even better, Apple has also significantly improved the responsiveness of the camera and camera app, resulting in a much quicker time to take the first picture and a reduced wait between taking subsequent ones.

Siri Speaks For Herself

These under-the-hood improvements are terrific, but the most important addition in the iPhone 4S, the one that has everyone—including the phone itself—talking is Siri. Siri, a voice-driven digital assistant built into the phone, is amazing. So amazing that it’s almost hard to convey how impressive it is without using it, but I’ll try.

Siri offers a level of intelligence and integration with the phone that no other app that I’ve used does. For instance, Siri is adept at delivering complex search results. Activate Siri, tell it you’re looking for a top-rated hotel in (say) Boston that has a gym and a pool for Friday night and, within seconds, Siri delivers a list of hotels in Boston that have those attributes, ranked in descending order from those reviewed most favorably (by users of Yelp, which is where Siri gets that sort of data). Think about that for a second. The app has to understand that you mean Boston, Massachusetts, understand what’s a hotel and what isn’t, include only those that have pools and gyms, and then sort them based on rating. And it all happens in just a few seconds.

This is truly future technology available to us now.

Siri’s capabilities extend to other things, too: set a reminder based on time or your geographic location, find out if you have an appointment and move it to another day, or dictate an email or ​text message. Siri’s dictation feature is pretty impressive in its own right. It rarely makes errors, even in noisy environments like a car (which is where I’ve used Siri most so far). It’s even smart enough to distinguish between possessives and plurals based on context. I used the Dragon Dictation app as a comparison and Dragon not only had more transcription errors (not a ton more, but enough to place it lower than Siri), it couldn’t understand the possessive/plural difference at all.

As Siri gains access to more apps and more data sources (besides the data on your phone itself, it can only currently access Yelp and the Wolfram Alpha search engine), it will become tremendously useful—and it’s already pretty impressive.

One small note, though, hints at a potential drawback of Siri. I mentioned that I’ve really only used it in the car so far. That’s because the rest of the time, I’ve got my hands free to use the phone and don’t mind looking at the screen. Perhaps using Siri to change an appointment, rather than going to the calendar app and doing it manually, is faster. We’ll have to see as people get into the habit. But right now, Siri’s usefulness seems a little limited to situations like driving where you need to interact with your phone but want your attention diverted as little as possible.

That said, Siri represents a major step forward in the interfaces we use to interact with technology and I have no doubt that, as it appears in more devices (there are rumors of an Apple HDTV that will use Siri as its main interface; pretty cool), Apple will have once again fundamentally changed how we interact with technology.

The Bottom Line

As noted, owners of the iPhone 4 may be right: with the exception of Siri, the iPhone 4S is more a refinement of an already-very-good device, rather than a must-have upgrade. If you’re an iPhone 4 owner happy with your phone, you don’t need to rush out and upgrade.

But, if you own an earlier iPhone, the improvements in speed, responsiveness, camera and more—remember, earlier models lack things like the incredible, high-res Retina Display screen, for instance—add up to an imperative to upgrade. And if you don’t have an iPhone at all, I’m not sure there’s a better phone available. There are a number with a better feature or two (for instance, there are some Android phones with much bigger screens), but for an overall experience—from software to hardware to usability—you can’t go wrong with the iPhone 4S.