iPhone 4S: what’s changed and what’s inside – first look review

The low-down on Apple's souped-up refresh of the iPhone 4
Photo of iPhone 4S: what’s changed and what’s inside – first look

As expected, Apple has launched a successor to its popular iPhone 4 smartphone, but it’s not an iPhone 5: instead, the company has concentrated on boosting the internals while keeping the exterior the same, calling the result an iPhone 4S.

Same box, new tricks
It’s not the first time Apple has done that: the successor to the iPhone 3G was the iPhone 3GS, which boosted the specifications considerably over its predecessor without gaining a whole new version number of its own. As a result, we may expect to wait at least a year to see a true iPhone 5 – but is that really such a disaster?

Looking purely at appearances, you’d be forgiven for thinking so: the iPhone 4S is largely identical to the iPhone 4. It shares the same overall appearance and dimensions. The screen, too, is the same, keeping the resolution and size of its predecessor. The weight is slightly heavier at 140g compared to 137g for the iPhone 4, which reveals the true secret at the heart of the iPhone 4S: its internals have been drastically overhauled.

What’s inside?
In place of the iPhone 4′s ARM-based A4 processor is the new dual-core A5, originally developed for the iPad 2 tablet. Running at 1GHz but featuring two processing cores, Apple claims – rather disingenuously, to be honest – that it offers “twice” the processing power, and with dual-core graphics, Apple claims around seven times the graphics performance of the iPhone 4.

Currently, Apple is keeping quiet on the amount of RAM that the iPhone 4S features. With the iPad 2 – which includes the same dual-core A5 processor – packing 512MB, it seems unlikely that the iPhone 4S will feature more, despite some tech blogs guessing at a 1GB total to bring it level with rival Android smartphones.

For storage, there’s still no break with tradition in the form of a microSD slot for expansion, but the iPhone 4S will début in 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB flavours. If you’re wondering why you might need 64GB of storage, it’s time to take a look at the back of the phone.

iPhone 4S camera

Happy snapper
The frankly disappointing camera of the iPhone 4 has been completely replaced with an 8-megapixel beast feauturing autofocusing, face detection, an LED flash, video recording in 1080p Full HD resolution with image stabilisation, and automatic geotagging. It’s a massive improvement over what has been on offer before, and brings the iPhone on a par with rival devices like Samsung’s Galaxy S II which offers the same specifications.

Sadly, there’s a catch: when used with Apple’s AirPlay technology – which allows wireless streaming of video to an Apple TV box – recorded videos will only play back at 720p resolution. To get the full quality out of the camera, buyers will have to fork out for an Apple Digital AV Adapter or Apple VGA Adapter, either of which will allow 1080p playback on an external display.

Improvements in efficiency in the new A5 processor have also boosted the device’s battery life to around eight hours of talk time, six hours of Internet use, or up to 10 hours of video playback. It’s a welcome improvement, but still means that you’ll be investing in an external battery pack or charging the device during the day.

That’s where Apple’s decision to keep the same form factor starts to shine: any cases designed for the iPhone 4 will fit the iPhone 4S, meaning that those planning to upgrade don’t need to factor in the additional cost of a new case when budgeting for their purchase.

Changes to the antenna
Apple has also tweaked the design of the antenna, which has plagued the iPhone 4 since launch with claims of dropped calls when the device is held in a certain way. Although Apple still recommends the use of ‘bumpers’ to keep your hands out of electrical contact with the external antenna wrapped around the edge of the handset, a dual-antenna design claims to reduce the chances of dropped calls.

Software-wise, the iPhone 4S ships with iOS 5 – which will also be made available to older iOS devices as a free upgrade on 12th October – which includes numerous improvements and tweaks. The biggest change, however, is an iPhone 4S exclusive: Siri.

iPhone 4S Siri personal assistant

Designed as a personal assistant, Siri first launched back on the iPhone 3G before being snapped up by Apple and developed internally. At its heart is a voice recognition and voice synthesis engine, which allows the user to ask questions like “what’s the weather like” and receive a spoken response.

While there are similar packages available for other smartphone platforms already, Apple claims that integration between the iPhone’s internals and Siri is tight – allowing users to choose music, browse the web, and even set alarms simply by speaking aloud.

The demo during the iPhone 4S unveiling was certainly impressive, but it remains to be seen how usable the technology is in the real world: problems with regional accents often leave Siri-like packages unusable for a large portion of the population, and for others it becomes little more than an unused gimmick.

Worldwide compatibility
Finally, Apple has added a new radio to the system which allows for connection to far more mobile networks than ever before – which is great news for travellers to countries that use less-traditional frequencies for their devices. The wireless has also been tweaked to include 802.11n – albeit in 2.4GHz mode only – and the latest Bluetooth 4.0 standard.

The iPhone 4S is due to launch on the 14th of October – two days after the release of iOS 5 – but so far no UK carriers are offering details on pricing. The US models are set at $199 for the 16GB, $299 for the 32GB, and $399 for the 64GB versions – but that price includes a mandatory two-year contract, meaning that the iPhone 4S will likely fetch a pretty penny when it launches as a SIM-free handset.

Key Facts:
Display: 3.5-inch 960×640 multi-touch oleophobic LCD
Processor: Dual-core ARM-based A5 1GHz
Memory: Not officially revealed, believed to be 512MB
Operating system: iOS 5
Storage: 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB, no expansion
Connectivity: Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n, UMTS, GSM, CDMA
Weight: 140g
Size: 115.2×58.6×9.3mm
Ports: Custom iPod connector, 3.5mm stereo audio output
Battery: Lithium-ion, 8 hours talk time/200 hours standby

Positives
  • Dual-core Cortex A5 priocessor, 8-megapixel camer, 1080p video
Negative
  • We may not see an iPhone 5 for some time yet.