On Friday, Apple's new iPhone 4S began to reach the hands of eager buyers -- a record 1 million pre-orders, including mine, were made as soon as the phone went on sale. With a noticeably faster dual-core A5 processor, more storage (up to 64GB), an improved 8-megapixel camera, a revamped antenna design and an artificial intelligence-powered assistant called Siri, the new iPhone promised to be the best Apple phone yet.
So, after a few days' use, how does it measure up?
In short: It meets every expectation I had, and then some. And Siri, the AI assistant that's available only on the 4S, will surprise you with how well it performs. (More about this in a minute.)
When Apple revealed this model on Oct. 4, the initial reaction from the tech press tended toward disappointment. Then came the flood of pre-orders on AT&T, Verizon and -- for the first time in the U.S. -- Sprint, followed by the long lines of eager buyers a week later outside Apple stores and other retail outlets, for a record-breaking total of 4 million iPhone 4S units sold over its launch weekend.
Reports of disappointment seemed to fade.
Like previous models, the 16GB iPhone sells for $199, the 32GB model goes for $299, and the new top-end model, with 64GB of storage, retails for $399. It's the model I bought for myself. (The previous top dog, iPhone 4, is demoted to 8GB of storage and now sells for $99. If you don't need much storage, it's a good deal at that price.) Those prices assume two-year contracts, or an extension of existing contracts.
Another first for Apple: This is a world phone. For those who travel often, the iPhone 4S can be used with other carriers around the globe. This is due to Apple's decision to incorporate a specific chipset that allows the iPhone to connect with different implementations of CDMA and GSM cellular technology. The end result is an iPhone that can work just about everywhere, a move that opens up carrier options throughout the world.
Upgrading to the 4S
I was prepared when the new iPhone arrived. Days earlier, I had upgraded my then-current iPhone 4 to iOS 5. (See my iOS 5 review for the steps involved in that upgrade.) And hours before the iPhone 4S arrived, I had initiated an iCloud backup on the iPhone 4 by going to Settings > iCloud > Storage & Backup and tapping the Backup Now button. This backup took only 5 minutes for me, but it will be different for everyone. iCloud only syncs changes, and it was mostly up to date already since my phone backs up to iCloud automatically every night.
(If you're old-school, you can use iTunes instead of iCloud for the backup: Plug into iTunes -- or just open it if you're connected to it via Wi-Fi -- and start a sync session, which will back up your phone and transfer media to your computer.)
When the backup was done, I silently thanked my iPhone 4 for its faithful service and turned it off. It was time to get a good look at the 4S, which was waiting to be unpacked.
For those interested, the 4S box is similar to the one used for the iPhone 4, except for an iCloud sticker and the additional 'S' in 'iPhone 4S.' Included with the 4S are the typical white Apple earbuds/mic combo, an iPhone charging cable and a wall plug. Also included: a quick-start dead-tree guide called Finger Tips, some obligatory legal text, and a couple of Apple stickers.
My first reaction when I pulled the 4S out of the box: This looks just like the iPhone 4!
Actually, to me that's a good thing. I like the design of the iPhone 4, and by extension, the 4S. It sports the same Zen-like minimalism that wowed me last year when the iPhone 4 arrived. As I did last year, I bought the black model, though you can get it in white if you prefer.
Even after 16 months, I think the aluminum-and-glass ice-cream sandwich design looks sharp, emanates quality and exudes a striking minimalist appearance; the best part is that the device seems to fade away when in actual use, leaving just you and the software. The overall size and weight offers a screen large enough to read comfortably, but small enough to be unobtrusive in your pocket.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the new iPhone arrived fully charged, which allowed me to start using it right away.
Like its predecessor, the iPhone 4S feels sturdy, as steel and glass should. It's a little heavier than the previous model (by a few grams), and the antenna slits on the side are in different locations. Otherwise, the design appears the same. As with the iPhone 4, the glass front and back panels -- while gorgeous -- make me nervous. A scuff on plastic is different than a shattered glass pane. If you're clumsy or worried about dropping it, buy a case and/or get AppleCare Plus.
AppleCare Plus is a new plan that allows you to replace a broken iPhone 4S twice in a two-year period. For $99, you extend Apple's standard one-year warranty by another year, and in case of accident, you can replace your iPhone for $49 a visit.
Ready, set... wait?
The flood of users attempting to upgrade to the new phone on Friday caused activation delays for many. I know several people who bought a 4S and were still unable to use it eight hours later. My own experience? Activation was -- I almost hate to admit it, because so many others had issues -- instantaneous. I used AT&T's site and my activation happened within 10 seconds.
However, during the setup process when the iPhone prompted me to log into iCloud, I ran into a hiccup. My first iCloud login attempt resulted in an error after a 15-second wait. The second attempt worked, though, and I was able to restore from the iCloud backup performed earlier on the other phone. Apple had a number of iCloud-related issues last week, so I doubt I was alone.
As I noted in my iOS 5 review, when restoring from iCloud, user data like Notes and App/OS settings, text messages, mail, contacts and calendars download first. After a reboot, camera roll pictures and apps/media from iTunes begin to download. (Reminder: If there's a specific app you want access to immediately, tap its icon to bring it to the front of the download queue.)
The initial 1.7GB restore from iCloud took about half an hour to wirelessly transfer before the iPhone rebooted and was ready for use. After the reboot, the iCloud restore continued, taking another few hours for the iPhone to complete the download of 7GB of apps, iTunes media and camera roll photos and videos. When I woke up Saturday morning, the iTunes wireless sync from the previous night had finished, leaving me with 7GB left empty out of 64GB total.
Wireless transfers may not be speedy, but the prioritization of the downloads allows you to be up and running and actually using your phone even as the media is being copied over, a nice change from earlier versions of iOS.
As with its predecessor, the first thing you notice about the 4S is the display. It's unchanged, featuring a pixel-packed 960x640 resolution on a 3.5-in. screen that gives high-quality magazine prints a run for their money. Images on the 4S are just as crisp as on the previous model.
But while it's difficult to tell the difference between the old iPhone and the new one by sight, the new one is clearly more responsive, boosted by a faster architecture. For the most part, Apple engineers took what made the iPad 2 speedy -- the A5-branded dual-core CPU and 512MB of system memory -- and fit them in the iPhone form factor. While the 4S doesn't quite achieve iPad 2 performance in benchmark tests, it's much faster than the previous model, which itself was no slouch.
The 4S runs iOS 5 in a smoother way that makes navigating among apps more pleasant than on the iPhone 4. On last year's model, most animations played fluidly without dropping frames or stuttering, but sometimes the flow of navigation when tapping across the device was disrupted by slow window content load times. While some screens naturally load faster than others, on the 4S, animations are as fluid as can be.
Put simply, the 4S makes the iPhone 4 feel much slower than it did just a few weeks ago: Websites render faster than ever (even compared to other smartphones with CPUs clocked twice as fast), applications load in about half the time, and typical tasks complete without a stutter.
So what does all this added performance do to battery life? As it turns out, not much. Apple claims the battery in the 4S will provide an extra hour of talk time but an hour less of Wi-Fi browsing. Without running formal tests, I haven't noticed a difference here or there in my daily use.
The iPhone camera system gets an update that offers not only better pictures and video, but improved performance as well. Apple updated the camera to 8 megapixels, but megapixels mean little without improved optics to capture those pixels. The 4S boasts a lens design with a larger aperture, an improved backside illumination sensor, an infrared filter for UV light and software enhancements to match, according to Apple.
Comparing the new iPhone's results with those taken by the iPhone 4 shows a nice improvement in image quality. In fact, Apple claims to have improved the quality enough to target midrange point-and-shoot cameras. At this point, it's hard to say whether that's been achieved.
I took some quick comparison shots in fading light with the iPhone 4S and a 10-megapixel Canon Powershot SD890 IS Elph and found that the Elph took a crisper, more vibrant flower close-up, while the 4S took a brighter, cleaner shot of the horizon and sky. I'll need to do more testing before I can declare a winner, but it's safe to say that the 4S takes some impressive photos.
Even better, launching the Camera app is no longer an exercise in patience. On the 4S, you're ready to take photos much faster than before (within a second and a half of opening), and multiple pictures can be taken more rapidly, as the time lag between shots has decreased to about half a second. (iOS 5 also brought some nifty improvements to the Camera app -- including access to the camera from the Lock Screen -- that users of earlier iPhones can enjoy as well.)
Video has been bumped up from 720p to 1080p resolution (captured at 30 frames per second in both old and new models). The improved optics that make still pictures noticeably better are put to good use here, too, and videos look great. An added bonus: The 4S features built-in video stabilization, which uses the on-board gyro to minimize camera-shake caused by unsteady hands.
Throughout the years, I've used several cameras, but after last year's iPhone 4 release, I settled on the iPhone as my camera of choice to record and photograph everything. When my niece visits, I record our activities and make little movies in iMovie that she (and the family) enjoy. Everyone who watches the videos admits amazement that the footage was shot "from a cell phone."
For me, this makes the improvements to the 4S camera well worth the upgrade. And I have an additional wish for the iPhone 5: I wouldn't mind seeing the availability of 720p video at 60 frames per second for better slow-motion shots.
One thing to keep in mind if you plan to take lots of videos and still shots with the iPhone 4S: All those advances to the camera and video architecture will result in larger files that eat up storage space -- something to consider when you choose which model to buy.
Apple chose to skip over true 4G support this time around, though it did improve the antenna system. Last year's iPhone 4 came under fire because of an attenuation issue that could be reproduced by bridging the lower left antenna slots with your hand, cutting off cell signal. This year's iPhone features a dual-antenna system that can swap to the strongest signal on the fly, so you no longer need an external case to prevent the antenna "death grip" issue.
The latest iPhone antenna design can use AT&T's 14.4Mbps HSPA+ service, which some hardware makers refer to as 4G. (Some rumor sites have reported that AT&T is trying to persuade Apple to refer to this new iPhone as a 4G phone.) While HSPA+ does bring noticeable speed improvements to 3G networks, it's still not technically 4G in my book. True 4G technologies available today include LTE and WiMax, which are still being rolled out across specific cities with new networks that are purpose-built for data traffic.
Regardless, the iPhone 4S is more capable of finding and maintaining a stronger cell signal than its predecessor, without the battery drain found in true 4G phones. In my own use so far, I've found that the 4S seems to get better reception in areas that were shady before -- and I haven't dropped any calls (yet). I'll know more the more I use it.
Siri, your own virtual assistant
I'm a big fan of iOS 5, the new OS that Apple rolled out earlier this month. But until I got the iPhone 4S, I hadn't had a chance to try out Siri.
Siri is Apple's first attempt at voice-activated artificial intelligence on a commercial device. What does that mean? It means simply that you can tell your phone what to do, and it will just do it. No doubt other smartphone owners are saying, "Hey, my phone can accept voice commands, too." Trust me, not like this.
Compared to voice commands built into other phones -- including previous iPhones -- Siri is much more flexible about what questions and requests it understands, and it can ask you contextually appropriate questions that will help it help you.
For instance, when I asked it a specifically ambiguous question like, "What's good to eat around here?" Siri responded with a list of restaurants within a few miles of my location, sorted by rating.
When asked, "What's the phone number to Crisper's?" Siri responded, "I can't find Crispers in your address book. Do you want me to search local businesses?" When I responded yes, Siri answered with a list of businesses, their locations, star rating, and how far away they were from my location. With a tap of the screen, I was able to initiate a phone call.
You can ask Siri to do many functions, and an entire list of hints is available by tapping the "i" button in the Siri interface (called up by holding the Home button for two seconds). You can ask Siri to set alarms, create reminders, take notes, take email dictations and read text messages. You can also make silly requests such as "Tell me a joke." When I asked that, Siri replied, "Mike, I don't know any good jokes. None." When I insisted, she said, "I can't. I always forget the punchline!"
Located next to the space bar on the virtual keyboard is a little microphone; a quick tap there allows you to dictate messages. Siri is so well implemented that it quickly made third-party apps like Yelp and Dragon Dictation obsolete for me. But it's not perfect. You can ask Siri for directions, but it doesn't offer up turn-by-turn specifics.
And you still have to be careful what you say to Siri. I inadvertently interrupted several text messages because, after the message was dictated and Siri asked if it was ready to send, I said, "Send the message," assuming that Siri would, you know, send the message. Unfortunately, this command is close enough to the "Send a New Message" command for Siri to forget all about the one I had just dictated.
One glitch: When I woke up Saturday morning, Siri had stopped working for me, complaining about networking errors despite the fact that every other app found Internet services without issue. Everything worked fine once I turned Siri off and back on. This issue is being reported by other iPhone 4S owners on user forums and for some, turning Siri off and on doesn't work.
While Apple has done a good job of integrating Siri with some of the built-in Apple apps, I really hope access to Siri is made available to third-party developers. I'd like to see what non-Apple developers could do with the technology. Still, Siri is impressive on arrival, and I'm sure Apple's continuing work on it will make today's Siri feel as basic as the software in the first iPhone.
So, should you upgrade? If you're like a lot of iPhone owners whose contract is ending, you're likely upgrading from a 3GS, as that's the model that was on the market two years ago. If you're still interested in staying with Apple, then yes, the 4S is a wonderful upgrade.
If you have an iPhone 4 and want to upgrade, don't be fooled by the fact that the new model looks the same as last year's. Inside, the iPhone 4S is all new: the antennas, the processor, the camera system, Siri, the battery. Everything has changed except for the external case and the 3.5-in. screen.
The question, really, becomes whether the new hardware is worth the cost of upgrade -- or whether you absolutely must have Siri. I can't answer that for you, but don't let the exterior looks fool you: This is a new phone.
The late Apple CEO Steve Jobs once said: "We want to make the best products in the world for customers.... If we succeed, they'll buy them. If we don't, they won't. And it'll all work itself out."
As far as I'm concerned, the iPhone 4S succeeds in that mission Jobs set. Recommended.