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Tuesday October 18, 2011 5:24 pm

iPhone 4S review

iPhone 4S review

After over a year, Apple has released the follow-up to the iPhone 4, and its called the iPhone 4S. What do you do with your phone? If you're like most Americans, you make some calls, take some photos, and send some texts. Maybe you kill time with some games, check Facebook or Twitter, and look things up on the Web. If that's you, then the iPhone 4S ($199-$399 with contract on Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T) is your phone: it's the best cameraphone in the US, the fastest Web-browsing phone, and one that has finally licked the iPhone's calling problems. It's so good, that it's our current Editors' Choice on Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T.

Physical Features and Call Quality
The phone comes in six models: 16 GB, 32 GB and 64 GB, in black or white. The 16 GB model starts at $199 with contract ($649 without), and each additional storage option bumps the price up by $100.

The iPhone 4S looks almost exactly like an iPhone 4 (which itself has been dropped to $99.) The only way to tell them apart is in the fine print on the back. For example, Sprint's new phone is model A1349. It's still a work of art, an improbable black (or white) glass slab with a metal band around it, cool and hard in the hand. Other phone-makers imitate, but none of them have pared their phones down to this pure industrial solidity.

Of course, with the 4's body come some of its flaws. The glass front and back are prone to cracking if dropped frequently; I've seen more cracked iPhones than any other variety of device. And while Apple considers the 3.5-inch Retina Display perfect (and it's gorgeous), some find the virtual keyboard too small to easily type on when it's in portrait layout (not me, I love it.)

Apple has killed the "death grip" issue as well. The phone switches between its top and bottom antennas depending on which one is receiving better signal, which means it'll ignore whichever one you're covering with your hands. I was able to get data speeds to drop by gripping the phone from both ends in a bizarre two-handed clench, but really, nobody uses a phone that way.

Call quality on Sprint's network through the phone's earpiece was excellent in my tests. The earpiece goes loud, there's a touch of side tone, and I didn't hear any distortion at high volumes. Transmissions through the mic were sadly rather tinny, but they were perfectly loud and the mic blocked background noise very well. The speakerphone is fine for indoor use, but not loud enough to use outdoors; transmissions through the speakerphone were very clear. RF reception was on par with the Motorola Photon and other top Sprint phones.

The iPhone 4S paired easily with an Aliph Jawbone Era Bluetooth headset, and I found that by pressing the button on the headset, I could issue an unusually wide range of voice commands to Siri (see more on that below.) The Bluetooth headset also worked for music.

Sprint's iPhone is a world phone which roams internationally for insanely high rates you can find at www.sprint.com/international. There's a SIM card in it which "existing customers in good standing" can request to be unlocked, so they can replace it with a less-expensive alternative overseas. Sprint's phone will not work on Verizon's or AT&T's networks here, though.

iPhone 4S black and white

Internet and Web Browsing
The iPhone 4S is strictly a 3G phone. No 4G here. And I'm worried about the Sprint network's ability to handle the strain. On launch day, all of my Sprint phones were crawling along at a pathetic 300-500kbps, with some data sessions taking several seconds to connect. Once I was connected, I was connected—I didn't drop calls or data sessions—but it was like I was waiting in line to get on the Internet. Sprint, for its part, says it didn't see any problems in New York City that day. And we've seen slow speeds on Sprint before. Our annual Fastest Mobile Networks tests rated Sprint's 3G network as reliable, but slower than AT&T's or Verizon's.

But pour some data into this baby, and wow, it'll go. As long as Adobe Flash isn't a key part of your life, the iPhone 4S is the fastest Web phone ever. It benchmarks faster than any Android Gingerbread phone and faster than any Windows Phone. Side by side against the Motorola Photon on the same Wi-Fi network, the iPhone 4S consistently loaded pages a few seconds faster. The new version of Android, Ice Cream Sandwich, may even the score, but we haven't seen or tested any ICS phones yet.

The great browsing speed comes in part from the new iOS 5 (see our iOS 5 review,) which we found made browsing much faster on all iPhones. It also comes in part from the new dual-core A5 processor, the same one used in the iPad 2. There aren't a lot of third-party apps that take advantage of the dual-core processor and new GPU yet, but it's key to some of the phone's best experiences, such as the 1080p camera, AirPlay video streaming to Apple TV devices, and the browser.

And remember that on Sprint, unlike every other iPhone carrier, you get truly unlimited cellular data right now. That's a good deal for heavy users, even if the data connection is slower than on other carriers.

There's one exception to the unlimited data policy: tethering. While the phone supports tethering and hotspot mode, you need to pay $30 extra a month for them, and you only get 5GB of data to use on your laptop or other device.


iOS 5 and Siri
iOS 5 is huge. It deserves its own review, and it has one: yes, it's 4.5 stars and Editor's Choice. As with so much else about the iPhone 4S, the theme with iOS 5 is that it makes things better and faster without changing iOS's controlling paradigms. Almost every app has been improved somewhat, not to mention integrated with iCloud. But you're still jumping between strictly sandboxed apps that don't share information well. I've always been annoyed at how iOS can't integrate Facebook calendars or contacts into its address book and calendar apps, for instance.

Siri is unique to the iPhone 4S, though; you can't get it with iOS 5 on other devices. On the surface, Siri appears to be a voice-command app. Hold down the home button and ask it a question, tell it to look up a number, make a note or search for a business. Siri is also supposed to work using the phone's proximity sensor by just raising the phone up to your head, but I found that failed at least a quarter of the time. Siri works really well with a Bluetooth headset, although you often have to look at the screen to see results.

But here's the real story with Siri: it's not an app, it's a service. The intelligence is on the server side, and it will improve. No actual processing is done on your phone. That means Siri doesn't work when you're offline, but it also means it can be continually upgraded, minute by minute, without touching your individual device.

For instance, Siri can calculate tips, but doesn't understand the phrasing "split X ways." If it gets enough failed queries with that phrasing, Apple's Siri team will add it to the vocabulary.

I am concerned about one thing, and that's the famous "egg freckles" problem. I'm a pretty clear speaker. I appear on TV and on the radio all the time. But several times, Siri misunderstood what I was saying. It took "a hundred and twenty five dollars" for "eight hundred and twenty five dollars." And it failed with my own name, my sister's name, my mother's name, and the band "Matt & Kim" (as it doesn't recognize the ampersand as being the word 'and'.) Since Siri is a service rather than an app, though, I expect that will improve.

I might as well also mention that Apple has the best app store in the business, with hundreds of thousands of high-quality, easily searchable apps for every desire. The wealth of commercial GPS apps, for instance, more than make up for the lack of free voice navigation on the phone, and there are more great games for this platform than for any other mobile OS.

I played Need for Speed Underground on this phone, and it was easy to control thanks to the high graphics frame rates afforded by the new GPU. I also played Galaxy on Fire 2 HD, one of very few games optimized for the A5 processor. It pushes a tremendous number of pixels, very smoothly. It's safe to say the A5 with the iPhone 4S's screen will enable Retina gaming, where game graphics are almost too detailed and realistic for the eye to perceive.

Siri Hotdogs

Apple addresses the two biggest problems with camera phones: speed and dynamic range. The camera has a larger sensor, a larger five-element lens, and a larger f/2.4 aperture than the iPhone 4, along with a backside illuminated sensor and an IR filter to improve colors. The camera app loads in under two seconds, and it takes most photos instantly. I only occasionally ran into about half a second of autofocus delay.

Outdoor shots are uniquely well-balanced. On most cameraphones, a bright background—a bright sky, for instance—is either blown out, or renders the entire foreground dark. Not here. The iPhone 4S has enough dynamic range to capture outdoor shots as attractively as a pocket digital camera. In extreme situations, you can also kick in the HDR mode, but I didn't find it necessary. The 4S is sharper than any cameraphone in the US, with 2000 lines of resolution on our chart. (The other best cameraphones, the Samsung Galaxy S II and HTC Amaze 4G, both capture around 1800 lines.)

Low-light performance was also very good. Images appeared brighter than on competing cameras, though they weren't entirely immune to low-light blur. The iPhone has a standard LED flash, as well.

The video camera takes 1080p video at roughly 30 frames per second, indoors and out. It has image stabilization which works very well outdoors, but was shakier in my low-light video. There's a VGA camera on the front which takes sometimes-noisy photos, but can handle low light well. It's obviously for quick social-networking self shots and FaceTime chatting.

The camera has no options, though. Most importantly, there's no way to take photos or record videos at reduced resolution to save space. This can be a real issue with the 1080p video, which clocks in at about 180MB per minute. Most people don't need that resolution; my MacBook Pro's screen isn't big enough for it!

The iPhone 4S makes simple tasks easy and does them very well. It takes excellent photos quickly. It connects clear calls. It plays great games. It displays Web pages well. And it has Siri, an intriguing voice-command system that, like Motorola's Webtop technology, is clearly just at the very beginning of a long and interesting life.

Sprint also has very good Android-powered phones, the Motorola Photon and the Samsung Epic 4G Touch. They offer things the iPhone doesn't: bigger screens for easier typing, an uncrowded (if not terribly far-reaching) 4G network, free voice-enabled GPS navigation, and Facebook contact and calendar integration. But the Android Market is more of a chaotic bazaar than Apple's store, and Android's user interface is more of a mishmash than Apple's highly policed rows of apps.

There isn't a clear winner here, and there doesn't have to be. Sprint has 50 million subscribers. I suspect with the iPhone, it will soon have many more. It has room for a great simple, petite smartphone, and for great smartphones with bigger screens and lots of options. The iPhone 4S brings most people what they want, very elegantly. For that, it's worthy of our Editors' Choice.

And what of the devoted iPhone owner looking to upgrade or switch carriers? We intend to review all of the new iPhone's carrier models, so keep an eye out for that. Sprint offers unlimited data at lower prices, but potentially slower speeds than Verizon and AT&T do. The iPhone 4S is a no-brainer upgrade from the 3GS. For iPhone 4 owners, I think it really comes down to how much you need the improved camera.

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