The iPhone 4S represents a challenge for Apple. It's clearly a challenge the company has met to a certain extent; the sales figures for iPhone 4S have been exceptionally solid, to say the least. But that's a matter for the share price; what's it like as a phone? A note before I start; yes, this is a review. But if I catch anyone over-using the word "objective" in the comments field, I'll be coming over there with a large lump of wood, and I won't remove the rusty nails first. There are parts of a review that should be objective — benchmarks and certain specifications — and there are those bits that relate to personal experience that simply can't be. Anyone who tells you that their review is 100 per cent objective is talking out of their… well, I'll let you figure out where.
The iPhone 4S is fast; that was my first impression of the handset, and it's one that I've kept for the entire review period. You've seen the tests against the iPad and existing iPhone, so I won't restate the obvious yet again. But across a range of apps, from games to video to productivity, the iPhone 4S consistently starts up quickly and responds with alacrity. I know I'm risking the ire of the readership when I say this, but when I've wanted a task done quickly over the past week, I've been reaching more for the 4S and less for my Galaxy S II, at least in pure speed terms.
I'm a brutal battery abuser, and it's been less than a day since my last bout of phone abuse.
I'm even vaguely proud about that.
Sad, but true. It's exceptionally rare for any smartphone I've been using heavily — and I've been using a trio of 4S handsets (with due thanks to Optus, Vodafone and Apple) quite heavily over the last nine days — and every single time, I've run the battery out before the day is out. The same is true of, say, the Samsung Galaxy S II, the Nokia N9, the Blackberry Bold 9900 — I could go on. Needless to say, if you're a power user, pack an external battery or charger of some kind; that's what I'll be doing from now on. Apple's claim for the iPhone 4S is that it's got slight advantages over the base iPhone 4 when it comes to battery, but to be totally honest, for better or worse, I didn't really see it.
The iPhone 4S' camera sits in the upper pantheon of smartphone cameras. That's an important distinction; this thing isn't a DSLR, and anyone who wants one should buy one of those. Equally, though, you can take lousy shots with high end equipment if you don't know what you're doing.
Quick pop quiz: Which of the following two was taken on an iPhone 4S, and which was taken on a Samsung Galaxy S II?
Answers on a postcard, please...
Where the iPhone 4S' camera shines is in lower light situations — I've taken some great night photos of my cat which I won't share here — and in taking quick shots quite well. As an upgrade for existing iPhone owners it's a definite plus; for users of other smartphone platforms it's a very solid competitor.
I've done some testing of the iPhone 4S versus the iPhone 4, and found little change there in my own limited way. Over the course of last week, I've flipped between the 4S and the Galaxy S II as my hotspot of choice on the train, and there's again little difference there running on Telstra's network in terms of bandwidth throughput. The whole antennagate thing is dead and buried, and for signal purposes, the iPhone 4S performs well, subject to the location and vagaries of your carrier of choice.
One note here for the curious; I've had few phone call problems with the 4S, but that's an inherently shaky test base; is the problem with the phone, the carrier, or on the other end? There's really no way to tell. Outside of duff speakers and the like, there's not much that can be conclusively stated about mobile phone call reception in such a short test period, if ever.
I know, I know; some of you are sick of me writing or talking about Siri. But it's a matter of fact that it's one of the iPhone 4S' selling points, so I'm obligated. After a week of playing with and using Siri, I'm still not entirely sold, but then I'm not sure I should be. Siri's neat technology no doubt, and clearly something that could be a boon for those with physical limitations. That case aside, though, there's the double whammy of utility and public embarrassment to deal with. I'm not likely to talk to my phone in public — I even feel self conscious doing this with a headset on — so Siri loses some marks there. That's not Apple's fault, to be fair.
The other issue is that Siri's limitations in some cases have more to do with licensing agreements than technology; the ability to ask for directions is the one thing I might use Siri for in a public place. Again, that's a time issue, but it's not a good idea to review anything based on potential. Right now, Siri is crippled in this particular area, and hopefully those are leg irons that'll be shed sooner rather than later.
Would I buy an iPhone 4S just for Siri? No, not at this stage. But the underlying technology is interesting, and I figured nobody would use Facetime either. If anyone can sell the concept to the general public, it's probably Apple.
There are plenty of Giz Au readers who wouldn't buy an iPhone 4S if it came with free money and a luxury villa in the south of France. Fine, if that's your opinion, here's something to keep you happy. I'm happy enough to say that it's one of the best smartphones you can currently buy; before the accusations fly, one of, not "the" best — but then I'm not convinced that a one-size-fits-all approach is appropriate anyway.
At the same time, many wrote the iPhone 4S off as "just playing catchup", and that's an accusation I'd say was fairly baseless as well. Apple's long been happy essentially playing in its own yard, and within the yardstick of other iOS devices the iPhone 4S is a solid upgrade. There's a few positions to take regarding this. If you're an existing iPhone 4 user and you're happy with what you've got in terms of camera usage and performance, I'd say sit still, especially if you're on contract. 3G and 3GS users will find the upgrade remarkable, but then that's a two-plus year jump, so it's to be expected. Those currently sitting in opposing smartphone camps would be wise to at least consider the 4S; it may not be the phone for you, but it's a premier competitor in the current smartphone market. I still haven't quite decided if I'll make the jump back to iOS from Android — but I'm very solidly tempted.