2011-10-12 by . 9 comments

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John Gruber is on a roll countering the notion that the iPhone 4S is disappointing by citing record-breaking preorder numbers. And yes, by sales, the iPhone 4S is doing extremely well, and many people are speaking with their wallets in approval of the new device.

However, a device can be both a commercial success and still be a bit of a disappointment. Being disappointed in a product update doesn’t mean that the update makes the product worse, or that you won’t buy it, it just means that it’s below your expectations of what the update would improve.

I personally know at least four people that were waiting for the iPhone update to upgrade. Most of them have expressed disappointment with the update, and said that had they had known what the update was going to be, they would have bought an iPhone 4 months ago. Yet most, if not all, of the people will end up buying a 4S. Contrast that with the fact that I don’t know anyone that wasn’t planning on purchasing an iPhone that has expressed interest in the iPhone 4S. I’m willing to admit some selection bias – I’ve been advising people to wait for the update, so it’s understandable that most of them have followed my recommendation.

It’s also worth exploring a bit exactly what seems disappointing. Again, those that misunderstand why some people consider the iPhone 4S a disappointment also misunderstand the reason why some people do. It’s not just the fact that the outward appearance hasn’t changed, though I will say that had the outward appearance changed it would have gone a long way to mask the fact that the other upgrades were mediocre as well. No, another reason why the 4S is considered a disappointment is that there has been no truly new hardware added. Every hardware difference between the iPhone 4 and the 4S is a matter of degree: faster processor, better camera, better antenna. No LTE. No NFC. Nothing like inductive charging or other “nice to have” additions either. Not even a memory increase, something even the 3GS managed to have over its predecessor.

iPhone 4S features

From the iPhone 4S features page. The whole bottom row is stuff that the iPhone 4 already has or is getting soon. And why is there a separate icon for "1080p video"? Isn't that covered by "Camera"?

Compare this with the iPhone 4 – there were several huge differences between the iPhone 4 and the preceding 3GS. The 480 by 320 screen on the 3GS was dated back when it first appeared on the original in 2007 (Palm had the same resolution on the Tungsten T3 that came out in 2003), but the retina display leapfrogged the competition and has, until very recently, remained the highest resolution screen on a smartphone, and is still the highest pixel density screen on the market. A front camera was added for FaceTime calling. The build quality significantly improved from the bulbous, plastic back to beautiful flat glass. And of course the CPU, camera, and, yes, antenna were improved as well. A gyroscope was added. And they even managed to double the memory.

The iPhone 4 is, in my opinion, one of the best products Apple has ever made, and one of the most substantial product updates. And so, by extension, the 4S is ever that so much better. But only just. Perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect them to pull a rabbit out of their hat every year, but when you look at what they’re capable of when they put their mind to something, you can’t help but be disappointed when what they come out with is something you know could have been even better.

Filed under Op-Ed


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  • Jason Salaz says:





    • Kyle Cronin says:

      That seems to be the pattern. Still, there could have been slightly more ‘evolution’ this time around. In any case, my bar will be even higher for the next iPhone.

    • Leonardo says:

      I would even say: Revolution (iPhone), Evolution (iPhone 3G), Evolution (iPhone 3GS), Revolution (iPhone 4), Evolution (iPhone 4S). So, right now, I wouldn’t expect a huge improvement in 2012 either.

      It appears that Apple is following its own pace, and not that of the competition. So the iPhone has a change of design more aligned with the rhythm of the Mac than with other handset makers.

      And it is good this way. They differentiate with software, as they have been doing since the Mac start using standard PC parts.

  • cksum says:

    The CPU/GPU leaves the current A4 in the dust. The camera takes blow-away videos and pictures. The Retina Display is still vastly superior to all others on the market. Siri is amazing, but that’s more towards the software side of things.

    So why exactly does it disappoint? Because it doesn’t have a brand new shiny “5”? Or perhaps because it doesn’t have an edge to edge screen? Or maybe the other “niceties” you listed that are likely completely unfeasible in a device?

    A lot of what people wanted (read: the rumor mill was clambering for) were completely unrealistic. An edge to edge screen? It would make the device unusable. Even trying to tap near the edge of the touch screen in the current device is cumbersome. Putting that right to the edge would be maddening. Then there’s the perceptual difficulties. The frame is required to let the human eye (and brain) distinguish between foreground and background. Steve talked about this when touching on the MacBook’s bevel.

    Then there was the rumor around the bigger screen. Not only would that drop the glorious resolution on the current device, but it would make navigating with one hand extremely difficult. This is a phone, not a tablet. Stretching your fingers and thumb across the full length of the screen is important to usability.

    The lack of an additional 512 MB of RAM is likely because the device doesn’t need it. I’m sure you’ve read the Anandtech article that benchmarked devices. It showed the 4S slaughtering the Galaxy S2, which has double the clockspeed and double the RAM. iOS is extremely efficient and I’m sure Apple did tests which showed a RAM boast wasn’t called for. Again, I suspect people just like arbitrary bumps even when they don’t need them. I knew a lot of people that paid $15 more a month for their iPhone plans because the carrier offered a special. And I know that not one of them pulled more than 150 MB in a given month (most less). But their arguments were “hey, just in case.” Just in case, nothing. People feel uncomfortable with constraints, whether they are truly being constrained or not. I think the same thing applies here.

    I think the 4S is a smart move. It still blows every other device out of the water and will continue to do so. The capabilities are all there (you saw the Infinity Blade II demo) and the design is gorgeous even to this day. The phone is remarkable and doesn’t need sales figures behind it to show it a success (although that never hurts). This is just a case of people losing themselves in the all the hype, and very little to do with the actual iPhone 4S’ capabilities or design.

  • I understand why there’s disappointment, but I want to register myself as “not disappointed”. I’m not really a big Apple fan (I dislike their closed, locked-down approach), but I appreciate their design sense and user experience polish.

    But most importantly to me, they seem to be the only phone maker (now that we can basically discount Nokia; shame) who is really serious about the camera. Oh, sure other phone makers slip “capture your memories!” into their marketing materials, but then all they really have to say about it is 8 megapixels and ooh, dual LED flash.

    By contrast, Apple talks about the sensor tech, the optics (5 elements, f/2.4), and the response times. And they post sample photos larger than a thumbnail. Not only is the 4S an upgrade here, but they did it on purpose, not just to keep up with the marketing bullet points.

    • Kyle Cronin says:

      Agree about the camera, they really do seem like they’ve put a lot of engineering into it. It’s definitely something I’m looking forward to on my next iPhone, but taken alone it’s not compelling enough to spend hundreds of dollars upgrading. I’d do better (and get better pictures) if I spent $200-$300 on a point-and-shoot camera than on the iPhone 4S.

  • Adam says:

    Re the 1080p icon, they probably wanted an even number of icons.

    Back on topic, I find it very amazing that despite the 4S just being a 4 with a better camera, CPU and Siri, millions of pre-orders have already been placed. Think how mamy there’ll be after another month!


    • Kyle Cronin says:

      I think there was a lot of pent-up demand for the ‘next’ iPhone, whatever it happened to be, so I’m not surprised to see high preorder numbers. However, after the initial wave of sales and the holiday season is over, I suspect that the rate of sale for the iPhone 4S won’t be appreciably higher than the iPhone 4 over the same time period the previous year.

  • says:

    That’s still a pretty good rate though, compared to other phones.

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