As expected, Apple introduced the iPhone 4S at its "Let's Talk iPhone" event on October 4.
The news was underwhelming and disappointing to many who were also expecting an iPhone 5. There's also the fact that the iPhone 4S looks almost identical to the iPhone 4. However, there's more than meets the eye, as Apple made a number of changes under the hood to improve on performance, including a faster processor, a more advanced camera, and a new antenna design. In addition, Apple expanded its family to include Sprint and a 64GB model (finally!).
Offering more choice will certainly help Apple's cause, but is there enough to persuade iPhone 4 owners to upgrade? Read on for more about the iPhone 4S and our initial hands-on impressions--we took a Sprint handset for a brief spin just after the event--and be sure to let us know what you think in the comments section below.
iPhone 4S Preview
Processor and battery life
The iPhone 4S features Apple's A5 dual-core 1GHz processor along with a dual-core GPU. Apple says the new chipset will make the iPhone 4S twice as fast and offer graphics performance that is seven times faster than the iPhone 4's. Despite the more powerful processor, the company claims the smartphone will be able to provide 8 hours of talk time over 3G, 14 hours over 2G, 6 hours of browsing over 3G, 9 hours via Wi-Fi, 10 hours of video playback, and 40 hours of music playback.
The performance upgrades are indeed welcome. We're never ones to pass up more speed in a mobile device, and if Apple can make that happen without hampering battery life, then all the better. The promised times are impressive, but manufacturer promises can be just that. Though the Samsung Epic Touch 4G and Motorola Droid Bionic had rated talk times of 8 hours and 10.8 hours, respectively, they actually lasted a less stellar 7 hours each in CNET's lab tests.
During our brief demonstration of the iPhone 4S, the handset did operate smoothly and speedily. We weren't able to test it against the iPhone 4 in a side-by-side comparison to notice exactly how much of a boost the new A5 chip offers, but a change for the better is definitely there.
The feature that Apple touted most during the event was the new voice assistant called Siri. It doesn't completely replace the current Voice Control feature, but it certainly does a whole lot more. Basically, Siri is designed to deliver information or follow commands that you give it. For example, you can check the weather, ask for a contact's address, set up a reminder, get directions, and ask for obscure trivia like the height of Mount Everest. You speak to a robotic female voice (you can't change her identity) and access the feature by holding down the Home button.
We used it a few minutes and asked for, among other things, the next day's weather, the mileage between Cupertino, Calif., and Seattle, a reminder to book air tickets to Chicago, and information about the capital of Canada. It responded to most of our questions and commands quickly, but it flaked on finding that Ottawa is the capital of our neighbors to the north (according to Siri, she "didn't have enough information"). We're not sure why that was a problem for her; Siri uses Wikipedia to check facts, and we know that Wikipedia has an article on Ottawa.
Exclusive hands-on photos (CNET UK)
Despite the omission, it's a fun and useful feature that we imagine many people will like. The challenge for Apple will be to fully integrate hands-free technology. You will be able to activate Siri with a Bluetooth headset (no word on if you can do it with a wired headset), but we understand that car integration is "coming." Given the abundance of hands-free driving laws, Apple will need to make Siri fully accessible to drivers while they keep both hands on the wheel. Siri will be in beta mode when it launches and will support English, French, and German. More languages will come later.
The iPhone 4's 5-megapixel camera was already great, but it's about to get better. The iPhone 4S has an 8-megapixel camera with autofocus, flash, f/2.4 aperture lens, and a backside-illuminated CMOS sensor that allows 73 percent more light than the previous sensor and should deliver better low-light performance. A hybrid IR filter is also onboard for better color accuracy. Apple also claims the new camera performs 33 percent faster than the iPhone 4's camera, and the A5 processor has a built-in image processor that adds face detection and 26 percent better auto white balance.
We tried a few indoor shots with the camera and definitely noticed a change from the iPhone 4. In addition to the sharper details, most colors were brighter. We'll have to save our final opinion until we can gauge the camera under several conditions (a sunny day, with a flash, and so on), but we like what we see so far.
Videos also get a boost with the ability to shoot 1080p HD video clips at 30 frames per second and with video stabilization. Yet, even with all the improvements, CNET digital imaging editor Lori Grunin is quick to note that while the iPhone might have a killer camera, it's no camera killer.
Though it received very little attention during Apple's presentation, the addition of Sprint is one of the day's high points. Over the past few weeks, it was pretty obvious the iPhone family would expand, but that doesn't take away from the fact that millions of new people can now join the iOS family without switching carriers. What's more, Sprint is promising that it will keep its unlimited data plans, at least for now. That alone is a big point in the carrier's favor over AT&T and Verizon Wireless. On the other hand, we'll have to see just how the increase in data-hungry users will test Sprint's network and how the carrier's strong Android lineup will withstand the new competition.
Once we get iPhone 4 review devices we'll do a close comparison of how the Sprint models stack up against the AT&T and Verizon versions in both data speed and call quality. But at the very least, we're always glad to see more customer choice.
Live demo: Siri on Sprint iPhone 4S
As widely reported, the iPhone 4S is a dual-band world phone, meaning it supports both GSM and CDMA. This is more significant for Verizon and Sprint customers, as it will allow them to use the iPhone even if they travel overseas. What's yet to be determined is whether the carriers will unlock the preloaded SIM card, so users can swap it out for a prepaid international SIM card at their destination. We also don't know if the CDMA models will offer simultaneous voice and data over the CDMA network. At present, that's a significant limitation of the Verizon iPhone 4.
Meanwhile, for GSM customers, the iPhone 4S now supports HSDPA 14.4, so the smartphone is capable of reaching theoretical download speeds of 14.4Mbps down, 5.8Mbps up, which is double the speed of the iPhone 4. Note that AT&T has taken some liberties with its marketing by saying it will be the only first U.S. carrier to offer an HSPA+ connection, but to be classified as HSPA+, the handset would technically need to be capable of reaching theoretical download speeds of 21Mbps, such as the Samsung Galaxy S II for AT&T.
Of course, the lack of "real" 4G support for LTE on Verizon or WiMax on Sprint is troubling. Apple has its reasons, no doubt. Battery life remains an issue for high-speed phones and Apple must have decided that, at this point, it couldn't offer its optimal customer experience on a 4G handset (remember that customer experience is really what Apple is all about). Secondly, Apple never jumps on a technology that is still growing, and it must think that 4G doesn't cover enough people quite yet.
As we noted earlier, the iPhone 4S' design is nearly identical to the iPhone 4's. Aside from being 0.1 ounce heavier, the iPhone 4S is exactly the same size as its predecessor. It also features the same 3.5-inch, 960x640-pixel Retina Display with a glass back and front. One thing Apple did redesign, however, is the antenna system. The new design will hopefully prevent another Antennagate situation and Apple says to expect even better call quality.
Pricing and availability
The iPhone 4S will be available for preorder on October 7; it goes on sale October 14 from AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint in the U.S. It will come in black and white and pricing starts at $199 for the 16GB version, $299 for 32GB, and $399 for 64GB.
The iPhone 4S will debut with all the features of iOS 5, which is Apple's latest version of its operating system. We tackle that analysis in our separate iOS 5 First Take, so be sure to check it out. In short, it's not a huge upgrade, but we welcome the new features like the advanced notifications and "PC Free."
So should you buy it?
There's no question that the iPhone 4S offers several attractive new features. Granted, some gadget enthusiasts who've spent months watching the "iPhone 5" rumor mill spin out of control will be disappointed. And in a way, we sympathize. Indeed, the lack of highly anticipated features like 4G and a revamped design can be hard to swallow. But as long as the "antennagate" problems that we saw on the iPhone 4 don't return, we can live without a new design. A bigger display would be nice, but we don't see a real need for a thinner phone. Waiting for 4G is more troubling, but it fits Apple's pattern of staying behind bleeding-edge technology. Android fans may gloat, but Apple fans shouldn't be surprised.
In the end, the decision to buy an iPhone 4S will depend on your current carrier contract. If you aren't eligible for an upgrade with a rebate, then we don't think the new features are worth paying full price. On the other hand, if you can upgrade or if you're a Sprint customer waiting to get your hands on the iPhone for the very first time, then you should consider it. Sure, there's the chance that a better "iPhone 5" will come next June, but that's a long time to wait. What's more, there's no guarantee that Apple will even stick to that schedule. So go ahead and take the chance because in the cell phone world, something better is always around the corner.