It’s because Apple sets the bar so very high that expectations can run away even higher. Like Pavlov’s dogs, the worldwide tech audience has been conditioned to start salivating around June-time, every year since 2007, anticipating the next incarnation of the iPhone.
So when Apple missed its own notional summer deadline this year, rumours refocused on an Autumn launch – pushing that bar up even higher. All eyes were now on a brand-new super-slim iPhone 5. Hardly surprising then that when iPhone 5 proved a no-show, hearts sank.
Only this time for the iPhone 4S, there are more changes. And they’re all effectively invisible. See also Samsung Galaxy Nexus review
Invisible that is, until you start to use an iPhone 4S. Looking over the case of the 4S, we find an identical armoured glass front and black, covering a supremely sensitive IPS touchscreen. Eighteen months after the Apple iPhone 4 launched, this 326ppi Retina display is still arguably the best of any current smartphone. Its resolution is so fine, you simply cannot see the LCD dots.
But look around the edge of the iPhone 4S, and there’s the single tell-tale – the antennae band. After last year’s debacle over an innovative but maligned external aerials, Apple has redesigned the radio system. We suspect it refined the concept in a bid to remove any vestiges of doubt about its efficacy.
So now the eagle-eyed can spot an iPhone 4S from a 4 by the positioning of tiny black lines in the steel band. Both have a line on each side near the base. The iPhone 4 has one such line by the headphone jack, while new iPhone 4S has two, one each side near the top.
See also: How to protect your iPhone from Theft
This fronts an RF setup said to comprise two discrete antennae for GSM calls, left and right sides, with the phone’s RF baseband processor selecting one for optimum performance during each call. What’s not clear is which part of the circumferential band is now used for each of Bluetooth, GPS and Wi-Fi duties.
Regarding reception, we didn’t experience dropped calls or similar issues with the original iPhone 4; and in a week’s steady use with new handset, nor did we on the 4S. Signal level strength was about the same, gauged by the point at which we’d lose data connectivity on the underground section of a daily commute.
Next in the data chain is the 3G modem which has received a gentle upgrade. It’s now specified for 14.4Mbps HSDPA, against the iPhone 4’s 7.2Mbps.
In the UK, you’re unlikely to see mobile data hitting double-digits. But we were pleasantly surprised to see faster transfers. In central London, we measured 4.1/3.1Mbps for down/upload on Vodafone, where our fastest on an iPhone 4 at the same location was around 2Mbps. On the Three network, we saw download speeds peaking at 5.1Mbps.
An upgrade to the GPS radio brings a new facility – access to GLONASS, the former Soviet Union’s satellite navigation network, now back in action and with worldwide coverage under Putin’s Russia. It’s not known yet what apps will be able to access GLONASS satellite positioning data.
Apple iPhone 4S: New Processor
The original iPhone 4 is really quick in day-to-day tasks like web browsing, emailing and running third-party apps. Yet Apple has potentially doubled the new phone’s processor performance by fitting a dual-core Apple A5 chip in place of single A4. The graphics subsystem gets a healthy boost too, also now taking the same class-leading Imagination Technologies graphics processor as iPad 2.
We’d prefer any upgrades were made in the battery department, rather than upgrading a component that’s more likely to downgrade battery life. Yet, just as with the change from original iPad to Apple iPad 2, we saw no lessening of battery performance. Meaning: expect to get aroung two day’s active life before recharging, mixing voice calls with texting, web browsing and snapshooting. And all without any of the obsessive app quitting or powering-down of features that some Androiders use to get beyond 24 hours runtime.
Bluetooth is one such radio service that could sap battery life. That’s now less likely as Apple has embraced the latest v4.0 standard. As well as promising faster data transfers – somewhat moot these days, as Bluetooth is less popular now as a means of simple data transfer – Bluetooth 4.0 has a low-energy mode which should further reduce battery drain.
Apple iPhone 4S: New Camera
We’re sceptical of specs that trumpet megapixel upgrades of digital cameras. Adding extra pixels is not so difficult: ensuring the sensor and lens can show you the benefit of increased resolution is the harder part.
For the iPhone 4S, Apple does seem to have put the work in to support the move from 5Mp to 8Mp. There’s talk of improved optics and a backside illumination sensor. In practice, photographs from the 4S have a conspicuous edge over the 4’s, especially in terms of natural white balance. In our sample shots using both cameras together, visible noise levels were no higher but enhanced resolution did enable us to look deeper into any photograph. Exposure was improved too, making the HDR function more redundant.
We also noticed a distinct improvement to images capture by the front-facing VGA-res camera. They had lost their blue tinge, and now had the same natural colouring as images from the main hi-res camera.
Video footage is now full-HD resolution instead of 720p. This looks as smooth as before, only with enhanced resolution.
The faster processor means that camera shots are faster, from cold and between snaps. With new iOS 5, you can also quickly access the camera when locked, by double-clicking the home button.
Apple iPhone 4S: Let talk, Siri
Perhaps the biggest game-changer for the iPhone 4S is nothing to do with the hardware, but a software feature only available on this handset: Siri.
Once a third-party app and service, this digital assistant is the first voice-recognition system we’ve tried that (nearly always) actually recognises what we actually said. And crucially, does so in real-world conditions, and not just in quiet settings while speaking at the pace of an exchange-student conversation.
It’s not the iPhone 4S that analyses and interprets your voice: instead Siri records your sound bites, and sends them up to a powerful online computer to do all the brain work. Once it’s understood your sentence, the correct action and/or response are relayed back to your phone. You can ask it about the weather, to set alarms and reminders, and it recognises context, like ‘Remind me to call the wife in five minutes’. It also has a devilish sense of humour once you start exploring certain themes...
It all happens surprisingly fast, when you consider the round-trip journey every request must make. You must be online for Siri to work though – no weather forecasts will be forthcoming on the Tube.
The very naturalness with which you can converse with Siri furthers the feeling that a Turing Test should be demanded to ascertain the service’s sentience.
We sense that Siri is the real start of the anthropomorphisation of the computer, and a milestone in our relationship with it.
But Siri suffers one main drawback this side of the Atlantic anyway: it can’t give directions, find business addresses – nor even tell you where you are. And that’s a big weakness we hope gets fixed soon.
There’s a minot security flaw user should be conscious of: by default, anyone can pick up your phone and send email, txts, etc – all without unlocking the hone first. If you’d rather a prankster or hacker doesn’t spam your contacts with all manner of messages, switch off the function in Passcode Lock.
Siri is currently only offered in three languages, with some dialects: French, German, English, Australian English and American English. In Germany, the States and Australia, Siri is female; for the French and British, Siri is male. There’s no option to change gender, so we’re reduced to conversing with HAL for the moment. Just don’t ask him to open the pod bay doors...
About the iPhone 5 absence...
Especially from a company that understands the marketing of image, it was a surprise to be kept waiting for a phone seemingly identical to one eighteen months old. Yet the iPhone 4S underlines the confidence Apple has in its own design, contrasting with companies taking a scattergun approach – making dozens of disparate models each year in the hope that something will sell.
If the iPhone 4 had been already trounced by recent Android competition, there’d be more ground to make up. Yet last year’s iPhone 4 remains in 2011 about the fastest, longest-lasting and easiest to use smartphone on the market. The Apple iPhone 4S simply ups the ante with a faster processor – and graphics to take on dedicated consoles – improved camera optics and a talking assistant that can genuinely make your life easier. There’s a lot to be said for refining an already winning formula. It may resemble last year’s vintage, but the iPhone 4S pours a lot of new wine into an old bottle.