iPhone 4S Review: The best gets better

For the first time since the inception of the iPhone, Apple chose to break out of their normal yearly update schedule. Almost 14 months after the release of the iPhone 4, the company has released what all would consider an evolutionary update in the form of the iPhone 4S. The iPhone 4S shows no distinguishable changes to the physical appearance from its predecessor, but that’s only half the story. Read on for our full iPhone 4S review.

Physical Appearance
Despite rumors of an all-new design in the form of an iPhone 5, this year’s new iPhone utilizes the same design as the iPhone 4. Apple chose to retain the form factor design of the iPhone 4. The outward physical appearance of the iPhone 4S is no different than the iPhone 4. The glass backing with mirror cutout Apple, iPhone logos and legal information adorn the back. The new 8- megapixel with LED flash and all new optics positioned at the top left.

iPhone 4S review

iPhone 4S connector, headphone jack

Moving to the front, again the same glass design. The front camera is VGA, which is suitable for Facetime video calling and self-portraits. The home button returns, but offers up more of a clicky feel. It’s hard to tell if this is due to improvements Apple has made in the manufacturing process or simply because it’s has the benefit of less clicks when compared to a 14 month old iPhone 4.

The retina display still provides vivid, bright colors. Apple has continued with a 3.5-inch display, which is starting to feel small. I’ve noticed a yellow cast when compared directly to the iPhone 4.

Yellow cast in iPhone 4S

iPhone 4S front camera

Both the front and back uses Apple’s anti-fingerprint oleophobic coating, which is nothing new, but remains to highly effective. After heavy usage, fingerprints largely remain unnoticeable, even more so when the display is on. Having used several devices that claim to have anti-fingerprint coating, I haven’t found a device that delivers on the promise like the iPhone 4/4S. By comparison, look at this image of the HP TouchPad’s display.

Wrapping around the sides is a brushed aluminum with volume up, volume down and the ringer switch on the left hand side. The power button and 3.5mm jack are at the top, with Apple’s standard 30-pin connector at the bottom. All models, include Sprint and Verizon CDMA models, include a micro SIM card slot. Sprint is currently shipping the iPhone 4S with the micro SIM card unlocked, but that is expected to change with a software update. The iPhone 4S is a world phone, but expect roaming costs when using the carrier supplied micro SIM cards, unless you opt for a GSM unlocked model which will be available from Apple starting in November.

Side of iPhone 4S

One of the main highlights is the camera. It gets a boost from 5 megapixels to 8 megapixels, but photo quality isn’t measured by megapixels alone. While important, any good photographer will tell you that optics are what’s most important and those have been improved with the iPhone 4S. With an f/2.4 aperture, the iPhone 4S can allow more light allowing for brighter images.

I took both my iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S out shooting one late afternoon. The iPhone 4 performed admirably, but there is a clear difference in the image quality when compared to those taken with the iPhone 4S. Images are rich with detail and have a wider color spectrum. These improvements were also noticeable from the camera app. Images on the screen were visibly sharper. The faster A5 processor also resulted in quicker shots, which will help you catch those important moments. Click through on each image below to see the full, original size image – without any editing.

Taken with iPhone 4
Taken with iPhone 4S

When it comes to photography, I’m as amateur as you can get, but I do enjoy taking photos. Like most, I don’t carry around a DSLR or a point and shoot. My iPhone is by far the camera I use most and I would forgo image quality for convenience. In looking at the quality of image produced by the iPhone 4S, that’s no longer a concern. The iPhone 4S can produce high quality images that are on par with a very good point and shoot camera. The best camera is the one you have with you and most likely that’s going to be your phone. With the iPhone 4S, using a phone for pictures is no longer a concession to sacrificing quality.

iPhone 4 vs iPhone 4S photo comparison

Sample iPhone 4 photo

Sample iPhone 4S photo

By upgrading the camera, that of course means that your video benefits from the improved optics. Apple has also included support for 1080p HD video and improved video stabilization. I had similar findings, with the iPhone 4 video appearing washed out compared to the 4S. In the sample videos below, I attempted to reproduce camera shake as I panned back from R-L to get an idea of the benefits of camera stabilization. Hardly scientific, but it seems clear there is some advantage to having this built-in.

Pictures taken with the iPhone 4 are still of a high quality and sufficient for sharing on Facebook, Twitter or via MMS, iMessage. The new camera on the iPhone 4S is perfect for those who are looking to print or preserve memories. Improved optics and increased megapixels offer a significant improvement.

Before this new model was introduced, I would often speak to people who picked up the iPhone 4, despite rumors of a new model. For them, it was hard to imagine a phone offering more and the iPhone 4 is no slowpoke. When you compare the old with the new, things just move faster on the 4S. Apps open quicker, camera is more responsive and anything that is processor intensive will see a boost. Gamers will rejoice at 7 times the graphic processing power of the previous generation.

Browsing in iOS 5 on the iPhone 4S resulted in web pages rendering faster, when compared with the iPhone 4 on iOS 5. If you utilize your phone to browse the web on a daily basis, these improvements might be the highlight for you, as they are for me.

When I compare the devices, these are improvements that are nice, but definitely not earth shattering. I’ve been going back and forth between the devices over the past few days. When moving to the older model, it’s not as if I feel like I moved from a BMW 335i to Prius. Side by side, you’ll appreciate the improvements, but that’s not a real world scenario.

Apple has included a new virtual assistant in iOS 5 called Siri that responds to voice commands. Press and hold the home button from either the lock-screen or anywhere within the phone to initiate interaction with Siri. You’ll see a microphone and hear two short tones. From there, you can ask Siri a question or issue one of many supported commands.

Siri iPhone 4S

Apple has packaged a new Reminders app into iOS 5 and it works hand in hand with Siri, making it more useful than traditional to-do lists. Siri has no problem matching contact names, setting appointments, making calls or sending text messages.

Reminders in iOS

Siri can also provide you with the weather and interject that it’s going to be “windy tomorrow”. It’s this sort of response coupled with the name that creates an odd-like bond with Siri. My wife has started to feel some competition from Siri.

For me personally, I wonder how useful I’ll find Siri when in public places. Are you going to be that guy who starts talking to Siri in a Starbucks? Speaking of which, Siri is very adept at finding places and even maps. “Siri, find me a Starbucks” makes quick work of that task. I’ve found Siri to be great at finding places nearby. Siri also has a sense of humor, as evidenced in this screenshot when I pressed her to tell me a joke.

Siri jokes

Siri is currently in beta, but works quite well for simple tasks and saves time by avoiding keystrokes. In some ways, the beta tag should extend to users, who now have to rethink how we get things done. Siri changes things, for the better.

Software: iOS 5
Included on the iPhone 4S is Apple’s iOS 5, the latest update to the operating system that includes over 200 new features. If you have an iPhone 3GS or greater, then you’ll receive the free iOS 5 update. While some manufacturers hold updates hostage with exclusives, that’s not the case with Apple. That hasn’t seemed to hinder sales, but it is one less reason to upgrade.

If you are considering an iPhone for the first time, there is plenty to love about iOS 5. Notifications appear directly on your lock screen and with a swipe, you can respond to a text message, tweet or any other notification. There are no shortage of apps that make use of notifications. Understanding this, Apple has created the notification center, where you can sort messages by time received or manually. It’s also easy to turn off notifications from specific apps. From anywhere with the software, you can access the notification center by swiping down from the the top of the screen. This can reveal weather, stocks, missed calls, messages and others.

Notification Center

If a notification comes in during usage, it will appear briefly at the top of the screen and then disappear. It leaves no trail or icon to indicate what notifications might be sitting in the notifications center. While notifications have improved in iOS 5, they are still lacking compared to Android and webOS still remains as the best in class for notifications. It would be great to have an option to see a small icon at the top, but I’m guessing Apple realized this could fill up quite quickly. Either way, I’m not 100% satisfied with how notifications are handled, so hopefully there will be improvements in a future iOS update.

As noted above, the iPhone 4S benefits from advanced optics that puts it on par with a high quality point and shoot camera. With iOS 5, you can easily edit photos directly on the iPhone. Features include rotate, auto-enhance, red-eye removal and cropping. These features all dead easy to use and there are an assortment of ways to share the final image.

iOS 5 Photo options

Also included is iMessage, or Apple’s version of BBM that has been so popular on BlackBerry devices. You can iMessage anyone with an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch and it will not count as a text message. It works exactly the same as SMS, but iMessage has the uncanny ability to know whether the recipient is also using iOS 5. From the user perspective, messages that show up in light blue are iMessages and will not count against your text messaging allocation.

Twitter integration is also baked into iOS 5. You can tweet photos directly from the Photos app. Safari, Camera, YouTube and Maps also allow you to tweet directly from within the app. With any of the above tweets, iOS 5 allows you to personalize your message, add your location and send. All with great ease, which is the hallmark of an established operating system.

Twitter integration iOS 5

PC Free Set-up
Nothing worse than cracking the plastic on a new iPhone and having to go through the customary iTunes set-up process. That is officially a thing of the past with iOS 5 and the iPhone 4S. Set-up and activation can be accomplished without a PC or Mac. While it’s still advised that you make use of a computer in order to transfer media to and from, the PC Free setup is a welcome feature.

There are over 200 new features in iOS 5. Please consider reading our iOS 5 Guide for a more in-depth look at the most important new features and how to make use of them. As someone considering the iPhone 4S, you should feel comforted that iOS 5 is a highly effective and refined operating system, that is very easy to use.

A new feature in iOS 5 makes it easy to enjoy your content on other devices. Every new iCloud account comes with 5GB of free storage with a vast array of upgrade options 10GB/$20, 20GB/$40, 50GB/$100. Take a photo with your iPhone 4S and the image is wireless transmitted to iCloud, whereby it’s pushed to all of your iOS devices and your Mac. Apple calls this your “Photo Stream”. These photos, in addition to your apps do not count against your 5GB allocation.

iCloud also syncs your contacts across all of your devices, making wired syncing a thing of the past. One caveat to iCloud is that it requires iOS 5 and Mac OS X Lion. Getting all of your devices updated to support iCloud can be a bit of task, especially those who are weary of upgrading your computer or phones, for fear of incompatibilities or change.



There have been a number of reports in our iPhone forums of poor battery life. My experience is that the iPhone 4S is for some reason, not on par with the battery life of my iPhone 4. It could be based on usage patterns of the phones (SIRI) or an issue that plagues that A5 dual-core processor. It’s quite possible this could be fixed with a software update.

iPhone 4S battery life

iPhone 4S Review: Pros & Cons


  • A5 processor delivers noticeable speed boost
  • Design and overall build quality is still excellent
  • Photos and video are more vibrant and clear thanks to new optics, increased megapixels
  • Siri offers a new way to interact and accomplish tasks with your iPhone
  • iCloud offers painless backups and syncing across all of your iOS devices and Macs
  • Available on Sprint, AT&T and Verizon, there are more choices than ever when it comes to selecting a wireless carrier


  • 3.5 inch display starting to feel small
  • Glass back can easily shatter if dropped, expensive to replace
  • At times, Siri earns his/her beta tag
  • Battery life lacking compared to iPhone 4
  • Notifications in iOS still need improvement

If you like the iPhone 4, then you’ll love the iPhone 4S. It’s faster, takes better pictures and most will find value in Siri, Apple’s voice activated virtual assistant. This phone remains the gold standard in smartphones, despite this being an evolutionary upgrade. There are no physical changes to the external hardware and the 3.5 inch display is starting to feel dated.

Apple iPhone 4S review

The only drawback to the iPhone 4S is that it’s not an iPhone 5. The iPhone 5 not a reality today and won’t be until sometime in mid to late 2012 at the earliest. That being said, iPhone 4 owners who don’t have a need for point and shoot quality photos, might want to sit this one out. Siri is amazing technology, but I’d surmise that users will find a varying degrees of usefulness.

Apple has taken a winner and improved upon it. Better internals, better software and it still has the best in class selection of apps of any operating system. If you are in the market for new smartphone, you cannot go wrong with the iPhone 4S.

8 thoughts on “iPhone 4S Review: The best gets better”

  1. Good review and fair! I think the reason many people do upgrade year after year is because of the high resale value. That says a lot for the iPhone. I’m very happy with the iPhone 4s. The big draw for me was the camera. I consider myself a budding Iphoneographer…heck anyone can be. I even sold my Canon G-10 because I never used it! So with that said, I am glad I got the new phone. The photos are spectacular. That enough sealed the deal for me.

  2. I just bought a re-furbished iphone 4s yesterday to use just for photos and video . I’m 72 years old and I had back and neck surgery years ago and my pictures end up blurred 90% of the time. Is there a stabilizer in the 4S ? Is there more than 640 resolution?Is that adjustable? Can I not print larger images like 4X6 and 5X7 without them being grainy?I thought 8 megapixel was very good as far as pictures go.Can you please help me? Thank you so much.Ray


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