Ten days with the iPhone 4S: the hardware is superb, but Apple still hasn’t mastered the cloud

For the past week, I have been one of about four million people trying out their new iPhone 4S: as usual, my friends from Orange had arranged for me to pick up a shiny new, white, 64GB iPhone 4S from their store on the Champs-Elysées when they first went on sale, first thing on October 14. I’d been looking forward to having 64GB on my phone for a while, since this would mean I could finally sync my entire music library between all my devices without having to use dedicated playing lists.

I’ve chosen not to write a review straight away, because the combination of three new features (iOS5, iCloud, and the iPhone 4S) means that there are more new features available to use on the iPhone this week than there ever have been before.

While the result is probably the most exciting story to write about since the initial launch of the iPhone four years ago, a large number of fully-fledged reviews, some of them excellent, have already been published. So I’m not going to attempt a comprehensive review of the new features: instead I’ve compiled a list of the better ones I found, which you’re welcome to peruse if you want to do so.

What I’ll attempt to do here is to dwell on the features I found most interesting in each of the three components: iPhone 4S, iOS5, and iCloud—and I apologise if this nonetheless ends up being rather a longer blog post than what I’ve produced in my previous reviews.

The iPhone 4S: Apple’s most revolutionary phone yet

The iPhone 4S has a much faster processor, and I have noticed several of my apps opening faster on it. But the two main advantages of the new phone hardware are elsewhere: firstly, it finally has a sufficiently large amount of storage; secondly, it can be used as a Dictaphone–which, in fact, is what I have been using it for when writing this article.

The iPhone 4S’s battery life is horrible

At the outset, though, I think it’s only fair to point out what, to me, is the iPhone 4S’s major flaw: battery life. All previous versions of the iPhone have lasted me at least one full day’s normal use (i.e., occasional phone calls combined with regular but moderate data usage). But on the iPhone 4S, I find that using it in exactly the same way results in the battery being seriously drained by early afternoon and running out well before nightfall. Disabling the weather and stock market widgets (which I don’t really need anyway) didn’t really make a perceptible difference. There’s been a general trend in recent years for mobile phone specifications to improve without batteries being able to keep up the pace: having to plan to have a charger at hand at all times to avoid power running out is a major nuisance, and one Apple will have to address somehow if it isn’t to lose any scope for further improving its future phone releases.

Finally: All my music on all my devices

It’s an inevitable yet regrettable consequence of Apple’s success in the mass consumer market that the painstaking care it puts into its products goes entirely wasted on the vast majority of their users—and this includes, of course, many journalists. Apple, more than any other company at present, exemplifies the horrible reality that consumers don’t know what they want until it’s actually thrust at them. Just because the iPhone 4S looks exactly the same as the iPhone 4, many journalists and onlookers have been expressed disappointment: of course a large number of people—starting with many of my own friends—own iPhones because they find them visually attractive, but don’t actually use them for anything other than making a phone call; to such people, clearly, anything other than an external redesign will be a non-event. Anyone who actually uses his iPhone, however, will recognise that its latest iteration is revolutionary.

The doubling in potential storage is unquestionably the single most useful advantage of the iPhone 4S, and was initially the main reason that I didn’t for a moment consider not upgrading. Being able to store my entire, 48GB-sized music library on my iPhone as well as both my Macs, synced via Dropbox, means I can listen to it everywhere I go, on either side of the Atlantic, perhaps taking a Jambox with me.

I’ve also taken advantage of the extra space to store any data that I can locally on my iPhone, such as all my Evernote notebooks, so I can access them offline.

Using the iPhone as a dictaphone

The second most valuable improvement in the iPhone 4S is that it now doubles up as a dictating machine. While attention has focused on Siri, the built-in voice-recognition application that allows you, among other time-saving operations, to create a calendar item or set a timer (both of these enormously quicker using Siri than when opening the application), it's much more interesting that the iPhone now has the ability to dispense with the keyboard in any application and in any supported language [i], instead dictating your text to the microphone. Providing you have a properly-functioning network connection and don’t slur your words too much, this works pretty flawlessly. It means that, for the first time, drafting serious texts (such as blog posts) on your iPhone becomes a viable proposition.

Dictating on iOS5
The iPhone 4S can be used to dictate anything, including texts of any length, in any application. This dispenses with using the phone’s tiny keyboard and is considerably quicker yet surprisingly accurate. I now use it to draft or add to blog posts and to record any spur-of-the-moment ideas while they are still fresh in my mind.

Using Dropbox and my favourite iOS client, Nebulous Notes, I can use my iPhone to add spur-of-the-moment bits to any of the blog posts or other texts inhabiting my Drafts folder at any given time: being able to directly incorporate flash ideas into whatever I’m drafting means I’m significantly more likely to push all my thoughts across to the final version of whatever I’m writing.

Siri: not yet quite what it’s cracked up to be

As for Siri itself, I’m actually less taken with it than most commenters. I was worried that even when set to so-called ‘British’ English, it wouldn’t be able to cope with my voice, but as it happens, providing I try to speak a little more distinctively than usual, it gets most of what I say reasonably well. It also works tolerably well with the simplest tasks such as setting a timer or creating a calendar item or email (but I then need to complete the item manually). On the other hand, it’s quite incapable of successfully playing, say, Mozart’s 40th Symphony—although it will easily manage Fauré’s Requiem. In fact, the range of what it can do for you is pretty impressive.

One annoying issue with the iPhone 4S’s dictation feature is that it isn’t very good at recognising foreign-sounding proper names. This means I can’t really use it to call most of my friends. The alleged workaround for this involves filling in ‘phonetic’ Christian and surnames to improve Siri’s recognition of them. Unfortunately, this hasn’t worked for me at all. It also appears to mess up the way your contacts are sorted [ii].

One much more general limitation of Siri, however, is that it needs a working server connection to function at all: at least 3G, meaning Edge won’t do. In fact I find that in Europe, it works noticeably better in the morning than in the evening, meaning that even the four million users who’ve already acquired an iPhone 4S are at peak hours putting Apple’s expensively-acquired servers under strain: at times, in fact, Siri would fail to answer even the simplest questions. At others, I’d ned to reboot my phone, despite having plenty of available unused memory on board. If this is already the situation with just four million users, I dread to think how Apple—which has yet to prove it understands the functioning of cloud computing—will cope with the load.

In some extreme cases—presumably because of server overload—Siri would simply refuse to accept commands at all despite having a functional Internet connection:

Siri connection woes
Apple’s ability to run user-intensive servers is already being put to the test by Siri. Despite having an excellent network connection to the Internet, Siri is occasionally unable to function normally—suggesting server overload may be to blame.

Of course, as Shawn Blanc points out, Siri still adds functionality even when it can’t accept spoken commands:

If I’m not in a place where I can talk to Siri, typing in my request may still be easier than doing the task manually. For example, typing the text: “Remind me to take out the trash when I get home” would still be easier than launching the Reminder app, creating a new reminder, typing in “take out the trash”, tapping on the reminder itself, choosing “Remind Me”, turning on “At a Location”, selecting “When I Arrive”, choosing “Home”.

The camera

Although previous iPhone releases incited me to spend housr trying out the invariably much-improved camera they included, I haven’t really done much testing this time, although a few obvious points are worth making about the camera. The improvements haven’t generated the same excitement as the previous iteration did when the iphone 4 was released—perhaps because users now routinely expect Apple to substantially upgrade the phone’s camera with each new release: still, it’s worth remembering that the resulting pictures are being taken from a box a fraction of the size of medium-range point-and-shoots with which it can now be said to ‘compete’.

Image capture time is now down to 0.5s shot-to-shot time and 1.1 second ‘time to first photo’, which is pretty breathtaking and compares favourably to most point-and-shoots. I liked the new features available in the default camera app, especially the grid lines which I find are indispensable to taking decent pictures—but was distinctly lesstaken by the new built-in filters provided to supposedly ‘improve’ pictures taken on the phone. The iPhone 4S provides excellent auto white balance performance, and pretty consistently produces accurate color under a variety of low and artificial light sources. Its photographs are about 22MB, resulting in noticeably sharper images.

Best of all in my book, the iPhone 4S lens is at F/2.4, half a stop brighter than the iPhone 4. It also adjusts shutter speed and ISO pretty accurately to existing light conditions, resulting in much better photographs in low light:

iPhone 4S camera in dim light
Even in relatively dim light—evening was well under way when this snapshot was taken—the iPhone 4S takes relatively acceptable pictures—meaning it replaces a middle-of-the-range point-and-shoot.

By touching the central subject area on the screen, like a face, you can lock both the exposure and focus until you take a picture, allowing you to recompose the frame.

Overall, my iPhone will now replace my ageing point-and-shoot Canon S90: with this latest release, the iPhone has really come into its own as the best camera being the one you always have on you—but it won’t, of course, replace my Panasonic GF2.

iOS5

The experience of using the iPhone 4S is inseparable from iOS5—which is designed from the ground up to make the iPhone experience optimal.

Notifications

The entirely revamped notifications system built into iOS5 is probably its most immediately palpable innovation: there’s almost no limit to the extent to which you can fine-tune your notification settings for each application, ranging from none at all to your choice of no alerts, banner-style popups or more visible, mid-screen ones.

The new Notifications Center, however, is not without its irritations. As Ben Brooks pointed out, the most annoying part of the new Notification Center is ‘the fact that there is no indication, or notification anywhere that there are still notifications in the Notification Center’.

Improved keyboard output

Yet while the improved notifications are unquestionably the main improvement in iOS5, there are actually many other more subtle ones: one which reviewers don’t seem to have picked up is the improvement in Apple’s notorious autocorrect: the inconsistencies I had found frequently in previous versions—especially when typing in French where accents would be rendered incorrectly—seem to have been ironed out at last.

Wireless sync

The much-vaunted ‘PC-free’ environment for which I had been yearning for four years has belatedly become a reality, but it is a source of considerable confusion: you can now sync your settings and apps over-the-air without ever establishing a connection with your Mac, and if you install iOS on your previous iPhone before upgrading, and use the new iCloud backup feature to save your previous settings and apps to the cloud, you can set up your new iPhone from the iCloud backup rather than the iTunes one—but if you have a large amount of new music or photos to sync, you’re in practice compelled to carry out both exercises in sequence, and they don’t play well with with one another. I had to restore and reinsall several times, using a USB connection, before I could sync wirelessly without errors.

Once you’ve carried out your initial sync, you can choose Wifi sync to ensure consistency between your iPhone music library and your main one.

iMessage

This is unquestionably Apple’s masterstroke—and one that will grate with phone carriers. You don’t need to configure iMessage: it seamlessly detects any other phones running iOS5 (and there are quite a lot if them out there) and sends your text message using a data connection, bypassing both users’ text plans altogether, and without anything needing to prearranged—I basically just started seeing many of my usual contacts’ text messages coming in as iMessages, including many people who I would definitely not count as tech addicts.

There’s no reason why the system, which already works on both my iPad and my iPhone, should not be extended to Macs and even to PCs in due course. It basically makes cruder systems like Blackberry’s BBM—which needs to be specially installed and advertised by users—obsolete.

Reminders

Apple’s belated inclusion of a Reminders app in iOS5—albeit an embryonic one at best—potentially signals a major threat for the various to-do apps already available: Omnifocus, which is arguably the best or at least the least bad, Things and Remember The Milk.

The logical next step: opening up Siri to third-party developers

The logical next step, of course, would be for Apple to open up access to Siri for third-party apps, so that you could use voice commands with your favourite to-do app, rather than Apple’s very half-baked substitute. not surprisingly, there’s already a lively discussion underway on this topic. And despite the lack of an API, Remember The Milk actually devised a workaround to add tasks using Siri.

I’d expect similar pressures to develop for other third-party apps. My preferred email client for Mac, Sparrow is developing an iOS version, and there’s no reason why users should not want Siri (and indeed all cross-app interaction involving email) to trigger their preferred client rather than the official one.

Twitter integration

Apple eventually chose—after some speculation had taken place—to integrate Twitter, rather than Facebook, in the latest version of iOS. This means you can now tweet anything (well, at least, anything tweetable such as links or images) directly from whichever app you happen to be using, which is incredibly convenient. One minor annoyance, but not in any way Apple’s fault, is that as Twitter insists on ‘wrapping’ all links passing through its servers in its ghastly t.co urls, I now have to use a third-party app, www.cut to tweet links from my iPhone or iPad.

You don’t have to install the official Twitter app—which I absolutely hate—as third-party apps can be hooked up to use your twitter settings if preferred (my current favourite being Tweetbot, which is fully ready for iOS5, with runner-up being the rather promising Twittelator Neue, which still lacks url shortening and push notifications).

The inbuilt Twitter function is so convenient when using certain apps, especially when sharing pictures, that it’s incited me to switch to Twitter’s image-sharing service, despite not liking the idea of it very much:

Tweeting an image is much simpler with iOS5
Tweeting an image is much simpler with iOS5.

iCloud

Apple’s previous foray into the cloud was deeply flawed, with the utter flop of MobileMe and its inexplicable reluctance, until this release, to allow iOS devices to sync wirelessly.

Apple’s attempts to move into the cloud have been work in progress since the iPhone was first launched

The initial iPhone 1 released in 2007 had to be physically connected to one’s computer to sync contacts and calendars, which seemed to bring me back about ten years to the days when I used a Palm device. Then came MobileMe in 2008: it offered, on paper, the promise of wirelessly-synced contacts, calendar and even email, but its email offering turned out to be a joke, while extended downtime and frequent bugs destroyed the absurdly-overpriced product’s credibility for good thereafter, although in the last year or so it’s actually been working reasonably smoothly.

Upgrading to iOS5 and to the iPhone 4S: as expected, not a smooth process—and iCloud actually offers less functionality than MobileMe

In anticipation of the iCloud launch yesterday, I’d updated Mac OS X itself, iTunes and Aperture before launching the process of switching my MobileMe account—which, incredibly enough, I’ve had since December 2003 when I first switched to the Mac—to iCloud. In recent days non-tech friends had been quizzing me about the desirability of switching from whatever storage solution they were currently using—usually Dropbox—to Apple’s much-hyped new service.

I won’t dwell much on the installation itself, since we’re talking about a one-off process, but as I expected from a company that’s consistently got the cloud wrong in the past, the switch was anything but smooth. Wisely, Apple nags you to insure against its failings by prompting you to back up your contacts, calendar items and bookmarks: these are the only items that now get synced—you can no longer use Preferences to automatically sync preferences for each of your applications on all of your Macs registered on your account, like you could on MobileMe, an incredibly useful feature Apple has quietly abandoned. Logging into MobileMe to initiate the upgrade seemed to be a never-ending process. Then when I finally accessed the web page on my MobileMe account that initiated the switch to iCloud, it turned out Apple’s much-vaunted new servers supposedly set up, at vast expense in anticipation of the iCloud launch, had given in under the pressure. It seems I wasn’t alone in having this issue.

Before iCloud had been installed, I had to prepare for the other end of the process by upgrading all my devices—meaning, in my case, one first-generation iPad which I only use for reading, and one iPhone 4—to iOS5. The procedure, here again, was anything but smooth: the iPad upgraded without too much issues, but the iPhone—which I’m about to replace with a 64GB iPhone 4S proved considerably trickier. For some bizarre reason, for instance, iTunes also failed to back up my iPone one final time before carrying out the iOS5 upgrade, meaning I lost a few days’ data on several applications, including text messages.

I added my Macs to the Find My Mac feature, although doing so for my MacBook Air involved repairing its permissions which had apparently got corrupted. A friend pointed out that f you lose one of your devices and it somehow gets hacked, the ‘wipe’ feature in Find My Mac could be abused to remotely wipe your home desktop as well, so I chose not to include my home iMac in Find My Mac—especially as I don’t need to know where it is anyway.

Apple’s cloud email offering continues to be a joke

Calendar, Contacts and Mail all still sync over the air—and the service is now free, although I’m not changing my current setup, which is to use Google Apps for email (because, among other reasons, you can use it with your own domain, a feature Apple refuses to implement, locking you into a @me.com mail address) and Calendar storage (essentially because it makes more sense to keep calendar and email on the same server). I kept a residual use for Apple’s MobileMe with Contacts, because of Google’s stubborn insistence on storing Christian or forenames, middle and last names in the same field—which doesn’t work well with many double-barreled, foreign or composite names.

It’s in fact revealing of the fact that Apple has tacitly given up on me.com that, in contrast to MobileMe, you no longer need to create a @me.com address to sign up for the service—although those who, like me, signed up with a @me.com Apple ID are stuck with it—and Apple still obstinately refuses to allow you to merge Apple IDs, meaning I have to constantly shuffle between my US one, which contains most of my apps, and my French one, which contains quite a few.

Photostream: still lacking in functionality

I’ve also activated Apple’s new browser bookmark and photo stream sync features, which removed what used to be minor irritants in previous versions of iOS—how did one get one’s photos over to one’s computer? (I found the simplest way to this was email, although by doing this I was pointlessly clogging my email account server with a huge quantity of space-gobbling messages.). After setting iCloud up, this is what my sync configuration looked like:

My iCloud sync configuration
I use iCloud mainly to sync my Contacts, bookmarks and for the Find My iPhone, iPad and Mac functions. For email and calendar items I continue to use Google.

Unfortunately, though, you can’t access your photostream from the web—meaning that you need to use iPhoto or Aperture to access it on your Mac, or use your iPad or iPhone. I suspect a lot of people with large photo libraries will soon run into storage issues due to photostream’s totally inflexible, all-or-nothing nature. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, at this stage, photostream as, indeed, the whole of iCloud is very much work in progress.

It’s worth adding one final speculative word about Apple’s much-touted cloud music storage feature. Sync is now available for past and future music purchases (i.e., music bought on the Apple Music Store)—but iTunes Match, the service that ‘matches’ your entire existing Library to Apple’s list of available music and reproduces it seamlessly on all your devices—is still listed as ‘available soon’, meaning Apple must have run into yet another last-minute snag preventing it from launching it with the rest of iCloud.

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  1. These currently include US English, Standard English (which Americans call ‘British’ English), German and French. []
  2. Apparently, Siri’s failure to understand my attempt at ‘phonetic’ names may be due to my accent: it’s claimed that ‘when language is set to British English’ the fields don’t even appear; my language is actually set to ‘English’ (meaning American English) rather than to so-called ‘British’ English (which is what Americans call Received Pronunciation), but while the fields do appear—it’s just that they don’t work, possibly owing to my accent. []