REVIEW: iPhone 4S is a convincing upgrade - just ask Siri
By ANDY IHNATKO firstname.lastname@example.org November 10, 2011 12:42PM
The Camera app also features face-priority focus. Even when the face is one of the living dead.
Updated: November 11, 2011 9:28AM
I’ve been pondering a bunch of questions ever since seeing the iPhone 4S unveiled and then getting my hands on one. I’m not sure that any of them has puzzled me more than this one:
Has the world lost its damned mind?
Here I refer to the people who blithely dismiss the 4S as a titanic disappointment. Apple sold 4,000,000 of these things in the blink of an eye, but putting that aside, the 4S can only be considered a disappointment by someone who (a) had complete faith in reckless pre-release guesswork about what sort of iPhone Apple would release this fall, and (b) maintain a bedrock insistence that the predicted new features -- a 4G radio and a large screen -- are non-negotiable in a modern smartphone.
Is it possible to take a 3G phone seriously in this day and age? Of course. 4G/LTE phones are truly awesome. I’ve been carrying one model of 4G phone or another for the past year and and there’s nothing subtle about the speed boost, particularly if you’re using the phone as a mobile Internet connection for your notebook.
But the 4G radio eats up the battery. I keep these phones in 3G mode most of the day, just to ensure that the battery will last. Plus, nationwide 4G coverage is woefully spotty. All other things being equal, I’d rather have a 4G phone than a 3G model, but we’re still a long ways away from the day when a phone should be dismissed for lacking a 4G radio.
A larger screen is just a matter of taste. The iPhone 4S is stuck with an average-sized screen (3.5”), but it features best-in-class resolution, color, and clarity. Even tiny text reads like small print on a page rather than small text on a screen. And a photo looks like a photo, as opposed to a frame of video. The compact size is an advantage, in the sense that your thumb can reach the full margins of the screen when you’re one-handing it.
The huge, 4.5-inch displays on many Android phones are closer to the cozy, comforting dimensions of a paperback book. A bigger screen also offers the side benefit of making buttons and keys easier to target ... although that’s more important in Android apps than the iOS world.
There are advantages to both kinds of screens. It’s simply a matter of personal taste.
The third complaint is downright silly. It’s pretty clear that the 2010 iPhone 4 wasn’t a slapped-together, throwaway design. No sensible person -- and here I’m eliminating the sort who carries a miniature dog around in a $10,000 purse -- should give a damn that the 2011 model of a phone looks no different from its 2010 edition.
With that malarkey out of the way, we can focus on the iPhone 4S itself. I’ve decided to take a deep-soak with the 4S before writing my review. Despite its physical similarities to the iPhone 4, the changes that Apple made are large enough to provoke beard-stroking thought. And I encountered a couple of problems that defied ready understanding.
Let’s get the simple stuff out of the way first. From a hardware standpoint, the iPhone 4S is a tune-up of the iPhone 4. It has a new dual-core processor (the same A5 as the iPad 2) which includes extra tweaks to enhance graphics performance. Simple performance benchmarks put the 4S’s speed at anywhere from half again to twice the 2010 model. Outside of gaming -- where Apple claims a 7x boost in graphics performance -- the faster hardware articulates itself most prominently as simple, satisfying, snappy responsiveness that improves the whole iPhone experience, all the way across the board.
The A5 also makes the 4S powerful enough to support video mirroring. Plug in any of Apple’s video dock connectors and everything that happens on your iPhone 4S screen also happens on any VGA or HDMI HDTV. Lovely; road warriors might be tempted to carry the 4S (and a connector) as their sole presentation device.
The real Tabasco comes in the form of wireless video mirroring -- full-resolution and full-framerate -- via AirPlay. That might not seem like a big deal when you’re answering emails, but it’s a potential killer for gaming. The 4S’s enhanced graphics performance allows developers to deliver full, console-style rendering and animation to the iPhone. When the 4S mirrors its video to an HDTV via a $99 Apple TV box, the difference between this phone and a “real” console gaming system becomes almost nitpickingly-slim.
The iPhone’s radio systems have been completely overhauled. Earlier this year, Apple introduced a separate version of the iPhone 4, to make the device available to customers of Verizon and other carriers that use CDMA networks. The 4S has both CDMA and GSM radios, which makes the iPhone a true world phone. No matter who your carrier is and no matter where you roam, your iPhone 4S will work with whatever foreign carrier desires the honor of overcharging you for text messaging and data.
The 4S supports an upgraded version of HSDPA, aka the “Damn, our 4G network won’t be ready for another year or two; how can we goose speeds over our existing 3G towers?” protocol. Under ideal circumstances, the new HSDPA could yield a 2x speed increase over the iPhone 4’s flavor of HSDPA.
Alas, none of the three cities I tested the 4S in seemed to support it. Typical data speeds were in line with what I was getting on the iPhone 4: around 3 Mbps downloads and a little over one Mbps up.
2010 history buffs will recall that the iPhone 4 antenna had a Well-Publicized Signature Quirk which caused the device to lose several bars of reported signal if it was held in a specific, not-at-all-atypical way. Depending on who told the tale, it was either a ridiculous non-issue that affects almost every mobile phone from every maker, or an utter fatality specific to the iPhone.
Well, whatever. Apple completely redesigned the antenna this time. The 4S sports two completely independent antennas around separate areas of its case. It doesn’t matter how you hold the iPhone 4S; the iPhone always uses the one that’s reporting a stronger signal at any given moment.
The screen is identical as far as specs go -- and iFixit.com’s reliably-stellar iPhone 4S hardware teardown confirms that it’s the same component -- but when I place the 4S side by side with my iPhone 4, the color’s a bit different. Not “off,” but different. It’s hard to tell the difference when viewing photos, but apps on the 4S look a bit warmer than they do on the 4.
Finally, there’s the back of the iPhone 4S. It’s made out of the same aircraft glass that Apple put into the iPhone 4. So that settles a question I’d been pondering. Clearly, in the real world, the glass back plates on millions of iPhone 4 handsets performed well enough that Apple saw no reason to change it. Compare and contrast this with the iPhone 4S’ completely redesigned antenna.
Here we see yet another example of why the Apple Stores are such a brilliant concept. Pundits give Apple lumps for wanting to maintain the tightest possible control over the entire product experience, but the payoffs for the customers are considerable. The Genius Bars provides a constant stream of valuable real world data about the actual performance of Apple hardware. By controlling the repair channel, Apple collects the sort of information that helps them make the next-generation product better.
Phone cameras keep improving. I hear a popular refrain from users of all levels of photographic skill and technical expertise: “There’s no point to my owning a traditional, separate camera any more.”
Okay, well, steady on, there, Skeezix. A modern phone has some incredible imaging technology in it. But a phone will always be designed and optimized for being held and used like a phone, not like a camera. And as good as a phone camera app is, it can only be “the best that can be done, given the resources available.” The engineers who build conventional cameras know that the thing they’re building will pass or fail solely on its ability to take a decent photo under any situation.
If you have any lingering doubts about this “a phone is not a camera” point, go ahead and take the Universal Studios tour. Try to maintain your grip on a thin, glass-paneled $300 phone while your tram is being violently shaken by King Kong. I can report that in this environment, your goals immediately shift away from “I’d like to get a shot of Kong tackling that enormous T-Rex” and more towards “I’d like not to drop my new phone into the guts of this ride simulator.”
A phone will never be more than a snapshot camera or an excellent “camera of convenience,” barring a major future revolution.
That said, Apple took the best-in-class iPhone 4 camera and made it even best-in-classer. It takes 8 megapixel pictures instead of 5, but that’s the most boring stat. Apple made huge improvements to the iPhone’s low-light sensitivity. It’s 73 percent greater, thanks to a new, brighter, five-element lens, an enhanced image sensor, and a new image processor. This means you’ll get better shots in dim environments and it truly improves the performance of the camera across the board. In otherwise well-lit photos shot with the iPhone 4, for example, deep shadows are just smears of black. That’s true to an even greater extent on every other phone camera I’ve ever tried. On the iPhone 4S, shadows have actual shape and texture.
The 4S also packs a new hybrid IR filter. It’s hard to test it empirically, but from an engineering standpoint it’s supposed to ensure that large areas of the same color (like walls and skies) are rendered consistently. The more powerful A5 processor lets the Camera app do live, continuous face-priority focusing, just like a “real” pocket camera. Neat.
The 4S’s improved auto white-balance is worth the cost of admission. I spent days shooting side-by-side-by-side shots of the iPhone 4, the 4S, and a third camera (either another camera phone or a “real” camera) and the 4S’ shots were always far more “real” than any other smartphone. Honestly, the white balance contributes more to picture quality than the higher 8 megapixel resolution. Under ideal shooting situations, it was often even hard to tell the difference between a shot made by the 4S and one made with my $600 Micro Four Thirds camera.
Still, there were limits. The interior of a convention center is far from ideal but I was disappointed that some of my shots were ruined due to incorrect focus. I have to blame this on the Camera app’s streamlined interface. I yearn for the ability to flip that simplified screen around to reveal finer manual controls. A simple “Wait for focus lock before taking photo” option would have allowed me to snap a clear shot of the West Coast Avengers before they’d moved on to the food court.
My final test of the 4S camera was a trip to Los Angeles with the iPhone 4S as my sole shooter. The limitations of a phone camera were readily apparent. During a keynote, I yearned for a proper zoom so I could get a good shot of the speaker. During the aforementioned tour of Universal Studios, which was specially-arranged for our conference and happened late at night, I yearned for a proper flash. But otherwise, the iPhone 4S images in my photo library don’t look in any way like phone photos, thanks to their brilliantly lifelike color.
That’s a hugely big deal, given that the 4S is a camera that you’ll always have in your pocket. I stick with my original assertion about the need to own a “real” camera alongside a phone, but with the iPhone 4S you can almost count on being able to take a “real” photo no matter where you are or what happens.
Switching to video mode, the rear camera has been upgraded from 720p to 1080p HD. Once again, the increased processing power delivers a new trick: continuous image stabilization, which uses motion data from the 4S’ built-in gyroscope to mitigate the effects of shaky hands. The stabilization can’t work miracles, but it’s a noticeable improvement.
I do wish that it were possible to choose a lower video resolution. An iPhone packed with music and movies and games and an onboard street atlas leaves little room for recorded video. A less storage-hungry format would have been a great option.
As impressive as the technical details are, the aptitude of the iPhone 4S as a camera owes just as much to Apple engineers’ attitude as much as the hardware. Apple seems to have designed the camera as a primary feature, and not as just another app icon competing for the user’s attention. I can go from “What the hell is THAT?!?” to a great photo in just a couple of seconds. The 4S is ready to shoot just a second or three after I whip it out of my shirt pocket, and in a rapid-fire test, the 4S shot 19 frames in ten seconds.
One demo shot in particular tells the complete tale of the iPhone 4S camera: my pal Andy bowling in a dark bar alley. The 4S had to push its low-light features to the max and with the ISO pushed all the way to 800, yes, there’s plenty of visible grain. But it’s a perfectly good shot. The color is spot-on despite wildly artificial lighting, the exposure system wasn’t bamboozled by a spotlight in the foreground ... and the iPhone snapped the photo an instant after I tapped the shutter button, when the ball left Andy’s hand. The 4S performed almost exactly as a conventional camera would have.
Compare and contrast this with two different Android phones I carried for side-by-side tests. It’s not unusual for me miss the shot entirely, thanks to the wooliness of most Android phones’ camera apps. Sometimes, the app is just too slow. Sometimes, it simply doesn’t work at all. Many times I’d be tapping at the shutter button seven times in a row to no effect, and then I’d remember that the last time this sort of thing happened, I regained control of the app by opening the menu and then closing it again. But then I’d decide that maybe I’m not really all that interested in taking this photo.
Is there a more damning statement of failure for a camera?
And is there any single, simple feature that so clearly speaks about Apple’s attitudes towards its products and its users? Whenever your kid does something you’ll want to remember forever, your phone will almost always be the closest camera. Apple thinks it’s important that you get the shot before the moment passes, and that the resulting photo is good enough to keep on the sofa table for the next forty years. What the hell are the makers of Android phone cameras thinking?
Battery life on the 4S merits its own section. Its battery is slightly more powerful than its predecessor (by an extra .05 watt-hours) and according to specs, will last longer in 3G talk time but dies a little sooner in standby.
In real-world trials, you can take your pick from three separate conclusions:
1) It doesn’t last quite as long as the iPhone 4 running iOS 4.
An iPhone user who’s used to seeing about 30 percent battery remaining at the end of the day will probably see a 20% low power warning instead, despite the fact that they haven’t changed their habits at all. Aha, but you’re running iOS 5, not iOS 4, and the rules have changed. Thanks to iCloud and other new iPhone services, your phone is likely to spend a lot more time (and power) talking to the network than it did when it was running the old OS.
There’s also the matter of iOS 5’s Reminders app and its super-handy geofencing feature. It can remind you to pick up a case of Clamato the next time you’re at the market, but it can’t do that unless it keeps checking your location via GPS.
So, in truth,
2) The iPhone 4S has roughly the same battery life as the iPhone 4.
. . . Once you understand Conclusion One, and you either (a) accept that iOS 5’s new features affect battery life on both old and new iPhones, or (b) turn off the features you don’t think you need. I didn’t consider this an issue. Even with iCloud and geofencing enabled, there was enough power to keep the 4S running throughout a typical workday.
Still, I’m sorry that Apple removed one of the iPhone’s handiest power-saving features. On the 4S, you can no longer manually switch off 3G and fall back to the far more energy-conservative EDGE radio. If the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune force you to start the day with a less-than-full battery, that simple trick can be the difference between experiencing a minor annoyance and suffering a major disaster.
So that’s my personal experience with the iPhone 4S’ battery. But according to a few users,
3) The new iPhone has serious, serious battery issues.
One typical report describes a phone that came out of a pocket feeling warm to the touch, and with a battery that had been drained as though the CPU had been active the whole time.
Though my test device suffered no such problems, I’ve been in contact with two affected users and reports from dozens more are easy to find on Apple’s iPhone 4S support forums. The system logs on these problem phones reveal something seriously barmy going on; various system processes are going completely nuts and keeping the CPU running at full steam as iOS tries to work its way out of a complicated issue, sometimes obsessing over a single calendar or contact item.
Right about the time I gave up on determining the exact cause of the battery issue, Apple acknowledged that they’ve located a few bugs related to power performance and that they’d soon be releasing an iOS update. A second version of this bugfix is already in the hands of the developer community and it ought to be released to the general public in the next couple of weeks.
And now the fix is online in the form of the iOS 5.01 update. Users can download and install iOS 5.01 either via iTunes or through the "Software Update" feature found in iOS' "General" settings.
The Swing Of Siri
Siri, Apple’s new voice-enabled personal assistant, is such an interesting and subtle feature that it merited its own separate column. It’s not simply a speech-to-text keyboard replacement, though it works well enough that the only times you’ll actually thumb-type anything longer than a phrase is when you’re in public. You shouldn’t be ashamed that you’re spending $400 for a custom-made Wonder Man costume but you shouldn’t need to explain your decisions to the co-workers in the breakroom.
Nor is it anything akin to the Voice Command feature that’s been a part of the iPhone since 2009. Voice Command involves the iPhone recognizing that you’ve just said one of several hard-wired trigger phrases. Siri, by comparison, listens to what you said and then turns that into a text message to your son at 312-555-1827, or a reminder to steal some more toilet paper the next time you arrive at work, or the information that a three-litre bottle will hold 101.4 ounces of liquid.
And you just plain speak naturally. Siri’s greatest achievement is that it fires up the same bits of your brain that you use when you’re speaking to a real person. You just ask Siri to do something. If Siri needs more information (you told it to schedule a meeting with Ted tomorrow, but didn’t say what time) it’ll prod you for it. And you’ll catch yourself saying “Sorry.” That’s how good the system is.
The other sign that Apple is on to something here is the fact that it’s not a gadget, a fribble, or just A Good Demo. I find myself using Siri all the time; I could set a reminder by tapping an app button, but I don’t. I never have. But I’m setting reminders all the time now; adding reminders is far more natural via Siri is with other iOS app I’ve ever used. I use it even when I’m actually at my notebook. If I need a quick piece of data, it just feels simpler to pick up the iPhone and ask Siri to get it for me than it does to mutely tab over to my browser and do a Google search.
Siri is still officially in beta, which means that Apple’s carefully watching and listening (via public forums, not via your iPhone’s microphone) to how people are using the service. I hope they expand Siri’s suite of functions. The more you use Siri, the more things you want to do with it. It’s still early, but potentially, Siri could do for mobile phones what the mouse, windows, and menus did for desktop computers.
The Skip Year
So . . . time to upgrade, then?
Trick question. If you bought an iPhone 4, you’re still under a two-year contract. Only you, with the help of your loved ones and clergyman, can decide if the new features are worth the expense of breaking your contract.
If you bought an iPhone 3GS two years ago, the improvements are almost disorientingly good and you’ll be very, very pleased that you didn’t pop the extra cash to break your contract and buy an iPhone 4 last year.
The 4S brings two choices you didn’t have last year. First, the $199 16 gigabyte and $299 32 gig models are joined by a supersized 64 gigabyte iPhone for $399. Secondly, US buyers can choose between AT&T, Verizon, and now also Sprint. Why go with Sprint instead of the other two? Their rate plans are cheaper and you can even still buy an unlimited data plan for $70. The only AT&T subscribers who still have unlimited data are the ones who bought their iPhones before the carrier realized that giving an iPhone user unlimited data was like inviting a gunman into your clay pigeon factory and offering him unlimited bullets.
The iPhone isn’t hands-down the greatest phone in the world. A handset is too idiosyncratic a device for any sort of “one model fits all” statement. The camera has been improved in a way that makes for better photos, not for better appearances on a feature comparison chart. Siri’s goal isn’t to give the iPhone mere parity with the voice control features of other phones; it’s to create a new paradigm for mobile phone interfaces.
Ditto for the A5 processor. It makes its presence known through every swipe and button press, and through a bunch of nice, refined features (such as image stabilization and face-detection) scattered across the experience. Shortly before writing this, Nvidia unveiled the new Tegra 3 quad-core mobile processor. It’s a honey of a chip. But as with the dual-core processors found in current generation Android phones, it’s hard to see instances where the user is actually accessing or requiring that kind of speed.
Add it all up, and you can easily understand why most iPhone users won’t switch to any other handset unless presented with a court order backed by an mobilized detachment of National Guardsmen.