iPhone 4S: First impressions of a 3GS upgrader

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Apple’s (s aapl) iPhone 4S is here, having just hit retailers in seven countries this Friday. So how is it? Well, read on to discover my initial impressions, as someone making the leap from the lowly iPhone 3GS, which is now two generations old.

I picked up my 32 GB white iPhone 4S from U.K. carrier Three, and there was a certain pleasure in being able to pre-order; I got to walk straight past a 40-person line of people queuing at a rival carrier. After picking up the device, I headed to the office to put it through its paces.

Out of the box, the 4S is, as promised by Apple, practically identical to the iPhone 4; you would be hard pressed to tell them apart just by looking at them. When compared to the iPhone 3GS, however, the difference is striking. The first thing any 3GS upgrader is going to notice, and appreciate, is the detailed Retina Display. Many other niceties in the overall design and feel of the handset follow, resulting in a more solid and substantial-feeling device.

Siri

After a quick restore from my old phone, the first thing I wanted to try, as I’m sure many others will want to, was Siri. Siri is the voice-powered assistant built right in to the 4S. As I’ve seen in all the various demo videos posted online, to activate Siri, you need to hold down the Home button for a few short seconds. Upon doing this, I was a little taken aback to see the old-style Voice Control that I was used to seeing on my 3GS. It turns out in order to get Siri working, you need to head into the Settings app to enable it first.

Once enabled, I began by asking the voice-assistant some basic questions. I quickly discovered that I needed to put a little emphasis into my pronunciation in order for Siri to understand my British accent. A few questions in, and although overall I was impressed, I was a little disappointed to find out that in the U.K. Siri does not support mapping related questions, or those concerning local businesses. In practice, this means no Maps or Yelp fun for U.K. 4S owners.

Of course Siri is still a beta, so here’s hoping that these extras will be rolled out eventually. Fully featured or not, Siri is an impressive piece of technology, and it will be interesting to see how it develops going forward. For visually impaired users, I can imagine Siri is a huge game-changer.

Camera

The Camera application has seen huge improvements. Apple said at its ‘Let’s Talk iPhone’ event that the camera will now launch and be ready to shoot pictures within 2.5 seconds, and this seems about right in testing. What’s even more impressive, however, is how speedy the device is when taking multiple shots. I repeatedly pressed the Volume Up/shutter button (a feature new in iOS 5) to take a series of snaps in quick succession — the 4S kept up, giving what can only be described as a blazingly fast experience when compared to the 3GS. Not only that, but picture quality is also greatly improved:

iPhone 3GS vs. iPhone 4S camera

The images above highlight the differences in picture quality between the 3GS and the 4S. What’s most obvious are the differences in lighting and color accuracy. The 4S is packing one nice camera, that could easily do away with the need for a regular point-and-shoot.

Safari

Beyond the camera application, Safari also appears to have gained speed improvements, loading pages faster than before. The differences here aren’t huge, but noticeable enough to be appreciated. On paper, you can see that iOS 5 boosts Safari’s performance across most iOS devices, but no doubt the advantage of the iPhone 4S’s beefed up processor gives it a little more oomph than most.

Gaming

I’m a big iOS gamer, and I’d be afraid to actually tabulate how much time I’ve spent on games for my iPhone. It represents the perfect pick-up-and-play style gaming that made me fall in love with Tetris on the original Game Boy nearly twenty years ago. After testing a small selection of the more graphically intense games I own, I can happily report that the 4S doesn’t show any noticeable signs of lag. This is a big plus.

A big step up

As a former iPhone 3GS user, the upgrade to the 4S is a fairly significant one in regards to specifications, and I’m positive that the jump from a 3GS to 4S is bound to excite people more than a switch from last year’s model would.

My initial impression is a good one; the 4S is a solid handset offering the iOS experience we have come to know and rely on, and it makes it all the more pleasurable to use. It’s snappy, has just the right amount of new hardware features, and the introduction of Siri points towards an interesting future.

Who should pass

Personally, I don’t feel that the 4S really offers enough to tempt existing iPhone 4 owners. The look is the same, and they run the same operating system. If the introduction of an improved camera and Siri are enough, then by all means, this phone isn’t hard to recommend. It’s just that when the next iPhone hits, and you’re stuck in a contract for what is admittedly only an incremental update, you may regret it.

As for iPhone 3GS owners, I can wholly recommend the 4S. Sure, this year’s model is the evolution of the revolution, but we all need to play catch up at some point.

13 Comments

IT Support

I’m wanting to know whether or not I should get an iPhone 4S. But then again, is there any difference between 4S and 4? Or even 4 and 3GS? Are there any major or minor differences between the 3 different types of iPhone.

slobbythegreat

basically all you are getting is an iphone 4 with a better camera and siri and slightly better speed. i downloaded ios5 to my 3gs and its fine, can manage the ever slight lag but all in all im sweet. ive been able to upgrade since 4 came out but im holding off till 5. i despised how people WITHOUT iphones got 4’s and bragged at how good they were and came across so pretentious that it made me want to punch them having owned the OG iphone and 3gs….fanboys are the only people who will NEED to buy a 4s..wait till 5 in june and rub it in the owners of the 4s who have to pay for a BIG upgrade!

Mike Marullo

Always good to see and hear a first-hand, objective opinion about a new product from someone I know I can trust… Mike

JD

Have you tried to send a message using Siri? I’m impressed by the accuracy of the speech to text, I was sending essays to everyone.

Trent

I suppose you won’t be reviewing iOs5 for us 3GS users holding out for iPhone5?

Eric K.

You forgot to talk about a key element of iOS5…iCloud. That alone is a game changer within the iPhone, as now you can take pictures and they are synced with the cloud, which in turn is synced with all devices running iOS5 (and your Mac computers). You can also download music on one device, and it will sync via the cloud on all of your other devices as well. Great feature.

Tim

Having also just upgraded from a 3GS to a 4S, I wholeheartedly agree. For anyone without an iPhone 4, this will be a welcome and significant upgrade. I’m liking the 4S.

Lauren

lowly 3Gs? I’m using a cracked 3G since my 4 was stolen a few months ago. Can’t wait for the UPS guy to deliver my phone later today!

Ash

Thanks for the comparison. I’m awaiting arrival of my 4s in the mail and am upgrading from the 3g. I can’t wait and reading your analysis makes me happy and eager get it! I was initially going to just wait for the iphone 5.

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