After four years and five handsets, a pattern has emerged with the iPhone. With pre-launch rumours focusing on an iPhone 5, Apple surprised everyone with a handset containing no great surprises. Just as the iPhone 3GS was a modest improvement on the iPhone 3G, we now have the 4S refining the iPhone 4 formula. Tick follows tock, follows tick, follows tock…
But while you may struggle to spot any difference in appearance, is there anything lurking beneath that glossy black exterior that makes the 4S more than a stopgap for the iPhone 5? Especially given that owners of iPhone 3GS and 4 handsets can also upgrade to iOS 5.
Same, but different
Only the most eagle-eyed observer could spot the difference between an iPhone 4S and its predecessor. The silence button has been shifted down a few millimetres – potentially making it tricky to reuse an iPhone 4 case – and the new antenna layout sees a couple of black lines around the perimeter repositioned, but it is to all intents and purposes identical.
On the inside, however, Apple has made a few significant improvements. In comes the same dual-core A5 processor that powers the iPad 2, delivering tablet-like performance in the confines of a 3.5in smartphone. The full ABC homepage loaded in only 2.5 seconds – as fast as an iPad 2 running iOS 5, and a second and a half faster than the A-Listed Samsung Galaxy S II smartphone. The 4S ripped through the SunSpider benchmark in 2.2 seconds – 0.4 seconds slower than our iPad 2, but a third quicker than the Galaxy S II. This is the fastest smartphone we’ve seen – and by some distance.
That processing power isn’t only apparent in synthetic benchmarks: demanding 3D games such as FIFA 2012 are flawlessly smooth, even if the back of the phone does become a little toasty when the processor is pushed; multitasking doesn’t trouble the 4S – we had the TomTom satnav, the music player and iOS notifications running simultaneously without a hint of slowdown; and there’s none of the occasional juddering witnessed on previous-generation hardware upgraded to iOS 5.
Speaking to Siri
That dual-core A5 processor also (according to Apple, at least) gives rise to the iPhone 4S’ only unique feature: Siri. Although limited voice controls were available in earlier iPhone models, Siri raises the AI bar, allowing users to bark natural language commands into their handset and have the phone speak back or display the requested information on screen. Although Siri offloads the voice-recognition duties to the server – requiring an active data connection before it will even attempt to decipher what you’re saying – Apple claims that only the dual-core processor is capable of the necessary data crunching. Given that apps such as Dragon Dictation have transcribed the spoken word at a similar speed on earlier iPhones, we can’t help but wonder if this is a smokescreen designed purely to differentiate the 4S from its predecessors.
Siri is clever, but not nearly as clever as it might be, and clearly a work in progress. It works best when asked to perform set tasks: “do I have any appointments today?” will send Siri scouring through your calendar, displaying any meetings in the diary; “wake me up at seven” will set an alarm call for the morning; “tell Wil Maher I’ll be in at ten” will send a text message to said Brand editor (provided he’s in your phone contacts).
It starts to fall down with more bespoke tasks. Dictating emails or lengthy texts is hit and miss, with Siri making it so hard to correct poorly transcribed text that we reverted to the keyboard. Telling Siri to “remember my laptop when I leave here” creates a reminder that’s meant to go off when the GPS sensor detects you’ve left the building, but it failed to do so on the two occasions we tested it. And location-based commands such as “find the nearest Starbucks” or “show me a map of Brisbane” only work in the US.
As it is, Siri also needs a decent chunk of time spent training it on who’s who in your phonebook, and for you to get used to the right way to say things for the best results, so it isn’t going to replace touch control anytime soon. The one place it could potentially come into its own is in the car, especially since it can be activated with a Bluetooth headset, allowing drivers to have text messages read to them and compose simple replies without risking a fine (or indeed their lives) by reaching for the handset. It has potential, but in its current incarnation it isn’t quite the killer feature Apple must have hoped it would be.
The only other major upgrade in the iPhone 4S comes in the form of a new camera. The 8-megapixel sensor brings it on a par with the Galaxy S II, although it can’t match the Android handset’s magnificent macro mode, with the 4S struggling to focus on anything closer than 2in in front of the lens. This isn’t to say its pictures are a disappointment: in good light they’re rich in both detail and colour, especially if you engage the HDR mode.
A new grid overlay helps avoid wonky horizons, and the iOS 5 option of using the volume up button as a shutter trigger helps you adopt a more comfortable, camera-like grip. However, the camera’s autofocus does have a tendency to wander after it’s locked onto a subject, which could result in fleeting photographic opportunities being missed. When in automatic mode, the camera also seems strangely reluctant to engage the flash, resulting in photos marred by noise.
But make no mistake: this is the first iPhone camera that could seriously rival a dedicated compact, and the 1080p video at 30fps is a match for plenty of Flip-style camcorders too (and a step up from the iPhone 4’s 720p video).
A worthy upgrade?
Elsewhere, the iPhone 4S remains very much the equal of its predecessor. It has the same 640 x 960 Retina display as the iPhone 4, which – with a searing brightness of 581cd/m2 and contrast ratio of 968:1 – remains the finest smartphone display on the market. Text is beautifully crisp, photos display lustrous blacks and warm, perfectly saturated colours, and the backlight is as even as a bowling lawn.
Battery life hasn’t improved, either. There was 30% of battery remaining after our 24-hour test, suggesting that owners will still be plugging their smartphone in to charge every night – perhaps even more frequently if they’re fans of 3D games such as FIFA 2012, which gobbled through battery at a rate of around 10% per 20 minutes of game time. Apple has since released an update to iOS 5 that aims to tweak the battery life issues (which were apparently related to data connections)experienced by some people.
But we should make clear that battery test was run with the new Notification Centre in full flow, so perhaps it isn’t a fair comparison with the iPhone 4. We certainly didn’t notice it draining any more quickly than the old model in real-world use.
The big question, therefore, is whether the 4S does enough to dislodge the Galaxy S II from our A-List? The answer is no, and that largely comes down to price. The Galaxy S II can be found for free on a $49 per month contract over two years, whereas the same duration contract for the iPhone 4S requires buyers to spend $59 per month (a $300 difference over time).
Is the iPhone 4S $300 better than the Galaxy S II? We’d argue not. There are many excellent features in iOS 5, and Siri could well grow to become more useful when it’s fully set up to work in Australia, but the improvements to the camera and performance don’t do quite enough to justify that price difference.
Should iPhone 3GS owners upgrade? Definitely, especially if they already have a large paid-for library of transferable apps.
But iPhone 4 owners have little reason to pester their network’s retention department for now. Samsung has no reason to panic, either.
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