iPhone 4S vs. Android: And the winner is...

By JR Raphael (@jr_raphael)

Comparing Apple's new iPhone 4S to its Android equivalents, it's hard not to feel like a bully picking on a kid who isn't fighting back.

Apple iPhone 4S

Apple's iPhone 4S, unveiled by the company on Tuesday, is an incremental upgrade if I've ever seen one. The device introduces a faster processor, a better camera, and a long overdue software update. It's akin to Motorola's Droid X to Droid X2 upgrade -- a step forward to get on par with the rest of the market, but nothing terribly fresh or exciting. The difference, of course, is that in this case, we're talking about the first new phone to launch on the platform in 16 months -- and likely the only new phone that'll appear for quite some time.

(To be fair, I did hear that the device is already revolutionizing life as we know it.)

Now, don't get me wrong: The iPhone 4S will be a nice upgrade for current iPhone owners, and many of them will undoubtedly rush out to buy it. The problem, though, is an even more extreme version of what I've observed in the past: Most of Apple's new iPhone features feel like the company playing catch-up. Once again, the new iPhone is a step forward within Apple's world -- but outside of that walled garden, it's worlds behind.

Apple's iPhone 4S vs. Android: The Basics

Let's look first at some of the hardware improvements in Apple's iPhone 4S and how they stack up next to top-of-the-line Android alternatives:

  • The iPhone 4S has a dual-core processor. Apple didn't give the specifics, but most folks believe it's likely a 1GHz chip. Android phones have had dual-core chips for months; some, like Samsung's Galaxy S II, are now running 1.2 and 1.5GHz dual-core processors. Heck, we're expecting to see the first quad-core Android phones within a matter of months.

  • Apple hasn't disclosed the amount of RAM its iPhone 4S uses (remember, the crew from Cupertino only talks about specs when it's beneficial to its cause). The device may have been beefed up to a gigabyte of RAM; if so, it's now on par with most high-end Android phones from the past several months. If not, it could be sitting somewhere around the 512MB mark and would remain behind them in that domain.

  • Apple's iPhone 4S has a new camera. It's 8MP for photos and 1080p for video, in line with most modern phones, but it features a high-quality lens and sensor and promises to snap faster images. Nice camera. Okay, cool. That's a legitimate point.

  • The iPhone 4S, as Apple boldly points out in its press materials, is the "first phone to intelligently switch between two antennas to send and receive." Great -- but aside from the iPhone, most phones don't have consistent problems with hardware-caused call-dropping. So who cares?

  • The iPhone 4S has faster download speeds, compared to the previous model. But it's still 3G, not 4G -- and for all practical purposes, in the U.S., it won't come close to matching the 4G LTE data speeds that can be achieved on other devices.

  • The iPhone 4S is a global phone, thanks to its CDMA and GSM integration. Again, a fine step, but nothing we haven't seen in other phones for months.

Then there's the new iOS 5 and its software improvements. As I wrote when that was first announced in June, there's really nothing there that didn't already exist on Android in one form or another. Non-intrusive notifications? PC-free activation and synchronization? Cloud storage? Yeah...that's all old news in the Android world. (I'll avoid repeating myself further and refer you to the preceding link for the full bit-by-bit breakdown.)

The one new addition is the presence of Siri, the voice command system Apple purchased last spring. Siri looks like a neat utility -- there's no denying that. It's similar to Google's Voice Actions for Android, available on most phones since last August, but it adds some extra flair. Android's Voice Actions lets you speak into your phone to perform commands like sending text messages or emails, getting directions, and listening to music (basic system-wide voice-to-text functionality has been integrated into Android separately for some time). Siri, on the other hand, is built to understand a wide variety of natural language queries. A version of it had been available in Apple's App Store before, but the company has apparently pulled it and will now limit the program to iPhone 4S owners only.

Apple's iPhone 4S vs. Android: The Smackdown

Apple iPhone 4S vs. Android

So all in all, the iPhone 4S catches up -- or comes close to catching up -- in a bunch of areas where Android phones have long excelled. It also gains an advantage with its high-quality camera and souped-up voice command system. But is that enough?

Don't forget: Apple's iPhone still lacks many features Android handsets provide. It has no support for external storage, no real file access, and a very limited, locked-down approach to customization. You're still stuck with those sleepy old static rows of icons on your home screens as opposed to dynamic, interactive widgets and a practically limitless choice of personalized launcher utilities. You can't use useful keyboard replacements like Swype, because Apple doesn't allow them. There's no integrated turn-by-turn GPS navigation. And I won't even get into the whole Flash debacle.

Most of all, Apple's iPhone continues to lack the variety, choice, and customization other platforms provide. With an iPhone, you get that arguably dated 3.5-inch-sized display -- and that's that. More so than ever, Apple's restrictive, we-know-what's-best-for-you approach is feeling tired and stale, and the ongoing trends in smartphone market share -- both within the U.S. and globally -- seem to reflect that.

(Before you question those trends or note that Apple is doing well financially, please see this list of market share comparison disclaimers. Odds are, it'll address your point.)



Finally, bear in mind that none of this even considers what we'll see next week, when Google will likely reveal its next-gen Android Ice Cream Sandwich OS and a new Samsung Nexus phone. With all the innovation happening out there, Apple appears to be competing only with itself, working to one-up its last release just enough to persuade loyal customers to upgrade.

When the iPhone 4 came out last summer, I said this:

Mark my words: This won't be remembered as the year the iPhone got folders, a faster chip, or a gyroscope. This will be remembered as the year the iPhone stopped paving the way and started transitioning into the third-place platform -- albeit, the very pretty third-place platform -- it's destined to become.

I couldn't ask for a better example than Apple's iPhone 4S release. The real news of the week isn't that Apple released a new iPhone. It's that Apple stopped trying to raise the bar and started just reaching for it instead.

JR Raphael writes about smartphones and other tasty technology. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

Article copyright 2011 JR Raphael. All rights reserved.

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