iPhone 4S Review



On Friday morning, October 7, I pre-ordered two new iPhones: a black, 16GB iPhone 4S for me, and a white one for Anna. A week later they were delivered by FedEx.

Anna’s white iPhone is the first white iPhone I have seen up close and used outside of an Apple store. And it looks great. I have always gone with black iPhones because, well, it’s black. But I really do like the look of Anna’s white iPhone — it is much more classy and well built than the white iPad.

The two phones arrived around 10:00 am. The delivery driver mentioned how we were the first to get them and he had hundreds on his truck.

About 7 hours later I was finally able to activate the phones.

Frustrations of AT&T’s overloaded activation servers aside, the activation process was incredibly simple. I activated and set up both iPhones without a single cable. My unofficial goal is to never plug my iPhone into my computer again.

After unboxing the phone, I turned it on, unlocked the screen, and followed the on-screen instructions for setup. The iPhone knew my phone number and prompted me to confirm that this was indeed the phone number I was upgrading. I then was asked to enter in my billing zip code and last 4 digits of my social security number to confirm my identity, and then let the iPhone activate.

At first the activation was unsuccessful. And so I started over. The second attempt was unsuccessful as well. I tried again, and again, and again, for over two hours. Then I just let it be and came back a few hours later. Even then, I still had no luck.

It was dinner time when iPhone was finally able to activate. I, of course, was not the only one with activation woes. I read about all sorts of people having trouble activating their AT&T iPhones. And, from what I understand, those on Verizon and Sprint had little or no trouble activating on day one.

Once I was finally able to activate my iPhone 4S, I simply restored it from the iCloud backup of my iPhone 4. The restore took less than 10 minutes altogether and all the apps from my iPhone 4 were downloaded and in place. The only missing data were all my passwords.

Aside from having to wait for several hours to get my 4S activated, this was, by far, the most seamless and easy iPhone setup I’ve ever had.

Those automatic iCloud backups are great. Every evening I plug my iPhone into the wall charger by my bed and every evening all that’s on my iPhone gets backed up to the cloud.

These backups are especially great for my wife. Of the two of us, she is probably more prone to losing or breaking her iPhone than I am. Moreover, she is certainly less motivated to plug her iPhone in and sync it to her computer. Having her iPhone backed up each night means if her iPhone ever does go missing, the info that’s on it won’t disappear with the device.

Big Picture

The iPhone 4S has three headline features which make it superior to its predecessors: speed, camera, and Siri.

  • The speed is a combination of the A5 processor and the new antennae design. The former lets the iPhone 4S work and act quicker. The latter helps with better download speeds from the cellular data network.

  • The camera is better and faster. More on that in a bit.

  • And Siri is, well, amazing. But more on that in a bit, too.

My thought on if you should upgrade? Well, if you are at all an iPhone junkie (as in, you use your iPhone more than the maximum amount even possible) then I think the upgrade is well worth it. The speed, better camera, and Siri are all something you’ll benefit from every day (even if you’re already on an iPhone 4).

Siri

My first impression of Siri is that Siri is to the GUI what the GUI is to the command line. Meaning, using Siri is a far easier and quicker way to navigate certain tasks than using iPhone’s multi-touch user interface. The GUI is still much more powerful, but there are already things which are more efficient to do by using Siri.

The scope of what Siri can do on its is not all that striking — setting a timer or an alarm is relatively simple task. But it’s not the scope that makes Siri so darn impressive.

The practical implication of Siri is that certain things are significantly easier and faster to do by asking Siri to them. Such as: setting a reminder, creating a calendar event, getting the current temperature, setting a timer, or setting an alarm.

Siri is not the first voice recognition software to come along allowing you to make a phone call or dictate a note. But Siri is conversational and accepts a multitude of various types of requests for the same task. Which means you don’t have to memorize what you’re asking for. And because of that, Siri’s usability and convenience become exponentially more impressive and helpful.

Something else that stands out to me about Siri is how well it can understand what I’m saying. I don’t have to talk slowly and in monotone. Nor do I have to hold the iPhone right up to my face to talk directly into the microphone. In my home office I can leave the iPhone on my desk next to my keyboard while talking at a normal speed and volume, and Siri will catch exactly what I’m saying.

Another thing that stands out to me about Siri’s usefulness is that it knows if you are “hands free” or not. And if so, Siri accommodates accordingly. For example, if I have my iPhone earbuds plugged in and I ask Siri to send a message to my wife saying “Hey babe, just wanted to say I love you.” Siri will reply not only that the message was created but also read it back to me. If I were not “hands free” Siri assumes I can read my message as it’s brought up on the screen, and thus I would have to ask to review my message in order to get it read back to me by Siri.

In short, Siri is smart enough to know if I am not able to look at my iPhone’s screen and if so Siri becomes more chatty in a good way.

Talking to and using Siri could easily be maddening. If it took too long to process a simple request, or if it didn’t understand most what I said, then the friction of using Siri would slowly grind away any desire to use it. But it’s the little areas of polish that make Siri usable and enjoyable.

Using Siri in Public

I have not yet been in a large, open, public place (such as a restaurant or coffee shop) where I wanted to use Siri. If I did, there’s a clever feature Apple built in which, if your iPhone’s screen is unlocked, you can raise the phone to your ear and Siri will activate and you can interact with it as if you were talking to someone on the phone.

There were, however, a few times over this past weekend when I was around family and something came to my mind that I waned to set a reminder for. I felt a bit uncomfortable launching Siri and asking it to set a reminder for me because I knew it would interrupt the conversation happing in the next room over and draw attention to myself.

And then, as I thought about how easy it would be to have Siri set the reminder compared to setting it up manually, I decided simply to not set up the reminder at all. Lazy? Perhaps. But it’s also telling. For how many people will Siri become the only interface into their iPhone’s apps for reminders, alarms, and timers?

Phonetics

I highly recommend populating the Phonetic Name fields for common contacts which Siri mispronounces. This will also increase the accuracy of your requests to call, text, or email someone.

To set a phonetic field just go to a contact’s card from your iPhone, tap “Edit”, then scroll to the bottom and tap “Add Field”. From there you’ll find the fields you’re looking for.

Text Input for Siri

Natural language input is one of the primary benefits to Siri. This is what makes the calendar app Fantastical so fantastic. If Siri understands and parses our requests into text, why not allow us to type our Siri requests in from the start?

If I’m not in a place where I can talk to Siri, typing in my request may still be easier than doing the task manually. For example, typing the text: “Remind me to take out the trash when I get home” would still be easier than launching the Reminder app, creating a new reminder, typing in “take out the trash”, tapping on the reminder itself, choosing “Remind Me”, turning on “At a Location”, selecting “When I Arrive”, choosing “Home”.

Easter Eggs

There are a slew of easter eggs in Siri. You can ask Siri to tell you a story or a joke. There are certain phrases you can say to Siri to solicit a clever response, such as: “open the pod bay doors”, “beam me up, Siri”, or even, “klaatu barada nikto”.1

Since Siri is server-side software, it will be interesting to see how it evolves (perhaps not the best word-choice?). Will new easter eggs be added? Will new responses to the same questions be added? Beyond simply wishing for an API so 3rd-party apps can get access, how will Siri’s responses and functionality be updated in the future?

Finding friends and family members

Siri integrates with Apple’s Find My Friends app, and I think this could offer some great functionality. Especially for immediate family members. You can ask Siri things like “where is my wife”, and if the Find my Friends app has their location data then you can see where they are.

Location-Based Reminders

Surely the location-based reminders are one of the coolest “little features” in iOS 5.

Having a phone that’s smart enough to remind us to take out the trash when we get home or to not forget our jackets when we leave the office is the next step in handy task lists.

I’ve added new contacts in my iPhone for Walmart and Lowe’s, two locations we visit often. This way I can create a reminder such as “Remind me to get batteries next time I am at Walmart.”

What would be great is if a location-based reminder could contain a “group” of locations. We don’t buy batteries only at Walmart. There are a handful of stores we go to which sell batteries, and so if we need batteries I want to be reminded at any of those stores.

If I could create a group of contacts labeled shopping which contained all the various stores we regularly visit, then I could say “remind me to get batteries next time I go shopping” and then a geo-fence could be set up around all of those “shopping” locations, and would go off at whichever one I arrived at next.

And what would take that even to the next level? An ability to have shared reminders. Something like: “Remind me or Anna to get batteries next time we go shopping.”

An example of that in real life could look like this: I’m at home and realize we need batteries. I create the reminder and it syncs to my iPhone and Anna’s. Then, suppose Anna realizes she needs to swing by the store on her way home from work to get an ingredient for dinner. When she gets there a reminder pops up notifying her that we also need batteries.

Siri’s Interface Design

I think the look of Siri’s interface design is fantastic. I like the way Wolfram|Alpha results are displayed as well as custom UI elements for native things such as a reminder, an event, or a message. The look for an alarm and the timer are my favorite two designs.

Matt Legend Gemmell has a collection of screenshots on Flickr showing off the look of Siri as well as many of its functionalities.

Network Availability

There are patches of time during the day when Siri simply won’t work. In my usage, it doesn’t have to do my iPhone’s connectivity, but simply that the cloud is too busy. Its must be all those millions of iPhone 4S users.

This surely is why Apple limited Siri to be exclusive to the iPhone 4S. They sold 4 million iPhones over the weekend, but there are 20 million people who upgraded to iOS 5. If the Siri network gets bottlenecked with 4 million users, imagine if it were available to 20 million right now.

It’s one thing for Siri to need a network connection to parse and interpret the voice requests. But it would seem that Siri needs the network connection for everything it does — from the very start to the very end of any task.

I found that if Siri lost network connectivity mid-interaction, it could not complete the task. I had all but confirmed a new reminder when Siri lost network connection, and so the reminder could not be created. Even though I was staring at it on the Siri screen. After waiting about 30 seconds, Siri was able to connect and the reminder was set.

Of course, the non-connected moments are fewer and more far between than the connected moments. And when Siri does work, it’s fast. So fast, in fact, that it feels as if Siri is processing the requests right on the phone. (Part of this speed may be because I think Siri begins streaming your audio request to the Apple servers almost as soon as you begin talking.)

The A5 Processor

The iPhone 4S is significantly faster than the 4, and not just on paper.

The speed increase is especially noticeable in all the little animations and movements you see on your phone all the time. Such as the app launching animations and sliding between home screens and scrolling a list view. They are all more smooth.

Something that the iPhone is so well known for is that as you are tapping on and interacting with the interface, the response time is so good that it feels as if you are actually manipulating the interface with your finger. Well, on the 4S, that perceived manipulation feels even more real.

And, aside from the Camera app which surely has the most noticeable speed bump of all, it’s the Spotlight search results that I’ve noticed as having the most obvious speed increase.

The Camera

It’s fast. Like, crazy fast.

I had switched to Camera+ as my primary camera app simply because you could snap, snap, snap, several photos in a row. But you can now do that with the native camera app.

So, not only does the Camera app launch quicker, but the “shutter speed” is much faster as well. This is a welcome change indeed. But that’s not all. The lens of the camera on the iPhone 4S is also significantly improved. The quality of the photos is higher resolution and better image quality. I am not a photographer, but even I can notice a better depth of field and better color with the camera on my 4S.

Additional Miscellany

  • The Home Button on my iPhone 4S sits differently than on my iPhone 4. The button on the 4S feels more flush with the top glass and it has a slightly more smooth transition (from the glass to where the button begins).

  • The vibration alert the 4S is very different than on my iPhone 4. It’s more obvious, yet less noisy and less abrasive. It’s hard to explain what exactly is different about it, but it is most certainly different.

    The reason is that the iPhone 4S uses the same vibrator motor as the Verizon iPhone 4 does: it’s a linear oscillating vibrator as opposed to the rotational electric motor that was in the AT&T Version of the iPhone 4.

  • The screen on the 4S seems “cooler”, more crisp, and more appealing to look at than the screen on my 4.

  • iMessages go to all devices that are set up with your Apple ID and are running iOS 5. However, only the most-recently-used device gets the iMessage notification. So, if you are having a conversation with someone via iMessage, only the device you’re having the conversation on gets each and every notification of a new incoming message.

    And so here’s a thought: if Apple can manage which device gets notified of a new iMessage, then why not use that same logic to simmer down the calendar alerts?

Summary Statement for Skimmers

For a phone that looks so similar, there are so many things which are different. Though the iPhone 4S looks just like my previous iPhone, it sure doesn’t act like it. The 4S is a welcome upgrade for someone who has his iPhone within arms reach just about 24 hours a day.


  1. Thanks to reader Ken Weingold for the tip off on The Day the Earth Stood Still quote.