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.

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