So I finally joined the future and upgraded my mobile to an iPhone 4S. I’ve had it for a couple of months now, which I think is enough time to build a solid impression of what it’s like to use the thing.
I’m not going to go too much into the positives, because they’re pretty obvious, and I can’t really judge them against the competition. What I will say is that the retina display is impressive, as is the camera (from what little I’ve used it, and I haven’t shot any video yet), and the battery life is fair enough considering it’s more a mini-computer with a phone than a phone with computery extras.
Since this is an Apple product, setting up WiFi access was a doddle, and it switches seamlessly to 3G (on 3, which has a pretty strong signal around the city, and a much better signal than Vodafone’s at home) when not in WiFi range. Networking is about the only thing Apple demonstrably does better than the other guys, but it’s important. It’s also got GPS, which was one of the main draws for me: it means live mapping by location and other functions — such as the pedometer app Walkmeter — that I wouldn’t have with an iPod Touch.
The OS is fine, once you get used to the swiping gestures; the bare-bones manual doesn’t explain much, so I had a few surprise ‘What did I do there?’ moments in the first few days. The touch screen is pretty responsive, except for the edges of the screen (which makes typing an annoyance at times) and the odd in-app differences.
I’ve arranged the apps on my homescreen into folders, which was a bit fiddly to do, since folders can only be created by dragging one app on top of another. The apps I’m not using I shoved in a folder named ‘Ignore’ and moved it to the second screen so I don’t have to see them; not the cleanest solution but it will do till a future OS update lets users remove the preinstalled cruft they don’t need.
Siri was a nice surprise. It goes without saying that it doesn’t ‘understand’ human speech: it recognises a limited number of turns of phrase, which can give that impression, but it’s up to the user to speak commands in a manner the software can best interpret. Once you bear that in mind and keep requests as specific as possible, it’s impressively good at translating speech into appropriate action.
But really, Siri is a quirky gimmick that I don’t see myself using very often. The lack of search or directions for businesses in Ireland is a significant drawback. And those ads drive me nuts! That kid asking for the time in Australia? I tried that too and it only gives you the time for Canberra, on the east coast — but Australia has three time zones. D’oh!
Voice calls are grand; I haven’t had anything like the problems others have reported with dropped calls and whatnot. However I did have to look up online how to hang up on or ignore unwanted calls; the manual has nowt about that. In contrast, texting is more intuitive, and very well served on the iPhone. I send and receive texts way more than I make or take calls, and I really like the Messages app; text message threading is a genius move.
As for the cons? Syncing is the single biggest issue I had. Due most likely to my hard drive troubles last year, my MacBook OS has a bug that renders iSync useless (the only possible fix seems to be an archive and install, which I’m loathe to do for a variety of reasons).
While the iPhone (supposedly) doesn’t use the iSync app to do its syncing, it seems the underlying bug carries over to iTunes when trying to sync contacts, calendars and bookmarks. Unfortunately there’s no other direct method for exporting contacts to the iPhone, which is a real pain in the arse; even crappy phones from other brands let you send vCard files via Bluetooth. I managed to do it a roundabout way, by e-mailing my address book vCard to myself from the desktop, then setting up Gmail in the iPhone’s Mail app, which allows for importing vCard data to the phone’s address book. I don’t change my contacts data very often, so this method works for me, but it’s hardly ideal.
The calendar wasn’t an issue for me, since I anyway use Google Calendar, and there’s a web app for that. And for bookmarks, I had the brainwave of saving things to Instapaper (a service I really like but hadn’t been using much) and to Delicious (thanks, like the latter, to a neat Safari bookmarklet hack) for later reading or blogging from the desktop. (Note: now that Chrome for iOS is available, direct bookmark syncing between the iPhone and my desktop should now happen automatically in the background; we’ll see how that goes.)
But really, I’d be at a loose end if I exclusively used Apple’s applications for these things. One broken link and the whole chain falls apart.
Remember what I said about the retina display being impressive? The reflections on the glass screen are less so. I suppose that’s the price you pay for crystal-clear sharpness, but that screen glare can be very distracting at times.
I’ve also experienced more than my fair share of app crashes and glitches, some within days of me owning the thing. They’re especially notable after downloading app updates; a restart always does the trick, but I doubt Steve Jobs had ‘daily restarts’ on his iPhone wish list.
Oh yeah, and the predictive text sucks. It’s like my iPhone doesn’t know me at all.
Another minor issue is related to number porting. The number on my iPhone (which is the number on the micro-SIM I received from 3) does not match my actual mobile number (ported from Vodafone, and which I’ve had for over 12 years). The culprit here may well be iOS 5.1: apparently previous versions of the OS allowed for the number field to be edited, but 5.1 locks this out, for no apparent reason other than to protect idiots from themselves. Please, Apple, not all of your users are morons.
None of these issues are enough to ruin the experience of having an iPhone for me — the App Store ecosystem alone puts it way above the competition — but they do burst the bubble of the notion that Apple products ‘just work’. I’m too long in the tooth to fall for that one anymore.