Editor’s Note: This product has been removed from our side-by-side comparison because it has been discontinued. You can still read our original review below, but Top Ten Reviews is no longer updating this product’s information.
What can a company be expected to offer next when its product is already the best-selling, most innovative smartphone among its competitors? That question has become obligatory whenever Apple debuts a new model of the wildly successful iPhone.
In the case of the Apple iPhone 4S, the answer is that you can expect many important upgrades and even some groundbreaking features. While there are always detractors who will hasten to point out what new smartphones don't offer, we found it easy to select the Apple iPhone 4S as our Top Ten Reviews Bronze Award winner.
The iPhone 4S is the first Apple cell phone to be available from the three largest U.S. carriers, each of which has its own advantages and disadvantages. AT&T has the longest history with the iPhone, having been its exclusive carrier through the first three iterations of the device. With AT&T, you get a 3G data network that is typically America's fastest. The downside is that in some regions, that network can be somewhat less reliable than the Verizon Wireless 3G network. The data load created by the popularity of iPhones has sometimes overwhelmed the AT&T network, but the problem seems to have been largely resolved.
With Verizon Wireless, which already carries the iPhone 4, you arguably get the nation's largest and most reliable network. Though the two biggest carriers' speed and reliability claims echo each company's advertisements, research substantiates those claims. The effect of the popular device's availability on Sprint's network remains to be seen.
From an external-design perspective, there's nothing new to report with the iPhone 4S. If you've seen the iPhone 4, you've seen the new arrival. Inside, though, it's a different story. At the heart of the device is its A5 processor – a dual-core CPU with a clock speed of 1GHz per core. It's the same processor that powers Apple's iPad 2 and is a fundamental reason that everything on this phone works so well. With the A5, overall device speed is double that of its predecessor, and graphics rendering is reported to be up to seven times as fast, making for superb gaming performance and web browsing.
The new antenna design may garner less attention but it's equally significant. The cellular signal of the iPhone 4 could be compromised by things as insignificant as the manner in which the phone is held. The iPhone 4S has two antennas, each of which can both send and receive signals and has the computing power to choose the best one.
The face of the iPhone 4S is dominated by the same 3.5-inch touchscreen that we're accustomed to. Like its immediate predecessor, it features the remarkable Retina display. Packing 960-by-640-pixel resolution into the 3.5-inch screen results in a super dense 326 pixels per inch. In practical terms, that produces razor sharp images for photos, videos and gaming. It also allows you to zoom way in on web content to see as much detail as you could ever want without irritating pixilation.
The size of the iPhone 4S' screen is a matter of some discussion. We once considered it huge by smartphone standards, but now, as the size of its competitors' displays have ballooned, it's smaller than the competition. While larger displays are nice for watching videos and gaming, the device size they demand makes them rather unwieldy to use as telephones. Given the exceptional image quality of the iPhone 4S' display and the way it feels to hold the device given its size, we're perfectly happy with 3.5 inches.
The iPod Touch has set the standard for portable media players since its introduction, and the Apple iPhone 4S essentially has a built-in iPod Touch. There isn't much more that needs to be said about this phone's stellar capabilities as a music and video player.
The camera is another matter. IPhones have been criticized in the past for having cameras that really didn't compare well to other top-ranked smartphones. With the iPhone 4S, that has all changed. The first and most obvious improvement is bumping the camera's sensor count up to 8MP. That puts it right up there with the best phone cameras available.
Digital photography is all about gathering and processing light, and the pixel count plays an important role, but there's much more to consider. As with any type of photography, quality optics are critical, and Apple has added a custom lens with five elements to optimally shape incoming light. The aperture is also a larger f2.4, so more light is available regardless of the shooting conditions. In addition to the sensor and the optics, the A5 CPU's image-processing capability is on par with many DSLR cameras.
Using the camera is simple. With face detection, it optimizes settings for a single subject or up to ten faces for group shots. You can also use the pinch-to-zoom and tap-to-focus features that allow you to instantly designate which portion of any scene is most important.
These features work for video recording as well. The iPhone 4S shoots video in full 1080p HD resolution. Camera shake is virtually eliminated by video stabilization, and you can edit your videos and still photos on the phone itself.
There are many great things to say about the Apple iPhone 4S, but the absence of 4G access is perplexing. There's no denying that the phone's data transfer speed is better than most devices under most circumstances, but it's not all that it could be if it had access to the Verizon Wireless and AT&T 4G LTE networks or Sprint's WiMax network.
One of our favorite relatively new features available on many smartphones is the ability to make video calls, and in this arena, Apple's FaceTime is as good as it gets. It's simple to use and works flawlessly on the iPhone 4S. Even though the front-facing camera offers only VGA resolution, it's perfectly adequate for this task.
Regardless of the wireless carrier you choose, the iPhone 4S is a world phone. That's always the case with AT&T phones because they operate on the world-standard GSM system. Verizon Wireless and Sprint use the CDMA cellular system in the U.S. and Canada, but it's rare and unusable in most places outside of North America. To remedy that with these carriers, the iPhone 4S can automatically switch to GSM when overseas. It will not operate on GSM with them in the U.S. and Canada, however.
The iPhone 4S has three available storage options: 16GB, 32GB and 64GB, with the latter being an improvement on any previously offered iPhone model. Like its predecessors, the 4S doesn't have a memory card slot to expand that capacity. That's less of an obstacle than it's been in the past because of the introduction of iCloud. With iCloud, your apps, music, photos, books, documents, calendars and more are stored on Apple's servers and pushed to your other iOS devices. Additionally, iCloud backs up your data daily via Wi-Fi when the iPhone is connected to a power source. If you lose your data or get a new device, it's easy to restore using iCloud Backup.
Battery life for the iPhone 4S is estimated at up to eight hours of talk time and 200 hours of standby time. Your usage will determine the actual battery life, but you can expect about six hours of internet usage on 3G or nine hours when using a Wi-Fi connection.
Voice-recognition technology has been around for quite a while, but its uses have been limited. For instance, you can speak to some devices and they'll convert what you've said to text. With the iPhone 4S, Apple has introduced Siri, a voice-recognition personal assistant that can not only copy what you say, but can also understand it and take action. Siri is smart enough to know what you mean, not just what you say.
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Siri is able to produce these amazing results by combining data from numerous sources, including GPS location-based services, your address book and the vast resources of the internet. It can use most of the built-in apps on the phone as well. Perhaps most impressively, you can speak in normal language rather than having to memorize specific commands. Tell it to wake you in two hours and it will set the alarm for exactly two hours in the future. Ask Siri if you'll need a jacket tomorrow and it combines knowledge of your location with the local forecast to advise you. If you'd like to send a message to someone, just say to whom you want to send it and what it should say, and it's done. This is an immensely practical application, and figuring out everything you can do with it is a lot of fun.
The Apple iPhone 4S is the next step in the evolution of the iPhone. Apple had already set the smartphone bar very high, and this device gives it a substantial nudge higher. The vast selection of iPhone apps continues to grow rapidly, expanding the phone's capabilities almost daily. The iPhone's computing capability is made possible by its fast A5 processor. Its video and still-camera capabilities far exceed previous editions, and the introduction of Siri, even though it's still in Beta testing, position this device far ahead of its competitors.