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The iPhone 4S in depth: More than just a vestigial 'S'

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Camera improvements: from wretched to ...?

One other iPhone 4S improvement item that Schiller pumped up was its camera.

From a strictly numbers-game point of view, the camera-sensor resolution increases 60 per cent over that of the iPhone 4, from five megapixels to eight. But as every photographer knows, and which even Schiller acknowledged, more megapixels do not necessarily make for better photographs – the sensor quality, the lens, and the image-processing circuitry matter far more.

Schiller touted the camera's backside-illuminated sensor as providing better low-light performance – a reasonable claim. Knowing how abysmal all iPhones have been in low-light situations, we can only hope that Apple's designers have chosen a well-performing backside-illuminated sensor for the iPhone 4S.

Schiller certainly thinks so, saying that the new sensor allows the camera to gather 73 per cent more light per pixel than the camera in the iPhone 4. By the way, you gotta love statistics like "73 per cent more light per pixel". Not 72.8? How about rounding up to 75?

Schiller also noted that the lens of the iPhone 4s's camera has five elements, and not four as in the iPhone 4. Whether or not, as Schiller claims, the addition of a fifth element will help improve sharpness, color accuracy, and color uniformity – or, in Milla Jovovich's case, save the world – remains to be seen. Theoretically it could, but the proof is in the execution.

Slide from Apple's 'Let's talk iPhone' event of October 4, 2011

An ƒ2.4 aperture and backside-illuminated sensor should help improve low-light imaging (source: Engadget)

Schiller also touted the camera's improved, Apple-designed Image Signal Processor, which is presumably on the A5 die along with the compute and graphics cores. This core, he said, allows for face detection and "26 per cent better white balance" – though exactly what metric he used for that bit of spec-speak, he didn't say.

Overall, Schiller said, the new camera system – sensor, lens, and processing core – is ready to shoot in 1.1 seconds and has a shot-to-shot speed of 0.5 seconds. Gloating perhaps a bit more than good manners might suggest, he compared the iPhone 4S's camera speed with that of three other smartphones, and said: "I don't know what Droid Bionic users need to do between pictures. Maybe go get coffee."

Slide from Apple's 'Let's talk iPhone' event of October 4, 2011

Schiller couldn't resist a snarky comment directed at the Droid Bionic when showing this slide (source: Engadget)

The camera also provides 1080p HD video recording, which is aided by some image-stabilization and noise-reduction mojo. "To many customers this will be the best still camera they've ever owned and the best video cameras they've ever owned," Schiller opined. Many customers, it would seem, have never used a still camera with decent glass or a three-CCD video camera.

One last image-related trick: the iPhone 4S can now mirror its screen via AirPlay, as can the iPad 2 and the new iPod touch, if you have your big-screen TV hooked up to an Apple TV. If you don't, you can accomplish the same feat using a wired connection.

Prices for the iPhone 4S on a two-year contract have an imbalance that's common in the industry but which still appears skewed to anyone who has ever purchased flash memory in bulk: $199 for 16GB, $299 for 32GB, and $399 for 64GB. An extra hundred-buck premium for 16GB – or even 32GB – of flash seems a bit out of whack to us.

Slide from Apple's 'Let's talk iPhone' event of October 4, 2011

'Free', in the case of the iPhone 3GS, doesn't include the wireless providers's service plan (source: Engadget)

The iPhone 4, by the way, doesn't disappear once the iPhone 4S hits the shelves on October 14. Neither does the iPhone 3GS. An 8GB version of the former will be available for $99, and an iPhone 3GS with the same amount storage will be free – both with two-year contracts, of course.

The iPhone 4S will be available on its ship date in the US and UK, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, and Japan. Twenty-two more countries will be added on October 28, and the total will rise to 70 by the end of the year. In the US, it will be available not only from Apple's current partners AT&T and Verizon, but also from Sprint. ®

Bootnote

If you've been following the "Let's talk iPhone" event coverage, you'll surely notice that we haven't mentioned the "talk" portion of that title: Siri, Apple's beta version of an voice-activiated, artificial intelligence–driven "assistant" for iOS 5, which will apparently first appear in the iPhone 4S.

We've skipped it not because it's not strictly part of the iPhone 4S, but because we believe it's a bit of a gimmick – even if it works as advertised.

Some day, voice-operated computing may be reasonable, and yes, using Siri in a hands-free setting such as while driving seems reasonable, but we believe that talking to one's phone makes far more sense when there a flesh-and-blood human on the other side of the conversation.

So we're old-fashioned. And computers will never need more than 640K of RAM.

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