The S stands for…same? The iPhone 4S review

Posted by steve on Jan 9, 2012 in Hardware, Hardware Reviews, international, New Zealand, Reviews

The iPhone 4S was never going to be an easy piece of kit to review. Rarely has there been a more anticipated, and then more disparaged, hardware release from Apple. The original iPhone, unveiled five years ago today by Steve Jobs in a presentation now hailed as his finest on-stage hour, spoken of as though it were a sacrament and not a trade announcement, was Apple’s response to years of pleas from the company’s devotees (odd, really, to think of a company — a business, a for-profit entity — having devotees, but there you go…), and was hailed as little short of miraculous when it was finally handed down from on high. By way of contrast, the Motorola ROKR was pointlessness embodied in silicon — a device longed for by nobody, and loved by fewer; I’m simply not willing to do the research, but I strongly suspect that even the Zune, Microsoft’s turd-brown adventure in futility, sold better than the ROKR. Even Steve Jobs struggled to find anything beyond “It’s really nice.”

My new iPhone 4S | Steve's TechBlog

My new iPhone 4S | Steve's TechBlog

The iPhone 4S, on the other hand, threatened to be little more than a small-to-medium-sized bucketful of meh. The iPhone 4, its immediate predecessor, was an almost obnoxiously successful device, and so the Apple rumour mill (an actual mill, by the way — when it’s not cranking out rumours, it grinds the flour that goes into the artisanal breads used for the unicorn-burger sandwiches upon which senior Apple executives lunch), obviously, decided that it had to be replaced. And it had to be replaced by an iPhone 5. For reasons that were never even remotely apparent, there was something frankly totemic about the number 5. The new iPhone simply had to be the iPhone 5. What, exactly, the iPhone 5 would be, or do, or look like, was secondary. Features? 5. Appearance? 5. Spec? 5. So long as the new phone had the magic digit in its name, it could be a rotary-dial device with a ten-foot spiral cord coming out of the kitchen wall.

And so, on October 4th, Tim Cook announced the iPhone 4S. It would have any number of very, very impressive features. The new camera, for example, would have an eight-megapixel resolution, up from the previous model’s five, with a five-element lens instead of four. The processor would be a dual-core A5 chip, not a single-core A4. Bluetooth would be the new, exciting version 4.0, not the 2.1+EDR of the iPhone 4. And, of course, there would be Siri, the little person inside the phone.

But it wasn’t an iPhone 5. The magic number was simply nowhere to be seen. 4S? What did the S stand for? Since the 4S looked all but identical to the 4 (the giveaway, by the way, is the absence, on the 4S, of a black line by the headphone jack), how could a fanboy show off his new toy? What, after all, is the sense in paying hundreds of upgrade dollars if your new gadget doesn’t scream “I’m new, I’m expensive and my owner is, ipso facto, better than you?” The iPhone 4S is an upgrade to the iPhone 4 — a compelling and persuasive upgrade, to be sure, but an upgrade, not a new model.

There was, as was repeatedly pointed out during the fallout from Apple’s failure to deliver something called the iPhone 5, a precedent to this naming scheme. The third iteration of the iPhone, the 3GS, looked essentially identical to its predecessor, the 3G, and nobody, at the time, used the 3GS as evidence that the world was about to come to an end. But the iPhone 4S, not being the iPhone 5, was destined to fail, apparently — and promptly turned out to be one of the fastest-selling smartphones in the admittedly rather short history of the class.

So I bought one. Apple released the 4S on 11th November last year, and I picked mine up that morning from the Vodafone shop in Papakura. I was ready for a new phone — I had considered an iPhone 4 until I discovered the contract-breaking fee Vodafone wanted from me for upgrading, and my 3GS was starting to show its age slightly. Despite the disappointing plans available in New Zealand, I signed up for a 24-month contract and took my new toy home.

I like the design. I was never overly enamoured of the styling of the 3G/3GS models, which always felt, to my sensibilities, just a little plasticky. There is clearly a reason why Apple decided to retain the 4′s design for the 4S — it looks right. It doesn’t always feel that right, mind — it’s a thoroughly beautiful device, but it feels rather thin in the hand, and so, while I very much like the look of the thing, it feels better in the rather natty case my daughter bought for me.

The screen, of course, is stunning. It is bright, and sharp, and clear, and lovely. It features the 960×640-pixel resolution of the iPhone 4, double the resolution of earlier models and so utterly crisp that, living up to its “retina” tag, it renders images and, in particular, text so smoothly and clearly that individual pixels are simply invisible. Combined with the faster dual-core A5 processor, it offers a graphical experience unlike anything else Apple sell.

Venus flytrap — iPhone 4S camera closeup | Steve's Techblog

Venus flytrap — iPhone 4S camera closeup | Steve's TechBlog

The camera does the screen justice. Photos taken on the iPhone 4s’s rear-facing camera are consistently of a high standard, with the possible exception of lower-light photos, in which graininess starts to become a little more visible. But increasingly the iPhone’s camera, once dismissed as an afterthought bolted on to the original iPhone, has now become a realistic alternative to a separate point-and-shoot.

The real fun of the iPhone 4S starts when you fire up Siri. Once all the silly games like telling your phone to beam you up (“WiFi or 3G?”) or to close the pod-bay doors (“Really? Again?”) are out of the way, actually using voice activation suddenly becomes something more than just a gimmick. The iPhone has supported voice commands for years, but only with Siri has this become meaningly useful. I’ve always been leery of claims of voice recognition on computers — it tends to work tolerably if you’re a TV news anchorman from Nebraska, or possibly a continuity announcer on Radio 4, but my northern vowels have always confounded such systems. But I’ve been extensively impressed with Siri. With rare exceptions, it understands not only the words I say (it’s clearly been watching Coronation Street), but also the meaning behind them, and so simple tasks like sending my wife a text message (“Tell my wife that…” is all the syntax I need) or setting a reminder (“Remind me to…”) become part of what I’m doing rather than something that requires me to stop what I’m doing, mess with my phone, and then carry on.

Siri on the iPhone 4S | Steve's TechBlog

Siri on the iPhone 4S — Oh, will the hilarity never end?

Siri’s anthropomorphising of the iPhone raises an interesting philosophicolinguistic question. My wife, being American, uses the American English setting for Siri, and so her phone answers her using an American woman’s voice. I, having had the enormous good fortune to have been born in the northwest of England, use the tautologically- and somewhat meaninglessly-named British English setting, and so my iPhone talks to me with the voice of a bloke from the home counties of England. (There is a third English option, Australian English; the default setting for an iPhone 4S bought in New Zealand is British. Of course.) So is Siri a he or a she? Such are the things that keep a technopundit awake at night.

So all is right with the iPhone 4S, then? Well, no. There is a flaw, a very major flaw, with the phone. Its battery life is, frankly, dreadful. And this is odd, since even better battery life than the iPhone 4 was touted by Tim Cook as one of the 4S’s big selling points. But I struggle to get a single day of moderate usage out of mine. I’ve had it replaced once (and that was a struggle), and my replacement phone isn’t a massive amount better. I’ve never managed the 7 hours of video, or 8 hours of talk time, that Apple advertise; I certainly don’t see the “truly better battery life” advertised on the Vodafone website. Apple’s release of iOS5.0.1 (featuring both interCaps and multiple decimal points) was supposed to address this issue, but, on my phone at least, hasn’t. A complete restore to factory defaults improved battery life somewhat, but neither completely alleviated the problem nor actually allowed me to use the features I paid for on my new iPhone — hardly a success on either count, then.

But I’ll stick with my iPhone 4S. I’m happy with it. There will be an iPhone 5 released one day, I’m sure. But until then, the iPhone 4S, despite its lack of the magic number 5, is a strong update to an inordinately successful product.

Rating: ★★★★★

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