iPhone 4S Review: It's a Sure Thing
At a Glance
Apple iPhone 4S family
(When Rated) via AT&T
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A Tale of Two Technologies
When Apple released the Verizon-compatible version of the iPhone 4 in February, the previously-simple iPhone product line got a little more complicated. That’s because Verizon’s network in the U.S. uses a different wireless standard (CDMA) than the networks the iPhone had previously supported, all of which (including AT&T in the U.S.) used the more common GSM wireless standard.
Verizon and Sprint both still use CDMA networks in the United States, but that fact no longer causes a product schism: The iPhone 4S can connect to either CDMA or GSM networks. That’s a big deal for Apple, which no longer has to build two different versions of the same phone, but it’s less dramatic a change for regular users.
That’s primarily because most iPhones are sold as a part of a package deal that includes a two-year contract with a specific wireless carrier. The phone you get as a part of that deal is locked, which is to say it’s tied to the carrier you got it from and can’t easily be moved to a different one.
There is one scenario, however, in which this new phone design becomes a big deal: international travel. Users of iPhones locked to AT&T have always been able to travel internationally, since GSM is a cellular standard that is supported all over the world. Users of the CDMA iPhone 4 (the “Verizon iPhone,” though that model will also now be available from Sprint) couldn’t travel reliably with the phone internationally, since it only supported the CDMA wireless standard, which isn’t that widely used outside of North America and parts of Asia.
With the iPhone 4S, this is no longer a problem. The iPhone 4S can use CDMA when in the U.S., but will switch to GSM when in a country without any CDMA networks. By default you’ll pay Sprint or Verizon’s international roaming rates and use their preferred overseas partners. But Sprint and Verizon will also let you buy and use local pre-paid micro-SIM cards, which offer much more affordable rates for overseas data and voice. It’s a big advantage for Sprint and Verizon. (For more details, check out my story about the iPhone 4S as a “world phone.”)
AT&T does have one clear advantage over the other carriers in the U.S., however: speed. In February I discovered that the Verizon 3G network was more reliable than AT&T’s, but was also noticeably slower. Though many carriers are rolling out 4G networks in the U.S., the iPhone 4S does not support them. (AT&T has been slower at rolling out a 4G network, but it’s got a very fast 3G network—and the iPhone 4S takes advantage.)
As a result, the theoretical maximum 3G download speed of the iPhone 4S is 14.4Mbps, double the 7.2Mbps limit on the iPhone 4. (In contrast, CDMA’s theoretical maximum download speed is 3.1Mbps.) Still, in my tests I couldn’t get download speeds above 4.2Mbps on AT&T’s 3G network in the San Francisco area.
Antennas in Action
And so, finally, we come to the antennas. Apple says that the antennas on the iPhone 4 have been completely redesigned. The phone constantly assesses the quality of its connection to the cellular network and dynamically switches between two antennas, both embedded in its metallic outer ring.
The iPhone 4, in contrast, could use only one of those two antennas for cellular coverage (the other was—and still remains—used for Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and GPS reception). This led to a peculiar result: If you held the iPhone 4 just right, covering up the bottom left corner of the device, you could attenuate the cellular signal and (depending on the strength of that signal) even lose your connection altogether.
That finding turned into a huge public-relations issue, unimaginatively dubbed “antennagate.” Apple called a press conference to explain the issue and offer compensation for iPhone 4 owners who felt they’d been let down. In the end, the iPhone 4 was still a huge success, despite the fact that Consumer Reports refused to endorse it over the antenna issue.
Still, you’d figure that the criticism stung Apple enough for the company to make sure it wouldn’t be burned by this particular issue ever again. And you’d be right. The dynamic switching between two different antennas means that there’s no way you will be able to “death grip” the iPhone 4S unless you are trying to literally strangle your phone.
In all my tests, the old iPhone 4 “death grip” had no impact on the speed of cellular downloads on the iPhone 4S, nor did a reverse grip at the top of the phone. Only when I took both hands and performed a “death grip” that covered the entire phone (or at least touched all four corners of the phone simultaneously) did I see any signal attenuation.
The iPhone 4 antenna issue probably garnered more attention than the true scope of the problem deserved. Lots of cell phones have attenuation issues. In more than a year of heavy iPhone 4 use, I’ve rarely changed how I held the phone in hopes of getting a better cellular signal. It happened, yes, but no more than a half-dozen times. Still, I am happy to report that it seems that Apple has eradicated this problem entirely. If you shied away from the iPhone 4 because of attenuation issues, it’s safe to go back in the water.
After the original iPhone and the iPhone 3G shipped with poor cameras, Apple seems to have been on a mission to improve the iPhone’s ability as a picture taker. The iPhone 3GS had an upgraded camera, but it was really with the iPhone 4 that the iPhone’s camera became worthy of the rest of the device.
The iPhone 4S upgrades the camera yet again, and while it’s a clear improvement, it’s not as huge a jump as the the one from the iPhone 3GS. The 4S offers eight megapixels of resolution (2448-by-3264 pixels) along with a bunch of improvements to optics and a wider (f/2.4) aperture. The iPhone 4S also shoots video at 1080p, quite a bit higher resolution than the iPhone 4’s 720p. (This means all your video files will be larger. There’s no way to tell the iPhone 4S to shoot at a lower resolution.)
To test the iPhone 4S’s camera, I took still photos and video using Macworld’s standard battery of camera tests and compared them to samples from four Android smartphones, the iPhone 4, and a Nikon Coolpix point-and-shoot camera. I prefered the images from the iPhone 4S, with the Samsung Galaxy S II coming in second. The iPhone 4S excelled in flash and exposure tests and looked better on our clarity tests. I also ranked it best on the low-light video test, though it was comparable with all the other smartphones at full-light video.
I also took the camera outside and took some shots in daylight in my neighborhood. The results were similarly impressive. I’ll include, for comparison’s sake, a representative sample so you can see how far the iPhone’s camera has come since the days of the original model.
But there’s more to the iPhone 4S’s camera than just its physical components. Apple is also using the power of the A5 processor (and its integrated signal processor) in numerous ways: There’s image stabilization of video as you shoot it and a face-detection algorithm to help ensure that your subjects are properly focused and exposed.
Most important, the iPhone 4S’s speed and some changes to iOS 5 work to solve the biggest failing of the iPhone camera up until now, namely the length of time it takes to get from your pocket to the moment when you can take a picture. In the past, this could be a laborious process: Pull out the phone, slide to unlock, enter in a security code if you’ve enabled one, find the Camera app (which might even be tucked away inside a folder), launch it, and then wait as the iPhone wakes up its camera and finally shows you an image.
Sure, that might only be a matter of a few seconds, but it seems like forever, especially if your kid or pet or sibling or significant other is doing something cute or hilarious or incriminating.
iOS 5, the latest version of the software that powers the iPhone and iPad (and which is included on the iPhone 4S) solves the first part of this problem. Now you can just double-press on the home button to bring up a camera button, which you tap to launch the Camera app—no unlocking required. Then the iPhone 4S’s hardware improvements spring into motion: That camera wakes up and shows you an image much faster than the iPhone 4 did.
The result of all these improvements: If you use an iPhone 4S to take pictures, you’re going to capture a bunch of photos that you would have missed otherwise, and they’ll look better than they would have, too. As the saying goes, the best camera is the one you have with you. I’d wager that the iPhone 4S willactually be the best camera in the household of the majority of its owners.
Next: You'll Talk to It, iOS 5 and Other Miscellany, and more