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Apple iPhone 4S (64GB) review: Apple iPhone 4S

iPhone 4S is the best iPhone ever. Anyone who wants an iPhone right now should buy it. It just isn't an iPhone that demands an instant upgrade for iPhone 4 owners.

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Seamus Byrne
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Seamus Byrne

Editor, Australia & Asia

Seamus Byrne is CNET's Editor for Australia and Asia. At other times he'll be found messing with apps, watching TV, building LEGO, and rolling dice. Preferably all at the same time.

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5 min read

Apple iPhone 4S(Credit: Apple)

iphone4s_1.jpg
9.0

Apple iPhone 4S (64GB)

The Good

Silky-smooth operation. Great camera, great features. iOS App Store is still top of the pops.

The Bad

Design feels stale in such a dynamic market. Small screen compared to competition. As fragile as ever.

The Bottom Line

Without a good reason to look elsewhere, the iPhone remains the smartphone of choice. The software still holds the edge where it counts.

iPhone 4S is the best iPhone ever. Anyone who wants an iPhone right now should buy it. It just isn't an iPhone that demands an instant upgrade for iPhone 4 owners.

In hindsight, it was exactly the iPhone we should have been expecting. Just as the 3G and 3GS before, the iPhone 4S was the "under the hood" upgrade of the model that came before it. This two-year tick-tock product cycle suits the mobile phone industry and its 24-month contracts perfectly. It also supports the iAccessory industry and gives them confidence that their latest products will largely suit a new design for two years.

But rumours love hyperbole, with expectations higher than any reality distortion field could contain. And two years is a long time in the bustling smartphone market to stick with the same design. How can Apple get away with it?

Design

Inch for inch, the iPhone 4S is the iPhone 4. You'll find just a few slender adjustments to the glass and brushed metal exterior. An antenna redesign has shifted the position of the black strips found on the metal border. In turn, these changes have led to a minor shift in the position of the mute switch and volume buttons. While only slight, this has been enough to make the 4S incompatible with more than a handful of iPhone 4 cases.

About the only other thing you can spot that is different is when looking closely down the barrel of the rear camera lens, or the shift from Phillips head to Pentalobular screws (a move that had already started on later iPhone 4 models).

That the design is near-identical was the critical disappointment for many when the 4S first appeared. If you hated the iPhone 4's appearance, you'll maintain your rage against the 4S.

The problem has been how quickly the competition has evolved in the past year. Slicker, thinner and bigger screens. New textures surrounding the glass and covering the back that make other handsets feel fresher in the hand. The iPhone is simply not the most beautiful piece of smartphone hardware on the market anymore. But should that trump performance?

Experience

It's what you do with an iPhone that still gives it its edge. iOS 5 is now available for iPhone 3GS, 4 and 4S, so this is not a specific advantage to people who already own older iPhones. iOS 5 even improves basic benchmarks for older handsets for a snappier overall experience.

With iOS 5 on iPhone 4S, general day-to-day use is silky smooth. The dual-core A5 processor removes a few slight delays when launching apps or changing tasks compared with the iPhone 4. Side by side, there is a clear superiority. When used away from each other, the iPhone 4 still feels sharp enough, so this is no critical reason to throw away the last phone to make a quick upgrade to the new -- unless you simply cannot live knowing you are no longer the fastest iPhone in town.

If there's a key advantage on alternative platforms, it is still Android's live home-screen widgets. Deep diving in iOS just to toggle Wi-Fi or Bluetooth is painful once you've toggled such settings on an Android phone.

But the win for Apple is still in its App Store. Quantity has slipped from its grasp, but it remains the standout for browsing and for quality, or perhaps better described as signal to noise. The iOS App Store feels more like a store and less like a bad fishing expedition.

BrowserMark benchmark results

  • 87,665
    Apple iPhone 4S
  • 82,763
    HTC Sensation XL
  • 65,913
    HTC Sensation XE
  • 63,266
    Samsung Galaxy S II
  • 52,938
    Apple iPhone 4 (iOS 5.0)
  • 38,010
    Apple iPhone 4 (iOS 4.3)
  • 28,596
    Apple iPhone 3GS (iOS 4.3)

(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Siri

Apple's new "virtual assistant", Siri, has gained a lot of attention and it is a fun new toy to mess around with. But apart from asking for the weather (from iPhone's overseas-based sources), and voice control of music, reminders and messaging, plus some witty banter with a virtual friend, Australia misses out on a lot of the best Siri has to offer. Siri's real-world smarts are tied up with Yelp!, a US-only service that means Siri will do nothing but apologise for knowing nothing about restaurants in your area. Maps and directions are also US-only at the moment, relegating Siri to an occasional dalliance rather than a full-time BFF.

We can hope that once the "beta" tag drops we might see a more global experience.

Camera

The iPhone 4S camera upgrade pumps up the volume to 8 megapixels and 1080p video recording at 30 frames per second. There was nothing too shabby about the iPhone 4 camera (for a phone) but the 4S camera is notably better than its predecessor. Beyond the pixels, the new hardware improves the lens aperture and CMOS to give better light sensitivity. This means better subtlety and better low-light performance.

By direct experience, taking pictures is perhaps where the 4S most obviously leaves the iPhone 4 far behind. Both running iOS 5.0, the iPhone 4S takes pictures faster (whether you've tapped on screen or clicked the volume button to take the snap), colours are more naturally vibrant, less oversaturated, fidelity is well captured and the quality is obviously a solid step forward.

Comparing with competition elsewhere in the market, the 4S loses some of its sheen. Its performance in high contrast situations brings out different details to a phone like the Samsung Galaxy S II, not for the better. Depending on your eye you may prefer the colour definition of the S II as well.

Overall, it's a wonderful smartphone camera. The best smartphone camera ever? It's one of the best, but other options could argue better for the top spot.

Colour and sharpness
(Credit: CBSi)

Contrast and backlight
(Credit: CBSi)

Conclusion

On so many levels this is an ecosystem debate. Apple iPhone still possesses the best arsenal of software for smartphone users. This advantage will last as long as Android lets its Marketplace operate like a red-light district and as long as Microsoft and RIM fail to attract greater diversity to their own offerings. This advantage cannot last forever, but today it is still a critical factor for anyone seeking an experience that gives access to diverse software with minimum fuss and maximum reward.

If you want a big screen, if you want a new style or if you want fresher experiences like live widgets, the iPhone 4S is not for you. There are quite a few justifications now for choosing something else, so the crown no longer rests comfortably on the iPhone's head. But it is the standard bearer for an amazing platform and keeps frustration to an absolute minimum.

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