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We rate the Apple iPhone 4S

Date posted: January 6, 2012

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by Arthur Goldstuck We put the new Apple iPhone 4S through a Ten Task Test.

Apple fans make many excuses for the iPhone 4S, mainly insisting that it is indeed a significant step up from the 4, and Apple never promised a 5, and there’s nothing wrong with incremental improvements, and millions are lining up to buy the 4S.

All of which is true, but it doesn’t change the fact that the hype machine that is normally so kind to Apple, let the brand down this time. Apple usually rides the tide of expectation leading up to a new product launch, and then delivers in spades. This time it did nothing to manage those expectations, and the result was a let-down to all but those already converted. The company and its evangelists put a beligerent face on it, blaming the ignorant media for creating heightened expectations. Naturally, when it worked in their favour in the past, there had been nary a word of blame.

That is still relevant because the 4S is a great phone, but suffers by comparison with the assumed leap forward that the 5 was supposed to represent. Simply because there had been such a long wait for the new version – almost 16 months from the launch of the 4 – a mere refinement of the old version would naturally result in many opting to wait a little longer for the next really big thing.

So much for the hype. What about the phone itself? We put it through the Ten Task Test to see if the long wait has been worthwhile.

1. General look and feel (aesthetic judgement, differentiation in look and feel)

It looks exactly the same as the iPhone 4. After using them side by side, we had to check the apps on each phone to figure out which was which. Eventually, we noticed the identifying mark: a ridge next to the earphone jack.

After spending more than a year with the 4, and continually comparing it with newer phones, one limitation cropped up immediately: the screen size is beginning to look decidedly pokey at 3.5”. As a result, the phone itself sends the message that it is waiting for a new look and feel. However, the iPhone 4 design remains iconic and satisfying, and still leaves most other phones playing catch-up.

8/10

2. Slippability (Weight and size, ability to slip into a pocket unnoticed)

The phone is compact, but beginning to show its size in a thin-obsessed world. Remember when the iPhone was regarded as the last word in slim design? You’re older than you imagine.

7/10

3. General performance (speed, responsiveness, multi-tasking)

The 4S uses the Apple 5 dual-core processor built by Samsung for the iPad, along with the improved iOS 5 operating system. As a result, it delivers among the finest performances to be had on a smartphone. It downloads and installs apps seamlessly, browsing is faster than its already nifty predecessor, and the double-tap on the control button to bring up active apps provides a semblance of multi-tasking. It is simply superb.

9/10

4. Life as we know it (How’s the battery life?)

The iPhone 4 battery had among the worst performances of any phone on the market. The 4S, at launch, was even worse, due to poor energy management of the operating system. The new iOS 5 sorted out that problem, and does give the 4S slightly better battery life than its predecessor. But don’t venture our for a full day’s work without a charger or back-up.

6/10

5. Vision of the future (picture, video and browsing quality)

The phone’s Retina Display remains lovely. However, there is just not enough of it, and maneuvering your way round the screen for finicky tasks can be frustrating.  Under the hood, though, there has been a major tune-up. The phone now supports full HD, allowing video recording in 1080p, as opposed to 720p on the iPhone 4. (see (9) below for more on the camera)

Music and video are separated into different icons, addressing an irritation of the 4. The browser remains one of the best in cellphones anywhere, but the limited screen size is beginning to count against it.

8/10

6. Talk to me (quality of audio)

Siri The Killer App is, outside the USA, more like the Concussion App, as you hit the phone against your head in frustration. For most purposes, you would need to activate location services – a privacy issue avoided by many, although, of course, not by 4Square exhibitionists.

It remains a mystery why so many insisted Siri would change the future of phones; it is still in beta, meaning there are numerous limitations; and most other smartphones can approximate it with apps like Vlingo, although they aren’t as well integrated with the phone. Oh yes, it talks back to you. Mostly, you will find yourself using it as a novelty and to get a gasp (or laugh) at parties. But redefine the smartphone? Get real.

The quality of voice calls is rather average, and will probably encourage many a user to default to text messaging of one kind or another.

7/10

7. Message in a bottle (range, speed and efficiency of messaging solutions)

Talking of which, iMessage is a vast improvement on what went before, which was essentially relying on third party apps like WhatsApp. In effect, it takes on the BBM on the BlackBerry, allowing unlimited threaded text chats for the cost of the data you use to send those few characters. In other words, it costs next to nothing. It is compatible across any iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch using iOS 5, allows integration of photos, videos and contact, and simply looks great. Its real strength lies in the fact that it can default to SMS or MMS when you send a message to someone using a non-Apple phone. Like BBM, it is instant, but it is so much more.

9/10

8. Keep control (How effective are hardware and software controls?)

Die-hard fans sing the praises of the single control button, but new users will find it frustrating at first, as they look for ways of calling up additional options in an app. The virtual keyboard is also too small – thanks again to that pokey screen – to allow efficient typing of anything longer than a brief message. Great for instant messaging, terrible for longer e-mails. At the same time, however, the classic simplicity of the iPhone’s controls does set it apart, and has set the tone for many competitors, who are increasingly attempting to emulate it.

8/10

9. The new new (innovations , unique features)

The camera, an 8 Megapixel monster, is magnificent. A wide f/2.4 aperture lens gives better performance in low light, and its improved ability to autofocus and control colour makes the iPhone 4 look silly. It has more options, including HDR, better cropping and colour-correction, video stablisation and a camera shortcut from the phone’s locked status, similar to that offered on the Motorola Razr. Yes, Apple has been playing catch-up in the camera department, so these are not innovations, but really a case of finally coming to the party.

In terms of storage capacity, the 64GB option (cheaper versions come in 16GB and 32GB) means the phone becomes a true storage device in its own right. That’s important and useful for those who can’t get the iCloud working for them, or don’t want that heavy data overhang in countries like South Africa where the cost of mobile data remains prohibitive.

The phone comes with two antennae built into the casing, and it defaults to the better signal regardless of how you’re holding the device. No more PR disasters around dropped signals here.

8/10

10. The wallet test (Is it competitively priced?)

At R299 a month on a Vodacom contract that includes 100MB of data per month, the typical iPhone user will need to budget another R100 or so a month to meet the insatiable data demand that builds up around the iPhone’s universe of apps. Even at that price, however, it is excellent value for money. The 32GB version comes in at R399 a month, and the 64GB at R499. Compared to its direct competitors, it’s become almost a benchmark.

9/10

Total score: 79% (excellent, but not the cutting edge)

Conclusion

If you already have an iPhone 4, you’re missing little here. Siri is so US-oriented, it’s like a bad joke on foreigners. You can also upgrade your 4 to iOS 5, so you won’t notice too many differences in the new device. For you, the long wait for the iPhone 5 continues.

However, if you don’t own an iPhone and you’ve been pining for one, there will be few regrets with acquiring the new model. If photo quality is a deal-breaker, this phone will indeed take you to your happy place.

* Arthur Goldstuck heads up World Wide Worx (www.worldwideworx.com) and is editor-in-chief of Gadget. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee. Reprinted from Gadget.