Apple iPhone 4S: Review

Despite carrier portability and battery issues, Bluetooth 4 and Siri make the 4S a world-beater

Sometimes, simple evolution can be revolutionary.

Apple’s iPhone 4S is identical in dimension to last year’s iPhone 4, and some observers had staked their reputations on the fifth-generation phone being branded as “iPhone 5.” Yet the 4S is overall a vast improvement on its predecessor, thanks in no small part to the inclusion of the Siri voice-control technology, which sets off the new iPhone from everything else in the market.

A breath of fresh air

That’s not to say that the new iPhone is all that it’s cracked up to be. Questions remain about its battery life, and about its ability to be easily moved from one carrier to another. But compared with what came before it, the iPhone 4S is truly a breath of fresh air.

On the outside, the iPhone 4S looks much like the iPhone 4. It’s identical in physical form and slightly heavier, by 2.8 grams. The major difference is that this time around, Apple’s engineers redesigned the antenna of the 4S in hopes of avoiding another “Antennagate,” and by all practical measures, the new design works as well as can be expected. Antennagate is a problem that surfaced last year when some iPhone 4 customers complained that touching the device’s antenna rim dampened reception. Apple later offered iPhone 4 customers bumpers to block the device’s exterior antenna rim from skin contact.

Internally, the two most notable differences from the iPhone 4 are the processor (which in the 4S is the same Apple-designed A5 CPU that powers the iPad 2) and the camera (which is radically improved in the 4S with the addition of image stabilisation and the ability to shoot stills and video at much higher resolutions than before, up to 1080p for high-definition video). The image sensor takes 8-megapixel stills, and combined with hybrid infrared filtering, a larger aperture and quicker shutter response, make the iPhone 4S as good as many point-and-shoot cameras.

Storage and video streaming are also vastly improved in the iPhone 4S. Users who choose to carry an extensive multimedia library will appreciate the long-awaited 64GB configuration of the 4S. The new iPhone, like the iPad 2, is able to mirror its display over Wi-Fi to an Apple TV at 720p using the AirPlay feature. Wired connections to video are also mirrored in the iPhone 4S up to 1080p. Meanwhile, earlier iPhones only offer up to 720p video, and the user must toggle between the onboard display and the connected screen.

Apple calls the iPhone 4S a “worldphone,” which only stretches the truth a little bit. True, the same device contains radios for Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) and GSM/UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunication System) service. However, there’s a catch: An unlocked iPhone 4S won’t work with a CDMA carrier, such as Sprint or Verizon. Likewise, an iPhone 4S that was activated with a CDMA carrier comes with a micro-SIM card that allows use on GSM networks internationally, but it apparently can’t be replaced by a cheaper, local alternative. Apple has taken a further step in discouraging users from switching carriers by omitting the SIM card extraction tool from the package, which saves pennies without slowing down the truly motivated network hopper.

Apple is also touting the new phone’s support for Bluetooth 4.0, which will mean something in the future, when there are peripherals that support the enhanced technology. Although the low-power features of the updated specification will likely prove beneficial, I don’t expect to see any headsets supporting them until next year.

Another highly promoted feature of the iPhone 4S is Siri. Although Siri’s voice-control features can, with work, be made available on earlier iPhones, it’s officially limited to the 4S. Siri has potential, but it’s still a novelty; in other words, we’re not quite at the point where we can start grading the tap-dancing elephant on style. Simple requests such as “find a dry cleaner nearby” work well, but more complicated scenarios like “find the Safeway on Market Street” don’t play out as smoothly.

Siri is more remarkable for the ease of interaction among the user, the local hardware and the cloud service. When third-party developers can use the same technology, we will truly see voice-control take off as a user interface. For now, Siri is an evolution of the voice-control features that mobile phones have had since the mid 1990s, albeit a very advanced one.

A slew of other improvements are also included in the iPhone 4S. The device supports the Russian GLONASS satellite navigation system as well as the U.S.-operated GPS, faster graphics performance and, of course, everything else that was baked into iOS 5.

What about the battery issue?

The most important feature of any mobile phone is its battery. Apple is rightfully proud of what it has accomplished in wringing an extra hour of 3G talk time out of the battery in the 4S, compared with the iPhone 4. Yet it’s not talking about the dramatic drop in the company’s published figures for standby time: The 4S can go up to 200 hours, versus up to 300 hours on standby for the iPhone 4. Although bugs in some features may be prematurely draining some users’ batteries, the new processor and location-aware applications are clearly taking their own toll.

Manufacturing, like politics, is the art of the possible. The day is likely to come when all the dreams that were wrapped up in the idea of the iPhone 5 come true. But until then, what Apple is selling in its place is indeed a good mobile device. To swipe a line from the movie Hoosiers, if one focuses on what the iPhone 4S is, instead of what it is not, one can’t help but be impressed.