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iPhone 4S: the Best Smartphone for Now

by Mark W. Hibben
10/29/2011

Hesitancy or Continuity?

While the iPhone 4S may not be always be the best in any particular performance category, Apple has managed to produce the best integrated mobile device on the planet, and its new operating system, iOS 5, is by far the most accomplished, polished and useful.  In this review, we’ll take a critical look at the phone, both good and not so good.  However, in the back of my mind is a worrisome question I think is too early to answer, but I’ll offer it for the reader’s consideration:  does the lack of an all new design indicate mere continuity with the past or hesitancy about future iPhone direction in the post-Jobs era?

iPhone 4S Overview

To look at it, you would never know that it’s a 4S, since there’s no external badging or visible changes that indicate that it’s a 4S, just the now classic iPhone 4 styling using the external stainless steel frame and glass on the front and back.  The antenna configuration, SIM card, dock connector, and physical controls are exactly the same as iPhone 4.  I’ve always felt that the iPhone 4 was a beautiful design, but that Apple had somewhat sacrificed practicality to aesthetics.  Drop the phone the wrong way, and the iPhone 4 (or 4S) owner quickly discovers how impractical the glass back really is.  Sure you can wrap it in a nice protective case, but that reduces the aesthetic appeal as well as the thin-ness.  

Of all the changes that weren’t made, the failure to replace the glass back with something more durable and impact resistant was perhaps the biggest disappointment.   

The iPhone 4S also retains the 960 by 640 pixel retina display.  It is the sharpest LCD display we’ve ever seen on a phone.  We just wish that it was physically larger.  Often, displayed text and graphics seem microscopic, even when they are still clearly resolved by the naked eye.  For most people with normal eyesight, the resolution of the display is simply wasted.   The lack of a larger screen is also a disappointment, since there is certainly some room available, even if the phone stays the same overall size. 

The lack of any external changes almost certainly indicates a supply chain constraint of some sort:  either Apple is being forced to use up inventory of iPhone 4 parts, or contractual requirements with suppliers compel Apple to stay with the iPhone 4 external form factor until some production target is met.  This seems to indicate a lack of flexibility in production due to long term commitments to suppliers, which may be a disadvantage of Apple’s current contract manufacturing approach.   

Or the more disturbing interpretation is that Apple management, bereft of Jobs’ guidance in recent months, were simply unsure about what future direction to take for the iPhone, so they stayed with the tried and true for the time being.  I can only hope that wasn’t the case.

The important changes in iPhone 4S are all on the inside.  Apple now equips the iPhone with the identical A5 processor used on the iPad 2.  The A5 is what’s called a system on chip that integrates dual processor cores, graphics processing and a lot of different interfaces all on a single silicon die.  The processor cores are based on designs licensed from ARM Holdings, the British chip design firm.  Almost all smartphones in the world now use ARM technology, so it’s not unusual for their processors to be referred to as ARM processors, even though ARM doesn’t actually manufacture anything.

 

The A5 itself is currently made by Samsung, and the chip package also includes 512 MB of RAM on a separate silicon die, using Samsung’s proprietary package on package (PoP) approach. The PoP technique involves laying the memory die on top of the processor die, separated by a thin insulating layer of epoxy resin.  Use of the A5 endows the iPhone 4S with most of the features of the iPad 2, including faster processing and better graphics capability.  In effect, the iPhone 4S has become a pocket version of the iPad 2 that you can also make calls with.  Other important changes on the inside include an all new back facing camera reportedly made by Sony which is capable of 8 megapixel still photos and 1080p video recording at 30 frames per second.  Later in this review we take a closer look at these features, the faster processor, better graphics and camera, in terms of real world performance. 

Just as important as the hardware changes are the software changes in iPhone 4S.  iPhone 4S features iOS 5 which has a lot of great new features including iCloud, improved push notifications, and Siri voice recognition.  If you have any other late-model iOS devices, you’ll want to upgrade all of them to be iCloud friendly.  That means upgrading to iOS 5 for your iOS devices, which is available free, and upgrading to OS 10 Lion for Macs equipped with at least a Core 2 duo processor or one of the newer Core i3, 5 or 7 processors.  iOS devices that can be upgraded include iPhone 3Gs, iPhone 4, third and fourth generation iPod Touch, and iPad and iPad 2.

iPhone 4S Review Video Part 1: Overview

Hardware

The hardware improvements of the iPhone 4S mainly come from the A5 processor and the new back facing camera.  When it comes to processor performance, I normally don’t put much stock in benchmarks, since they often don’t equate to real life performance, but just out of curiosity I decided to compare the processor speed of the iPad 2 and the iPhone 4S.  I expected them to be identical.  Somewhat surprisingly, we found that the iPhone 4S is somewhat slower, by about 20%, not a large difference but it was very consistent.  For instance, the Sunspider JavaScript bench mark shows the difference very clearly.  This is a test that anyone can perform just by going to the Sunspider web page. Shown below is a summary of the results from testing the iPad 2 and iPhone 4S. 

Sunspider Results for iPad 2 and iPhone 4S
Sunspider 0.9.1
iPad 2 iOS 4.3 Execution Time in msec iPad 2 iOS 5.0 Execution Time in msec iPhone 4S Execution Time in msec Ratio iPad 2 iOS 5/iPhone 4S
Total 2050.7 1807.8 2244.6 0.805
3D 259.4 225.3 277.9 0.811
Access 258 221.7 275.3 0.805
Bitops 144.2 139.5 175.8 0.794
Controlflow 16 15.7 19.4 0.809
Crypto 140.1 132 162.5 0.812
Date 240.6 263.2 328 0.802
Math 186.5 174.6 220.6 0.791
Regexp 71.9 70.1 87.6 0.800
String 734 565.7 697.5 0.811

Note that iOS 5 provides some improvement in JavaScript performance over previous iOS versions, which has been a consistent trend since the iPad was introduced.  Also note that for identical iOS 5 versions, iPhone 4S is about 80% as fast as the iPad 2.  Apparently this is due to slowing the normal 1GHz clock of the A5 to 800 MHz, which Apple probably did to maintain battery life, and this may be a consequence of Apple going with the packaging of the original iPhone 4 which would have prevented using a larger battery.  According to iFixit.com, the iPhone 4S battery has virtually the same charge capacity as the original iPhone 4.  Interestingly, Apple doesn’t give a clock rate for the A5 in their iPhone 4S specs on their web site, unlike the iPad 2. 

Not that this makes much difference in terms of real life performance.  Using the videos of web page loading and application launching, we determined the elapsed time to within a 30th of a second to load a web page or launch an app.  The table below summarizes the time to load a typical web page, to launch Netflix and to launch the iOS game Infinity Blade:

User Action iPad 2 Time (s) iPhone 4S Time (s) iPhone 4S % Faster
Website Launch 4.27 4.20 1.59%
Netflix Launch 12.87 7.87 63.56%
Infinity Blade Launch 17.27 12.60 37.04%

One of the advantages of using the A5 processor is that you get the video output capabilities of the iPad 2 using either Airplay to an Apple TV to wirelessly stream video or using the Apple digital AV adapter.  Using the digital AV adapter allows you to connect to a high definition TV through a standard HDMI cable.  With this setup, you can watch your HD content at 720 p resolution which is the best currently available from iTunes.  The adapter video output will be set by the capability of your TV so that if you have a 1080p TV the iPhone 4S upscales the iTunes video to 1080p.  With 1080p output, video quality seems almost as good as Blu-ray. Of course, you can also watch any videos you take with iPhone 4S this way.  Netflix HD content also looks terrific on an HD monitor.  The Netflix iOS app seems to have really improved since the original iPad. Gone is the blockiness that used to be a problem, which is in part due to the better graphics capability of the A5. 

After the processor, the most improved hardware component is the camera.  For this part of the review, we compared the iPhone 4s, a Nokia N95, and a Sony DSC-F707.  The N95 actually looks a lot like a compact still camera, and arguably offered the best camera capabilities in a phone at the time it was released in 2007. It features an auto focus Carl Zeiss lens, a 5 megapixel focal plane, and LED flash.   The Sony is a high grade consumer digital camera released in 2001, which also has a 5 megapixel focal plane and a 5x optical zoom lens with autofocus and pop up Xenon flash.  (Show video closup of Sony).  The iPhone 4s has a 7.99 Megapixel focal plane which captures 3264 x 2448 images in JPEG format and which has an LED flash.

For this comparison we used each camera to photograph roughly the same scene.  Images have been resampled to fit in the format of this web page, however the full images can be downloaded using the links below each sample image. 

This scene is actually a difficult test for the cameras, since the sun is in the background, just out of the frame.  The scene has a lot of contrast, and also subtle color variations.  First we show the Sony, which produced the best results overall. Light flare due to the sun in the background is minimal, with some internal reflections showing up, typical of good multi-element systems. 

Click here for original unscaled image.

Next let’s look at the Nokia N95.  Here, the light flare due to the sun is very pronounced.  This is a result of sunlight scattering off the cover glass that protects the camera optics.  This is a typical problem with smartphone cameras that are meant to withstand a lot of handling. 

Click here for original unscaled image.

Now we look at the iPhone 4S image, and we see similar light flare, since the iPhone camera also has a protective cover glass.  Color reproduction and balance isn’t as good as the Sony or even the Nokia, since the red component of the image is very exaggerated.  Overall, I rate the image quality to be about equal between the Nokia and iPhone 4S, while both cameras are inferior to the Sony.  The iPhone has a sharper image than the Nokia, mostly due to the higher resolution focal plane, although that may not be apparent in web page images.  The iPhone also has a little less light flare than the Nokia, but the incorrect color balance (too red) is a strong negative.

Click here for original unscaled image.

The iPhone 4S camera also features a very competent, though not spectacular HD video capability.  The camera records at 1080p (1920 x 1080 pixels) resolution at 30 frames per second.  In bright sunlight, the images are very sharp, and playing them back through an HD monitor using the digital AV adapter provides very enjoyable viewing, though not as good as most consumer HD camcorders on the market.

iPhone 4S Review Video Part 2: Hardware

Software

iOS 5 has lots of good new features mostly involved with iCloud, but first I’d like to describe some issues in the software area that could stand to be improved, which I hope Apple will take to heart, since they involve Apple provided apps. 

With the A5 processor, the iPad 2 and iPhone 4S really provide an amazing amount of computing power for their size, quite a bit more than the early Macs.  So I wondered how useable the iPhone 4S would be as a desktop substitute.  After all you can easily connect to a monitor and a Bluetooth wireless keyboard.  But the iPhone isn’t as useable in desktop surrogate mode as it could be. 

You can view videos, and you can also peruse your iTunes music or surf the net and these all work very well because the apps involved support viewing content in landscape mode, which is mirrored on the display.  But using the iOS version of iWork on the iPhone is another matter.   The iWork applications such as Pages are only viewable in portrait mode, and changing the orientation of the phone makes no difference, the view stays locked in portrait orientation.  This is not the case for the very same apps on the iPad.  Staying locked in portrait mode makes for very poor utilization of the 1080p monitor screen real estate.  Looking at the full document makes the text almost unreadable, so that you have to zoom in to see what you’re typing.  Similarly, with Numbers, you have to zoom in to be able to see what you’re doing.  The applications still work, but using them is so inconvenient that I doubt many will bother.  I really hope Apple fixes this problem soon, since it doesn’t exist on the iPad and it really keeps the iPhone 4S from living up to its full computing potential.  

With iOS 5, Apple has also added features to Safari, foremost among them, tabbed browsing and Reader.  Unfortunately, due to a lack of screen real estate, tabbed browsing is only available for iPad.  Reader seems like a really good idea for viewing web based articles on the small retina display, except that it often doesn’t work right.  The main problem is that subsequent article pages aren’t always detected and brought into reader. 

For instance, on Technomicon, none of the subsequent article pages are visible in Reader, since they’re not really separate pages, but portions of the same page brought into visibility in the browser through Javascript functions which apparently Reader doesn’t support.  There seem to be very specific page construction requirements that the web designer must meet in order for Reader to work, but I doubt that web designers will be bending over backwards to meet those requirements, since Reader also renders their advertising invisible.  Reader seems well intentioned but misguided.  Mobile web browsers for smart phones have performed a similar function to Reader for years by reformatting the web page to improve text legibility for small screen.  Usually, these mobile web apps don’t try to eliminate the advertising or other graphics in the web page and do try to minimize changes to the web page layout.  I suggest Apple pursue a similar approach for a future version of Reader. 

Most of what’s new and good about iOS 5 is iCloud related.  iCloud is everywhere in iOS 5, from content management, personal information management and organization, push notifications, document sharing, and of course, Siri voice recognition and assistance.  In this review we’re able to cover just some of the highlights. 

The first step you should take to make effective use of iCloud is to go to the iCloud settings section of the iOS Settings app.  This settings panel shows you the iCloud enabled apps on your device and allows you to pick and choose which apps will use iCloud.  For instance, if you don’t want your calendar shared over iCloud (with your other iOS and Mac devices) all you have to do is turn it off.

iCloud automatically pushes all your purchased content, apps, iTunes music and videos, to all your devices, as well as keeps track of what you have bought.  For instance I bought a copy of Nancy Sinatra’s Bang Bang a while back (which is used in Kill Bill Volume 1 ) because I wanted to learn to play that great guitar accompaniment in the song, and then lost it when I reinstalled the OS (Windows) on the system that was hosting iTunes at the time.  I thought it was gone for good, but with iCloud, I’m now able to get that back into my collection. You just go to the Purchased panel within iTunes and click on the iCloud icon. 

Push notifications are also an iCloud service, and iOS 5 features an all new push notification center you can access any time by swiping from the top of the screen.  Push notifications aren’t just for baseball scores or weather alerts, they also show personal reminders and appointments from the reminder app and calendar.  In effect, these apps are sharing data with iCloud so that iCloud can send reminders for appointments or events using the push notification system.  (See Part 3 of our iPhone 4S review video in order to see a demo of personal push notifications.)

For many apps, information sharing among devices is almost effortless.  For instance, you can set up an appointment in Calendar on your OS X Lion Mac and have the appointment show up on Calendar in your iOS 5 devices in a matter of seconds, all automatically, as we show in our review video.  Updates to the appointment also cause updates to appear in your other devices.  In some cases, data sharing over iCloud isn’t quite so effortless.  For instance to share documents between the Mac and iOS versions of iWork, you have to go through some additional steps.  Suppose I decide to type out a shopping list on my Mac, but I want to carry it to the store using my iPhone. I can type out the list in Pages, then share it with the Pages app in iOS using iCloud.  But it’s not automatic.  You have to launch Apple’s iCloud.com web site, then drag the document onto the web page for the appropriate iWork app. 

After a short time, it will appear on your other iOS devices, assuming they also have the appropriate iWork app for iOS.  It’s very easy, but not quite effortless.  Interestingly, sharing iWork documents created on an iOS device is automatic (once configured) among your other iOS devices, but not back to Mac OS devices. 

My favorite iCloud feature by far is Siri.  Siri really sold me on the value of cloud computing since it’s primarily an artificial intelligence application hosted in the cloud.  There’s also a Siri app component built into iOS on the phone, but it’s not clear what the division of labor is between the phone and cloud based components.  iPhone could be serving as just a remote microphone for a distantly hosted Siri iCloud app, or it might be performing some degree of speech recognition in the phone.  In any case, the raw speech recognition works very well, and Siri performs well just taking dictation.  You can dictate text in any application that shows a microphone button when the keyboard appears.  We found the dictation function to be very accurate, though not perfect.

You can also get Siri whenever you want by just holding down the home button until the Siri microphone icon appears.  You can ask Siri all sorts of questions, although Siri may not know the answer, or give the right answer.  When we asked, “What was Apple’s stock price in afterhours trading?” Siri heard the words correctly, but gave the wrong answer, just showing the closing price. 

Overall I think iPhone 4S is the best smart phone on the market.  There might be phones that are better than iPhone 4S in individual categories.  For instance a particular phone might have a better screen or camera, but no phone matches iPhone 4S in its combination of hardware, operating system, and application features or the seamless way in which they’re integrated. 

iPhone 4S Review Video Part 3: Software

  • 1.
    Classic Style
  • 2.
    Same Display
  • 3.
    A5
    Inside
  • 4.
    Pocket iPad 2
  • 5.
    Video
    Part 1
  • 6.
    Bench
    Test
  • 7.
    Real Life
  • 8.
    Camera Compare
  • 9.
    Sony Image
  • 10.
    Nokia Image
  • 11.
    iPhone 4S Image
  • 12.
    Video
    Part 2
  • 13.
    iWork Issues
  • 14.
    iCloud Settings
  • 15.
    iTunes Recover
  • 16.
    Info Sharing
  • 17.
    Video
    Part 3
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