Pros: Continued refinement of an excellent smartphone, familiar UI, excellent camera/video, very fast, Siri
Cons: Sealed battery, no SD expansion, fragile, no support of Flash, no HDMI without adapter
About a year and a half ago when my last Verizon “new-in-two” upgrade became actionable, the availability of a Verizon iPhone was still just a topic of discussion. I was tired of the discussion, so I bit the bullet and jumped on the Android bandwagon with the HTC Droid Incredible. No buyer’s remorse here, I’m an Android guy.
So recently when the beautiful Mrs. Xeno’s contract expired she was adamant about moving up from her hand-me-down LG Dare to her first smartphone. “Do some research for me, you’re good at that”, she said. So, of course my first inclination was to look over the latest crop of Droids.
Fortunately, in a moment of clarity reality slapped me hard across my face. You see, Veronica may be many things, but tech-savvy she certainly isn’t. You might even go so far as to consider her a technophobe. She loved the features a smartphone could offer her as long as she didn’t have to understand how they did what they did, and it was easy to use.
The image of her hiking up the relatively steep Android learning curve terrified me. Having once taught a wife to drive a car, I wasn’t looking forward to an analogous repeat performance. The Apple iPhone 4S was looking better and better. Veronica could operate her iPod Touch; I figured half the job was already accomplished.
The Apple iPhone 4S-16GB at a glance
At the Apple Store we had the opportunity to compare the iPhone 4 with the iPhone 4S. Visually, even the most familiar users will be hard pressed to identify one from the other. The 4.5” x 2.31” x .37” form remains identical and the 3.5” Retina Display still offers the spectacular 960 x 640 pixels that render a breathtaking 326 ppi (pixels per inch) image. Even this Android advocate would rate the iPhone 4/4S the most beautiful smartphone available today.
While I’m sure many iPhone 4 owners were hoping for an Android sized display (up to 4.5”) the display is consistent with the excellent proportions of this device. In my review of my HTC Droid Incredible I note the almost identical physical dimensions of the 4 and the Incredible. While the Incredible managed to squeeze and additional .2 inches into the display, they are very similar and I find the 3.5” screen a worthwhile trade-off for the hand friendly feel of the iPhone 4S.
So, Apple didn’t spend much time or money on improving the aesthetics of an exceptionally popular device. This is both good and bad. Let’s look at the good first.
A new Processor and OS
The new iPhone 4S replaces the single core A4 processor with the A5 Dual Core chip operating at 800Mhz. Coupled with the new iOS5, the iPhone 4S is noticeably faster than its predecessor. In fact, about twice as fast even when both are operating on the same Wi-fi connection. The original iPhone 4 had very similar speed performance when compared to my Droid Incredible. The 4S hands down outperforms the Incredible both in rendering web pages and opening apps. Will the added speed be noticed by first-time as well as casual users? Hard to tell.
The iPhone 4S brings us Siri, a speech recognition feature that permits us to give commands to our iPhone as well as query the device. Siri not only understands what we say, but in most cases more importantly what we mean. Siri can be activated by a prolonged depressing of the home key.
It's taking a while for Veronica to get the hang of Siri. She has a tendency to speak...very...very...slowly...to...Siri, sort of how she speaks to me on occasion. She loses my attention every time when she does. She fares no better with Siri. I find that just like when I use Vlingo on my Droid, the quicker, more naturally I speak, the more responsive Siri is. But slowly things are getting better. Siri learns and adapts.
Siri’s ability to understand what we mean gives it an edge over apps such as Vlingo. While Vlingo can duplicate most Siri functions it requires us to use a more precise command vocabulary. Siri is much better at understanding casual speech commands.
The new 8MP rear-facing camera just may be the best performing camera/video cam available today on a smartphone. The photos taken by the lovely Veronica of her pre-K students going about their day are stunning. Where she used to borrow my Lumix DMC TZ3 for classroom duty, she now relies on her 4S. That makes me very happy. The front facing camera is serviceable for video chat but is otherwise unremarkable. I’m not sure how much better than that it has to be.
Operating on the Verizon network, call and speakerphone quality is very good. The dropped call/death grip issue that plagued the iPhone 4 seems to have been solved in the 4S by Apple’s dual alternating antennas built into the stainless steel frame.
Unless you're glued to the display watching Netflix, YouTube or HBO GO a good portion of the day, the battery should give you a full day's operation on a complete charge. Apple claims that the battery will permit 8 hours of continuous video play. For the typical consumer I’m not sure how practical a measurement that is. In practice, we’ve found that the battery lasts a full day even factoring in “let me show you my new phone” use. It would be nice if the battery was removable like most Android phones so a spare (or an extended) battery could be kept to power a depleted iPhone. There are non-OEM iPhone cases available that conceal an auxiliary battery. Of course they change the phone’s excellent dimensions.
Ease of Use
Of all smartphones available, the iPhone, in my opinion remains the easiest to use. If you've ever used an iPod Touch, you'll make the transition easily. While I personally like the customizable less cluttered Android UI for myself, the iPhone 4S UI is a safest way to go for anyone.
Bet you thought I was going to dwell on Flash here (or the lack of it). OK, there’s the Flash issue, but that’s old news. Yeah, I like Flash on my phone and Tablet but Apple users have learned to deal with it.
I think a far more practical shortcoming is found in the design that makes the iPhone 4/4S so visually striking. Apart from the durable stainless steel frame that surrounds the phone, the iPhone 4/4S is made of glass. Given all that it does, it gets handled an awful lot. Without a protective case and screen protector the iPhone 4 is very fragile and the screen is given to scratching. The use of Corning Gorilla Glass probably would have been a good move. Of course that might have increased the cost of an already expensive device.
If you need corroboration of this shortcoming, search for “iPhone 4S Drop Tests” on YouTube. Trust me here, it’s not pretty. By way of comparison, my HTC Droid Incredible, armed with a Gorilla Glass Screen (and no protective case or screen protector) has taken a number of splats on our ceramic tile floors and even our concrete driveway. Sure, the case might have opened, the battery slide across the floor, but the screen not only remains intact, it still has not picked up any scratches.
Warranty and Insurance Protection (You need this)
On a new iPhone I recommend the $99 Apple Care contract. It offers an additional year (total of 2) all peril protection. During the 2 year period you can replace your defective/broken/drowned iPhone for a $49 co-pay.
Alternatively you can obtain an Assurion Policy from your carrier that includes loss and theft for about $8.99/month. The catch here is the co-pay for a new iPhone 4S replacement is $169 or almost as much as you paid for the 16G model. Of course if you’re not due for an upgrade, a replacement could cost you $699!
If you're just getting into Smartphones now or have an early iPhone, this is certainly one of the first phones to consider. It offers a relatively easy and safe User Interface and an App Store second to none. If you've used an iPod Touch you'll have no trouble adapting to this phone.
If you already own an iPhone 4 or a quality Droid I’d probably recommend waiting until next summer or fall to get a look at the iPhone 5.