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A BlackBerry user's first impressions of his new iPhone 4S

A BlackBerry user's first impressions of his new iPhone 4S

I've been a BlackBerry user for years but finally decided I needed a device that provided a better Web browsing experience so just made the leap to an Apple iPhone 4S and thought I'd share some impressions.

Let me say up front this is an apples to oranges comparison. My BlackBerry Curve 8530 was great for what it was: a small, lightweight phone/email device with limited browsing capacity and a few other goodies. RIM has many other devices, such as the Bold 9900, that are much better for accessing the Web and, while I looked at them, they didn't offer all the bells and whistles the 4S does and I quickly decided to make a clean break (so this review isn't meant to be a comparison of the 4S and any of RIM's more modern Web-driven devices).

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I have to admit that my opinion of BlackBerry might have been colored by some hands-on time with Research in Motion's PlayBook. While that device is nicely crafted and the user interface is well thought-out, the PlayBook we had in-house had constant connectivity problems. It had to be paired to my BlackBerry to access the Internet and email, and the connection was hard to set up and was always disappearing, forcing me through the pairing process over and over. We could have had a flaky device, but based on other reviews of the PlayBook, it certainly appears RIM released this tablet before it was fully baked.

The Apple iPad, on the other hand, is a joy to use. Score one for Apple in that part of the brain that tracks brands: Apple, good. BlackBerry, kind of a pain in the butt.

But my real intent here is to examine the experience of moving from the BlackBerry world to the iPhone world. After all, there are loads of BlackBerry users like me whose two-year contracts are expiring that will be wondering if they should make the jump.

Given the BlackBerry has always been about email, top-of-mind questions for these folks are: How is the email handling experience on the iPhone? How hard is it to type without the physical keypad? Is the calendar adequate?

I've only had the iPhone for a few days but here's what I'm finding so far. The email interface isn't remarkably different and you can customize it easily enough to show just the name of the sender and the subject line or up to five lines of the message (there are also five font sizes you can select).

Tapping a new message in your inbox slides the inbox list to the left and opens the message. If it is a group message involving a string of responses, you get an interim screen showing that chain in reverse chronologic order. Pretty slick.

There are icons at the bottom of the screen for filing the message in one of your email folders, trashing it or replying. If you have lots of folders like I do, filing involves scrolling through all of them to find the right one, which is something of a pain in the neck.

Then there is the whole mail creation question. What is it like to create messages without a keyboard?

It takes some getting used to. I first tried holding the device vertically and typing with one finger. That works, but is slow. Then I tried keeping it vertical but using both thumbs, and that worked pretty well. Although the screen is very sensitive and there is no tactile button response, in a short time I found I could type as fast or faster on the iPhone. I also tried holding the phone horizontally and using my thumbs, and that ultimately may work better for me because I have big hands, but it involves reaching more and I'm not comfortable with it yet.

One big limitation: no punctuation on the keyboard. The device enters a period if you double space at the end of a sentence like the BlackBerry, but you have to go to the number screen to get commas, question marks, parentheses, dollar signs, etc. The ability to hit the Alt key on the BlackBerry to enter these characters is better.

I did find the iPhone's autocorrect feature helpful. It guesses what you are trying to enter and, if you like the guess, hitting the space bar plugs that in in place of whatever mess you were creating.

If you don't want to type, alternatively you can use the phone's new Siri speech recognition tool to simply dictate messages. My limited testing showed this to be pretty accurate, although it translated two names I used in a sentence oddly: Tim Greene became "Timber" and Bob Wallace showed up as "Bubbles."

Finally, the other BlackBerry staple that many people rely on: the calendar. I'm not a heavy calendar user, but the iPhone's cascading screens makes it easy to manage calendar items. You can view by month, day or list format, and clicking on an entry brings up details on a new screen, and if you opt to edit the item it brings up another screen listing timing, invitees, etc. All straight-forward.

The other goodies

So, as a basic replacement for the core BlackBerry functions, the iPhone is more than adequate. My guess is that I'll be more efficient using the 4S for these everyday functions. But the real beauty of the device is all the other stuff you get.

Like other modern smartphones, the 4S browsing experience is great, the map feature is great, and you can find virtually anything you need in the App Store to customize the device for you.

Things that stand out on the 4S include front- and rear-facing cameras. The main camera is a nice 8 megapixel device that can record 1080p high-definition video. And the front camera, while smaller, makes it possible to do video conferencing via Apple's own Facetime or Microsoft's Skype. Pretty remarkable. Beam me up Scotty.

Other things I like in particular about the 4S include:

- The build quality of the iPhone is high. It is very nicely put together (although at 4.9 ounces, it is heavier than I like and the glass back seems simply stupid).

- Support for iCloud. I'm still exploring this, but it's nice that, right out of the box, you can instruct your phone to back up to Apple's new iCloud service, so any type of app or content you load will be automatically backed up (the first 5GB is free).

- Siri, the virtual personal assistant. I've tried this speech recognition system a few times and it works well. You can, for example, tell it to "Send Joe Apple a text" and it will start the process for you then ask what you want the text to say. You can use it create email, answer basic questions and perform many phone operations. I need more actual experience to determine how useful this will be.

- AirPlay streaming. The 4S supports Apple's AirPlay, which means that, if you have an Apple TV device (about $100) connected to your TV and your stereo receiver, you can stream music from your iPhone to your stereo, or route video or photos from the 4S directly to your TV. Groovy.

All told, I'm impressed by the 4S. Of course I would have been impressed with most any modern smartphone -- even one from RIM -- given I was moving from a basic, older BlackBerry. In my case, the thing that jumped out at me was my Curve 8530 was an email device that functioned as a cellphone, while the iPhone is a computer that also functions as a phone.

While many smartphones offer functions similar to the iPhone, and those alternatives are getting better and better, the difference is in the way Apple integrates the various environments (work, home, play) and keeps upping the ante with things like iCloud and Siri.

So far, I'm a happy customer.

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