On Friday, Apple's new iPhone 4S began to reach the hands of eager buyers -- a record 1 million pre-orders, including mine, were made as soon as the phone went on sale. With a noticeably faster dual-core A5 processor, more storage (up to 64GB), an improved 8-megapixel camera, a revamped antenna design and an artificial intelligence-powered assistant called Siri, the new iPhone promised to be the best Apple phone yet.
So, after a few days' use, how does it measure up?
In short: It meets every expectation I had, and then some. And Siri, the AI assistant that's available only on the 4S, will surprise you with how well it performs. (More about this in a minute.)
When Apple revealed this model on Oct. 4, the initial reaction from the tech press tended toward disappointment. Then came the flood of pre-orders on AT&T, Verizon and -- for the first time in the U.S. -- Sprint, followed by the long lines of eager buyers a week later outside Apple stores and other retail outlets, for a record-breaking total of 4 million iPhone 4S units sold over its launch weekend.
Reports of disappointment seemed to fade.
Like previous models, the 16GB iPhone sells for $199, the 32GB model goes for $299, and the new top-end model, with 64GB of storage, retails for $399. It's the model I bought for myself. (The previous top dog, iPhone 4, is demoted to 8GB of storage and now sells for $99. If you don't need much storage, it's a good deal at that price.) Those prices assume two-year contracts, or an extension of existing contracts.
Another first for Apple: This is a world phone. For those who travel often, the iPhone 4S can be used with other carriers around the globe. This is due to Apple's decision to incorporate a specific chipset that allows the iPhone to connect with different implementations of CDMA and GSM cellular technology. The end result is an iPhone that can work just about everywhere, a move that opens up carrier options throughout the world.
Upgrading to the 4S
I was prepared when the new iPhone arrived. Days earlier, I had upgraded my then-current iPhone 4 to iOS 5. (See my iOS 5 review for the steps involved in that upgrade.) And hours before the iPhone 4S arrived, I had initiated an iCloud backup on the iPhone 4 by going to Settings > iCloud > Storage & Backup and tapping the Backup Now button. This backup took only 5 minutes for me, but it will be different for everyone. iCloud only syncs changes, and it was mostly up to date already since my phone backs up to iCloud automatically every night.
(If you're old-school, you can use iTunes instead of iCloud for the backup: Plug into iTunes -- or just open it if you're connected to it via Wi-Fi -- and start a sync session, which will back up your phone and transfer media to your computer.)
When the backup was done, I silently thanked my iPhone 4 for its faithful service and turned it off. It was time to get a good look at the 4S, which was waiting to be unpacked.
For those interested, the 4S box is similar to the one used for the iPhone 4, except for an iCloud sticker and the additional 'S' in 'iPhone 4S.' Included with the 4S are the typical white Apple earbuds/mic combo, an iPhone charging cable and a wall plug. Also included: a quick-start dead-tree guide called Finger Tips, some obligatory legal text, and a couple of Apple stickers.
My first reaction when I pulled the 4S out of the box: This looks just like the iPhone 4!
Actually, to me that's a good thing. I like the design of the iPhone 4, and by extension, the 4S. It sports the same Zen-like minimalism that wowed me last year when the iPhone 4 arrived. As I did last year, I bought the black model, though you can get it in white if you prefer.
Even after 16 months, I think the aluminum-and-glass ice-cream sandwich design looks sharp, emanates quality and exudes a striking minimalist appearance; the best part is that the device seems to fade away when in actual use, leaving just you and the software. The overall size and weight offers a screen large enough to read comfortably, but small enough to be unobtrusive in your pocket.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the new iPhone arrived fully charged, which allowed me to start using it right away.