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Detailed iPhone 4S Expert Review

Apple iPhone 4S

Rating: ★★★★½

While the masses were initially disappointed, the iPhone 4S features a glut of top-end tech that is designed to put it on a par with the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S2 – but does it manage to do that?

The changes to the iPhone 4S are easy to document – the camera has been upgraded to 8MP (with an improved aperture ratio), the CPU is now the same dual-core A5 processor as seen in the iPad 2, and a seven time increase in graphical processing power.

Check out our video of the iPhone 4S in action – is it the phone for you?

Also we’ve got Siri, Apple’s voice recognition service – will this be a game changer for mobile phones or will it be nothing more than a gimmick?

As we’ve mentioned, the iPhone 4S is almost identical in outward design to the iPhone 4, which might irk those that like to show that they’ve got the most up to date device from Apple when out and about with friends.

However, the flip side of this is that things like the plethora of iPhone 4 covers on the market at the moment will still fit.

Apple has slightly changed the design of the iPhone 4S somewhat though, by changing to a dual-band aerial design, making sure it doesn’t encounter an embarrassing repeat of antenna-gate we had to endure with the iPhone 4.

For all those that haven’t seen the older version of the phone, we’ll take you on a tour of the new handset: the top of the iPhone 4S houses the power/lock button, as well as the headphone jack, plus a microphone for noise cancellation.

The right-hand side of the phone is devoid of any buttons, but holds the slot for the micro SIM card, which pops out using the included tool (or a paperclip).

The bottom of the phone is pretty standard, with the Apple connector and dual speakers which pump out the (actually quite decent) sound.

The left-hand side of the phone sees the rounded volume keys, with the top one of these also acting as the camera shutter button to make it easy to snap with the new iPhone. We’ve also got the silencer switch too, which has been slightly moved upwards from the previous iteration.

As you can see, Apple has altered its antenna band technology to move the gaps that plagued the iPhone 4′s reception to a less-touchable location.

Interface

The iPhone 4S is the flagship model for the new iOS software from Apple, making it much snazzier once more. We’ll walk you through the big changes to start with – and Notifications is up there with the best of them.

The new system apes Android by using a drop down menu from pretty much anywhere in the phone to let you see all manner of updates, weather news and messages, plus new notifications will now ping across the top of the screen rather than plopping straight into the middle of the screen like before and disrupting whatever you were doing.

It’s not revolutionary by any means, but it’s well-integrated and makes the whole system feel a whole lot different to iOS 4.

The lock screen is now called into more use than ever before too, with new notifications sitting on top to be easily accessed without needing to mess about inside the phone.

iPhone 4s review   iPhone 4s review

We quickly got to grips with this new system and can see a lot of people really enjoying being able to open the camera quickly too, which you can do by simply double tapping the home button on the lock screen.

The original system we’re fans of is also back in full force, with swipable home screens filled with icons for apps, which you can easily sort into folders or edit by long pressing on the screen.

Double tapping the home button will let you see all your open applications, making it easy to multitask on the go, and swiping to the left gets you to the iPod menu to quickly access the controls. It’s the closest we get to widgets with this phone, and we’re still hankering after more… but that’s the choice Apple is making in the face of the widget-laden Android opposition.

We would like to see contextual menus throughout the interface, for instance being able to change the settings for an app without having to jump out of the main menu – we’re sure this has to be coming soon in a future release.

As we’ve mentioned before, the iPhone 4S now comes with the dual-core A5 processor, which means battery life is meant to be better and the rest of the phone should operate even more snappily.

In our tests, we barely noticed that much of a difference in speed with the iPhone 4, as there was never really a problem with opening and closing applications. With the animations still present, it still seems like the iPhone 4S is a little slower than other dual core handsets on the market (although we mean a tiny amount) but in general use it works perfectly.

It’s the most intuitive system on the market in our eyes – we’re fans of the complexity of Android, but not everybody is a power user and for the person that wants a simple smartphone that’s easy to pick up and start using, the iPhone 4S is one of the best.

Calling and contacts

The iPhone 4S has the same range of calling options as before, and the contacts menu has barely changed in the latest version of iOS, but it’s an easy system and one that people will pick up with little fuss.

Contacts

The contacts system is one that makes simple sense: you hit the phone section, and are presented with many options, be it calling one of your favourite contacts list, seeing your missed or dialled calls, accessing the dial pad or just seeing the phone book in its entirety.

iPhone 4s review   iPhone 4s review

It’s as easy as you could imagine to add in a contact on the iPhone 4S, with a phone number entry presenting an option to save the number to a new or existing contact without a problem.

However, and this is a gripe we’ve had about the iPhone contacts’ system for years – it’s pretty basic and doesn’t really add in a lot of functionality.

You can add in some basic information, like a photo, address or instant messaging handle, but it pales in comparison to the super linked-up options present on the likes of the Android range. There’s no social networking integration, or message history present in the phonebook, which would surely be a pretty cool thing for Apple to add in.

Calling

You may have noticed that the iPhone 4 had a few… issues with its antenna. It was blown way out of proportion by many, as it was a slight attenuation issue present in a few handsets, but Apple is keen to make sure no such attack can be levied at it again.

We’ve already covered the new antenna system, and we’re happy to tell you that it works just fine – no problem with signal quality no matter how you hold the phone.

iPhone 4s review   iPhone 4s review

Call quality itself was top drawer throughout our test, with absolutely no drops no matter where we were.

We did notice a number of times where the 3G signal would drop to Edge and take a little while to jump back to the fully fledged signal level. It would also be nice if we could see when the iPhone 4S is running on the super-speedy HSDPA 14.4Mbps connection speeds, but it seems Apple only thinks the masses needs to know when things are 3G.

One thing we would have liked to see is smart dialling included, being able to type in a number and see the right name come up – surely that’s something Apple is looking to include in the future?

Messaging

Messaging on the iPhone 4S has been given something of a boost by the inclusion of the iMessage, which is a BBM-a-like service for iOS devices. It can be used on any device running iOS 5, which means conversations can be easily carried on loads of Apple products without an issue.

While many will expect iMessage to be a separate app in the same manner as BBM, it simply jumps in when a relevant phone is on the other end, meaning essentially free text messaging.

However, this will be more useful for iPhone 3GS and 4 models, as it’s surely only good to replace text messaging for those that need to save money and haven’t got a price plan that offers thousands of messages for free each month.

iPhones have always been looked at as decent messaging devices, and that’s certainly true when it comes to email. There’s a unified inbox for all your accounts, with multiple email addresses supported on the phone.

iPhone 4s review

Setting these up is as simple as you’d imagine, with only an address and password needed in most situations. As we mentioned earlier, it’s so easy to keep track of your emails thanks to the new notifications system, but it’s hardly anything new, so not really a unique selling point.

The keyboard is another great selling point from Apple for its iPhone – some people have complained that it’s a bit hit and miss in the past, but most people should have become trained in the art of tapping out a message on a touchscreen, so most will quickly be up to speed with the well-known keyboard.

There’s a new addition to the keyboard, and that’s an option to speak out the message reply using Siri. It’s almost unerring in its accuracy, although you do need to say things like ‘comma’ or ‘exclamation mark’ to add in the punctuation.

We sent 100 messages using Siri to see the accuracy, and found that the accuracy was around 45%, although shorter messages were obviously better.

However, we were relieved to be able to head back to tapping out our messages on the keyboard, as you could make sure what you wrote was correct first go. If you’re going to speak your messages, why not just call the person?

Internet

One of the greatest things about the original iPhone was the internet explorer, and that’s still the case with the fifth iteration of the phone.

The iPhone 4S has the new and iOS 5-upgraded browser, and it comes with some nifty new features we’ll get to in a moment. The main feature of the iPhone 4S browser is the fact it’s simply so fast, and able to handle pretty much any web page in seconds over Wi-Fi or 3G.

We tested the loading time for the TechRadar website compared to the iPhone 4, and found that it was around 3 seconds quicker for the newer device over both Wi-Fi and 3G connections. When loading mobile-formatted sites, it was like there was no delay, with most loading up in under a second.

There’s something that the Android browser has always had over the iPhone version in our mind, and that’s the ability to resize the text to fit the screen should you want to get closer. That’s still the situation now, with only two zoom levels on offer should you want to read an article in a larger font.

However, Apple has done something new here, and introduced Reader to the Safari browser, meaning once the page has loaded you can hit the Reader tab in the URL bar to see a stark, e-reader-like version of the page, stripping out ads and unnecessary pictures to mean you can quickly and easily read the longer articles you want to.

If you’ve ever used Instapaper, you’ll know what the experience is like… you’ve got to feel sorry for that service now Apple has developed its own version.

Another way to read the articles you want to is the Reading List function, which is simply a temporary bookmarks list – you can sort them by ‘All’ or ‘Unread’ so you know which sites you want to check back with. It’s a nice idea, and one that we found ourselves using more than we expected to, keeping a number of articles on the backburner when we didn’t have time to scan through.

However, surely it would have made sense to format these automatically using the Reader, or at least have an option to? We found ourselves getting irritated with having to wait for them to reload every time to just reformat them… so maybe this is something Apple can change in the future.

Oh, and let’s not forget our favourite refrain for an Apple iPhone review – the lack of Flash video. We’ve no idea how Apple has managed to survive all of these years without adding in some kind of Flash support, but those little error boxes strewn all over the internet still grate a fair bit.

HTML5 video support is built into the iOS browser, but that’s still a long way from being an oft-used video format for the web, so iPhone 4S users will have to put up with a substandard internet performance compared to their Android counterparts when it comes to web video.

Camera

Let’s get this out the way now – the iPhone 4S can definitely replace your point and shoot camera for snapping. The only real issue we can see is the lack of an optical zoom to get closer to the object you’re trying to capture, but compared to the convenience of always having your camera with you, it’s no contest in our book.

Plus you could always look SUPER COOL and get one of those optical attachments for the iPhone 4S to make it into a longer range shooting device.

But the specs on the iPhone 4S are well-upgraded, with an 8MP camera and improved optics also making some really clear and crisp photos. The larger f/2.4 aperture lets in more light, and combined with some clever backlight illumination technology it really makes even low light photos pop.

Add into that Apple’s HDR (high dynamic range) imaging technology to help you take the best photo each time, and we’re really, really impressed with some of the shots you can achieve with this new camera phone.

We’ll be honest – there are other cameras out there that are worthy of a mention – the Samsung Galaxy S2, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc and the HTC Evo 3D are all worthy of a mention.

But to our eyes, the iPhone 4S trumps all of these by producing the best quality shots each time. And if you turn off the HDR shooting mode to just get ‘normal’ quality snaps, the speed at which you can move from taking one photo to the next is simply mind blowing.

Face recognition is involved in the photo taking process too – and it’s one of the best examples of such integration on a phone, firing instantly when a face is present.

The ‘up’ volume control can now be used as the camera shutter button too – however, it was very stiff indeed on our test sample, meaning there was an element of shakiness about some of the photos that simply pressing the screen could accomplish.

However, it’s still a nice touch to have – taking pictures of yourself is much easier with this as an option.

To summarise again: the iPhone 4S is one of the best camera phones on the market for simple ease of use combined with great pictures. Some will take issue with its lack of features to tinker with – you can’t mess around with colour balance or set the exposure, for instance – but for general day to day use most will find they come away from a night out with a great set of pictures with minimal effort.

Siri voice recognition

When Apple announced the new Siri software for the iPhone 4S, it was easy to just dismiss it as another company trying to get on board with the voice recognition gimmick we’ve seen companies trying to make work for years.

But there are a couple of things to remember here: firstly, this is Apple, a brand that will always make something seem cool and work pretty well. And secondly, it’s not a technology that it’s had to develop fully in house, with the company buying voice recognition development app-maker Siri.

We’ve played with some pretty advanced voice recognition software on the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S2, so we’ve also taken a look to see how the same command is registered on both phones.

Long pressing the home button will result in the Siri voic icon popping up – or alternatively, you can set the iPhone 4S to activate the service when you hold the phone up to your ear in standby mode, so you don’t look as ridiculous when talking to your handset.

From there, you’ve got quite a range of things you can achieve with speech alone, be it sending a message, playing a song (or even a playlist), setting the alarm, creating a reminder… we were very impressed with the range of options on offer.

iPhone 4s review   iPhone 4s review

And the system is quick too – where with many other phones you have to open up the voice recognition function (often in a long winded way) and then wait for the beep to speak, Siri opens up in around a couple of seconds from anywhere in the phone.

The voice recognition is pretty darn good too – we were straight away impressed with how many phrases it managed to get right on the first go, including some pretty obscure bits and pieces of speech. You do have to pronounce your words a little more clinically than you might do normally, but even garbled speech comes through pretty well.

To put a number on it: we went through the list of functions Siri offers, and found that around one in three or four attempts went awry, which is miles better than the one in two we encounter on most other phones.

However, before we get into the comparison, we should say this about Siri in the UK – the full range of services aren’t available, and that’s a real shame. This means you can’t ask where the nearest McDonald’s or petrol station is, a feature that’s been talked up in the US.

We do have high hopes that the same features will eventually be enabled in the UK, as it’s just a matter of licensing the information and incorporating it into the system, but it will be annoying for a number of users to see that Siri comes back with ‘I cannot do that’ time and time again for cool functionality.

But what it does do well is work out the context of what you’re saying, something that most other voice recognition software fails to do. So if you say ‘Tell Andy his hair looks amazing today’ it will work out that you’ll want to tell him by message, rather than asking what method you’d prefer to speak to him.

iPhone 4s review   iPhone 4s review

Messaging isn’t as straightforward as we’d like though, as using the ‘Send message’ command to a person in your address book will result in you being asked whether you’d like to do it using the phone number or email address – and there’s no way to set a personalised choice.

Let’s compare the iPhone 4S to the Samsung Galaxy S2 to see which phone comes out top in the voice recognition stakes:

Firstly, the iPhone 4S has a range of functionality that the S2 simply doesn’t have – things like being able to set the alarm and play a specific song or playlist aren’t available on the Samsung option, which is rather annoying.

We asked both phones: what’s the weather like tomorrow?

The iPhone 4S managed to nail that in a few seconds, whereas the Galaxy S2 couldn’t read the ‘tomorrow’ part of the command, meaning we had to ask ‘What’s the weather like?’ which simply showed us an (admittedly very useful) Google search to give the information.

We asked both phones to set a reminder to ‘Buy apples tomorrow at 11.35am’. The iPhone 4S simply made a reminder that said ‘By Apple’ but at the correct time, although sadly the S2 couldn’t register a time stamp in the message and decided we wanted to ‘Buy Apple store’.

The final test went better for both handsets: Asking both to send a message to Rich Fields, it managed to get what we said with ease and then managed to send it with a quick voice command.

As you can see, the iPhone clearly has the edge when it comes to voice recognition, but it’s still not perfect. Especially as we noted that on more than one occasion it failed despite being connected to a Wi-Fi router, stating it could not connect to the network.

We are being pretty picky here, as Siri is by far the best voice recognition software on the market for a mobile phone, so it’s a big ‘Bravo!’ to Apple for leading the way with this technology.

However, while it’s cool and fun to play with as a new feature on your phone at the moment, the key to whether Siri will be a game changing piece of technology depends on other applications being able to use the API and integrate the functionality into their own offerings.

Apple also has to improve the service to gain more scope and include more functions, but for now it’s a very good start and the future for the tech can only get brighter in our eyes – it seems this won’t be another FaceTime after all.

Media

You may have noticed that iPhones have always been pretty darn good when it comes to the media side of things thanks to the rich iPod heritage Apple had before the iPhone ever existed.

That’s still present and correct now, with some slightly new additions – plus Siri is getting in on the act by helping control your music through your headset.

Music

The iPod experience on the iPhone is no more – music is now rather boringly entitled ‘Music’. We suppose it makes sense… but still sucks a bit. We liked the name.

Anyway, there’s not a lot different if you’ve used the player before on any iOS platform. You can simply look through your music in the boring old list format on a white background, or turn the phone on its side to see the now-famous Cover Flow style.

The iPhone 4 was already fast enough, but the dual core processor means there’s not a hint of slow down when it comes to swiping through your music collection.

You can tap an album cover and see the list of songs on there to play – it’s a pretty nifty system, and one that just makes the iOS system seem that much slicker.

And don’t forget last year’s big hitter: Genius. It’s still a very clever system, and the ability to tap a button and simply get given a decent playlist based on the song you’ve chosen is brilliant.

It’s still not 100% perfect, but then again, we’re not sure our music collection is among the coolest anyway, so perhaps we’re just frying its little Genius brain.

Siri once again proves its worth when you’re out and about listening to music. Although most headsets can skip tracks and pause music with the inbuilt button, using Siri you can shuffle tracks and open a given playlist. This was possible with the previous voice control on the iPhone, but now it’s so much more accurate.

Sonically, the iPhone 4S is among the best again – we’re talking rich sounding bass and some nice top end reproduction, especially when you upgrade your headphones to a decent set. (Oh, look. We’ve written a ‘best headphones for phones’ feature right here with all that info in. Aren’t you lucky?)

Also you can control the music from the phone’s lock screen – simply double tap the home screen when the screen is in sleep mode and you can interact with the songs.

Video

The Retina display is perfectly designed for video playback, with the high res screen in the smaller form factor making it very easy to sit back and enjoy a movie.

However, you won’t be able to enjoy the whole thing, as in our eyes the screen is just mite too small to be able to get a marathon movie session out of. It’s got a decent enough contrast ratio at 800:1 (well, we assume it’s that, as that’s the spec of the iPhone 4 and placed side by side the movie experience is the same) although the dark scenes look a little too dark at times.

The video format support is mostly acceptable as well, with H.264, MP4, MOV, M4V all supported. Nothing for AVI or DivX in there… and the latter is certainly missed as re-encoding all our (home-taken, of course) ripped DVDs takes ages when they were already nicely packaged up with DivX.

Other nice touches include the iPhone 4 remembering which videos you’re yet to watch, and how far you are through those you’re watching – allowing you pick it back up again when you re-open the file. Nice.

And you can always get your content from the iTunes library that comes bundled with the phone instead; it’s as simple as clicking the application open and browsing for music you’d like, or movies and TV shows you fancy watching.

And the prices seem to have come down a tad since last year, with £10 seeming to be the average price for a title in the library. Plus you can now rent films too for a lot cheaper… although we’re still sure BlockBuster is a better bet for these things. (Is it just us that doesn’t want to see our childhood video rental chain go under?)

Apple has now also thrown in mirroring to a larger TV – at 720p resolution if you do it wirelessly over Airplay 1080p with a VGA adaptor. We’ve still yet to lay our hands on one of these so we can’t test all the cool new features – but rest assured as soon as we get them in we’ll give it a thorough going over.

Games

The iPhone 4 came with something cool: the gyroscope, and while it was meant to herald a new way of playing games, it hasn’t set the world on fire in the way we’d expected.

Things like Gun Range and NOVA are excellent examples of what you can do with the technology, but to our eyes, this needs a virtual reality helmet as an attachment to really work. That would be ace… Apple, please make it happen, then we could jump around our living room firing at things all day long.

But the real advance when it comes to gaming on the iPhone 4S is the seven times performance leap the graphical processor offers up – and boy, are we excited to see the power this offers.

We’ve yet to properly stress the graphical properties of the phone as yet – Infinity Blade is the best we can manage, but we really want something that we can hold next to the power of the Samsung Galaxy S2 to see which really is top dog when it comes to chucking out the polygons.

Battery life and iCloud

The iPhone used to be notoriously bad when it came to battery life, but thankfully that seems to have changed since Apple plonked its own processor in the iPhone 4, which yielded a much better battery life indeed.

We didn’t notice a huge amount of difference between the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 4S’ battery life during normal use – in standby mode we noted around a four to five per cent drop rate in the battery meter when we were doing nothing, but with Push notifications turned on.

We tested this in two ways – the first with high intensity usage (which is pretty hard not to do on the first day you get any new phone, let’s be honest) where we managed to run the phone down from morning to evening… but only just, and this was with the screen brightness up full and most connections active.

However, we dialled down the usage massively after that to see how the iPhone would survive, and we were pleasantly surprised to see that even with Push notifications active, the phone managed to easily last two days.

This was with around 30 mins of internet usage, opening and playing briefly with around 10 apps, using the camera three times and parsing emails on the odd occasion – easily enough to not feel like you’re totally neglecting your iPhone 4S.

iCloud

iCloud is a new service from Apple that debuted with iOS 5, and while it’s not revolutionary, it’s certainly a really nice step forward.

The main function of the service is to automatically keep all the important things backed up to the ether, be it Mail, Notes, Reminders, Bookmarks and Photos.

The latter option is the key one there, with all the photos turning up online safely in the event of a device breakdown or loss. However, be warned: once those photos are on there, there’s no way to delete them again.

Apple has offered up 5GB of storage for all your stuff, so should you have multiple iOS devices all signed into the same Apple account you’ll be able to see the same thing across all, so photos and reminders won’t be confined to the one device.

Make sure you’re careful with what you upload though, as the 5GB of storage will quickly start running down if you simply back everything up.

And the good news is the backing up happens automatically and wirelessly – when you’ve got the phone charged, locked and connected to a Wi-Fi network (ie, when you sleep) you’ll be instantly kept updated via your online storage.

Final thoughts

The iPhone 4S is a great piece of kit, and one of the best devices Apple has ever produced. It’s easy to find things that will make you coo with excitement, and the way the phone is packaged makes it very easy to use from the beginner to the expert smartphone user.

Every time we write a new iPhone review we wonder if it’s enough of an upgrade to warrant being heralded as the next greatest phone (aside from the iPhone 4, which was a real step forward).

We are left with the same feeling with the iPhone 4S – is an upgraded camera, new processor and voice recognition enough to encourage phone sales on a record breaking scale? In all likelihood, yes; Apple has never failed to create an update to a phone that just manages to sneak over the line of being desirable enough to update to, and the iPhone 4S is no exception.

We liked

What do we like about the iPhone 4S? Everything we loved about the iPhone 4 and more. The Retina Display is still one of the best on the market, and even in 16 months very few phones have managed to come close to the eye-popping quality.

The new camera is fantastic, and as we said: a genuine alternative to a compact point and shoot. We know that’s been said before, but we were mightily impressed for a day-to-day snapper.

The upgraded processor is going to be a real winner in the future when more heavy-duty apps and games start coming to the market; right now there’s not a lot going on that can really draw on the improved graphics and CPU, and the phone was already pretty snappy anyway.

Siri is a fun tool – we’re undecided about its use in day-to-day life, but there were enough useful options to play with to make it genuinely worthwhile.

We disliked

The gripes we have with the iPhone 4S are the same ones we’ve had for years with Apple’s iPhones, and despite the record number of sales for the phones we still think they need to be addressed by Apple.

Flash video. We know it’s a tired thing to keep talking about, but if Apple isn’t going to allow it to work on its phones then it needs some kind of strategy to rid us of the annoying ‘You need to download the latest version of Flash player’ notifications on websites.

The price: it’s still way too high in our opinion on contract, with the upfront cost for the iPhone 4S way in excess of anything else on the market on the same tariff. When you see that the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S and HTC Sensation can be bought off contract for the same cost, you have to question where that up front fee is coming from.

The contacts list needs an overhaul too, as it’s still too spartan for our tastes. Some sort of social networking integration, message history or album connectivity seems right up Apple’s street, so we’re still wondering why the firm has yet to improve this section.

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Pros

  • Fast processor
  • Superb graphics
  • Slick OS
  • Quality screen
  • Solid feel in the hand
  • Siri voice recognition

Cons

  • Costly
  • No flash integration
  • Outdated contacts menu

Verdict

Let’s make no bones about it: the iPhone 4S is one of the best phones on the market at the moment, and the best thing Apple has ever created.

It’s got all the right bits right: good camera, slick web browser, quality screen – and made it all work together in the way we’ve come to expect.

Some people might be disappointed not to have seen the fabled iPhone 5, with the larger screen and new design, but the iPhone 4S is more than enough to keep Apple fans happy.

Simply put: if you’ve got an iPhone 4, you don’t need to upgrade (as long as you update to iOS 5) but for anyone else on an older device, or hankering after finally making the jump to an iPhone, you should run down to the shops and pick one up now – you won’t regret it.

iPhone 4S

 


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