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Apple iPhone 4S Review: It’s the iPhone 4, Only More So

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“Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything.” That was Steve Jobs talking in 2007, as he was about to introduce the first iPhone. He was right about it being a landmark. But he was also correct that it was a once-in-a-while event. Most products—including Apple ones—are merely evolutionary and only change some things.

Fortunately, Apple isn’t just an expert at revolution; it also does evolution uncommonly well. Consider its new iPhone 4S, which went on sale on Friday. (The company loaned me one for review.)

As the 4S’s very name acknowledges, it’s no radical rethinking of last year’s iPhone 4: There’s a lot that hasn’t changed at all, plus a few major new features and some minor tweaks. That’s prompted some grumbling, but it’s okay: The iPhone 4 was an exceptional phone in the first place, and the 4S is that much more exceptional. And one new arrival—it goes by the name Siri—might just turn out to be the beginnings of a bona-fide revolution.

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Like its predecessors, the iPhone 4S is available in a 16GB model for $199 with a two-year contract and a 32GB one for $299; new to the lineup is a $399 unit with 64GB of space, more than most of us will be able to fill. All three capacities are available from AT&T, Verizon Wireless and iPhone newcomer Sprint, in black and white variants. They’re all worldphones, which means that you can use them outside the U.S. (Just be aware that international roaming charges for voice and data may give you heart palpitations.)

In an attempt to ensure that as few people as possible pass on buying iPhones because they’re too pricey, Apple is keeping an 8GB iPhone 4 on the market for $99 under contract, available in versions for all three carriers. And the two-year-old AT&T iPhone 3GS is now free for contract signers, giving Apple a phone to compete with a gaggle of free and almost-free handsets that run Google’s Android.

Cosmetically, the iPhone 4S is the iPhone 4’s identical twin. They’re both glass-and-steel beauties that make every other smartphone on the market look (literally) plasticky, And while the 4S’s deja vu design brings no novelty value, it’s decidedly practical: The new phone will work with existing iPhone 4 cases and add-ons that might have been rendered obsolete if it had come in an all-new design.

(Last year, after the iPhone 4’s release, much of the Apple-watching world was briefly convinced that its antennas, which were wrapped around its exterior, suffered from a crippling reception glitch that became known as Antennagate. It turned out not to be so crippling in the real world, but Apple says that the 4S features a new, improved antenna design.)

Also decidedly familiar: The 4S’s screen. Despite pre-announcement scuttlebutt about a roomier one, it’s the same 3.5″ high-resolution LCD that Apple calls a “Retina” display, as introduced with the iPhone 4. At this point, sticking with it is a contrarian move: In Androidland, almost everyone seems to agree that bigger is better, and even 4″ screens are on the smallish side.

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But as long as you don’t judge a handset purely in terms of display acreage, the one on the iPhone hasn’t worn out its welcome. Its pixels-per-inch count remains outstanding, so text and photos are crisp. And it makes the 4S, like previous iPhones, a pocket-friendly device that works well with one hand: You can cradle it in your fingers and tap around the interface with your thumb without fear of spraining a muscle.

So much for the iPhone 4S’s outsides.

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