I’d like to start by stating I am not a rabid Android “fanboy.” In fact, I heavily considered the iPhone 3GS back in the day (er, last year), before deciding to pick up my Nexus One instead. Admittedly, I was a bit bedazzled by the concept of a “Google phone” and, as a confessed mega-geek, I found the bleeding-edge experience Android offered to be more exciting for some reason.
So I chose an Android device. When the iPhone 4 was released, I'll be the first to admit that I was jealous. Like it or not, Apple’s Retina display and buttery-smooth iOS UI remain rivaled only by Samsung’s Galaxy S II, and I still staunchly believe Apple builds superior products to anyone in the smartphone industry in terms of build quality and hardware design. iOS 4 still lagged behind Android in several key respects, but to say the iPhone 4 wasn’t a juggernaut in the marketplace (antenna-gate aside) would be willful ignorance.
When it started becoming consensus that Apple would be jumping straight to the iPhone 5, my imagination ran wild with the possible changes the company could be making to the iconic device. So, when the rumors then began piling up that Apple would not be releasing an iPhone 5 today, but an iPhone 4S, my hopes for it immediately and arbitrarily decreased. When it was officially announced, my confidence in Apple’s ability to continue to innovate and break new ground not only with the iPhone itself, but the iOS platform, waned substantially. Apple broke its release schedule and waited until Fall for this very incremental upgrade? I can scarcely understand what took Apple so long.
If this phone had been released in June, my reception may have been a bit warmer. But given the pace at which smartphones are evolving, Apple will already be feeling the pressure from new Android handsets not a few months from now, but a few weeks. This isn’t good. It isn’t good for Apple, and it isn’t good for their carrier partners. We knew there was a strong possibility that Apple would release an incremental upgrade to the iPhone 4, but we expected a much larger increment, if you will.
The release of the iPhone 4S will pit it squarely against the various carrier-branded versions of Samsung’s Galaxy S II, Google’s upcoming Nexus Prime handset on Verizon, and a litany of devices in the pipes from the likes of Motorola and HTC. Phones with high definition 720p displays. Phones with even more powerful dual core processors. Phones with Google’s much-awaited Ice Cream Sandwich release of the Android OS - the single biggest visual revamp of the Android OS for phones to date. Some of these phones will be, in terms of a number of on-paper specifications, bigger and better than the iPhone 4S.
While Apple’s device remains the king of the hill in terms of battery life, camera, display pixel density, and internal storage offerings for now, there’s no doubt that this is the least competitive iPhone to be released to date. Here’s why.
The Retina Display Is Old News
Apple’s Retina display is good. The pixel density is just amazing, it’s bright, and it reads very nicely. The problem? Android phones are getting 720p displays very soon (eg, Nexus Prime, DROID HD), allowing true HD video playback, and technologies like SAMOLED Plus and even SuperLCD have evolved by leaps and bounds in terms of battery drain, contrast, and viewing angles. qHD displays on Android phones have so far proven to, well, suck - but Apple’s Retina display will no longer be the crowning technical achievement it was more than a year ago.
Dual-Core Will Excite Developers, No One Else
Apple’s A5 chipset, found originally in the iPad 2, is a powerful dual core processor on par with Samsung’s Exynos processor, found in the Galaxy S II. Really, it’s a great processor - great power management, it runs 3D games with ease, and Apple’s closed hardware ecosystem allows them to do a lot more dual core optimization at the OS level than Android. The problem? High-end Android devices, and soon Windows phones, pretty much all have dual-core processors.
Most consumers won’t understand or be interested in the difference, and won’t dig much further to find out. The difference in the performance of iOS with the upgraded internals will go mostly unnoticed for now, because iOS already runs quite smoothly on Apple’s A4 processor - unless iOS 5 makes the iPhone 4 originale chug like a steam engine up a steep hill, which I highly doubt will be the case. Promises of better gaming visuals and “faster computing” don’t ring nearly as loud in the heads of consumers when the experience on their current device is already a speedy one. If you’ve used an iPhone 4 (gasp!), you’ll know it’s not lacking in regard to performance.
The average smartphone user is unlikely to care if it’s an Intel 386 or an IBM supercomputer jammed inside their phone, so long as it’s “fast.” Dual-core, as a buzzword, has been all but beaten to death by the likes of Samsung, HTC, and Motorola - Apple’s a little late to the game.
Lack Of 4G Will Hurt Sales At Verizon And Sprint
Verizon’s LTE is fast. People like fast. People were willing to put up with the Thunderbolt, and now the BIONIC’s, lamentable battery life in order to get an injection of high-speed mobile broadband goodness. Verizon’s 4G LTE is, on average, 10 times faster than its CDMA 3G - and LTE coverage already reaches well over half of Verizon’s massive subscriber base.
People are tethering laptops to it, streaming high bit-rate media, and uploading videos. Doing most of these things over Verizon’s 3G CDMA is painfully slow. For basic web browsing, it’s not bad. Anything beyond that, and I start getting flashbacks to the early days of 256k DSL. People were a little hesitant about a 3G-only iPhone 4 on Verizon earlier this year. They should be downright disappointed in a 3G-only 4S this month. We know Apple has always been slow to pick up new network techs, but the carriers are fighting tooth and nail to prove they’re faster than the competition, and a high-end device without a network’s flagship feature will have an uphill battle on its hands.
Worse yet for the Verizon and Sprint versions, AT&T’s version will have access to the carrier’s 4(faux)G HSPA+ network. The maximum download speed on that network is 14.4Mbps - so I wouldn’t expect to ever see more than half of that, but it’s going to allow AT&T to slap the 4G label on the iPhone 4S nonetheless. And it will be faster than Verizon’s by a substantial margin. Heck, it’ll make Sprint’s look like the original 2G EDGE iPhone.
On that note, let’s talk about Sprint. They’ve supposedly invested over $20 billion in 30 million iPhones over the next four or five years, meaning they’re banking heavily on a strong initial offering with the 4S. My colleague Aaron and I agree: this was a monumentally stupid decision. Sprint’s iPhone 4S will ship sans WiMAX, with access only to the carrier’s 3G CDMA network. A network that is slower, and has much less coverage, than Verizon’s. So, imagine the sluggishness of CDMA on the Verizon iPhone 4S, and then lower your bar of expectations several notches. That’s the Sprint iPhone 4S. There's also the fact that the iPhone 4S’s incremental upgrade status will probably make it a non-sale for anyone with a high-end Android phone that was purchased in the last 6 months.
Who is Sprint planning on selling all these iPhone 4S’s (and vanilla iPhone 4's) to? Their prepaid customers over at Virgin and Boost Mobile, most likely. Sprint wants to be the iPhone on a budget and apparently believes that the allure of the iPhone name will bring these people into 2-year contracts in droves. It also apparently believes that the EVO 3D and Epic 4G Touch, two very good phones with Sprint’s WiMAX 4G which can be had for significantly less money up front, have not sufficiently tapped this market.
Sorry, this is just flat out crazy talk. The iPhone 4S, with its craptastic Sprint 3G CDMA and less than awe-inspiring hardware, is just not going to be the subscriber Holy Graal Sprint, for whatever reason, seems to think it will be.
Siri Is Great And All, But Let’s Face It, It’s Mostly A Gimmick
Talking to your phone, if you’ve ever used an Android device, isn’t something new. For iPhone users, this a significant new feature - no doubt about it. What has Apple done with Siri as compared to Google’s Voice Actions? They’ve added a bunch of pre-programmed phrases that shortcut you to the end result you want, and a lot more “talkback” functionality. By integrating with more apps and using tools like Wolfram Alpha, Siri makes using voice actions more of a one-step affair in terms of getting from speech to desired information.
As we know, Google Voice Actions (which are still surprisingly accurate) allow you to call contacts, text them, send e-mails, write notes to yourself, conduct a Google search, navigate, find places, etc. There’s probably things I’m missing. Google has made it clear they want to expand this functionality and for it to be even more intuitive, intelligent, and accurate.
98% of the time I do use Voice Search, I’m using it to do a Google search, or in the car to find a place or navigate to an address. I have never used it to send a text or write an e-mail. I’ve used the note-to-self function a few times, it’s handy occasionally. I’ve obviously used the “Call [blah]” function, too. Siri right now has way more pre-programmed functions than Google Voice Actions, but I imagine that might be changing with the Ice Cream Sandwich unveiling next week.
Aside from searching, navigation, calling, or finding a gas station (all of which generally take place in the car), I rarely use Voice Search. It has its place in my phone, and I love it, but I have zero interest in my phone reciting my text messages or e-mails to me. I can read. I could care less if it responds to “Find Italian restaurant” or “Siri, is there an Italian restaurant nearby?” The latter is only more intuitive to, not to be brash, old people. I’d prefer to say 3 words to 7. I don’t care if it feels more “futuristic” to say it in the form of a sentence. It’s a gimmick. Siri adds to the iPhone 4S’s list of big new features, but it’s evolutionary - not revolutionary.
As Matt Buchannan over on Gizmodo basically said: Like FaceTime, Siri is a great piece of software that Phone users will talk up and show off to friends a few times, and then proceed to never use again.
iOS 5 Is A Big Step Forward For The iPhone, But Compared To Android? Not So Much
Android fanboys have absolutely flogged Apple for “copying” features from Android in iOS5. The notification bar. The Latitude check-in clone. More social and sharing integration. Wireless sync. My response? Who cares. They’re all good ideas, and if Apple isn’t infringing on any IP copying those concepts, they’re fair game. The thing is, even if they are good ideas, they’re things which have already been done. It makes Apple look like they’re now behind the curve on software, and users will eventually start to notice.
While their AirPlay mirroring and the much-improved Camera app look like innovative and generally great software, basic OS interactions aside from notifications haven’t changed all that much. Obviously, Apple wants Siri to be that “huge change” in the way users interact with their smartphones, but I don’t see it ending up being the revolutionary bridge between user and device that Apple is making it out to be. When we get to a Star Trek level of voice control, give me a call, Mr. Cook.
I think that we can objectively say for the first time about a new iPhone that Apple has come up short compared to the competition. It’s also the first time Apple has released a new iPhone (no, we’re not counting Verizon’s iPhone 4) since Android became the U.S.’s number one smartphone OS. The iPhone 4S’s incrementally improved hardware will not make converts of Android users - and neither will the new features in iOS 5. That much we feel confident in saying.
However, Apple’s renowned build quality, hardware design, simple and smooth UI, and large app ecosystem remain compelling and attractive features for those who live in the Apple world of products, or have yet to make the leap to a true smartphone. The improvements contained in the iPhone 4S serve only to make those benefits more attractive. But something has changed since the last iPhone: there’s some seriously awesome alternatives out there, both in terms of hardware and software. Samsung’s Galaxy S II is probably the 4S’s biggest rival at the moment, but the Nexus Prime and handsets from HTC and Motorola that are coming later this year (along with Android Ice Cream Sandwich) should have Apple sweating bullets this holiday season.