Caution: This review is expressly not for owners of Androids, BlackBerries, Windows Phones or any dumbphone. It’s not that I don’t respect you guys; some of my best friends tote Androids. It’s that I’m not one of you.
I really can’t tell you whether it’s worth switching to the iPhone 4S because I don’t live your life. Your choice of operating system is perhaps the most personal choice the tech world offers.
Sure, I may review Android phones once in awhile and pretend neutrality long enough for objective analysis. That’s part of my job. I’d even consider buying some of the 4G Droids, if they had better battery life.
But when it comes to comparison shopping, I’m not going to be a reliable witness. I can’t possibly give you objective advice if there’s a chance I can convert you to iOS. You might as well go clothes shopping with that friend who likes to borrow all your threads.
I got on the iPhone train in 2009, with the release of the 3GS. I’d held out for two models, determined not to fall victim to the usual expensive ritual of the early adopter. I wanted to wait for Apple to get it absolutely right.
And they did: The 3GS was a solid smartphone, indisputably the best of breed (this was before any serious Android competition had come along). Aside from the usual AT&T coverage issues, which cleared up as time went on, it was virtually flawless.
“It occurred to me that very few switchers or newbies would brave the lines on a day like today. This day’s for us, for the iPhone owners who’ve been curious about a faster, still-better version of our device for years and couldn’t wait a moment longer. This review’s for us, too.”
So much so that I saw no point in upgrading to the iPhone 4, planned on waiting out my two-year contract for the following phone (and yes, for the record, I was one of the millions who thought that phone would be called the iPhone 5, but I’ve made my peace with the S-based numbering system.)
In the madhouse that was my local Apple store Friday morning, I didn’t encounter anyone who wasn’t upgrading from another iPhone. Most of them, like me, were 3GS owners on the two year plan. Some, like my wife, had managed to hold out since the 3G. One or two had lost their iPhone 4.
And it occurred to me that very few switchers or newbies would brave the lines on a day like today. This day’s for us, for the iPhone owners who’ve been curious about a faster, still-better version of our device for years and couldn’t wait a moment longer. This review’s for us, too.
The Apple store handled purchasing better than ever. They processed a line a couple hundred people strong so fast it could make your head spin, partly because we’d been handed tickets with our choice of color, size and provider. They’re excellent at upselling, too, of course — but Apple Care Plus, which covers you for two instances of dropping your phone down the toilet, kind of sells itself.
I managed to sail through the activation process with no hassles — completely unaware of the AT&T activation problems that seem to have marred this day for many. Syncing the phone itself turned out to require a couple of hard restarts of both phone and computer.
I went through one hard-wired sync — the last that will be necessary, thanks to iOS 5 — and a couple of Wi-Fi syncs. Afterward, the home screen looked oddly out of place, yet familiar. Pro tip: Make a backup of your old iPhone first, then restore from that backup — or you’ll be left wondering why all your icons appear to be the way they were in 2010.
Like most else in the Apple experience, however, it wasn’t a dealbreaker. I simply plugged the 3GS back in, backed that up with a right click, then “restored” the 4S from that backup. It left me with my apps set up just the way I like them, plus a dozen apps that seem to have forgotten which folder they’re in. No big deal.
Is it noticeably faster? Oh my goodness, yes. Safari loads pages on my 4S faster than it does on my 2010 Macbook. Google Maps popped up with my location in no time flat. Plenty of games played, if anything, too speedily. All kinds of annoying delays that seemed part of smartphone life, such as syncing or waiting for the camera to switch to a video camera, have simply vanished.
Is the 8-megapixel camera noticeably better? That’s an easy one — absolutely. Pictures seem brighter and sharper, especially indoors. The video camera has image stabilization, which did clear and valiant work even when I shook the phone like there was an earthquake. It turned my fake magnitude 7.0 into, let’s say, a magnitude 4.6.
iPhone 4s Box Top
Hard to tell that there's anything different about this iPhone from the box alone.
The biggest question, of course, is Siri. I have mixed feelings about him/her. I say “him,” because that’s what Siri is when you switch it to UK English — a man. And it was in British English, my native dialect, that I encountered the most problems. For instance, it appears Siri isn’t allowed to tell me about nearby restaurants here in the U.S. — simply because I would like to continue talking like a Brit. I smell a discrimination lawsuit.
Naturally, you’ll go through the novelty stage with Siri. You’ll enjoy its myriad answers to “What is the meaning of life?” or “Will you marry me?” But you’ll also be surprised by how much it gets right. It seems to understand every kind of weather-related question. It understands you’re most likely to ask for directions to towns nearest you. Ask to call your wife, and she’ll ask which of your contacts she is.
My initial hunch is that I’ll end up using Siri in the car the most, with the end of the day a close second. (It’s so much easier to ask to be woken up at a specific time than set a specific alarm.) It won’t be an enormous part of my life, but it will help me out in significant ways, often in the moments I most need it.
And that’s how the whole 4S feeling goes. It’s not the largest upgrade my life has ever received. Going from a Palm Treo to an iPhone 3GS was a greater leap, naturally.
But the phone-based side of my existence — the connecting, networking, researching, learning and entertaining — will be improved in a hundred different ways, many of them small, all of them important and happy-making in their way.
I thank the iPhone 3GS for two years of loyal service, and I fully anticipate getting the same from the 4S.