The waves of ho-hummery emanating from the assembled punditry following Apple’s iPhone 4S roll-out event (see “New iPhone 4S Adds Voice Recognition and Goes Global,” 4 October 2011) have now been overtaken both by the amazing number of sales of the phone (more than 1 million were pre-ordered on the first day, and Apple is now saying that it has sold over 4 million in the first weekend!) and by a spate of reviews of the device from writers who have actually had the opportunity to use one. The consensus: it’s a fine update of an already fine product.
Since we at TidBITS were not among the blessed few to whom Apple deigned to provide an iPhone 4S for review purposes before release, we’ll content ourselves with providing a quick roundup of what early reviews have said so far; our initial experiences with the iPhone 4S since we first published this roundup on our Web site are in line with what other reviewers found. The following are presented in no particular order.
First up, Macworld’s Jason Snell provides a comprehensive look at the device in his “iPhone 4S review: It’s a sure thing.” Starting off with a look at its oh-so-familiar form factor (“It’s a classic look, easily my favorite of all the iPho+ne designs to date”), Snell describes the tiny details by which one can tell a 4 from a 4S. He then takes a look at the speed provided by the new A5 chip for various functions, concluding that the only iOS device that can beat it for processing alacrity is the iPad 2. Covering the capability of the iPhone 4S to connect to either GSM or CDMA networks, he notes that international travelers are the ones who might benefit most by it (though see Glenn Fleishman’s “Apple’s World Phone Isn’t Global for Customers,” 7 October 2011), and gives AT&T some props by pointing out that the much-maligned original iPhone carrier “does have one clear advantage over the other carriers in the U.S., however: speed.” He also takes a look at the new antenna system (“there’s no way you will be able to ‘death grip‘ the iPhone 4S unless you are trying to literally strangle your phone”), and at the new, faster, more powerful camera: “I’d wager that the iPhone 4S will actually be the best camera in the household of the majority of its owners.” The largest part of his review, however, covers the voice-recognition capabilities of the device, including the artificial intelligence power of the iPhone 4S-only Siri software as well as the voice dictation: of both, he wonders why they are restricted to the iPhone 4S, since they would be of benefit to iPhone 4 users as well. Summing it all up, Snell concludes that for “all those people who’ve been hanging on to their iPhone 3G or iPhone 3GS, the wait is over: It’s time to upgrade without any hesitation whatsoever.”
In his New York Times review, “New iPhone Conceals Sheer Magic,” David Pogue immediately confronts the pundit-spawned elephant in the room: “[W]hat people really wanted was the iPhone 5,” and then sets about demolishing those unreal expectations with citations of real improvements. Speed? Yes, it is faster (though “it’s not like people were complaining about the previous iPhone’s speed”). Camera? “[T]his phone comes dangerously close to displacing a $200 point-and-shoot digital camera.” World phone? Yes, it is. Speech recognition? “Crazy good, transformative, category-redefining speech recognition.” Again, the bulk of Pogue’s review focuses on the speech recognition capabilities, peppering the description of his Siri interactions with phrases like “mind-blowing,” “amazing,” and “incredible.” His conclusion circles back to the whole iPhone 4S versus 5 statement with which he started: “The question isn’t what’s in a name — it’s what’s in a phone. And the answer is: ‘A lot of amazing technology. And some of it feels like magic.’”
MG Siegler at TechCrunch also starts out with the phone name kerfuffle in “The iPhone 4S: Faster, More Capable, And You Can Talk To It.” His question is, “What does the ‘S’ stand for?” His answer: “[T]he ‘S’ can stand for any number of things depending on who is using the device. Here’s all I know for certain: this is the best iPhone yet.” He proceeds to back up that encomium by looking at the new A5 chip (“the iPhone 4S blows away the iPhone 4 when it comes to speed”), the camera (“If the point-and-shoot market wasn’t in trouble before, it will be now”), the new iOS and, especially, its improved notifications system (“There is no way I could go back to the old system”), and, of course, Siri (“Siri is great”). His bottom line: “The iPhone 4 was a great product. The best smartphone ever made. Now it cedes that title to the iPhone 4S.”
At This Is My Next, Joshua Topolsky deals with issues of style and substance in his “iPhone 4S Review,” remarking that the iPhone 4S “is very much the same phone the company released in June of 2010 — but it’s also something completely new.” He notes that “hardware is only half the story,” the other half being, of course, iOS 5 and Siri. And of Siri he remarks, “It understands and responds to you in a way that’s so natural it can sometimes be unsettling.” Topolsky marches down all of the key improvements in the iPhone 4S, such as the antenna, saying that he could impair reception if he “tightly held it on both the bottom and top of the device (along the notches in the antenna)”, although he also points out, “This is, of course, a totally absurd way to grip a phone.” Like other reviewers, he offers plaudits for the camera (“If you’ve ever thought about using a phone as a replacement for your point-and-shoot, feel free to start taking that concept seriously”), but of the speedier A5 chip he observes, “it feels like a tweak, not an overhaul.” His bottom line: “Is this the best phone ever made? That’s debatable. But I can tell you this: the iPhone 4S is pretty damn cool.”
Wired offers Brian X. Chen’s “With Siri, the iPhone Finds Its Voice.” Chen thinks he knows what the “S” in “iPhone 4S” stands for: Siri. Calling the other improvements to the iPhone 4S “classy additions,” Chen makes no bones about saying, “Siri is the reason people should buy this phone.” Referring to it as “a life-changer,” Chen waxes rhapsodic about what Siri portends: “voice control is going to be huge” and “the possibilities are endless.” He doesn’t ignore the hardware improvements, calling them “nice,” but he feels that they are “minor compared to the addition of Siri.” His bottom line is simple: “both inside and out, this is a magnificent smartphone.”
All Things D’s Walt Mossberg, as one might expect, was one of the chosen few to receive an iPhone 4S to review, and, like Brian X. Chen, believes that “The standout feature, not available in other iPhones, or in any other phone I’ve seen, is Siri.” As for the rest of the features, they don’t make the iPhone 4S “a dramatic game-changer like some previous iPhones” for Mossberg, though he does point out that “It’s a better iPhone for the same $199 entry price, at a time when some competitors are pricing their flagship smartphones starting at $299,” and he feels that the “iPhone 4S offers a camera experience I find unmatched on any other phone.” His bottom line is less enthusiastic than many other reviewers’, but, even so, he says it is “an attractive new offering to smartphone users,” and he expects that “those buying the phone will likely be happy with it.”
Lastly, Stephen Fry’s review in The Guardian offers an articulate, idiosyncratic take on the iPhone 4S, Steve Jobs’s legacy, and the state of high-tech culture in an amusing, touching, wide-ranging piece. From his reaction to receiving the phone (“You can imagine, I hope, the ambivalence I felt as I tested and trialled this phone in the knowledge that it was the last fully operational Apple device [Jobs] would ever see.”) to his final evaluation of it (“irresistible”), he delivers a unique account of using it and what it means in the larger scheme of things. It’s not the most technically detailed evaluation of the iPhone 4S that you’ll ever read, but it is probably among the wittiest and most personal.