iPhone 4S – impressions so far

I’ve now had the iPhone 4S for a week now, and here are some of my thoughts so far:

– I never realized that iPhones had such a conspicuous proximity sensor right above the earpiece! Apparently the iPhone 4 had it as well, but I’d never noticed because it was black.

– The message vibration has been changed – it’s tighter, slightly more subtle, so that when your iPhone is on a hard table and a message arrives, for example, it’s less jolting and less likely to leave you faintly annoyed. I love it.

– There’s been reports of instances of the earpiece emitting static noise while on call. Unfortunately this is true, but not on every call. I don’t know why the noise occurs selectively, but sometimes it’s definitely there. It’s certain a little distracting, but the noise issue is mitigated considerably by another 4S improvement…

– Which is the enhancements made to the antenna resulting in better call volume and general clarity. The static noise is separate from the conversation itself – it seems to be mechanical in nature, rather than the communications being hampered. The result is that the person on the line sounds louder and clearer than he or she did with iPhone 4. Does this excuse the static problem? Probably not, but I would rather have a phone call on the 4S with the issue than iPhone 4 without it (that’s a fanboi talking right there).

– The camera has gotten better enormously over the iPhone 4. You can now take burst shots, make use of grid mode, and the double-click of the menu button that brings up the camera option while in lock screen prompts the camera button much faster, allowing for more responsive picture-taking. In real-life use, this makes such a difference and makes the 4S a truly viable alternative to compact digital cameras. I’ve always felt that iPhones for whatever reason took better pictures than other smartphones, and the 4S is the best camera that iPhone has ever offered. A real joy to use.

– Siri: what else is there to say? You really need to use it to understand how good it is. It’s still limited, sure – you can’t implement any hardware control with Siri, and note-taking in particular seems surprisingly restricted – but even as-is Siri is an eye-opening tech, a step beyond what Dragon Dictation and Vlingo can offer. Saying that you want to set up a dinner appointment next Tuesday at 7pm, and to have Siri bring up the iCal with perfectly matching arrangement, it can’t help but have you raise a small smile in wonderment. Some have rightly pointed out that certain actions are easier with the hand rather than through Siri, and certainly writing down notes and doing complex searches are counterproductive on Siri at the moment. But there’s also no denying that it’s so much more convenient to just tell Siri to play a song that just popped into your head, or to call someone rather than trawling through the list manually. So: a real chore-saver for some functions, a curio for others, but always revelatory.

– It’s sort of obvious, but the A5 chip allows for much faster and smoother experience on the 4S. It’s weird to think that when iPhone 4 first came out, people – including myself – marveled at how it improved on the performance of the 3GS, but 4S makes you not want to go back to its predecessor.

Overall impression is that, yes, the 4S is an incremental improvement over iPhone 4, and because these improvements have been made to the innards rather than the external design, it would be easy to dismiss how much better the user experience has gotten better over iPhone 4. The changes, small as they are, solve almost all of the predecessor’s problems, while the souped-up camera makes the 4S a genuinely compelling replacement to compact shooters. Retaining iPhone 4’s industrial design is no bad thing, for personally I think it’s the best the market has to offer. Siri, meanwhile, will divide opinions – some will laud it as the future of user interface, others will question its practical value. But as a proof of how far consumer products have come along – a voice-controlled assistant that gives no ground for mocking parody – Siri is something special indeed.

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