Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Two Weeks with the iPhone 4S

On October 4th, Apple unveiled their new iPhone, the 4S, and the world saw that it was the same. Bloggers derided it for not being the 5, for not having a new body, and for… I’ve forgotten.1

On October 10th, Apple provided the opportunity to pre-order the new phone, and the world was underwhelmed (if you read Reddit that day). And yet, by some biblical miracle, they managed to sell over a million of the damn things in the first 24 hours of it being on sale in a few select countries. Consumers couldn’t actually touch an iPhone 4S at this point, but they were keen to be the first to do so.

I, on the other hand, waited. I waited first because I didn’t yet have a buyer for my iPhone 4, preloaded with iOS 5, which also wasn’t out yet. A buyer was found, and then I waited some more because there weren’t any models in stock. Hurry up and wait.

I purchased my 4S on November 2nd, a year-and-a-day after I bought my old 4. It’s 64 GB, because I need that extra space for photos, video, and other media. It’s a white one because it looks like an original iPod. It’s beautiful.

After two weeks, I have a few thoughts on some of the newer aspects of the phone, and some thoughts on technology that isn’t new to the 4S. And, to assist organisation of this bit of writing, I’m copping the “S is for x” format from a bunch of other writers.

S is for Speed

It still blows my mind that my phone has a dual-core 1GHz (ish) processor and 512 MB of RAM. Those specs would be astonishing on a desktop PC of just a few years ago. The speed isn’t exactly noticeable until you switch back to an iPhone 4, which feels sluggish by comparison. Rotating the 4S is effectively instantaneous (except in Music, as usual). Rendering is so fast and ever so smooth. Every application opens that little bit quicker, every touch is that little bit more responsive. 

Of course, a valid rebuttal is that I shouldn’t be surprised by this. It should be responsive to touch, otherwise it provides a crappy user experience. Rotating absolutely should be instantaneous. This is something the original iPhone could do really well, and it ran a 400 MHz single-core off-the-shelf ARM stack. But OSes aren’t the same as they were five years ago. iOS isn’t anywhere near the same, as is evident by the OS file sizes. As a result, the performance hasn’t necessarily kept up with the increase in complexity. Remember the iOS 4/iPhone 3G fiasco? Apple partially supported the former on the latter, and it caused all sorts of havock. Numerous customers reported the update made their phones so slow as to render them unusable. This was repeated recently with the iPhone 3GS and iOS 5, though not nearly to the same extent. However, I predict iOS 7 will work as well as iOS 5 does on the iPhone 4S, despite not knowing what that future OS might hold. The 4S is a powerful phone (a really goddamn powerful phone) and likely will stand the test of time.

S is for Shutter

The primary reason I upgraded to a 4S is for the improved camera. The iPhone has been my primary camera since I got my 4 last year. The camera system in the 4S isn’t just a little bit better than that of the 4; it’s in a whole different league.

In terms of still quality, the 4S camera exhibits significantly less noise, a dramatically crisper image and better depth of field. The 2.4 aperture produces some wonderful bokeh in the far background of photos. They also changed the lenses, making for sun glare that looks far less cheap. Apple has noted that they would like to see the iPhone 4S compete with a dedidated point-and-shoot as the camera you’d choose to take with you on a day around town. The resulting photos are good enough in bright daylight that this is a reasonable proposition. There are still shortcomings, obviously, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the 4S replaced a point-and-shoot for most people most of the time.

Video is an even better story. Never mind the upgrade to 1080p resolution — that isn’t too important. The main story is the built-in stabilisation with the gyroscope. I’ve shot more video on my 4S in the last two weeks than I did on my 4 in an entire year purely because of this enhancement. It’s almost like a mini Steadicam, but not quite. Having said that, it is a welcome addition.

S is for Siri

It’s funny that Siri is the most-discussed, most-publicised new feature of the iPhone 4S, and I have yet to use it properly and with any frequency. 

As a non-driver, I have no relation to the advantages it presents while operating a vehicle. It should be less distracting than driving and sending a text message, of course, but I cannot relate.

As the owner of an alarm clock, I do not use the iPhone as one except when travelling. I was away this past weekend and did use Siri to set my alarm, which was much, much nicer than the Clock interface. But I don’t use this on a basis of frequency or regularity.

As a non-American, I cannot use any of the direction features, and that’s very strange. As far as I’m aware, Siri uses Google Maps, which are available in Canada, yet all Siri location services are disabled here. I’m sure there’s a valid reason as to why this is the case, seeing as I can’t think of a reason why Apple would deliberately piss off Canadians. But as a mere consumer, I don’t know why this is the case.

The biggest hurdle, however, is not technical. It’s mostly because commanding a virtual assistant feels very odd, even if it’s in plain language. I’m sure it’s a bit quicker for me to reply to a text message with my voice, or tell Siri to call someone as opposed to finding their name in my list of contacts. But I really, really do not want to. I’m also the kind of person who will find a secluded area to call someone in public, rather than trying to chat while walking down the street.

If, on the other hand, I were the operator of a vehicle who travelled frequently within the United States, I’m sure I’d use Siri a whole lot more.

S is for Summary

The iPhone 4S, then, is a good phone. It probably isn’t a compelling upgrade from a 4, but then again most people are on two- or three-year plans, so it doesn’t need to be. It’s one hell of an upgrade from a 3GS. It’s that little bit better than a 4. It’s a great addition to the family.


  1. The EPA? Oh, a four-inch display. Oops. ↩︎