The Apple iPhone 4S won't be available until Oct. 14, but PCMag got some hands-on time with it shortly after it was announced Tuesday. Cosmetically, the iPhone 4S looks exactly like last year's iPhone 4, but as Tim Cook boasted, "Inside it is all new."
Apple's new smartphone has a dual-core A5 CPU, an 8-megapixel still camera, a 1080p video camera, and of course, iOS 5. What does all this mean to the average user? We will have to get it into PC Labs before we issue a judgment, but in the short time I spent with the iPhone 4S, it seems like an improved version of an already very solid smartphone.
Hold the iPhone 4S in your hand and it is impossible to tell it apart from the iPhone 4. Apple would not let me shoot still photos or video of the device, so you'll have to take my word on this. I asked five different Apple representatives and none of them could point out a single difference between the phones. That isn't a bad thing; I rather like the iPhone 4's industrial, almost steampunk design.
I point it out only to explain that if you want to show off the fact you have an iPhone 4S, you'll have to do it verbally or keep the phone the box it came in. The models are identical, at least on the outside.
In my short time with the iPhone 4S, I tried to tax the new A5 CPU, the same processor that is used in the iPad 2 tablet. The stunning Infinity Blade 2 game that was shown in the demonstration wasn't loaded on my unit, but it did have Real Racing 2. The game was fluid and had richly detailed backgrounds, but to be honest, there is only so much detail you can fit on a 3.5-inch screen. I'd really like to see what it looks like when you use AirPlay to stream the game on a WiFi-connected HDTV. Then we'll see what the iPhone 4S can really do. Even so, it is more than a match for the average Android phone and should continue to give Sony and Nintendo nightmares.
If I said that I had tested the new iPhone's camera in any meaningful way, PCMag Camera Analyst Jim Fisher would embarrass me for my arrogance and then promptly quit. Let's just say I tried the camera and it was pretty impressive to my eyes. Although it looks exactly the same as the camera on the iPhone 4, it has six separate lenses. Those lenses are probably more important than the sensor bump from 5 megapixels to 8 megapixels, but the extra pixels don't hurt either. Perhaps most significantly, the camera's maximum aperture is now f2.4, which is enough to let in a serious amount of light. Suffice to say, when I looked at iPhone 4S photos side-by-side with those taken with the iPhone 4, I could see the difference in quality.
The iPhone 4S camera is also a lot speedier than many of the phone cameras I have used. First, Apple tweaked the OS so you can open the camera in just two clicks and be ready to shoot in seconds. After that first shot, I was able to shoot multiple photos in such quick succession that it made my Galaxy S feel like a Polaroid.
Likewise, shooting video at 1080p is a huge deal. You can't judge the quality by playing it back on a tiny smartphone screen, but if the iPhone is going to replace both the compact camera and the video camera, it has to be able to shoot video that will look good on an HDTV. We will know for sure when we get the iPhone 4S into the lab and connect to an HDTV, but the video I shot looked great.
The most notable difference with the iPhone 4S is that it runs iOS 5. We have a lot of stories on iOS 5, so I won't go into too many details on the next version of Apple's mobile operating system. In addition to a host of small improvements, the breakthrough feature here is really the inclusion of Siri. We first reviewed Siri's voice recognition assistant in 2010, before it was snapped up by Apple. Now Siri is so integrated into iOS 5 that it doesn't even have a separate icon, it is poised to be the primary navigation tool for the device.
The idea behind Siri is very simple. Tell your phone what you want using your natural voice in everyday language. Siri will understand you and complete the task. When I asked, "What's the weather like today?" Siri gave me the day's forecast and read it aloud to me. It used the GPS to determine my location. When I asked, "What are the great Italian restaurants near me?" Siri delivered a list of five of them ranked by their ratings on Yelp. With your contacts and calendar loaded in the phone, Siri can call contacts and make appointments. To be fair, Siri doesn't always work. When I asked, "What's the distance between here and New York City?" Siri gave me gibberish. Even so, the software does a lot. In my short time with it, it was pretty impressive.
All and all, the iPhone 4S struck me as a solid upgrade, although arguably an incremental improvement over the previous version. As part of the presentation, Apple executives explained that they would be able to do real-time hand-offs between the two antennas that would improve call quality and double downloads speeds. Double?!? No doubt these were efforts to make up for the fact that the iPhone 4S does not support 4G, at least not by most definitions.
Of course, if Apple can deliver a phone with eight hours of talk time, a host of cutting-edge features, and download speeds that are similar to 4G, if not technically 4G, this phone's prospects are pretty good. For answers to those questions, of course, we will need to do a full review.
This preview was in partnership with Ziff Davis Media.