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The iPhone 4S is a quietly revolutionary mobile device, even though it looks exactly the same as last year’s iPhone 4. The big pull this time around isn’t the hardware — though the faster processor and revamped camera are certainly welcome — it’s the integrated virtual assistant Siri.

More than a smarter version of the iPhone’s previous voice command feature, Siri represents the first step towards widespread adoption of consumer artificial intelligence (AI). It’s the beginning of something that will fundamentally change the way we live with our computing devices over the coming years. Modern touchscreen smartphones already seem futuristic compared to the clunkier handsets that came before, but Siri feels like something straight out of science fiction.

But is Siri enough to allay disappointed fans hoping for a completely redesigned iPhone 5? Read on to find out.

Hardware: Same design, more horsepower

iPhone 4S ifixit teardown

Above: iPhone 4S teardown, via iFixit

If you’ve seen the iPhone 4, there’s nothing truly remarkable about the iPhone 4S at first glance. Just like the iPhone 3GS, the 4S sports the same design as its predecessor. That’s a good thing, since the iPhone 4’s unusual aesthetic — two glass surfaces connected by a metal band — remains unrivaled. (It’s still prone to screen cracks though, since there’s twice as much glass to worry about compared to typical smartphones.) But if you didn’t care for the iPhone 4’s look, there’s nothing about the 4S’s design to sway you to the new model.

An unfortunate side effect of sticking with last year’s design is that the 4S retains the traditional 3.5-inch display size. By this point, flagship phones from competitors never dare to dip below 4-inch screens. Apple still holds the title for the highest screen pixel density, thanks to its high-resolution 326 pixels per inch Retina Display. Other phone makers have matched the Retina Display’s resolution over the past year, but since they use bigger screens, those displays don’t look nearly as sharp. (Personally, I’d sacrifice some pixel density for a 4-inch screen.)

While it may not look different, the iPhone 4S is a much changed beast under the hood. It sports Apple’s new dual-core A5 chip, which first appeared in the iPad 2, and is said to be twice as fast as the A4 chip in the iPhone 4. The A5 also features a dual-core graphics processor, which Apple says is seven times faster than the A4.

In regular usage, the A5 chip definitely gives the iPhone 4S an added kick. Launching new apps and switching between them is noticeably speedier than on the iPhone 4, and the A5 chip obliterates load times and lag from graphics-heavy games like Epic’s Infinity Blade. The iPhone 4S will certainly be appealing to gamers — new titles like Galaxy on Fire 2 will only run on the 4S and iPad 2, and more games will certainly follow suit.

iPhone 4S camera test

Above: iPhone 4S camera test

The iPhone 4’s 5-megapixel camera was already one of the best out there, but Apple made it even better this time around with a new 8-megapixel shooter that will give many point-and-shoot cameras a run for their money. The new camera also includes a five element lens (compared to the four in the iPhone 4) and a larger f/2.4 aperture, which serve to make photos sharper and easier to take in low-light conditions.

As you can see from the picture to the right, the iPhone 4S takes some mighty fine photos. It’s tough to tell much of a difference over the iPhone 4, but the improved optics are noticeable in situations where there’s a lot of fine detail to cover, like capturing the many leaves on a tree.

The new camera can also record 1080p high-definition video, a pretty big leap over the iPhone 4’s 720p HD video. Additionally, Apple has included image stabilization and noise reduction software capabilities. I’m still not convinced cellphones really need 1080p video recording (the larger file sizes don’t seem worth it, especially on storage-strapped phones), but thanks to the improved camera hardware, the video still looks much better when recorded at 720p. (You’ll need additional apps to record at lower resolutions since Apple only lets you record at 1080p.)


Next page: Software and Siri

Software: These boots were made for iOS5

I was already a big fan of Apple’s latest mobile operating system, iOS 5, on the iPhone 4, but thanks to the added horsepower on the 4S, the new OS practically screams. Simple tasks now seem effortless, like moving between apps, launching games and dealing with the new notifications.

The upgraded notifications system in iOS 5 means you’ll never have another annoying pop-up box disrupt your workflow. Instead, notifications appear elegantly at the top of the screen. They’re collected in a notifications tray you can swipe down to access (yes, just like on Android devices).

I’ve also grown to love Apple’s new iMessage service, which serves as an iOS alternative to RIM’s popular BlackBerry Messenger. It’s faster and smarter than texting, and it doesn’t require any extra texting charges, since messages to other iOS 5 users go over the data network. iMessage is fully integrated into the existing texting app, so most users won’t even realize when they’re sending a free iMessage.

Dealing with the iPhone’s camera is also less cumbersome in iOS 5. You can now access the camera app quickly by double-clicking on the home button from the iPhone’s lock screen, and the volume up button can finally be used as a shutter button. Apple has also added some basic editing capabilities to its photo app, including red-eye removal, cropping, rotating and auto-enhancing. You’ll still need additional apps to do more advanced editing, but it’s nice to have some basic tools built-in.

Apple built iOS 5 with support for iCloud in mind. iCloud is Apple’s new free cloud storage service that aims to make working across Apple devices seamless. For example, it instantly synchronizes your work from Apple’s iWork office applications, Pages, Numbers and Keynote. You could start a document on your iPad, and easily continue working on it from your iPhone or Mac desktop since it’ll be automatically synchronized.

Perhaps the most interesting feature iCloud brings to the iPhone is Photo Stream, which automatically uploads your pictures to iCloud, making them easily accessible from other iOS devices and Mac computers. Photo Stream saves up to 1,000 photos for 30 days, and it removes the headache of manually synchronizing your iPhone photos across multiple devices. You’ll likely never lose another iPhone photo again.

iCloud also replaces MobileMe, giving you access to email addresses, as well as the Find My iPhone app, which lets you locate, lock, and remotely wipe your iPhone if you lose it.

The iPhone 4S offers the best iOS experience yet, though at this point the operating system’s age is beginning to show. Compared to Android’s widgets and Windows Mobile’s live tiles, the iOS home screen still looks like a static wall of icons, rather than something alive and dynamic. Some improvements to the multitasking interface would have been welcome, as it still feels like you’re coming to a full workflow stop when switching between apps.

Siri: Or, my affair with a virtual assistant

Exclusive to the iPhone 4S is the much-hyped virtual assistant Siri, which replaces the iPhone’s clunky voice commands. Siri does everything that the previous voice commands did, like calling a specific contact, but it’s much smarter and, most importantly, it has a personality. Instead of commanding your phone like it’s just a machine, Siri allows you to have a conversation with your phone using natural language.

That makes Siri an important leap in the way we communicate with our machines. While it’s not a true AI, Siri is smart enough to surprise you at times. And as it gets access to more data, Siri will only evolve. After a few days of using it, Siri has already fundamentally changed the way I interact with my phone. I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll even consider future phones that don’t offer something similar.

You can access Siri by holding down the iPhone 4S’s home button, or by simply holding the phone up to your ear. Once activated, you can ask Siri to do things like make an appointment for you, send a text message, or check local restaurant listings. Siri has access to all of your phone’s resources, so it won’t double-book you if you’ve listed an event in your calendar, and it will ask to make sure it’s sending an email to the right person, if they have a common name.

Thanks to Siri, iPhone users who find phone calls passe will finally have a reason to talk to their phones again. And as my colleague Dean Takahashi points out, kids will also get a kick out of it. (Imagine the expectations kids growing up with Siri will have when it comes to interacting with technology.)

Siri certainly isn’t perfect yet. It only has access to information from a few sources, like Yelp, which provides local business review data, and Wolfram Alpha, which makes Siri a talking calculator and trivia buff. It still makes transcription errors if you mumble, or are in a noisy environment. Siri also requires network access to function, which makes it practically useless in areas with low cellular reception. But when it works, it’s magic.

For example, I was curious about Oscar winners over the last decade, so I asked Siri, “What won the Oscar for best picture in 2001?” Siri replied back with a detailed sheet of information about “Gladiator”, which included other awards the film was nominated for. I also recently tried to book a lunch meeting using Siri, and it wisely told me I was busy at the time I was requesting. Just like a real personal assistant, Siri is often more organized than you are.

In addition to virtual assistant capabilities, Siri also brings dictation to iOS, a feature Android phones have been sporting for some time. In most text fields, you can click the microphone button in the iPhone’s keyboard and simply speak aloud to have your words transcribed. This makes replying to text messages, or dealing with on-going instant messaging conversations, much easier than pecking away at the iPhone’s software keyboard.

Without Siri, the iPhone 4S is basically just a souped-up iPhone 4. With Siri, the 4S becomes something much more than just a phone — it becomes a gateway to a future where talking to our computers will be as commonplace as talking to our loved ones.


Next page: Network and final thoughts

Network: Antenna problems? What antenna problems?

iPhone 4SApple saw fit to fix the iPhone 4’s antenna issues, avoiding a repeat of last year’s “Antennagate” fiasco. The iPhone 4’s antenna was housed at the bottom portion of its metal band, which made it very easy to block the cellular signal by holding the phone incorrectly. The iPhone 4S, on the other hand, features antennas at both the top and bottom of the metal band, and it’s also smart enough to intelligently switch between them in case one gets blocked. Other phone manufacturers have phones with dual antennas, but the iPhone 4S’s ability to hop between the two is uniquely Apple.

The new antenna design and network chipset incorporates support for both CDMA and GSM networks, which allows Apple to support AT&T, Verizon Wireless, and Sprint’s networks all with a single phone model. And thanks to the new antenna, the iPhone 4S can also take advantage of AT&T’s faster HSPA+ network, letting it achieve theoretical download speeds of 14.4 megabits per second (the iPhone 4 can only manage 7.2 Mbps).

So even though Sprint and Verizon subscribers have finally gotten access to a new iPhone at launch, AT&T still has a distinct speed advantage.

In my testing around Manhattan and Brooklyn, the iPhone 4S usually managed download speeds of around 2 megabits per second, and upload speeds of around 1.5Mbps. That’s slightly faster than what I was seeing with the iPhone 4, though much of that improvement could be due to network upgrades.

I didn’t see a noticeable difference in reception quality with the iPhone 4S, but I’ve been hearing reports from others that they’re seeing better reception than usual. Call quality sounded about the same as the iPhone 4, though some recipients say my voice quality using the iPhone 4S was better than usual.

Should I Buy It?

If you already own an iPhone 3GS, or earlier model, the iPhone 4S is a no-brainer purchase. And if you’re coming from another platform, this is the perfect time to jump ship. If you’re an iPhone 4 owner, it’s a bit more complicated, especially if you’re not yet eligible for subsidized pricing.

The new processor, camera, and Siri all make the iPhone 4S feel like a worthy upgrade to the iPhone 4. But if you’re low on cash it may be a tough purchase to justify, especially since it means you’ll be upgrading to a phone that looks exactly the same as your old one. The iOS 5 operating system already makes the iPhone 4 feel completely new, and you’ll have access to most of the upgrades in the new OS, save for Siri.

For iPhone 4 owners, it may make more sense to wait until next year’s rumored iPhone 5, which we suspect sparked all the talk this year of a completely redesigned and thinner iPhone. As we reported over the weekend, the iPhone 5 is said to be Steve Jobs’ last big project for Apple, which means it could be a doozy.

Holding true to Apple’s pricing for the past few years, the 16 gigabyte iPhone 4S is available for $199 with a two-year contract. 32GB and (for the first time ever) 64GB models are available for $299 and $399 respectively with contract. Apple will also offer contract-free iPhone 4S models in November starting at $649.

Personally, I chose to resell my 16GB iPhone 4 to Totem, which ultimately landed me almost enough to cover the cost of a new 32GB iPhone 4S. If your contract allows you to upgrade early, this is one possible way to get your mits on the 4S.

Wrapping Up

I’ll admit, I was a bit disappointed when we didn’t see an iPhone 5 this year. But having lived with the 4S for a few days now, and after making Siri an integral part of my workflow, I’m content with the additions it brings. Consumers didn’t seem to mind either — Apple announced this morning that it sold over 4 million iPhone 4S units over the weekend.

While I’ll continue to look at larger-screened phones with pangs of envy (I’m already dreading the buyers remorse Samsung’s upcoming Nexus Prime will give me), the combination of Siri and the iPhone 4S’s improved camera will tide me over for now.

The iPhone 4S may not look much different than what came before, but it offers us a glimpse into the future. That’s something to appreciate.

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