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

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For instance, iOS finally has notifications to rival the ones in Android: Missed calls, alerts from background programs, and other items pop up at the top of the screen, where they’re obvious without being too annoying, and then join a queue which you can review at any time by pulling it down like a window shade. You can use Twitter to broadcast anything you’d otherwise share via an e-mail or text message.

And speaking of text messages, iMessages, an addition to the Messages app, are like smarter ones that don’t deplete your wireless plan’s allotment. (You can use them when communicating with other iOS 5 users.)

Oh, and iOS 5 is also the upgrade that enables iCloud, Apple’s wildly ambitious suite of mostly-free services for storing data on the Internet and seamlessly shuttling it between iPhones, iPod Touches, iPads, Macs and even Windows PCs. iCloud lets you share photos, music, movies and documents; it backs up your devices to the cloud; it includes the Find My iPhone lost-phone app; and it generally lets you avoid using iTunes, the behemoth of a Mac and Windows application that many folks will be just as happy to sidestep. iCloud is reminiscent of existing services such as SugarSync and, but built right into the operating system and largely transparent; you don’t have to worry much about where your stuff is stored.

So cheer up, iPhone 4 owners who were hoping that the new iPhone would be a greater leap forward: Installing iOS 5 on your current phone is like getting about 80 percent of an iPhone 4S, for free.

(MORE: In Praise of Minor Upgrades)

New features are nice, but two of the most attractive things about iOS haven’t changed. One of them is the overall level of polish: Apple’s mobile operating system is still the most elegant, engaging, efficient one on the market by far.

The other is apps. Apple’s store now boasts a half million of them, including gems in every category. Both these ongoing virtues trump Android: Google’s software is available on some impressive phones, such as Samsung’s Galaxy S II, but it’s far more ungainly than iOS, with way fewer standout apps. (Google is about to announce an upgrade called Ice Cream Sandwich that might help de-clunkify Android, although details are scarce.)

Meanwhile, if I were doing my due diligence on a new smartphone purchase in the next few months, I’d also consider models running Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7.5, a smart, well-designed operating system that deserves to catch on.

For all their differences—which are striking—Android and Windows Phone both follow a something-for-everybody strategy. They’re available on an array of models from multiple manufacturers with a variety of features. Apple continues to reject that approach. Instead, it builds one new phone a year, a little more refined and a little more powerful than last year’s model.

There’s no way that any one phone is going to please everyone. But focusing on making one phone great is a good way to make the industry’s single best model. That’s what the iPhone 4 has been. And it’s what the iPhone 4S now is. Almost half a decade after Apple invented the modern smart phone, it still sets the standard.

MORE: History of the Cell Phone

Read more about the life and legacy of Steve Jobs in the tribute book from TIME—Steve Jobs: The Genius Who Changed Our World

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