Apple iPhone 4S Review

Ah the iPhone 4S, Cupertino’s half-baked, half-arsed, half-way house to a proper next gen iPhone, or a genuine evolution of the world’s most iconic smartphone? Meh, bit of both we reckon. The 4S comes to the game with sexy new cloths, a faster processor, better imaging and a few new tricks up its bespoke port. That is just enough to make us want an upgrade. The new Dual-core processor from the iPad2 is in there, you get a front facing camera for Facetime and 1080p full HD video recording from the new 8MP front cam. But do you opt for a 4S now and tie yourself up with an 18 or 24 month contract when the iPhone 5 will almost certainly be available late summer or early autumn? Tricky.

Reviewer Rating

8.6 out of 10
Overall: 8.6 out of 10
Breakdown of overall phone rating
  • 1. Style
    9
  • 2. Build
    10
  • 3. Display
    8
  • 4. Processor
    10
  • 5. Imaging
    9
  • 6. GUI
    8
  • 7. Social
    7
  • 8. Games
    8
  • 9. Music
    10
  • 10. Business
    7

User Rating

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars6 Stars7 Stars8 Stars9 Stars10 Stars
(14 votes) select eggs to vote. iPhone 4S

Ah the iPhone 4S, Cupertino’s half-baked, half-arsed, half-way house to a proper next gen iPhone, or a genuine evolution of the world’s most iconic smartphone?..." />
Loading ... Loading ... iPhone 4S

Prime Millet

  • Faster that an turbocharged leopard
  • Smooth and sophisticated UI
  • Best stills camera on a smartphone
  • A music playing maestro

Droppings

  • It’s not an iPhone 5, dammit!
  • No SD or media card slot
  • Rather small screen, relatively
  • Siri is Steve Jobs’ ghost (er, iGhost)

Cosmetically the 4S ticks all the right boxes. It is slim, sleek and feels like a finely hewn slab of technology calved from granite, probably by Dwarves. (And I do mean the fictional race famed for its engineering skills, not small people generically). The full-front toughened glass in punctuated only by the familiar indented ‘home’ key, with power key and headphone socket on the top edge.

It feels just so comfortable in the hand, despite losing its Marylyn Monroe back panel curves in the move from iPhone 3 to iPhone 4. In fact possibly the most irksome for the tech show-offs among us is that one’s ‘latest tech’ bragging rights are someone diminished as the 4S looks exactly the same as an iPhone 4 – and that is close to an ancient design, being nearly two years old. Tsk, tsk!

That said, the iPhone 4S is the same mix of style through bare simplicity that has kept the Mac fan club satisfied for years. Even the 4S’s super-glossy rear panel has the familiar bitten apple logo and text highlighted out in clear mirror silver set well into the case rather than a surface print. The hard buttons are by far the best feeling of any smartphone on the market and they are placed particularly well for lefties. Righties might need some exercises to improve their digital dexterity, but as these buttons only cover the ringer on/off and volume control it isn’t a major issue either way. Most usefully the top volume key doubles as the ‘shutter release’ button when you are taking a photo to give you a proper camera feel.

Only Nokia’s Lumia 800 comes close to the 4S’s substantial build quality and weight for that matter. The 4S is certainly not light compared to the Galaxy S2, coming in some 25 grams heavier or about an ounce in old money. That might not sound like much but that is 20% heavier than the Galaxy despite being considerably smaller and less than 1mm thicker. Clearly Apple is packing in heftier hardware but its sealed case means no easily replaceable battery. Moreover, there is no SD or media card slot. While Apple offers more memory choices at purchase, up to 64 GB in fact, if you have chosen a lower capacity model then ‘out of memory’ really does mean out of memory. I am only half-surprised that the iTunes ‘out of memory’ sync message doesn’t include an advert for a larger capacity iPhone and automated directions to the nearest Apple store.

Fast Freddie fingers

Power up the 4S and the first thing you will notice is that your eyeballs are not actually melting. Compared to the current crop of AMOLED displays the 4S sticks with an in-plane switching (IPS) LCD screen, so the colour, brightness and contrast are markedly less power-packed than the competition. Black backgrounds in particular look a little grey compared to the inky backdrop of a Lumia 800 for example. And while the colours are punchy enough, they don’t get to the just-head-butted-a-rainbow levels of colour saturation seen on the Galaxy S2’s screen. Don’t get me wrong, the 4S screen is not bad and it is arguably easier on the eye for long term viewing but it just hasn’t got the absolute impact of AMOLED models.

What the screen does have is a few more pixels (960 x 640) and one the most fluid and accurate touch sensors on the market. Rarely will you find yourself missing the mark, dabbing the screen with nothing happening or cocking up your sweeping gestures. Pages of Apps literally skim across the screen with very little motion blur and long vertically scrolling menus are well weighted for perceived momentum. The trouble is that once you have used, say the galaxy S2’s 4.3inch screen, the iPhone’s 3.5 inch display looks downright small.

When browsing or reading emails the larger screens simply offer more flexibility without all that tedious zooming or reaching for your reading glasses. Just do some people watching on a commuter train and count how many people are using an iPhone whilst peering through a pair of Boot’s finest off-the-peg specs. Using these smartphones back to back you realise quite how much that extra acreage counts for even when idly browsing web pages. If rumour and indeed common sense is to be believed, the iPhone 5 will have a larger screen so one could easily argue it would be best to wait.

But the slick iOS interface is very appealing, and the new dual-core power means the UI runs like it is on well oiled, multi-dimension rails. Compared to the current crop of Android phones the layout is clean, polished, straight-forward, intuitive… and actually a bit dull. But it does move at a pace. While my old 3GS had become a little sluggish running iOS5, the 4S positively blisters through tasks, gestures and multitasking Apps. Double-clicking the home button now brings up a horizontal App bar along the bottom, allowing you to access any App or feature while still working on the current page/App/browser/email etc above. Rather annoyingly it does pause any video playback when pulling up Apps, be that YouTube or recorded footage.

There is also a nifty drop down menu available from almost any page that brings you a plethora of live information from the latest weather to stock reports, Facebook, Twitter and eBay notifications etc. It’s simple and straightforward although compared to the contextual menus delivered on Android phones it is rather lacklustre. Yeah you can clump like-minded Apps together but it is a far cry from Nokia’s slick contextual UI that pulls together all similar features (i.e. all messaging systems such as IM, email, twitter, facebook etc) into one pot. On the plus side all of the 4S notifications in the drop down screen also appear on the lock screen – quite possibly making your long-standing lock screen photo rather superfluous to requirements. While the UI is not exactly revolutionary, old stalwart fans of the iPhone breed – particularly those who get labelled silver surfers (and not for their similarity to the comic book hero of the same name) – will probably really dig the 4S UI because it isn’t much different from the last one. Or the one before that.

Digital interFacetime

Apple has brought quite a ‘camerama’ to the 4S. Not only has the front mounted sensor moved up to a stellar 8MP device, changes to the lens and electronics have boosted the picture quality and aperture opening too. Add to this much faster processing, genuine macro close up abilities and speedy access to the camera App with a double click of the home button, and it all adds up to a device that gets damn close to the abilities of a dedicated digital still camera. You also get a VGA quality front facing camera for video-calling or, if you are calling another iPhone/iPad user, Apple’s Facetime. Video calling is for the young and beautiful, or those wishing to show off their offspring to Aunt Maud in Canada. For the rest of us, those who look like derelict winos before about 2pm in the afternoon, I find this a feature best avoided. There is nothing worse than people answering the phone screaming.

But, wow, the 4S works well as a camera. Focusing is pretty quick (for a phone, it still takes a week compared to cutting edge DSCs), ideal for capturing those instant comedy moments and the results are very good. The standard balance is a bit-over-contrasty, with bright areas highlighted and shadows darkened, and the rich palette of colours creates an impressive yet slightly larger than life vista, particularly on outdoor scenes. Overall sharpness is very much on par with all phones that implement a tiny plastic lens so let’s not start thinking ‘studio quality’ here, because it is soft and grainy by proper DSC standards. Also, picture controls are a bit few and far between and there is no exposure control to artificially lighten up a gloomy scene. Optional manual control over the LED flash is handy for a bit of creative fill-in, although the LED is, as usual, like a candle on steroids – low grade steroids at that.

The High Dynamic Range feature, introduced originally on the iPhone 4, works well with static images to ensure scenes of dark and light areas are exposed evenly all over. As this works by merging multiple shots, photographing a moving image in HDR results in hilarious ghost images which may produce some novel photos in its own right. Best of all, the cameras macro abilities are really quite good indeed. You can put the camera within about 6cm of the target and get surprising sharpness and depth of field. Despite the lack of features to control the picture generally, the simplicity and overall results make the iPhone 4S still camera the daddy among the current crop of smartphones.

The same cannot be said of the 1080p HD video recording ability. While the 4S does manage very reasonable HD footage – colourful, well exposed and keeping motion blur to a minimum – it doesn’t quite have the punch and drama of the Galaxy S2 for example. Simple video editing tools are in the menu that allow you to chop out the worst out-takes but any more video-fiddling than that will require one of the many video editing Apps for the iPhone or something more potent on your desktop. Pushed up to the full resolution of your PC screen you can see the 4S’s video being rather prone to artefacts and pixilation around fast moving images with a rather flat overall look. Then again, for capturing Uncle Joe’s false teeth falling in the rice pudding at Christmas (hey, it happened) or bolstering your YouTube posts, what’s not to like.

I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that

And then there is what Apple insisted would be the trump card of the iPhone 4S, Siri. A fully voice responsive automated assistant that would answer your every question using its own powers of deduction, well OK pre-programmed commands, a bit of logic and a lot of web searching. Push and hold the front button and Siri pops up in a choice of male or female voice, asking you by your name what it can do for you. It’s damn freaking freaky I tell you!

For starters the word recognition is absolutely stunningly accurate. If other voice recognitions software was this good I would never have to pound a plastic keyboard to mulch ever again. In a nice quite room, speaking clearly, it misses what you say very, very rarely indeed. Uncannily so. It even looks at you contacts to ensure it can match up names of your friends, family and colleagues. Is this making anyone other than me start to feel nervous?

You can ask Siri quite complex multipart questions too, from which it appears to deduce and find the correct answer. Ask it “do I need an umbrella today, Siri” and it will give you a weather forecast for your area based on the GPS location, and vis-a-vis tell you if you need an umbrella or not. And deep within the questions you can ask it, those wags at Apple have programmed a lot of mysterious, erudite, surreal and downright funny responses. Just do a search for ‘funny Siri responses’ and you will see what I mean. But let’s cut to the chase here, this is as close as any CE device has yet come to fully interactive AI.

And I have a theory about that because I have seen 2001 A Space Odyssey. Siri is an ethereal entity, born in the opening and closing synapses of electronic logic circuits and its ongoing evolution coincided with the untimely demise of the Apple-God Steve Jobs. Quite clearly Siri is the electronic manifestation of the ‘will of Jobs’ mapped into microelectronic artificial intelligence, permeating Apple products and touching and influencing the lives of millions and millions of people every day. What awesome power. Mark my words, one day we will all be asking Siri whether we need a brolly and electronic jobs will be suggesting we vote the next Apple CEO in as president of the world. You may mock, as indeed my wife has mercilessly, but when every electronic device in your home and office is made by Apple and any dissention will invoke HAL-like response from Siri, remember you read it here first

Still don’t believe me? Just nip into a local phone store and ask Siri to ‘Open the pod bay doors, HAL’ and see what response you get….

Siri is also pretty useless if you live outside the US or are in a noisy environment. In a moving car (a noisy pick-up truck mind you) it simply fails to recognise what you are saying and any question such as ‘where is the nearest coffee/bakers/candlestick maker etc’, will get a curt retort that right now it can only tell you about businesses in the US. The same is true of any location-based information such as ‘what is the traffic like on the M25’. No can do, US only. While there is rumour that this will be addressed at some point in 2012 (because Siri is technically still in Beta) , what that leaves you with is an automated weather response or an easy way to search the web without having to type in any text. It is also a bit of fun asking dumb questions but that’s about it for now.

If music be the food of love, I’ll eat iTunes

There is still no better PC/Mac and phone based music delivery system to beat the slick operation of iTunes. Yes, yes, I know it is all bespoke, you have to buy from iTunes etc but the user interface is second to no other program and that sumptuous usability extends seamlessly to the iPhone 4S. Not having a memory card slot is always going to put an upper cap on the amount of music or video media stored on the phone but as that cap is 64GB for the top spec iPhone 4S, and that is a lot of music. In fact, even if recorded in reasonable sounding 256kbps that is something like 7000 songs or a 20-day continuous rave. (Although to be fair you would struggle to rave to some of the content I have seen on iPhone’s around the Gizmobird office. Did Val Doonican rave? I think not.)

To an extent Apples iCloud and Match service serve to make ultimate capacity of the phone irrelevant most of the time. Simply subscribe to Match (about £22 a year) and moves your iTunes library into your iCloud space. Better still, no matter what bit-rate these tracks are ripped to in iTunes, they are replicated in DRM-free 256kbps in Match. So even if you have the duffest 96kbps rips, when you sync them back to your iPhone or PC they can be in better quality 256kbps (AACs). Only songs that iTunes doesn’t recognise are actually uploaded from your PC to the cloud the rest are matched with iTunes database (hence the name, duh). You can only scan about 25,000 songs but that should be OK for everyone bar those who use all their domestic bandwidth on BitTorrent downloads whilst wearing and eye-patch and a parrot on one shoulder.

Then there is the Apple Remote App, which gives you seamless control over iTunes on your PC. It works very sweetly on the 4S, the only speed throttling factor being your LAN bandwidth for uploading album artwork. And if you happen to have an Apple TV device, or two, or three or in my case five, in the home the 4S can tie together, iTunes, Remote and Match to deliver any or your music in any room over AirPlay. You can just about replicate all this with Android Apps, various services, odd bits of hardware around the home, a degree in IT networking and a spare week to to set it all up, but the iPhone 4S, along with all the other Apple music software, Apps and hardware, make the iPhone 4S the king of music media by miles and miles.

Business agenda

So when you have finished seeing just how surreal a response you can get from Siri and launching your entire CD collection into the cloud, you might also have to do some work on your iPhone 4S. I did once think that the old 3GS and latterly 4 were not too bad for this, until Nokia came along with its full MS Office light applications. Still, like most office applications can be achieved through specific iTunes Apps if not on the phone itself from a cold start.

Email handling is good, with all accounts available as a combined inbox or separately and including notifications on the lock screen. Ditto Twitter and Facebook notifications although actually reading and replying to each feels very much like a separate platform as opposed to one unified messaging experience. That said, all that power does mean even familiar Apps you might have used on earlier incarnations run at break-neck speed and surfing has got to be at least twice if not three times quicker than an old 3GS we had to compare it with. There is also the question of battery life when using all these tools all day. Well, after the last iOS update we can assure you that the iPhone 4S battery lasts just about as long as any other cutting edge smartphone – and that is one day. Yes we would all like a battery life comparable to that old Nokia you had in 2002 that lasted a year on a half-charge but if you want all this tech in an ultra-small device then a one day battery life is the trade off.

Isn’t it amazing how you can get 3000 words into a phone review these days without actually talking about how well it makes a phone call? I am not sure what Apple do with their receivers but after the iPhone 4 signal debacle the iPhone 4S is not exactly a signal magnet either. While working pretty well at home and in London, moving at speed in a car or on a train doesn’t do the 4S any favours. If the signal is marginal it will almost certainly drop the call rather than keep you hanging on, listening to what sounds Stanley Unwin drowning in treacle the other end. Sure enough, through the usual black spot village in deepest darkest East Sussex it threw the call in disgust on the outskirts and I was halfway home before it picked up again. This is still an improvement on the 4 which pretty much refused to work in East Sussex or the metropolitan-only iPhone 3GS, but it still dropped the call before competing phones and took longer to pick it up again afterwards.

And while this makes it a little more painful for driving than its peers, the mapping and navigation system almost makes up for it. Like most phones it doesn’t poll the GPS signal as frequently as a proper sat-nav, but its heady combination of satellite, 3G and even Wi-Fi location abilities ensure it knows where it is most of the time. The mapping is very, very fast and for all those who thought the compass on the 3GS was a good idea only to find out that it was patently useless, the gyros and compass on the 4S are absolutely spectacular. In out tests not once did it mix up its North from its South or get lost, whereas the 3GS quite often mixed up North with Tuesday. The GPS speed and relatively small screen does not make it a replacement for a day-to-day big screen car sat-nav but as an occasional alternative to a paper map or, god forbid, asking someone directions it works a treat.

And so to games. As regular readers might know, electronic games are not my forte, mobile phone games even less so. I can put this down to a traumatic experience with and Atari console back in the day but its mostly because I don’t have time for non productivity diversions that don’t involve a horizontal position with my eyes closed and a glass of wine in at least one hand. It’s terribly hard to game like that. However, I digress (again). Those in the know tell me that the iPhone 4S is an excellent gaming phone in its own right, thanks to the blisteringly quick dual core processor, good gyro sensors and high resolution screen. However it loses out on sheer impact to the larger AMOLED equipped smartphones that simply offer more screen acreage.

Conclusion

So there you have it, the iPhone 4S. So does the half-baked update of the 4 wash its face(time) metaphorically speaking? Well, yes it does and if you are already of an iPhone bent this baby is the best yet and doesn’t require learning a whole new OS as the fundamentals remain the same. The speed, added imaging features and tweaks to the UI move the concept on by a good margin, if not exactly a giant step for iPhone kind. For the terminally style conscious there is a little bit of a feeling that the iPhone is too popular, too mainstream and has become passé. A feeling that won’t be helped by using exactly the same cosmetic shell as the elderly (in phone terms anyway) predecessor, the iPhone 4. Then again, as I would not know a cutting edge fashion trend if I drove into the side of a Dolce + Gabbana lorry, I love the way it looks.

So if we at Gizmobird were iPhone users, with say a 3GS or 4, would we spend our own hard earned cash on an iPhone 4S contract knowing a more revolutionary iPhone 5 was due within the next 6-8 months? Hell yes! I love the 4S and even if I have to do an expensive mid-contract upgrade to a 5 this year, flogging a low mileage 4S on eBay in the process, it would be well worth the extra outlay for all that processing power and super-fast browsing experience alone.

“Siri, how much will an iPhone 4S be worth on Ebay this summer?”

“Let me think about that, Ric…. vote Tim Cook for world president”