Text, photos and video by Gadjo Cardenas Sevilla
We weren't too bothered by the fact that the iPhone 4S looked exactly like its predecessor, the iPhone 4. We had grown fond of the sleek yet somewhat fragile glass and stainless steel form factor, which we still feel is an enduring if not iconic design.
There's still quite nothing like the look and feel of the iPhone 4, many of our sentiments for last year's model still hold true for the iPhone 4S. As for the new and revised features, we gave those a proper testing and here's what we found out.
A lot has changed in the smartphone space since the iPhone 4 became the top dog in the market. Dual core processors are spilling forth offering users more power. Larger and higher definition screens are also increasingly popular features that we're seeing from Apple's competitors. 5 megapixel cameras are the low-end spec right now with the more premium handsets shipping with 8 megapixel or even 12 megapixel cameras with better optics.
Smartphones, it seems, are following the path that desktop computers were on a decade ago. Where piling on specs and features is a method used by manufacturers to differentiate products and keep users upgrading thinking that more is better.
One area that few have managed to compete with Apple is overall user experience.
How easy smartphones are to use and how well they get things done should be the focus. Certainly, speed factors here as well, but faster processors aren't everything specially if apps and software aren't designed to maximize their performance.
The good thing for users and developers of the iPhone 4, is that the 4S can only improve the current experience. Screen size is the same as the previous model and performance of apps will be the same or better on the newer phone.
Apple, it seems, was content to improve on a number of key features of the iPhone 4S. Bolstering the aspects of the phone that have made it popular such as its OS, which is now more dynamic and more useful. While some are saying that iOS is starting to show its age, the upgrade to iOS 5 is comprehensive enough to keep it chugging happily for a few more years.
The camera, which in the iPhone 4 took the top slot on Flickr, has been greatly improved and the upper level storage capacity has been increased from 32GB to 64GB, matching that of the entry level MacBook Air.
Many of the iPhone 4S's most notable features can be enjoyed by older iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4 models thought the free iOS 5 update. iOS 5 is brings a number (over 200) or new features to Apple's now venerable mobile OS.
The biggest ones in my opinion, which are sure to change the way we use our devices, are iMessage (free on WiFi), the new Notification Center, the Photo Stream ability to share photos across devices and the PC-Free over WiFi syncing which are extremely useful.
Apple now matches many of the higher end smartphones in terms of power with its A5 Dual Core processor. This is identical to the heart and soul of the iPad 2 but downclocked from 1Ghz to 800 MHz, presumably to extend battery life.
The battery capacity has been slightly increased as well, possibly to counteract the drain from the Siri Personal Assistant which now permeates the iOS and can be accessed through many of Apple's critical apps.
We'll talk about Siri in detail later, but let's just say that by requiring constant connection to the Internet (via iCloud) will take a bit more juice and will drain battery life faster so the iPhone 4 might still have a longer battery life.
The iPhone 4's RAM was discovered by iFixit to still be 512MB, same as the iPad 2 and the iPhone 4 which might seem disappointing but as we found out, this doesn't affect performance much.
The A5 processor's graphics capability is so much faster and capable of complex realtime renders that the speed boost is palpable.
In a straight up comparison between the iPhone 4 and the 4S, the newer model feels more responsive and quicker to open apps as well as loading complex webpages.
When you fire up apps like Google Maps and see how fast the iPhone 4S determines location, locks in on a section of the map and then renders the graphics, then you realize just how fast this phone is.
For most uses, however, like reading mail, playing music or making phone calls, the A5 doesn't really factor in any noticeable way.
I suppose it is engineered much like a car's turbo boost, the power is there if and when you need it, which is good. Although, with iOS 5's multitasking capabilities enabled, users now have to consider shutting down apps they might have opened but aren't using to make sure these aren't sucking the battery dry.
Apple still hasn't offered a way to "kill all" background apps and we're not sure if it is because it doesn't need to or because they expect users to figure it out for themselves.
Siri is the crown jewel of the iPhone 4S experience and a sign of how far speech recognition and artificial intelligence technology has come in such a short time.
It is 2011, we don't have flying cars, but we sure have talking smartphones.
While still in beta and limited to U.S.-based location information (International locations, including Canada, will be enabled in 2012), we had a great time getting Siri to set appointments, read e-mails, type out iMessages, calculate tips, set timers, and even compute complex mathematical and scientific questions. Like, say, the number of calories in a yam (answer is 75, by the way).
Siri, which is invoked by pressing the home button or by lifting the iPhone 4S to one's ear, requires constant connection to the Internet via WiFi or 3G. The system quickly tries to determine what one needs by trawling through Websites and search engines.
Siri is available within applications through a microphone button in the virtual keyboard.
A transformative technology that permeates some but not all of the built-in Apple apps, Siri can also be used to dictate response to emails, Tweets, Facebook status updates and anything that could require text input.
A new key in the on screen keyboard with a microphone indicates that dictation is possible. We tested this feature thoroughly and the dictation capabilities of the iPhone 4S are the best we've tried. Even people with unusual accents or with unclear voices have been able to successfully put Siri to good use.
Press this button and you can speak instead of type. Android users should be familiar with the dictation aspect, as they've had access to such a feature for some time. But Siri's key feature is that it can talk back. Constantly learning its user's preferences, Siri should improve through time.
We feel Siri is the starting point of productive human to computer communications. We've tested voice control apps before and they are pretty good but Siri is far better and more polished plus it answers back, sometimes even with some sass.
Me: Siri, who is Hal Jordan (hoping she would know he was the first Green Lantern)
Siri: I don't really want to talk about Hal.
This technology is something Apple can and should leverage on the iPad and on the desktop as well. It should release the API's so developers can integrate Siri into their applications and users like myself, who hate typing or rather mistyping on a smarphone screen, can just speak out and get things done up to five times faster.
Dreams do come true. Many years ago we took a rubberband to our Palm III PDA and our Nokia 3210 and said, wouldn't it be great if these two devices were one? And some time after that the Handspring Treo came out.
More recently we've been lugging a DSLR, a video camera, a voice recorder and an assortment of test smartphones to business meetings, industry events and launches and thinking it would be great if we could just carry one device to shoot photos, video if necessary and manage calls, Tweets and email.
The iPhone 4S is the closest we've come to that one device thanks to the increased capacity, better A5 processor and the notable leap forward with the camera. Below are some examples of photos taken from the iPhone 4S. These are unaltered and just as the camera took them.
Now an 8 megapixel camera with a backlit sensor and built in image stabilization. We found the iPhone 4S camera to be the fastest one on any phone that we tried. You can even keep tapping the shutter button (or the volume up key) and the camera will keep taking pictures in quick succession.
In terms of quality, it rivals only the Nokia N8 (which has a stunning 12 megapixel camera and a large sensor with Carl Zeiss optics) and can compare with some of our favourite standalone advance point and shoot cameras.
With enough patience and good lighting, the iPhone 4S camera is the only one you need. It can, for example, sense up to 10 faces for proper facial recognition focus. The built in editing tools anticipate the most used features such as cropping, red eye removal and auto enhance.
In terms of video (see above) we were impressed with the iPhone 4S digital image stabilization which is pretty impressive for a software solution. We would have liked a way to zoom in and out while shooting video or even choose the size and resolution (for the web, we find that 1080p HD is overkill) but there will probably be third party apps for that. If the Flip video camera wasn't already dead, this feature on the iPhone 4S would have buried it as the optics Apple put in the iPhone 4S are superb.
The iPhone 4S isn't a revolutionary new product or form factor but the refinement of an already outstanding device.Like last year's flagship Porsche upgraded with a faster engine, new interiors and higher top speed.
The iPhone 4S has a new antenna design that seems to hold a stronger cellular signal on our carrier Telus. We also found that we saw a few more WiFi hotspots on the 4S than on the iPhone 4, perhaps there are some improvement in the WiFI as well. Battery life was just as good as our iPhone 4 but bugging Siri for the first few days did seem to use up aroun 25 per cent more battery in a day.
With the iPhone 4S and Siri in tow, we really did feel for the first time that we had a computer in our pocket, one that could match our tablet and even our notebook for most tasks.
A lot of its features can be enjoyed if you already have an iPhone 4 so unless you really want the new camera and Siri (or can sell your iPhone 4, point-and-shoot camera or handycam to cover the cost), getting an upgrade on a whole three year contract might not be ideal.
Users who are new or returning to the Apple ecosystem or anyone with an iPhone 3GS or older, will be treated to a solid upgrade with a refined device and faster performance, a state of the art personal assistant as well as all the best features of iOS 5 and Apple's closed but successful ecosystem of apps, music, movies and books.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5