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Thoughts on the iPhone 4S

By on 6 October 2011 in Gadgets

Thoughts on the iPhone 4S
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Apple announced the successor to its all-conquering iPhone 4 this week and most people – from Nokia fan-boys to die-hard Cupertino disciples – are calling it a disappointment. They’re saying it’s an incremental upgrade at best, at worse, a bitter let-down.

Why the consternation? Because Apple had the audacity to release a new product that didn’t look new on the outside: the form factor is identical to the outgoing model.

Our take? Not only has Apple delivered an impressive update to what is – even after 18 months on sale – still the best smartphone on the planet, but anyone who was expecting anything else from Cupertino hasn’t been paying attention.

The treacherous betrayal

Spend too much time reading the thoughts of some Apple-watchers and you’d be forgiven for thinking that Tim Cook had visited each of their houses and personally spat in their kettles. “The screen is too small and the case is not a magical, new, ultra-thin teardrop shape,” they cry. “Apple is no longer innovating now that Jobs is gone,” they whine.


We’ve got two things for you, whiners. Firstly, the iPhone 4 is pretty much the perfect form factor. As Jobs said when he debuted it back in 2010, it reminds you of an old Leica camera. Thin, solid, all steel and glass, it has a quality and an assuredness in your hand that you don’t find in any other phone. Simply put, it reeks of quality. Why would Apple change it? You don’t see Porsche changing the shape of the 911 every time it improves the technology inside it. Like Porsche, Apple understands that excellent industrial design can have – indeed, deserves – a much longer shelf-life than less confident brands permit it to have.

Secondly, this ‘evolution’ should come as no surprise whatsoever. People say that Apple is very secretive. True. But the company is also remarkably consistent in the way it updates its product lines. Its modus operandi is now firmly established. Look at its history – the iMac, PowerBook, iPod – and the pattern reliably repeats itself: the company releases a revolutionary new form factor, followed by one or two annual product refreshes that keep the technology inside bang up to date while leaving the iconic looks unchanged. They did exactly this when they went from iPhone 3G to iPhone 3G S and now, very predictably, they’re going from iPhone 4 to iPhone 4S

You’ll hear still others complain that, “even if they weren’t going to introduce a dramatically new form factor, they could at least have made the screen larger and the phone thinner.” This sort of silliness seems to stem from the fact that, in a desperate bid to outdo the iPhone in some way – any way – manufacturers like Samsung and HTC have recently released flagship devices with screens of 4 inches and more. Well, we think Apple had it right from the beginning. The current 3.5 inches is the perfect compromise between easy to read and easy to hold and pocket. It’s also just about as thin as we’d want it to be. Any thinner and holding it during phone calls would become uncomfortable. A phone needs a minimum of heft.

We’ve tried phones with larger screens, they’re awkward to use and, frankly, just look geeky. We’ve tried thinner phones and have always been left wanting for something a tiny bit more substantial. No, Apple hit the sweet spot the first time out and we salute the company for being confident enough not to go chasing the pack down a blind alley.

Focus on what matters

What Apple has changed may at first appear subtle, but it’s the stuff that will have a tangible impact on your enjoyment of the device. In our view, the things that matter are:

  • New camera: This in itself has us sold. With 8 MP, improved optics and a gyroscope-powered video stabilisation feature, the new iPhone will produce great photos and incredible 1080P HD video.
  • Speed boost: The processor and the wireless technology have both been significantly improved. The result? Everything – from loading web pages to playing 3D games – will be significantly faster and smoother.
  • Brand new antenna technology: In a bid to finally put the ghost of ‘antennagate’ to rest, Apple has completely redesigned the antenna system in the new phone. It now has twin antennas and the intelligence to switch between the two for optimal performance when both sending and receiving. The phone is now a ‘world phone’ which is to say that you can use it on both GSM and CDMA networks. The result of all this? You’ll be able to make calls succesfully far more often.
  • Double the storage capacity: Remember when you thought 32 GB would be far more storage than you’d ever need? Yeah, long time ago now, right? If you’re anything like us, you’re constantly nudging up against the current iPhone’s storage limit. The new 64 GB version means we can go back to carrying around all our music, all our photos, all our movies and still have room to add apps whenever we please. Phew.
  • Improved battery life: Battery life has never been the iPhone’s forte so any improvements in this areas are more than welcome.
  • Siri: Apple is touting this ‘voice-controlled assistant’ as the headline feature of iPhone 4S. We’re not convinced and the reason is simple: even if the kids at Cupertino have nailed it, even if Siri understands every drunken syllable we utter perfectly, even if it is capable of reacting intelligently to our questions and even if all of this happens faster than by swiping, pushing and typing, we simply can’t ever imagine wanting to talk to our phone. It just feels far too contrived. Oh sure, you’ll play with it during your first week, but once you’re out and about in public, we’re betting that – just like the Voice Control feature in the current iPhone – you’ll soon forget it’s even there. We may be wrong on this but we think that Siri is a solution in search of a problem.

Lest we forget

The new iPhone ships with iOS 5 and – even though that upgrade will be free to existing iPhone users too – it’s worth remembering some of the big improvements that’s going to bring. Notifications is certainly the one we’re looking forward to most. The iPhone will go from having the worst notification system (those infuriating pop-up boxes) to the best (a beautifully organised and displayed notifications tray) in one fell swoop. Location-based reminders, Twitter integration in many apps and of course the convenience of iCloud keeping all of our apps and content available to us without worrying about syncing are all going to bring smiles to our faces.

It’s not perfect

We’ve just said it, we don’t care one jot for a bigger screen or a thinner form factor. The innovation that we were hoping for though was for Apple to nail NFC payments. That acronym scaring you? It just means being able to pay for things with a swipe of your phone.  There any many industry initiatives underway to make it happen. Google, Nokia and smaller outfits like Monetise have been at it for years with little more than small, contained trials to show for it.

The issue here is not the technology. Indeed, HTC and Nokia have been building it into their phones for some time. The challenge – and it’s one which we think Apple, with its enormous market clout was uniquely placed to tackle – is to bring the various players around a common solution. We were hoping that, much like they did in the music business, Apple might have convinced the various stakeholders – the banks, the retailers, the card issuers – that it had come up with a better way. Oh well, there’s always iPhone 5, right?

In short

By any measure that actually matters, the iPhone 4S is a significant upgrade from the iPhone 4. Apple is touting Siri as game-changer, even a life-changer. We’re not convinced. But no matter. The souped-up camera, increased storage capacity and significantly faster processor are more than enough to have us reaching for our Amex cards.

If Apple had called this the iPhone 5 instead of 4S and wrapped it in a different looking body, we’d wager even the whiners would be doing the same.


Thoughts on the iPhone 4S

Apple announced the successor to its all-conquering iPhone 4 this week and most people – from Nokia fan-boys to die-hard Cupertino disciples – are calling it a disappointment. They’re saying it’s an incremental upgrade at best, at worse, a bitter let-down.
Our take? Read on…

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Our editor-in-chief, the self-proclaimed "greatest wit, raconteur and bon vivant of our age", borders on delusional. Over the years, the fool has squandered more money on fast cars, Swiss watches and electronic gadgetry of all kinds than he – or Mrs Fool – cares to remember. Come nightfall, he can invariably be found stumbling out of Dukes mumbling “just one more Martini; I could have handled just one mmmmm… [thud!]”

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  • Dom

    Good write up Fool. I think the 911 comparison is spot on – love my 4 and I don’t think there’s much to improve on – longer battery life, camera, storage….. all good – sounds like a job well done. And it hasn’t made the 4 obsolete. (I liked the old Motorolla Razor but it was only on sale for a short while – it was an almost perfect design that the company felt they had to change so it’s good that Apple are sticking with a classic design.

  • Speedmaster

    Fantastic summary, ordering mine right now in another tab. ;-)

  • Chris I

    The 4 is the best piece of technology I have ever owned. The camera/video alone makes it a great gadget. My wife will upgrade from the 3GS to the 4S at the end of the month – looking forward to seeing the differences.