The S stands for…same? The iPhone 4S review

Posted by steve on Jan 9, 2012 in Hardware, Hardware Reviews, international, New Zealand, Reviews

The iPhone 4S was never going to be an easy piece of kit to review. Rarely has there been a more anticipated, and then more disparaged, hardware release from Apple. The original iPhone, unveiled five years ago today by Steve Jobs in a presentation now hailed as his finest on-stage hour, spoken of as though it were a sacrament and not a trade announcement, was Apple’s response to years of pleas from the company’s devotees (odd, really, to think of a company — a business, a for-profit entity — having devotees, but there you go…), and was hailed as little short of miraculous when it was finally handed down from on high. By way of contrast, the Motorola ROKR was pointlessness embodied in silicon — a device longed for by nobody, and loved by fewer; I’m simply not willing to do the research, but I strongly suspect that even the Zune, Microsoft’s turd-brown adventure in futility, sold better than the ROKR. Even Steve Jobs struggled to find anything beyond “It’s really nice.”

My new iPhone 4S | Steve's TechBlog

My new iPhone 4S | Steve's TechBlog

The iPhone 4S, on the other hand, threatened to be little more than a small-to-medium-sized bucketful of meh. The iPhone 4, its immediate predecessor, was an almost obnoxiously successful device, and so the Apple rumour mill (an actual mill, by the way — when it’s not cranking out rumours, it grinds the flour that goes into the artisanal breads used for the unicorn-burger sandwiches upon which senior Apple executives lunch), obviously, decided that it had to be replaced. And it had to be replaced by an iPhone 5. For reasons that were never even remotely apparent, there was something frankly totemic about the number 5. The new iPhone simply had to be the iPhone 5. What, exactly, the iPhone 5 would be, or do, or look like, was secondary. Features? 5. Appearance? 5. Spec? 5. So long as the new phone had the magic digit in its name, it could be a rotary-dial device with a ten-foot spiral cord coming out of the kitchen wall.

And so, on October 4th, Tim Cook announced the iPhone 4S. It would have any number of very, very impressive features. The new camera, for example, would have an eight-megapixel resolution, up from the previous model’s five, with a five-element lens instead of four. The processor would be a dual-core A5 chip, not a single-core A4. Bluetooth would be the new, exciting version 4.0, not the 2.1+EDR of the iPhone 4. And, of course, there would be Siri, the little person inside the phone.

But it wasn’t an iPhone 5. The magic number was simply nowhere to be seen. 4S? What did the S stand for? Since the 4S looked all but identical to the 4 (the giveaway, by the way, is the absence, on the 4S, of a black line by the headphone jack), how could a fanboy show off his new toy? What, after all, is the sense in paying hundreds of upgrade dollars if your new gadget doesn’t scream “I’m new, I’m expensive and my owner is, ipso facto, better than you?” The iPhone 4S is an upgrade to the iPhone 4 — a compelling and persuasive upgrade, to be sure, but an upgrade, not a new model.

There was, as was repeatedly pointed out during the fallout from Apple’s failure to deliver something called the iPhone 5, a precedent to this naming scheme. The third iteration of the iPhone, the 3GS, looked essentially identical to its predecessor, the 3G, and nobody, at the time, used the 3GS as evidence that the world was about to come to an end. But the iPhone 4S, not being the iPhone 5, was destined to fail, apparently — and promptly turned out to be one of the fastest-selling smartphones in the admittedly rather short history of the class.

So I bought one. Apple released the 4S on 11th November last year, and I picked mine up that morning from the Vodafone shop in Papakura. I was ready for a new phone — I had considered an iPhone 4 until I discovered the contract-breaking fee Vodafone wanted from me for upgrading, and my 3GS was starting to show its age slightly. Despite the disappointing plans available in New Zealand, I signed up for a 24-month contract and took my new toy home.

I like the design. I was never overly enamoured of the styling of the 3G/3GS models, which always felt, to my sensibilities, just a little plasticky. There is clearly a reason why Apple decided to retain the 4′s design for the 4S — it looks right. It doesn’t always feel that right, mind — it’s a thoroughly beautiful device, but it feels rather thin in the hand, and so, while I very much like the look of the thing, it feels better in the rather natty case my daughter bought for me.

The screen, of course, is stunning. It is bright, and sharp, and clear, and lovely. It features the 960×640-pixel resolution of the iPhone 4, double the resolution of earlier models and so utterly crisp that, living up to its “retina” tag, it renders images and, in particular, text so smoothly and clearly that individual pixels are simply invisible. Combined with the faster dual-core A5 processor, it offers a graphical experience unlike anything else Apple sell.

Venus flytrap — iPhone 4S camera closeup | Steve's Techblog

Venus flytrap — iPhone 4S camera closeup | Steve's TechBlog

The camera does the screen justice. Photos taken on the iPhone 4s’s rear-facing camera are consistently of a high standard, with the possible exception of lower-light photos, in which graininess starts to become a little more visible. But increasingly the iPhone’s camera, once dismissed as an afterthought bolted on to the original iPhone, has now become a realistic alternative to a separate point-and-shoot.

The real fun of the iPhone 4S starts when you fire up Siri. Once all the silly games like telling your phone to beam you up (“WiFi or 3G?”) or to close the pod-bay doors (“Really? Again?”) are out of the way, actually using voice activation suddenly becomes something more than just a gimmick. The iPhone has supported voice commands for years, but only with Siri has this become meaningly useful. I’ve always been leery of claims of voice recognition on computers — it tends to work tolerably if you’re a TV news anchorman from Nebraska, or possibly a continuity announcer on Radio 4, but my northern vowels have always confounded such systems. But I’ve been extensively impressed with Siri. With rare exceptions, it understands not only the words I say (it’s clearly been watching Coronation Street), but also the meaning behind them, and so simple tasks like sending my wife a text message (“Tell my wife that…” is all the syntax I need) or setting a reminder (“Remind me to…”) become part of what I’m doing rather than something that requires me to stop what I’m doing, mess with my phone, and then carry on.

Siri on the iPhone 4S | Steve's TechBlog

Siri on the iPhone 4S — Oh, will the hilarity never end?

Siri’s anthropomorphising of the iPhone raises an interesting philosophicolinguistic question. My wife, being American, uses the American English setting for Siri, and so her phone answers her using an American woman’s voice. I, having had the enormous good fortune to have been born in the northwest of England, use the tautologically- and somewhat meaninglessly-named British English setting, and so my iPhone talks to me with the voice of a bloke from the home counties of England. (There is a third English option, Australian English; the default setting for an iPhone 4S bought in New Zealand is British. Of course.) So is Siri a he or a she? Such are the things that keep a technopundit awake at night.

So all is right with the iPhone 4S, then? Well, no. There is a flaw, a very major flaw, with the phone. Its battery life is, frankly, dreadful. And this is odd, since even better battery life than the iPhone 4 was touted by Tim Cook as one of the 4S’s big selling points. But I struggle to get a single day of moderate usage out of mine. I’ve had it replaced once (and that was a struggle), and my replacement phone isn’t a massive amount better. I’ve never managed the 7 hours of video, or 8 hours of talk time, that Apple advertise; I certainly don’t see the “truly better battery life” advertised on the Vodafone website. Apple’s release of iOS5.0.1 (featuring both interCaps and multiple decimal points) was supposed to address this issue, but, on my phone at least, hasn’t. A complete restore to factory defaults improved battery life somewhat, but neither completely alleviated the problem nor actually allowed me to use the features I paid for on my new iPhone — hardly a success on either count, then.

But I’ll stick with my iPhone 4S. I’m happy with it. There will be an iPhone 5 released one day, I’m sure. But until then, the iPhone 4S, despite its lack of the magic number 5, is a strong update to an inordinately successful product.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Paying by the Bit: Internet access in New Zealand

Posted by steve on Jan 17, 2010 in international, internet, network, New Zealand, Personal

For reasons that would take too long to explain here, I moved to New Zealand about six months ago. I brought my life with me, including, among goods and chattels more varied than I had realized, my trusty Mac mini, which has been doing sterling duty as a Web and mail server for a year or more. My life also includes a wife and daughter, and they, not surprisingly, came with me too.

This has been an almost entirely unqualified success. The people in New Zealand are friendly, the food is astonishing, and the wine is spectacular. But, even in God’s Own Country, nothing is perfect. New Zealand is a truly splendid place to live in many, indeed almost all, regards. But for a techie – and I am, quite unashamedly and unabashedly, one of that number – there are definite quibbles, of which by far the largest is bandwidth, or the lack thereof.

When I lived in America, I was undeniably spoiled, as many Americans tend to be. Life, however shallow it may have been in other regards when one lives in Florida, was certainly easy from a connectivity point of view. My home office had a broadband connection with, as I simply took for granted, took for my birthright, unlimited data. I could slurp down, and throw up, all the data I wanted. The Internet was mine, all of the time.

But when we signed up for our New Zealand connection, we were stunned – stunned, I say! – to discover that the Internet, in New Zealand, is a highly limited and finite resource. We went from “all you can download” to “you get 20 GB a month, you’ll pay $100 a month, and you’ll be grateful for it” in the time it takes to fly from Los Angeles to Auckland (which is, now I come to think about it, a horrendously long time). This was a most atrocious imposition for the Internet junkies that my wife and daughter had become (not me, though, of course – I was far too virtuous, too self-restrained). For all that New Zealand had to offer, the narrowness of its Internet pipes was simply intolerable.

We opted for the “double your data” option (and the additional $30 per month that wasn’t optional), but we still find ourselves limited by 40 GB per month. I check the online usage-meter every few days (using, in the process, a few more precious bytes; oh, the cruel, vicious, bitter irony!), and issue imprecations to Wife and Daughter, reminding them that Facebook is a luxury, not an absolute necessity; they, as addicts always do, try to justify their endless status-checking as being entirely reasonable, indeed essential. I calculate the bandwidth usage of Skype and of YouTube; I flinch when I see Daughter download another Mary-Kate and Ashley movie from iTunes (that’s not really a bandwidth issue; that’s just on general principles – I’d cringe if that were happening if we had a free and entirely unlimited T3 connection direct to the trans-Pacific backbone). I have developed new and careful Internet habits: I use the “Open link in new window” option if I think there’s any possibility that I might want to visit a second link from the same page, to avoid potentially having to load the original page a second time, and Apple Mail no longer checks automatically every minute – each check uses several dozens of bytes, I’m sure, and they all add up. I even avoid visiting Japanese or Chinese sites, conscious of two-byte character sets using more than their fair share of bandwidth.

I check my Google Analytics numbers with conflicted emotions: every page view for our various blogs and online presences is, on the one hand, a cause for celebration – more visits, more revenue, more Internet fame and glory. On the other hand, those page views are also an occasion for more hand-wringing, since they were served up from my Mac mini, over my desperately and mercilessly limited Internet connection. I post photography from the beautiful country we now call home, but wince when I see that I’ve had visits to my site. Even the very act of visiting the Google Analytics Web site eats up a handful of kilobytes that I can scarce afford. Even writing this article is a painful experience; while the catharsis of venting about the primitivity of our connection is undeniably therapeutic, every adjective, every atom of invective, every single character I devote to letting the world know how abjectly deprived we are is one fewer byte that can be used elsewhere.

The reason for this caution is simple. As soon as we reach our allocated 40 GB – think about that for a second; it’s only a gig and a third per day, and the lovely and talented Mrs. McCabe, with whom I share everything, including my bandwidth, is a Web designer – a Gollum-like finger, somewhere in a dungeon buried deep in darkest Auckland, reaches out in the gloom, flicks a switch, and says “It’s dial-up for you. Your bandwidth is mine, it’s mine, my precioussss.” And that’s it. We’re reduced to an Amish connection, one so slow it would be more efficient to hand-write packets of data and strap them to the legs of carrier pigeons. Web pages load – if they load – in minutes, rather than seconds. YouTube is a pipe dream. Downloads, well, downloads don’t. There has been much discussion around the blogosphere in the last month about when the first decade of the 21st century will end. Here in New Zealand that discussion is academic – we’re still, at least in terms of Internettery, stuck back in the 1990s. My connection today is so slow that I half-expect to hear the dolphin-screech of a modem actually dialing in to Vodafone as I try to connect, and I’m grateful that I’m not on deadline for this article. Looking at the cave paintings of Lascaux would represent a faster data transfer than the one I’m hobbled with right now.

I have, I would like to stress, been more than diligent in my attempts to figure out where our precious data might be going. My first thought was Skype, given that Daughter spends much of her time video-chatting with friends back in the Northern Hemisphere. I installed iStat Menus; as far as I could tell, a two-way video conference was using only around 120 KBps. But Vodafone’s (for they are our current Internet provider) online “check your usage” tool was reporting that there were days when we used as much as 6.5 GB of data. The day we reached this number (our record so far, by the way) was a school day – I doubt, then, that Daughter’s Skyping can be the culprit (she would have needed 15 hours of non-stop chatting, and while she’s good, even she’s not that good).

I suspected that it might be my server. I was reluctant to give up running my own server after moving to New Zealand because I’ve localized a handful of my domains – mccabe.net.nz, threelions.co.nz, astralgraphics.co.nz – and it’s hard to find U.S.-based hosting services that handle .nz domains. I host my personal site, stevemccabe.net, as well as my clients’ sites, through a European hosting-and-reselling service, but they don’t offer anything in the Kiwi domain space, so I’ve bought my domains through GoDaddy. I’ve become familiar with GoDaddy’s DNS setup system, and so, frankly, it’s just convenient to register with them and then host myself. That said, GoDaddy’s pricing structure for hosting is Byzantine beyond belief (I’ve had clients in the past want me to set up their sites on GoDaddy – oh, the power of advertising, especially if it involves scantily clad ladies with large chests – and I now make it a condition of service that I provide hosting as well as design) and life was so much easier when I knew that I had all the Internet connectivity I wanted.

So I looked at the traffic stats on my server. This was a bittersweet experience because on the one hand, no, I wasn’t ploughing through my data, which was good, but on the other hand, this meant that my sites weren’t getting the traffic I would have liked. Still, at least that was another possible culprit struck from the list.

I issued the sternest of imprecations to my girls, and, to all intents and purposes, stopped using the InterWebs. But no matter how much we cranked back our usage, we still found that we were using – or, at the very least, we were being reported as using – at least several hundred megabytes a day.

It was time to talk to Vodafone. I contacted them several times, and received several different bogus explanations: I had viruses (_ahem_, my network is Apple-only), I had moochers (WPA2 password, a house built of brick, a large garden) – basically, it was my fault, one way or another. It certainly couldn’t be Vodafone’s fault. I pushed a little further. I was told to install a data tracker – I was even sent Vodafone’s recommended monitor, SurplusMeter. I installed it across my network, and it reported, of course, that I was using monstrous amounts of data. The reason was simple – it meters not only wide-area, but also local-area network traffic. My iMac, for example, was pushing through megabyte after megabyte, even though I had no applications open at all. Well, none that would use the Internet.

Except iTunes. But I wasn’t downloading anything. What I was doing was streaming music to my AirPort Express. SurplusMeter was recording every last packet that went out of the data port it was charged with monitoring – in this case, my AirPort card. I called Vodafone again, and explained that the numbers SurplusMeter was reporting were meaningless. They said I should shut down my local network for a day and see what my numbers were like. I did – and on that day my wife’s iMac managed not to report a single bit going in or out. Not bad for a Web designer who telecommutes between New Zealand and Florida.

Vodafone’s next suggestion was that we had a line fault. This was a possibility – I live in a very old house (we think it’s pre-war, but we’re not sure which war; my money’s on the Boer War) – and one of the call-centre people I spoke to noticed that, while a DSL modem typically reconnects four or five times a day, mine had already reconnected over a dozen times – and I still hadn’t finished my first cup of coffee. They assured me that they would look into this, but in the meantime I’d need to disconnect my phone line (a service, mind you, that I pay for) for a day in case there was a problem with my DSL filters. This may, or may not, have been the problem; I have no way of knowing. Maybe they’re still running tests. At the very least, they haven’t replied.

Finally, I wrote to Russell Stanners, CEO of Vodafone NZ, at the end of last month. A week or so later, I got a phone call from Vodafone, and, after a long chat, the rep who called me (also called Russell; hmm…) agreed to waive the $199 early termination fee and release me from the one-year contract that we would have been bound to until June 2010.

We’re switching to TelstraClear. I’m not doing this because they’re particularly brilliant, but because they do one thing that Vodafone don’t – instead of dialing us back to pecking-out-bits-on-a-Morse-Code-tapper speeds, they’ll keep on selling us more gigabytes. I’m willing to pay for a service (especially a service that I actually receive), but the idea that I only get my 40 gigabytes, and, regardless of whose fault it is, that’s it, I’m cut off like a naughty schoolboy, well, that really chafes.

So now we’re waiting. Our Internet connection went back to last-millennium speeds after only a fortnight this month, so we’re struggling – some evenings we can’t tell whether we’re offline, or just really slow. And although I signed up to TelstraClear over a week ago, I just had a phone call from one of their reps letting me know that, because of the Christmas and midsummer holiday backlog, they won’t flip our switch for another week.

I’ll be emailing this article off to TidBITS World HQ shortly. I have no idea when they may get it. The Word document that contains this piece is 41 KB, which, at my current Internet speeds, could take until March to send. It might be quicker for me to save it to a CD, swim to California with the disc between my teeth, walk across the country, and hand it to Adam Engst personally.

[This article first appeared in TidBITS]

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