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iPhone 4S Hands-On Review

written by: Spanner•edited by: Simon Hill•updated: 10/14/2011

Apple's latest touch-screen smartphone is with us already, delivered at incredible speed after its recent announcement. Rather fitting, given that the iPhone 4S is such a speedy and handsome package of lifestyle electronics, but can you justify the upgrade cost? Find out here.

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    What's New with the iPhone 4S?

    iPhone 4S As always, Apple has released a beautifully designed product that's absolutely packed with superb features. But covering each and every one of those features -- for once -- isn't the hard part about reviewing the latest model of iPhone. The difficulty here is in reviewing the iPhone 4S hardware, rather than the newly released iOS 5 operating system.

    Rather coincidentally, this problem actually highlights one of the iPhone 4S's most impressive features. Its hardware is tied so tightly to the latest version of iOS that it's almost impossible to see where one begins, and the other finishes. It's hard to criticise such a well-matched combination of hardware and software, and this alone lifts the iPhone 4S onto the shoulders of most other touch-screen smartphones out there.

    But there are still some new iPhone 4S hardware features we can look at.

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    8-Megapixel Camera

    The iPhone 4S has upgraded cameras. Yep, it's not easy to get too excited about that, right?

    iPhone 4S Video They work very well, of course, managing to record 1080p high-def video at 30 frames-per-second, and with a crisp, clean capture that would give a decent digital camcorder a run for its money. But you're unlikely to opt for the expensive iPhone 4S option just because of a camera, and we certainly wouldn't advise that you do.

    To be quite blunt, the digital camera(s) have never been a deal breaker when it comes to choosing an iPhone, and the 4S doesn't change that. The iPhone 4 camera options were a more significant update, given the addition of a forward-facing option. This is still present in the new handset, and it's great to see that iOS 5 ties in the gyroscopic sensor for image stabilization and the new filters enliven the colors and light levels. This certainly helps you to cheer for the iPhone 4S in terms of camera quality, even if you weren't especially considering the camera quality as a make-or-break factor.

    It's a beautiful picture from the 4S, of that there's absolutely no question, but iPhone 4 users shouldn't rush to the Apple Store based on this alone.

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    A5 Processor

    iPhone 4S Game The introduction of the A5 processor in the iPhone 4S has been shouted from the rooftops, and there's no denying that the new device is super-fast. At least, we have to assume it's super-fast. Recording high-def video in real-time must take some processing oomph, and everything -- absolutely everything -- you do is so slick you could believe the iPhone 4S had anticipated what you were planning and got itself ready before you even touched the screen. That's thanks to its new power processor (Apple tells us) and in the coming months and years we'll undoubtedly be thankful that its brain pan enjoyed a digital steroid injection.

    But appreciating an increase in processing power, right off the bat, is difficult. No developer in their right mind is going to make games and apps solely for the iPhone 4S. Not for a good long while, anyway. We may see enhancements within apps that boost performance for iPhone 4S users, but at the time of writing there was little we could do to really push the processor and suitably amaze ourselves.

    It's there, we've no doubt, but once again it's hard to recommend your iPhone 4 be retired for the 4S launch day based on the A5 chip.

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    Design and Style

    For those who already own an iPhone 4, there's good news and bad regarding the design of the 4S. It's in the same case as the iPhone 4, with the same screen as its predecessor, so without the silvery writing on the back you'd be hard pushed to know which was which.

    The benefit is that you don't need to buy a new case if you do upgrade, and that's a small but important reason to be thankful. Of course, we also have to ask whether the iPhone 4S needed an outer redesign, considering its predecessor is the catwalk model of the smartphone world already. Aesthetic changes for the sake of change would have a negative impact on the iPhone 4S, so we're glad to see Apple hasn't given in to that particular temptation.

    The flat back and very touchable glass screen are as desirable as ever, and the Retina display looks just as sweet under high ambient brightness. So the 4S is highly recommended in terms of design and sheer good looks, but only because the previous model was already so well turned out.

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    It has verged on torture writing about the iPhone 4S for this long without mentioning Siri. The new voice-activated assistant is, as previously stumbled over, part of the iOS 5 update, and not really a handset feature. But as it's only available on the iPhone 4S, it demands a mention. In fact, it's the primary reason to upgrade, and it presents a damn good argument.

    Quite literally, in fact. You might talk to inanimate objects all the time, but iPhone 4S owners now have one that can -- and will -- answer them. Replacing the old voice controls, Siri activates when you hold down the Home button for a couple of seconds, or when you hold the device up to your ear when not on a call.

    And then you tell it what you want. No specific commands or keywords. Just talk to it. During our test (a review model, with "James" entered as a contact), we said "Schedule a meeting with James on Saturday the fifteenth." Siri did so, and then asked us what time to make the meeting, or whether it should be an all day appointment. Impressed, we tested again, only this time trying to trip poor Siri up.

    "Will you schedule a meeting for me with James on the fourteenth. No, make that Saturday." Amazingly, Siri pointed out that we already had a meeting with James slated for Saturday, and asked if we still wanted to add this one. After that, we were simply too speechless to try to trick Siri again.

    Up until this point the decision about an upgrade had been quite easy, but the voice recognition confused matters distressingly well. Siri, alone, is worth an upgrade or a switch from any other smartphone to the iPhone 4S.

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    Time to Upgrade

    There aren't actually all that many factors that should determine your decision to adopt the iPhone 4S.

    If you're still on the third generation of iPhone, then the iPhone 4S comes highly recommended and you should pick one up as soon as (or even just before) you can justify the upgrade cost. The pressure is off for existing iPhone 4 users, or anyone who has adopted a powerful smartphone from another manufacturer, however.

    The hardware updates are great, but they're also few. Siri is a game changer, though. The competition will be rushing to catch up, but by then Siri is likely to be the new techno-superstar of the mobile world, and won't easily be usurped. If you're chomping at the bit to have a new electronic friend to talk to, don't strain yourself resisting the temptation. You won't be sorry that you shelled out for the iPhone 4S.


The iPhone 4S

Wondering whether to buy an iPhone 4S? Unsure what to do with it if you do buy one? This technology series covers everything you need to know about adopting Apple's hardware and software upgrade to the outstanding iPhone 4S.
  1. iPhone 4S Hands-On Review
  2. Setting Up Your New iPhone 4S
  3. Tips and Tricks for the iPhone 4S
  4. Android vs. iPhone 4S