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Apple's next iPhone makes its debut

The company showed off the iPhone 4S, which is essentially the current model with newer components. It also set a release time for iCloud and iOS 5.

The new iPhone 4S models. Kent German/CNET

The iPhone 4S is here. Finally.

Apple released its first new iPhone in nearly a year and a half at its Cupertino, Calif., headquarters today. The iPhone 4S looks identical to the current version, but with improved components, such as camera, processor, and memory. The company also updated its iPod lineup and said its updated software, iOS 5, and iCloud service would launch on October 12. Lastly, it confirmed that Sprint Nextel would be a new carrier partner.

(See CNET's live blog from the iPhone event and "Apple: Sprint getting the iPhone.")

All eyes, however, were on the iPhone 4S. Its debut comes at a critical juncture for Apple. While the company's blockbuster device remains the top-selling handset, its dominance in the smartphone world has been threatened by the rapid gains made by Google's Android platform. Furthermore, the company is out to prove that it can sustain its success with new CEO Tim Cook at the helm.

The iPhone 4S will be available on October 14, though customers can preorder it Friday. Internationally, the company said it plans to release the phone by December. The standard pricing of the new release--which requires a two-year service contract--hasn't changed, though Apple added a 64-gigabyte model for $399. An 8-gigabyte iPhone 4 will sell for $99, while the iPhone 3GS will be a free phone.

Related stories:
• Apple's iPhone event (live blog)
• Apple unveils iPhone 4S
• iPhone 4S First Take
• Apple's iPod lineup (2011)
• Full coverage: Apple's iPhone event

The appetite for the new iPhone is unusually strong because of the longer wait for the product. From the debut of the original iPhone in 2007 to the release of the iPhone 4, the product had always hit stores in the summer. The delay has only served to stoke demand and churn the rumor mill faster. The lack of a major redesign, however, may let down some Apple fans who were expecting more dramatic changes.

(iPhone 4S First Take)

While the iPhone 4 continues to sell well even now, Apple needed a new product to reinvigorate sales and to snatch back the spotlight from a wave of high-profile Android phones that have recently hit the market, including Sprint Nextel's HTC Evo 3D, Verizon Wireless' Motorola Droid Bionic, and AT&T's Samsung Galaxy S II.

The breadth and reach of Google can't be denied. In the second quarter, Android phones accounted for more than half of the units sold in the United States, and their Google operating system eclipsed other mobile platforms, according to market research firm NPD Group. Apple's iPhone only saw a slight uptick in market share, to 29 percent.

Now playing: Watch this: Tim Cook takes the stage as Apple's CEO

Apple could spark more growth through its expanded distribution. For the first time, the top three national carriers in the U.S.--Verizon Wireless, AT&T, and Sprint Nextel--will sell the phone. AT&T has offered the iPhone 4 since its launch in July 2010, while Verizon broke the exclusive arrangement by selling its own version of the iPhone 4 in February.

The carriers were already jockeying to be the iPhone partner of choice to customers.

"The network matters. And, while iPhone 4S may look like the same device across all carriers, customers know they are choosing reliability when they select a Verizon Wireless iPhone 4S," Verizon Chief Marketing Officer Marni Walden said in a statement.

AT&T, meanwhile, again touted its phones' ability to both surf the Web and talk simultaneously, and it noted that it would be the only carrier to offer the speedier HSPA+ connection. The company also touted its breadth of iPhone options, including the free iPhone 3GS.

Sprint, meanwhile, was just happy to be included.

"We are delighted to be part of this announcement," Sprint spokeswoman Michelle Leff Mermelstein said.

The additional carriers--as well as the prospect of a lower-end iPhone 5--have analysts optimistic over Apple's sales prospects. Ahead of the launch, Janney Capital Markets analyst Bill Choi estimated that Apple will sell 84 million units this year and 107 million units in 2012.

Upgraded guts
While the iPhone 4S looks identical to its last iteration, it comes with an A5 dual-core processor, the ability to handle graphics much faster, and an upgraded rear 8-megapixel camera.

Apple also spent a lot of time demonstrating its voice recognition feature, Siri. The company said the feature is in its beta-testing phase but will be available at launch.

The iPhone 4S also has a redesigned antenna system that switches between two antennas to transmit and receive for improved call quality and a higher connection speed. The iPhone 4's wraparound steel antenna was a source of connectivity issues when it launched last year. The iPhone, as previously mentioned by Verizon executives, will be a global phone able to ride on both the CDMA and GSM networks around the world.

The device also has an 8-megapixel camera and a new system Schiller said would be comparable to a point-and-shoot camera. The camera will be able to capture 73 percent more light, work 33 percent faster, and feature a hybrid infrared filter, which Schiller said is "the kind of stuff you talk about with high-end dSLRs."

Apple said the phone battery can accommodate 8 hours of talking over 3G, 6 hours of Web browsing over 3G, 9 hours of browsing over Wi-Fi, 10 hours of video viewing, and 40 hours of music listening.

This was the first iPhone presentation without Steve Jobs, who in August said he would resign as CEO and take over the chairman role.

(Apple's iPhone event = tech site fail)

The success of Cook's start as CEO will hinge on how smoothly the iPhone 4S hits the market and how well it fares, compared with prior iterations. The company's past efforts haven't exactly been flawless, as Apple has suffered system crashes during activations, product delays, and shortages, as well as last year's "antenna-gate." But through it all, Apple had Jobs' charisma to gloss over the problems. Cook will have less slack, as he ushers out the product.

iCloud to go live Apple also took the time to provide an update to its iCloud service, which was first shown off at the company's Worldwide Developers Conference in June. The company reiterated a lot of the services, including the ability to share documents, videos, and other media across a number of different devices. Photos, for instance, get shot out to different devices.

(Apple 'working hard' to bring iCloud worldwide)

The company also unveiled its Find My Friends service, which allows you to track the location of your family and friends. The service, which sounds similar to Google's Latitude service, also allows you to share your location for a limited time.

Apple, however, isn't alone in its cloud efforts. Last week, unveiled its Kindle Fire tablet, which will lean heavily on the cloud to make up for its slim internal memory. Google, Microsoft, and Facebook have also increasingly used the cloud as a backbone to many of their services.

Apple has one advantage in that it controls every aspect of its customers' technology experience, from the hardware (PC, smartphone, and tablet) to the software (OS X and iOS) and the connective tissue that connects everything (iCloud).

Updated iPods Apple also unveiled some minor updates to its iPod lineup, cutting the price of its 8GB iPod Touch from $229 to $199. Yet unlike the iPhone 4S, the device will continue to use the slower A4 processor and lower-megapixel camera from the previous-generation iPod Touch.

(Meet the 2011 Apple iPod Touch)

The iPod Nano similarly keeps the same design and sees its price go down. The devices start at $129 for the 8-gigabyte model and go up to $179 for double the capacity. Apple has listened to the throngs of people who have used the device as a watch and added 16 new clock face designs. The Nano also gets new features tied to fitness, though they are only incremental. The iPod Shuffle remains the same, and Apple will continue selling the iPod Classic, despite speculation the line may be discontinued.

(Apple's iPod lineup)

Updated at 3:39 p.m. PT: with comment from the carrier partners and information on the updated iPods.