Hands on: iPhone 4S 'meets every expectation, and then some'

Don't let the exterior looks fool you -- inside, this is a new phone

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Like its predecessor, the iPhone 4S feels sturdy, as steel and glass should. It's a little heavier than the previous model (by a few grams), and the antenna slits on the side are in different locations. Otherwise, the design appears the same. As with the iPhone 4, the glass front and back panels -- while gorgeous -- make me nervous. A scuff on plastic is different than a shattered glass pane. If you're clumsy or worried about dropping it, buy a case and/or get AppleCare Plus.

AppleCare Plus is a new plan that allows you to replace a broken iPhone 4S twice in a two-year period. For $99, you extend Apple's standard one-year warranty by another year, and in case of accident, you can replace your iPhone for $49 a visit.

Ready, set... wait?

The flood of users attempting to upgrade to the new phone on Friday caused activation delays for many. I know several people who bought a 4S and were still unable to use it eight hours later. My own experience? Activation was -- I almost hate to admit it, because so many others had issues -- instantaneous. I used AT&T's site and my activation happened within 10 seconds.

However, during the setup process when the iPhone prompted me to log into iCloud, I ran into a hiccup. My first iCloud login attempt resulted in an error after a 15-second wait. The second attempt worked, though, and I was able to restore from the iCloud backup performed earlier on the other phone. Apple had a number of iCloud-related issues last week, so I doubt I was alone.

As I noted in my iOS 5 review, when restoring from iCloud, user data like Notes and App/OS settings, text messages, mail, contacts and calendars download first. After a reboot, camera roll pictures and apps/media from iTunes begin to download. (Reminder: If there's a specific app you want access to immediately, tap its icon to bring it to the front of the download queue.)

The initial 1.7GB restore from iCloud took about half an hour to wirelessly transfer before the iPhone rebooted and was ready for use. After the reboot, the iCloud restore continued, taking another few hours for the iPhone to complete the download of 7GB of apps, iTunes media and camera roll photos and videos. When I woke up Saturday morning, the iTunes wireless sync from the previous night had finished, leaving me with 7GB left empty out of 64GB total.

Wireless transfers may not be speedy, but the prioritization of the downloads allows you to be up and running and actually using your phone even as the media is being copied over, a nice change from earlier versions of iOS.

Performance

As with its predecessor, the first thing you notice about the 4S is the display. It's unchanged, featuring a pixel-packed 960x640 resolution on a 3.5-in. screen that gives high-quality magazine prints a run for their money. Images on the 4S are just as crisp as on the previous model.

A5 processor
The iPhone 4S sports a dual-core A5 processor.

But while it's difficult to tell the difference between the old iPhone and the new one by sight, the new one is clearly more responsive, boosted by a faster architecture. For the most part, Apple engineers took what made the iPad 2 speedy -- the A5-branded dual-core CPU and 512MB of system memory -- and fit them in the iPhone form factor. While the 4S doesn't quite achieve iPad 2 performance in benchmark tests, it's much faster than the previous model, which itself was no slouch.

The 4S runs iOS 5 in a smoother way that makes navigating among apps more pleasant than on the iPhone 4. On last year's model, most animations played fluidly without dropping frames or stuttering, but sometimes the flow of navigation when tapping across the device was disrupted by slow window content load times. While some screens naturally load faster than others, on the 4S, animations are as fluid as can be.

Put simply, the 4S makes the iPhone 4 feel much slower than it did just a few weeks ago: Websites render faster than ever (even compared to other smartphones with CPUs clocked twice as fast), applications load in about half the time, and typical tasks complete without a stutter.

So what does all this added performance do to battery life? As it turns out, not much. Apple claims the battery in the 4S will provide an extra hour of talk time but an hour less of Wi-Fi browsing. Without running formal tests, I haven't noticed a difference here or there in my daily use.

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