A month with the iPhone 4S

It has been a month since Apple released its latest smartphone, the iPhone 4S. A month since it crushed sales records. A month since consumers got their first hands-on experience with Siri, the intelligent assistant that may help change the way we interact with consumer electronics moving forward. A month since we had to fight the urge to dry heave upon seeing “The S stands for ____” in every third headline across various tech blogs. We reviewed the smartphone in October and called it “the best phone Apple has ever made,” and while the phone might look exactly like its predecessor, we’re not so sure that’s a bad thing. After all, Apple’s year-old iPhone 4 and two-year-old iPhone 3GS were the best-selling cell phones in the U.S. last quarter, so age doesn’t seem to be much of an issue among consumers.

When Apple first unveiled its new smartphone in early October, feelings were mixed. The word “disappointment” was tossed around a bit more than Apple zealots were hoping, and a number of people were in fact disappointed thanks to rumors of a redesigned iPhone 5 that had been swirling for months. It was supposed to feature a brand new case that was amazingly thin and sported an aluminum back. It was supposed to have a new teardrop shape. It was supposed to feature a larger edge-to-edge display. It was supposed to be a lot of things but instead, it was the iPhone 4, S’d.

The iPhone 4 wasn’t the first Apple smartphone to be S’d. In June 2009, Apple launched the iPhone 3GS, which had also been greeted with mixed emotions at its unveiling. How could Apple release a new smartphone that looked just like its old smartphone? The answer, easily, became fairly apparent when the company went on to sell one million units during the phone’s first weekend of availability, shattering earlier smartphone sales records.

Two of the main groups of consumers targeted by the iPhone 4S have been and will continue to be blown away by this device. First, the millions of iPhone 3GS owners whose contracts expired recently, will be met with a massive upgrade compared to the phone they’ve loved for the past two years. The design is completely different than the 3GS, the Retina Display is much better than Apple’s displays of old, the new 8-megapixel camera is the best I’ve seen on a phone, and though the 3GS was significantly faster than the 3G, the bump from 3GS to 4S is exponentially more substantial. To this group, the iPhone 4S is a brand new smartphone that will not disappoint.

The other group Apple is targeting with its latest handset is non-iPhone owners. This much larger group of consumers might own smartphones from a variety of other vendors, or they might be feature phone users in search of something new. Should non-iPhone owners choose the iPhone 4S as their next device, they will find one of the best user experiences on the market. They will find simplicity, high-end performance, the largest catalog of third-party applications on the market and a gorgeous physical design comprised of glass and metal.

Most likely to be disappointed by the iPhone 4S are iPhone 4 owners who were hoping for a completely redesigned smartphone from Apple. I count myself in this group — an iPhone 4 owner who was hoping for a redesigned iPhone 5 — but I can safely say that any disappointment I might have felt upon seeing the iPhone 4S unveiled was short-lived. I learned my lesson following the jump from 3G to 3GS, and seeing Apple lay out the various improvements iPhone 4S owners could look forward to painted a similar picture. Of course, I couldn’t know for sure until I got my hands on one myself.

I was one of millions of consumers who took ownership of a new iPhone 4S exactly one month ago, and I have been using the handset regularly since then. It has been anything but disappointing.

Despite being underclocked to approximately 800MHz, well below the processing speeds of competing smartphones, Apple’s dual-core A5 chipset helps provide marked speed improvements compared to the iPhone 4, which was already remarkably fast. An interesting side note: the word “processor” doesn’t appear a single time on the web page that lists specifications for the iPhone 4S, nor do any details surrounding the A5. Read into that whatever you’d like, but I see it as a statement that these details just don’t matter. Apple doesn’t have to separate its iPhone from dozens of similar devices on the iOS platform, so it doesn’t have to worry about insignificant specs for the sake of differentiation.

But back to performance. When I tap an icon to launch an app, it is open and loading data the instant I lift my finger from the phone’s display. The same is true when moving between apps using the iPhone’s app switcher. There is no lag whatsoever in most cases, with the only exception being poorly designed applications. The difference in speed is just a few fractions of a second compared to the iPhone 4, but fractions of a second matter a great deal to the overall user experience.

Data speeds and reception have improved as well. “Antennagate” aside — I am right-handed so the dreaded death grip never caused a single problem for me — I find that the iPhone 4S picks up signal better than its predecessor when the two are placed side by side. Data speeds are marginally more impressive as well, with the iPhone 4S consistently in excess of 3Mbps on the download side in my area, while the iPhone 4 often hovers below the 3Mbps mark. Both phones peak above 5Mbps when the stars are aligned, and they regularly test at about 1Mbps on the upload side.

The other big change is Siri, Apple’s virtual personal assistant.

I am on record as a Siri skeptic ahead of the service’s announcement. Even when it was unveiled during Apple’s press conference, I wasn’t terribly impressed, half-jokingly calling it “the most awesome iPhone feature I will never use,” in a post on Twitter. Avid fans of other smartphone platforms often downplay the feature, likening it to voice command support on their platforms of choice. I can assure you, however, it’s not the same.

Android and Windows Phone 7.5 each feature terrific voice command support, so someone who has not had first-hand experience with Siri might think these solutions are similar. They support voice-to-text and allow users to perform a variety of functions with their voices. Android’s voice action support likely played a role in inspiring Siri, just as the platform’s notification system inspired the new notifications in iOS 5.

But Siri is a different beast. A smarter beast.

Firstly, Apple’s implementation is far more accurate than other offerings in terms of understanding conversational speech. I rarely correct Siri whereas I am constantly repeating myself with other platforms. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Google’s voice implementation supports conversational speech to an extent, but Siri takes the ball and really runs with it. Siri supports a huge range of commands and questions. It integrates with numerous apps such as Calendar, Reminders and more, so you can schedule appointments and set reminders that are triggered at a certain time or when you arrive at a certain location.

Ask Siri “What should I eat for dinner?” and she will show you a list of restaurants close to your current location. Say “I want Chinese food for dinner,” and Siri will drill down to just Chinese restaurants in your area. Find one you like and say “Call Restaurant XYZ,” and you’ll be making a dinner reservation in no time. Apple’s commercials showcase examples much better than I can here, but it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t fully sink in until you try it yourself.

I don’t use Siri on a regular basis, but it is a feature that adds both wow-factor and utility to the iPhone 4S. When I do use it I am consistently impressed, and I can’t wait to see Siri arrive on more platforms like OS X and the TV Apple may or may not have in the works.

I do want to see Siri’s capabilities expanded, however, as there are a number of limitations right now. Users cannot open apps or create contacts with Siri yet for example, and a set of APIs for integration with third-party apps would be terrific. I think we’ll see these things and plenty more from Siri in the near future, and in the meantime there are a few tweaks that can expand Siri’s capabilities to an extent. For example, using Siri coupled with a web service I love called ifttt, I can post messages to Twitter or Facebook using only my voice, and that’s just the beginning. Ifttt allows users to perform a huge range of tasks by sending “triggers” via email or SMS, and the service’s capabilities are expanding regularly.

The iPhone 4S most certainly is not perfect. Nothing is. I would have liked to see a screen around 4-inches, for example, as that is the sweet spot for me. I also wish battery life was at least as good as it was on the iPhone 4, which easily carried me through a full day on a single charge. Battery life has definitely taken a hit in the iPhone 4S, and although I don’t have the problems some users are reporting, I do often have to charge the phone more than once in a day.

In the end, the iPhone 4S is a big update wrapped in the same case as its predecessor, just as the iPhone 3GS was a big update compared to the 3G. Happy iPhone 3GS owners coming off contract will be blown away by the 4S, and consumers coming from other smartphone platforms or from feature phones will find themselves with a terrific smartphone that is anything but disappointing. IPhone 4 owners are the wild card, and I’m not sure spending up to $850 for an early upgrade is a wise move for everyone, especially considering we could see a new iPhone model released just seven or eight months from now.

Personally, I don’t regret the upgrade at all. Along with Siri and the new camera, the speed and performance bumps are more than significant enough to have made the purchase worthwhile. It’s everything the iPhone 4 was and more, which is exactly how Apple billed it.

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