October 20, 2011 10:31 pm

Siri says this is a fine phone

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As I stood 71st in the queue at 7am at the local Apple Store last Friday, there was a collective feeling of “It’s time” among the gathering crowd as we waited in line to receive the sacrament of an iPhone 4S.

Everyone had a story. There were lots of first-timers like me no longer able to resist the allure, but hardly any iPhone 4 owners – the new device looked just the same as its predecessor. Instead, there were many who had bought the original 2007 iPhone or its 3G successor. They were still cosseting them in ancient protective sleeves. It was definitely time for these Apple devotees.

There were also a worrying number of cracked screens on show – people were fed up of peering through splintered glass and wanted the clarity and precision of a Retina display. I produced my own shattered iPod touch and my old HTC Evo Android 4G phone – with a battery life that was now down to about an hour and with a camera that no longer functioned.

In all, there were 4m reasons why Apple sold such a record number of iPhones in its first three days last weekend. But can the device live up to all of our expectations?

After a week, I am still undecided about whether to return my white 32Gb 4S and go back to an Android phone, not least because Samsung and Google on Wednesday announced the splendid-looking Galaxy Nexus using Android 4.0.

In the meantime, the reasons I bought the iPhone 4S, apart from the fact it cost the same as my iPod touch, which is in need of replacement, are several.

First, it adds the constant internet connectivity my iPod lacks and, for the first time, has the capability of 4G speeds, achieved without the heat-generating and battery-dissipating effects I found on Android phones – it runs cooler and does appear to have the extra hour of battery life Apple states, at least in my limited time with it. Its new “world phone” capability will also be useful on my travels.

The verdict: iPhone 4S

Pros: 4G speeds on some networks; much improved camera with “Full HD” video; hundreds of thousands of apps; automatic backups and instant sharing of data, such as photos (but not videos), with other Apple devices.

Cons: Small screen compared with Android rivals; Siri still has much to learn; iCloud storage fills up quickly and is expensive to extend.

Price: From $199 for 16Gb model with contract in US; from £499 Sim-free in UK.

The other main hardware-related reason is the camera. I had felt Apple always trailed Android phones in this area, despite improving its results with excellent software. But a Sony image sensor has been added for the 4S, as well as an extra lens to make images sharper, and the aperture is wider to let in more light. Photos can be taken in rapid succession and I achieved excellent results in various lighting conditions in recording a birthday party at the weekend, including recording video at the new, higher 1080p resolution. The only odd thing I noticed was that people had white “zombie eyes” rather than red “devil eyes” when I used the LED flash.

Other new aspects of the phone include its dual-core processor, for twice the processing speed and seven times the graphics performance – games did seem noticeably faster in loading and rendering.

I was entertained by – but not that enamoured with – Siri, the voice-recognition “personal assistant” that Apple made much play of at the launch. Asking it silly or serious questions such as, “What is the meaning of life?” invokes clever and often different preprogrammed answers.

But I became frustrated with Siri’s inability to often recognise my questions and by the big gaps in its knowledge – there was no point asking for sports scores or tickets or flight information or anything about the UK. But Siri is a beta product still in development, so should improve beyond its current gimmickry.

The competition: Galaxy Nexus

Pros: Vivid, sharp 4.65in screen; one of the slimmest 4G phones; Android has a new interface with larger pictures and a new typeface; facial recognition technology; NFC chip enables mobile payments; Google+ can instantly upload photos to the cloud as they are taken.

Cons: Apps are not as numerous or compelling as the iPhone’s; services such as movies, music and books are less developed; cloud services are patchy; not available until November.

On the software side, the 4S still has far more appealing apps than Android devices, although I have become less dependent on them since buying an iPad, preferring the larger screen versions. It is also unrivalled in handling your media, from podcasts and music to videos, books and the new news-stand for magazines and newspapers.

The new iOS 5, available to all recent iPod touch and iPhone models, also improves the look and functionality of notifications, adds messaging and Twitter integration, tabbed browsing in Safari and wireless syncing with a PC over WiFi.

The iCloud service keeps your content updated and synced across all of your Apple devices and is best demonstrated with the photostream service. At the birthday party, the photos I took with my iPhone appeared within a few seconds in a slideshow on our big-screen television, courtesy of our Apple TV device.

However, I was shocked to get a warning email on Monday morning that I was already close to exceeding my 5Gb storage limit in iCloud and adding another 20Gb would cost $40 a year – compared with the $5 I pay for 20Gb with Google.

Overall, I found the iPhone 4S, its connectivity with its Apple siblings and its great software and apps incredibly seductive. And yet, to me, its 3.5in screen seems small next to the Android phones that I’m used to and it feels like a slippery bar of soap to handle, which means I will have to hide its beautiful design behind a protective case.

By comparison, the new Galaxy Nexus has a huge 4.65in screen and a slip-resistant skin. Google has upped Android’s game with facial recognition to unlock the phone, NFC technology for mobile payments and transferring content and a much more attractive interface with new typography and a magazine look.

Maybe there will be queues for this one when it goes on sale in November. Either way, Apple users would do well to look more closely at the iPhone alternatives.

chris.nuttall@ft.com

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