Review: Apple iPhone 4S (16GB/32GB/64GB)
Pros: An improved version of last year’s museum-quality iPhone 4, featuring considerably improved camera and processing hardware, as well as impressive new voice recognition software. Retains the impressive 960x640 Retina Display, FaceTime video calling capabilities, and 802.11n Wi-Fi features of earlier iPhone 4 models while adding dual-mode GSM/CDMA hardware, a Bluetooth 4 chip, and fixing prior antenna performance. Noticeably faster at displaying web pages and running apps, with considerable improvements in game graphics and video output; 1080p wired and 720p AirPlay wireless screen mirroring are now options. Available in two attractive color schemes, now with three different storage capacities. Reasonably priced given the technology inside.
Cons: Smudge, scratch, and shatter issues continue to await users who avoid cases. Lowest capacity version remains cramped, particularly given 1080p video recording capabilities of new rear camera. Cellular and battery performance varies between carriers, with particularly noteworthy issues during use of Sprint’s 3G network. Siri voice system depends upon active Internet connection and localized country support, both initially at least a little shaky. Carrier policies on foreign SIM card use remain ambiguous.
Previously known as iPhone OS, Apple’s iOS is the operating system at the heart of all iPhones, iPod touches, and iPads—the pioneering multi-touch tapping and gesturing interface, complete with Home Screens and “app” icons that even toddlers have been able to figure out. We’ve exhaustively discussed the latest iOS 5.0 release in our Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iOS 5.0 article, so if you want all the little details, you can find them there. From a user experience standpoint, the iPhone 4S is nearly identical to the iPhone 4 with iOS 5, so what follows is only an abbreviated summary of where Apple’s mobile operating system stands today.
Thanks to iOS 5, it’s now possible to open an iPhone 4S and begin to use it without ever connecting it to a PC or Mac, a feature Apple has called PC-Free setup. While Apple’s Mac and PC program iTunes remains a viable and fast way to activate the iPhone 4S and fill it with music, videos, photos, and software, it’s no longer a mandatory part of that process; you can now rely completely upon Apple’s iCloud servers for everything from e-mail to backups to storage of your contacts, documents, music, TV shows, and apps. As long as you have an Internet connection and Apple’s servers are working, it all just works.
Like the iPhone 4, the iPhone 4S is based upon “apps”—small programs that work together to do various things—and there are now quite a few of them pre-installed on a freshly activated device. In addition to 25 different icons spread out across two initial Home Screens, you can now swipe down from the top of the screen to reach an additional feature called Notifications Center, swipe to the left of the main Home Screen to find the Spotlight search feature, and double-click on the Home Button to access a swipable bar with additional features, including the aforementioned wireless audio-video-photo-sharing feature AirPlay and a screen orientation locking feature. iPhone 4S has the same 960x640-resolution Retina Display screen and impressive off-center viewing angles as the iPhone 4, which combines with software tweaks to make apps, photos, and videos look considerably more detailed than the earlier iPhone 3GS when viewed up close. Our test iPhone 4S units’ screens had an ever-so-slight yellower tint than our iPhone 4 units, but Apple now sources screens from multiple companies for its devices, and this will likely vary between production runs.
Following both the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4, the iPhone 4S includes core applications for phone calling, e-mailing, web browsing, and media playback, plus separate media and app stores, instant messaging, photo, video, and voice recorders, mapping, stock and weather tracking, calendar and contacts management, and even clocks, a calculator, a compass, a notepad, and a reminder system. There’s an app to manage online gaming, an app to browse YouTube videos, and even an all but secret app—hold down the Home Button for two seconds—that has let the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4 make calls and play music by recognizing your voice. iOS 5 now does so much that there’s actually a need to remind people of all of its capabilities, and with over 500,000 additional apps in the App Store, those capabilities are almost limitless.
There’s one key difference between the iPhone 4S and its predecessors: “Siri,” the product of Apple’s purchase of a third-party developer and iOS app of the same name. Designed as a “personal assistant,” Siri uses speech recognition technology to listen to your voice, figure out what you’ve said, and respond back with the information you’ve requested. The original App Store version of Siri could look up restaurants, movies, events, local points of interest, and weather, call you a taxi, send out dictated tweets on Twitter, and check flight status. Its interface consisted of speech bubbles and dialogue boxes on a white background, with clunky push to talk and push to stop talking buttons. Apple discontinued support for Siri just in time for the iPhone 4S’s release, and hasn’t said whether it will re-release it for other iOS devices, though hacks and the original app have obviously proved that it’s possible.
While its soul is very similar on the iPhone 4S, Apple has given Siri a major audiovisual overhaul, and expanded its voice recognition capabilities. Siri now pops up automatically against a handsome dark gray linen background when you hold down the Home Button for two seconds, appearing as a swirled metal microphone button. The button’s center glows purple when it’s listening to your voice, then automatically processes what you’ve said when you stop talking, using an animated glowing ring to indicate that it’s working. Then Siri puts text and graphics on the screen for you—both handsomely illustrated, including some new iPhone UI elements that we hope will carry over to iOS 6—while using text-to-speech to say the words aloud. Siri can also activate automatically whenever you hold the phone up to your face without making a call; this feature and Siri itself can be turned off in the iPhone 4S’s settings.
Once Siri is activated, you’ll hear the same chime that was previously used for Voice Control, and see a text prompt: “What can I help you with?” Tapping on an “i” icon to the right will bring up a list of the new things Siri can do, including integration with most of the core iOS 5 applications, plus Safari web searches and Wolfram Alpha data and calculation lookups. Some of the old Siri features are missing—Twitter support and flight status among them—and Siri’s support for foreign languages is extremely limited at the moment. Apple is calling the software “beta” for the time being, and promises to expand its capabilities considerably in 2012.
For the time being, if you’re in a country and speaking a language/dialect supported by Siri, the experience ranges from “pretty good” to “impressive.” It’s compelling enough to see Siri correctly interpreting simple commands such as “tell me what movies are currently playing around here,” “how do I get home?” or “play All Together Now,” then properly providing on-screen information or accessing your iPhone 4S’s media content. Some of this was possible in the prior iOS app, and it works at least as well now that it’s built into the iPhone 4S. But then there’s a second wow level, which comes when you say “send a text message to my wife” and Siri already knows who your spouse is from your contact information—if it doesn’t, it recognizes the word “wife” or “husband,” then asks you to identify the person so that it can remember her or him for next time. There are innumerable examples of this sort of smart artificial intelligence at work and in play, including scripted responses to joke questions that might be asked of a computerized assistant, each amusing at least once or twice as a party trick.
Siri isn’t perfect, and its integration with iOS 5 isn’t complete: for instance, saying “listen to my voicemail” brings up the response, “I couldn’t find voice mail in your music,” or “I can’t help you with voicemail.” There are times when you ask Siri to retrieve information from the Internet and it fails either modestly or dramatically, and other times when it surprises you by pulling correct (or rarely incorrect) information from WolframAlpha, Yelp, or Safari-based resources.
Siri radically reduces the need for standalone calculator applications by handling spoken math problems, and for other apps that otherwise required typing. You can ask it to find a place on a map or provide directions to a destination from your current location, and it just works—in our testing, almost always accurately on the first try.
Then there’s the third wow factor: dictation. Full voice dictation has been integrated into Siri, so that you can actually speak the message you’re sending; alternately, you can find a tiny microphone key off to the bottom left of the iPhone 4S’s space bar. Tapping this key replaces the keyboard with a gray box, a purple microphone, and a Done button. After a chime, you can speak, hit the done button to indicate that you’re finished, and watch as whatever you’ve said is transformed into on-screen dictation.
The point at which Siri goes from “cool trick” to “next big deal” will likely hit you at either the second or third “wow” point above. When you try the dictation feature and see that virtually every word has been transcribed correctly, with only modest needs for editing and correction, you begin to realize that you could actually compose entire essays by just speaking to the iPhone 4S. We dictated entire paragraphs worth of text to Apple’s built-in app Notes and word processing application Pages, and the biggest thing that was missing was punctuation. (Note that if you speak the words “period,” “comma,” or “smiley face,” they’ll be added into the document.) With the right app—and we’re sure such a thing is coming—a person could create a text and video blog merely by recording videos and letting the iPhone 4S process the speech. Siri’s not quite there yet, but the possibilities are tantalizing, and for now, sending nearly edit-free iMessages and dictating text without punctuations feels like a big step forward.
There’s only one major caveat here: Siri is completely dependent upon an active Internet connection to Apple’s servers. If you don’t have an Internet connection, or if Apple’s servers are having problems, Siri’s a non-starter. And it’s hard to know how much of an issue this is going to be in the future. By the end of the first night the iPhone 4S was publicly available, Siri just stopped working, a problem that popped up again on its second night—during these outages, each attempt to ask a question was met with a “can’t reach the server” response. While Apple was wise to slap the “beta” tag on Siri, the company doesn’t have a history of releasing half-baked products that stop working so quickly—except when those products are dependent on Internet services, in which case its track record of outages is unfortunately quite spotty. It remains to be seen whether Apple will properly scale its servers to handle the influx of Siri traffic it will be receiving, and how much users strain the servers by leaning heavily upon it. Additionally, some of Siri’s services have been discovered to be country-specific, including map and restaurant searches, limiting the value of the feature for some users outside the United States.
It’s worth noting again that Siri can be disabled, and probably should be if all that you need is simple phone dialing or media playback assistance, particularly if you can’t rely upon an active Internet connection. Voice Control is capable of handling these things offline, and continues to work well. Most users who buy the iPhone 4S and are capable of using Siri in their countries will want to do so, however, and as the average query only demands around 50 Kilobytes of data, it’s not going to kill anyone’s limited data plans, either.