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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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.

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(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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Based on $150 million of research by the Stanford Research Institute and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Siri melds speech input, a soothing-if-robotic synthesized female voice, natural-language processing technology, location awareness, and integration with Yelp and the Wolfram Alpha knowledge engine into something new and amazing.

You begin by holding down the Home button or simply lifting the phone to your ear, then you tell Siri how it can help you. All of the following spoken requests, and dozens more, worked perfectly for me:

“Remind me to call my wife when I get home.”

“Schedule a call with Tom at 2pm”

“Wake me up at midnight tomorrow.”

“Find me a Portuguese restaurant in San Francisco.”

“What is 14,000 Japanese Yen in U.S. dollars?”

“When did William Howard Taft die?

Apple says Siri is in beta, but it’s already remarkably clever and conversational. It understands family relationships, and if you haven’t told it who your spouse or mom is, it’ll ask, then remember. If you have seven Toms in your contacts, as I do, it’ll list them all and ask which one you meant. It notices when you’ve arrived at your home or office. You can tell it “I’m hungry” or ask “Is there a God?” or “Where is Apple?” and it’ll understand and say something relevant in response.

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True, Siri isn’t going to beat IBM’s Watson supercomputer at Jeopardy anytime soon: There are lots of things you might want it to do—such as provide spoken driving directions—that are beyond its current skills. In fact, it’s missing some cool features from the original Siri app, such as movie information and flight statuses. And as I’ve tried it, it’s sometimes failed to understand me or just plain stalled.

Still, Siri is breathtaking for a beta. If voice-activated assistants are all around us in five or ten years, we’ll look back and say it all started here.

Every other significant improvement in the iPhone 4S is actually part of iOS 5, the operating system upgrade that’s also available as a free update for recent iPhones and iPod Touches and all iPads. Apple says it has 200 new features, a fair number of which are a big deal.

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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.

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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.

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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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