[dotTech Rant] iPhone 4S disappoints

Yesterday Apple revealed their next iPhone, iPhone 4S. As the name may imply, iPhone 4S is a refreshed iPhone 4; it has the exact same body/design and screen as the iPhone 4 but with better internals: A better CPU, GPU, camera, hybrid GSM/CDMA radios [with support for HSPA+ but not LTE or WiMax], and Siri-enabled voice control. The following chart, put together by our friends at Engadget, compares iPhone 4 vs iPhone 4S:

(Click on the chart above to view it in full size.)

Those who have followed the iPhone since its release in 2007 know that Apple has pulled a stunt similar as this one in the past, with the iPhone 3GS. However, the iPhone 3GS was released in 2009; back then Apple had only budding competition when the majority of the smartphone world still used Symbian, BlackBerry was a respected name, and Android was getting its feet wet. In 2009 Apple could afford to get away with simply refreshing the most popular smartphone in the world. Now, in October of 2011 where there are excellent viable alternatives to the iPhone, a refresh of the iPhone 4 is a major disappointment.

Don’t get me wrong. The iPhone 4S is not/will not be a “bad” phone: iPhone 4S is powered by Apple’s powerful A5 dual-core processor combined with dual-core PowerVR SGX543 GPU chips; and it still contains all the attractive aspects of the iPhone 4 such as the much-praised Retina display and excellent battery life. For all intents and purposes, iPhone 4S will be a good phone with an excellent user experience; and it does rival the competition (as they stand right now). However, by simply refreshing the iPhone 4, Apple has missed a trick or two. Or three.

As all industry followers know, dual-core processors – and accompanying multi-core GPUs – are nothing new. Tegra 2 has been out for a long time; Samsung and QualcomM have their own multi-core processors out; and even Apple’s A5 is 8-ish months old — it was first available in the iPad 2 in March of this year. True, A5 is a strong processor with the graphics performance of the PowerVR chips being the highlight of the equation (dual-core PowerVR SGX543 provides what is arguably one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, graphics performance out on the market at this time); but if you look at it from a consumer’s perspective, Apple is simply showing up to the dual-core game 8-10 months late. Releasing an iPhone in October with a dual-core processor and flashing it around as the next big thing isn’t going to win over many people who have been seeing dual-core processors in phones since the start of the year.

However it isn’t the processor/GPU of the iPhone 4S that bother me. Aside from releasing the iPhone 4S earlier in the year (such as their traditional June release cycle), there isn’t much Apple could have done in terms of processor/GPU that they they haven’t done already. Quad-cores are not market ready yet and Apple’s A5 + PowerVR SGX543 provide excellent performance. Where I feel Apple missed the boat is physical design, screen size, and data connectivity.

Similar to the “new car smell”, when you buy a new phone there is that “new phone feeling”: Your palms are sweaty, your eyes are watery, you get a boner, and your heart is pounding. When you buy a phone that looks and feels the exact same as your previous phone (i.e. iPhone 4 -> iPhone 4S) this “new phone feeling” is highly diminished, if you experience it all. After all, your new phone looks the same as your old phone, it feels the same as your old phone, it smells the same as your old phone, and it runs the exact same apps in the exact same manner. Yeah the menu may open up more quickly due to your new phone having a better processor, but is that reason enough to go for this new phone? I know I am being overly cynical, but my point is that using a 17 month-old design does injustice to those loyalists that are ditching their iPhone 4 for an iPhone 4S. (There is a redeeming factor to using the same design and that is the ability to reuse accessories. Reusing iPhone 4 accessories on the iPhone 4S will save consumers some money, but I would argue reusing accessories further diminishes the “new phone feeling”.)

Of course my above point about physical design is applicable if you already own an iPhone 4 and plan on upgrading to an iPhone 4S. What if you are an iPhone 3GS (or iPhone 3G or iPhone 2G) user or are new to the iPhone family? Does the fact that iPhone 4S has the same physical design as the iPhone 4 matter to you? I would argue it does. Sure you may not experience the lack-of-new-phone-feeling quagmire mentioned above but do you really want to go around telling people you have the latest and greatest iPhone? In other words, would you rather people see and immediately recognize you shelled out the $$$ for the latest iPhone or would you rather they ask you “is that the iPhone 4 or iPhone 4S?” I would argue most people prefer the former over the later. To illustrate my point, let’s look at the hybrid cars example. Did you know Honda was the first car company to bring hybrid cars to the United States? Even though Honda was first, the Toyota Prius wiped the floor with them. Why? One of the biggest factors was because the Prius had (has) a distinct look to it, whereas Honda hybrids had a simple badge on the back of the car proclaiming their hybrid status. People who bought hybrid vehicles wanted others to know the fact that they own a hybrid. A Prius allowed people to do that while Honda hybrids did not. iPhone 4S using the same physical design as the iPhone 4 is similar to Honda hybrids looking the same as regular Honda’s: It doesn’t allow people to show off.

That, then, brings me to my next point — screen size. Since its release, the iPhone has kept the tradition of having a 3.5 inch screen. 3.5 inches is a good screen size… nothing wrong with that, right? Wrong. A lot of people proclaim “3.5 inches is the perfect size for a phone”; and some people may indeed enjoy 3.5 inches. However, when the competition is offering customers the choice of screens ranging from 3.2 inches to 4.5 inches – with the majority of high-end phones being 3.75 inches or larger – 3.5 inches just does not cut it anymore. At this point many people are probably thinking “but a 4.5 inch screen is too big”; and for some people it may indeed be too big. Preferable screen size is largely a matter of personal opinion. (Personally speaking, I feel the ideal screen size is somewhere between 3.75-4.3 inches with 4 inches being the sweet spot.) However, in addition to personal preference, market choice and product availability also play a large role in being satisfied with screen size.

Think back to the iPhone 2G (the original iPhone). It debuted with a 3.5 inch screen. Back then, 3.5 inch screens were unheard of. While there may have been a few phones with a 3.5 inch screen or larger, by and large the screens on phones were smaller. At that time I am sure many people were turned off by the “big” 3.5 inch screen. Now, however, 3.5 inches is something that gets scoffed at; and that is my main point. A 3.5 inch screen worked well from iPhone 2G-iPhone 4 because the competition couldn’t offer anything significantly better. Now the competition has much larger screens; and trust me when I say this: When you use a phone with a larger screen, it is hard to go back to a smaller screen. While some people may still prefer the 3.5 inches of the iPhone, the lack of choice really hurts the iPhone 4S. The iPhone 4S may have a very powerful graphics processors, but playing games – or watching videos/movies – on a 3.5 inch screen isn’t nearly as fun as on, for example, a 4 incher. Apple would have been much better off giving iPhone 4S a larger screen. (A 4 inch screen would have been ideal.) This way people that want that larger screen could have gone with the iPhone 4S and people that don’t want it could have stuck with the iPhone 4 which is, by all standards, still a viable phone.

Lastly, let’s talk data connectivity. iPhone 4S comes with dual GSM/CDMA radios. In other words, an iPhone 4S can run on GSM and CDMA networks and works worldwide. (Hurray for world roaming!) The issue is iPhone 4S does not support 4G (LTE/WiMax) network connectivity. Yes, despite the “4” in its name, iPhone 4S does not have 4G. iPhone 4S does support HSPA+ but a) HSPA+ really isn’t 4G and b) the HSPA+ supported by iPhone 4S isn’t even the fastest HSPA+ available. The lack of LTE/WiMax support really hurts the iPhone 4S. True for many people, at this moment in time, the lack of 4G isn’t a big deal because their cell phone service providers don’t provide 4G coverage. However, for many that do live in a 4G area, the lack of LTE/WiMax support is potentially a deal crusher. If I am a Verizon customer, there is no way in digital hell I am going to tie myself down to a two-year contract with the iPhone 4S that runs on 3G when there are LTE Android phones available. Verizon has a blazing fast (!) LTE network that already covers a large part of the USA population and is continually expanding further. And I am not the only one that feels this way. I have talked to Verizon customers that have opted for Android devices over the iPhone 4 (this was prior to the release of the iPhone 4S, but the same logic applies) because of LTE support on the Android devices. While iPhone’s high resale value is a redeeming factor in the sense that one can sell an iPhone 4S and add a few hundred on top to buy an iPhone 5 when it comes out (assuming iPhone 5 supports 4G), but using iPhone’s resaleability as an excuse to not include 4G in the iPhone 4S is simply pathetic.

Love them or hate them, no one can deny Apple has been (is) a pioneer in the mobile computing industry. Even though I am an Android user (and I intend on staying with Android), I can say with confidence the success of the iPhone has forced other manufacturers to create better phones in order to challenge the market leader. With the release of the iPhone 4S, instead of setting the bar higher, Apple is simply playing catch-up to its competitors; and even in that regard Apple fails in some areas, as mentioned above. In a way it isn’t fair to rag on the iPhone 4S simply because it is “good” and not “great”. However, being the market leader, I fully expected Apple to continue leading the pack — not refresh its premier phone with what is essentially 6+ months old technology.

I am not predicating the death of the iPhone. The iPhone will not die; in fact, I predict the iPhone 4S will sell like crazy because, after all, it is an iPhone and it is a good phone. However, even if (when) millions of units are sold, the iPhone 4S is a disappointment in my book. Time to look towards the iPhone 5… whenever it comes out.

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16 comments

  1. Rob Morgan

    I would have to agree on about the whole thing. I’ve never (nor believe ever will be) a fan of Apple, but as being an electronics tech, some of the biggest flaws have always been limitations. Especially as far customizing and upgrading what you have. Granted, Apple products do have extremely good graphics, but I can settle for just real good graphics vs. functionality on my Samsung Captivate (Android, woohoo!!) which I’ve had since July of last year and it’ll run circles around and iPhone 4. Granted I’m overclocked to 1.4 ghz with custom rom and kernel running 3d graphic drivers…

    but the point is that there are almost NO LIMITS to what you can do with my phone, and with Apple, like he said, coming out with “old” technology on a “new” phone……it’s still going to amaze me how many people are going go out of their way to get this thing, working extra hours, turning in cans, dipping in to kid’s intuition…..

  2. Prema

    it seems like Apple is thinking up a trend.
    iPhone Model
    2G
    3G
    3GS
    4
    4S
    5?
    5S?

    of course they will lose several $$ from not giving the expected, but maybe that’s idea. Lose some now, gain much much much much much x 10^24 much more $$ when they release the next version. from what i read, the next version is something that Jobs had a hand in with development and all, so no doubt it will be something HUGE. iPhone 5 will create a ginormous impact and millions will flock like birdies to get that phone. It’s only a matter of time until then…

    seriously though, there are a million Apple fans in the world [probably even more] and I’m quite confident that a huge percentage of those people will upgrade their phone, just for SIRI, and those other features.

  3. mukhi

    @Ashraf:
    thanks ashraf for letting me know about the nexus line. i will take a look at it.
    i did not mean to say iphone does not have issues but wanted to say they have less issues. in other words, users’ experience is better.
    in a similar way, OSX is better than windows (even ubuntu is better than windows in this respect). i dislike that OSX does not support blu-ray playback, macs don’t have HDMI, some sites don’t work good in any browser other than IE (which OSX can’t have), my job related SW are not available in OSX, and yes, macs are relatively expensive but guess what? i still want a mac. windows has started freaking me out despite i am being careful in handling it, and mac SW are improving day by day. you can get freeware for mac almost in every category now and compatibility issues are getting heavily reduced (if you still want windows in mac for any reason, bootcamp it). MBPs are not cheap but you get features which are not available in PC lappies by default like magsafe power port, backlit KB, good batt. life, streamlined design, and last but not the least, one of the best (if not the best) trackpad in the market.

  4. Ashraf
    Author/Mr. Boss

    @Mustafa: Do you even have $600 in your pockets? Jk.

    @JT: I don’t think the issue is an LTE chip would cause problems. I think it was a cost savings measure. Apple hedged their bets that the cost savings will be greater than the customers lost because of lack of LTE.

    That said, though, I agree with you in the sense that one of the downsides to Android is the lack of a uniform user experience. There are some phones that provide terrific user experience with very little issues. Look at the Nexus line (Nexus One, Nexus S, and most likely the Nexus Prime coming out soon) as an example. There are other phones, however, that cause issues. On the other hand, this lack of a uniform user experience is also a strong point: It allows users to have choice, that they don’t have with iPhone. Of course this positive aspect is worthless if the differentiating user experiences are below-par.

    And you are welcome! :-)

    @aSimpleHappyMan: You are welcome!

    @Seamus McSeamus: I myself was shocked that he died. I mean I knew he had cancer, but his condition didn’t sound nearly this serious.

    @Brent: Glad to hear you liked it.

    @Mike: This is possible, but I don’t think so. Breaking a contract for the new iPhone makes no sense if you are just going to use that phone on the same network with the same monthly plan. What would happen, rather, for people that have the iPhone 4 and are on a two-year contract is they would buy the iPhone 4S outright and continue using it with their current service. (Most will probably sell the iPhone 4 to partly subsidize the cost of buying an iPhone 4S outright.)

    @Rob (Down Under): Samsung Galaxy S II = Best smartphone ever, in my opinion. Of course the iPhone 4S is a good phone, but the SGS II came out way earlier in this year. (Us poor Americans, however, are only getting a taste of it now.)

    @JT: Samsung Galaxy S was (is) a great phone in terms of hardware. It had amazing hardware specs for the time. The issue was Samsung’s poor software (in particular the choice of RFS+ instead of EXT4 as the filesystem) and really poor updates. Although this is not an excuse for having crappy software, if you are semi-geeky you could solve the software issue on an Samsung Galaxy S with custom ROMs. Custom ROMs are a huge advantage Android phones have over iPhone, assuming you are willing to put one on your phone.

    That said, Samsung learned from their mistakes on the SGS and made a brilliant SGS II.

    @redLeema: That is interesting. I read it does support HSPA+ but your explanation makes sense. I suppose we will only truly find out when the phone comes out.

    And I am glad you liked this article!

    @mukhi: As I mentioned above, one major downside to Android is the varying user experience. For example, on the Galaxy S software almost ruined the phone for many. The Nexus S, however, has an absolute brilliant user experience. The irony is the hardware of the Galaxy S and Nexus S is similar — it is the software that differs.

    If you truly want Android at its best, stick to the Nexus line of phones. Nexus Prime is rumored to be revealed on October 11. I read some leaked specs and I think I almost shat my pants. If the specs turn out to be true, Nexus Prime will (should) wipe the floor with iPhone 4S.

    That said, though, if you believe iPhone has no issues then you are drinking Apple’s kool-aid. iPhone, like any other phone, has issues, too. The interesting part, however, is iPhone problems are blamed on “rogue” and “badly” coded apps while Android issues are because “Android sucks”. Just goes to show you differing consumer perspectives.

    I will give iPhone this much, though: Updates are typically a lot more smoother than updates to Android phones. Timely and reliable updates are another issue plaguing Android, although Google is trying to address that by talking manufacturers into agreeing to an 18-month update cycle. (Once again if you go with the Nexus line, updates won’t be an issue since Google released those updates themselves.)

    I don’t know much about OS X so I can’t really say if such things happen or not. I can say, however, a Mac will cost you a lot more than a comparable PC; not to mention the compatibility issues you will face if your work/school/college/university is Windows focused and you have a Mac (which most are, by the way). So it is a matter of pros and cons.

  5. mukhi

    although i don’t have an iphone (have nokia n8 and have seen samsung galaxy s w/ android 2.2 very closely), i can say apple does something what can not be done by others. this galaxy s has nice OS like android but the samsung drivers are disappointing. the BT did not work, the update failed several times and the software in the computer crashed unlimited times. in my nokia n8, once browser stopped working after updates, the online update could not solve the issue as a result of which i had to take the phone to the store to get it fixed. have you ever heard some iphone buyers saying something like this? you won’t because apple tests the iOS and the drivers nicely before they release any versions in the market.
    bottomline: if you consider feature/price, iphone may not sound good but you will rarely get a smartphone which is as headache-free as iphone.

    although this is off-topic, i would like to mention a similar thing here. my windows 7 has not been booting for some time after couple of windows updates happened. i can only boot this computer in safe mode or using ubuntu. i can not simply believe a couple of updates can mess up the entire OS in such a way that no rescue happens (i tried several things as i am not really a noob about computers and i never do random things in my lappie) unless you format your computer (the last method which i may have to go for). i don’t thing the similar disaster may happen in OSX despite the user being very careful.

  6. redLeema

    The iPhone4S does not support HSPA+. The 14.4Mbps speeds are the aggregate data speeds from the 2x antennas each capable of handling 7.2 Mbps (max). This corresponds to HS-DSCH category 7&8 which is part of the 3GPP Release 5 specification, ie. HSPA (and not HSPA+). More will be revealed when the lab techs get their hands on it. Totally agree with you about how HSPA+ is being spun as 4G but we all have to look at the ITU for bowing to commercial pressures and reclassifying 4G… quite insane. Anyway, good write up. :)

  7. Rob (Down Under)

    When I pass someone drinking/eating at a table outside the coffee shop/cafe using their iPhone, I move their water bottle (all wankers have bottled water), and lay my Samsung Galaxy S2 beside their phone, and say –
    That’s not a phone, this is a phone.

  8. Mike

    The best explanation I’ve heard for the iPhone 4S, rather than an iPhone 5 having been introduced, is the carrier 2-year contract term–by not having a major new model of the phone this year, this seemingly stops a greater number of 2-year carrier contracts from being broken since the last major revision of the phone.

  9. Seamus McSeamus

    We all had a sense of how ill Jobs was, but the news of his passing still came as a shock. Very sorry to hear the news.

    As for the iPhone 4S, I will be passing. My iP4 is still serving me well, and there isn’t enough new with the 4S to entice me to upgrade. I will wait for the next roll out.

  10. aSimpleHappyMan

    Thank you Steve Jobs for all that you gave that has improved our lives.

    Maybe Apple when they finally deliver the new hopefully groundbreaking iPhone 5 would call it the iPhone 5.10.11 SJ.

    SJ in memory of Steve Jobs and 5.10.11 marking the date of his passing too.

    Good, interesting and informative article nonetheless though Ashraf.

    You’re beginning to blast ‘em out the Good Young Ashraf way you used to once again!

  11. JT

    RIP Steve Jobs.
    The iPhone 4S is a bit of a let down, but to be honest I’m happy with this edition because to me it tells me that they’re smart enough to know that if their phones are going to have problems with the 4G LTE chip then it’s a smart idea to hold off until you get it right and keep your base instead of releasing something that will be problematic and lose customers over a less than satisfactory device. Many Droid makers have done this already with their phones. I’ve used a DROID, and iPhone, and the quality difference to me is huge! had to go through 3 DROID phones, and still had to settle for some of the problems because they just wouldn’t go away. My only complaint about the iPhone for the longest time was that they didn’t have a native speech to text application. That was always something I missed that the DROID had. Now with this version they’ve corrected that! =) Thank you Ashraf for doing this post though, I honestly appreciate all you do and even like your rants! =)))

  12. Mustafa

    Noooooooooo steve jobs :(.

    That being said, and me being a huge apple fanboi, I am immensely dissapointed in the iphone 4s. Suffice it to say these 600$ will be staying in my pocket until next year.