iPhone 4S: The Good, The Bad And The Pointless

Can Apple's flagship phone persuade Road Worrier to switch into the iOS camp? Here's what I enjoyed and abhorred about the iPhone 4S in a month of using it in multiple locations.

Regular readers are probably thinking "As if Road Worrier is ever going to switch permanently to an iPhone! It doesn't have a hardware keyboard." And those regular readers would be right. I spend more time writing on my phone than I suspect is the case for the majority of people, so I'm no more likely to permanently adopt the iPhone 4S than I am the Galaxy S II.

But as a technology journalist, I need to stay familiar with what's happening on all the major platforms, and not just box myself into a corner. So armed with a loan phone (courtesy of Optus), I added the iPhone 4S into my routine, both heading to the office and on interstate trips. Here's what I liked about it in terms of day-to-day tasks, and what I found less impressive.

The good: iOS 5

One of the reasons I've never spent much time seriously testing iPhone models in the past is that I hate iTunes, which in its Windows incarnation is one of the poorest pieces of software I've ever encountered. I barely tolerate it for use with an iPod, but having to use it even to get an iPhone started was always a major dealbreaker for me. If I want to test an Android or Windows Phone 7 or BlackBerry device, I switch it on and I can do all the relevant syncing over the air. iOS 5 adding that capability for iPhones is a major and very welcome improvement, and meant that my existing iTunes apps and purchases were on my phone not long after I switched it on.

The one downside of this approach is that you have to add each app (or song) on a case-by-case basis: I couldn't see any no option to 'download all', which would have made it somewhat faster. But that's a very minor quibble. The speed difference between running apps on my ageing iPod Touch and the new 4S was also very welcome.

The bad: phone screens and voice calls

iPhones have always made me nervous, because so many people manage to smash the glass on them. I'm a fairly clumsy person and I have frequently dropped my existing BlackBerry and Android handsets, but none of them have broken yet. I was worried that the same might happen with the 4S, so I immediately put it into a case. Unfortunately, the only case lying around was spectacularly ugly, as you can see in the pictures here.

This rubber green monstrosity did the job, and I managed to travel for a month with the iPhone without breaking it. This still feels like a design flaw to me on some level: what's the point of having something thin and shiny and glossy when it's so easy to break? But that was a flaw I anticipated and planned around, and it clearly doesn't bother the millions of happy iPhone owners. What I wasn't expecting was a more basic issue: the call quality on the iPhone 4S was at best poor, and often unusable.

Sometimes I'd go to make calls and nothing would happen; at other times the voice quality sounded like someone speaking at the bottom of a pool. Obviously that could be blamed on the network, but I also had a BlackBerry running on Optus with me, and whenever I gave up on the 4S and switched to the Torch, I had no call problems at all.

Clearly, Apple has some issues in this department: problems with echo were widely reported at launch, and more recently local iPhone 4S owners have had problems with Telstra's networks. It's a little surprising that the most basic function of a phone — making calls — proved to be one of the most problematic, though I imagine the relative lack of seeding of test units ahead of launch plays a role here.

The pointless: Siri

Siri didn't like me very much. A lot of the time it simply failed to understand me at all; when it did, it often couldn't do what I wanted. It never graduated from being a weird novelty, and after a couple of weeks I essentially gave up on it altogether.

I would more concerned about this if I could actually think of useful contexts for voice control, especially when travelling. It's just hard to come up with examples of where it could be useful, especially given the lack of any ability to get directions in Australia. My brother suggested the one other useful thing was the ability to set or check alarms, but I'm not one of those people who routinely stuffs that up. In the end, most things I could do with Siri were less hassle to do without it.

I had no emotional investment in Siri, and I realise it has a 'beta' tag on it right now. Maybe I'll revisit it in a year and see if it's actually functional after further work by Apple.

The same as the rest

In most every other area, I found the iPhone 4S an entirely acceptable equivalent to other phones I've tested in the last year. It could run the apps I needed, the camera works very well, and the battery life was OK if not astonishing. The on-screen keyboard is as good as on-screen keyboards get, though I still balked at writing anything longer than a brief email. I liked FaceTime when it worked, but as with calling, I found it unpredictable; sometimes it would simply fail to connect for no obvious reason. I enjoyed having the phone, but I can't say I've missed it since it went back.

I can't imagine anyone who purchased a 4S being at all disappointed, unless they had utterly ridiculous expectations. That said, the changes that impressed me the most are largely down to iOS 5, which means they're available on earlier models as well. The 4S wouldn't be my first choice for a phone to take on the road, but it would do the job well enough if for some reason it was the only choice I had.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman wonders what airports screeners think when they see the multiple phones in his bag. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


Comments

    Agreed with the reception issue.
    I've given up on calling my brother or his fiance since they switched to iPhones. Just can't hear them! Sounds like they're talking from inside a shoe box every time.

    The camera is pretty good on it relative to the older models. Only beaten by a Galaxy S II in a review I read.

    Did you have the issue where you make a call and sometimes can't hear anything but they can hear you?

    Massive thread over here about it: https://discussions.apple.com/thread/3404857?start=0&tstart=0

    I'm still waiting for Apple to get back to me regarding mine as I have the issue as well.

    Voice call quality - you need a better provider than Optus. Optus squeezes voice bandwidth due to it's over-subscribed/under-resourced network. Voice quality is therefore a hit and miss affair.
    BTW, the blackberry/iphone comparison you used means nothing. You are saying that the only thing different in the calls it the phone used, but that is clearly not correct. You will not be connecting on the same channel to the same tower with the same load. You would be better leaving such comparisons to professionals (and I don't mean other blogs or rubbish mags like APC).

      Making the same call at the same time seems to me an entirely reasonable basis for making the comparison. And it wasn't an isolated, one-off event -- it happened repeatedly. The fact that there have been widespread issues with Telstra and the 4S also demonstrates it's not a single-network issue.

        The Telstra issue wasn't with the iPhones, but with Telstra's infrastructure. Same with Optus, though a different issue brought about by bad capacity planning.
        For your Blackberry/iphone tests, what tower where you connected to? What was the loading on that tower? When did you place the calls? What was the target network? What towers where the receiving phones connected to?
        Too many variables for anyone to actually consider your ad-hoc comparisons to be a real measure of performance.
        Too many tech blogs roll out opinions as facts and ad-hoc comparisons are real performance testing. Lifehacker/Gizmodo do this too often. Stick to what you know and can prove, stop deceiving your readers, and leave such comparisons to people who know how to do them.

          While I'm loath to respond to obvious trolling, there's a little too much here to disagree with. The Telstra issue was specific to the iPhone 4S and didn't affect other handsets ; it's ridiculous therefore to suggest that it's entirely down to Telstra and has nothing to do with the handset.

          Also, this hasn't been presented as mass-scale performance testing; I'm outlining my own experience with the phone. But if I can't make a call to a given number on an iPhone and I can immediately make a call on a BlackBerry using the same network, and that happens repeatedly, it would be perverse to conclude (as you seem to) that the iPhone is in no way at fault.

            I almost responded in kind... but then I realised it was just a troll.

              Everyone has an opinion!!
              Thanks for yours

            Yes. Very good. Don't like when someone disagrees with you, then label them a troll and you don't have to respond to their arguments.
            As to the Telstra infrastructure issue, perhaps you should spend some time reading your sister site Gismodo:

            http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2011/12/have-telstra-iphone-4s-reception-issues-now-been-fixed/

            Speaking as a unhappy Optus and now happy Telstra network user the iPhone did exactly as you suggested with call quality when on Optus. Not so on Telstra and have been very happy since I changed.

    I don't understand so many people that have a problem with iTunes... It works fine for me under Windows... Surely it can't be "one of the poorest pieces of software I’ve ever encountered"

      It is crap. I have a large music collection - about 60-70 days worth and it constantly shits itself. Soon as I can work out/ find time to hook Sonos up to other programs I'm gone

        Never had this problem. 23,000+ tracks and have never had a problem, even when moving the library to a new PC and NAS.
        Guess the problem must be with your setup.

          I have iTunes installed (Win7) for one reason: the store. As a media library application it is slow, clunky, horrid to use and (IMHO) kinda ugly.

          Winamp kills it for music library duties; VLC kills it for video (and with codec packs, so does WMP); Zune kills it for interface and has a decent store.

          Agreed, I am guessing its the user and hardware, not the tool itself. I have been a user of iTunes since its inception and while I have issues with the "control" of Apple, I find it very friendly to use.

      I also had a problem with iTunes, one being the constant "nag" ads and the fact that it hogged resources - also, when I tried to uninstall it - it din't do a clean uninstall and left behind tracking cookies

      I only tolerate iTunes for syncing my iPhone and Genius features.
      If I'm just chilling out on my couch with some tunes, then iTunes is the best option for me (iTunes remote with Genius FTW).
      Sitting at the PC and going through my library, then it's Media Monkey all the way.
      I really wish there was some kind of melding of the best features of both, but of course that will probably never happen. If it does let me know OK?!

    Are you aware that you don't need a computer running itunes to activate an iphone?

    My only beef with Iphone is it doesnt ring or make a sound when you recieve calls or txt sometimes. Reset the phone and your good to go. Its just to weird

    And no I have not set the volume to low or silent

    When all is said and done.. the best phone is the one that does what you want it to do.. if that is one of those $40 Nokia's with simple LCD black/white screen with almost zero functionality other than basic SMS and phone calls, then that's the best phone for that person if that's all they want. I had a Nokia flip for a couple of years because it was all I wanted.. Now I own a SGSII because I wanted what that phone offers me.. before the flip phone I had the Telstra Slide thing that was primarily about sending SMS and Messenger messages and sucked in every other way including the phonecall rates.. but that's what I needed at teh time and it fit the needs perfectly.

    I mean I see some of your valid points but the voice quality just isn't true. Compared to the seven Android phones I've had, from every company, several software versions and phone generations, my 4s's voice quality just tramples them. I can understand people and they can understand me, something all my androids troubled with. There was either something wrong with your phone, the phones connection/antenna, or carrier network settings. Try doing a network settings reset, and a prl update with your carrier. Or if you're gsm you might request a new sim.

    Ps
    While I will admit to androids suppierer gps navigation system, (and obviously your point was what's better on the road), I will also argue that my iPhone is just more fun and please t to use. It's simple and engaging and I don't have to think a whole lot how things work because they're obvious and uniform. Android was frustrating because nothing was the same as anything else things were hidden menus had menus and it always needed something updated or reset. And blackberry just doesn't have the things I'm looking for (good games and a good interface. )

    I've recently switched from a 4 on Vodafone to a 4S on Telstra, and the difference has been like night and day for call quality and dropouts. Maybe I got mine from a good batch?

    And I seem to have had better luck with Siri, too, in terms of recognition. I find it so much quicker to tell Siri "Tell my wife I'm running 5 minutes late thanks to train cancellations again" than to pick up the phone, go to Messages, select my wife and type away...

      >> I’ve recently switched from Vodafone to Telstra

      :--P

    I thought Siri was a gimmick and had no real plans to use it. That changed when I said,"set up a meeting with my wife next Wednesday at 8am for the dogs vet check up". It flawlessly created the meeting at the right time called dogs vet check up and invited my wife as an attendee. Still probably a gimmick, but a fun one.

      You might get caught if you wife gets booked in for a Flea bath and rectal temp check and your dogs gets invited to watch!! :>

    I said it on Giz, I'll say it here for the hell of it...

    Isn’t it obvious what the iPhone 4S was really all about? Upgraded CPU, Siri, better battery life & camera, all touted as the main “features”?!

    CPU – WHY? The current iPhone 4 runs ALL the current apps [correct me if wrong there]. The iPhone doesn’t yet need a CPU upgrade, totally unnecessary.
    Siri – This “unique feature” runs perfectly well on the 3GS. This isn’t a feature, it’s a rip off!
    Better battery life – Um, this feature is still being patched in for some users.
    Camera – The ONLY reason you’d actually “UPGRADE” your phone.

    Apple users, can you complete this very simple equation for me?

    Apple + Your money – Your intellect = ???

      So what you are saying that you shouldn't buy the new Samsung galaxy SII since it has a faster processor?

        How did you deduce that from my comments Blake?
        Angus was pointing out some of the pointless functions he found in the of the 4S. My original post on Gizmodo AU was pointing out that the majority of it is pointless, most specifically when one "upgrades" from a 4 > 4S.

    Siri is pointless? This author sounds like a hater to me.

      hate or no hate gotta admit he's right! gotta be the most pointless feature in iphone. I feel stupid even trying to use it and half the time it is faster to just not talk to the stupid thing and do whatever you need to without it

    We have 4 andriods on optus, vodafone and telstra in an area with good reception but we are in a ditch. There is 3 towers roughly 1km each away from me, 2 telstra and 1 everone else. Our call quality is good to great on all phones and worst case u have to stand up to here someone fully when you are on the bottom floor of the house. Multiple 4s have been in the house at one time or another on all networks and they can not hear the caller without going out side. Became such a problem for room mate that he switched to a S2. Has had no problems since. Same network and plan as 4s. Haters always hate but facts dont lie.

    I have just purchased a Iphone 4S and it has no instructions I am at a lost how to use it I can't here when I receive a call is there any booklet on the usage of the 4S?

      Here are the manuals for your stolen phone:

      http://support.apple.com/manuals/

        At least he didnt get ripped off like the millions of other who actually paid for a talking "iphone 4"....

    Iphone has its flaws but is not really that much apart from any other mobile out there - and most faults are rectified with time and technology updates. The main reason I will never own another iphone is that I have no desire to live in "Apples' Walled Garden" ! To purchase an item that places conditions on its' use is manipulative, restrictive, market motivated - and just not for me !

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