Apple iPhone 4S review: Apple iPhone 4S

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CNET Editors' Rating

4.5 stars Outstanding

Average User Rating

4 stars 56 user reviews
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good Very fast processor; Brilliant camera; Ace operating system that's stuffed with apps; Great display; Stylish design.

The Bad Same look as the iPhone 4; Siri's usefulness is currently limited in the UK.

The Bottom Line It lacks the impact of the iPhone 4, and if you already own its predecessor there's little reason to upgrade, but a brilliant camera, speedy processor and an operating system that's fun to use and stuffed with apps mean the iPhone 4S is still a cracking gadget in its own right.

CNET Editors' Choice Oct '11

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Visually identical to the previous iPhone 4 , all the new goodies to be found on Apple's latest smart phone are lurking beneath the surface, in the form of clever new software and improved hardware. But is a little tinkering under the hood enough to keep Apple on top, or are you better off this time around with an Android mobile?

The iPhone 4S is available to buy direct from Apple or any of the main phone networks and retailers from £499 SIM-free. Contracts start from £20 per month.

Should I buy the iPhone 4S?

The iPhone 4S is the pinnacle of smart phone excellence, but it's not as far ahead of the curve as the iPhone 4 was when it launched last year.

So if you own an iPhone 3G, 3GS or an older mobile, the iPhone 4S is a tremendously tempting option. If you do upgrade, the step-up in processing power, camera tech and especially the pin-sharp retina display will have you gawking at your mobile like a child who's found his favourite flavour crayon.

iPhone 4S front
The iPhone 4S will be available in black and white versions.

If you already own an iPhone 4 or high-end Android smart phone such as the Samsung Galaxy S2 or the HTC Sensation , however, the decision is much trickier. Voice recognition, a snappier processor and an improved camera are the shiniest lures, and we don't think they're shiny enough to warrant spending £500.

If you already own an iPhone 4, updating to iOS 5 will make your mobile feel refreshed, and will flood your phone with enough new features to boost its usefulness for the forseeable future.

iOS 5

We think the most important thing about the smart phone you buy is its operating system, because more than anything that determines what you can do with it. The iPhone 4S comes with iOS 5 , the newest version of Apple's mobile operating system. So what do you get?

The basic iOS experience is unchanged for iOS 5. Apps are layered across homescreens in neat grids of 16 -- you swipe left and right to browse through them and tap on an app to open it, with your four most-used staying put at the bottom. Double-tap the home button and a taskbar pops up showing you all the apps that are running, and from here you can close them down or quickly skip back and forth between them.

New notifications

The notification pane is new, however. Shamelessly lifted from Google's Android operating system, swiping down from the top of the screen will conjure up a panel displaying everything new that's happening on your mobile, including texts, email and calendar updates.

You can also stick some widgets into this pane, such as weather updates or stocks (we've still got no idea why every new gadget comes with a built-in stock-market ticker, but if you happen to own an impressive portfolio you might find it useful). Tapping on a notification will spirit you away to the relevant app, and there's a tiny x next to each one when you want to dismiss it.

iPhone 4S back
The iPhone 4S is the same size and looks almost identical to its predecessor.

The panel is attractive, simple enough to use, and it makes dealing with notifications from various apps much easier than on previous version of iOS. You can customise which apps appear in the notification pane and how they behave from the settings menu.

Notifications aren't restricted to that brand new panel. If you get a notification from one of your apps (a mention on Twitter or being tagged in a photo on Facebook, for example) while you're using the phone, a small box will roll down from the top of the screen letting you know what's what. It's much less intrusive than older versions of iOS, which required you to dismiss a distracting pop-up warning every time something happened.

Twitter is now baked into the software , so you can do things like tweet photos from your camera roll. That's great if you use Twitter, but if you don't, the option will likely just take up space and annoy you.

iOS 5 could save you a few pennies thanks to a service called iMessage. This is a messaging system exclusively for people who are using devices running iOS 5, and unlike text messages it's completely free. It's not a separate app -- the iPhone will figure out whether an iMessage is coming from someone in your contacts and display the messages in the same conversation view as your normal texts, but tinted blue so you can tell iMessages from SMS.

iCloud

With iOS 5, Apple is finally releasing the iPhone from the fierce clutches of its desktop iTunes software, instead letting you store your email, contacts, calendars, reminders, Safari bookmarks, notes, documents and -- best of all -- photos online.

iPhone 4S Samsung Galaxy S2 comparison
The iPhone 4S is smaller than its rival the Samsung Galaxy S2, but it has a sharper screen at 330 pixels per inch versus 217ppi.

Dubbed iCloud, this slew of storage options ties almost everything on your iPhone to your Apple account, and backs up your iPhone wirelessly while your phone is locked and connected to the Internet over a Wi-Fi connection. In the future you'll also be able to update your iPhone's software wirelessly, without having to plug it into your computer.

One good thing about iCloud is that if you've got other iOS devices, you can get all your photos and data on to them wirelessly, downloading them from Apple's cloud storage once they've been uploaded to iCloud from one device. It also offers peace of mind, because if your mobile breaks it doesn't mean all your data is lost.

We had a few issues with iCloud in the short time it's been available, with an older iPhone 4 unable to access the service, with attempts yielding only unhelpful error messages. It seems to have settled down since though, so we think these issues were likely teething problems caused by Apple fans around the world rushing to join the service -- we will of course update this review to reflect our ongoing experiences with iCloud.

Other additions in iOS 5 include a camera shortcut from the lock screen (double-tap the home button) and a grid that appears over the camera's display to help you line up your photos, and a simple photo editor appears when you've taken a shot.

iPhone 4S comparison iPhone 4
The volume buttons have moved down a few millimetres, so if you have an iPhone 4 case that covers the buttons it may no longer fit.

The volume up button now lets you take pictures while you're using the camera app, which cuts down on fumbled attempts to hit the on-screen capture button, and makes it easy to take self-shots because your digits can reach the mechanical button while the iPhone's display is turned away from you.

iOS has the best app offering of any operating system. There are hundreds of thousands available, and because Apple tests each app before making it ready for download, the quality in general is very high, with addictive, polished mobile games being a particular strong point.

iOS 5 is the best-looking version of iOS yet, and the polish that Apple has applied to every single menu and button means swooping around the iPhone 4S is a joy. It's worth noting, however, that with this host of new features, iOS is creeping away from what made it so appealing in the first place -- being so simple anyone could use it.

While still less complex than some rival operating systems, we can imagine someone new to iOS feeling flummoxed by the new notification pane, the options to tweet and print photos, or how exactly to access their stuff through iCloud.

The Settings app is still particularly weak as well -- diving into the settings menu every time you want to turn Wi-Fi on or off is way more hassle than it should be, and figuring out where things belong in the maze-like and ambiguous 'general' tab still induces headaches.

Siri

All the new features we mentioned above are available to the older iPhone 4 and iPhone 3GS as well as the iPhone 4S. So what reason is there to opt for the 4S?

Apple wants you to get excited over Siri, a voice-controlled assistant that lives exclusively on the iPhone 4S. You conjure this robotic PA by holding down the home button, and then barking an order into the 4S when the microphone icon appears.

iPhone 4S Siri weather
Siri is smart enough to interpret the context of a simple sentence such as this and give an appropriate answer.

Siri is more sophisticated than most voice-control apps, wrapping its bionic brain around complex phrases such as, "What's £50 in US dollars?" or, "Do I need a raincoat today?"

But in our experience, asking anything beyond those limited stock phrases is likely to yield disappointment, or public embarrassment. We were occasionally impressed -- we asked "Will I need an umbrella this time next week?" and Siri sussed the date in question and provided weather forecasts for the next seven days.

But for the most part, Siri just offered to perform Web searches for the questions we'd issued, and much of the time it didn't even manage to accurately figure out what we were saying. Ambient noise like other people chattering in our vicinity also made it hard for Siri to tell when we were finished issuing a command.

Here in the UK, Siri is even more hamstrung , because Apple doesn't have a deal with any UK providers of local information. So if Siri thinks you're trying to find a particular kind of shop or nearby locale, it'll tell you that it can only do that in the US. That's unhelpful and annoying.

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Apple iPhone 4S

Part Number: CNETApple iPhone 4S

Typical Price: £499.00

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