Apple iPhone 4S: The Good, Bad, and Unknown

Speed Boost

Apple's A5 processor.
Apple's A5 processor.
Apple claimed on Tuesday that data speeds for the iPhone 4S are double those for the iPhone 4: 5.8 megabits per second for uploads and 14.4 mbps for downloads. Ken Biba, CTO of Novarum, a company that designs wireless networks, says that the speed boost is due to the A5 chipset supporting the faster HSPA 14.4 network.

Again, Apple is playing a bit of catch-up here; we saw the first dual-core phones all the way back in January. Still, having the A5 is better than getting no processor upgrade at all. It is also encouraging that the A5 is the same chip found in Apple's iPad 2; when we reviewed the iPad 2, we noted the zippy scrolling in the browser, as well as the speed when we used iTunes and quickly navigated through various menus and galleries.

Once we have the iPhone 4S for review, we’ll subject it to our Sunspider JavaScript tests to measure browser performance. Our performance tests showed that the A5 processor in the iPad 2 was twice as fast as the processor in the iPhone 4. I’m not sure how much the chipset will benefit the iPhone 4S, but any speed enhancement is a positive thing. And the iPhone 4 isn’t exactly a slouch to begin with.

The one concern that I have (not to mention most consumers who have owned an iPhone in their lifetime) is about the battery life. If you own an iPhone, you are pretty much constantly using it--whether you’re talking, taking pictures, changing the song in iTunes, or playing a game. The battery drains fast. And unfortunately, battery life is becoming an even bigger issue with with some of the dual-core Android phones we’ve seen (especially those on a 4G network). Apple did address these concerns, however, stating that the iPhone 4S will provide 8 hours of 3G talk time and 10 hours of video playback.

No 4G: Missed Opportunity?

No 4G on Apple's iPhone 4S
Given Apple’s delay in jumping on 3G a few years ago, I wasn’t surprised when the company announced that the iPhone 4S would not support 4G LTE/WiMax networks. Ramon Llamas of IDC says that he understands why Apple sacrificed LTE/WiMax support for this release: LTE isn’t a world standard yet, and Apple would have had to make different U.S.-only models to support the technology. Right now the company’s focus seems to be on iOS 5 and rolling out iCloud. Perhaps when the iPhone 5 (which is purely mythological at this point) surfaces, Apple will embrace LTE or WiMax.

Although I am disappointed that we won’t get to see an LTE or WiMax iPhone, I have a feeling that it won’t make a difference to customers. The original iPhone still sold like crazy without 3G.

What consumers do want is reliable coverage and no dropped calls. According to Apple, the iPhone 4S can intelligently switch between two antennas for even better call quality, as well as faster download speeds. This claim needs testing in the real world, however.

At its event Tuesday, Apple showed a chart comparing the iPhone’s download speeds against other HSPA+ phones on AT&T that carry the 4G label. I respect Apple for not calling the iPhone 4S a 4G phone just because it can match the speeds of those competing handsets. HSPA or HSPA+ still constitutes a 3G network--even if a phone can produce “4G-like” speeds.

What is unfortunate, however, is that U.S customers on the Sprint and Verizon networks likely will not experience the faster speeds, since they’ll be limited to CDMA’s 3G EvDO.

I’m pleased to see the iPhone finally make it to Sprint. Lacking the iPhone, the carrier has held its own with a strong line of Android phones, but I know that quite a few Sprint customers will be happy to hear this news. Additionally, all versions of the iPhone 4S are GSM/CDMA world phones, which is a big win. However, having used an iPhone overseas, I cringe at the thought of what the carriers will charge while users travel.

Siri Voice-Command Software: Your Very Own Personal Assistant

Siri Personal Assistant on the iPhone 4S
Perhaps the feature I’m most intrigued by is the long-rumored Siri Personal Assistant. Voice-command software isn’t exactly a new feature in smartphones, but Siri seems so tightly integrated that it almost seems creepy.

“The best interface a person can have with a device is your voice. You can talk to it, and it talks back,” IDC's Llamas says about Siri.

But he and I both foresee some potential issues out of the gate. Tim Cook explicitly stated that Siri will take a few days to get used to your voice--but how will Siri deal with different English accents and dialects? Will Siri be able to understand my friend’s thick Boston accent? Or my aunt’s Southern accent? How will Siri deal with nonnative English speakers?

The iPhone 4S comes to AT&T, Verizon, and--for the first time--Sprint on October 14, but preorders start October 7. As soon as we have one, we will put the iPhone 4S through our rigorous tests to see how it compares against the top-rated Android phones, the soon-to-be-released Windows Phone 7 "Mango" phones, and its predecessor, the iPhone 4. Stay tuned.

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