Completely Unbiased Review of iPhone 4S

The other day, I posted the following on Facebook:

I’ve debated getting the iPhone 4s in my mind and I’ve reached this conclusion based on nothing: There was to be a 4s and an iPhone 5 this year. Life happened, and Apple couldn’t do it. So we have a 4s with a Beta version of Siri and the delayed launch.

I suspect Apple will re-align back to a summer release next year with the iPhone 5. I think it’ll be vastly different in purpose and design and be the last device Apple releases that has a lot of Steve’s input.

I still stand by that. I went into the Apple Store at Keystone Crossing Tuesday morning after Apple opened up their “Reserve an iPhone” feature Monday night. I reserved a 16 GB, black, iPhone 4S on AT&T’s network. I’m still in a contract with AT&T, though I wouldn’t have switched anyway (I actually don’t have that much trouble with AT&T here in Indy). As a result, I paid $440 for the upgrade. However, I sold my iPhone 4 for just under $10. In total, I paid a $50 “upgrade fee”, so to speak. I’ll no doubt do the same when the iPhone 5 comes out. It never occurred to me that the old phone still had value, as the iPhone 4 has retained its value much, much better than prior iPhones. Or so it seems.

Interesting side-note, I asked why they still divided up the inventory by carriers. The boxes the phones come in are differentiated only by a cryptic UPC code on the label. If it’s a world-phone, it’s all the same phone in there. They were out of Sprint phones, in all variety, but the Verizon phones were ready to go except the low-end models. The rep said it was just as a way of managing inventory internally. That seems wholly un-Apple, to do something for their sake at the expense of the customers. Those poor Sprint people who went in and had to walk out empty handed past all the perfectly-identical-and-Spring-compatible Verizon phones.

Anyway, back to the phone. Reading about the new phone online, it seems that everyone is heaping praise on it. I don’t know that it’s worth what everyone’s saying.

Speed and Performance

Assuming the “S” in “iPhone 4S” still stands for “speed”, the new iPhone is a hair faster. But not by enough that I’m blown away by it. I’ve used this phone very heavily since the moment I bought it and on the occasions that I’ve used Safari and Maps, they did load faster, but only today did I say to myself, “That used to load slower.” The mix of the new antenna system and iOS 5’s improvements together make it a faster device. But it’s not as dramatic as what it was to go from an iPhone 3G to a 3GS.

Battery Life

The battery is now crap. My iPhone 4 went to hell the moment I installed iOS 5. I used to be able to go days, usually three, without ever caring where my next charge was going to come from. After iOS 5, my iPhone 4 needed it every night. It was losing 7-10% of it’s charge in a one to two hour period. Overnight it would drop 15%. Before iOS 5 it would barely budge. The culprit is obvious: reminders with geo fences. If you have a reminder setup to tell you something when you leave or arrive somewhere, the GPS comes on and stays on.

I assumed the iPhone 4S would alleviate this issue. Or that maybe my installation was botched during the upgrade on the iPhone 4 — no one else seems to have complained about the battery. But the iPhone 4S is no different. From the moment I took it out of the Apple Store and drove around doing some errands, checking email, using Siri and checking traffic and texts, it was down 34%. It’s mind boggling to me, actually. I’m now back to the days when I owned my iPhone 3G — always be prepared to plug this thing in wherever you are.

Setup and Activation

I bought the iPhone 4 around 10 am on Tuesday morning. The rep at the Apple Store, who was super cool and nice and picked up on my ability to actually know what I’m doing, asked if I’d humor him and do the setup with him. I explained at one point, “I have an iCloud backup, by the way.” He had never seen an iPhone restore from iCloud, as other customers weren’t privy to have done that yet, I guess. So I said I would and we had a learning experience.

It took 7 or 8 minutes for the iPhone to boot from the moment I opened it up. It restored over Apple’s WiFi, which may have slowed it down some (it’s heavily strained most of the time) and it downloaded my settings, app and folder lists, prior texts, contacts, calendars, bookmarks and other “small” settings.

During that time, the rep told me that they were offering Apple Care for $99 on new iPhone sales. Drop your phone and pay $50, no matter what you did to it, and they’ll replace it. Turns out, one guy bought Apple Care for his new iPhone 4S, walked out of the store, around the corner and someone else bumped into him. It knocked his phone to the ground and shattered. The other guy apologized immensely and the now phoneless-iPhone-owner said, “No bother, just pay me $50.” The other guy did, he picked up his shattered phone, turned around and went in for his new iPhone. All within two minutes of walking out the door. The Apple reps were floored, no pun intended.

Afterwards, the iPhone came up and was ready to use for what was immediately available on initial download. It set on immediately to re-download my Apps, then my music and then my photos. In that order.

I couldn’t wait around for it download 14GB of data at the store, but it was clear it was ready and hard at work downloading everything. The process kept all of my folders and icon layouts precisely where they were on my old iPhone. I could make calls, send messages and re-download my emails once I launched Mail. One downside, though, is that since iCloud doesn’t do encrypted backups, I had to re-enter my password for all five email accounts (and their outgoing server passwords), iCloud, iMessage, FaceTime, iTunes and Home Sharing.

I walked away and as soon as I hit 3G, it stopped the download. It was mid-install on a Chess app and when I got home, it picked right up once I re-entered my WiFi password for my home network.

You do, however, have to plug it in and pair it with your computer to do nightly WiFi syncing. It is true you can use it without a computer, but most people are going to use it with iTunes on their Mac or PC and will want it to sync, I’d assume. So an entirely cable-free setup is still not 110% possible.

The Camera

The camera is better, no surprise there. It takes better photos and the next phone will take even better photos. Nothing more to say about that.

Siri

This is interesting. I can’t wait for Siri to get smarter and get ported to OS X.

I immediately tried using Siri when I got in the car at the Apple Store. However, it’s not enabled by default. I was a little confused and even checked the box to make sure I did, in fact, get an iPhone 4S. Siri is disabled with a setting toggle by default, probably because it sends data to Apple and they’re protecting people’s privacy. Frankly, I imagine a lot of people do what I did and wonder what they’re doing wrong. For such a highly touted feature, I’d imagine it would be better to enable it by default and display an alert on its first use that reads, “Using Siri may record your location and other data for use by Apple. You can disable Siri in System Settings.”

However, once I got it up and running, it does work about as well as you’ve seen and heard. It’s able to dictate messages and read texts, but seemingly only if they’ve just popped in. It doesn’t like reading anything else, like web pages, notes, emails, etc. Which was a bummer; I would love to have Siri read my emails to me in the car so I could reply hands-free. Think of how productive I could be! As an ardent inbox-zero person, that would be welcome. Saying, “Check my mail” will prompt Siri to throw in your messages. Saying, “Read the first message” results in Siri saying, “Sorry, Justin, I can’t read emails to you.”

As an aside, I find it creepy when it refers to me by my first name. No one does that to me and when Siri does it, it’s weird.

It’s able to dictate texts well, though. I tried it and had a success rate somewhere around 75% or 80%. Siri likes for you to be close by, with the radio off and talking directly to it. You can also dictate messages into Mail once you’ve hit the little microphone icon (which really throws off the speed of your typing when the symbols and numbers gets moved by the new button). Just be sure you know precisely what you want to say and how. Stuttering or getting hung up on a word is a real pain. You can’t easily un-edit the dictated message, either. You also have to speak punctuation or risk run-ons. So, “Hi Steve exclamation point I hope you’re doing well today period.” Results in “Hi Steve! I hope you’re doing well today.”

One particularly maddening experience happened to me today. Just sitting at my desk, I received an email from the Marion County library telling me that my library card would expire soon and I needed to visit a branch to show my ID and renew it.

Me: “Remind me when I’m at the library to renew my library card.”

Siri: “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean by, “at the library.”

Whaaat? I mean, “when I’m at the library.” Substituting “Irvington Branch library” had Siri popping up directions to the Irvington, New Jersey library.

Saying “Marion County Public Library” or “Indianapolis Public Library” or the full “Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library” did not register with Siri. All I wanted was a reminder that when I get to the library, remind me to update my damn card. I even looked up the library’s address and said, “When I get near 2656 East Washington Street, Indianapolis, Indiana, remind me to renew my library card.” It just replied, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean.”

Turns out, Siri can’t do that. It only knows “Home” and “Work”, based off your contacts list, I’m guessing. I don’t want it to remind me to do that when I leave the house because the next time I leave the house might be to go in the complete opposite direction. I may not get near the library again for weeks.

How frustrating that it can’t handle, “When I go to Wal-Mart, remind me to pick up cat food.” I fully expected it to be able to figure out where my nearest Wal-Mart is and act accordingly. It does not. Even more irritating is that you can’t even manually set a reminder with such details.

However, as much as I’ve poo-pooed it here, it is wonderful when it does work. I’ve set all kinds of reminders so far and they’ve worked well. It does, however, drain the battery.

I set 16 reminders on the first day, all things I probably would have scrambled to write down on a Post-It or, more likely, email myself about in the past.

It’s handy, “Tell So-and-So, xyz” is a handy feature, too. I can say, “Tell Zach I’ll be there in a minute.” And it works great, based on the fact “Zach” exists in my contacts list and it promptly sends a text message. Maybe someday it can automatically figure out short names, like “Bill” for “William”, on the fly.

Other features I’ve discovered came when I was driving to Castleton the other night. I said, “Show me the traffic” and Siri replied, “Here is the current traffic in Indianapolis” and up popped a Google Map.

Bluetooth

I went and bought a $70 Plantronics headset, as I was one of the six people in America that still used Apple’s original bluetooth headset. I hate it. I hate both, actually.

There’s a reason Apple doesn’t make their’s anymore. The battery lasts about 20 minutes — I’m not kidding.

This Plantronics thing tries to be too smart. Holding the button for one second versus two does two different things. They managed to build pairing, re-dial, answering and hanging up all into one button. Holding it to activate Siri is a work of art, I think. You have to hold it and listen to the annoyingly high-peached “BEEEEEEP” for just a second and a half, then let go and hope Siri picks up. I’ll probably take it back to Best Buy. I’m hoping someone will invent a more Siri-friendly headset.

Conclusion

In all, the iPhone 4S is nice. If you buy it, you’re buying it for Siri and not much else. Some might be swayed by the camera, but the star here is Siri.

If you struggle with a southern-Indiana twang like me sometimes, you have to put on your best radio announcer voice for it to work. I still slur “Yer” and “Tuh” for “Your and “To” on more occasions that I care to admit. Siri doesn’t seem to mind that, though, but anything thicker might confound her. I also wish I could change the voice to a male voice. Call me a flaming homosexual, but I don’t really want a woman inside my phone. I can imagine a lot of women might be slightly put-off by that, too. As if of course the woman has to be the “personal assistant”. Soon, I’m sure, Apple will give us options. I know they claim it’s a beta, but come on. Apple doesn’t do betas. I think this was, “We absolutely HAVE to ship a phone and we’re only 99.99999% satisfied with this as-is. So let’s call it “beta” to manage the expectations.

I don’t regret my purchase, though. Siri’s worth it.

Person cell phone with no cell phone hates cell phones because cell phone cell phone

This might become a recurring segment.

And now, a reading from the call-in line at the newspaper in Salem, Indiana:

I HATE CELL PHONES. I see parents and grandparents at kids [sic] sporting events on cell phones. I see mailmen [sic] walking their routes talking on cell phones. I see clerks in stores stocking shelves talking on cell phones. I see truckdrivers [sic] driving their trucks talking on cell phones. I even saw a girl at a restaurant filling a salad bar talking on a cell phone. I wish I had a job where I got paid to talk on the phone. People in restaurants talking on phones so loud everyone in there can hear your whole conversation…customers in stores going to the checkout on the phone…never even looking up at the clerk that is checking them out. I have heard very personal conversations in stores where I was shopping because someone did not have the sense to go outside or wait till they got home to talk on their cell phone. I know they are very good to have for saftey [sic] reasons and for work but a little common courtesy would be nice from cell phone users. Maybe I hate people who use cell phones. And NO..I do not have a cell phone.