Your basic guide to the new Apple iPhone 4S

Here’s a quick spin through what’s new

Time to get over the fact that Apple didn’t announce the iPhone 5, but instead introduced the iPhone 4S, which boasts a collection of upgrades nonetheless. Here’s a quick spin through what’s new.

What does it look like?

It looks just like the iPhone 4, with extremely minor almost unnoticeable changes such as an extra rubber seam between the exterior band antenna. Same dimensions, but one-tenth of an ounce heavier than the iPhone 4, same size (3.5 inches) and resolution (960 x 460-pixel Retina display) for its touchscreen (see more in our Phone 4S First Look slideshow).

What’s different?

The 42 makes changes in 4 main areas:

Processing power:

A dual-core CPU, the A5, the same one that powers Apple’s iPad. The performance difference will be most noticeable for intensive tasks like games and photo or video editing. Apple says graphics will be up to 7 times faster on the 4S.

Despite the CPU change, battery life remains almost unchanged: 4S can actually get up to 8 hours of talk time on 3G, (compared to 7 hours on iPhone 4). Standby time is one-third less, at 200 hours (300 hours for iPhone 4). Up to 9 hours of Internet access via Wi-Fi is one hour less than iPhone 4.

Cellular networking:

Dual-band “world phone” that can run on either CDMA or GSM networks; it seems like that in the U.S. that the 4S will be locked to the Verizon and Sprint CDMA networks.  Whether these phones can then roam to a GSM network overseas is still unclear.

Support for HSDPA+ 14.4Mbps on the downlink (iPhone 4 was 7.2Mbps); the uplink speed remains unchanged: HSUPA 5.8Mbps. It will not run on LTE networks.

Some changes to the antennas, though not the basic design (steel bands around the outside body of the phone, introduced in iPhone 4). Apple has given few details about this but Brian Klug, writing at AnandTech, says the 4S seems to have received the tweaks made with the release in early 2011 of the first CDMA iPhone 4 on Verizon. The 4S thus “likewise includes what appears to be a combination of Rx [radio receive] diversity and the ability to switch between antennas for transmit.” Apple says this lets the 4S “intelligently switch between the [two] antennas for even better call quality.”

Camera and “mirroring”:

A much improved camera, not just the 8-megpixel sensor (versus 5 megapixels for iPhone 4). But a new image signal processor designed by Apple and a bunch of other improvements to support 1080p photos and video recording, faster camera setup and picture sequences, and better quality photos compared to iPhone 4.

AirPlay Mirroring, a feature imported from iPad 2, letting you display what’s on your phone’s screen on a flat-panel display via Apple TV.

User Interface:

A beta release of something like a voice interface, called Siri, which seems to be an expansion of an iPhone 4 app of the same name (Apple acquired the company and its IP in 2010). Apple has integrated Siri with a wide range of iPhone applications.

You use conversational English (or French or German) to talk “to” the phone. Siri interacts with a range of OS and phone features to schedule meetings, find information, alert you with verbal reminders (for tasks or errands), read your text messages aloud, get directions (and guide you verbally), book a table at a local restaurant and much more. Over a Bluetooth handset it can read your text messages to you even if your phone is in your pocket. What’s more, it supports dictation: according to Apple’s Phil Schiller. “So anywhere an application might normally show a keyboard, there is now a microphone [the Siri icon], where Siri will type for you,” he says.

What are the phone purchase options and when can I get one?

You can start ordering the 4S on Oct. 7.

Three U.S. carriers will offer it: AT&T, Verizon Wireless, and for the first time, Sprint.

There will be three models; with a two-year contract, the prices are:16 GB, $19932 GB, $299And for the first time, 64GB, for $399.

You will still be able to buy an 8GB iPhone 4, for $99. And the iPhone 3GS is now free, with a 2-year contract.

Should we care about iPhone 4S? A lot of people were expecting SuperPhone: 4G, some kind of new packaging, a big screen…

The iPhone 4s is a package that combines key improvements to the basic iPhone 4 design, the new iOS 5 version of the operating system (also available to many older iPhone models), and the new iCloud services, which are more ambitious than anything Apple has had before. All of these are tightly integrated within the Apple ecosystem.

At the same time, with the 4S, Apple creates a new depth to its product line. At the high-end, the 4S continues the basic design of a highly successful product and improves it by boosting performance and 3G networking speeds, without sacrificing battery life; offering a more competitive camera/video recorder, which relies on more than an increase in megapixels to improve images; and introduces what promises to be an expanding voice user interface to mobile devices and mobile services.

At the same time, both the iPhone 4 and 3GS become much more affordable to a much larger segment of the buyers, both in the U.S. and overseas.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for “Network World.”Twitter: john_cox@nww.comBlog RSS feed:

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