iPhone 4S: new features but an 'underwhelming' upgrade

The iPhone 4S has new features, but technology watchers anticipating a new smartphone were instead underwhelmed and disappointed the latest high-tech gadget from Apple won't be offering more.
Apple's Phil Schiller talks about the iPhone 4S during an announcement at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., on Tuesday. (Paul Sakuma/Associated Press)

Apple Inc.'s announcement of a souped-up iPhone 4 — its first major release in the post-Steve-Jobs era — landed with a bit of thud Tuesday.

After anticipation swirled that an iPhone 5 was on the horizon, technology watchers were instead left underwhelmed and disappointed the latest high-tech gadget from the Cupertino, Calif.-based company doesn't have more to offer.

That's not to say the iPhone 4S doesn't offer features that could be attractive to consumers: faster speed, better camera, a voice recognition "intelligent assistant" called Siri. But people were looking for — and expecting — more.

Pete Nowak, a Toronto-based technology blogger and commentator, called the announcement from Apple's headquarters "very underwhelming."

Nowak says it looks like Apple, which has had a "pretty good track record," might be "settling into the incremental improvement cycle."

Brandon Mensinga, senior mobile analyst for IDC Canada in Toronto, says Tuesday's announcement was the "first flat-footed release we've seen from Apple."

Specs for the iPhone 4S, including its dual processor and camera, don't distinguish it in the smartphone market.

"Those are all specs that we've seen before with Android models. In that sense, it's not particularly exciting," said Mensinga.

Equally disappointing, he says, is the fact the iPhone 4S has a 3.5" display, the same as the iPhone 4 and smaller than the 4" displays of its competitors.

In some ways, the anticipation ahead of Tuesday's announcement may have been unrealistic.

"Short of a phone that cooks and cleans, what can you really do with a phone?" Nowak asks. "I'm sure somebody is going to do something revolutionary at some point in the next few years.

"Who knows — it could be Apple; it could be one of its competitors. I don't know if the technologies are there yet."

Still, the features of the new phone could be attractive, if not necessarily deal-makers or deal-breakers for potential buyers.

Faster speed

The iPhone 4S will have a 1GHz dual-core processor called the A5 that promises speeds seven times faster than the original iPhone 4, a feature that could be particular attractive for gaming.

"It's good news for game developers," said Sidneyeve Matrix, a media professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. "It's very exciting if you're an iPhone gamer."


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Mensinga doesn't expect the speed will help set the iPhone 4S apart in the marketplace.

"This is not a competitor differentiator," he said. "Saying it's seven times faster is not a particularly compelling attribute."

New camera

The eight-megapixel camera on the iPhone 4S promises an even better photo experience than the iPhone 4, which had a five-megapixel camera.

But Nowak says it's hard to judge without seeing it.

Matrix says having a better camera "is pretty exciting," but it's not going to be a decision-making factor for people considering buying the smartphone.

Voice recognition

Apple executives touted the "intelligent assistant" Siri software, which will use voice recognition to answer questions and pull up an appropriate app.

But observers are a bit cautious and want to see how it actually works.

One particular benefit might be safety, since the voice-command application might make it easier for smartphone users to communicate while driving without having to take their hands off the steering wheel to do so.

"It could actually be a safety feature," says Matrix.

For Mensinga, Siri could be the "most interesting part" of the iPhone 4S. "I'm cautiously optimistic they've actually reinvented the voice recognition experience."

World phone

The iPhone 4S will have two antennas which will facilitate better call transmission and enable the phone to function on both CDMA and GSM networks, meaning it will work anywhere in the world where such networks exist. However, while this feature might appeal to international travellers from or to the U.S., where some large wireless providers still use CDMA technology,  it is less significant on this side of the border, where GSM predominates.

"That doesn't really have much relevance to Canada," Nowak says.

For Canadians, Nowak says an important thing to note about the iPhone 4S is that it doesn't appear every carrier will offer it.

"It doesn't look like there is going to be one available for the new cellphone carriers," he said. While it will be available through Bell, Telus and Rogers, it won't be available through Wind, Mobilicity and Videotron, which work on a different frequency of the wireless spectrum.

For iPhone owners who already have a 4, observers don't expect Tuesday's announcement will provoke huge demand for an upgrade. If you have a 3 GS, there might be more interest.

"The web sentiment is very clear," says Matrix, "that if you have a 4 already, there's no reason to upgrade."

Shane Schick, editor in chief of IT World Canada, cautions that consumers don't always have to be the first past the post when a new device hits the market. Being a "fast follower" and seeing how the device really works might not be a bad idea.

"I think that people sometimes mistake the IT industry for the fashion industry in the sense that just because something is new and out there that you need to own it as a status symbol. That's a fairly new phenomenon in the consumer electronics industry."

Instead, he suggests giving careful consideration to all the ways a device would be used, in both personal and professional settings.

"These companies have such a huge marketing arm behind them that we have to develop some good filters and separate the hype from the reality."

Comparing iPhones


iPhone 3GS

iPhone 4

iPhone 4S

Network technology:

3G: UMTS/HSDPA (850, 1900, 2100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz)

GSM model: UMTS/HSDPA/HSUPA (850, 900, 1900, 2100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz); CDMA model: CDMA EV-DO Rev. A (800, 1900 MHz)

4G (HSPA+ 14.4 Mbps), UMTS/HSPA 850, 900, 1900, 2100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz); CDMA EV-DO Rev. A (800, 1900 MHz)

Operating system:

iOS 4, iOS 5 will be available from Oct. 12

iOS 4,  iOS 5 will be available from Oct. 12

iOS 5


115.5 mm x 62.1 mm x 12.3 mm

115.2 mm x 58.6 mm x 9.3 mm

115.2 mm x 58.6 mm x 9.3 mm


135 grams

137 grams

140 g

Screen size:




Screen resolution:

320 x 480 pixels

640 x 960 pixels

640 x 960 pixels


8 GB

16 GB, 32 GB

16 GB to 64GB RAM: 1 GB

Battery life:

Talk: 5 hours on 3G, 12 hours on 2G. Standby: 300 hours

Talk: 7 hours on 3G, 14 hours on 2G (GSM model only) Standby: 300 hours

Talk: 8 hours on 3G, 14 hours on 2G Standby: 200 hours










3 MP

5 MP, VGA front

8 MP back, VGA front

Text-input method:




Siri Voice Command Software:





Bell, Rogers, Telus, others

Bell, Rogers, Telus, Fido, Virgin, others

Rogers, Bell, Telus, Fido, Virgin, others


  • Bell: $549.95 (no term) $0 (three-year term)
  • Rogers: $549 (no term) $99 (three-year term)
  • Telus: $549 (no term) $0 (three-year term)
  • Bell 16GB: $659.95 (no term) $99.95 (three-year term)
  • Bell 32GB: $769.95 (no term) $269.95 (three-year term)
  • Rogers 16 GB: $649 (no term) $99 (three-year term)
  • Rogers 32 GB: $749 (no term) $199 (three-year term)
  • Telus 16 GB: $649 (no term) $99 (three-year term)
  • Telus 32 GB: $749 (no term) $269 (three-year term)