Review of the iPhone 4s
Friday, October 14th finally came and with it my pre-ordered iPhone 4S shipped to my office. I was traveling in Florida at the time (I have an iPhone “curse” which means I’m doomed to be out of town the day any new iPhone is released) but got back on Sunday the 16th and have been using the iPhone 4S ever since. I ordered the black 32GB model for $300.00. In my opinion, the only reason to have a high amount of iPhone memory available is if you intend to store and watch movies on your iPhone. Now that I have an iPad 2 which is a much better device for watching movies, I no longer need to store a selection of movies on my phone, so 32GB is plenty for my other needs. I considered getting the iPhone 4S in white, but for some reason I can’t quite wrap my head around, I associate a white iPhone with being a girls phone. Go figure.
As you probably are aware, the iPhone 4S is virtually identical in form factor to the previous generation iPhone 4 (which I reviewed back in July of 2010). Many people don’t like the iPhone 4 design, and are particularly critical of the glass back. It doesn’t really bother me so this wasn’t a negative in upgrading from the iPhone 4 to the 4S. In fact, you might want to go back and read my iPhone 4 review – what I liked about the iPhone 4’s form factor, I still like in the iPhone 4S. In terms of what’s new with the iPhone 4S hardware, there’s only two things I can identify that the user interacts with. Firstly, the volume control can be used to release the shutter (i.e. take the picture) on the iPhone 4S camera – something you could never do on the iPhone 4 which has already come in handy. Secondly, the vibrate mode of the 4S is considerably softer than on the iPhone 4. Now the vibrate mode is much less noisy, but also a bit harder to feel. I keep my phone in vibrate mode 99.9% of the time, so the vibrate mode is pretty important to me. I was initially disappointed as I thought I’d never feel or hear the 4S as well as I did my iPhone 4. I guess I didn’t mind the louder vibrate mode on the previous phone as much as others must have, and I suspect most people will be happier. I’ve already missed a call or two I might not have with the iPhone 4, but I’m sure I’ll get used to this one in time as I did with my previous phone.
In terms of changes on the inside, there’s plenty. The iPhone 4S has the same The dual-core A5 chip which can be found in the iPad 2. And it’s a noticeable improvement – web pages come up faster, time to save photos you’ve taken is shortened, etc. It’s a minor improvement, but again it’s noticeable. Apple has also made much to-do about the improved dual antennae arrangement in the iPhone 4S – the phone can intelligently switch between the two to maximize the data/voice signal. Since using the phone I have had few dropped calls so this is a pretty big improvement.
Of course, everyone has been talking about the new Siri artificial intelligence component which is exclusive to the iPhone 4S. It’s a neat feature and has come in handy now and again, but the novelty of asking Siri stupid questions (think Magic 8-Ball) and listening to her answers wears off after a couple of days. The bigger innovation for me is the little microphone button which now is on the keyboard whenever you text, email, post on Facebook, etc:
You can just tap that and dictate your messages (circumventing actually using Siri to issue a command which can save time) – the voice recognition is amazingly accurate. I look forward to other apps supporting this built in capability. When I’m in the car and want Siri to read a text to me or “compose text message to my wife” (this works great with the hands-free bluetooth system in my BMW) I’ll use Siri proper, but if I just want to dictate a message, it’s quicker to just hit the microphone button and talk.
Battery life was improved modestly, according to Apple. But for reasons I’m not quite clear on, my battery is draining faster than ever. At first I thought it was because I was playing with Siri so much. Now I notice that just sitting on my desk, the battery drains more quickly. I’m guessing this is because the 4S uses more location based services than ever before, and I can probably tweak my settings to reduce the battery drain.
Probably the biggest reason for the upgrade for me was the improved camera. The iPhone 4 had the first truly useable camera on an iPhone in my personal opinion. And the video quality was stellar as well . I found my need for a separate point-and-shoot camera almost went away entirely, and I came to strongly rely on the camera capabilities of my iPhone on an almost daily basis. So the prospect of an even more improved camera was a big selling feature for me.
Is the camera on the iPhone 4S better than the previous iPhone 4? Simply put, yes. The 8-megapixel backlit sensor with a35mm equivalent f2.4 lens makes for faster, brighter, and more accurate photos. The improvements in image quality isn’t quite as drastic or revolutionary as the leap from the 3GS to the 4. But the image quality is improved without a doubt.
A few people asked me to do some comparison photos of iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S images. I might do that at a later time, but the more important question to me now is “how does the iPhone 4S image quality compare to a real, dedicated digital camera?” To answer this question, I brought along my brand-new, Canon Powershot S100 (Canon’s newest and best $429.00 retail price point and shoot digital camera as of this writing) along with my iPhone 4S on a golf trip to Grand Rapids, Michigan this past weekend. I took several photos standing in the same position with both devices. In some cases, I zoomed the S100 a bit to try and appropriate the same field of view as the iPhone. The S100 will shoot in RAW file format (something I wish the iPhone 4S could do) but to keep it as level of a playing field as possible, I shot all the S100 photos in .JPG format. No image processing/Photoshop work was done to these photos beyond resizing them – click on the photos to see a larger version of each:
In each of the scenes, the image quality of both devices is incredibly good. In several cases the iPhone 4S image looks to be maybe a half stop or so darker than the Powershot S100 version. But sharpness, detail and color are remarkably close in every case. And notice how well the iPhone 4S did in the macro shot of the watch I was wearing that day – really amazing.
Apple chose not to do anything with the front facing camera on the iPhone 4S – it appears to be the same lackluster component found in the iPhone 4. It’s certainly serviceable, but leaves a lot to be desired. One wonders if they didn’t upgrade the front facing camera so as to leave themselves a reason to upgrade to the next iPhone. But more on this particular problem Apple has below…
I’ve not yet had a chance to test out the video on the iPhone 4s, but based on the photo quality, I’m sure I’ll be quite pleased – check back for updates in a few weeks.
For me, the upgrade from the iPhone 4 to the iPhone 4S was worth it….barely. Apple’s has a real problem on their hands with the iPhone – pressure from below from Android and other devices which are getting better and better, and a fast approaching ceiling in terms of their ability to create revolutionary improvements. From this point forward, just how much better can they make the camera? Or the display? Or any of the other qualities of the iPhone which separate the device from other competitors and provide a compelling reason to upgrade from the previous generation iPhone? One one hand, I’m pretty rough on my phones, so usually I’m ready for a new one after a year or so. So if Apple stays on the same upgrade cycle, I’ll likely continue to upgrade on an annual bases. On the other hand, what if they can’t really make most of the main reasons we buy and use a mobile phone better? Will I save some money and just buy a replacement “last year’s phone?” Only time will tell, but for now, I’m quite thrilled with the iPhone 4S.
John B. Holbrook, II
John B. Holbrook, II is a freelance writer, photographer, and author of ThruMyLens.org, as well as LuxuryTyme.com and TheSeamasterReferencePage.com. *All text and images contained in this web site are the original work of the author, John B. Holbrook, II and are copyright protected. Use of any of the information or images without the permission of the author is prohibited.