At today's Apple event, a new iPhone was announced. Surprise, surprise: the iPhone 4S is a modest upgrade, at least in terms of design. However, it shares a benefit with its larger iPad 2 cousin: significantly improved graphics.
It's no longer a secret or even an aspiration: the iPhone and iPod Touch are now the most popular gaming handhelds on the planet. The Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita are, at best, hopefuls trying to steal away Apple's newfound crown. So, how does Apple's latest iPhone hold up the mantle as the reigning gaming handheld du jour?
In short: by continuing to do what it does best.
Apple's iPhone event (live blog)
Apple unveils iPhone 4S
iPhone 4S First Take
Apple's iPod lineup (2011)
Full coverage: Apple's iPhone event
A demonstration of Epic Games' Infinity Blade 2, a sequel to last year's graphically compelling iOS game, set the stage for an iterative year. Epic Games President Mike Capps boasted that the new iPhone game uses Unreal Engine 3 and some of the same graphic techniques as the Xbox 360 tentpole Gears of War 3. Obviously, the iPhone 4S isn't Xbox 360-quality, but perhaps it's getting close: after all, the Xbox 360 hardware is, at its core, six years old.
A new A5 processor and improved graphics should add the same step-up visual boost that the iPad 2 saw over the original iPad. The result for the iPad isn't immediately obvious to the casual eye, but games like Real Racing 2 and Machinarium have definitely benefited from improved graphics punch.
On the iPhone, the smaller-scale screen and more tightly packed pixels might not fully show what these updated graphics can truly accomplish, but the move to more advanced graphics should benefit the iPad 2. Game development, which centered on the iPhone 4's graphic capabilities, will likely shift and gear up a little. This could result in developers aiming higher on the iPad 2 as well, since the two devices should have very similar hardware.
Game Center has been upgraded, allowing friend suggestions and more social connectivity. Anything would help at this point: compared with Xbox Live, Game Center feels sterile as a social gaming hub. Hopefully Apple's Game Center will evolve into a better Xbox Live/PSN counterpart, but for now it's not a very compelling part of the iPhone gaming experience.
An improved 8-megapixel camera with facial recognition could mean a new generation of augmented-reality games, a subgenre that's been gaining a little traction. Camera-based AR games are often more novelty than substance, but perhaps the new iPhone 4S can inspire a few new ideas.
It wasn't advertised at today's Apple event, but the iPhone 4S has Bluetooth 4.0. The lower-energy spec could perhaps make wireless controllers or peripherals for gaming a more realistic and non-battery-killing possibility.
Battery life should be the same as for last year's iPhone 4, if the iPad 2 is any indicator. With a promised 10 hours of video playback and 9 hours of Wi-Fi browsing, gaming should net a battery life somewhere in that ballpark, most likely less. The Nintendo 3DS lasts 3 to 5 hours on a charge, and the PlayStation Vita might not fare much better, so the iPhone 4S remains very competitive if it can deliver the same kind of time--although, of course, depleting your phone's battery playing games can be far more annoying than draining the charge from a 3DS.
Is this enough to make you want to buy an iPhone 4S, or does this fail to address some of the basic concerns gamers have had about Apple's iOS platform--such as its lack of physical buttons? Sound off below.