Apple iPhone 4S Review Archive
Could the Apple iPhone 4s replace your point-and-shoot?
Recommendations are independently chosen by Reviewed’s editors. Purchases you make through our links may earn us a commission.
Since cell phones started snapping pictures, the common refrain over the past decade has been that mobile phones will kill standalone cameras. Actually though, it seems like phones are helping the camera industry. Sales of high end cameras are up, even in a crummy economy. Everyone is a photographer. More would-be Ansel Adams loyalists are discovering that they actually like to take photos. People are learning to recognize the advantages of a proper camera, whether it's a long-zoom compact or a full-fledged, interchangeable-lens DLSR, and they are upgrading from their humble camera phones when they can.
But that leaves us wondering about cheap point-and-shoots: They're meant to take "good-enough" photos for sharing online, just like cameras-phones such as this Apple iPhone 4S. Sometimes, the best camera is the one you have, and since your iPhone is always in your pocket, it's hard to justify a pocket cam.
We're reviewing the 4S as a point-and-shoot, not because we expect fantastic performance, but because we want to see if its camera is good enough to replace a standalone pocket camera. To be clear, we're testing the 8-megapixel, rear-facing camera, not the front-facing, VGA-quality camera. The Apple iPhone 4S is available in black and white shades in 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB configurations, starting at $199.99 on contract with AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint.
Design & Usability
Minimal, yet efficient
As a mobile phone first and foremost, the striking, minimal 4S is not designed for comfy shooting, though a rubberized case or cover will improve the ergonomics a bit. There aren't many buttons to speak of, as the interface is predominantly touch-based, but the volume up key doubles as a shutter button, lending a more traditional feel. Since the camera is almost entirely automated, the menu system (in the default camera app) is sparse and mostly graphics-based. A flash menu, a tiny options menu, and a camera toggle are overlaid on the LCD, next to a thin bar with a shutter release and playback toggle—a minimal, streamlined system through and through. The sleek playback mode makes sharing easy and the 3.5-inch touchscreen LCD, known as a "retina" display in Apple's marketing lingo, is really, really high-resolution—324 dots per inch—and higher than print-quality demands.
The big touch-panel is far more responsive than any that we've seen on a standalone camera, and truly a boon to the interface. Tapping the screen brings up a few options: the camera roll, which displays a menu of all photos and videos saved in the camera app; an edit button, which we'll cover shortly; a slideshow option (the play button); a share button (the forward arrow) for messaging, Twitter, email, direct printing, setting wallpaper, and assigning photos to contacts; and a delete function (the trash can). Finally, the tiny, flat lens sits up in the top-left corner of the rear panel. It's a fixed 35mm-equivalent, f/2.4 unit, which is narrow, yet decently bright by compact standards. There's no lens enclosure or cap, but it's flush with the chassis. Like the flash, it's placed perfectly for your pointer finger to get in the way.
Default features are scarce, but free downloadable improvements are practically endless.
Operation on the 4S is mostly automated and there are no default scene modes (offerings that even basic point-and-shoots feature), but the number of photo-effect apps is astounding—it's probably the single most popular photo-related app category in the App Store. A few apps unlock a shutter priority mode, mainly meant for long exposures, and others offer scene modes like portrait and landscape. Lamentably, since the aperture is permanently fixed at f/2.4, there will never be an aperture priority mode on the 4S, whatever the efforts of enterprising app programmers.
The iPhone 4S does not offer an optical zoom either, which is no surprise, considering the thin design, but it does have a 4x digital zoom, though this significantly reduces image quality. While we aren't factoring its photo capabilities into this review, it's worth noting that the 4S has a front-facing camera. It's VGA quality is significantly inferior to the rear-facing camera, but it's useful nonetheless. Rather than a traditional bulb-based flash, there is a small LED lamp. It's pretty powerful, but tends to add a weird, awkward cast, especially in very dark settings. The 4S has a very competitive movie mode, with 1080p resolution, continuous autofocus, and decent color accuracy, but we wish it had a zoom feature. To round it all out, the 4S's camera offers basic editing (though dozens of downloadable apps expand these capabilities drastically), direct, wireless printing (only with a small handful of compatible printers—check the short list on Apple's website to see if yours is included (it probably isn't)), and 8-megapixel photos that are high-res enough to print directly to 8.5x11" paper.
A limited but efficient little camera
It looks great, it's small, it makes phone calls, but are its pictures really worth a flip? Default colors are striking and vibrant, but technically speaking, not very accurate. That doesn't make it bad, mind you—in fact, the profile seems engineered to draw out striking colors, the shades that make viewers go "oooh" and "ahhh"—but it isn't true to life. Again though, there are apps to alter things like this, so take it with a grain of salt. All things considered, sharpness is mediocre, and it loses points for its mid-range pixel count and singular photo size. Most cameras weigh in north of 12 megapixels and offer a few photo sizes and aspect ratios, but not the 4S. It captures 8-megapixel photos in a 4:3 aspect ratio. You won't get razor-sharp photos with the 4S, but images are a lot crisper than the score lets on, particularly toward the middle of the frame.
The 4S works within its sensor's limits for fine (but not great) noise performance. Since users can't control ISO sensitivity, we couldn't put the iPhone 4S through our usual noise tests, but all users are forced to settle for all-automatic ISO metering (nope, we couldn't find an app for that), so we measured the 4S's noise performance based on four shots in two kinds of light: two in bright light and two in low light. Overall, the results are acceptable. In bright light, the 4S shot at ISO 80, one of its lowest ISO levels, and noise was not a problem. In low light, the 4S shot at ISO 320, which is a medium-high setting on its limited scale, and noise became problematic. Apple does not publish the iPhone 4S's ISO range and there's no user control over sensitivity, but as best we could discern (by trial and error), it spans from 64-800. Most pocket cameras extend to ISO 1600 or beyond these days, but since the iPhone's sensor is tiny even by compact-cam standards, the engineers were probably wise to give this camera a conservative limit.
Sometimes, the best camera is the one you have.
When the iPhone 4S was announced in October, one of the biggest talking points was the camera: 8-megapixels, 1080p HD video capability, and a bright aperture paired with an extra-sensitive sensor for better photos in more shooting situations. Features like these compete with some of the best standalone cameras on the market right now. Unsurprisingly, this do-it-all gadget has some limitations. It's a decent camera, not a great one, but the key point is that it's built into one of the best all-around devices of all time (so far). It takes decent pictures and shares them instantly. It can become a better camera just by downloading a free app. The camera hardware is superior to any previous iPhone, and at least judging by the spec sheet, it's among the best on any smartphone in general.
The real question is whether the camera on the iPhone 4S is good enough to replace a point-and-shoot camera, or at least good enough to stop owners from buying a new point-and-shoot. Most of the time, that's a definitive yes. For casual photographers, there's no good reason to buy a cheap camera just to keep around as a snap-shooter when the iPhone 4S already fits the bill (and your back pocket). The iPhone will always be with you, ready to take a "good enough" photo at a moment's notice. Add a hip filter with a free downloadable app and share photos instantly. If photography is just a passing interest, it's best to save the cash that would've gone toward a cheap camera and pay for a month or two of cell phone service instead.
Of course, there's still plenty of room for standalone shooters. Any camera in the $250 price range offers plenty that the iPhone 4S doesn't—a longer zoom range, more built-in features, and heaps of hands-on manual control, just to name a few possibilities. For hobbyist photographers, a purpose-built camera will always have better handling and consistently better picture quality than an all-in-one gadget like the iPhone ever will. That won't change for quite some time. Camera phones keep getting better, and they're closer than ever to rendering cheap pocket cams irrelevant, but they only make the art of photography even stronger.
As it's primarily a phone, not to mention a very slim phone, we were curious to get the 4S into the lab to see how it would hold up under testing. Surprisingly, it fared pretty well overall. It tends to punch up color and its ISOs are very modest, but photos are nice enough for snapshots and for printing too, sometimes.
That trip to the zoo may look more colorful than it really was on the 4S.
Default colors are striking and vibrant, but technically speaking, not very accurate. However, an exaggerated color profile doesn't necessarily mean bad photos—in fact, the profile seems engineered to draw out the most striking colors in a picture, the shades that make impressions, but aren't exactly true to life.
The lowest color error we recorded was 4.32 with 115% saturation; a good camera scores a 3.0 or lower, and between 90-110% saturation, so this iPhone incurs a pretty substantial penalty. Dark blues and reds are the most exaggerated shades, but every hue besides light green and yellow is at least a bit off from what we consider to be ideal. Here's where it starts to get tricky. The iPhone 4S only has one built-in color mode, which is the one that we used for testing purposes. That said, there are at least a few dozen downloadable apps available that offer additional color profiles, so we've awarded the 4S a few bonus points in this category. If we looked hard enough, we're sure we'd find a mode that would earn a better score on our accuracy test, too.
With the 4S, you should be afraid of the dark.
The 4S works within its sensor's limits for fine (but not great) noise performance. Users can't control ISO sensitivity, and since we couldn't find an app to unlock the ISO either, we couldn't put this camera through our usual noise tests. Thus, we measured the 4S's noise performance based on just two shots in bright light and two shots in low light. Overall, the results are acceptable. In bright light, the 4S shot at ISO 80, one of its lowest ISO levels, and overall noise was low—just about 0.8%. In low light, the 4S shot at ISO 320, which is a medium-high setting on its limited scale. Noise made up more than 2% of those shots, which is substantial.
Apple does not publish the iPhone 4S's ISO range and there's no user control over sensitivity, but as best we could discern (by trial and error), it spans from 64-800. Most pocket cameras extend to ISO 1600 or beyond these days, but since the iPhone's sensor is tiny even by compact-cam standards, the engineers were probably wise to give this camera a conservative limit.
Resolution & Sharpness
Crisp, consistent shots belie the 4S's middling test scores. All things considered, the iPhone 4S earned a sub-par resolution score. Remember that the camera is just one feature on a decked-out gadget, and despite that, its resolution performance is better than a number of point-and-shoots we've seen this year. Sharpness is mediocre, and it loses points for its mid-range pixel count and singular photo size, but there's almost no distortion at all, and chromatic aberration is well controlled. That's a pretty acceptable result overall.
The 4S certainly doesn't take razor-sharp photos, but they're a lot crisper than the score lets on. The iPhone's relatively low pixel count (8 megapixels) compared to most point-and-shoots (12 to 16 megapixels these days) could partially account for the mediocre score. The lens is tiny and flat, which isn't an ideal design, so that could knock a few points off as well. The 4S also doesn't seem to apply as much sharpening as a number of point-and-shoots. So the score is low—much lower than any of the point-and-shoots in our comparison group—but the real-world results do look decent, especially toward the center of the frame.
Video capabilities are very competitive.
The 4S has a solid movie mode, with 1080p resolution and decent color accuracy. It's about as stripped down as the Flip camcorder's setup: switch the virtual toggle to video mode, press the red record button, and start filming. That's it. There's no zoom, and the only adjustable option is whether to use the LED lamp as a light source (which can actually be pretty helpful). Autofocus is continuous and pretty accurate, though it sometimes shifts in and out of focus, and the video color profile is very similar to the still-photo color profile: vibrant, bright, and not particularly accurate. That said, what's below-par for still photos is decent for video mode, and the 4S earns a nice video color score.
Thanks to the crisp 1080p resolution, the 4S's video sharpness is excellent. We measured 625 LW/PH in our horizontal motion test and 575 in our vertical test. That's one of the best results we've seen from any fixed-lens camera.
Get Reviewed email alerts.
Sign up for our newsletter to get real advice from real experts.