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“S” is a popular consonant to toss onto an electronic device. It’s like bolting an “R” emblem onto an import car or slapping an “X” on a young male’s brand of deodorant. No one on the consumer side of a sales counter questions, at least for very long, what these letters mean and why we should care.

So let’s stop for a second and ask ourselves what the hell Apple is implying when it tacks an “S” onto the end of a major iPhone release. The Trivial Pursuit answer will claim: Speed. Oh, well, mystery solved then. End of discussion, right?

Not quite. Obviously, there is more to consider here, and calling a product the ‘speed version’ is only a little less vague than the ‘s version.’ So let’s take a look at Apple’s previous iPhone S-series releases and see if we can put together a clearer picture of what is actually being said. Is it marketing babble, or an actual product philosophy?

iPhone 3G S

iPhone 3GS all alone

The first of Apple’s ‘speed’ phone products was the iPhone 3G S (the space was eventually removed), released in June of 2008. The iPhone 3GS was a considerable upgrade from first generation and iPhone 3G phones in several ways. It was the first to offer a (third) 32GB storage option, the largest storage capacity Apple had provided on a smartphone at the time — previous SKU’s only offered 8GB and 16GB options.

The CPU was upgraded from a Samsung 32-bit RISC ARM running at 412mhz to a 600mhz ARM Cortex-A8 Samsung S5PC100, which was capable of 833mhz if overclocked. The GPU was also swapped from a PowerVR MBX Lite 3D to a Power VR SGX535, which provided an almost 30 percent increase in speed.

The iPhone 3GS was a powerhouse, for its time, but didn’t launch without issue. Specifically, the thing could heat up like a chunk of Silicon Valley coal if it wasn’t given proper ventilation. I knew many people who complained of warm pockets and heated handbags, but a little burning sensation was a small price to pay for high performance. Apple’s solution to this very First World problem? Don’t leave your phone somewhere warm.

iPhone 4S

iPhone 4S all alone

The iPhone 4S entered consumer consciousness during a strange time for Apple, with gossip circulating about Steve Jobs’ declining physical condition. Regardless, the iPhone 4S was announced on October 4th, 2011. The next day, the iconic cofounder of Apple had passed on, making the iPhone 4S the final product announced under his watch.

In light of its innovator’s death, the iPhone 4S ushered in mainstream acceptance of verbal command functionality. The ideas behind Siri will forever be linked to the iPhone 4S (and not just because the “S” this time around stands for “Siri”), as the ability to operate and receive feedback through audio became the product’s breakout innovation.

Like the 3GS, the iPhone 4S’s hardware received some seriously improved bolt-ons. A model offering 64GB of storage was introduced, in addition to the 8GB, 16GB, and 32GB versions that were also available with the iPhone 4. The CPU was pushed up from a 1ghz Cortex A8 to a dual core 1ghz Cortex A9. The iPhone 4’s PowerVR SGX535 GPU was also replaced with a Power VR dual core SGX543MP2.

Internal memory also doubled, from 256MB to 512MB. The camera on the iPhone 4S was capable of 8-megapixel shots at 1080p, which dwarfed the iPhone 4’s 5-megapixel, 720P offering.

As for issues with the iPhone 4S, there were only a few minor hiccups. Screens on early builds were calibrated with a slightly blue tint, meaning colors did not show up correctly. Siri also seemed to have issues understanding anyone with even a slight accent. Audio on outgoing calls was buggy, if not completely nonexistent. But hey, if you spoke English like an Idaho suburbanite, at least you had Siri to talk to until the call issue was resolved … right?

iPhone 5s

iPhone 5s all alone

The iPhone 5s, now with a lowercase “s,” entered the scene just as the Western world became concerned with privacy rights. That’s why some rightfully lost their shit when news broke that the device would feature a fingerprint scanner, Touch ID. Many questioned their willingness to expose personal information, especially a fingerprint, to a huge corporation, in exchange for a high-end consumer product. There were also some shenanigans going on with the iPhone 5s release; it hit the market at the same time as the less impressive iPhone 5C, but the iPhone 5C was available for preorder first.

The CPU in the iPhone 5, iPhone 5C, and iPhone 5s all share similar specs on paper, but the iPhone 5s was one of the first truly 64-bit mobile devices.

Computational and graphics updates allowed the iPhone 5s to run Unreal Engine-based applications. This opened mobile game development to a whole new world, moving it from older, 2D sprite-based techniques into 3D-based development.

As for issues, most of the iPhone 5s’s problems stemmed from the Touch ID. Some applications, including iTunes, had issues related to the finger-scanning device. A group out of Germany, called the Chaos Computer Club, also claimed to have bypassed the security feature altogether, by photographing a fingerprint off of a piece of glass and creating a synthetic mold.

The verdict? Big Brother may be watching for my fingerprints, but damn, at least he brought with him some new high-end games.

The iPhone 6s and 6s Plus

And this brings us to the next iPhone. The iPhone 6s and 6s Plus are expected to feature Force Touch and haptic feedback, a 12-megapixel camera, 2GB of RAM, a brighter display, and new colors. For more on what to expect, check out The next iPhone: The new features we expect to see September 9.

In the end … well … the S is the end

Technically, yes, the “S” mostly stands for “speed.” As I see it, it should also stand for “summit.” S-branded iPhones are a sign of a specific numbered product coming to an end. If you’re a pessimist, it’s a mark of death and you should wait for what’s next. But really, it’s the peak of what Apple can (or is willing to) do with the design of that particular model. It’s the current philosophies, pushed to their extremes. Besides, if you’re going to wait for what’s next, you’ll never commit to anything.

So when you’re standing outside an Apple store for the next S-series phone (maybe the iPhone 6s), and someone asks what the hell you’re doing, tell them you’re waiting for Apple’s latest attempt at iPhone sublimity.


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