iPhone 4S – Playing to a Tough Crowd

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It’s hard not to look at the iPhone 4S through the lens of Jobs’ recent death.  It was released the day before he left us, and is the latest version of one of Apple’s most revolutionary products under his helm.

Whatever type of analysis we want to make about how he might have felt about what he saw and read, though, sooner or later life does go on.  This phone went through a serious period of anticipation, and is the latest entry in a massive phone/tablet tech war.  People are going to be using this phone soon, so it behooves us to move on and take a good look at it.  Fortunately a lot of people did before the big news dropped, so we have a lot of good information to go on.

Reality vs. expectations

A curious thing is noted when one goes over the reviews for the iPhone 4S.  On the one hand there is a persistent theme of disappointment.  No one seems to have been overwhelmed by it.  And to be sure, there’s no one “game changer” advancement included in the new device, though there are a few that come close.  In fact, the physical shell is exactly the same, one of the critics’ more frequent complaints.

The biggest of the other letdowns was in the lack of any solid information about the iPhone 5, which Apple does promise to be something more revolutionary.  Rumors of that device have been flying all year, and the geeks are getting restless.  All this came together to give the 4S an air of simply being a holdover in lieu of something greater.

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On its own merits

Is all of this fair, though?  Because when one looks at the iPhone 4S, one doesn’t get the impression of a rushed-out replacement with a few extra bells and whistles.  While this isn’t a ground-up redesign, the advances included with this device are quite important.

Here are some of the most impressive new features of the iPhone 4S:

  • iOS5 – Apple’s new operating system is finally made public with this new phone.  About 200 new features come with this new OS, but the one that is garnering the most attention is the fact that integrated into it is Apple’s iCloud technology.  This file sharing system makes its debut with the 4S, and promises efficient transfer of data between mobile devices, as well as with other systems running Mac OS X or Windows.  Used on the 4S, photos can be automatically shouted out to multiple locations.
  • Better voice controls – This is becoming another major arms race, and Apple claims to have taken the lead with the 4S thanks to their voice recognition software Siri.  This kind of feature has to be road tested hard to really be measured, but either way voice integration into the phone’s functions is reported to be high.
  • Hardware improvements – The 4S bumps up the iPhone engine with a dual-core A5 processor, the same chipset put into the iPad 2.  Apple also squeezed a second antenna into the phone for connection redundancy.  Battery life was improved to 8 hours of 3G talking, 10 hours of video watching, and 40 hours of music.
  • Better camera – The camera was improved in all respects, but most drastically in picture speeds.  Photos are taken three times faster with this camera, a problem from the iPhone 4 that many people noted.  Resolution was also increased, and flash noise decreased.
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One missed expectation to be sad about

Countering these is at least one problem based on something other than this not being the iPhone 5.  It’s again a failure to meet expectations, but this time a fair one.

The iPhone 4S will not run on 4G networks.  While some ambiguity over how specific these terms even are, is starting to develop, the 4S proves the worries right.  One benchmarking study found its uplink speeds to be underwhelming, with downlink speeds not much better.

On the other hand even this problem is muted due to the 4S’s greater coverage.  The 4S will be compatible with both CDMA and GMS markets, meaning that you can use it just about anywhere.

Price – the biggest feature?

There’s more.  Sprint announced that it will offer an unlimited data plan option, something which is becoming hard to come by in the mobile world.  Plans including unlimited data start as low as $69.99.  Also for the first time the three largest national carriers – Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint – all announced that they would sell the phone.  Besides the choice of options, this could create a service war that customers would only benefit from.

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Even better are the prices for not only the new 4S but some of the previous models.  While purchase of the 4S without a plan is typically high, with a plan it clocks in at a modest $199.  At the same time Apple lowered its prices for its predecessors.  The iPhone 4 was dropped down to $99, and the 3S was reduced all the way to free (again, with plans).

Expected is too expected?

So is the problem with the iPhone 4S simply that we’ve raised the bar impossibly high for Apple?  One commentator seems to think so, telling people to get over themselves, that this effectively is the iPhone 5.  The features listed above are solid enough that it’s difficult to disagree.

The unveiling of the iPhone 4S was the first Apple tech event that wasn’t run by the charismatic Jobs.  His death was still a day away, but his health was known to be failing.  Either way, he commanded a stage presence that left a big set of shoes for successor CEO Tim Cook to fill (though watching it myself I thought he held his own).  It very well could have been all too much “different” for a first-impression set of eyes to see through.

Whatever the reason for the lukewarm response, the 4S seems to be better than its initial reviews state that it is.  Remove it from its unique history and look at it as a standalone new product, and from what we’ve seen, chances are you’re going to see something you like.

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