As the iconic smartphone for these times, any new iPhone would make a huge splash. But coming so soon after the passing of Apple's longtime visionary leader Steve Jobs, it's possible that the freshest model, the iPhone 4S, will attract even more attention. Apple has already announced that pre-orders for the 4S topped 1 million on the first day you could reserve a phone, bludgeoning the previous mark of 600,000 held by the prior-generation iPhone 4. So much for naysayers put off when Apple failed to introduce an iPhone 5.
For a week now, I've been testing the AT&T version of the iPhone 4S in and near New York City and San Francisco. Sprint joins Verizon Wireless as the other U.S. carriers who on Friday will start delivering the device. And Apple takes the finest smartphone on the market to even loftier heights.
Does that mean everyone who owns an iPhone ought to upgrade immediately? It does not.
Yes, the 4S has a superior camera compared with the iPhone 4. And it has a clever and obedient virtual personal assistant named Siri who can frequently detect what you are telling it to do and respond in kind. For example, tell Siri you need to wake up at 7 a.m., and the alarm clock on the iPhone 4S is automatically set.
But most other noticeable enhancements arrive starting Wednesday as part of free software upgrades available to owners of the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4 (not to mention the iPad, iPad 2 and recent vintage iPod Touch models).
The new software is the iOS 5 mobile operating system, which introduces more than 200 features, including a handy and unobtrusive way of delivering notifications of texts, e-mails, missed calls, stock prices, appointments and more. All you need do is swipe down from the top of the device, not unlike on Android phones. And you'll see notifications on the iPhone lock screen.
Twitter integration also arrives with iOS 5, as does the iMessage service that lets you send texts, photos, videos and locations to friends or contacts who also have iOS 5 devices. The beauty of iMessage texts compared with standard SMS messages, is the ability to receive receipts when your message is delivered and (sometimes) read, along with an indicator when someone is typing a response. And iMessages don't count against your regular texting allotment.
With iOS 5, you also get iCloud, Apple's digital hub for the Internet age. ICloud combines an online storage repository for your music, videos, pictures, e-mail, contacts, calendars, apps, books and more with a free service that wirelessly pushes this stuff to your Mac, PC, iPod Touch, iPad and iPhones from the 3GS on. The goal is to keep everything in sync, readily available and up to date.
The latest iPhone costs $199 for a 16-gigabyte model, $299 for 32 GB and $399 for 64 GB — all with a two-year voice/data plan. Only iPhone newcomer Sprint offers new customers an unlimited wireless monthly data plan, starting at $69.99 (plus a $10 premium fee) for 450 voice minutes on up to $99.99 (plus $10) for unlimited voice minutes.
Verizon's entry-level $69.99 combined voice and data plan gives you only 2 GB of data, along with 450 voice minutes. AT&T has a $15-a-month data plan that gives you only 200 megabytes of data or a $25 plan for 2 GB. You'll need to tack on a voice plan that starts at $39.99 for 450 voice minutes. (Both AT&T and Verizon let customers who previously signed up for an unlimited plan keep those plans.)
The iPhone functions as a world phone that can exploit the GSM-type network that AT&T uses and the CDMA networks of Verizon and Sprint. You'll have to sign up for the appropriate international plan if heading abroad. Starting in November, you can buy an "unlocked" iPhone 4S for $649 to $849.
Of course, while the spotlight is focused on the iPhone 4S, bargain hunters for the first time can snatch a brand-new iPhone for a song. The 8 GB iPhone 4 fetches just $99 with a contract, while the 8 GB 3GS is now free with a contract.
Those compelled to purchase the top-of-the-line 4S will find only the most subtle design difference compared with its immediate predecessor. Both the iPhone 4S and the iPhone 4 are thin and attractive, with brilliant and crisp high-resolution 3.5-inch multitouch screens. Both come in black or white.
At 4.9 ounces, the iPhone 4S weighs only a shade more than the iPhone 4. Inside is a robust dual-core Apple-designed A5 chip that the company claims doubles the processing power of the iPhone 4. Graphics processing is also dramatically bolstered.
At the same time, Apple says it increased talk time for the 4S to eight hours when you're gabbing on a 3G network, an hour more than the iPhone 4 and three hours more than the 3GS. I didn't conduct a formal battery test but easily got through a full day of pretty heavy use on the 4S without having to charge it. Oddly, though, the standby time on the 4S drops to 200 hours from 300 hours on the 4 and 3GS.
Apple didn't come out with a phone that exploits the fastest 4G, or fourth-generation, LTE network that Verizon has constructed. Maybe there'll be an iPhone 5 that can do that. According to Apple, download speeds for the iPhone 4S can reach a theoretical maximum of 14.4 Mbps. However, the best I did was a little more than 4 Mbps — a decent result but not nearly as blazing as some 4G cellphones I've tried.
Apple also says the 4S is the first phone to intelligently switch between two antennas to provide the best possible reception, even in the middle of a call. I couldn't say if that was happening during my calls, but call quality was generally quite good and the speaker-phone came through loud and clear. I didn't experience dropped calls, either, in the areas I tested.
•Shooting pictures. Apple improved the optics in the iPhone 4S to the degree that the camera inside the phone matches, if not exceeds, many decent point-and-shoots.
The camera has 8 megapixels (up from 5 megapixels in the iPhone 4), but the megapixel count doesn't nearly tell the whole story. Among other things, Apple engineered the sensor so it will let in a lot more light. It added face detection, too, for detecting whether you're capturing a portrait or group shot. And the camera fires up and lets you shoot the next picture in a snap.
With iOS 5, you can open the camera app right from the lock screen. There's no need to swipe through to the Home screen and type in your passcode, tap the camera icon and wait before you can start shooting, a relief to parents for whom getting the kids to pose is a nightmare. Now, you can double-tap the Home button and the camera icon appears, which you then tap to immediately launch the camera.
In the past, I've found snapping a picture on the iPhone a bit clumsy because of the way you had to tap an onscreen shutter button. Now, you can press the volume-up button on the side as a new way to take a picture, much more shooter-friendly. The iOS 5 upgrade adds a couple of tools to help you compose an image: optional grid lines and pinch to zoom.
Apple improved the quality of the videos you shoot on the iPhone 4S compared with the iPhone 4. There's now image stabilization, plus you can shoot high-definition video in the top 1080p standard. You were limited to 720p HD shooting on the iPhone 4.
•Living in the cloud. How many times have you shot pictures with a camera phone and never done anything with them? One of the most anticipated new features in iCloud addresses the problem. Photo Stream makes the pictures you shot with the iPhone (or other iOS devices) automatically show up on your other devices. You need Wi-Fi access before the pictures are stored on each device. So you don't run out of storage, the last 1,000 pictures you took are each stored in a Photo Stream album on your iOS devices for 30 days (you can move them to other albums). You can keep all your pictures on a PC or Mac.
Because of connectivity issues, the pictures didn't always appear on all my devices immediately, though all but one made it eventually.
I experienced no snags with the free iTunes in the Cloud service. Any music you buy in iTunes can be automatically downloaded to all your devices, without you having to connect wires.
Apple is introducing a companion iCloud service for $24.99 a year that will let you match, store and stream music in your collection that was purchased, ripped from a CD or otherwise obtained outside of iTunes. I wasn't able to test this iTunes Match service; it's due at the end of October.
I couldn't test one other feature unique to the iPhone 4S (and iPad 2) called AirPlay Mirroring, which promises to let you see everything on your iPhone screen — the Web, games, videos — on an HDTV connected to an Apple TV box. I didn't have access to the Apple TV software upgrade required to make this wireless feature work. Apple plans to make the upgrade available on Wednesday.
Overall, Apple is giving customers free unlimited cloud storage for the music, TV shows, apps and books you buy through iTunes and up to 5 GB for e-mail, documents and other files you want to back up. (You can purchase a storage upgrade if you need more than 5 GB.)
•The neatest feature on the iPhone 4S is the chatty personal assistant. You can summon Siri on the 4S by holding down the Home button or merely bringing the phone to your ear.
And there is a lot she can do. She can dial a friend, send a dictated text or e-mail, look up a stock price and find movie times.
The real power comes in the many ways you can converse with Siri and be understood. Asking "Will it rain tomorrow?" yields the same weather results on the phone screen as "What is the forecast for the week ahead?" When you ask a question of Siri, you'll see that question typed out on the screen, followed by the appropriate response. (In that way, Siri isn't always hands-free.)
Siri works with built-in apps on the phone, including Calendar, Clock, Maps, Notes and the Safari browser. When I asked, "Where can I get a good slice of pizza?" Siri responded,"I found a number of restaurants whose reviews mention pizza … 20 of them are fairly close to you. I've sorted them by rating." Yelp is one partner.
Apple concedes that Siri isn't a finished product; she is in beta. But even with her blemishes, Siri is pretty darn cool. And she helps make the iPhone 4S pretty darn cool, too.
The bottom line
$199, $299 and $399 for 16 GB, 32 GB and 64 GB, on top of voice/data plans from AT&T, Sprint, Verizon Wireless
•Pro. Siri, good camera, iOS 5, iCloud, half-million apps. Snappy. World phone.
•Con. No LTE version. Photo Stream glitch.
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EdBaig on Twitter.