The iSource iPhone 4s Review

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At long last, several members of the iSource team have gotten their hands on the latest incarnation of the phone that changed everything.   Here are our impressions:

 

COMPARING THE IPHONE 4S TO THE IPHONE 4

Many people were surprised and disappointed that the iPhone 4s wasn’t the mythical iPhone 5.    However, as I stated in my article I Beg Your Pardon; I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, long-time iPhone owners could have recognized the pattern from 2008 and 2009 with the introductions of the iPhone 3G and 3Gs – where the 3G was the major upgrade (new case, 3G, etc) and the 3Gs was mostly a performance upgrade with a few new features.    So the iPhone 4s shouldn’t be too much of a shock, and it does pack in a few new features along with a measurable performance increase.

The form factor is essentially identical to the iPhone 4 – with one critical difference: The mute and volume buttons on the AT&T version were lowered slightly; not enough to really notice, but enough to prevent many AT&T iPhone 4 cases from fitting the 4s.    Cases that had large cutouts for the buttons fared better, like the Mophie Juice Pack Air.    The 4s still uses the same dock connector, and it should fit iPhone 4 stands, cradles, and docks with no problems.   As Thomas comments, “I’m actually quite happy that they did not change the form factor of the device, as I think the iPhone 4 is probably the most beautiful phone that anybody has ever made, ever.”

 

PERFORMANCE

The processor upgrade from the A4 chip to the A5 has certainly provided a great deal of extra speed to an already fast device.    Try though I might, I was unable to get the 4s to exhibit any lagginess – even when opening the camera app.     Games that took forever to open on an iPhone 3G are open in the blink of any eye on the 4s, and even things that didn’t take long to do on the iPhone 4 still seem to be much quicker on the 4s.    Pages definitely render faster in Safari, and you can switch from app to app to app rapidly.   Overall, you certainly won’t be disappointed.   As Thomas (who upgraded from an iPhone 3Gs) observed, “It’s not that the 3GS is unbearably slow, but it certainly lost the app flexibility that I had become accustomed to when I first bought the device. There simply wasn’t enough speediness to hop between apps like I wanted to. The iPhone 4S, on the other hand, is simply chewing up and spitting out everything I throw at it.”

 

CAMERA

The iPhone 4 is arguably one of the most popular mobile phone cameras around, and with good reason.   The iPhone 4s ups the ante here with four distinct improvements:  An additional lens element, a wider aperture, and a larger and more sensitive light sensor.    These combine to let more light in, process it more efficiently, and to deliver a sharper image than the iPhone 4.   Additionally, a bump to 8 megapixels puts the camera on par with other smartphones.  Several people have posted comparison images, and based on the shots we have taken, we agree that the iPhone 4s’ camera is much better that the iPhone 4’s in most circumstances, and easily just as good at worst.

While Rob was disappointed in the camera’s ability to take macro pictures, noting it’s inability to focus, I found an improvement over the iPhone 4 in overall macro ability, with the caveat that the subject must fill a good portion of the frame for the iPhone to focus properly.   If it had manual focus, I think it would be a stellar performer (for a phone, that is).   It also starts up and processed much faster.   Thomas summed it up nicely: “it feels fast enough to feel like it’s worth trying to use on a daily basis.”   Other commentators around the Internet have opined that it bests a low-end point and shoot camera, and that manufacturers of those models may begin to feel pressure on that segment of their market.

The addition of 1080p and image stabilization to movie capture are welcome improvements.   As Rob notes, “Video recording in 1080 is amazing.  I finally got a chance to use it some today in low to good light at Sea World, and I can honestly say that the results were amazing!  Crystal clear, and very crisp. I couldn’t be happier with [it].”

 

SIRI

While many have decried that Siri is just another coming of the same old Voice Control, we can honestly say that Siri is much more than this; it is a genuine step forward in consumer AI (Artificial Intelligence).    There is a lot more going on here than would meet the eye of the casual observer, so let’s take a moment to explain what makes Siri so special.

First, Siri not only can understand speech, it can understand natural speech.   This is important, as Siri can correctly interpret the intent of a command phrased several different ways.   For example, the following requests will all do a search for Italian restaurants in Clearwater, Florida (presuming, in some cases, that Clearwater is where you are):

  • “I want to eat Italian tonight.”
  • “Where are Italian restuarants?”
  • “Are there any good Italian places near here?”
  • “Can you recommend a good Italian place?”
  • “What Italian restaurants are in Clearwater, Florida?”
  • “Find Italian restaurants in 33760.”

 

In each case, Siri understands what you’re looking for, even though you didn’t phrase it like you would normally expect to phrase it to a computer.   In other words, you could say, “Find Italian Restaurants in Clearwater, Florida” – but you didn’t have to.    This will be exceptionally welcome to those who are not comfortable with having to remember a proper syntax; in other words, the non-geeks amongst us.   You can phrase an amazing number of requests just as you would to another human and have Siri successfully determine your intention.     To illustrate this further, if you follow up your Italian restaurant search with “How about Indian?”, Siri understands that you meant that in reference to the previous question and redoes the search, except for Indian restaurants this time.

Siri can automate the sending of (and replies to) emails and text messages.   For example, you can search for email messages (“Find emails from John Smith”), and, when the email is displayed, say “Reply”.   Siri will ask you what you want the email to say.  Siri will then read it back to you, and ask if you’d like to send it.   You can do so, cancel it, change it, or add to it.   Similarly, when you hear your text message alert, you can ask Siri to “Read my new text message”, and then choose to reply, dictating your response.   You can even say, “Tell John Jones that I will be a few minutes late” and Siri will create a text message to John with “I will be a few minutes late” in the body, ready for you to send.   Not only is this capability handy, it also raises “hands-free” to a new level, and may very well improve vehicle safety in the process.  I did note that Siri was sensitive to background noise; my noise cancelling Bluetooth headset worked much better than the hands-free built into in the car did.  However, most of the time, Siri simply wasn’t sure if I had finished talking yet, which was fixed with a simple press of the microphone icon.   One problem we found when sending email was that there was no way to select which email account you wished to send your email from; Siri simply uses the default email account as set in the Settings app.   While this is not a problem when composing via keyboard since you can change it before you send the email, Siri does not appear to have such an option.   For those with multiple email accounts (especially “work” and “home”), using the wrong account could cause problems.

Siri also saves time.  I never used my reminder apps because it too simply too much time to unlock the phone, call up the app, hit “+”, and fill everything in.   Now, I simply tell Siri to “Remind me tomorrow at 12 noon to drop off the package at UPS”, and, just like that, a reminder is set.   I can also ask Siri to set an alarm when it occurs to me to do so, not just when I am ready to go to bed.   Similarly, it makes setting and changing appointments a breeze; another item that I was previously happy to do on my laptop.

Have you ever left the house and forgotten something that you needed to bring with you?   Just tell Siri, “Remind me to bring the notes for the meeting when I leave home”, and you’ll be reminded before you get off your block.   Geofencing (the ability to draw a boundary around a point that, when broken, triggers some action) is great for reminder systems such as the new Reminder app in iOS 5, however, it is not yet possible to set arbitrary geofence locations (besides “Home” and “Work”, the only two locations Siri knows).  One workaround is to add a “contact” for these locations (such as a grocery store).   You can also specify “this location” when manually setting reminders, however, Siri does not seem to have this ability currently.

While there are limits to what Siri can do that we noted (based on what databases and applications it is aware of at this time), many things that Siri cannot do can be found with a consultation of the web or Wolfram Alpha, which Siri will gladly undertake for you.  For example, while Siri cannot (as yet) buy movie tickets or make table reservations, there’s no reason why such functionality could not be added later.   Quite literally, Siri could, in time, compete with services such as Onstar.   Siri has been labeled as a “Beta” by Apple – and if this is a beta, we can’t wait to see the release version.

 

VOICE INPUT

The iPhone 4s adds the ability to enter text in virtually any text input field by voice.   The recognition engine (shared by Siri), is the Dragon engine by Nuance, authors of the Dragon Dictation app.   As such, the tips that we offered for that app still apply.     Again, this is a handy time-saver.

 

BATTERY LIFE

Apple claims to have increased the battery life – a claim that we had some doubts about once it was learned that the new battery is fractionally larger than the iPhone 4’s.  Given the faster performance, lower batter life would seem logical, and early tests have borne this out – we see a marked decrease in battery life.

Rob, however, may have identified the culprit: “My first day going through the motions seemed to drain the battery down very quickly.  I reduced from 80-30% in less than two hours!  I should note that I was extensively testing speech to text, and Siri for the majority of the time, along with texting, and using the internet to browse and check email.  I kept all the same basic settings I had previously used on my iPhone 4, most of which were not too kind to battery life anyway (push email, brightness turned up, repeated texting and surfing on 3G, and location services turned on).  One thing I did noticed today, was that my location indicator seemed to stay on (purple in color) even after I exited apps which were actively using location services.  This seemed odd, so I opened my multi-tasking tray and quit just about everything manually.  Still, the purple arrow remained.  Next I went into settings–>location services–> to see if any of the arrows there showing items currently using my location were lit–none were!  Hmm…what now?  It was then that I noticed that there was a system services option at the bottom of the page I hadn’t seen before.  Further checking revealed that I had traffic services on, and it was still had a purple arrow next to it.  For some reason, I hadn’t even noticed this option in the past.  Here there were several services that you could activate location in–Cell Network Search, Compass Calibration, Diagnostics & Usage, Location-Based iAds, Setting Time Zone, and my culprit–Traffic.  If you notice issues with battery life or a location arrow that puzzles you, check here first.  It worked for me!”

 

SHOULD I UPGRADE?

The consensus of the iSource team is “Yes” – especially if you are upgrading from anything earlier than the iPhone 4.    If you own an iPhone 4, you’ll have to decide if the speed and camera improvements and Siri are enough to convince you to upgrade.   While we are understandably fans of the iPhone, we still feel that overall, it’s worth it.    As Patrick put it, “An evolutionary rather than revolutionary update for sure, but still well worthwhile.”

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  • JEANE FRITZ

    This helped me tremendously in making up my mind on the upgrade!
    I wish you had the same type of pros & cons on cases. I have a headache after looking at cases. Like everyone I would like something a little different which case mate has but compared to the otterbox, which is best for the phone. It is like jewelry, the phone is with me at all times… it is my brain and I spend 2 hours a day driving back & forth to work, so siri will be helpful….
    I would love to hear from someone on the case issue.

  • michaelhillard

    i like this

  • Tony

    Actually the dock compatible isn’t exactly compatible with all iPhone 4 accessories and docks. I have the TomTom iPhone dock which works fine with the iPhone 3Gs and the iPhone 4 yet nothing at all happens when using it with the iPhone 4s – the connector is apparently in a slightly different position.