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Apple iPhone 4S Review: In Depth

The Good

  • One of the best screens on a smartphone
  • Fantastic build
  • Thousands of apps
  • Improved camera
  • Faster processor
  • iCloud

The Bad

  • Screen feels a little small
  • iMessage quirks
  • Siri not fully featured
  • Camera lacks features

The iPhone 4S is finally here, it’s not the iPhone 5 that many expected, instead it’s an enhancement to the iPhone 4 – pretty much like the 3GS was to the 3G. But that still hasn’t stopped Apple shifting more than 4 million units in 3 days – to put that in perspective it took Samsung three months to sell 5 million units of the wildly popular Galaxy S2 smartphone.

But it’s been 19 months since the Apple iPhone 4, during which time we’ve seen the advent of dual-core phones, the rise of the fore mentioned Galaxy S2, as well as stunning innovation from a range of handset manufacturers. So is the Apple iPhone 4S still one of the best smartphones and is it worth upgrading from the iPhone 4?

Apple iPhone 4S: Design and build

The iPhone 4S looks exactly the same as the iPhone 4, you get the glass front and distinctive metal trim but following Antenna gate, the now dual antennas have moved from the bottom to the top. We’ve used the iPhone 4 a lot and occasionally did encounter the dreaded signal drop, so we’re pleased to report improvements in this area

At 9.7mm deep, the iPhone 4S is slender, but feels substantial. Hold it in your hand and it really feels like the expensive piece of kit it is – something the Samsung Galaxy S2 fails to do.

Apple has retained the 3.5-inch screen with a 960×640 resolution and an 800:1 contrast ratio. It’s testament to Apple that over a year after the iPhone 4 launched, it’s still one of the best screens on a smartphone. With excellent contrast ratio and dark blacks, movies look fantastic and off-angle viewing is excellent.

We do feel that 3.5-inchs is just too small though. It’s acceptable, but we’d expect at least 4.2-inches to keep the iPhone 4S in line with the rest of the market.

On the body there’s the usual Apple proprietary port for charging and a 3.5mm jack, there’s still no memory card slot, instead choose from 16GB, 32GB and finally 64GB capacities.

Apple iPhone 4S: iOS 5

The iPhone 4S is the first phone to run iOS 5 out of the box. It looks very similar to iOS 4, but there are some fundamental difference. Highlights include: alerts that appear as a banner at the top; pull down notifications and the ability to launch the camera via the lock screen.

Although these elements do improve the user experience, they have been done before by Android handsets, which have implemented them in a superior way. We’d love to be able to open messages via the lock screen (like HTC Sense) or scroll down to toggle WiFi on/off (like Android Froyo).


Twitter integration is useful and seamless. Within a few taps you can share a location from Google Maps, a story from Safari and photo. However, what would really be useful is to sync Twitter and Facebook feeds, something (again) that Windows Phone, Blackberry and Android phones can all do.

One feature we’ve been waiting for is PC Free, which means you can activate the iPhone 4S without using a computer. You can download apps you’ve already bought via the Update menu in the app store, although if you have a lot of apps, it may be quicker to do it via a computer.

Apple iPhone 4S: iCloud and iMessage

iCloud is one of the most exiting new features of the iPhone 4S. Enabling you to instantly sync information between Apple devices, including the iPad, iPod Touch and a Mac.

Activate PhotoStream and pictures are automatically pushed into the Cloud and store up to 1000 pictures, they appear straight away. It works seamlessly, apps bought on our iPhone were automatically transferred to an iPad 2.

If you’ve got a Gmail or Yahoo account, unfortunately it won’t sync mail or calendar, instead you need a @me email address, although it you’ve already got email pushed to your iPad and iPhone, this isn’t a huge problem.

iMessage is Apple’s cross platform messaging service. Messages appear as speech bubbles (like What’s App Messenger) and you get read receipts, with notification the message has been delivered and read, in addition you can see when someone is typing.

What’s really good about iMessage is that it uses your data allowance rather than message allocation, so uses very little data, even when having a conversation with someone abroad and because the messages are so small, it will use very little data. It also intelligently switches between text and iMessage, which is useful if you lose 3G signal.

However, it’s not a Blackberry Messenger rival just yet. You can’t set a status or include a profile picture and group messaging isn’t as simple. In BBM you can create groups, here you have to do it manually entering everyone.

In addition, it’s supposed to work across iOS devices, so you should be able to start a message on an iPad and continue it on an iPhone and vice versa. However it doesn’t work as seamlessly as we’d like, namely because text messages and emails are treated differently.

Send a message using an email address and it will appear on the iPad and iPhone, however send the message to the persons phone number and it will appear on the iPhone, not the iPad. So you can be having a long conversation using a phone number text to find nothing has come through to your iPad.  Conversely if you start a conversation on your iPad the conversation will continue on both.

The way around this is to select the email address at the start, which isn’t ideal and is something Apple needs to change with a firmware upgrade

Apple iPhone 4S: Siri

Siri is the iPhone 4’s main selling point – although why it can’t run on the iPhone 4 is another issue. Activate it by holding down the control button and speaking intro the microphone icon.

There’s no doubt that Siri is very clever. It will set the alarm for you, read out the weather, search the internet find a recipe and text a friend. There’s also hours of fun to be had, checking out Siri’s quirks as we found out.


What’s disappointing is that many of the features aren’t accessible in the UK yet, it can only find information for US business, so it can’t find train times or restaurants. This won’t be rectified until 2012.

Which is why at this moment we’ll say that Siri falls short, sure it’s far more sophisticated than Google Talk and has yet to reach it’s full potential. (We will update this section when we spend more time with Siri).

Apple iPhone 4S: Performance

The iPhone 4S includes the same dual-core A5 chip as the iPad 2, with 512MB RAM. We pitted it against an iPhone 4 (both handset were running Vodafone) in day to day use, it doesn’t seem dramatically different to the iPhone 4. Web pages load in a similar time, as do You Tube videos, in fact with the iPhone 4 actually launched programs on BBC iPlayer more quickly than the 4S.

At the moment there aren’t many games you can actually play to put the processor and graphical grunt to the test. Real Racing 2 has just been updated to suit iOS and it certainly looks fantastic, with bold colours and smooth motion.

One feature of iOS is that you can play wirelessly with other iPhone 4S users using a split screen, but it only works with AirPlay, which means you need Apple TV. We’d much prefer it if it worked using DLNA though.

Much has been made of the iPhone 4S’s battery performance. In our experience we found it similar to the Samsung Galaxy S2. With push email on and lots of browsing, it will ‘almost’ last until the end of the day. However, with iCloud on for email (especially) this will drain the battery further.

Apple iPhone 4S: Camera

Much has been made of the new iPhone’s camera. Apple has boosted the resolution from 5 to 8-megapixels, but the resolution boost isn’t a dramatic difference – extra pixels are nice, but don’t improve picture quality. What does make a difference is the new sensor and new lens. The difference is evident even before you even take a picture: the sensor means the live view is brighter with more detail than the iPhone 4.

In still photographs, colour detail is richer and a little sharper than it’s predecessor. Check out our iPhone 4/4S test shots below. The iPhone 4S retains far more shadow detail and the leaves on the tree on the right are more colourful. (NOTE: the pictures have been scaled to fit)


Autofocus by tapping the screen or slightly tapping the increase volume button. Once you’ve taken a picture you can remove red eye and now crop by dragging in four adjustable corners. We found Auto-enhance more useful indoors, although the effect is more subtle, depending on the situation – outdoors we found the effect is more subtle.

Of course, these features still fall short of what we’d expect from a smartphone camera – ISO and White Balance would be particularly useful to combat nose.

The iPhone 4S captures full HD 1920×1080 footage, now with image stabilisation, next to the iPhone 4 it’s sharper and brighter, with bolder, more accurate colour reproduction and less noise.


Apple iPhone 4S: Verdict

With the iPhone 4, Apple had one of the best mobile phones on the market and the iPhone 4S improves on that. It’s fast, with one of the best screens on the market and an excellent camera. One of the great things about Apple products, is their simplicity and iOS 5 makes things even better.

Although there’s not enough here to upgrade from an iPhone 4, it’s still the best Apple phone has released which we have to give it five stars, but we do feel it’s not perfect. With the exception of the ground-breaking iCloud and the potential of Siri, it feel like Apple is playing catch-up, and in some areas – camera features, social networking and screen size – still lags behind rivals. We’d also like a firmware upgrade to solve iMessage quirks.

However, on that won’t stop the iPhone 4S being a huge and deserved success, although now we feel the iPhone is one of the best phones on the market, instead of the best phone.

Thanks to Vodafone for our review model.