The iPhone 4S: Faster, More Capable, And You Can Talk To It

Next Story

Video: Meet ecoATM, The Reverse Vending Machine That Takes Your Phone & Spits Out Cash

What does the “S” stand for?

When I ask Apple this, they’re vague in their response. They note that some people say it stands for “Special” or “Super”. Others say it’s for “Speed” — much like the iPhone 3GS, the successor to the iPhone 3G. Or maybe it’s “Storage” (this is the first iPhone with 64 GB option — and with iCloud storage). Or “Sprint” (this is the first iPhone to run on that network in the U.S.) Or perhaps it’s for “Speech” or “Siri”. Either of these last two would get my vote. The point is, the “S” can stand for any number of things depending on who is using the device. Here’s all I know for certain: this is the best iPhone yet.

Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of talk in the blogosphere following the unveiling of the iPhone 4S last week. Some pundits seemed underwhelmed by what was unveiled on stage. “Where’s the iPhone 5?,” many wondered. Arguing over names is silly — Apple could have easily called this device the “iPhone 5″. But I assume they chose not to for the same reason that some actually felt underwhelmed: the iPhone 4S looks exactly like the iPhone 4. Fair or not, if a device looks the same, many will assume it is largely the same.

But that would be selling the iPhone 4S well short. While it does look the same as the iPhone 4, the 4S contains innards that are a significant upgrade over the previous model. The two biggest changes are the faster chip — the A5 over the A4 — and the much-improved camera. Combine those with the new iOS 5 software, and you have what will definitely be a worthwhile upgrade for many users. And when you throw in the amazing new voice-driven “intelligent assistant” Siri, it becomes a no-brainer, in my mind. These are the aspects I’m going to focus on.

The A5

First of all, the iPhone 4S blows away the iPhone 4 when it comes to speed. For the past week, I’ve been testing all of my most-used apps and the differences range from solid to awesome. At first glance, the speed difference may seem subtle. But over time, it adds up and becomes apparent. I would switch back to my iPhone 4 and get frustrated by the lag.

Apps that used to take a longer time to perform a task — applying a filter in Camera+, for example — now work much faster. More generally, every app seems to load quite a bit faster. The best way to see this is to load the Settings app that is built into iOS. On the iPhone 4, it can take up to 3 seconds to load. On the iPhone 4S, it loads in less than a second. And the 4S is faster at switching between apps when multi-tasking.

Better still is the performance boost that games get. Apple showcased Infinity Blade 2 during their demo last week, but the improvements to even less graphic-intensive games is impressive. Apple says that graphics can render up to seven times quicker thanks to the A5.

The Camera

The camera is an even bigger deal to me. As I’ve been following for some time, and Apple noted last week, the iPhone has become the most popular camera in the world if you go by the images uploaded to Flickr. And it’s not even close. This new camera in the iPhone 4S goes above and beyond. And it’s going to push that lead even further.

If the point-and-shoot market wasn’t in trouble before, it will be now.

Much will be made about the upgrade from 5 megapixels to 8 megapixels with the iPhone 4S. But the bigger difference is the engineering behind the new camera. Apple notes with pride that their engineers were able to completely re-architect this tiny camera to produce images that are on par with the nicest point-and-shoots available. They credit five “precision elements” to record incoming light (versus four in the already excellent iPhone 4 camera) and the inclusion of a larger f/2.4 aperture to bring in more light.

I was actually in London last week when I got the 4S. For the trip, I brought my Canon S95, a $400 point-and-shoot which is generally considered to be one of the best. I barely used it. While it still bests the iPhone 4S in low-light settings, for all most other environments, it’s hard to tell the difference. Yes, the S95 is still better, but it’s no longer so much better than it can trump a device that I always have in my pocket with me anyway. Yep, point-and-shoots are screwed. (In case that wasn’t already abundantly clear.)

Also great is that the iPhone 4S camera can shoot 1080p video for the first time. The iPhone 4 is limited to 720p. The 4S also features video stabilization, to ensure your home videos won’t make viewers want to vomit. Testing this out, it seems to work pretty well.

Below, a video taken with the 4S (be sure to switch the embed to 1080p):

Below, an image taken with the 4S (more at the bottom of the post):

iOS 5 & iCloud

Considering that Apple has been talking about iOS 5 for several months now, and developers have been testing it out and showing it off for almost that long, I’m not going to focus on it too much. I too have been using a developer build of iOS 5 for months, and it is without question a worthwhile upgrade. If you have an iPhone 3GS or iPhone 4, you absolutely need to download it immediately (starting when it’s available tomorrow). With the iPhone 4S, all the new features simply run faster and a little bit more smoothly.

The best addition to iOS 5 is the revamped Notifications system. Yes, it’s a bit like the system that Android and webOS have had for a while, but once again, Apple took their time to make sure they did this right. Gone are the annoying blue pop-ups that would get lost when another notification came in. Now you have a full-on notification center to keep track of everything you miss when you’re away from your phone or simply not in the mood to check it. Again, having used it for a few months now, I’m spoiled. There is no way I could go back to the old system.

Other key new features of iOS 5 including Twitter integration (which we talked about more in-depth here), the new iMessage (SMS killer), Reminders (an Apple-built to-do list), and a faster version of the Safari web browser.

But the biggest change of iOS 5 may be that you can now setup and manage your iOS device without having to use a PC or a Mac at all. When you boot up a new device, a short tutorial walks you through how to enable the services you wish to use, and activate your phone. It’s quick and painless.

You can also now use iCloud to back up your phone and for the don’t-call-it-syncing of your data. iTunes in the Cloud and Photo Stream are great additions for people who simply do not want to manage content through the iTunes desktop software. Apple comes closer to an “it just works” system than anything I’ve seen previously. Regular people will be able to use this.

Siri

All of that sounds great. And these things would be enough to get millions of people to buy an iPhone 4S without any questions asked. But the true killer feature of the device is Siri.

Yes, others have done voice controls before — even Apple has had them baked into iOS for a few years. But most, including Apple’s previous attempt, have been awful. Others, like Google’s voice services built into Android, are decent. Siri is great.

In the coming weeks and months, we’re going to hear: “both fill-in-the-blank-Android-phone and the iPhone 4S have voice control functionality”. But that’s like saying both Citizen Kane and BioDome are films. True on paper. Decidedly less true when you have to actually experience them.

You really have to use it yourself to see just how great Siri actually is. Using it for the past week, I’ve done everything from getting directions, to sending emails, to sending text messages, to looking up information on WolframAlpha, to getting restaurant recommendations on Yelp, to taking notes, to setting reminders, to setting calendar appointments, to setting alarms, to searching the web. The amount of times Siri hasn’t been able to understand and execute my request is astonishingly low. I’ll say something that I’m sure Siri won’t be able to understand, and it gets it.

Also awesome: when I first tried out the service in London, Siri was set to UK English. It didn’t understand a word I was saying. The Apple reps couldn’t figure out what was going on. But a quick change of the settings had it working perfectly. Siri understands accents as well.

A number of folks have written that while Siri looks good, it seems like a feature that gives good demo but won’t actually get used. I disagree. I think this is a feature that will sell the device. And I think all of Apple’s rivals will have to act quickly to counter it. We’ve all seen the science fiction television shows and films where people talk to their computers like human beings and the computer understands them. That future is now.

Further, I do believe Siri has a real shot at disrupting the stranglehold Google has on mobile search. No one is going to beat Google at their own game, but with Siri, Apple has a way to change the game. Right now, just Yelp and Wolfram Alpha are partners. But this is just a first release of Siri — it’s actually in “beta”. Just imagine what will happen when Apple partners with other services to expand Siri further. And imagine when they have an API that any developer can use. This really could alter the mobile landscape.

To activate Siri, you simply hold down the home button for a couple seconds (similar to the old voice controls). Or there’s a setting you can turn on so that when you bring your iPhone 4S up to your ear, it will activate Siri. Obviously, if you’re on a call, it knows not to do this.

The one downside of Siri: because it uses server-side software to decipher what you’re saying (likely using Nuance-licensed technology), you have to be connected to the Internet in order for Siri to work. But that shouldn’t be an issue in most circumstances.

Before you ask: no, Siri will not be available as part of the iOS 5 upgrade for other devices. It will be an iPhone 4S-only feature. Apple is vague as to why this is, but they do say that part of it has to do with processing power. I also asked about the possibility of Siri coming to the iPad 2 (which has the same A5 chip) — I was told that for now, Siri will be iPhone 4S only.

“So”

Those are the key elements on the iPhone 4S, in my mind. Each of them makes the iPhone 4S a worthy purchase in their own right. But it’s Siri that really puts it over the top.

As for upgrades, it’s a tougher call. If you already have an iPhone 4 and still have time left on your two-year contract, it will be a pricey decision to upgrade to an iPhone 4S — especially since you’ll get the iOS 5 features (again, minus Siri) as an upgrade for free. If either speed or the camera are of the utmost importance to you, you should upgrade. If not, go to an Apple Store and see for yourself just how cool Siri is and then decide.

If you’ve had an iPhone 3GS and have been waiting a couple years for the next iPhone to come out, now’s the time to upgrade. If you’re worried just because this is not called the “iPhone 5″ , you’re being foolish.

If you’ve never owned an iPhone before and the 4S will be your first one, you’ll love it. I suspect that millions of Verizon and Sprint customers in the U.S. are going to be in this bucket.

As a bonus: the one issue I’ve had with my Verizon iPhone 4 is that it’s basically useless in much of the rest of the world (which uses GSM, not CDMA). But the iPhone 4S is both GSM and CDMA compatible. Even if you’re a Verizon (or Sprint) customer, you can take it overseas and use it there (for an undoubtedly large carrier fee).

As for battery life, the 4S seems solid. That’s impressive given the faster processor. I would get about 7 hours in heavy usage over mainly 3G on any given day. If I was only on WiFi, more. Apple’s own specs do note that standby battery time has decreased a bit, but it’s not something I noticed enough to make note of.

Leading up to last week’s event, like everyone else, I kept reading the rumors about a new iPhone with a larger screen and completely different form factor. Quite frankly, I was hoping they were wrong. (For the record, I stated that I heard the screen size rumor was wrong weeks ago.) The iPhone 4’s design is the pinnacle of smartphone design in my opinion. I simply could not imagine how they could alter it to make it better. Even making it thinner would mean that it wouldn’t fit as nicely in your hands for taking pictures. Android fanboys are going to love that statement.

I’m happy that Apple decided not to change the form factor even though they had to know there would be some backlash from a certain segment of the population (read: idiots). Instead, Apple focused on the other thing they do best: refining already great products to make them better. The iPhone 4 was a great product. The best smartphone ever made. Now it cedes that title to the iPhone 4S.