Pros: Faster processor, Siri, 8 megapixel camera, 64GB maximum storage, world phone capable
Cons: Battery life not as good, front and back glass is vulnerable to scratches and breaks
Apple's new iPhone 4S is, well, like the iPhone 4.
That's not to say it isn't an improvement. After living a week with Cupertino's latest and greatest, the 4S is easily the best iPhone yet.
On the surface, the 4S and the 4 look almost exactly the same. In fact, with the exception of a minor change in the metal band that wraps about the unit, the phones are nearly identical. According to Apple, the metal band, which serves as the phone's antenna, has been redesigned to avoid the "grip of death" issues that dogged the original iPhone 4 with dropped calls if a user held the phone a different way. The result is a mute switch that's been moved down about a millimeter and a separation in the band above it. Beyond that, the two are identical with front and back glass and a band of metal around the edge.
The iPhone 4S is now a universal model, meaning that the one you purchase at an AT&T store is the same as one purchased at a Verizon or Sprint store, despite the different 3G technologies. For people buying the iPhone 4S with service from Verizon or Sprint, they can now take the phone overseas and use them on GSM networks, as every iPhone 4S includes a micro-SIM tray on the right side. In theory, a Sprint or Verizon customer could take their iPhone 4S and use it in Europe by popping in a local SIM card. (It should be noted that Sprint and Verizon have differing policies regarding unlocking phones for overseas use.)
People with familiarity with the iPhone 4 will have no problems with the iPhone 4S.
And with the exception of logos for iCloud (more on that in a bit) and a change in the product name on the box, the package and pack ins for the phone are exactly the same as they were for the iPhone 4. Users will get the standard Apple sync cable, earphones with mic and remote, USB wall charger and Apple stickers and documentation. Color choices remain black or white for buyers.
So what's so great about the new iPhone? From a hardware perspective, there are only a few changes. First, the 4S now sports the same A5 processor chip that powers the company's iPad 2, which means better graphics and faster response time. Second, the camera gets a spec bump from the 4's 5-megapixel camera to an 8-megapixel camera capable of shooting high-def 1080p video. On board storage also gets a bump as users can now top out at 64 GB ($399) for their apps, music, videos and photos, along with 16 GB ($199) and 32 GB ($299) versions.
The new camera is certainly snappier than the previous model. The 4S also allows users to activate the camera without having to punch in the normal four-digit security code (assuming there's one programmed in) by just double tapping the home button. This saves users a bit of time when they whip out their iPhones to get that Kodak moment. I haven't compared shots taken on the 4S versus ones on the 4, but I can only assume that it improves upon the 4's already fantastic camera.
What Apple is really touting is Siri, a voice-activated feature that allows users to make calls, send texts, create reminders and do Web searches just by voice command. And for the most part, Siri really works well. I asked Siri to send a text message to a friend and she (Siri's given a female voice) accurately transcribed my words and found the right person in my address book.
At a dinner over the weekend, we asked Siri what a dinar was. Siri's list of answers included the correct one (It's Iraq's currency.).
Of course, Siri isn't perfect and Apple calls it a beta. When I asked Siri to create a reminder for me to buy a birthday card when I got to Target, it did. What it didn't do was pick the right Target store. I'm not going to fault Siri on that one because I think the one she picked was actually closer, but not the one my wife and I frequent. I would expect that as more folks use Siri, the feature will get ever more accurate.
Along with Siri, the other big thing is the phone's new operating system, iOS 5. Apple claims the new OS offer 200 improvements, but there are a handful that are of note to most users.
One of the biggest changes is notifications -- how users receive alerts, text messages and app notifications. Until now, iOS had a single method of letting users know about an incoming text message or push notification: through a single blob in the middle of the screen that sometimes interupted music, games or whatever the user was doing at the time. With the new iOS, notifications are less intrusive and users can customize where they appear on the screen. The actual look has also been slimmed down as well. on my iPhone, I have my New York Times app doing push notifications at the top of my screen while text messages still appear in the middle.
The new OS makes some great improvements on the previous version, including streamlining how users are notified (such as text messages, push notifications, etc.), Twitter integration, the addition of a reminders program as well as a newsstand app and a messaging app, among other things. Apple also introduced iCloud, which allows users to wirelessly sync information. This new version of the iOS also allows users to, for the first time, be completely untethered from a PC. Activating an iPhone or an iPad no longer requires hooking it up to a computer.
A new app called Reminders is a souped-up to-do list. The powerful thing about Reminders is that it is integrated into Siri, so you can add reminders without typing. As I said earlier, Reminders also lets you specify date and location, so forgetting something at the grocery store could be a thing of the past.
One of the things I was also looking forward to in iOS 5 is the new iMessage app. It looks pretty much like the text messaging app that appears on older versions of the iPhone. The beauty of iMessage is that it functions very much like Blackberry's Messenger service where iOS 5 users can message each other and not have to pay SMS messaging fees. iMessage users can send text, photos, videos and contact information without incurring a single text messaging charge. Messages from non-iOS 5 users will still come in on the app (they appear in green versus iMessages which show up as blue). For people who either don't pay for text messaging for have limited text messaging plans, iMessage is a great perk to have.
iOS 5 offers some other features, such as Twitter integration and a Newsstand app that pulls some news apps under one folder. Frankly, iOS 5 really does need its own review.
The last new feature is iCloud, Apple's reboot of its maligned MobileMe service. Essentially, iCloud serves as the sync home for user data, including contacts, photos, documents, iBooks, apps, music and backup. iCloud allows users to untether themselves from the computer, so setting up an iPhone by physically syncing it with your machine is no longer necessary. iCloud also backs up your device, which is very handy for people who tend not to hook up their iPhones to their machines on a regular basis. The free service lets users share their images on a Photostream that automatically sends photos from your iPhone to your computer, iPad, or other iOS device. Again, iCloud really merits its own review.
One of the biggest things I noticed was that battery life on the iPhone 4S isn't as good as on the 4. I suspect it's partially because of Siri and the sensors involved in keeping it ready to go. Raising the phone to your head will automatically start Siri and maintaining the accelerometer for this feature probably costs some battery life. I also suspect the A5 chip is a bit more power hungry as well. The battery is still good enough to get through a normal day, mind you, but tweaking settings such as Bluetooth, notifications and location services will probably help save some juice.
A lot of people were disappointed that the iPhone 4S wasn't an iPhone 5 and that it didn't sport a whole new look. I think the overall design works. It's simple, elegant and not cookie cutter like the Android equivalents. The 4 and 4S are nice pieces of industrial design, though I wouldn't carry either around without a case of some sort.
For existing iPhone 4 users, it's difficult to make the case to upgrade, since nearly all iPhone 4 users are probably still locked into a contract. On top of that, iOS 5 is a free download and iCloud is also free to sign up for for all iOS users, including iPod touch and iPad owners. The only things iPhone 4 users are missing are the upgraded camera and processor, extra storage and Siri.
Of course, iPhone users who don't want to upgrade to the 4S can download a few apps that approximate Siri (there used to be a Siri app available, but that's gone now), including Nuance's Dragon Go, Dragon Search and Dragon Dictation. All three are very good programs and make for good stand-ins for Siri.
For people who have older iPhones or want to jump from Blackberry, Android or some other platform, the iPhone 4S is an excellent smartphone choice.