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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Camera

The iPhone camera system gets an update that offers not only better pictures and video, but improved performance as well. Apple updated the camera to 8 megapixels, but megapixels mean little without improved optics to capture those pixels. The 4S boasts a lens design with a larger aperture, an improved backside illumination sensor, an infrared filter for UV light and software enhancements to match, according to Apple.

Comparing the new iPhone's results with those taken by the iPhone 4 shows a nice improvement in image quality. In fact, Apple claims to have improved the quality enough to target midrange point-and-shoot cameras. At this point, it's hard to say whether that's been achieved.

I took some quick comparison shots in fading light with the iPhone 4S and a 10-megapixel Canon Powershot SD890 IS Elph and found that the Elph took a crisper, more vibrant flower close-up, while the 4S took a brighter, cleaner shot of the horizon and sky. I'll need to do more testing before I can declare a winner, but it's safe to say that the 4S takes some impressive photos.

Even better, launching the Camera app is no longer an exercise in patience. On the 4S, you're ready to take photos much faster than before (within a second and a half of opening), and multiple pictures can be taken more rapidly, as the time lag between shots has decreased to about half a second. (iOS 5 also brought some nifty improvements to the Camera app -- including access to the camera from the Lock Screen -- that users of earlier iPhones can enjoy as well.)

Video has been bumped up from 720p to 1080p resolution (captured at 30 frames per second in both old and new models). The improved optics that make still pictures noticeably better are put to good use here, too, and videos look great. An added bonus: The 4S features built-in video stabilization, which uses the on-board gyro to minimize camera-shake caused by unsteady hands.

Throughout the years, I've used several cameras, but after last year's iPhone 4 release, I settled on the iPhone as my camera of choice to record and photograph everything. When my niece visits, I record our activities and make little movies in iMovie that she (and the family) enjoy. Everyone who watches the videos admits amazement that the footage was shot "from a cell phone."

iPhone 4S video camera
Not a fan of the "shaky-cam" look? Video stabilization is now built in.

For me, this makes the improvements to the 4S camera well worth the upgrade. And I have an additional wish for the iPhone 5: I wouldn't mind seeing the availability of 720p video at 60 frames per second for better slow-motion shots.

One thing to keep in mind if you plan to take lots of videos and still shots with the iPhone 4S: All those advances to the camera and video architecture will result in larger files that eat up storage space -- something to consider when you choose which model to buy.

Network

Apple chose to skip over true 4G support this time around, though it did improve the antenna system. Last year's iPhone 4 came under fire because of an attenuation issue that could be reproduced by bridging the lower left antenna slots with your hand, cutting off cell signal. This year's iPhone features a dual-antenna system that can swap to the strongest signal on the fly, so you no longer need an external case to prevent the antenna "death grip" issue.

The latest iPhone antenna design can use AT&T's 14.4Mbps HSPA+ service, which some hardware makers refer to as 4G. (Some rumor sites have reported that AT&T is trying to persuade Apple to refer to this new iPhone as a 4G phone.) While HSPA+ does bring noticeable speed improvements to 3G networks, it's still not technically 4G in my book. True 4G technologies available today include LTE and WiMax, which are still being rolled out across specific cities with new networks that are purpose-built for data traffic.

Regardless, the iPhone 4S is more capable of finding and maintaining a stronger cell signal than its predecessor, without the battery drain found in true 4G phones. In my own use so far, I've found that the 4S seems to get better reception in areas that were shady before -- and I haven't dropped any calls (yet). I'll know more the more I use it.

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