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Apple iPhone 4S Review

It's the iPhone 4, Jim, but not as we know it. Same design but with turbo-charged insides

Let’s not pull any proverbials here – the iPhone 4S did not arrive as we imagined. But despite that, the phone Apple introduced to awed gasps in 2007 has evolved faster and further than the competition. Its build quality is unsurpassed. Its screen is – at 326ppi – still the crispest (on paper) of any smartphone display. And the App Store, Apple’s iOS trinket shop, is the finest emporium of mobile software in the tech world.

But those are all plaudits equally applicable to the iPhone 4, a handset that also now benefits from having Apple’s iOS 5 software on board. And you will be forgiven for asking if it’s even worth the upgrade, particularly if you’re already locked into some gruesome pact with your network provider. So, is it worth making the trade?

iPhone 4S – it’s not the iPhone 5

When the mythical iPhone 5 failed to turn up with its redesigned aluminium body hugging a 4in (or more?) screen, many fled to their virtual rooftops to discredit Apple’s position on top of the smartphone heap. But is it really time for the Apple faithful to lead a mutiny and head for Google’s Android platform with its tempting promise of Ice Cream Sandwiches for all and open hardware development? Or are we – just perhaps – overreacting a bit to Apple’s ‘incremental’ upgrade?

iPhone 4S versus iPhone

It may look nearly identical on the outside, but the iPhone 4S is markedly different inside to its Apple predecessor, the iPhone 4. Mainly, that’s down to the A5 dual-core processor (similar to the one found in the iPad 2) that makes the iPhone 4’s A4 chip look like a stammering wreck. Apps launch at a touch, web pages render in a blink and all that new eye candy in iOS 5 glides as smoothly as a baby’s bum on ice. Metaphorically speaking.

Compare the Apple iPhone 4 review

Plus Apple has finally answered its critics: the signal quality really is better. Stuff has tested the iPhone 4S in a number of situations known to defeat the well-publicised issues with the iPhone 4’s antenna. Remember those dropped calls? The forlorn ‘Searching…’ message in the top left of your screen? Gone. And thank goodness for that.

iPhone 4S – 8MP camera

The iPhone 4 introduced us to the notion of an iPhone without a toy camera on the back. And the iPhone 4S is stretching its photography legs with an 8MP snapper, bringing it up to speed with the HTC Sensation and Samsung Galaxy S II.

It’s a virtual certainty that the Android hardware brigade will trounce Apple’s resolution numbers very soon, and you’d expect Nokia’s first Windows Phone handsets to come packing some heavyweight optics as well. Apple’s retort is a wide aperture and backside illumination (running the sensor’s ‘wiring’ around the back to let more light in). Does it work? In a word, yes. The iPhone 4S’s camera results are superb, the shutter is fast and the sensor is ready to snap a second shot almost immediately. Did we mention it now shoots 1080p with (digital) image stabilisation? And to great effect, too.

iPhone 4S – power and performance

Apple’s talked up the twice-as-fast processor and seven-times-quicker graphics of its new iPhone, but the 4S can only be judged on its real-life performance. Again, it’s up against better specced rivals; it has arrived late to the dual-core chip party, and with a clock speed (1GHz) that’s only just acceptable at the smartphone top table in late 2011. [UPDATE: sources suggest the iPhone 4S’s A5 chip runs at 800MHz]

But the iPhone 4S is no slouch. It puts rivals with bigger numbers to shame with its fluidity (funnily enough, in the 1990s similar claims were made in the spec war between Macs and PCs). Games designed for the iPhone 4’s abilities are notably smoother, and we’d expect apps designed with the A5’s abilities in mind to show a quantum leap in graphical quality. Put it this way: if we were on the cusp of launching, say, a PlayStation Vita, we wouldn’t sleep too comfortably.

iPhone 4S battery life

Don’t expect any miracles – the iPhone 4S claims an extra hour of battery life (with the 3G on). In all honesty, you won’t notice. We’ve no doubt the 4S is more efficient than its predecessor, but the processing grunt needed for Siri (more on that later) will probably end up taking back whatever benefits you’ll gain. In our experience, you’ll still need to pack a charger for an overnighter anywhere unless you’re willing to scrimp on data to conserve juice. Don’t expect a lifestyle change and you won’t be disappointed.

iPhone 4S and Siri

Siri is Apple’s latest ‘invention’, and only available on the iPhone 4S. As with video calling (FaceTime), Apple’s voice-command software isn’t a new idea. But again, it’s something that perhaps only Apple is in a position to bring to the mainstream with such aplomb. Siri intelligently understands your commands and questions, seeking out answers in your address book, the internet (it’s BFF with Wolfram Alpha), your 4S’s GPS nous and all but the darker recesses of iOS 5.

If there’s a reason to upgrade immediately and urgently to an iPhone 4S, it’s Siri. It may embarrassingly strike up Chris Rea’s Auberge from your iTunes library when you’re trying to set a reminder to pick up moussaka ingredients next time you go out, but it is such a clear harbinger of the future, it’s hard to resist. You may even overcome your bashfulness of barking instructions at your handset in public.

See Siri in action in our demo video

Admittedly, Siri isn’t quite baked yet: it does get confused and it needs more ability to deal with accents, background noise and languages, but it’s beta software and – with a bit of forgiveness – you can see how it might become part of our everyday lives. It’s like having HAL 9000’s less belligerent brother in your pocket: a decade too late, but conversational, colloquial and mercifully submissive.

iPhone 4S verdict

Apple’s iPhone 4S isn’t about changing the world. Not yet, anyway. If you’ve got an iPhone 4 in your pocket and your network wants to keep it that way, there are few legitimate reasons to make the instant leap to upgrade. Those reasons – the camera is sharper and faster, the processor more confident, Siri is a marvel – mean the iPhone 4S is an essential update for those with a 3GS, but only something to covet for the iPhone 4 crowd. It’s everything you wanted from an iPhone 5, minus the bigger screen. If that – and your thirst for fresh aesthetics – isn’t enough, an ever-changing Android landscape awaits you.

Stuff Says…

Score: 5/5

It’s not an essential upgrade, but Apple’s iPhone 4S is noticeably fitter than the iPhone 4 – and Siri is a temptation too far

Good Stuff

Slick, superfast performance

That new 8MP camera really shines

Siri is destined to be your new best friend

Bad Stuff

Not a major upgrade

No bigger screen option

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