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Apple iPhone 4S

I've owned at least one of every iPhone made, except for one: Last year, I purchased my second iPhone 3GS model, skipping the iPhone 4. Given the rampant hardware issues with that device, I feel like I dodged a bullet. But this year, thanks to the iPhone 4S, my earlier decision has paid off: With this updated iPhone 4, I get the same beautiful design as its predecessor, but with improved performance, a superior camera, and, finally, a working antenna.

It's a terrific device. Refined and elegant, the iPhone 4S is everything that Android is not. And vice versa: It doesn't support true 4G wireless technologies, leading edge features like NFC, or sport a gigantic, 4+ inch screen. Compared to Windows Phone, the iPhone 4S is lacking the integrated services functionality of Microsoft's platform, but of course bests it in the size and quality of its overall ecosystem.

Does any of this matter? I'm not so sure. By innovating at such a high level with the initial iPhone, Apple has created a platform that, like the Mac, almost seems to exist outside the realm of logical debate. You want one because it is an iPhone, in the same way that some people are simply famous because they are famous. And while other devices or device types may exceed the iPhone 4S in certain technical areas, that's of no concern to a very wide world of very normal people. They simply want an iPhone.

They'll be pleased with what they get.

Same body, all-new internals

If you're familiar with the iPhone 4, you'll recognize the iPhone 4S as its nearly-identical twin, physically. It shares the same body and form factor, the same glass front and back, and the same elegant metal band around the sides. Like its predecessor, it comes in black and white versions, and can now be had in 16, 32, and 64 GB varieties. I purchased a white 32 GB unit, and find it quite attractive. My only minor nit is that you can see that the screen extends below the thin white fascia of the device, making the area around the screen seem kind of dirty. This wouldn't be an issue on the black version of course.

Apple iPhone 4S: Familiar on the outside, all new on the inside.

As with the iPhone 4, the 4S also comes with the excellent Retina display, offering a superior 960 x 640 resolution with an astonishing 326 pixels per inch packed into its somewhat small 3.5-inch size. Apple hasn't changed the physical size of the iPhone screen since the initial device, and while the gargantuan sizes of some Android phone screens is perhaps a bit too much, I think a 3.7- to 4-inch screen would be preferable for the next version. Still, it's a gorgeous screen with stunning clarity.  (For more on the Retina display, please refer to iPhone 4S, Day Three: Retina Display.)

Overall, the iPhone 4S is a pretty and elegant phone, and while I expect the company to Think Different with the next iteration, I can see Apple chose to continue with this design for the iPhone 4S. In fact, if anything, the iPhone 4S is too pretty, and too fragile: You're going to want to protect it with a case of some kind, and doing so effectively could hide its beauty. (I wrote more about this issue in iPhone 4S, Day Two: Form Over Function.) After trying a variety of cases, including Apple's Bumper case, and an Incipio Feather, I finally settled on a black Power Support Air Jacket, if you're curious. It's very thin, and opaque, and offers two key services: It covers up the metal bands on the sides of the phone (which may no longer be an issue; see below) and protects the glass back from scratches. I doubt it would be of much use if I dropped the device, of course.

Inside, the iPhone 4S is all-new, as Apple says, with a dual-core A5 processor that's similar to, but slightly slower overall, than the one found in the iPad 2. (Read my review of the Apple iPad 2.) This processor also includes dual-core graphics functionality, which offers a significant advantage over the iPhone 4 and current-generation iPod touch.

According to Apple, the iPhone 4S offers "industry-leading battery life" with 8 hours of talk time on 3G, 14 hours on 2G, 6 hours of web browsing, 9 hours on Wi-Fi, 10 hours watching video, and 40 hours of listening to music. These are all improvements over the iPhone 4, but less well communicated is that standby time is down, dramatically, to 200 hours, a whopping 100 hours decline from the iPhone 4. My guess is that the A5 processor is responsible for this, but I've not found the iPhone 4S to offer significantly lower battery life or standby time than the Windows Phone models I usually use. Admittedly, my tests are unscientific and there are of course reports of issues with iPhone 4S battery problems. I've not experienced this.

And while Apple didn't change the controversial but attractive metallic band on the outside of the device, it did apparently address a serious "attenuation" issue (think "signal loss") that was endemic to the first iPhone 4. Apple says that it reworked the internals of the device to "intelligently switch" between its two antennas to both transmit and receive wireless signals. This works for both data and phone calls, and results in an improvement in call quality. Frankly, that shouldn't be hard: The iPhone has never been particularly good as a phone, but in this version at least, in limited testing, I've had no issues. Problem solved? It does appear so.

The iPhone 4S doesn't support true 4G/LTE network connections, so you're stuck with 3G speeds, which are slower but more common and more reliable. If your wireless carrier supports HSPDA, an enhanced version of 3G, as AT&T does, however, you will get better than average 3G speeds in compatible areas. Apple boasts that these speeds are the equivalent of 4G, and my understanding is that this isn't the case. That said, my network connectivity with the iPhone 4S has been excellent, and through some combination of processing power and good connectivity, I've seen nothing but excellent performance overall.

Finally, it's worth noting that Apple no longer sells separate CDMA and GSM versions of the iPhone, as it did with the iPhone 4. Now, there is a single design, a so-called "world phone" that includes both CDMA and GSM radios. So you Verizon folks can now take your iPhone 4S to Europe and get online. (Be sure to purchase an international data package from your carrier first.)

A camera to die for

For years, I've yearned for a smart phone that could take decent photos. The iPhone 4S is the first to meet this need, in my experience. It blends a high resolution, 8 megapixel (3264 x 2448) sensor with superior optics and an f/2.4 aperture stop, allowing for better low-light performance and sharpness. My previous smart phone cameras--various iPhones, Windows Phones, and a DROID X, have all come up short in various ways, delivering blurry and unusable shots on a regular basis. But the iPhone 4S is the first smart phone camera I've used that makes me comfortable leaving behind the digital camera. I could take just this phone on a family trip and be perfectly happy, assuming battery life wasn't an issue.

The picture taking experience is improved but still not as elegant as with Windows Phone, which features a dedicated camera button. With the iPhone 4S, there are a few tricks to getting to the camera taking experience more quickly: You can double-tap the home button from the lock screen, for example, to display a hidden camera button. And while you're taking pictures, you can optionally use the Volume Up button as a shutter button. (Sadly, when you do this, photos synced over iCloud are saved upside down, which is clearly a bug.)

The iPhone 4S features a superior camera for both stills and HD video.

While taking photos, you can enable a positioning grid onscreen, which is wonderful, as well as the HDR feature that debuted last year. It can auto-focus with facial detection, which works well, or you can simply tap to zoom, which is elegant and effective. There's no optical zoom, so any zooming is digital and prone to blurriness.

As with other digital cameras, the iPhone 4S excels with outside shots, especially on sunny days, but I'm impressed with the quality of its indoor shots as well, even in low-light conditions. Shots of a recent birthday party were as good as anything I've taken with the family point-n-click.

Where the iPhone 4 supported 720p HD video, the iPhone 4S moves up to 1080p, though I question the usefulness of such video even with video stabilization. And as with the iPhone 4, the iPhone 4S also includes a front-facing camera for Facetime video chat. Sadly, that second camera is of low quality, offering 30 FPS at VGA resolution.

Overall, the iPhone 4S camera experience is excellent. If I could ask for one thing, it would be an option to allow widescreen photos instead of just 4:3 shots, since widescreen shots look better on modern PC displays and HDTVs. But the iPhone 4S is a peek at the future, and with further improvements to resolution, image quality, and zoom going forward, I can see that the era of dedicated digital cameras are coming to an end for non-professionals.

(You can read more about my experience with the iPhone 4S camera in iPhone 4S, Day One: Set Up, Camera.)

iOS 5 and Siri voice control

I've already written a fairly extensive review of iOS 5, but let's just say that I like it a lot and that it advances the Apple device ecosystem in dramatic ways, offering important new features like PC free, iMessage, a new Notifications service, Newsstand for digital periodicals subscriptions, Twitter integration, and much, much more. With the iPhone 4S, you can access all that iOS 5 has to offer, including a couple of fairly unique features like Air Play Mirroring, which lets you mirror your device's screen to an Apple TV-connected HDTV. This works surprisingly well, and looks great. For the most part, iOS 5 isn't unique to the iPhone 4S, but if you're coming from another smart phone platform or new to this game all together, iOS 5 is a tremendous reason to upgrade.

More interesting, perhaps, is the Siri voice control scheme. This is currently in beta and is exclusive to the iPhone 4S for now, though I expect it to turn up on the iPad and other Apple products in the near future. There's a lot of confusion out there about where Siri comes from--did you hear the one about it being the latest result of a DARPA initiative from the 1960s?--and about what exactly it can do for you. But ultimately, Siri is a very typical Apple product: It's a super-elegant refinement of previously available technologies, some of which Apple bought outright (Siri) and some of which it is licensing from others (Dragon Naturally Speaking, Wolfram Alpha).

In its current form, Siri is a bit limited: It works only in English, German and French, and even then has difficulty with strong accents (like Scottish). But it's in beta, as noted, and it's hard not to see the future when you actually use Siri. This is the type of thing Apple does very, very well. It's good demo.

Remember Zork and the other early, text-based video games? These games featured a text parser and part of the challenge was figuring out not just what to do next but how to word it. So you might type Go right and the game wouldn't understand you. But type Turn right and all was well. Siri is like that, but about a million times more sophisticated and more understanding of alternate ways of saying or asking the same thing. In fact, it borders on outright Artificial Intelligence. I have little doubt that we'll routinely converse with technology of all kinds in the future, much in the same way that we can converse today with Siri.

Siri voice control.

To activate this system, hold down the iPhone 4S home button. The Siri user experience will pop-up and you can then tap the on-screen microphone to ask a question or give a command. A help screen provides a list of possible things to say, including "Call Jason," "Play The Light of the Sun," "Tell Susan I'll be right there," "Set up a meeting at 9," "Remind me to call mom," and so on. The vagueness of these statements provides a clue that Siri is particularly intelligent. But it's not perfect.

The first time I asked her to "Call my wife," Siri shot back with a question: "What is your wife's name?" When I replied Stephanie, it asked me if it should remember that Carl Stevens was my wife. Three times. So finally, I changed it to Steph, and Siri made the connection. Now, when I tell Siri to call my wife, it just does so.

When I said, "schedule a meeting for 10 am," Siri mentioned that I had an all-day event and asked whether I still wanted to schedule the meeting. I said yes, and Siri scheduled it for 10 am tomorrow, since it was after 10 am today. That's smart. But from that point on, all I have is a blank meeting, so I would have to interact with the phone normally--using my fingers--to fill in the details. That's as far as Siri goes.

This type of interaction--speak and then receive information on the screen--is a hallmark of much Siri use. And that makes sense, I guess, but it's like asking someone what time it is and having them show you their watch rather than just tell you. (Ironically, if you ask Siri this, she will of course just tell you.)

Apple bills Siri as "your intelligent assistant," and that's a pretty accurate description. It's a lot of fun to use, and given the high level of engagement that Apple users have with their products, I expect it to take off in a big way, improve in the future, and expand to more devices as well.


While the features mentioned above are explicit new reasons to consider purchasing an iPhone 4S, it's worth mentioning that the iPhone's value proposition hasn't really changed and that its overall ecosystem--which includes not just the device and its built-in software, but also the iTunes Store and its music, movies, TV shows, eBooks, audiobooks, podcasts, iTunes U educational content, and more, the App Store and its 500,000+ iOS 5 apps, Newsstand and its digital periodicals, iCloud and the bevy of other online services from Apple and various third parties, and the huge market of hardware peripherals--works together to make the iPhone 4S part of a much bigger thing. When you buy an iPhone 4S, you're not just getting a device, you're acquiring a key piece of a much vaster puzzle.

OK, that may just be the longest sentence I've ever written, but you get the idea. No smart phone stands alone, and while competing smart phone platforms like Android and Windows Phone offer equivalents for some pieces of the iPhone ecosystem, only Apple offers it all. And this is understandably a key consideration when it comes time to paying a couple of hundred dollars and entering into a two year wireless contract.

Availability and pricing

The iPhone 4S is available now in the US from AT&T, Verizon, and, new to 2011, Sprint. As noted previously, it comes in both black and white versions and in three, non-expandable storage allotments: 16 GB ($199), 32 GB ($299), and 64 GB ($399). (All prices assume a new, two year wireless contract. Pricing and availability will vary internationally.)

You can purchase an iPhone 4S from your wireless carrier directly, from Apple (online or in a retail store), or from major electronics retailers like Best Buy. These devices have proven quite popular since the October launch and current online orders carry a 1-2 week waiting period.

If you're upgrading, the iPhone 4S is clearly a much better update for iPhone 3GS users than for iPhone 4 users. I wouldn't break a contract (and thus pay a higher price) to upgrade from the iPhone 4 to the 4S. But assuming you don't mind the lack of external changes, the iPhone 4S does offer better performance, a better camera, and the Siri voice control system, when compared to the iPhone 4.

Final thoughts

Apple's iPhone 4S may carry over the design of its predecessor, but it features dramatically better performance, better wireless reliability, and some amazing new features, including a superior camera, iOS 5, and Siri voice control. And it is a beautiful, lustworthy device, and a compelling and safe alternative to the Wild West of Android and the unknown future of Windows Phone. I happen to prefer Microsoft's smart phone platform, but I see the appeal of the iPhone 4S, and you won't be disappointed if you choose this device. The iPhone 4S is highly recommended.

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