Blackberry vs iPhone 4s (After Two Months of Use)

People tend to optimize their next purchase based on the worst feature of their prior purchase. That is clearly why I bought a Blackberry in 2008 after experiencing a phone with terrible voice quality and numerous dropped calls.

Blackberry delivered. I experienced voice quality comparable to that of a land line during my 3.5 years of Blackberry (8320, 9700) ownership. The siren calls from iPhone and Android devices had no effect on me during this time. By nearly all accounts, iPhones were great pocket computers with lousy phones and Android devices required too much fiddling to suit my tastes.

Then the iPhone 4s came out, promising decent voice call quality, improved battery life, and a better notification system. In other words, a great pocket computer and a great communication device. I decided to switch, and I wrote about this decision here.

Now that I’ve been using an iPhone 4s for nearly 2 months, I’d like to revisit my decision. Is the iPhone 4s performing as expected? How does it compare to the Blackberry 9700 I used for 2 years? Do I have any regrets? You may find some of my answers surprising.

Blackberry vs. iPhone 4s Points Discussed in My Previous iPhone 4s Post

Price: No surprises. Thanks to a combination of AT&T’s rollover minutes, $15/month data plan (200MB), and joining my inlaws’ existing family plan at $10/month, I’m only spending $25/month + fees/taxes. I also paid $200 + tax to get the phone. Details here.

UPDATE: As of January 22, 2012, AT&T no longer offers the $15/month data plan. $20/month for 300MB is the new minimum. Current $15/month data plan subscribers are grandfathered. However, if you ever temporarily switch to a data plan with a higher monthly limit, you won’t be able to go back to the $15/month plan.

Voice Quality: In my experience, using a Blackberry 9700 or 8320 is as good as a quality land-line based phone, whether you hold it to your ear, use earbuds, or use the speaker phone. The iPhone 4s is not even close. I didn’t expect Blackberry quality, but I expected better than what I’ve experienced in the past 2 months. Most of the time my calls are pretty good, which suggests the possibility that my quality issues are related to AT&T’s inferior performance compared with other U.S. carriers. Details:

  • Call time so far: 20 hours
  • Number of calls so far: approximately 150 calls
  • Dropped calls so far: 1 (while signal was strong at my office)
  • Low voice quality calls so far: Approximately 15% to 25% of calls
  • Best quality hold-to-ear calls: Almost as good as Blackberry when not having issues
  • Best quality speaker phone calls: Acceptable quality but tinny and not loud enough for a noisy environment.
  • Best quality earbud calls: barely acceptable at best and a much higher incidence of low call quality.

My experience with earbud call quality has been poor enough to warrant further discussion. The included earbuds fall out of my ear easily and sound terrible. Luckily, my trusty Blackberry earbuds are compatible with iPhones and they stay in my ear just fine. But voice calls have been unacceptably erratic even with the Blackberry earbuds. Sometimes the calls are okay, sometimes there’s a little static on my end and sometimes the person at the other end hears distortion or echo so bad that I have to call back. Calls without earbuds are usually of higher quality than calls with earbuds. I have read that Apple is aware of software issues related to earbuds so hopefully this improves over time. UPDATE: Since April 2012 I have experienced NO MORE EARBUD ISSUES. So I’m guessing there was a software issue that got fixed with an iOS update in March or April of 2012.

I have also decided to get higher quality earbuds, so I just purchased this inexpensive yet well-reviewed model:

MEElectronics M9P In-Ear 3.5mm Headphone with Control/Talk

Based on nearly 20 hours of talk time and 150 calls over two months, my voice experience with iPhone 4s at AT&T has been decidedly inferior to the Blackberry 9700 or Blackberry 8320 phones I used for the past 3.5 years at T-mobile. However, it’s adequate, assuming the earbud software issues get resolved.

Notifications: Blackberry users love to point out that Blackberry has fully customizable notifications and a blinking LED light that is not present on iPhones. True. But for my work flow, that’s turning out not to matter, as follows:

I had my Blackberry’s flashing LED set up to indicate when I had received an e-mail or missed a voice call. Reading an e-mail within minutes of arrival doesn’t matter to me the vast majority of the time. But it matters perhaps 1-3 times per week. So if I saw the blinking LED, I’d type in my passcode, click to open my Gmail app, and quickly glance at the messages. I think that’s mildly disruptive. My wife thinks it’s far more annoying than just “mildly disruptive.”

With the iPhone 4s, there’s no flashing LED. But to check recent e-mails, I just click the home button and see e-mails on the lock screen—the title and first 70 or so characters of each message. I love this. Click and glance. That’s all.

The iPhone’s lock screen functionality is the killer feature that causes me to prefer iPhone over the Blackberry for notifications. But in every other way the Blackberry is more refined and customizable than the iPhone. For example, notifications can be customized per contact for e-mails. So when we were on the verge of buying a house, I had our agent’s e-mails forwarded to my Blackberry e-mail address which was set up with a special ring tone and vibration for only her e-mail message. That level of customization is handy, and is not yet available for iOS, though you can customize voice call and instant message sounds for individual contacts.

Blackberry also has notification profiles for different situations: normal, loud, medium, vibrate only, silent, phone calls only, all alerts off. Some people use several of these profiles frequently throughout the week, but I used normal all the time except when I chose the silent profile at events or meetings when I didn’t want to be interrupted. The iPhone has just two profiles: normal and airplane mode. Airplane mode is a bit more drastic than silent mode as it also turns off all connections, but that’s fine by me as it saves battery life. So, although Blackberries have many more profiles, I wasn’t doing more with them than I’m doing with airplane mode on the iPhone.

On the iPhone you can turn off cellular data, which effectively cuts off all forms of notifications except voice calls when outside of WiFi range. Given my 200MB per month plan, I sometimes have cellular data turned off and just turn it on for a few minutes at a time when I want to catch up on things outside of WiFi range. Given my general dislike of interruptions and distraction, I’m actually liking having the 200MB limitation in place—less temptation. Blackberry has the ability to selectively turn on/off any connection, but I never needed to given my unlimited data plan.

Yet another nice Blackberry feature is that you can set it up to go into “bedside mode” when docked. You can customize bedside mode to suit your tastes but if you’re truly using it by your bed, it’s helpful to have it turn off all forms of notification when you sleep, including the ring of a phone. The iPhone has no equivalent. To accomplish the same thing, you have to perform several manual steps (assuming you’ve already downloaded a clock app): Select airplane mode, dim the brightness, turn on a clock app, dock (and reverse when you wake up). With that many steps, I simply won’t do it. If there happens to be “an app for that” please let me know in the comments.

The iPhone 4s does have a thin ring/silent button that silences alerts and sound effects when in the red position. Though this doesn’t exactly correspond to the Blackberry concept of a profile, it is a silencing option that is roughly half way in between airplane mode and normal operation. Unfortunately, this button is hard to use in the dark as it is difficult to find and use by feel.

I personally have been trying to get in the habit of using both the ring/silent mute button and airplane mode at night to eliminate all forms of interruption.

Other Blackberry vs. iPhone Points Of Comparison

Getting Started: Big surprise–getting started with the iPhone 4s on AT&T was far more complicated than getting started with a Blackberry 9700 on T-mobile. Some of this was due to odd AT&T customer service polices related to family plans. For example, I had to give the social security number of the main account holder, my father in law, in order to activate the phone, and his credit card had to be used to buy the phone. But even aside from AT&T issues, there were many quirks such as:

  • notification center settings not being accessible until you open and close an Apple app then reboot the phone
  • having to wait 3 days before being permitted to buy AppleCare+
  • struggling with iTunes (on Windows) to get apps from my iPod touch onto the iPhone . . .

The list goes on and on and it was about a week before I felt comfortable using the phone.

Both iPhone and Blackberry phones have nice setup wizards you go through when first setting up the phone (though iPhone requires you to make complicated choices around syncing and setting up iCloud). But once past the Wizard, Blackberries are ready to use. Not so with the iPhone 4s, though maybe it will get easier over time as the kinks get worked out of iOS 5.

Battery Life: I rarely used even half the battery of a Blackberry on any given day. With the iPhone 4s, I usually have to charge mid day just to make it to dinner (update: 8 months later I discussed several good reasons why I keep my iPhone plugged in most of the time). For the iPhone 4s battery, Apple claims 8 hours of 3G talk time, 200 hours of standby time, 6 hours of 3G Internet time, or 9 hours of WiFi. I get roughly half of that. When I use the camera to take pictures or video, the battery drains especially quickly. And I can drain it in an hour when using Waze to navigate using GPS. I’ve learned to plug my phone into a charger several times a day. Apple has been hard at work fixing iOS bugs related to battery life so hopefully this improves over time.

Data: I haven’t done any formal testing but I am clearly seeing that the iPhone 4s uses more data for the same tasks than Blackberry. How much more? My overall data use has more than doubled despite using the phone for roughly the same activites. I’ve also noticed that the occasional buggy app can consume several MB of data per minute, something that never happened on a Blackberry. With a little self-control and sometimes turning off 3G data, it looks like I’ll be using 100MB to 150MB of data per month.

Speed: It’s not just that iPhone has a faster browser and faster apps. Everything is faster. The camera comes up faster. Initial Cellular and WiFi connections happen faster. Heavy data transfers happen faster. It reboots faster. It even crashes faster—a crash usually takes less than a second as an app suddenly closes (and this happens quite a bit, especially the settings app). It’s so much faster that I spend less time using the iPhone than I did the Blackberry. Part of this is because I simply get my tasks done faster, and part of this is due to lock screen notifications as I discussed above.

Hand Feel: I love the hand feel of the Blackberry 9700. It’s light, grippy, and fits easily in my hand. It is curved in such a way that I can hold it for hours without any sense of hand fatigue. The iPhone 4s on the other hand is heavy, angular, and slippery. It is made heavier by the case (most people feel a case purchase is required in order to protect the glass). I’ve tried using it both with and without a case and I eventually gave up on the case because it was just too heavy for me. However, the iPhone is a bit uncomfortable to hold as the edges cut into my hands. I would be much happier with the iPhone 4s hardware if the edges and back were like a Blackberry Bold 9700 – curved and grippy.

Auto brightness: This will sound like a nit pick but Auto Brightness on my iPhone 4s doesn’t do the job. Yes it does cause the phone to dim slightly in the dark but it doesn’t dim it nearly enough. The end result is that I manually adjust the brightness several times per day. The auto brightness drop with the Blackberry was much more pronounced, so the only time I needed to fiddle with brightness settings was when outdoors on a very sunny day.

Siri: There was a time 10 years ago, when I stupidly tried the Palm-based Kyocera 6035 smartphone. It was awful, and I vowed to never again use a smartphone unless it had a great voice control system. I broke that vow when I got my first Blackberry in 2008, but I got it because I needed a phone with great voice quality and only gradually came to use the smartphone features. What I was most hoping for from Siri was a good replacement for Blackberry’s great keyboard-based phone and messaging functions, such as speed dial, contact lookup, and dashing off a quick e-mail. Siri is indeed a good replacement. For example, to call my wife I just hold the home button for a couple seconds, then say, “call my wife at home” without even going past the lock screen.

But Siri is only a good keyboard replacement when it actually works. Siri has speed issues, inconsistent availability, inconsistent activation with the hold to ear method, imperfect voice recognition, and it frequently cuts my dictation short. This last point ironically means that voice dictation was easier on the Blackberry (using the Dragon Naturally Speaking app). Siri also can’t remember any relationships beyond my wife because my Google contacts sync through exchange instead of natively with Apple iCloud.

I assume most of these issues will get fixed at some point (Siri is in beta after all). And I’m confident that Siri and other voice assistant software will eventually render keyboard advantages obsolete in mobile devices. Siri already seems to be working somewhat better for me in December than it did in November. But for now, Siri doesn’t come close to making up for the lack of keyboard shortcuts. For it to be an adequate keyboard substitute, I need it to work at least 99.9% of the time.

Conclusion

I don’t have regrets about switching to the iPhone 4s. My Blackberry 9700 clearly used data more efficiently, had a longer lasting battery, had a better hand feel, managed auto brightness better, had extra notification options, and had an overall superior voice calling experience. But the iPhone 4s has been better for me in every other way. With camera and pocket computer performance, the iPhone 4s is so far ahead of my Blackberry 9700 that there’s no point comparing them.

Do I miss anything about my Blackberry? Yes, I miss the better overall voice call experience. But that’s it. The other Blackberry advantages aren’t important to me.

So I’m using an iPhone 4s and loving it. And it’s not just because of the better pocket computing experience, the better apps, the better camera, the great user interface, and the blazing fast hardware and software. It’s the overall experience of adding functionality without distraction.

As Mr. FilterJoe, I think and care a lot about distraction. Smartphones have traditionally been very distracting with all of their interruptions and temptations. Blackberries have an extra layer of distraction due to frequent phone reboots, painful upgrades, and other maintenance tasks.

The bottom line is that I’m finding the iPhone to be far less distracting than the Blackberry. The key is that iOS 5 allows you to do so much from the lock screen, including instant camera access, phone calls, and customizable notifications such as email. So I don’t often need to type in my pass code and enter distraction world. But when I do enter, the phone does everything so fast that I’m usually quickly done. I spend much less time per day using the iPhone despite getting much more done, as compared with my Blackberry 9700. The flagship Blackberry 9900 device I considered would have been a big speed increase over my two-year old 9700 but from all reports it still would have been slower than an iPhone 4s and it lacks lock screen functionality.

My advice to anyone thinking about the switch: You may want to stick with a Blackberry if you have a communication intensive life such as that of a broker or real estate agent that includes lots of voice calls. Or maybe you care more about landline-like phone quality even without a communication-intensive profession. For the rest of us, the iPhone 4s is faster, better, and less disruptive, and therefore preferable to Blackberries as the thing you always carry in your pocket.

Author: Joe Golton

I’m a dad with a son who loves baseball. Professionally, I’ve been a software developer, investor, controller, and logistics manager. I now make my living from this blog, supplemented with occasional consulting gigs.

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