iPhone 4S review: Should you buy an iPhone 4S?

Antennas in action


The iPhone 4S may look the same, but the way it uses its outside metal ring as an antenna has changed.

And so, finally, we come to the antennas. Apple says that the antennas on the iPhone 4 have been completely redesigned. The phone constantly assesses the quality of its connection to the cellular network and dynamically switches between two antennas, both embedded in its metallic outer ring.

The iPhone 4, in contrast, could use only one of those two antennas for cellular coverage (the other was—and still remains—used for Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and GPS reception). This led to a peculiar result: If you held the iPhone 4 just right, covering up the bottom left corner of the device, you could attenuate the cellular signal and (depending on the strength of that signal) even lose your connection altogether.

That finding turned into a huge public-relations issue, unimaginatively dubbed “antennagate.” Apple called a press conference to explain the issue and offer compensation for iPhone 4 owners who felt they’d been let down. In the end, the iPhone 4 was still a huge success, despite the fact that Consumer Reports refused to endorse it over the antenna issue.

Still, you’d figure that the criticism stung Apple enough for the company to make sure it wouldn’t be burned by this particular issue ever again. And you’d be right. The dynamic switching between two different antennas means that there’s no way you will be able to “death grip” the iPhone 4S unless you are trying to literally strangle your phone.

In all my tests, the old iPhone 4 “death grip” had no impact on the speed of cellular downloads on the iPhone 4S, nor did a reverse grip at the top of the phone. Only when I took both hands and performed a “death grip” that covered the entire phone (or at least touched all four corners of the phone simultaneously) did I see any signal attenuation.

The iPhone 4 antenna issue probably garnered more attention than the true scope of the problem deserved. Lots of cell phones have attenuation issues. In more than a year of heavy iPhone 4 use, I’ve rarely changed how I held the phone in hopes of getting a better cellular signal. It happened, yes, but no more than a half-dozen times. Still, I am happy to report that it seems that Apple has eradicated this problem entirely. If you shied away from the iPhone 4 because of attenuation issues, it’s safe to go back in the water.

Higher-def camera


This hamburger was consumed only after being photographed with the iPhone 4S.

After the original iPhone and the iPhone 3G shipped with poor cameras, Apple seems to have been on a mission to improve the iPhone’s ability as a picture taker. The iPhone 3GS had an upgraded camera, but it was really with the iPhone 4 that the iPhone’s camera became worthy of the rest of the device.

The iPhone 4S upgrades the camera yet again, and while it’s a clear improvement, it’s not as huge a jump as the the one from the iPhone 3GS. The 4S offers eight megapixels of resolution (2448-by-3264 pixels) along with a bunch of improvements to optics and a wider (f/2.4) aperture. The iPhone 4S also shoots video at 1080p, quite a bit higher resolution than the iPhone 4’s 720p. (This means all your video files will be larger. There’s no way to tell the iPhone 4S to shoot at a lower resolution.)

To test the iPhone 4S’s camera, I took still photos and video using Macworld’s standard battery of camera tests and compared them to samples from four Android smartphones, the iPhone 4, and a Nikon Coolpix point-and-shoot camera. I prefered the images from the iPhone 4S, with the Samsung Galaxy S II coming in second. The iPhone 4S excelled in flash and exposure tests and looked better on our clarity tests. I also ranked it best on the low-light video test, though it was comparable with all the other smartphones at full-light video.

I also took the camera outside and took some shots in daylight in my neighborhood. The results were similarly impressive. I’ll include, for comparison’s sake, a representative sample so you can see how far the iPhone’s camera has come since the days of the original model.

But there’s more to the iPhone 4S’s camera than just its physical components. Apple is also using the power of the A5 processor (and its integrated signal processor) in numerous ways: There’s image stabilization of video as you shoot it and a face-detection algorithm to help ensure that your subjects are properly focused and exposed.

Most important, the iPhone 4S’s speed and some changes to iOS 5 work to solve the biggest failing of the iPhone camera up until now, namely the length of time it takes to get from your pocket to the moment when you can take a picture. In the past, this could be a laborious process: Pull out the phone, slide to unlock, enter in a security code if you’ve enabled one, find the Camera app (which might even be tucked away inside a folder), launch it, and then wait as the iPhone wakes up its camera and finally shows you an image.

Sure, that might only be a matter of a few seconds, but it seems like forever, especially if your kid or pet or sibling or significant other is doing something cute or hilarious or incriminating.

iOS 5, the latest version of the software that powers the iPhone and iPad (and which is included on the iPhone 4S) solves the first part of this problem. Now you can just double-press on the home button to bring up a camera button, which you tap to launch the Camera app—no unlocking required. Then the iPhone 4S’s hardware improvements spring into motion: That camera wakes up and shows you an image much faster than the iPhone 4 did.

The result of all these improvements: If you use an iPhone 4S to take pictures, you’re going to capture a bunch of photos that you would have missed otherwise, and they’ll look better than they would have, too. As the saying goes, the best camera is the one you have with you. I’d wager that the iPhone 4S will actually be the best camera in the household of the majority of its owners.

You’ll talk to it

Although the iPhone 4S sports a faster processor and an upgraded camera, the feature that everyone will be talking about is Siri. Siri, which replaces the Voice Control feature introduced with the iPhone 3GS, allows you to speak commands to your phone and have it do your bidding. You even activate Siri the same way as you did Voice Control: by holding down the home button on the iPhone itself, or by holding down the control button on your wired or wireless headset. (The iPhone 4S's voice-recognition feature works by recording your voice and sending it to a server that interprets what you've said and returns plain text. If you don't have an Internet connection, Siri won't work.)

What I’ve described actually sounds just like Voice Control, but Voice Control’s speech-recognition engine was severely limited. It required a strict vocabulary and couldn’t do much more than dial your phone or play music. Siri doesn’t require a strict vocabulary—if talk like Yoda even you try, it’ll generally figure out what you’re trying to say. That one leap makes interacting with Siri seem much more natural.

Siri’s also more comprehensive than Voice Control ever was. In addition to the Phone and Music apps, it’s tied in to Messages, Calendar, Reminders, Maps, Mail, Weather, Stocks, Clock, Contacts, Notes, and Safari. It’s also linked to Wolfram Alpha, the “computational knowledge engine” that can provide answers to numerous factual questions, and Yelp, the directory of local businesses. And when all else fails, Siri will usually suggest that it perform a Web search for you.

In a rare move for Apple, the company has officially dubbed Siri a “beta”—suggesting that it’s being released in a not-quite-finished state. There are two different reasons for this. First, Siri currently only supports English (in U.S., UK, and Australian dialects), French, and German—and that’s not enough languages for Apple and its worldwide customer base. Second, the company needs to expand the number of apps and information sources to which Siri is connected.

The truth is, once you start using Siri in earnest, you’ll discover where its boundaries are. It’s great at working with text messages, but not with email. It knows a lot about weather and restaurants but nothing about movie times. Apple says that understanding the words you say is the easy part, and that Siri’s true genius is in figuring out what you want when you say those words and getting you the answer. If that’s true, Siri needs to be tied in to many more information sources and apps. (Including third-party apps, which are not capable of tying into Siri today.)

There are two scenarios in which Siri truly excels. The first of those is when you’re in a hands-free scenario, mostly likely when driving a car. (The iPhone 4S knows when you’re in a hands-free situation and becomes more chatty, reading text aloud that it might not if it knows you’re holding it in your hand.) When you get a text message, you can instruct Siri to read the message, and it will. You can then tell Siri to reply to the message, dictate the entire message, have Siri read it back to you to confirm that it makes sense, and then send it.

It’s a major step forward, though there are gaps. Siri can tell you that you have new email, and you can use it to send emails, but it won’t read your emails to you. (It’ll only read text messages aloud.) And while iOS 5 adds the nifty Notification Center, which gives you granular control over how different apps notify you about what’s going on, there’s no option to read alerts out loud when you’re in hands-free mode. A missed opportunity.

If you aren’t driving, Siri can still be useful: In fact, the feature proves that some tasks can be done much faster through speech than through clicking, tapping, and swiping. It’s much easier to set an alarm or timer using Siri than it is to unlock your phone, find the Clock app, and tap within the app. Just say, “set a timer for three minutes,” and your phone begins to count down until your tea is ready. “Set an alarm for 5 a.m.” does what you’d expect, instantly. “Remind me to record my favorite show” and “Note that I need to take my suit to the cleaners” work, too. These are short bursts of data input that can be handled quickly by voice, and they work well.

I was impressed by Siri’s ability to understand the context of conversations. It didn’t always work, but when it did, it was magical. I asked Siri for suggestions for places to have lunch, and it provided me with a list of nearby restaurants that serve lunch. I then specified that I wanted to eat downtown, and got a narrower list of places downtown. This was so great, I tried to repeat the task later—and could never get it to work again. (To see all of this in action, check out my video chat with Siri.)

Of course, talking to your phone is not much different from talking on your phone: It’s not appropriate in all contexts. If you’re quietly reading in the library and need to set a reminder, you should use the Reminders app, not Siri. And if you’re out in public, well, you can use Siri, but you do risk people looking at you funny.

Apple’s integration of Wolfram Alpha with Siri was a smart move. If you need answers to factual questions, like the speed of light or the number of days until Christmas, Wolfram Alpha can provide the answer. Unfortunately, Wolfram Alpha’s results come in the form of images, not parseable text, so Siri can’t actually read you the reply. I was also disappointed that when Siri gives up and searches the Internet, it wouldn’t walk me through the search results and read their summaries. Most of my answers were in the first few search results summaries, but if I were driving they’d do me no good.

While Siri gets the bulk of the iPhone 4S feature hype, another speech-related technology may prove to be more important and a bigger boost to users’ productivity: Dictation. Following the lead of Android, the iPhone 4S can now convert what you say into written text in any app.


This message was dictated by voice.

Here’s how it works: On the keyboard you’ll see a new button in the bottom row, to the left of the spacebar, with the image of a microphone on it. Tap this button and the iPhone 4S will transcribe whatever you say. It sends the results over the Internet to a server that analyzes your speech and converts it into text (meaning that if you’re not online, the microphone button will disappear). I was shocked at just how fast the results came back, especially over Wi-Fi. And they were generally accurate. (Though careful viewing of my video chat with Siri will reveal that it performed an unfortunate translation of the phrase “iPhone 4S.” Embarrassing, but easily corrected.)

To get the most out of dictation, you’ll need to start thinking in punctuation. For example, to construct a decent email message, I might say, “Dan comma new paragraph What do you think about writing a review of iOS numeral five question mark I think it might be right up your alley period new paragraph Let me know what you think exclamation point.” The thing is, it works.

Speech-recognition powerhouse Nuance has offered this feature in an iOS app, Dragon Dictation, for some time now. But being able to input text by voice in any iOS app, rather than just Nuance’s, is a big step forward. However, the existence of Dragon’s app makes me wonder why this is apparently an iPhone 4S-only feature. Older iPhones could run Dragon’s app just fine. And, come to think of it, Siri was an iOS app before it was acquired by Apple.

I understand that Apple’s in the business of selling iPhone hardware, and that Siri and dictation are both features that will drive sales of iPhone 4S. But I admit that I wonder if the decision to have these features work only on the iPhone 4S is rooted more in sales strategy than in technology. I can almost understand the idea that Siri might require extra processing power, but speech-to-text? That’s a feature that should be available for iPhone 4 users as well as a part of the iOS 5 update.

iOS 5 and other miscellany

Although it’s not an iPhone 4S-specific feature, this phone is the first device to ship with iOS 5 as its base operating system. iOS 5 is a massive upgrade that adds all sorts of features to the iPhone and iPad, but users of the iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPad, iPad 2, and third- and fourth-generation iPod touch will also be able to take advantage of them.

Our full review of iOS 5 itself is forthcoming, but in the interim, a recap: iOS 5 adds support for a much more flexible notification system, including the pull-down Notification Center interface; support for “PC-free” operation so you can set up, back up, and even update an iPhone or iPad without ever connecting it to a computer; iMessage, a system for sending messages to other devices without using SMS; Newsstand, which gives publishers more control over pushing newspaper and magazine content to iPhones and iPads; a new Reminders app; custom vibration patterns; Twitter integration; and a whole lot more.

Another feature of iOS 5 is AirPlay mirroring, which allows certain devices to display the contents of their screen on your TV via an Apple TV. This feature initially appeared to be limited to the iPad 2, since it was the only iOS device capable of mirroring its own display on an external monitor.

But guess what? The iPhone 4S has the same capability. Attach Apple’s HDMI adapter to the iPhone 4S and connect it to an HDTV, and you’ll see the contents of your screen played back on your HDTV. And if you’ve got an Apple TV, you can do this wirelessly, too.

OUR VERDICT

If you want an iPhone but don't want to pay out the premium for the newer models, the iPhone 4S is still a great option. We know lots of people (some of the Macworld team included) that are perfectly happy with their iPhone 4S two years on. It takes good photographs, is speedy enough for most people, will be able to run iOS 7 and is really good-looking. Its downfalls are the smaller display and the poor quality front-facing camera, as well as the fact that it still uses the older 30-pin connector that's been replaced by the Lightning connector in newer models. Battery life is also a concern, but the newer iPhones don't offer much in the way of an improvement here.

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