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

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Inside, there are meaningful changes, starting with the processor at the center of everything. It’s Apple’s A5—the first dual-core chip in an iPhone, and the same one in the iPad 2. Apple says the A5 provides “up to two times the power and up to seven times faster graphics.” (When I ran the SunSpider browser benchmark on the 4S and 4, the 4S was about 70 percent faster.) The phone’s user interface is noticeably zippier: Switching between apps goes faster and windows glide into place more smoothly.

A more potent processor can drain a phone’s battery more quickly, and Apple did downgrade the rated standby time from the iPhone 4’s 300 hours to 200 for the 4S. That’s not a tragedy. Virtually everybody who buys an iPhone 4S will use it so much that it’s how long it lasts when you’re using it that matters, not how long it lasts when it’s not doing anything. There, the news is good: Apple has upped the 3G talk-time estimate to up to eight hours, and kept the same ratings for Internet, video, and audio—six, ten and 40 hours, respectively.

(MORE: The iPhone 4S Cracked Open, Innards Analyzed)

(Battery life, incidentally, is one big reason why the iPhone 4S is a 3G phone. Knowing Apple, it won’t release a smartphone that can do 4G data, as phones such as Motorola’s Droid Bionic do, until it figures out how to incorporate the technology without the battery taking a devastating hit.)

One place where the A5 chip’s extra pep is instantly noticeable is the 4S’s camera. It’s greatly reduced the maddening wait before you can take your first shot, and it lets you keep snapping additional pictures with less lag. The potent A5 also lets the phone’s camera shoot video in stabilized 1080p resolution for the first time, instead of the 4’s non-stabilized 720p video.

In fact, just about everything about the iPhone’s camera which Apple could improve, it did improve—if this product were known as “iCamera” rather than “iPhone,” nobody would grouse that it was short on enhancements. The company boosted the resolution to eight megapixels from five on the iPhone 4; it made the sensor larger; it added another element to the lens; it beefed up the flash. And it added new software features such as face detection. The resulting snapshots set a new standard for camera-phone photos.

Serious shutterbugs may not be ready to ditch their point-and-shoots; for starters, an optical zoom lens remains a wonderful thing, and the iPhone 4S doesn’t have one. Then again, point-and-shoots don’t do some of the things we take for granted about iPhones, such as run nifty photo-sharing apps like Instagram.

Voice control was one of the iPhone 4’s weak spots. It let you perform some basic tasks by speaking, such as dialing contacts and playing music, but both Android and Windows Phone have richer voice features, including the ability to dictate text rather than type it. With the 4S, Apple adds a similar dictation feature, available wherever the on-screen keyboard is present. It works well.

However, it’s a footnote compared to the phone’s signature feature: Siri, a built-in version of an innovative app that Apple acquired last year.

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