iPhone 4S soars with Siri

The beefier hardware is welcome, but the star of the show is the voice-controlled Siri personal assistant

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Another big deal in iOS 5 is its enhanced AirPlay support. You can now send your screen image and audio to an HDMI-connectable presentation device attached to a $99 Apple TV, as long as the iOS device and the Apple TV are in the same wireless network. And you can use a VGA or HDMI cable for a direct connection. With the iPhone 4S (as with the iPad 2), you can mirror the entire screen as well. Thus, it's very easy to give presentations from an iPhone 4S. Too bad you can't use a Bluetooth keyboard with the iPhone 4S -- with such keyboard support and the exisitng screen mirroring, you could use the 4S as a computer in a pinch.

Siri. Available only in the iPhone 4S and officially labeled beta software, the Siri voice-controlled personal assistant is an amazing technology. To use it, you need a network connection, as your speech is digitized and sent to Apple's servers for speech recognition -- you'll get faster response when on a Wi-Fi network. What's so great about Siri is that it is available throughout the iPhone 4S. By contrast, Android 4 limits voice commands and transcription to specific apps, such as navigation for speaking destinations, Browser for speaking Google search terms, and in any app that has a text field. And note the word "transcription" -- you dictate text to Android; you speak to Siri on the iPhone 4S.

Tap and hold the Home button to invoke Siri, or just raise the iPhone 4S to your face as if you were on a call. Speak your command or inquiry, and wait for Siri to respond. In apps with text fields, you can have Siri take dictation by tapping the microphone icon button on the keyboard (Android uses the same method for its transcription). I was amazed at how accurate Siri's voice recognition is, even with multiple people speaking and with background noise such as the radio playing. It's far better than Android's speech recognition, especially when it comes to dictation.

When used as a personal assistant, Siri does a good job of handling queries such as "What's my next appointment?" and "What are the directions to 501 Second Street?" With such basic queries, Siri figures out the context (such as the city you're in), looks up the information, and replies. Siri also asks you for context when it needs it, so the first time you say, "Call my mother," it asks for your mother's name to associate "mother" with a specific person in the future. It also shows you what it heard so that you can correct it as part of ongoing speech-recognition training. You can also use it to send emails, take notes, and add items to the Reminders task list. In these cases, you do need to use certain trigger phrases, such as "Send an email," "Take a note," and "Add a reminder" -- other forms of such commands are interpreted as Web search requests.

When searching the Web, Siri tends to favor shopping results when it doesn't really understand the question. For example, when I asked if I had enough cat food in the house, it responded with an offer to list nearby pet stores. It could figure out that the question was related to pets, but as it has no way of knowing what my cat food inventory is so defaulted to a list of providers, as it did with similar requests that required information Siri would have no access to.

Siri, of course, can also be used as a game, to see if you can fool it or elicit funny responses. (When asked what the meaning of life was, Siri told me, "I don't know, but I'm sure there's an app for that.")

Siri is not quite the "Star Trek" computer voiced by Majel ("Nurse Chapel") Roddenberry, but it's sometimes amazingly close, and it gets better the more you use it. It truly is amazing -- and useful.

App management. As you install apps, iOS simply adds them to your home screen, appending more home screens as needed, up to 11. iOS also lets you add Web pages to the home screens as if they were apps -- great for the many mobile Web pages that are essentially Web apps, such as m.infoworld.com, InfoWorld's mobile site.

You can move apps to new locations by tapping and holding an app until the icons wiggle, then just drag it to the desired location. The first home screen is reserved for Apple's apps, so new apps aren't added to it, though you can move apps -- including Apple's -- to and from that first screen as desired. iOS also lets you create app folders (just drag an app onto another one to create a group), which can be useful to reduce scrolling among home pages. Unfortunately, the folder icons are still too small to make out, so knowing what's in a folder is not always easy.

iOS alerts you to app updates by using a badge on the App Store app's icon, indicating how many updates are available. You can download them wirelessly, or sync them from iTunes. iOS also lets you manage apps -- including their home screen arrangement -- and update them via iTunes, in addition to from the iPhone itself. iOS 5 adds the ability to update the operating system itself wirelessly, as well as to set up a new or reformatted iOS device without a computer (you need a Wi-Fi network available, though).

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