More than the lack of change in its overall design, what has really caused some people to spit out their dummies about the iPhone 4S is its unchanged screen. Even if you sensibly aren’t tempted by the goliath 4.7in screens of the HTC Titan or Samsung Galaxy Nexus, there are plenty of circa 4in screen devices that are starting to make the 3.5in iPhone look a bit weedy.
Many people were expecting to see an iPhone of similar overall proportions but with a screen that filled more of the device, and we think there’s some sense in that, particularly when it comes to watching videos or gaming where the aspect ratio of a taller screen would better fit the content. Also, if you’re a power user, there is something to be said for having as big a screen as possible when you’re browsing a document or text heavy webpage.
Still, what the iPhone 4 lacks in size it makes up for in quality. Its 960×640 pixel ‘Retina’ display is still best in class for sharpness and very near the top for colour reproduction and viewing angles.
With Apple having released its iOS 5 update to iPhone 4 and iPhone 3GS owners already, the difference of upgrading to an iPhone 4S will be somewhat underwhelming – aside from Siri you get exactly the same features. However, there’s plenty of new additions in iOS 5 and iOS in general still has many, many charms.
The overall interface is still dominated by pages of icons for apps arranged in neat grids, with no sign of the widgets (mini apps that sit on your homepage) available to Android phones or the larger Live Tiles used in the Windows Phone interface. This ‘keep it simple, stupid’ approach can be a little frustrating at times but for the most part you seldom feel restricted, particularly as it’s so easy to rearrange the icons into organised folders.
Probably the main annoyance is that you still have to go to the Settings ‘app’ to change everything, rather than having access to these from the app itself – even a link within the app that then opens the appropriate page in the Settings app would be preferable.
New to iOS 5 are notifications, and what a difference they make. Drag down from the top edge of the screen and a list of your messages, calendar appointments and such like are shown alongside the weather and the stock ticker. Sadly there aren’t yet any options to add to these widgets yet but we do hope Apple adds this in the future – it’s altogether a much more elegant way of implementing widgets than simply slapping them on homescreens. Tap a notification and it will open the appropriate app for you.
Notifications also appear on the lock screen and you can jump straight to the message or update by swiping the notification off screen. Also, unlike the old interruptive notifications of old, if a new notification comes in it won’t disturb what you’re doing, and will instead appear in a thin strip at the top of the screen. None of this is revolutionary stuff but it does put the iPhone right back on par with the majority of handsets.
Also accessible from the lock screen is the camera. Just double tap the home button and the camera icon will appear, ready for you to tap it and jump straight to the camera app.
One thing that hasn’t yet been improved is multitasking, with apps still only appearing in rows of four along the bottom of the screen when you double tap the home button. You can swipe them along to access the other apps you’ve been using, but it’s a laborious task. Both a move to having a larger grid of apps to choose from, and perhaps having the apps show a thumbnail of what the app is doing, would be improvements.
Swipe left from the start screen and you get the universal search feature whereby you can start typing and straight away matching results will appear for contacts, calendar entries, music, messages, apps and such like, or you can perform a web or Wikipedia search.
Perhaps more important than all these interface features is interface performance, now that the 4S is bolstered with a dual-core chip. Sadly, the difference over the iPhone 4 is rather subtle. Yes, those moments where the phone will have a little think before opening an app are now gone, but they were only intermittent on the iPhone 4 anyway (if you kept if running in tiptop condition by restoring it from a backup every now and again). Otherwise, the clever little interface animations that look so snazzy haven’t actually been sped up, so you still wait a couple of seconds for the camera app to load or a second to switch between apps. The result is a phone that’s fast, but it doesn’t quite feel as lightning quick as, in particular, some Android alternatives.
Nonetheless, the iPhone still has the easiest interface going at the moment. While we do like some of the extra abilities of other platforms, the simple charm of the iPhone 4S has much wider appeal. However, it’s when you start to look at some of the iPhone’s core features that it does wobble a little…