My own quick thoughts on iPhone 4S

So, at about 10:30 this morning I got a nice little bundle of joy from UPS.  After a few hours of waiting for it to get settings restored from iCloud and get the apps downloaded, I had the iPhone 4S functional and in my hands.

There are reviews everywhere for it, and arguably the biggest enhancements that iPhone 4S brings are available to iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4 owners in iOS 5 (which I have half a review for but events this week prevented me from finishing it out and getting to a form that wasn’t already stated by others).  And this is as it should be. The cool thing about iPhone is that you can count on Apple to provide one or two major iOS upgrades for your device and those are going to add the lion’s share of user facing improvements. After all, the phone is just a touch screen in a beautiful shell.

As I sat with the virgin iPhone in my hands, I found myself asking “now what?” I asked Siri a couple of dumb questions, but due to high server load it couldn’t do much for my query so I’m not sure what to think about it. On that note, I am a bit disappointed in Apple’s performance this week with their servers. This feels a lot like when iPhone 3G came out. Apple claims to be a company that learned from its MobileMe mistake, and I’m sure the software is arguably more reliable, but the capacity just wasn’t there, and it makes for a poor out of box experience for (new) users.  I can only hope that in the coming days it gets better, but there are only going to be more iPhone 4S users adding to this load from now on. It’s marked as a beta product (and it’s even disabled by default on your phone) but this launch could have been handled better, if only with more bandwidth available.  Dictation was available a few times for me and I can say it had far better accuracy than I’ve seen in the past. I could probably rely on the dictation alone to dictate blog posts or other long notes into Evernote. It’s really great. (Speaking of Evernote, it performs a lot more nicely on this hardware. That doesn’t give Evernote a free pass to write slow software, though; they still need to support people on devices as old as the 3GS!)

One of my favorite features of the phone that can easily be pointed out is the improved speed of the camera. It’s WAY better than iPhone 4, and better more than iPhone 3G and 3GS.  The amount of time it takes to go from phone in your pocket to taking a picture is really important when you want to really quickly snap a pic, and you can take rapid fire pictures without much trouble.  I was taking about one per second average.

But aside from that and Siri, there are no other features that really jump out at you as visible. The phone’s just better all around.  It’s faster.  You don’t necessarily notice it at first, but when you start jumping between apps and doing multiple things at once you really see it. Apple didn’t add more memory to iPhone 4S (a bummer for me; I think it would have really helped speed and multitasking even more) but the previously single core processor is now dual core, and the graphics performance is incredible now. This manifests itself in the form of things just feeling snappier everywhere and you’ll quickly get used to it. It didn’t cross a line where it amazed me per se, and I feel like it could have been made even snappier, but it gets to a point where I can really tolerate it (and that’s exactly how fast I feel the phone seems to get with every iteration of the iPhone since Apple started making the phone more computationally powerful with the 3GS). Keep in mind that I’m in the 2% of people who are just that power hungry for their phones. Personally I wouldn’t have minded Apple clocking the processor at the full 1 GHz instead of the 800 MHz if it didn’t cause a substantial drop in battery life, or at least the ability for the phone to ramp up its CPU when I’m doing something intensive.

I trust that the battery life has seen a modest improvement, but I’ve been giving the phone a good exercise today so this isn’t the best day to judge that.  Antenna performance seems adequate, but I didn’t go anywhere today where I usually have poor coverage. I’m using Verizon so I am not seeing the GSM speed enhancements but my friends using it have reported speeds as high as 7 Mbps down and 2 up. That’s great for those suffering on AT&T’s overcrowded network but I suspect that as more iPhone 4Ses find their way into the world this speed bump will be less evident.

The phone’s a world phone. I haven’t benefited from that quite yet but I am sure I will at some point. I’m told Verizon will unlock a phone for you if your account has been in good standing for sixty days, and I’m going to see if I can’t get the phone unlocked immediately given that I bought the phone outright and since Verizon receives about $5000 a year from my family in wireless bills.

People sure thought the phone was a dud, but really there’s just been a mental expectation for something that looks different. iPhone 4S didn’t need to look different. The iPhone 4 has a great design that no other phone currently has. I would be perfectly happy with Apple releasing one more phone with this hardware design next year.  Apple does push themselves a lot and they surely will change the design once again just to raise the bar and see what other performance they can squeeze out of the phone.

Siri is very interesting. It shows that Apple’s thinking of a new paradigm for interacting with the iPhone. The iPhone is very much a sort of personal assistant of yours, holding a lot of vital information that you always have with you and being connected to the web. Now, instead of doing the work of finding a piece of information, you have the ability to send the phone out to do work for you and come back with answers, or just to do stuff for you. You can have the phone remind you things if needed. Apple only connects to a couple of data sources right now (and they picked really good ones, especially Wolfram Alpha) but I see a future in which there is a Siri API. For sure there are questions to be answered about how you might implement this (presumably the apps would publish their own sort of Siri API that Siri can hook into and use as a data source).  The future’s bright on that front and I think Siri could push iPhone forward in a way that I haven’t seen since Apple actually opened the iPhone up to third party apps.

To answer the million dollar “should I upgrade” question, you absolutely should upgrade if you’re upgrade eligible with your carrier. It doesn’t make sense not to, because your carrier doesn’t lower your rate when you’ve fulfilled your two year contract, thus paying off the portion of the phone your carrier subsidized. And that time you spend upgrade eligible but you don’t buy a phone doesn’t earn you anything with the carrier except perhaps brownie points for being a sucker.

If you are mid-contract then that changes things a bit because you’ll be fronting a lot more money for the phone (I had to pay the phone’s retail price… ugh). But in this case you might just consider waiting till November to buy an unlocked phone. Siri’s worth upgrading for if you are often on the go, and if you find yourself feeling impatient waiting for your phone to load something you’ll probably appreciate the upgrade. Only you can say for yourself whether that’s worth it.


Peace out.

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