The iPhone 4S is the best phone you can buy right now. That's been true of every iPhone, really.
The other thing that's been true about every new iPhone, except perhaps the iPhone 4: Most of the fresh magic is in the software. When Steve Jobs announced the original iPhone, he said the software is "five years ahead of what's on any other phone." It's kind of crazy that he wasn't far off, since it's taken nearly five years for other phone software to even come close, with the latest Windows Phone and possibly the next Android.
And it's really subtle, but perhaps the most important thing about the 4S—not to me or to you—is that it's the first iPhone that's truly post-PC, thanks to a couple pieces of software called Siri and iCloud. (I know Android was there first, but if you want to quibble over that, you're missing the point. I have an HP TouchPad I'd like to sell you, though.)
It doesn't look new. It looks the way you now expect a phone to look. Glass and metal and glass. The iPhone 4 was breathtaking because it was a radical reinvention within a radically constrained space, an utterly functionalist reduction of a touchscreen phone to its bare essentials. The antenna literally holds the phone together. It was unmistakably an iPhone. But it was unmistakably different. The 4S is very mistakably undifferent.
It's hard to reinvent the phonewheel every year, I guess. There perhaps still isn't a better designed or constructed phone in the world. I don't know of one coming any time soon. And the one flaw of that design, the external antenna's weak spot, is dead. But I'm considering putting my iPhone in a case for the very first time. Something organic, like bamboo. So you'll know mine is different from yours.
The iPhone 4S's camera is probably better than your phone's camera. The iPhone 4's camera was the first good camera in a phone I'd genuinely tell you to buy since, like, the Nokia N95, but it has a tendency to oversaturate, trading accuracy for eye-pleasing punch. The 4S's photos pack more pixels, the colors are more accurate, the details are shaper, the low light performance is better. And it's faster. Noticeably, but not dramatically so. Of the cameras in some of the highest end American phones you can buy today—the Amaze 4G, Droid Bionic and Galaxy S II—I think the 4S's photos are the best, followed closely by the Galaxy S II, whose color palette is slightly more neutral. (You can judge for yourself with these untouched, full-res photos and videos, of course.) I rarely pulled out my beloved S90 after I got an iPhone 4. The 4's photos edged into good enough. The 4S sits there, quite comfortably. I don't think you'll need a separate point-and-shoot again, either.
And if the Flip camera had not died a year ago, it would be on a death march. The 4S's 1080p, 30-frames-per-second HD video is excellent, surprisingly so. It's not the best, though. The 1080p video taken by the Galaxy S II is ever so slightly more detailed, the colors more accurate—the 4S's video has a definite sense of warmth that sometimes doesn't quite exist in reality. It's why I'd get a 32GB phone, though.
It's my favorite camera to use on any phone, because it is the easiest, and almost always does exactly what I want it to.
If you have an iPhone 4, the least compelling reason to upgrade is speed. It has a dual-core A5 chip and it is demonstrably, incontradictably faster than the iPhone 4. But not blisteringly so, not enough I felt the speed on a day-to-day basis, like you did between the 3GS and the 4. And I think sometimes Windows Phone feels even faster, but that's mostly because of the clever way it's animated. (The Galaxy S II may be equally quick, but the shitty, stuttering animations make it seem less responsive.) Watching Infinity Blade load, I don't doubt that dual-core A5 chip and 7x faster graphics will come in handy with apps coming out over the next year, though.
And apparently you need the power for Siri, according to Apple. She only rides in Ferraris. Made out of silicon.
I don't know if you've ever heard me speak. My normal voice is like drunken slurring thrown in a blender with a mumbling dock worker and the geekiest kid you knew in high school, but on methamphetamines. Siri, the iPhone 4S's virtual assistant, understands me almost as well as humans do—I'd gauge around 85 percent. Windows Phone's voice command hovers somewhere around 80 percent, and Android's around 70 percent.
What makes Siri vastly better than what's on any other phone right now is that it groks humanspeak. It's human enough. "Is it going to be cold tomorrow?" I'm looking at the weather report for NYC. "Where I can grab a beer?" A list of bars appears. "Is Brian Lam around?" Find My Friends, and I'm staring at a light purple dot on the western fringes of Brooklyn. Or a million other commands, nefarious or otherwise. It's so cleverly designed you never quite feel like you're being forced to remember a script, so whenever Siri failed to understand me, I was far more forgiving than when my Kinect, with its handful of keywords, doesn't know what the hell I'm asking it to do. It still made me sad, though: the higher the expectations, the higher the fall.
Siri's a lot of fun. But I mostly stopped reaching out to her after the third day, slipping back into my old routines. I suspect when I'm driving a lot over the next month, Siri and I might be friends again.
There are reasons to go with every carrier. I'm sticking it out with AT&T, because I have unlimited data, and its 4S can be faster for data than Verizon or Sprint's. Verizon's network is the most reliable, at least in New York, and it'll likely have the best 4G network for whenever the iPhone gets 4G. Sprint's the only carrier to offer unlimited data plans to new iPhone customers. There are reasons to not go with every carrier, too. AT&T's network can be crummy like bad biscuits in New York (it hasn't seemed better with the 4S than the 4). Verizon's 4S data speeds are slower, and I hate their customer service. Sprint's iPhone 4S has the slowest data we've seen, and they recently yanked away unlimited data from hotspots without grandfathering in current customers.
Does somebody wanna start a wireless carrier with me?
There's a feeling from Android that you never quite used to get from the iPhone, this sensation of being constantly connected, always in the middle of everything, like you were standing barefoot in the middle of a cold, shallow stream. That's there now with iOS 5.
The Notifications Center is the primary reason, I think, because everything that's waiting for you to deal with it is right there, with a swipe. It completely changed the way I use my iPhone, and the way I feel when I use it. It's like I can touch a million different parts of it simultaneously, like if I were a giant octopus with a million tentacles. Things could be even better though: Why do I have to manually clear out Facebook notifications still waiting for me after I've already opened the app? Why are the X's to clear stuff out so damn small? Why can't it be smarter, like webOS and the Android? And multitasking in general: It needs to feel more fluid, more natural, more powerful, less like a bolted-on afterthought than it does now.
Then there's iMessages. It didn't feel different from texting, other than the fact it'd work on Wi-Fi and it was free and the bubbles were blue, until I got in a fight with a girl and then it felt way more like instant messaging, way more tethered, than SMS. And it's even better on the iPad, says Adrian.
And the other thing is location, and the new way it's used in iOS 5. Find My Friends is a game-changer, since none of my non-nerd friends used Latitude. I've already used it to crash a co-worker's apartment and ruin his Friday night. Foursquare lets me know every time I pass a restaurant I want to go to. Reminders tells me to send emails when I get to work. It also makes it feel more like Android, in that it killed my battery roughly 30 percent faster.
Oh. The other other thing. When I pulled this phone out of the box, I didn't plug it into a computer. I punched in my iCloud account. And my blank iPhone 4S suddenly looked a lot like my iPhone 4. Over a year ago, I asked why I wasn't the center of the Apple universe. Why I had to plug my iThing into a computer. I don't anymore. It syncs, wirelessly, to iCloud. Or to my computer, when I want it to. It means never worrying again about the last time I synced my phone. Or dumped photos. iCloud's not perfect. But it's good, and it's a security net way too many people lived without.
There are a lot of other new things in iOS 5. Like 200 or so, mostly small, but nice things, like hourly weather updates, or deleting songs from your phone, or Twitter built right in. But connection. That's the main one.
I wish iOS 5 felt fresher, though. And oh god, the leather. Make it stop.
I suppose you could wait and see if the Nokia Windows Phone is going to be amazing, or if the gargantuan Galaxy Nexus is the Android phone that finally gets creature comforts correct.
But I don't think they'll be better than the iPhone 4S, not really, though they may come very, very close, closer than anything's come before, like an asymptote.
This is the phone to buy, for most people. Not if you have an iPhone 4, but for everybody else. Next year, five years after the iPhone, maybe things will be different.
Video by Woody Jang
Guides, Tips, and Experiences
The Top iOS 5 Features
How to Use Find My Friends So Everyone Will Love You
iPhone 4S Specs
Screen Size: 3.5"
Resolution:960x640 at 326 ppi (Retina)
Dimensions: Height: 4.5 inches (115.2 mm). Width: 2.31 inches (58.6 mm). Depth: 0.37 inch (9.3 mm).
Weight: 4.9 ounces (140 grams)
Cameras: 8MP, 1080p @ 30fps; VGA
Problems and Issues
Are Some iPhone Displays Yellow?
Sprint's iPhone 4S Might Be Inexplicably Slow
Activation's Being a Pain (As Usual)
Siri Struggles With Non-Native Speakers
Siri's Servers Had a Hard Time of It