So, Apple’s latest iPhone has been revealed, and we’re afraid our fears were confirmed: no iPhone 5, just an updated iPhone 4S. With it we receive a new and upgraded 8MP camera, the nippier A5 chip and the Siri personal assistant, it looks like a great phone and is certainly the best iPhone out there. But is it the best phone money can buy? We put the iPhone 4S’ two main challengers, the HTC Sensation XE and the Samsung Galaxy S2, head to head with Apple’s latest smartphone in a spec comparison to see how things stack up at the top of the smartphone market.
Design and build
The build on the iPhone 4S is exactly the same as that of the iPhone 4, so there’s nothing new to report on that front – if you’ve played with or owned an iPhone 4, you won’t be in for any surprises. It’s a stunning phone. If you haven’t, then here’s the rundown: a Gorilla Glass front, a sleek glass back and an aluminium antenna band that runs along each side. It’s got that typical Apple cool, but be warned: that glass back takes violent issue with being dropped.
The Galaxy S2 is not a phone for fashionistas. It’s a solid workhorse, and might be the most powerful phone of the three, but someone in a boardroom at Samsung went a bit overboard on the slim-and-light front. As a result, the Galaxy S2 is the thinnest and the lightest phone on test, but the trade-off is that it feels plasticky and fragile.
The Sensation XE, on the other hand, offers the best of both worlds, with the big-screen media capabilities of the Galaxy S2 and the smooth, aluminium unibody design so typical of HTC. In fact it feels exactly like the Sensation in the hand. There’s a pleasant heft to the Sensation XE that makes it feel solid, engineered, and for the XE edition HTC have spruced up the already excellent Sensation with a daub of red paint on the speaker grill and red Android touch buttons on the front.
The HTC Sensation XE is marketing itself as an audiophile’s phone, hence all that Beats By Dr. Dre branding on the phone. It’s not just celebrity-endorsed hot air, though; the Sensation XE comes with new sound-boosting technology that adjusts things like EQ on the fly to beef up audio, and the handset comes with a pair of proper Beats By Dr. Dre earphones – earphones that won’t immediately be dumped in the bin for something better. Of course, it will be interesting to see how the XE compares as a music phone next to the iPhone 4S.
The iPhone 4S’ most interesting feature so far is the new Siri personal assistant. A bit like Google Voice crossed with Wolfram Alpha, Siri is Apple’s whack at a first proper, 2001 A Space Odyssey-style voice control. So, instead of tapping through menus and clocks, now if you want to set an alarm you just say something like “Siri, wake me up at 8am tomorrow” and bam, Siri’s on the case.
The Samsung Galaxy S2’s main pull is, again, that 4.2-inch Super AMOLED display – it’s one of the best smartphone screens we’ve seen. Samsung’s had a stranglehold on the technology that other companies are only just starting to wriggle free from.
All three phones on test boast great displays with their own selling points. The iPhone 4S comes with the same Retina Display technology as the iPhone 4, which offers the greatest pixel density of the three (meaning a crisper looking picture). The Galaxy S2, however, offers a mega-rich Super AMOLED Plus display, which offers bright whites and the darkest blacks of any phone around at the moment. The Galaxy S2’s screen is also bigger than the iPhone 4S’ at 4.3 inches to the iPhone’s 3.5.
The HTC Sensation XE is a middle ground between the iPhone 4S and the Galaxy S2. It’s not got the same pixel density as the iPhone 4S, so video won’t be quite as pin sharp, but is far bigger. At the same time, while the Super LCD screen on the HTC is very good, it doesn’t have the richness that the Galaxy S2’s Super AMOLED Plus display brings to watching video.
The Galaxy S2 will set you back £500 SIM free, or around £30+ per month on a two year contract. The Sensation XE is slightly cheaper at around £490, while the iPhone 4S continues the traditional £499 price point for the 16GB iPhone, with 32GB and 64GB models available for correspondingly higher amounts.
The Samsung Galaxy S2 would come out on top if we were judging the contenders purely on specs, if only because of that amazing screen. It’s also a true featherweight, comfortably beating the iPhone 4S and the Sensation XE in both slimness and weight (or lack thereof). Our only beef is that this will go to far for some people – all those bids to save weight and size mean that the Galaxy S2 feels flimsy compared to the solid, premium builds of the iPhone 4S and the Sensation XE.
The iPhone 4 is an awesome phone, and the 4S looks like more of the same, with a new processor and a beefed up camera to bring it in line with the top-end Android handsets that have been released in the last couple of months. We’re particularly excited by the sensor, to see how it compares in low light. The screen is seems a little small, 3.5-inches is going to be a dealbreaker for many people now that 4.3-inchers are becoming the norm for web browsing and watching video. Apart from Siri, which until we’ve tried for ourselves we’re not coming down for or against, the iPhone 4S doesn’t feel like much of an advancement on the iPhone 4. Although iCloud could be a game changer and is available on the iPhone 4 too.
The Sensation XE has had the battery niggles of the original Sensation fixed, from what we’ve seen, and we like the new focus on music that’s come with HTC’s partnership with Beats By Dr. Dre. It’s also a great looking phone; HTC really are the Android phones to go for if you’re looking for an Apple alternative that doesn’t skimp on strong build. The processor’s also had a bit of a boost, so HTC’s beautiful Sense UI runs all the smoother.
Until we’ve tested them all, we won’t be able to tell, which is going to be the best phone, but one thing is clearer. The smartphone race looks closer than ever.