Questions about battery issues and carrier portability remain for what is otherwise a world-beating device.
Sometimes, simple evolution can be revolutionary.
Apple's iPhone 4S is identical in dimension to last
year's iPhone 4, and some observers had staked their reputations on the
fifth-generation phone being branded as "iPhone 5." Yet the 4S is overall a
vast improvement on its predecessor-thanks in no small part to the inclusion of
the Siri voice-control technology, which sets off the new iPhone from
everything else in the market.
That's not to say that the new iPhone is all that
it's cracked up to be. Questions remain about its battery life, and about its
ability to be easily moved from one carrier to another. But compared with what
came before it, the iPhone 4S is truly a breath of fresh air.
On the outside, the iPhone 4S looks much like the
iPhone 4. It's identical in physical form and slightly heavier, by a tenth of
an ounce. The major difference is that this time around, Apple's engineers
redesigned the antenna of the 4S in hopes of avoiding another "Antennagate," and
by all practical measures, the new design works as well as can be expected.
Antennagate is a problem that surfaced last year when some iPhone 4 customers
complained that touching the device's antenna rim dampened reception. Apple later
offered iPhone 4 customers bumpers to block the device's exterior antenna rim from skin contact.
Internally, the two most notable differences from the
iPhone 4 are the processor (which in the 4S is the same Apple-designed A5 CPU
that powers the iPad 2) and the camera (which is radically improved in the 4S
with the addition of image stabilization and the ability to shoot stills and
video at much higher resolutions than before, up to 1080p for high-definition
video). The image sensor takes 8-megapixel stills, and combined with hybrid
infrared filtering, a larger aperture and quicker shutter response, make the
iPhone 4S as good as many point-and-shoot cameras.
Storage and video streaming are also vastly improved
in the iPhone 4S. Users who choose to carry an extensive multimedia library
will appreciate the long-awaited 64GB configuration of the 4S. The new iPhone,
like the iPad 2, is able to mirror its display over WiFi to an Apple TV at 720p
using the AirPlay feature. Wired connections to video are also mirrored in the
iPhone 4S up to 1080p. Meanwhile, earlier iPhones only offer up to 720p video,
and the user must toggle between the onboard display and the connected screen.
Apple calls the iPhone 4S a "worldphone," which only
stretches the truth a little bit. True, the same device contains radios for
Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) and GSM/UMTS (Universal Mobile
Telecommunication System) service. However, there's a catch: An unlocked iPhone
4S won't work with a CDMA carrier, such as Sprint or Verizon. Likewise, an
iPhone 4S that was activated with a CDMA carrier comes with a micro-SIM card
that allows use on GSM networks internationally, but it apparently can't be
replaced by a cheaper, local alternative. Apple has taken a further step in
discouraging users from switching carriers by omitting the SIM card extraction
tool from the package, which saves pennies without slowing down the truly
motivated network hopper.
Apple is also touting the new phone's support for
Bluetooth 4.0, which will mean something in the future, when there are
peripherals that support the enhanced technology. Although the low-power
features of the updated specification will likely prove beneficial, I don't
expect to see any headsets supporting them until next year.
Another highly promoted feature of the iPhone 4S is
Siri. Although Siri's voice-control features can, with work, be made available
on earlier iPhones, it's officially limited to the 4S. Siri has potential, but
it's still a novelty; in other words, we're not quite at the point where we can
start grading the tap-dancing elephant on style. Simple requests such as "find
a dry cleaner nearby" work well, but more complicated scenarios like "find the
Safeway on Market Street" don't play out as smoothly.
Siri is more remarkable for the ease of interaction
among the user, the local hardware and the cloud service. When third-party
developers can use the same technology, we will truly see voice-control take
off as a user interface. For now, Siri is an evolution of the voice-control
features that mobile phones have had since the mid-1990s, albeit a very
A slew of other improvements are also included in
the iPhone 4S. The device supports the Russian GLONASS satellite navigation
system as well as the U.S.-operated GPS, faster graphics performance and, of
course, everything else that was baked into iOS 5.
The most important feature of any mobile phone is
its battery. Apple is rightfully proud of what it has accomplished in wringing
an extra hour of 3G talk time out of the battery in the 4S, compared with the
iPhone 4. Yet it's not talking about the dramatic drop in the company's published
figures for standby time: The 4S can go up to 200 hours, versus up to 300 hours
on standby for the iPhone 4. Although bugs in some features may be prematurely
draining some users' batteries, the new processor and location-aware
applications are clearly taking their own toll.
For now, the best way to minimize battery drain from location polling is
to disable unwanted features. This is easily accomplished, as the preferences
page for Location Services indicates apps and system services that use location
data; a purple or gray arrow means current or recent use, respectively.
Manufacturing, like politics,
is the art of the possible. The day is likely to come when all the dreams that
were wrapped up in the idea of the iPhone 5 come true. But until then, what
Apple is selling in its place is indeed a good mobile device. To swipe a line
from the movie Hoosiers, if one
focuses on what the iPhone 4S is, instead of what it is not, one can't help but
P. J. Connolly began writing for IT publications in 1997 and has a lengthy track record in both news and reviews. Since then, he's built two test labs from scratch and earned a reputation as the nicest skeptic you'll ever meet. Before taking up journalism, P. J. was an IT manager and consultant in San Francisco with a knack for networking the Apple Macintosh, and his love for technology is exceeded only by his contempt for the flavor of the month. Speaking of which, you can follow P. J. on Twitter at pjc415, or drop him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.