Apple iPhone 4S review

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Since 2007, Apple has annually released a new iPhone at its WWDC event. Every year brings something better about the smartphone, like the addition of 3G connectivity or a beautiful Retina Display. But this year, Apple thought a little differently about its iPhone release cycle. Instead of having new iPhone hardware at WWDC 2011, Apple talked exclusively about the software that runs on it, specifically iOS 5 and iCloud. 

Finally, in October, the iPhone 4S was unveiled. Most people couldn't find enough new stuff in it to justify an upgrade, but I did. And I was an iPhone 4 user! Find out what I got out of my $200 and if it was worth it below.

Quick Specs

Apple upgraded the internals of the 4S from the 4 pretty well, but since there was no major redesign, the upgraded specs were pushed aside as being "unimportant." Compared to the 4, the 4S includes a ~800MHz dual-core A5 processor, 512MB of RAM, an 8MP camera on the back, a VGA camera on the front, and an entirely new antenna system that boosts reception quite a bit. 

The antenna is worth a paragraph by itself because we all remember Antennagate last year. Apple uses the same idea: the steel band around the phone is still the antenna. However, instead of there only being one spot for the antenna to push out and take in cellular signal, the new antenna has two spots. This means you can hold it like you would any other smartphone in existence and not experience any attenuation. You could also hold it abnormally and you'd get the same amount of reception since the antenna can push out and take in cellular signal. 

It's incredibly easy to tell that Apple did a spectacular job in upgrading the antenna. iPhones can now be used reliably to make and take phone calls, which should be something to take into consideration by people still deciding to upgrade. In my little crappy town, I used to get three bars of EDGE at my house (unless I turned on 3G, in which case I would get one bar). Now, I'm consistently getting five bars of EDGE and when 3G decides to kick itself on (more on that in a bit,) I'll get three bars.

Design and Quality

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There really isn't anything different about the iPhone 4S' design versus the iPhone 4's design, but I'll go through it anyway because I bought the white version. Up top, you'll find the earpiece and the VGA front-facing camera. A little above the earpiece, though, is the proximity sensor. On the black iPhone, you wouldn't be able to see it because the color of the phone blended in perfectly with the sensor. White and black are not the same color, though, so you end up seeing it. 

It's definitely not like it's ugly or anything, though. In my opinion, the designers did a good job of putting it in the center of the device so it doesn't look too jarring in the overall design. 

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Here is the bottom of the front, with Apple's simple home button being the only thing here. Speculation had been that it would no longer be a button; instead, there would be an oblong "ditch" on the device that you would perform gestures on. Obviously it didn't make it to the iPhone this year, but I think Apple's ultimate goal is to totally rid its iDevices of buttons. 

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Here is the bottom-bottom of the device. To the left is the microphone, in the middle is the ubiquitous 30-pin connector, and to the right is the loud speaker. That speaker is the best I've ever heard on a smartphone, which might not be a big deal for you, but when you're talking on the speakerphone or listening to music, a loud and clear speakerphone makes a world of difference. 

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There is a volume/vibrate switch on the upper left-hand side, as well as the volume up and down buttons. It's the exact same setup as the iPhone 4. Why fix what isn't broken, right?

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Finally, on the back is the 8MP camera and flash. It looks just like the iPhone 4's camera setup. 

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Now I get to talk about the redesigned antenna. 

Here is the iPhone 4S (top) versus the iPhone 4 (bottom.) As you can see, both the 4 and the 4S have an antenna band on the bottom of the right-hand side. But the 4S also has a second band on the right side, about an inch and a half away from the top of the SIM card slot. 

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Next we'll head to the upper left-hand side of the phones. Here you'll see that the iPhone 4S' volume controls have shifted slightly downwards due to the addition of yet another antenna band. It might not seem like it's that big of a deal for the switch and the buttons to have moved down about three millimeters, but it's enough of a difference to make my (pre-Verizon iPhone 4) Bumper not fit on my 4S. 

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Finally, here is the top of each device. Like every iPhone, they both house the headphone jack and the sleep/wake button. However, the 4 has an antenna band right next to the headphone jack, while the 4S does not. That's because it was replaced by the band you saw residing next to all the volume controls. 

In all, the iPhone 4S has four antenna bands, situated on each "corner" of the device. The iPhone 4 has only three, and in call reception and quality, the movement of the bands and the addition of one of them helped dramatically.

iOS 5 

6a00d83451c9ec69e2015392701906970b-320wi-1While iOS 5 isn't native to just the iPhone 4S, it's definitely worth a mention, especially since it brings Siri to the 4S.

Siri is your (and my) personal assistant that can do things for you (and me,) simply by being asked to do that thing. I've already written up a post about how awesome Siri is and will become, but basically to recap it here, Siri is a serious contender in the voice recognition space. She's still just in beta, but after she gets smarter and has more experience, she'll definitely be able to plow down the competition from Android and Windows Phone. 

Performance on iOS 5 is really good. I can say this from using both the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 4S. It brings some great new features, like Notification Center (a ripoff from Android's pull-down notifications bar) and iCloud. Notification Center is great, but I absolutely love being able to manage my apps solely on my iPhone, and knowing exactly what apps I've already purchased and just being able to download them again. The same thing works with music and videos, but only if you're on the same WiFi connection as your computer. 

One complaint I have with iOS 5 (and iOS in general) is the fact that it's been using the same darn UI for its entire lifetime. Wallpapers? Whoopdie-freaking-doo! I want the same widgets that I get in Dashboard on my Mac to be on my home screen on my iPhone. I want to have icons that aren't squircles. But most importantly, I want my UI to be consistent! There are a lot of different UI metaphors that are mushed together now; it's to the point that I can actually recognize the app I'm in based on how it looks! Siri is purple and has her little canvas background, which is a dark grey. Mail has a blueish background with stripes, and then white boxes all over the place. 

I still think that iOS 5 is the best mobile operating system, but there are some limitations. I've used Android before and there are plenty of things I love on that platform, and Windows Phone (in my opinion) is even better in terms of usability. 

Performance

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When Tim Cook announced the iPhone 4S, he also stated that the A5 dual-core processor would give the 4S double the speed and seven times the graphics performance as the iPhone 4 brought with its single-core A4. I can definitely say that's true; Safari loads pages twice as fast, apps install in less than a second (no matter the size), and overall performance is incredibly snappy. 

Graphics performance is amazingly better, too. My angry little birds sail through the wind as smooth as angry little birds can. Infinity Blade looked and ran stunningly on the 4 already, but it's extraordinary on the 4S. 

Unfortunately, not a lot of the games are taking the phone to its fullest potential. Infinity Blade 2 promises to do that, with real-time water reflections and better lighting and details, but that isn't coming for a while. 

Battery Life

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Just like with Siri, I also had written a post on the sub-par battery life on the 4S. After turning most of the location services off and also setting all my mail services to "manual," I can get through the day (and letting it sit by my bed without being charged all night) and still have 70% battery life left. That's significantly better than what I was used to (waking up with 50% battery left), but I don't want to have to turn all of the things that make the 4S cool. That's kind of why I bought the thing.

Conclusion

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There were some of you who asked me why I would upgrade from a 4 to a 4S. To be honest, I wanted Siri and a different color. 

But as I started using it more, I realized why Apple would release just a simple internal upgrade. This move positions the company to bring a brand new design next year, along with a few better specs, at the same price point. If Apple had chosen to release a new design, it probably would've been stuck running an A4. 

That being said, there's no reason you need to upgrade if you've already got an iPhone 4. There isn't enough of a performance boost yet; we'll have to wait for apps that can take advantage of the better hardware. If you've got a 4, you've got a great phone that will still outperform plenty of others. 

Still, if you own a 3GS, now's the perfect time to upgrade; unless, of course, you're waiting for the redesign. But even if you are, I'd definitely consider the 4S. It's a great device, and one I know I'll enjoy using for quite some time.

The iPhone 4S is available now in white and black, starting at $199 (16GB), $299 (32GB), and $399 (64GB) with new two-year service contract with AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon.

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Calob Horton

Calob Horton is an associate editor at Pocketables. He loves all technology, no matter which company it comes from. This unbiased view of the tech world allows him to choose the products that best fit his personal needs and tastes: a Microsoft Surface Pro, a Samsung Galaxy Note 3, and a third-gen iPad.Google+ | Twitter | More posts by Calob | Subscribe to Calob's posts