The iPhone 4S, as part of the iconic iPhone line, is obviously doing very well for itself in the market. However, directly after its release there was a lot of discontentment demonstrated throughout the online community. While the negative reactions were initially more abundant that one might expect for an Apple product, things seem to be quieting down a bit now as people come to terms with the fact that there isn’t going to be any iPhone 5 this time around.
Physical Design of the iPhone 4S
One of the more common complaints about the iPhone 4S when it was originally released is that its form-factor differs in almost no way from the original iPhone 4. Apart from a tiny redesign of the external antenna (CDMA iPhone users will notice no difference here) there pretty much hasn’t been any change to its physical parameters.
The same 3.5 inch 960x640 retina display has been implemented, both the front and back are still made of Gorilla Glass and the weight has increased by somewhere around 3g (0.11oz). The good news is that the new antenna arrangement means that there shouldn’t be any problems with the so-named “death grip” that inspired a media frenzy last year when iPhone 4 customers found that they lost all connectivity when holding their phones in a certain way.
While it’s understandable that Apple would keep a similar design for an upgraded, rather than wholly new device, many people are still expressing concern. There were perceived flaws with the iPhone 4 that many fans wanted to see fixed. Flaws such as delicacy and lack of grip when placed on a surface.
The combination of weight and smoothness does give the 4S a definite feel of both quality and class when held in the hand. It’s small, slim and very no-nonsense in appearance. However, these physical qualities, coupled with its identical appearance to the iPhone 4, also add a few problems.
- The iPhone 4S is more inclined to slide out of loose pockets when on a train or in a car. It might sound silly, but we actually found that during our time with it we almost left it behind no less than 3 or 4 times after sitting for an extended period.
- Dropping the 4S on a hard surface is much more likely to end with catastrophic damage to the casing and screen, often leading to repair costs. This is due to the glass design not offering much in the way of impact absorption.
- Many folks see a new iPhone as something akin to a status symbol. People with a brand-new iPhone often want it to look like something special. If it just looks like an iPhone 4 then it’s hardly going to draw any attention from friends or acquaintances.
Obviously the first 2 of these 3 examples are the most important. Fortunately both can be easily avoided by purchasing a durable and grippy case for the device. Cases for the iPhone 4S exist in abundance; a clear advantage of it sporting the same dimensions as its predecessor. One of the great things about owning the most popular device on the market is that there’s a wealth of peripheral support, so individualising or reinforcing your device with a funky case shouldn’t be a problem.
UI and Speed
With iOS 5 there have been a few changes to the classic iOS user interface. Instead of going over each and every little detail, which would quickly turn this in to an iOS 5 post, we’re just going to approach the iOS 5 UI as we would any other for a review.
iPhones have traditionally offered an impressively smoother user experience, even when compared to the top competitors in the market. One of the benefits of controlling every inch of development in both the hardware and software departments is that it’s much easier to optimise the end product. The iPhone 4S is no exception.
The 4S UI is smooth and fast. The dual-core processor really steps it up a notch when it comes to app switching and general performance. We did notice that when running particularly intense apps that the iPhone 4S did tend to heat up a little. This is a common problem with the current generation of dual-core handsets. Luckily in the 4S it’s not as pronounced as in other devices like the Galaxy S II and subsequently didn’t really cause too much of an issue.
In appearance the UI really doesn’t differ to what we’ve seen previously from Apple. The same familiar tile format with customisable background has made an appearance and we couldn’t really notice any major differences in layout or visualisations.
The new notification system, while ‘inspired’ very heavily by the one first employed on Android, is still a fantastic addition. Instead of intrusive pop-up notifications users are alerted to messages, Wi-Fi areas, Social Media updates, app notifications and more by a slide-down bar at the top of the screen. It’s still a little wide and can intrude when playing a game or reading an article, but it’s a marked improvement on the old style. That being said any fans of the original notification system can opt to revert back to it, but we can’t see to many users going for that.
Notifications are accessed by sliding the finger from the very top of the screen downwards, which brings down the notification screen. From here everything you’ve missed or just haven’t got around to checking yet is accessible. It’s a great, unobtrusive and fast way to handle notifications. We of course think it’s a little funny for Apple to take something that is so iconically Android and adopt it in to its own OS, seeing as it tends to be Apple’s flag waving whenever cries of plagiarism and patent infringement can be heard. But at the end of the day we’re happy when good ideas see wider adoption.
Messaging and Browsing on the iPhone 4S
The iPhone 4S has gone in a new direction when it comes to messenger. iMessenger, the new overarching messaging system for iOS, is more like an instant messenger (IM) than an SMS system. If you’re chatting to anyone else with iOS 5 or above and you have wireless internet access then iMessenger will take over as your messaging service in order to provide a more detailed experience.
It’s a good idea and we appreciate Apple trying to take these now traditional functionalities and spice them up a little. However, what a lot of iOS 5 users aren’t realising is that with iMessenger whoever messaged you is alerted when you view the message and when you are typing a response.
This kind of idea works well with normal IM services on the web, as more often than not you’re engaged in an active conversation when using them. The problem with SMS received message alerts is that we, and apparently many of our readers, will often read a message and make a mental note to reply at a later time, sometimes even hours distant. This leads to confusion at the other end and can even look rude, depending on the situation.
Not every user will have a problem with this new function and it’s easy enough to switch off your phone’s outgoing alerts in the setting menu, but we’ve been hearing a lot of surprised exclamations from 4S users when they find out their friends have been canny to the fact that they’ve been waiting hours to respond to their messages, rather than doing so as soon as they read them. We thought it wise to warn anyone reading this that you might want to consider turning it off if you’re one of them.
That being said the rest of iMessenger is great. Sharing media and pictures is fantastically quick and it’s wonderful to have what is pretty much unlimited texts to anyone else with iOS 5 on their device. That means you can even contact the iPads and iPod Touches of your friends as easily as you would an iPhone.
For traditional messaging to non-iPhone users you still use the same messenger screen and the iPhone will automatically know whether or not to employ iMessenger. You’ll be able to tell the difference by what colour your texts appear as in the conversation thread; green for standard texts and blue for iMessenger texts.
The keyboard is still fantastically quick, although a little cramped if you’re used to the larger screens that are coming out now-a-days. We didn’t find ourselves making too many mistakes in landscape mode, but portrait did get a little tricky for our large fingers.
The smaller screen also hampers browsing somewhat in that you can’t fit quite as much on the display as you can on other devices. If that doesn’t sound like a problem to you, or if you’re already used to iPhone browsing then there shouldn’t be any issues, but we would like to see Apple start upping the size of its displays just a little in the near future.
Websites loaded quickly. Moving between portrait and landscape didn’t create any problems and the drop-down address bar at the top of the screen was great for getting that little bit of extra reading space without sacrificing functionality. Overall the browser experience was polished, smooth and efficient.
The iPhone 4S Camera
The camera on the iPhone 4S is simply the best camera we’ve reviewed on a phone so far. Although on paper its 8MP rating might not wow anybody, the real-world application of 8MP when combined with a fantastic lens system and a solid software backbone is nothing but impressive.
Firstly we’ll get the camera UI improvements from iOS 4 to iOS 5 out of the way. All iOS 5 iPhones, including the 4S, now have the option of using the +volume key as a hardware camera button. This is something we’ve loved every time we’ve encountered it on a handset. It’s so much less awkward taking a photo with the finger rested on the top or bottom of a device than tapping the screen.
One word of caution with this on the 4S, however, is that if you use the +volume key as a normal shutter button (with the key situated on the top of the device when held in landscape, to be activated by the index or middle fingers) then the photos are actually taken upside-down. Apple has tried to correct this issue with some clever software that recognises upside-down photos and corrects them when they’re transferred on to a computer. However, it doesn’t always work so some photos can come out wrong side up.
It’s an easy fix. We just turned the iPhones 4S around and used our left thumb to activate the shutter key instead. It was a bit odd at first, but it ended up being just as easy as the more traditional method and negated the need to manually switch the alignment of any photos once they’d been taken.
It’s also now possible to jump straight in to camera mode from the lock screen. When the 4S is locked a double tap of the Home button will bring up an on-screen camera icon. Tap this and the camera app will instantly launch. It’s extremely quick and we love this kind of functionality. It means you’re less likely to miss one of those oh-so-fleeting photo ops that come around every now and then.
Pictures and videos in well-lit areas come out fantastically. Of course you still can’t compare the 4S to most dedicated cameras, but in some of our shots we honestly couldn’t tell the difference. Of course you can always download third party camera apps to improve upon the experience even more, which we recommend for those photo junkies out there. But the stock standard camera function should suffice for most owners.
Photos and videos in low light, as with every smartphone, did suffer. However, we noticed that there was still a noticeable difference in the quality of the iPhone 4S’s low-light shots when compared to other market leading devices, although the difference was admittedly smaller.
The camera flash is bright, but not so bright that it can ruin a photo. There’s little to no discolouration caused by the dual LED flash.
Not only did the 4S provide photos of high quality, but if you really need to it’s possible to snap off shots with alarming speed. If you’re trying to capture a specific moment then all you need do is tap the camera button as fast as you can. We found that we got the best effect with this when we used the +volume key. We easily captured over 1 photo per second, each of which didn’t seem to suffer any drop in quality from a regular snapshot.
Sufficed to say we expect to see a lot of iPhone 4S camera shots start cropping up on sites like Facebook or Flickr in the very near future.
Yes, it’s time to talk about Siri. Is she worthwhile, is she useless, is she somewhere in between? The answer to all of those is “kinda”. While the range of Siri’s functionality drops significantly once you step foot outside of the US, we still found it to be an impressive piece of software.
In most of the world Siri can’t do some of the simple things that it’s advertised as doing in America. Questions like “where is the nearest train station” and “is there a nice place to eat around here” tend to not work, thus lessening Siri’s futuristic feel significantly. However, making calendar notes with pre-set alarms simply by talking to your phone is very cool, as is sending an accurate text message via your iPhone headphones while you walk down the street with your iPhone 4S in your pocket.
The voice recognition software for Siri is nothing short of incredible. Instead of the small number of pre-programmed voice commands we’ve traditionally seen from voice activated systems, Siri’s understanding of casual language borders on the uncanny. There are literally dozens of ways you can ask Siri a question and it will still understand you.
That being said, Siri definitely had trouble with place names. Things like when “Pyrmont” came out as “Pine”, which is even more confusing once you understand that the “Pyr” in Pyrmont is pronounced “Peer”. This problem did seem totally limited to location names, but it’s still a shame to see this potentially awesome functionality limited just because we weren’t using it on American shores.
In short if you live in America then Siri is amazing, if you live elsewhere then it’s a handy tool. But we would hardly call it a make-or-break piece of functionality if you fall in to the second category.
Media and Apps on the iPhone 4S
As always, media on an iOS device is very much a 2 edged sword. On one side you have unmatched support for purchasable media and an enormous app library. On the other you have a strictly controlled system with a very definite set of rules from which it’s impossible to break free. As a result this ends up being one of the most subjective areas of the iPhone 4S’s functionality, so we’ll do our best to cover it objectively and give you an idea of what to expect.
Media playback on the 4S is fantastic. The music and video players have a simple yet still somewhat stylish design, despite not really seeing any major visual makeovers in recent years. Sound quality is some of the best we’ve ever heard on a portable music device and syncing with iTunes is super easy.
That being said if you’re not a fan of iTunes then you’re out of luck. As with every other iOS device the iPhone 4S doesn’t play nice with other media players. You will need a licenced version of iTunes on your computer if you want to transfer files. You also have a limited number of devices that you can sync with your iPhone 4S, so if you go to a friend’s house and notice they have an album or two you want to “borrow” then you’ll have to somehow get them on to your home computer before transferring them to your device, rather than just plugging it in and transferring them right then and there.
The iPhone range also only supports a very limited range of file types. If you want to get a media file of an unsupported codec, which nearly all video files that have not been downloaded via iTunes are, you’ll need to use a 3rd party conversion program. This is a hassle and often gives rise to an issue where users find themselves with 2 versions of the same file, one in the original format and another in the new. The original file is better for watching on a larger computer screen, but you don’t want to delete the new iOS friendly file because if you need to free up room on your phone at some point you don’t want to have to re-convert the file at a later date, as it can be very time consuming.
However, if you do most of your downloading via iTunes then your media experience should be streamlined and easy. Downloads from the iTunes store will be ready to go the instant they’re downloaded. It’s an absolutely great system if you love iTunes, but a less than optimal one if you don’t.
App support on the iPhone 4S is, as one would expect, immense. The Apple App store is the largest software distribution system in the world, offering the most apps to the largest and most app-hungry consumer base. Apple is often the first platform to receive the newest and shiniest game titles, the largest amount of handy and intriguing apps and now, with the help of iCloud, even makes those apps available over your multiple iOS/Mac devices, assuming you have more than one.
Apps open and close extremely quickly, partly due to Apple’s vertical integration of hardware and software and partly due to the new dual-core CPU of the iPhone 4S. The 4S really is faster than its single-core predecessor and it’s probably most notable in the loading, closing and switching-between of apps.
The WhistleOut Opinion
While we, like a lot of other folk, would have liked to see a fancy new iPhone 5 this year, the iPhone 4S is still a worthy successor to the iPhone 4. Even though the UI is hardly unique, due to the fact that iOS 5 is available to everyone with a previous iPhone, the speed improvement and camera on the iPhone 4S are fantastic.
Is it worth upgrading from the iPhone 4 to the 4S if you’re still on contract? Probably not. Is it worth getting the 4S instead of the 4 if you’re in the market for a new phone? Absolutely. The camera alone is worth the extra cost, let alone the dual-core CPU.
We have to admit that we weren’t expecting much from the iPhone 4S, but we actually found it to be one of the more impressive phones to be released this year. Yes, it’s the same old design, yes it’s still made of glass and yes, the spec improvements don’t seem like much on paper. But ultimately the iPhone 4S is a better version of the iPhone 4, which is exactly what we got between the 3G and 3GS. If you’re in the market for a new high-end smartphone then we definitely recommend you give the iPhone 4S some serious consideration.