First Look: The Apple iPhone 4S

Apple iPhone 4S

Apple’s launch of iPhone 4S disappointed many Apple watchers because it wasn’t called ’iPhone 5,’ and it shipped with exactly the same form factor as iPhone 4.

But that’s like saying you’re disappointed because the new Ford Mustang you’re getting looks the same as the old one, even though the new one has a much better engine, interior and more horse power.

iPhone 4S is a device that power smart phone users will like immensely and that will play a major role in altering how many use technology to guide us through the day. It’s got more business-friendly features and functions than other new iPhones previously, and its dual-core processor enables a ton of uses that could just not happen before.

While Apple says the combination of iOS 5 and iPhone 4S will provide 200 new features, it’s only important to focus on about a half-dozen for now. And the new digital valet feature, Siri, isn’t even in the top two. (We’ll get to Siri down further.)

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First and foremost, Apple’s new dual-core, A5 processor means iPhone 4S will be able to keep up those who use it. That means that toggling through contact lists, calendar, the Safari web browser and apps takes place in milliseconds, not seconds. That may seem like a picayune observation, but seconds can seem like an eternity when you’ve got someone on the phone and you need to check a meeting time, take a note or add a reminder. Plus, downloading and installing apps with iPhone 4S, thanks to the dual-core processor, now takes seconds, not minutes. The bottom line with the performance of iPhone 4S is that if you were hitting your head on a performance ceiling with iPhone 4 or BlackBerry or an Android phone, your headache will likely subside with this upgrade.

Second, Apple has built iPhone 4S with an intelligent antenna for phone calling. Especially for those on the AT&T network, that will mean clearer calls and fewer dropped calls. Let’s face it: an iPhone with lousy phone calling performance is like a tiny iPad. Longtime iPhone users on the AT&T network have long suffered from bad call performance -- not even including the ’death grip’ that caused dropped calls when iPhone 4 first launched. During the few days we used iPhone 4S, calls were noticeably clearer with no drops on our end. That’s a major plus.

The new camera technology that Apple has developed for iPhone 4S will enable much more than family photos or photos of friends playing in fields of tall grass surrounded by mountains (as you’ll see in Apple’s Utopian demos.) This camera will support apps with powerful, new scanning functionality -- bar codes, QR codes and more -- that will lead to iPhone 4S becoming a differentiator in business. Whether you’re talking about a warehouse where inventory moves in and out, or a restaurant where waiters can swipe credit cards and scan coupons, the highly accurate 8 megapixel camera will become a focal point for developers of business apps as much as anything.

Apple hasn’t spent a lot of time talking about the speaker sound quality in iPhone 4S.

But iPhone 4S was louder and clearer than even iPhone 4 -- perhaps attributed to the new A5. Audio quality -- whether for listening to music or using the built-in speaker phone -- can make a world of difference, and the audio quality in iPhone 4S sounds better. Beyond attributing the quality to the better processor, it’s not easy to explain since Apple lists virtually the same audio specs for iPhone 4 as iPhone 4S. But it is easy to notice.

Next: Taking It For A Ride

Real-world use of the iPhone 4S produced mostly positives, but with a few warnings we’ll share here.

Battery life is advertised as great, but be careful. Even if you keep your settings exactly the same from a previous iPhone or if you switch from another platform, you’ll find the iPhone 4S is very sensitive and will definitely need tweaking and attention if you’re away from a charger for several hours. When we first took the iPhone 4S out of the box, the phone burned through about 20 percent of its battery life in about an hour. (In that hour we used Siri a few times, listened to music, checked e-mail, and sent several texts. Still, the battery drained far faster than what most people will be used to.)

We needed to go back into the settings and turn off the ’Location’ services for all apps, and then turn them back on one at a time -- measuring each one for how many hits it made to the CPU and antenna while draining battery life. This curtailed much of the battery life drainage, but we also turned the brightness down from 20 percent to 10 percent. While that made it a little more difficult to view, this action also spared a lot of battery life. Eventually we managed the settings so that, while idle, the iPhone 4S only lost about one percent of its battery life per hour -- which most can live with.

Using the on-board, 8 MP camera is a joy -- but it will eat through more of your on-board storage than earlier iPhones. This means that, in the past, if you took a photo with your iPhone that took 2 MB of storage, now it will take a little more than 4 MB. If you use the iCloud service and Photo Streaming, that will help -- but you’ll need to stay more on top of your available storage than previous iPhone models. (The same holds true for the 1080p HD video that iPhone 4S will let you shoot.)

With iPhone 4S’ dual-core processing, we also noticed that prolonged use of CPU-intensive functions like GPS or Siri tended to lead to the handset getting hot. Not warm, but hot. This is understandable, but it’s also a bit disconcerting. (As soon as we stopped using those apps, the phone immediately cooled down.)

Next: Getting To Know Siri

The ’Wow’ element to iPhone 4S comes from Siri, the on-board ’virtual assistant’ that uses voice recognition and lets you speak commands and queries to set it into action. Siri comes with a female voice, and is by far the best voice recognition technology we’ve yet seen in a mobile device. Siri is built to understand your voice, regardless of linguistics, right out of the box.

Within a couple of hours, it just feels intuitive to use your voice to tell Siri to write a reminder for you in the Reminder app, to schedule an event for you in your calendar, to send an SMS message or to make a phone call. It quickly becomes natural to use your voice to query Siri about the weather, about schedule conflicts and availability and more--– and have Siri’s voice respond with the answer. To other questions -- like if you want to know where a good Thai restaurant is located -- Siri will do the work of running a Google search for you, and then let you know when the text of the search results are listed on the screen. Siri won’t read your email yet, or results of a web search, but it can read you text messages and respond to them, and it can read your calendar back to you with its voice.

You can’t yet tell Siri to ’book me a reservation for four at Mama Mia’s Restaurant,’ and have it spring into action. But Apple’s technology is so powerful that it’s clear that enterprising software developers will be able to make actions like that happen through new apps in the not-too-distant future.

In fact, with the A5 CPU and the iOS 5 operating software, Apple has delivered a platform that could enable the best software developers to build on the best aspects of Siri for both business and consumer apps, that will in turn force still more changes to use patterns than we can even imagine today. Siri could well be the founding mother of a new generation of voice-based apps that alter information technology very radically. With iPhone 4S, you can start using Siri and get in at the ground level.

Next: Pitfalls And The Bottom Line

On Friday, the day iPhone 4S launched, AT&T reported the lengthiest wait times to activate the new phones of any of the carriers including Verizon and Sprint. The first advisory from AT&T is that it could take three minutes to activate a phone; within hours the company was telling some that it might be a 24-to-48 hour process. For us, it took six hours of non-stop trying before we could reach AT&T’s activation servers.

While such delays are clearly built into the expectations now during a new iPhone or iPad launch on the AT&T network, it’s unacceptable and both Apple and AT&T should provide answers and a clear plan on how they will improve this process going forward. It just can’t continue.

Having gotten past the activation process, setting iPhone 4S in motion for both work and personal use is straightforward.

But what Apple has done with the combination of iOS 5 and iPhone 4S, with the A5 processor, is turn the handset into a productivity solution that’s a generation ahead of all of its competitors. From the Notification Center in iOS 5, that’s a real-time personal and business information dashboard, to Siri to the built-in Reminders app, Apple has put together a product that warrants serious consideration and one that we can recommend for any scenario where increased organization and productivity matters.