Apple iPhone 4S (Sprint) Review

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$199
Editor's Choice

Pros: Dual-core power; Groundbreaking Siri voice control; Fast, sharp camera; iOS 5 and iCloud built in; Unlimited data on Sprint

Cons: Sluggish 3G speeds; No Facebook integration

Verdict: The iPhone 4S on Sprint wows with Siri and its great camera--plus you get unlimited data.

Sprint finally has the iPhone, and the carrier hopes to stand out from AT&T and Verizon by offering the iPhone 4S with unlimited data. The device (199 for 16GB, $299 for 32GB, and $399 for 64GB) offers a dual-core CPU, a faster 8-megapixel camera, and includes a ton of enhancements on the software side thanks to iOS 5 and iCloud. Then there's the groundbreaking Siri personal assistant, which can help you do a lot with just your voice. Read on to find out how this iPhone 4S compares to its siblings on AT&T and Verizon.   

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Editors' Note: Portions of this review were taken from our original iPhone 4S review for AT&T.

Design

Style-wise, Apple knows it has a good thing going, and the iPhone 4S is virtually identical to its predecessor. From its glass back to the stainless steel band that wraps around the handset's outside, it's just as elegant and feels as solid as ever.

That said, the iPhone 4S is no longer the thinnest or lightest smartphone available.

Apple's device measures 4.5 x 2.3 x 0.4 inches and weighs 4.9 ounces, compared to 5.1 x 2.7 x 0.4 inches and 4.8 ounces for the Samsung Galaxy S II, whose screen is nearly an inch larger. Still, the Galaxy S II feels cheaper because of its plastic body. And the iPhone 4S' more compact dimensions make it easier to use with one hand.

Display

At 960 x 640 pixels, the iPhone 4S still boasts the crispest screen out there, though full HD displays are coming from Android competitors such as the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. Icons, text, photos, videos, and games look lovely on Apple's Retina display. The iPhone 4S' screen also continues to outshine nearly all the competition in terms of brightness.

In fact, this display is brighter and whiter than the iPhone 4's. As a result, the trailer for The Immortals looked fantastic, and we saw more details in dark battle scenes and the cold, unforgiving stone of ancient fortresses. Some other images (such as photos taken in sunlight) looked a bit washed out. When we used our AEMC Lightmeter, the iPhone 4S notched 549 lux, versus 511 for the iPhone 4. The Sprint Galaxy SII only registered 284 lux. 

Still, the iPhone 4S' 3.5-inch display means you'll have to zoom in more to read content on web pages than on phones with a 800 x 480-pixel display (such as the Samsung Galaxy S II), and those phones also give you more surface area for a larger keyboard. Even so, it's hard to beat Apple's multitouch keyboard.

Dual-Core Performance

Apple managed to shoehorn the same A5 dual-core processor that's inside the iPad 2 into the iPhone 4S. The benefit, the company says, is up to two times the overall performance and up to 7 times the graphics punch. The iPhone 4S notched a GeekBench Score of 612, versus 357 for the original iPhone 4 running iOS 5. That's a 1.7X difference.

On the GLBenchmark, which measures graphics performance, the iPhone 4S garnered similar scores to the older iPhone 4 in some tests but ran rings around it in others. For instance, in the GPU Skinning test, the iPhone 4S notched 1,781 to 859 for the iPhone 4 (a 2X difference), and there was nearly a 4X increase in single-textured fill rate.

Real-world results were also impressive. The A5 chip makes the iPhone 4S faster at rendering web pages. It beat the iPhone 4 when loading the full desktop versions of both the NYTimes (4 vs. 8 seconds) and ESPN.com (5 vs. 10 seconds) over Wi-Fi. The newer iPhone also starting playing HD YouTube trailers slightly faster, loaded Pandora about 3 seconds faster, and took 6 seconds less to load the first level of the Asphalt 6 game.

You'll see the biggest performance boost with the iPhone 4S when playing demanding 3D games and editing video in iMovie. When we tried Infinity Blade, we enjoyed less lag when battling foes, similar to the bump we saw between the iPad and iPad 2. More games optimized for the A5 chip are on the way.

AirPlay Mirroring

Another benefit of the iPhone's more powerful dual-core processor is the capability of mirroring via AirPlay. Basically, you can stream what you see on your iPhone 4S's screen--whether it's a home movie, game, or slideshow--to an Apple TV. Apple says games such as Real Racing 2 will let up to four players compete on the big screen at the same time. That's a feat no other smartphone can accomplish.

We hooked up the iPhone 4S to an Apple TV on the same Wi-Fi network, double-tapped the home button, and swiped twice to the left. Next we hit the AirPlay button and selected Apple TV. Photos looked crisp and colorful, and Asphalt 6 streamed smoothly enough for us to make turns and stay in the race--and get a little dizzy. However, we noticed some audio stuttering and pixelation, especially when we performed a turbo boost. 1080p videos took a while to buffer, but looked brilliant when they started playing. We could read the text on a taxi door from about 10 feet away.

iOS 5

On the surface, the iPhone 4S' interface is just as simple and intuitive as ever. Hidden within iOS 5 (also available for the older iPhone 4 and 3GS), however, are plenty of nice new features. Some of these tweaks help iOS catch up with Android's powerful abilities, while others take it few steps further.

You access the new Notification Center the same way you view notifications in Android--a drag down from the top of the screen--but Apple's dashboard looks cleaner and more modern. iOS 5 also integrates weather and stocks in the Notification Center, making it feel more alive and fresh. When you have incoming alerts, you can set them as banners that appear at the top of the screen, as opposed to massive boxes that take up the center of the display. The iPhone 4S can also show notifications such as messages on the lock screen, enabling users to swipe to open the associated app.

Another welcome addition, Reminders, helps you stay organized by creating a list of tasks. You can set the app to remind you either on a certain day or when you arrive to a specific location. For example, you can enter a reminder such as "Defrost the chicken" for when you get home.

iOS 5 also includes Twitter integration. You can tweet a web article, photo, map location, or YouTube video directly from the associated apps. Too bad iOS 5 doesn't mesh with Facebook in the same ways, something Android phones have been doing for years. Instead, you'll need to use the dedicated Facebook app.

Other improvements of iOS 5 include the ability to activate the camera from the lock screen, a Newsstand app for magazine and newspaper subscriptions (pictured), built-in photo editing tools, and (finally) the ability to sync iTunes content with your Mac or PC over Wi-Fi.

 

Siri

An exclusive feature for the iPhone 4S, Siri is a voice-enabled personal assistant that will change the way you think about smartphones. Siri can do everything from telling you the weather and waking you up to recommending nearby restaurants. And you can ask it all sorts of informative and entertaining questions.

To activate Siri, you can either long-press the home button and then start speaking or simply bring the phone up to your head as if you were chatting. Which you actually are. Siri can comprehend complicated queries that make lesser smartphones stumble, and she'll respond and interject when appropriate, too.

For instance, we asked, "What are the best Japanese restaurants near me?" and Siri faithfully combed the Internet for recommendations, all sorted by rating and distance. Getting more specific, we simply said, "Ramen Noodles" and she nabbed the information, creating a list of restaurants serving Ramen. Notice we only said "Ramen Noodles" and not "Ramen restaurants." Siri understands context.

Another example of Siri's impressive smarts is the ability to create appointments when you enter a command such as, "Schedule lunch with Kenneth Monday at 1 p.m." Knowing our busy schedule, she informed us that we already had a conflicting meeting. So we said "move it to 4 p.m," Pretty slick.

Siri integrates with several of Apple's applications, including phone (for making calls), iPod, dictating messages, Reminders, Maps, Email, Weather, Stocks, Clock, Address Book, Web Search, and the new Find My Friends. We especially liked being able to set an alarm just by saying it aloud.

In addition to Yelp, Siri pulls in answers from WolframAlpha, the freakishly intelligent online knowledge engine. For example, you can say, "What is a 20-percent tip on $90.33 for five people?" and Siri will give you the amount of the tip, total per person, and amount with tip. Siri also easily answered what movie won the Oscar in 2001 (Gladiator).

Siri isn't perfect--she gave us directions to the nearest cocktail bar, but only as text on a map, and didn't find our favorite spot just a block away. In addition, while Siri can take dictation in any text field, she can't read your messages aloud.

Bottom line: Siri isn't just a gimmick, and we're sure Apple has even bigger plans for her in store.

iCloud

More than a simple online storage service, iCloud pushes all your content to multiple iOS devices, the Mac, and Apple TV all at once. Perhaps the easiest way to explain iCloud on the iPhone 4S is with Photo Stream. When you snap a picture with the iPhone 4S, the Photo Stream feature will automatically upload it to iCloud and then push it to your iPad, Mac, and Apple TV without you having to lift a finger. While we wish this feature worked over 3G as well as Wi-Fi, it's a good example of why iCloud makes life easier.

Photo Stream stores only the last 1,000 pics you snapped, and you can't delete them once they're uploaded. That's annoying, so you'll want to make sure to delete any duds or embarrassing images before they reach iCloud.

With the iPhone 4S, iTunes is also in the cloud. When you purchase music or videos on your computer, you can download them again to your phone without paying for content twice. You can also automatically download music, apps, and books to all your iOS devices at once (if you turn on that feature under Settings/Store). iTunes Match is coming soon, and it will scan your music collection for tracks you haven't purchased and add them to the cloud--no uploading required--for $24.99 per year. You can also sync your existing iTunes collection to your iPhone 4S over Wi-Fi.

iCloud also backs up your iPhone 4S; it keeps your calendar, mail, and contacts in sync across devices, and helps you find your phone (just as before).

Apple includes 5GB of storage for free, and purchased content (music, apps, books, TV shows) and Photo Stream don't count against that cap. But you can upgrade to yearly subscriptions of $20 for 10GB, $40 for 20GB, and $100 for 50GB.

Camera and Camcorder

The 8-MP camera onboard the iPhone 4S goes way beyond just capturing more pixels. The phone boasts a custom lens with a larger f/2.4 aperture paired with an even better backside illuminated sensor and a new Hybrid IR filter. Just as important, the iPhone 4S camera opens nearly two seconds faster than the iPhone 4, and the shot-to-shot time was much quicker. In fact, the iPhone 4S narrowly beat the Sprint Galaxy S II in this category and was speedier than the Amaze 4G. (The Amaze 4G's camera started up fastest, though, thanks to its dedicated camera button.)

To help you make your photos look their best, iOS 5 includes a Grid feature to line up shots, as well as HDR functionality for avoiding overexposed or underexposed shots. After you take the pic, you can use the new Edit button and then engage Auto Enhance, remove red eye, or crop photos. The Amaze 4G goes further with some of its features, such as its Panorama mode and Burst mode.

The iPhone 4S' 1080p camcorder is yet another reason to leave your point-and-shoot behind. When we recorded a three-year-old having fun on a playground, we could easily make out the intricate design of a slide's exterior and the folds in the boy's cargo pants. The audio was a little soft at medium distance, but loud as the subject moved closer.

In a separate video we shot alongside the Galaxy S II and Amaze 4G, the iPhone 4S did a better job at handling transitions from darker to lighter areas, but the S II delivered comparable detail and smoother footage when tracking moving objects.

Apps and Media

Apple's App Store now has more than 500,000 apps filled with a host of titles from third-party developers, 360,000 of which are for the iPhone. But some of the most compelling apps for the iPhone 4S are made by Apple itself, including the new iMessage. This BlackBerry Messenger rival sends free messages instantly to any iOS device running iOS 5. And you can share a lot more than just text; iMessage supports photos, videos, and web links. It took only 25 seconds to send a picture over Wi-Fi. You can also see when someone is typing a reply.

Apple's new Find My Friends app leverages iCloud to help you pinpoint family members and others who own iOS 5 devices with this feature enabled. You can invite friends and family right from the app. And if you'd rather not broadcast your coordinates at all times, you can choose to share your location temporarily by entering a specific day and time.

The iPhone 4S' selection of third-party apps continues to be unparalleled. Even though Android has many of the same apps, Apple's continue to be more polished. A good example is the redesigned Facebook app, which has a slick slide-out menu bar. The iPhone 4S also taps into a better selection of games, including console-like titles such as ShadowGun.

While Android phones have started to close the gap with media integration, only the iPhone 4S lets you buy music, books, magazines, movies, and TV shows with a single account. It's hard to beat that sort of convenience, though we wish Apple would pull a Spotify and/or Netflix and offer subscription plans for tunes and video.

Data and Web Surfing

A new dual-antenna design lets the iPhone 4S switch between two antennas for sending and receiving data. This didn't help the handset's much in terms of raw data speeds, though. At a coffee shop in Manhattan, we clocked average download speeds at a slow 320 Kbps. Uploads were also extremely pokey, averaging 110 Kbps in the same location. The AT&T version of the phone (1.3 Mbps down) and Verizon version (380 Kbps down) both fared better in the same location. However, out in Queens, NY, the Sprint iPhone 4S pulled down a faster 617 Kbps average.

Despite its lackluster synthetic test results, the Sprint iPhone 4S performed well when downloading popular websites. It took the handset 7 seconds to load the mobile version of ESPN, 4.9 seconds for CNN Mobile, and 13.9 seconds for the full version of NYTimes.com. Of course, Verizon and T-Mobile's latest 4G phones take less than 5 seconds to load mobile sites and 10 seconds or less for the full NYTimes.

These faster page-load times are likely due to the A5 dual-core processor. Safari sports a cool new Reader feature that strips pages of ads and blows up text to make articles easier to read. Saving stories to read later is easy as well; just add an article to the iPhone 4S' new Reading List, which is separate from Bookmarks.

Call Quality and Battery Life

On our test calls to land lines, the iPhone 4S didn't drop any calls, and audio quality on our end was clear and loud enough for our tastes. Callers, however, said they could definitely tell we were on a mobile phone and that our voice sounded "flat." Still, they couldn't detect any background noise even in a crowded restaurant filled with ambient music.

The iPhone 4S has a rated battery life of 8 hours of talk time, an hour more than its predecessor. However, the standby time is 200 hours, down from 300 hours on the iPhone 4. In our daily testing, the iPhone 4S had impressive endurance, running for a full 8 hours with its backlight at 40 percent. We expect you should be able to get through most, if not all, of a typical day on a charge. We'll update this review once we've run our formal battery test.

Verdict

It looks like last year's iPhone, but the $199 iPhone 4S offers more than enough features and power to justify the cost. Thanks to Siri, Apple has made voice recognition not only useful but hip. The handset's sharper camera, smooth 1080p camcorder, and peppy dual-core processor solidify the iPhone 4S as one of Sprint's best phones. The new iOS 5 and iCloud features also are a strong draw, and could even steal Android owners away from aging handsets. The real choice is whether shoppers will prefer the $199 Epic 4G Touch and its bigger display, true 4G speeds, and Facebook integration. Both devices are Editors' Choice winners, but many will prefer the iPhone 4S because of its ease of use, greater app selection, and Apple's constantly growing ecosystem of accessories.

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Laptop Mag & Tom's Hardware
Carrier Sprint
Form Factor Candy Bar
Operating System iOS 5.0
Networks UMTS/HSDPA/HSUPA (850, 900, 1900, 2100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz) CDMA EV-DO Rev. A (800, 1900 MHz
Data EV-DO Rev. A
Data EDGE/UMTS/HSDPA
CPU Apple A5
RAM 512MB
Internal Memory 16GB
Memory Expansion Type none
Display (main) 3.5-inch qHD Retina (960 x 640)
Display (secondary)
GPS Yes
Bluetooth Type Bluetooth 4.0
Wi-Fi 802.11n
Front Camera Resolution VGA
Camera Resolution 8 MP
Audio formats supported AIFF
Audio formats supported AAC
Audio formats supported WAV
Audio formats supported MP3
Audio formats supported HE-AAC
Audio formats supported Audible
Audio formats supported Apple Lossless
Video formats supported M4V
Video formats supported H.264
Video formats supported MP4
Photo formats supported PNG
Photo formats supported JPEG
Photo formats supported GIF
Talk / Standby Time 8 hours (3G), 14 hours (GSM)/200 hours
Ports 3.5mm headphone
Ports Proprietary
Size 4.5 x 2.3 x 0.37 inches
Weight 4.9 ounces
SAR Rating (Head)
SAR Rating (Body)
Company Website www.apple.com