Apple iPhone 4S review: Fast 4ward

GSMArena team, 21 October 2011.

Unboxing the Apple iPhone 4S

No surprises with the packaging. As usual, the box is barely bigger than the iPhone 4S itself and has room for just the bare essentials. We found the usual charger, a USB cable and the same set of 3.5mm earphones as the one we got with the 3GS and the iPhone 4.

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Nothing surprising in the Apple iPhone 4S box

Amidst the booklets (an iPhone 4S brochure and product guide) there are the SIM eject tool and a couple of Apple logo stickers. Thatís that.

We though we'd find the newly announced microUSB adapter in our European retail package, but thereís no such thing. We wonder what the EU commission has to say about it.

Apple iPhone 4S 360-degree spin

The iPhone 4S has exactly the same size and styling as its predecessor. It's still one of the best-looking smartphones weíve seen. The impressively slim handset measures 115.2 x 58.6 x 9.3 mm and has put on only 3 grams of weight as compared to the iPhone 4.

The Retina display - we know you want one

The iPhone 4 had probably the best screen on the market in June 2010. Of course Super AMOLEDís and ClearBlackís had a thing or two to say, but the LED-backlit IPS Retina screen had the highest resolution at 960 x 640 and eye-popping pixel density.

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The gorgeous Retina display

A year later, Super AMOLED screens are making their HD debut in the Samsung Galaxy Nexus we have the first HD display on a mobile phone. Thatís obviously something for the iPhone 5 to try and best but the old Retina is still among the standard-setting screens.

If youíre looking for hard arguments in favor of upgrading from an iPhone 4, the display is not one of them. But the honest truth is few can match the Retina for its crisp graphics, vibrant colors, deep blacks and remarkable sunlight legibility and viewing angles.

Here's our Retina display brightness test:

Display test 50% brightness 100% brightness
Black, cd/m2 White, cd/m2 Contrast ratio Black, cd/m2 White, cd/m2 Contrast ratio
Nokia N9 0 349 0 596
LG Optimus Black P970 0.27 332 1228 0.65 749 1161
Apple iPhone 4S 0.14 205 1463 0.52 654 1261
Apple iPhone 4 0.14 189 1341 0.39 483 1242
HTC Sensation 0.21 173 809 0.61 438 720
Samsung I9000 Galaxy S 0 263 0 395
Sony Ericsson XPERIA Arc 0.03 34 1078 0.33 394 1207
Samsung I9100 Galaxy S II 0 231 0 362
Nokia E6 0.52 757 1456 0.57 1004 1631
Nokia 701 0.64 619 964 1.12 1022 905


Design and construction

Alright, Apple mayíve raised their own bar too high with the Retina display, but we think theyíve got an even bigger worry. Improving a screen is a game of numbers. If all else fails, up the resolution. But what about something intangible and elusive like personality and good looks. Theyíre in for a massive challenge with the iPhone 5.

And itís all their fault. We think itís next to impossible to repeat the iPhone 4 magic. But go ahead, prove us wrong, Apple.

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The iPhone 4S next to the iPhone 4

Itís been more than a year and we still find the iPhone 4 hard to resist. One of the most minimalist phone designs is one of the most compelling. Of course, there is a flipside. The handling is a bit tricky, so be careful at least in the beginning. The finish just doesnít allow as secure a grip. The glass back is relatively resistant to scratches but unlikely to survive drops. The design has a weak spot - four of them actually - the corners. And the antenna issues were embarrassing, to say the least. The good thing is theyíve been sorted.

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The iPhone 4S next to the iPhone 4

In the end though, the iPhone 4S is nothing short of beautiful. Fifteen months and counting, and very few flagships have been able to come close.

Let's get back to work though and put things into a more practical perspective. Although itís virtually the same design, some of the old iPhone 4 accessories wonít fit the 4S. The Mute button is the reason, itís slightly offset compared to the iPhone 4, but itís just the same as on the iPhone 4 for Verizon.

Letís have a closer look at the iPhone 4S then shall, we? There is nothing surprising at the front. The VGA back facing camera and the earpiece are above the screen, with hidden proximity and ambient light sensors in the vicinity, The round Home button is below the display doing its usual job of closing apps and opening the multi-tasking bar. It now launches the Siri virtual assistant too.

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The iPhone 4S front

The left side of the Apple iPhone 4S has the usual Ring/Silent switch and the two round volume control knobs. In iOS 5 the volume up key doubles as a camera shutter too. This part of the iPhone 4S is the main reason your old case may not fit Ė the Mute key has been moved a few millimeters down, the volume keys have moved a millimeter too. We guess the new antenna design might have something to do with that.

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The left side has some changes

On the right side is the microSIM card slot. To open it you'll need the enclosed SIM eject tool. A paper clip or a pin would do too.

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The microSIM slot is on the right

The top is where the Sleep/Wake button is, as well as the standard 3.5mm audio jack. There is an extra mic too used for the active noise cancelation.

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The 3.5mm audio jack is on top

The iPhone 4S has the proprietary Apple USB cable/charger/dock connector at the bottom, as well as a tiny loudspeaker grill and mouthpiece either side of the connectivity port. No stereo speakers, yet again.

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The bottom side of iPhone 4S with the usual inhabitants

The rear features the 8 megapixel camera lens and the single LED flash. The iPhone 4S Li-Po battery has been upgraded to 1430mAh and is non user replaceable. There is no microSD card slot either, not that we expected to see one.

One last change to mention is the antenna design. Speaking of which, the bumper cases are no longer needed other than for protection. Apple learned their lesson from the iPhone 4 and while the iPhone 4S looks practically the same, it features two antennas to combat the "death grip" issue. Note that we donít mean the dual GSM / CDMA radios. Itís actually two separate antennas, each of which support both standards.

The phone can intelligently switch between the two as needed (even in the middle of a call), so if one antenna is blocked, the other takes over. This means no death grip, no matter how you hold the iPhone 4S.

Unfortunately, the SAR values have gone up and are twice as high on the iPhone 4S. Those are still within the accepted standards for these sorts of things, but itís something thatís worth noting.

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Handling the iPhone 4S

What we know for sure is the iOS 5 is not skimping on the upgrades. A beautiful phone has just become better and faster. Twice faster at times, which was really impressive. The iPhone 4 is nowhere near sluggish but itís good to know you have the extra torque when needed. And last but not least, the iPhone 4S finally makes the A-list with 8MP stills and Full HD videos. Weíve got a dual-core smartphone and a full fledged cameraphone waiting in the lab. Letís not keep it idle.

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