Review: Apple iPhone 4S

Our score: 3/5
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Published: November 5, 2011 11:00 PM
Updated: March 3, 2014 12:24 PM
By Florence Legrand
Update November 06, 2011: we've had a closer look at the iPhone 4S: we wanted to see if, as it seemed, it did have the same screen as the iPhone 4.  You can find out more in the screen section of our review.

The iPhone 4S is to the iPhone 4 what the iPhone 3GS was to the iPhone 3G.  The latest version of the iPhone has seen serious hardware improvements alongside a significant software upgrade in the shape of iOS 5.  It now has a dual-core A5 processor, as well as a Qualcomm chip for connectivity.  That extra power is used for the new Siri service, an intelligent voice-activated assistant.  There's also an 8 Megapixel camera with can shoot 1080p video which we're pretty sure comes from Sony.  But what are the new features like?  Is it worth trading in your iPhone 4 for a 4S?  What about your 3GS?  Let's take a closer look ...

iPhone 4S review
In the first three days after it was announced, four million iPhone 4S units were sold.  According to Apple, that record figure is more than double the amount of pre-orders that the iPhone 4 garnered in the same period.  Despite initial disappointment surrounding the lack of major design changes, and no new screen, the latest iPhone got the full keynote treatment.  If that wasn't enough, the death of Steve Jobs just a day later propelled it firmly into the spotlight.  That's not to do down the quality of the latest iPhone, which brings along a few new features of its own.

Something strangely familiar

The iPhone 4S looks just like an iPhone 4.  The only change is the position of some of the wireless receivers, but for more on that, see the inset.

Apple iPhone 4S reveiw

The minimalist exterior and oblong form factor that characterised the iPhone 4 are back here.  Always keen to follow the adage 'less is more', Apple has once again shied away from releasing a game-changing phone with an eye-catching new design.  But both the iPhone 4 and the new 4S still stand out compared to other smartphones in a market where originality is at something of a premium: despite new models arriving all the time, many modern smartphones look all too similar.  So fifteen months after the arrival of the iPhone 4, the 4S can still rely on a choice of quality materials, including a sheet of glass on each side and brushed metal around the edges, as well as an excellent finish.

Apple iPhone 4S reveiw - screen

Nicknamed 'Retina' by Apple, the IPS LCD screen with LED backlighting has a resolution of 960 x 640 pixels.  Text on websites is perfectly readable without zooming in.  Characters in text messages are slim and sharp with every detail visible.  Indeed, we love how much detail it's capable of showing overall.  In short, the iPhone 4S has a display that's at least as good as the Super AMOLED screen that some of its competitors use.  The one difference is that Apple relies less heavily on saturated colours but produces lower contrast ratios.

Update November 06, 2011: After testing it with our lab equipment, we're not convinced that the screen in the iPhone 4S is strictly identical to the one found in the iPhone 4.  To start with, the contrast ratio on the new model is slightly lower than on the older iPhone 4 (850:1 vs. 880:1, respectively).  The colour reproduction isn't quite as accurate, with the deltaE score, which measures the size of the discrepancy between the 'perfect' colours and those shown on screen climbing from 5.8 for the iPhone 4 to 6.2 for the iPhone 4S.  So far, the HTC Titan has the best ever score for a smartphone at 3.3, but an accurate display usually falls below 3.0.  According to our lab results, then, the iPhone 4S has a slightly less impressive display than the iPhone 4.  But to the naked eye, these tiny differences are all but invisible.

iOS 5: a new interface, but not for anybody who's used Android

A major update to iOS has brought the iPhone 4S—and the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 3GS—plenty of improvements, including some features that have been missing for a while.  Although the system was originally revolutionary, iOS users have been missing one or two things that Android fans have enjoyed for a long time, including a centralised notification system.  We've already looked at some of the new features in iOS 5 in detail in a news report.

Apple iPhone 4S reveiw - notifications

To cover some of the most important updates, we would include that new notification area, which brings together incoming messages, upcoming appointments and news and updates that you can select from your own apps.  There's also the new iMessage instant messaging platform (via WiFi only) to talk to other iOS users for free.  When you're roaming and have a WiFi connection, you can save the cost of sending a text message.  Another addition in iOS 5 is a new set of tools for editing and retouching your photos.

Apple iPhone 4S reveiw

It's the first time we've been able to try the iCloud online storage platform.  Users get 5 GB of storage and can choose whether they want to back up photos, documents, calendars, notes, favourites and more in the cloud.  The main advantage is that you can use the whole suite of iApps wherever you are: your photos are instantly available in iPhoto, your calendars in iCal ...  iPad users can start work on a document on their tablet and then pick up where they left off on their iPhone or their iMac.

Apple iPhone 4S reveiw - test

Another not altogether insignificant addition is the arrival of wireless sync for iTunes.  With iOS 5, your iPhone no longer needs a cable, which is a real step forward.  It also means you can use your new phone straight out of the box, with no need to ever connect it to a computer, unless you want to restore your entire iTunes library.

Apple iPhone 4S reveiw - icloud

On the same subject, any music you buy online from your iPhone or iPad ends up straight in your iTunes library on your other devices.

But does that new processor really change much compared to the iPhone 4?  Well yes, actually: the phone boots more quickly and apps—especially processor-heavy games—start faster too.  The new chipset also keeps the Siri voice-activated services ticking along smoothly.  We also noticed that some apps, like Google Earth, started up more quickly, and that scrolling through long web ages or e-mails was smoother.  It hardly leaves the iPhone 4's interface standing though: the iPhone 4S is a little faster in some areas, but it really isn't a great leap forward.  You will, of course, notice a radical improvement if you still have an iPhone 3GS.

Meet Siri, your new digital assistant

Siri is a voice-based personal assistant which is exclusive to the iPhone 4S (although some enterprising users have already managed to get it to run on an iPhone 4).  It uses a combination of spoken input and output and artificial intelligence, and the basic idea is that you can talk to your phone—as long as you're connected to 3G or WiFi—in natural language, rather than using a small repertoire of phrases like 'call Dave' as is the case with other voice-activated systems.  Of course, you'll have to put up with looking you're talking to yourself if you use it in public, but holding the phone up to your ear as if you're making a call can help alleviate some of the embarrassment.

Apple iPhone 4S reveiw - Siri

Using it is deceptively simple.  You say a 'normal' phrase, combining several details in one request if you like: 'remind me to call Catherine at 8 PM on Saturday,' for instance.  Siri reads your request back to you, opens your calendar, adds the reminder, double-checks to see if you want to change the date and time and then saves the details.  Then an alert pops up at 8 PM on Saturday.  Over time, Siri gets used to your voice and the way you speak.  The more you use it, the better it gets at interpreting your input.

Apple iPhone 4S reveiw - Siri test

Siri can do all sorts of things: play a song, call a contact, write a text message or an e-mail, search the web, take notes, give you reminders or what the weather will be like when you go on holiday next week.  It's an incredibly powerful assistant that can really understand natural language.  It's far from perfect, and doesn't understand everything you say.  It didn't know who JFK was, but at least it offered to help by launching a web search.
 
There are also a couple of obvious features that are missing, including the ability to send a tweet or ask for directions.  We're sure both of these things, and plenty more, will come when third-party developers start to exploit the power of Siri. 

Apple iPhone 4S reveiw

In practice, we imagine that Siri will be of must use to drivers or anybody with their hands full at home; using it outdoors is a little awkward.  You really do look ridiculous if you just hold your phone in front of you and talk away, although using the handsfree kit or holding it up to your ear is a slight improvement.  Overall, though, Siri is a big leap forward in both voice recognition and the ability of a mobile device to analyse linguistic input.  It soon becomes addictive and asking it silly questions can be great fun: if you ask 'why are you called the iPhone 4S and not the iPhone 5?', it tells you to go ask somebody at the Genius Bar, for instance.  If you thank it, it will tell you it's only doing its job. 

Siri might still be a young technology with plenty of room to grow, but it's already very impressive.  Some people might already have written it off as a fun toy, claiming, rightly, that it's far from essential.  We suspect that in time it will turn out to be very useful indeed.

Multimedia: great camera

Apple has made sure it keeps up with the competition by adding a reverse-side illuminated 8 Megapixel camera with an f/2.4 lens.  These changes enable the iPhone 4S take better photos than the iPhone 4, which already does a pretty good job.  As we mentioned last week, the progress has been incredible: the iPhone 4S does much better than both its predecessor and its direct competitors, especially when light levels fall.  There's less electronic noise with judicious use of blurring, and photos taken on the iPhone 4S have more details than those we got from both the iPhone 4 and the Samsung Galaxy S II.  Despite these improvements, the white balance still has a slight red tinge.

It's also worth pointing out that the wait time in between taking two photos has is now shorter.

Apple iPhone 4S reveiw - camera test
Apple iPhone 4S reveiw - camera test


Even when the phone is locked, you can access the camera by quickly pressing the home button twice.  A camera icon pops up onscreen that you click to launch the camera quickly.  You focus by tapping on the display and use the volume button to take the shot.
 

Apple iPhone 4S reveiw - camera test

 

The same stabilised camera can be used to shoot 1080p video.  It is generally free of shakes, but don't expect the sort of quality you'd find from a good digital camera.

Apple hasn't done much about audio, apart from making the speakers a little more powerful.  But the downside is they sound very tinny, and the small problems audible on the iPhone 4 now ring out loud and clear.  They're still perfectly acceptable for a smartphone though.

Apple iPhone 4S reveiw - web browser

Browsing the web on iPhone has always been fast, but it's now even faster, by up to a second in the case of some pages.  Safari loads ordinary pages faster, but still doesn't have any support for Flash.  You can, however, access pages with Flash content, but there's an empty space where the Flash elements were.  Like ads, for example ...

If you've got an Apple TV, you can look at your photos and play videos and games on your own TV at home.  And if you don't have Apple TV, you can always buy a separate HDMI adaptor.

Apple's final claim for the new processor is an improvement in battery life.  It
does seem to last a little longer, but you'll still want to charge it up at the end of every day.  You can eek it out for a little longer if you don't use Siri very much, but we found it very hard to resist the temptation to play with a new toy!

Already got an iPhone?  Do you need an iPhone 4S?

Is it worth switching your existing iPhone 3G or 3GS for this new model?  It's definitely worth thinking about.  The camera is a lot better, the phone is faster and you'll also be able to enjoy iOS 5.  You can, of course, install the new software on your 3GS, but it won't be very fast.  Siri can be great too.  The need to jump from an iPhone 4 to an iPhone 4S is less obvious given that both handsets can handle iOS 5, and the camera on the iPhone 4 was pretty good already, especially when combined with extra apps from the App Store.  We wouldn't be surprised if Apple unveiled native support for Siri on the iPhone 4 soon, either.

The iPhone 4S might load demanding apps slightly more quickly and display web pages in in the blink of an eye, but the iPhone 4 is still one of the fastest, most stable smartphones on the market.  The iPhone 4S isn't a reason to give up your iPhone 4, unless you absolutely need to be able to film in 1080p and play the latest, most demanding mobile games on one pocket-sized device.
3/5 Apple iPhone 4S DigitalVersus 2011-11-06 00:00:00

Pros

  • Build quality / Gorgeous screen
  • Intuitive interface with improvements like notifcations and iMessage on a responsive handset
  • Camera takes great photos even in low light / Shoots 1080p video
  • Siri is fun and maybe even useful: it's an idea worth exploring ...
  • Gaming platform / Wireless sync / iCloud

Cons

  • Battery life: acceptable, but could still do better
  • Voice calls: sound becomes saturated if volume is too high
  • Siri: we want to see it work with more apps

Conclusion

The iPhone 4S is as easy to use as ever, and sees the arrival of several improvements. The most substantial of these include visibly better photos from the digital camera and the faster processor speeds. The new voice services from Siri are a clear part of Apple's strategy to add more and more services to the basic product—we're just looking forward to seeing it work with some more apps!

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