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The iPhone 4S is the best disappointment Apple has ever released. The build-up to the company’s next iPhone was so over the top, so astronomically hyped, that for some, anything short of the iPhone 6 would have been a letdown. When the 4S was announced, “in-the-know” tech heads chastised it for retaining the same body they hailed as the best of all time a little over a year ago. But no matter how vocal the vocal minority might have been, the iPhone 4S has flown off shelves at a rate that just might make it the fastest-selling gadget of all time.
Surprising for a device that looks and feels identical to its predecessor. Everyone wants to know what’s next for Apple’s design team—so much so, that the timeless, utilitarian iPhone 4 body’s only competitor is premonitions of an iPhone 5 body. The 4S utilizes the reorganized antennas and volume buttons of the CMDA iPhone 4, which effectively kills Antennagate and brings peace to case manufacturers across the world. If you’re upgrading from a 3GS or older iPhone, or (God forbid) a different kind of phone, you’ll notice a staggering solidness about the device. The iPhone 4S and 4 are the only phones that feel like a Leica, and despite what some say, they most assuredly do not have body image issues.
Other disappointments are more grounded in reality. LTE is missing from the iPhone 4S -- a feature that may be sorely missed in the months to come as the carriers, who have committed to the standard, begin rolling out their uber-fast network speeds. Will that make the iPhone 4S the slow kid on the block? Unlikely. Apple put its hardware engineers to work creating new mojo for the phone’s antenna, which for the first time ever can intelligently switch between transmitting and receiving. Apple advertises that this little upgrade effectively doubles HSDPA data speeds to 14.4 Mbps. Mileage will vary based on carrier, area, and more, but we never got remotely close to those speeds in our tests, although the 4S was always faster than our already zippy iPhone 4. We’re not just talking about the data speed, either.
You know that blazing-fast tablet, the iPad 2? Well, thanks to the Prometheans in Cupertino, the iPhone 4S now has that same fire. Well, almost. The iPad 2’s dual core A5 clocks at 1GHz, while the chip clocks at a slightly lower 800MHz in the 4S. Either way, safe money says you probably won’t notice.
That’s because the A5 is almost unnoticeable in everyday tasks. The iPhone 4 was already so fast that its successor’s faster loading times don’t feel substantial. However, the App Store is about to change that. Two major AAA games are already headed exclusively to the 4S (Infinity Blade 2 and Grand Theft Auto III) and further fragmentation is inevitable. We already know how much of a powerhouse the iPhone 4S is on paper, but until these “mega apps” release, you’ll mostly find the A5’s utility tucked away in other areas. Currently, the chip makes the most difference in designed processes, like the Apple designed image processing signals in the camera.
That camera (which we’re crudely and categorically lumping the new sensor and video capabilities into) is arguably the most consequential hardware revision on the whole phone. The 4S can take 8MP pictures, it boasts a wider aperture for more light, and comes loaded with a hybrid IR filter for brighter colors. If you’re not one for camera geekery, suffice it to say that the 4S just about always takes better photos than the iPhone 4. Colors are far more vivid, and the video is enchantingly smooth, even when rogue techniques are employed (like walking and filming without a tripod -- every film school kid’s nightmare!) the onboard image stabilization makes it so the video doesn’t wiggle much.
Oh yeah, and then there’s Siri, the earth-shaking revolution just waiting to do for voices what touch screens did for fingers. She’ll change the face of technology, but for now she’s just a beta seed of her true potential. And that’s okay with us, because she’s still got plenty of tricks up her sleeves. Even her unfinished presence on the iPhone 4S will reduce texting-induced car crashes, find you an oil change in a jiffy, and help you dictate long notes faster than you can type them. But Siri is still very much a beta product, and she doesn’t do everything we’d like her too.
Her most obvious limitation is her inability to read anything for you other than incoming text messages. Even unread texts from a few hours ago are outside of Siri’s reach. You can ask her to pull up your unread emails, but -- to the chagrin of workaholics who don’t have time to just drive -- she can’t tell you what they say. Dictation can be a bit of a thorn in the side as well. “Take a note” often triggers SIri to proudly create and present you with a note containing the word “Taken,” which is useful only if you’re repeatedly trying to jot down the name of your favorite Liam Neeson action movie.
The bottom line. If you’re looking for validation to upgrade, upgrade proudly. If you’re on a carrier that doesn’t cover your area well, upgrade and switch. If you’re on a 3GS, well, it shouldn’t even be a question. But if you’re knee-deep in a contract with your iPhone 4, there is no decisive answer. The iPhone 4S is a whole lot of phone -- almost objectively the best phone in the world -- and even the tiniest upgrades make huge differences over the course of a two-year contract. While we’re as excited as anyone to see the next numbered iPhone update, we’re more than pleased with the little disappointment that ends in “S”.
Apple iPhone 4S
2 year contract with Verizon, AT&T, or Sprint with a data plan.
Siri, carrier options, higher storage capacity, better battery, faster processor, 8-megapixel camera, 1080p Video
Siri doesn’t work offline -- in any capacity. 100 hour drop in battery’s standby time. Slow HDR photography. Some battery issues cropping up