I was wrong about the iPhone 4s. I said it would be great. I predicted it would be the best phone ever built. The truth, it turns out, is that the iPhone 4s kind of sucks.
There. I said it.
And I might be wrong again with the headline for this column. I don’t have much faith in Apple to get it right for the upcoming iPhone 5, either. The iPhone 4s has shaken my confidence in Apple’s legendary ability to bang out hit after hit.
My confident, bullish prediction about the iPhone 4s was based on Apple consistently improving on each new iPhone upgrade, and on the company’s stellar achievement in getting the iPad so right the first time, and so super-right the second time.
The iPhone 4s is the first stumble by Apple since the company launched the original iPhone in 2007.To me, there’s only one reason to buy and own an iPhone 4s: Siri.
Apple’s Siri voice-based virtual assistant technology is flawed, but well worth it. More on that below. First, let me tell you why the iPhone 4s isn’t the phone Apple said it would be at their October 4 launch.
What’s wrong with the iPhone 4s?
The iPhone 4s should be a better phone than the iPhone 4. Looking at the specs, and the list of new features and capabilities, it should be everything the iPhone is, plus better, faster and easier to use.
Some aspects of the iPhone are better. Siri is very useful. Some of the accessibility features are fantastic, even for people without disabilities.
Beyond that, the phone is harder and more annoying to use than the iPhone 4 was. Here’s why.
1. Battery life is horrible.
I haven’t run objective tests, but I do have some “anecdata” for you: It feels like it has half the battery life of the previous phone. Personally, I can’t get through an entire day without charging it.
Again, this is unscientific, but the battery problems appear to be caused primarily by iOS 5. The reason I say this is that my wife installed the upgrade on her iPhone 4, and that phone also took a huge hit in battery life.
Other reasons are likely to be that Siri is always loaded and ready and battery consuming when you use it. Find My Friends, which is Apple’s Latitude-like family-and-friend stalker application, is constantly hitting the network.
The Messages feature almost certainly checks for incoming messages constantly, and locks and loads them in preparation for a user swipe-down to show the messages. It doesn’t go get them when you request them. They’re already on the phone and loaded.
These are all nice features. But being able to turn the phone on is also a feature, one that becomes unavailable when the battery dies. The battery life creates problems for iPhone 4s users.
2. Lousy camera.
The camera was supposed to be great, the best camera in any cell phone. Sometimes it is. But usually, it’s not.
The specs are impressive, to be sure. 8-megapixels, larger f/2.4 aperture, auto white balance, “advanced color accuracy,” and reduced motion blur.
That last bit, the “reduced motion blur” is flat-out wrong. Apple claims that because they say the camera has image stabilization. But this feature is undetectable in real life.
If you’re outside on a sunny day, or are taking pictures of subjects that aren’t moving, the iPhone 4s takes really great pictures. But reduce the light even slightly, and with your subject in any kind of motion, and your pictures will be so blurry you’ll simply delete them.
Most of the pictures I take with this phone are unusable because of motion blur. I can’t detect any image stabilization in videos, either.
I took better pictures, on average, with the camera in the iPhone 4.
3. The iPhone 4s’s screen is broken.
The yellow is turned way up. As a result, the screen is unappealing to look at. Blues look greenish. The overall appearance of the screen is somewhat nauseating to look at.
Some say the problem affects mostly black phones, and not white ones.
When I put my old iPhone 4 next to a new black 4s as well as a white one, it was clear that the white 4s was a little too yellow, and the black 4s was way too yellow. It was also clear that the iPhone 4 screen has much better color than the new phones.
You expect improvements with new phones, not regression. But that’s what you get with the iPhone 4s — especially the black one — a reduction in screen quality.
Personally, I intend to exchange my black iPhone 4s for a white one.
4. New apps have cheesy designs.
Apple is famous for its elegant design sensibility. The industrial designs of, say, the iPhone 4s, the iPad, the iMac and the MacBook Air are breathtakingly good.
Apple Stores are fantastically well designed, as is the apple.com web site.
So why is Apple increasingly putting fake wood paneling and funky leather trim on its apps?
It all started with the iOS iBooks application, which mimics a wooden book shelf. The new Newsstand app does the same thing.
In the iOS 5, the optional Find My Friends app, which enables you to track family and friends in a similar way as Google Latitude, looks like it was made from a leather craft kit at summer camp. The iCal app offers a similar homey leather look.
A blogger named James Higgs spells it all out in a new post, calling some of the new designs “saccharine,” patronizing, “Disney-like,” “sinister in their mendacity,” a kind of “regressive aesthetic infantilism” that has the “opposite aesthetic sensibility than the plain devices they run on.”
I don’t know if they’re “sinister,” but they sure are ugly.
5. iCloud adds complexity and confusion.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the direction of cloud-based everything, where you take a picture on your iPhone, and whomp-there-it-is on the iPad without any effort for the user. I’m as lazy as the next guy.
Unfortunately, iCloud causes more problems than it solves, at least on the phone.
Where to begin? OK, I first noticed this with Siri. It couldn’t remember my relations, so after training it to know who my wife and kids were, I would say: “Tell my wife I’ll be 10 minutes late.” Siri’s reply: “I don’t know who your wife is. In fact, I don’t know who you are.”
The reason is that I sync to Google email, calendar and contacts. In order for Siri to remember relations, you need to also sync through iCloud.
People who are all-in with Apple services, and not Google ones, will probably not experience issues with iCloud synching. But for the majority that use Google stuff, the iCloud integration is a problem.
I’m also not sure iCloud even works. I spent hours writing a column the other day on an iMac using Apple’s Pages application. Just before I was about to submit it, the Pages app vanished.
It didn’t even feel like a crash. It just…vanished.
When I went looking for my column, that was also just gone. And it wasn’t on iCloud either. What’s the point? I had to re-write the column from scratch.
That’s just my experience. I’m told that with a lot of configuration work on every machine, plus a lot of trouble-shooting, you can get iCloud working almost perfectly.
But that’s not how it was sold to us.
6. Siri is unreliable.
Before I launch into Siri’s problems, let me first say that I love Siri. It’s the single best thing about the iPhone 4s, and the sole reason to upgrade to this phone.
Some 80 percent of my interaction with my phone now is via Siri. I send SMS and emails, check my calendar, get the weather, set timers for cooking, set my alarm for waking up in the morning, and answer random questions by simply asking Siri.
The problem is that it’s exactly what Apple says it is: an unfinished beta. While Siri is famously uncanny with natural language, it also occasionally stumbles with understanding. Simple questions are often totally misunderstood. And even when they are understood, that understanding isn’t always carried over to the action.
Another problem is that so many people are using Siri that the servers are often overloaded. Sometimes Siri just says it can’t reach the servers.
After living with iPhone 4s since the morning of its launch, my conclusion and recommendation is that unless you’re really excited about Siri, as I am, do not buy this phone.
I’m less concerned about this particular phone, and more concerned with both the ability of Apple to continue its winning streak, and also with the direction of Apple product design and engineering.
The iPhone 4s feels like they chose to release an unfinished product in order to satisfy Wall Street, and used as the main selling point an unfinished virtual assistant they knew people would love anyway.
I just hope the iPhone 5 is a phone I can recommend.