The "Should I Queue Up For An iPhone 4S Sight Unseen?" Guide

Apple recently announced an upgrade to the 14 month old iPhone 4 and added an S to the name "For Speed". It will be available in Australia on October 14th and is available for pre-order direct from Apple at full price now. However most Australians get their iPhones for free on a new carrier contract and at time of press, Australian carriers have yet to announce their plans. So, it's likely you will get the opportunity to line up for the new phone at a store near you... but is an upgraded iPhone 4 worth queuing up for when there are so many other smart phones on the market right now?

The good news for current iPhone users mid-contract is that the two best features of the iPhone 4S will be available for the iPhone 4 and iPhone 3GS for free via a software update from iTunes. Let's have a look:

iCloud is Apple's killer new free service that allows you to set up all the essential features of your iPhone and have all your important data backed up to the cloud without ever plugging it into a computer. All you have to do is enter your iTunes account and password when you set up your phone. What does that mean? It means if you get drunk and lose your iPhone you no longer have to make one of those embarrassing posts on Facebook asking for everyone's phone numbers again. When you get your replacement iPhone, just enter your iTunes account details and all your phone numbers and important App data will be restored as if you had never lost your phone in the first place. iCloud has many other features including backing up your photos by sending them automatically back to your PC and provides you with an @me.com email address which is not only free of charge but ad-free as well.

Also available for free on October 14th for current iPhone 4 and 3GS users is a new version of the built in software called iOS5. There are many new features but some of the more popular ones include a new notification system that can alert you when a new SMS or Facebook message arrives without pausing the video or game you are playing. A history of alerts you may have missed since you last looked at your phone is also available from an Android-like "Notification Centre" accessible by swiping your finger down from the top of the screen. There is also a new background service called "iMessage" that allows you to send Text messages for free to friends and family that also have iOS5 installed on their iPhone / iPod Touch or iPad. If they don't have iOS5, it will just send the message as an SMS. If you want to send free messages to your friends on Android, Nokia or Blackberry though, you will still have to get an app like WhatsApp.

So what is so special about the iPhone 4S that I can't get on my old iPhone?
The iPhone 4S looks identical to the iPhone 4 but on the inside there have been some changes. So what's good, what's so-so and what is bad?

Good: New Chip
The main new feature is the A5 chip, the same processor that powers the iPad 2. The A5 is not only dual-core, making features like the camera snappier, but it is also slightly more battery efficient giving you an extra hour of 3G talk time [Note: Wifi browsing time has supposedly decreased an hour :( ]. Battery life is the iPhone's biggest strength over the Android platform and it just got may be better. Graphics performance is also increased to the point that, in some cases, it surpasses the abilities of most video game consoles, all on a phone screen that is still the envy of the industry.

So-So: New Voice Control Software
The new processor enables Apple to introduce some new beta voice recognition software called Siri, described as a "Personal Assistant". This will be useful for those who want to be able to send SMS and control their iPhone handsfree while in a Bluetooth car mount or with other hands-free kits. For most people though, especially when they aren't driving, the privacy of using the touch interface is a much nicer way to control your iPhone than looking like a weirdo talking at your phone. You can watch Apple's video about Siri over at their website and see if it is for you.

So-So: Faster Downloads
This is good but will be carrier dependant so it remains "so-so". The 4S has support for faster downloads using HSPDA technology at up to 14.4Mbps. Using 3G HSPDA instead of 4G for fast downloads also means much better battery performance while a new antenna system may also improve things for other networks.

So-So: No Form Factor Changes
The 4S retains the iPhone 4's design, which although for some has become somewhat "boring", it remains classic and timeless. All that glass also means it looks great in commercials. However, the design isn't all that practical with the sharp metal edges not that nice in hand and the glass being prone to shattering for anyone who does not keep it in a rubber bumper. The glass also helps make the iPhone 4S one of the heaviest smartphones out there. There were rumours that it would be replaced in some part by Carbon Fibre or Liquidmetal but that looks like it will be reserved for the next big revision.

The biggest drawback of the design remains the choice of hardware buttons. The design strangely omits a play/pause button in favour of two volume adjusters. I don't know about you, but all my audio content is available on-demand. Even internet radio on the TuneIn App is buffered so that you can pause at any time. When I am interrupted while listening, I would much rather pause the content to give my full attention rather than lower the volume and miss some content and/or fail to provide my full attention. If I don't have Apple headphones with the built in remote, which is quite often, my current workflow is to pull the headphone jack from its socket to pause the content in a timely manner and give the world my full attention. To restart the content you then have to pull the phone from your pocket, re-plug your headphones, double tap the home button and then tap the play button without accidentally hitting the back or next buttons that are located idiotically close together. This is a terrible user experience.

Someone please tell me why it is more important to have volume buttons in hardware than a play / pause button when you already have a silent switch to quickly kill the ringer?

iOS5 at least adds the ability to take a photo with the volume buttons but not only are they on the wrong side to how people normally take a photo with their phone but + and - buttons on a camera normally indicate the ability to offer zoom control.

Debatable: New Camera
Apple seems to have put in a lot of work trying to improve their camera although some of their changes seem questionable. The iPhone 4 still has one of the best ever cameras found on a phone. For the iPhone 4S, Apple has had added a faster lens that can take photos at an aperture of f2.4. This is great but unfortunately it seems they have added it to compensate for an 8 megapixel sensor that is still the same size as the old sensor, which as good photographers know, means the pixels are too small for a device that size. Apple has acknowledged this problem and has also improved the backside illumination to assist each pixel straining for light to eke out improvements in picture quality. Whether or not this will actually be enough, Apple are still better in this regard than many other manufacturers that try and scam not-so-savvy consumers into thinking the more megapixels the better. Despite that, I don't think that gives Apple an excuse to try and make this move though. Imagine if they had put the same upgraded backside illumination into a naturally more efficient 5 or 6MP sensor with that great new lens? The results could of been amazing.

The proof will be in the detailed hands-on reviews but the slight increase in picture quality may be hard to justify the larger file sizes of the 8MP photos and 1080p video. Fewer photos and videos will be able to be stored on your iPhone and when users fill up their memory, iOS5 purges data cached from iCloud and other sources, hindering performance of your apps. Of course this may be a conscious decision on Apple's part to encourage you to get the new 64gb model. Also important to consider is that since every photo is now being sent to iCloud after it is taken, the larger uploads will likely decrease battery life. This could scare users away from using iCloud which would be a real shame. This is not a deal breaker, it's just disappointing.

Bad: No Obvious Game Changing Feature
I lot of people have felt let down by this release. The fact that they spent four extra months than usual working on what is just an upgrade of their old phone means questions will start to be asked about whether or not Apple is sitting on their laurels. The next big frontier in the smart phone market is likely digital wallets and easier interactions between devices using technologies like NFC. We now know it's likely going to be a year until Apple shows its hand in this area and Google may well be on its way by then.

Of course, there is a real game changing feature that Apple is releasing:  iCloud. Unfortunately, due to its backwards compatibility with older devices and with its seamless integration, like with iMessages, consumers may tend to take it for granted or not even know it is there... unless something goes wrong.

Conclusion: Is it worth upgrading to the iPhone 4S?
If you are out of contract on an iPhone 3G or 3GS and you want a new phone that can run all the cool Apps you have bought on the App Store, the decision is easy. The 4S takes great features from the classic looking iPhone 4 and adds the A5 processor. The new chip is worth it alone, future proofing you so that by the end of your two year contract your phone should still be running the latest apps and games.

If you already have an iPhone 4 you can relax, you still get iCloud and iOS5 for free. This time next year there will likely be a new iPhone with many more temptations.

If you still have a "dumb" phone or you're sick of Android and considering moving to the iPhone, the 4S is not such a bad place to jump in. The simplicity of iCloud keeping your data backed up and the awesome range of high quality mobile apps are worth it alone without even considering the hardware.

What Size Should I Get?
Normally I suggest getting the model with the smallest amount of space since those who usually fill it up are the ones who know how to use iTunes Home Sharing and apps like Air Video etc to stream their content to your iOS device. iCloud should also allow us to store more stuff in the cloud and less on our phone. Unfortunately due to the decision to use 8MP photos and 1080p video and the strange mix of wireless syncing solutions in iOS5, if you like taking lots of videos and photos on your phone but too lazy to micromanage the storage, you're probably going to be looking at needing at least 32gb, perhaps even 64gb. So, consider how you use your phone first.


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