AT&T iPhone 4S review: AT&T iPhone 4S

The CDMA models still won't permit simultaneous voice and data transmission. That's a current limitation of the CDMA technology (see our Verizon iPhone 4 review for a more detailed explanation) and though new chips are coming, I'm thinking they'll arrive in the next model. So if you really need to be on the phone and surf the Web at the same time, then you should stick with AT&T.

Admittedly, one of the biggest letdowns from the 4S' unveiling was the lack of 4G for Verizon and Sprint. Though AT&T's LTE network is inching along with just six cities at the time of this writing, Sprint and Verizon's 4G coverage (WiMax and LTE, respectively) is quite widespread. What's more, the networks perform well and both carriers offer a wide range of compatible handsets.

Apple has its reasons, no doubt. Battery life remains an issue for 4G phones and Apple must have decided that, at this point, it couldn't offer its optimal customer experience on a 4G handset. Customer experience, after all, is really what Apple loves most. Secondly, the company never jumps on a technology that is still growing, and it must think that 4G doesn't cover enough people quite yet. Remember that 3G networks were pretty developed when Apple rolled out the first iPhone, but it chose to wait a year later until unveiling the iPhone 3G.

iOS 5
Editors' note: Senior Associate Editor Jason Parker contributed to this section.

Though iOS 5 is not as drastic of an upgrade as we saw with iOS 4 in June 2010, it does offer some long-overdue and exciting enhancements. A few are quiet and just improve the user experience while others will seriously change how you use your Apple handset. For a full analysis on the update, check out our iOS 5 review and how-to guide .

Notifications: Instead of pop-up menus that interrupt your work, a new Notification Center will combine messages, missed calls, app updates, a stock ticker, and the current weather in a single place. You can access it by swiping your finger downward from the top of the screen, and notifications will appear on the lock screen as well. You then can jump directly to the related feature for each notification and delete items by tapping the small X next to each line. Though not exactly original--the pull-down menu has long been a hallmark feature of Android --the ability to see all notifications in one place in iOS 5 is certainly welcome.

Newsstand: This app will bring together magazine subscriptions in a central place. The concept is similar to iBooks, even down to an icon that looks like the periodicals shelf at your local library. As you subscribe to a publication through a new channel in the App Store, new issues are delivered in the background, eliminating the need to manually grab them when they publish.

Twitter: Thankfully, users now will be able to post photos to the social networking service without leaving the image gallery or camera application. It's a nice change, given that it will end the need to take a photo, switch to the iPhone Twitter app, and then post the photo. You'll be able to add a location, sync Twitter with your contacts list, and tweet directly from YouTube, Safari, and Maps.

Safari: The mobile version of Apple's Web browser now has the Reader option that was announced at the 2010 WWDC. Rather than having to deal with complicated layouts of various Web sites, the reader streamlines multipage articles in an RSS-like view while stripping out ads, but leaving photos. You can change the text size and you can e-mail the entire text of a Safari page to a contact (under iOS 4, you could send only a link).

The Reader is a great option for scanning strangely formatted Web pages and when there's no mobile site available. My only problem with the Reader is that it may strip out too much--I often want to see comments on an article, but the Reader deems them unnecessary. In other Safari news, you can add a Web page to a Reading List for future perusal on any iOS device.

Reminders: This handy addition lets you store multiple to-do lists with dates for each event; you can categorize reminders for when you leave or arrive at a GPS location. So, for example, if you have a reminder of "Call home when I leave work," the app will use GPS to note when you're on the move and send the reminder via push notification. Reminders can be shared between devices and sync with iCal on the Mac with CalDAV, and on Windows with MS Exchange. The app has its own sleek-looking scrollable calendar as well, so you can browse or add new tasks and reminders for future dates.

I tested the reminder by location by having it tell me "Don't forget your iPad" once I left the building here at CNET. Sure enough, the iPhone reminded me once I got about a half block away from the building. Browsing through your reminders is easy with a starting page where you can quickly track and search for reminders using a search field. You also have the option to create tasks for more-open-ended reminders that don't need to be done by a specific time.

Mail: The iOS Mail app now has rich text formatting, better indent control, flagging of messages, and the ability to drag addresses between To, CC, and BCC lines. Also, you now can search within the body of a message instead of just in the From, To, and subject lines.

PC Free and iCloud: Arguably the most notable iOS 5 change, PC Free will bring over-the-air software updates and device activations. So as on Android, Windows Phone 7, and BlackBerry OS 5 devices, you'll no longer have to plug your device into a computer or even own a computer at all. Activation for the iPhone takes quite a few steps, but it's easy and very quick. I was up and running in a just a few minutes, though it took a few tries for the phone to recognize my Apple ID. You don't have to use a Wi-Fi network to set up your 4S, but it helps.

The wireless updates to apps will serve only the changes, so they'll be shorter, and you'll be able to sync, back up, and restore your device using the new iCloud features. You'll also find new features within apps, like wirelessly editing photos, managing e-mail folders, and creating and deleting calendars. I'll add more details about iCloud as I explore it further.

To sync your iOS device to iTunes on your computer, you need only be on the same Wi-Fi network and your device needs to be charging (plugged into a charger). You can then go to Settings > General on your iPhone to select iTunes Wi-Fi Sync. From there you can select Sync Now on your iPhone and your photos, music, and calendars will be backed up in iTunes.

Game Center: Additions for gamers in iOS 5 include the addition of profile photos, the ability to compare achievement points, friends of friends lists, recommended friends and games (based on your current library), and support for turn-based games. The ability to buy games from within Game Center makes it a bit more of a destination, but it still seems like the service will still be a behind-the-scenes social connector as it was before.

iMessage: Apple takes a shot at BlackBerry with this instant messaging app that will work across all iOS 5 devices. As with BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), you'll be able to exchange unlimited text messages, photos, and videos with your friends, family, and colleagues. Even better, your messages won't cost you anything and they won't count against the monthly allotment of messages from your wireless carrier.

You'll also get group messaging, an indicator to see if someone is typing to you, delivery and read receipts, secure encryption, and conversation syncing that is pushed to multiple devices. I'm a little disappointed that the location and contact sharing features don't come straight from iMessage (you need to initiate the process from the related app instead). For example, to send a contact, you'll need to go to your home screen, open your contacts, select a person, choose the Share Contact button, and choose iMessage. It's a bit tedious, but the ability to send that data to a friend is an improvement.

Find My Friends: Announced at the unveiling of the iPhone 4S, Find My Friends is an iOS 5-exclusive app that lets you view your friends' and family's locations in real time on a map when they agree to share location info with you. For added security, you can set a time limit for how long you share your location, a major concern of people who don't want to continually broadcast their location.

After signing in with your iTunes account ID, you can send an invite to friends using their iTunes account ID (they'll need to send you one as well). Once you're hooked up, you'll be able to get a pretty close approximation of where your friends are on a map. The app also has options to give you directions to your friends (via Maps) or speak to them on FaceTime (iPhone 4 or newer) if you can't get an exact location.

In my testing in San Francisco, performance was variable. My location would be very accurate on one street, but in another location it would be a block away from where I was standing. I have the same issue with the GPS fix in general, so it's not surprising. While these types of location features might be useful in specific situations, Android has similar services that have received mixed reviews--specifically by those who were worried about security concerns.

Cards: A new greeting card delivery app also became available in the iTunes App Store alongside the iOS 5 release. Cards lets you design a card on your iOS device and have Apple print it up on high-quality paper (yes, it will be real paper) and send it to your chosen recipient. The service comes with a price, though; you'll pay $2.99 to send a card within the U.S. and $4.99 to send a card anywhere in the world. It's an easy process and you get a lot of design options.

Personal dictionary: A new keyboard shortcut feature lets you create your own personal dictionary. While nothing new, you'll now be able to set up keyboard shortcuts for phrases. Head to Settings > General > Keyboard, then scroll down to Add New Shortcut. Here you can add a phrase like "Talk to you later" then make the shortcut "ttyl." Now, every time you type those letters in an e-mail or text, it will be spelled out automatically.

Alternate Routes: Another new feature that travelers will appreciate is Alternate Routes. When in the Map app, you can get directions as usual, but instead of giving you just one route to your destination, the Map app will now give you two alternate routes (in case of problems like traffic or if you know of nearby construction sites). Simply touch a route to find out how long it will take to get to your destination, then choose the best for your situation. In our tests here in San Francisco, the routes were solid options, and I think this will come in handy wherever you are. The noticeable downside here is that once you've picked your route, the other ones remain on screen, which can be distracting.

What's missing?
Yeah, I have to include this section. With each version of the iPhone, Apple knocks more things off of my wish list, but the list still has plenty on it. Primarily, I'd like to see more choices in autocomplete, shortcuts to individual contacts on the home screen, a way to color code e-mails in the unified inbox, and easier access to common features like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

Smaller needs include an HDMI-out port and support for NFC services. I'd also like for Mail to get Safari's Reader feature. With iOS 5, I still stumbled upon the occasional e-mail with its own special formatting that the app didn't adjust to make eyeball-friendly on the smaller screen. Considering how much e-mail reading people do on their iOS devices, this would be a welcome addition.

Call quality and reception
I tested the dual-mode (CDMA 800/1900) iPhone 4S in San Francisco using AT&T's network. I was eager to try it considering AT&T's shaky reputation with iPhone performance. Though I realize that my experience doesn't set the standard for the rest of the country, tales of woe from AT&T iPhone users have stretched across the nation and even to international shores. Fortunately, call quality on the iPhone 4S showed slight improvements over the iPhone 4 and significant upgrades from the iPhone 3GS. I received far fewer dropped calls, voice quality was better, and the audio wasn't as muffled. My experience wasn't perfect by any measure, however. Unlike on Sprint or Verizon, there were still times when I couldn't get a signal event though I showed five bars. Also, the AT&T phone still appears to have trouble with the handoff between the carrier's 3G and data networks. And it doesn't help that the ability to manually drop back to EDGE was removed with iOS 5. But even with those complaints, audio performance was the best I've heard on an AT&T Apple device. According to FCC radiation tests, the iPhone 4S for Sprint has a digital SAR of 1.11 watts per kilogram.

AT&T iPhone 4S call quality sample Listen now:

Call volume was just as loud as on the other iPhones, though there was a noticeable difference in call clarity. I heard more pauses in the audio than on the Verizon and Sprint handsets and voices sounded hollow. Voices also sounded flatter and with less pitch variation. Neither issue was a huge deal, but AT&T's voice quality ranks behind its rivals, especially Sprint's. See my separate call quality post to see how the voice samples from the three carriers compare with each other.

Speakerphone calls were about the same. I heard the usual distortion at the highest volumes, but I'd rather have a speaker with more output than one that's too soft. I didn't have to sit close to the phone to be heard, my friends could understand me, and I could use automated calling most of the time.

As I mentioned, the iPhone 4S has two antennas wrapping around the phone. Though Apple never said so directly, we can't help but think that the fix was in response to the attenuation problems on the AT&T iPhone 4. As such, the phone is designed to scan for the best signal and switch to that antenna. I haven't gauged exactly how the two antennas have improved call clarity, but I'm happy to report that the iPhone 4S doesn't suffer from the dreaded death grip.

Data speeds
As mentioned the AT&T iPhone 4S runs on the carrier's HSDPA network. What that means to you will vary by location, your connection to a tower, and the capacity of the network at a given time. In early testing, AT&T data speeds were comparable with its other HSDPA devices, though slower than the speeds you can get with HSPA+ (like I said above). The time It took to open graphics-heavy sites varied by site: from 20 seconds for the full New York Times site, to 22 seconds for Airliners.net, and 55 seconds for Giantbomb.com. Most mobile sites took a bit less time, though CNET's site opened in 25 seconds.

In initial tests, AT&T's 3G sits between Sprint and Verizon. The difference wasn't always consistent, however, and just as with voice calls, the numbers of bars didn't always correspond to what I was getting on the phone. After running four tests in CNET's neighborhood, AT&T's network delivered an average download speed of 0.48Mbps and an average upload speed of 0.45 Mbps. Compare that with Verizon's network, which had average download speeds of 0.88Mbps and an average upload speed of 0.76Mbps, and Sprint's 3G network, which showed an average download speed of 0.45 Mbps and an average upload speed of 0.47 Mbps. I know that San Francisco is not representative of the entire country. As such, your experience may be completely different. But either way, AT&T's speeds are about what you'd expect from one of the carrier's 3G device. Absolutely, 4G users won't be happy, but true Apple fans shouldn't be shocked. Dong Ngo from CNET Labs also conducted data tests but found different results .

Processor, graphics, and internal performance
The new chipset is the iPhone 4S' biggest star (like on the iPhone 3GS, the "S" in iPhone 4S stands for "speed"). The handset features Apple's A5 dual-core 1GHz processor along with a dual-core GPU. Apple says the new chipset will make the iPhone 4S twice as fast and will offer graphics performance that is seven times faster than the iPhone 4's.

Indeed, there is a noticeable change for the better. Applications across the phone opened quicker--sometimes by up to 3 seconds--and switching between apps using the multitasking feature was smoother. In additional testing , Senior Editor Eric Franklin found just how much faster the iPhone 4S is over its predecessor. On a similar note, Senior Associate Editor Jason Parker found that for some games the iPhone 4S' graphics are far richer . For more on the iPhone 4S gaming experience, check out this post from Senior Editor Scott Stein.

The performance upgrades are indeed welcome, though it's almost a feature that I didn't know we wanted. Previous iPhones never struck me as particularly slow, but if Apple wants to make the experience faster, I'm not going to refuse. And if it can do it without hampering battery life, then even better.

Battery life
Despite the more powerful processor, the company claims that the smartphone will be able to provide 8 hours of talk time over 3G, 14 hours over 2G, 6 hours of browsing over 3G, 9 hours via Wi-Fi, 10 hours of video playback, and 40 hours of music playback.

The promised battery times are impressive, but manufacturer promises can be just that: promises. Though the Samsung Epic Touch 4G and Motorola Droid Bionic had rated talk times of 8.7 hours and 10.8 hours, respectively, the Samsung lasted a less stellar 7 hours in CNET Labs tests and the Droid Bionic went for just 7.55 hours. In talk time battery life tests , Sprint's phone beat Apple's ratings by lasting 9 hours and 13 minutes on a single charge. The AT&T iPhone 4S may fare differently, so I'll let you know if it does. For media features, the 4S delivered 8.2 hours of video playback and 64 hours of audio playback.

Since our review posted, some iPhone 4s owners have come forward to complain of poor battery life . According to those owners, their phones will last just a few hours, even when the phone is in standby mode. I tried leaving the 4S unattended for 24 hours with GPS, Wi-Fi, notifications, and Bluetooth on. As I long as the display was off, it didn't drain faster (83 percent full to 71 percent) than an iPhone 4 with similar settings. On the other hand, the battery would deplete quickly over the course of half a day with the display on. I also found that during "real-world" testing, where I was multitasking with several features running in the background and the display on, the battery didn't drain abnormally fast. On November 2, 2011, Apple admitted that "a small number of customers have reported lower-than-expected battery life on iOS 5 devices." The company also said that it was issuing a fix in the form of a software update.

Conclusion
Android fans are right: the iPhone 4S adds features that competing smartphones introduced months ago. But that misses the point. It doesn't have everything, but Apple's attention to the user experience remains unmatched. Some consider that focus a worthy trade-off for a regulated and locked-down device, while others prefer more control. Apple's philosophy isn't necessarily right, but it may be right for you. And if so, the iPhone 4S won't disappoint.

The iPhone 4S goes on sale October 14 from AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint in the United States. It will come in black and white, and pricing starts at $199 for the 16GB version, $299 for 32GB, and $399 for 64GB.

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Release date Oct 14, 2011
  • Talk Time Up to 840 min (2G)
    Up to 480 min (3G)
  • Technology CDMA2000 1X / GSM / WCDMA (UMTS)
  • Combined with With digital camera / digital player
  • Service Provider AT&T
  • Weight 4.9 oz
  • Diagonal Size 3.5 in
  • Sensor Resolution 8 pixels
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