I’m no Appolyte, particularly after I read Steve Jobs’ biography by Walter Isaacson. I was so unimpressed with Jobs that I wrote a column calling out Jobs as a raving a-hole. I don’t agree that a leader has to be a jerk to make good products. Despite Jobs being a jerk, Apple made really great products — and continues to do so, based in part on his legacy.
I’m reprising that earlier column now by writing a technology review of my recent experiences with the Samsung S4 cell phone and the latest iPhone, the 5s. I have to say: Apple has really pulled off a major comeback with this version of the iPhone. The market seems to agree with me since sales for the new iPhone, the 5s that I snapped up on the first day it was available, and the 5c, the new plastic body slightly cheaper iPhone, hit sales records on the opening weekend.
My first iPhone was the second generation, which I bought about four years ago through AT&T. I skipped the 3G version the next year but snapped up the iPhone 4. I actually preferred the smooth black back design of the second generation over the more boxy and angular 4, but of course the 4 was far faster and that mattered. It didn’t hurt that my coolness factor rose a point or two by sporting the new boxy 4.
When the 4s was announced the following year, sporting the new voice interface known as Siri, my inner technogeek took over and compelled me to buy the new version before my contract was up. I skipped the 5 for lack of any compelling reason to get it and because my rational side won out over my technogeek side.
Eventually, all the big shiny Android phones around me began to make my 4s' little 3.5-inch screen look, well, inadequate. I had big screen envy. When I saw a good deal with Credo Mobile pop up, promising up to $350 to break my contract with AT&T, I jumped at the deal. It helped that Credo doubles as a supporter of progressive causes, donating some of their profits to advocate for many policies that I support.
As my new phone, I opted for the alleged iPhone killer, the Samsung Galaxy S4, sporting a 5-inch screen, a body as thin as the iPhone, and a number of cool features like a built-in TV remote app and web browsing that tracked your eyes to move up or down.
I received my shiny new Android phone a week or so after I ordered it and found that its screen was indeed big, glossy and very sharp. The body was thin and sleek, but the phone overall felt plasticky and cheap. The back could be removed with a nail poked in a little crack on one side, and it was made literally of light plastic.
I loved that I could upgrade the memory with my own micro SD card, but I realized later that Google Play Music or Apple’s iTunes Match services now allow us to stream our music collection from the cloud and save a lot of money by avoiding buying phones with more memory or a micro SD card. There’s no need anymore to buy large memory phones unless you just really want all of your media on the phone at all times. The cloud services allow you to pin any music or movies or pictures to your phone when you want to, so it’s a nice mix of cloud-based storage for stuff you don’t use much and on-device storage for stuff you need to have no matter what your signal strength happens to be.
Battery life is really important to me, and I found out quickly that the battery life on the S4, to put it mildly, sucked. It lasted half a day with heavy use and never even a full day even on light use. Charging was so bad that when I charged from my car charger, it would turn on with only 1 percent of a charge but would shut down again when I tried to use it because the sheer act of activating the screen would draw more power than it could take up from the charger. Streaming music while driving and charging the phone from my car charger would result in a slow drain of the phone to zero charge — again, this is while charging the phone! This is just bad, bad, bad design and engineering.
The software was also surprisingly screwy. I’d been led to believe that the Android experience rivaled Apple’s. That ain’t true, by far. Probably half of the problems I had resulted from my ignorance of the new system, but I found that the other half of the problems were just bad design choices. An example: The basic settings, like chime or no chime, wireless or no wireless, would literally reset to the default each time the phone turned off. With the battery life as bad as it was, the phone turned off a lot.
Moreover, even if I turned off the wireless because I didn’t want the phone needlessly searching for a signal, the wireless would turn back on of its own accord! I found out with some digging that this was the so-called default “smart” mode, and in this mode wireless would turn on automatically when it found a wireless signal that I’d used before. Bad phone. When I turn off wireless I want it to stay off until I turn it back on. Ditto with sounds and other settings. Keeping wireless off when it wasn’t working was important because for some reason it blocked the cellular connection from working for data, so I couldn’t get data at all when this happened.
I found that using the S4 was so frustrating that it would actually put me in a bad mood. When you work like I do, as a solopreneur consultant/lawyer, I really rely on my equipment to work well. When things don’t work well, I lose time and brain space trying to figure out why the basic tasks I’m trying to complete aren’t working.
It got to the point that I decided to get the new iPhone 5s the day it came out, just two months after I switched to the Android phone. I didn’t care that I’d be slapped with a hefty contract cancellation fee. The S4 had to go, and fast. My peace of mind required it.
I bought the 5s on the first day it was available. I had to wait about two hours at my local Verizon shop (I vowed never to go back to AT&T) and was blessed with a lovely gray/black 5s. The new iPhone is a thing of beauty, both aesthetically and ergonomically. As Apple likes to say, “It just works.”
Siri is far better than when she was first introduced, and she can now be used to open apps, open various settings and of course look up anything on the web. With LTE now widely available, Siri is far faster and effective than she used to be, and it feels like a major advance in technology to be able to, for example, set a recurring weekday alarm in just a couple of seconds with the push of literally one button. Texting is a pleasure again because the default text mode for Apple is autocorrect, the opposite of Android’s default. Rather than going back over each text and correcting the many inevitable errors, the iPhone corrects as you go and it’s generally right. That saves a lot of time.
It’s blazing fast in just about everything in terms of processor speed. Screens pop up right away. The new iOS 7 is beautiful and highly functional. The new control center, accessible with a swipe from the bottom of the screen, has a bunch of cool new options like the flashlight. The battery life is great — about two days with normal use. The screen is smaller than the S4, but it’s sharp and functional. It’s also usable with one hand because of its 16:9 aspect ratio and that is a surprisingly important feature.
The fingerprint security feature is really cool. I thought it was gimmicky when I saw Apple first discuss this new feature, which allows you to use a fingerprint detector built into the home button to turn on the screen or to make purchases. I thought it was a flimsy basis to sell a new model of the phone. But I was wrong. It’s really convenient for unlocking the phone and for making purchases without having to put in your password. It also helps with privacy more generally, which is more of a concern for me and many others after the recent revelations of ongoing National Security Agency spying on Americans’ email, phone calls and social media. The fingerprint system surely won’t stop the NSA from spying on me if they want to, but it is a step in the right direction of restoring privacy when we want privacy.
One strange glitch that the software updates haven’t fixed: I’ll occasionally get a frozen screen and then the Apple logo will pop up for a few seconds. Then it goes back to the home screen. This is irritating but not very frequent, and I assume that Apple will fix this soon.
All in all, the new iPhone is quite a marvel. Well done, Jony Ive and the rest of the Apple team. You would have made Jobs proud. I may try an Android phone again at some point, but not for a while. I won’t make the mistake of leaving the iPhone universe without doing a lot more research next time.
While I really liked the big screen of my Samsung S4 and I really liked Credo, my progressive-cause-supporting mobile carrier, the functionality of the Samsung and my carrier was just abysmal compared to the iPhone and Verizon. It seems to me that those who rave about the S4 simply haven’t tried the iPhone or are just Apple haters more generally.
I’d love to be able to diversify my personal electronics system because it’s wise to diversify in this area just as it is in personal investing. I am now locked in with Apple products for the whole line: phone, tablet, laptop and desktop. I tried to get out of Apple in the cell phone area and I feel like I learned a lesson. Android and Samsung may catch up sooner or later, but for now they’re light years behind in terms of what really matters: Things just work in Apple’s ecosystem.
— Tam Hunt is owner of Community Renewable Solutions, a consultancy and law firm specializing in community-scale renewables. Community Renewable Solutions can help developers navigate this complicated field and provide other development advice relating to interconnection, net metering, procurement and land use. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.