iPhone 4S soars with Siri

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

What can you say about the iPhone 4S, the most written-about smartphone ever? Well, I can say it's a really good smartphone that continues to best the competition in so many areas. At first glance, the iPhone 4S appears to be a modest upgrade to the iPhone 4, with a faster processor and higher-quality camera. It's nice, but nothing stunning.

Until you start using Siri, that is. The voice-based "intelligent" assistant is simply amazing to use. It does dictation in any app with a keyboard, and it can handle many spoken commands across multiple apps and Web services, asking for clarification in some cases. There's simply nothing like it out there; even Google's longtime voice recognition in Android doesn't hold a candle. It's technology like Siri that you didn't expect, didn't expect you'd really care about, and end up really liking that explains Apple's continued success with the iPhone and most of its other products -- and why the iPhone 4S remains the mobile champ. (More on Siri later.)

[ See iOS 5's and iCloud's new features in "iOS 5 and iCloud: The InfoWorld visual tour." | InfoWorld picks the best iPad office apps, the best iPad specialty apps, the best iPhone office apps, and the best iPhone specialty apps. | Learn how to manage iPhones, Androids, BlackBerrys, and other smartphones in InfoWorld's 29-page BYOD and Mobile Deep Dive PDF special report. ]

The iPhone 4S comes in several versions, with choices of black and white bezels and storage capacities of 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB. Available from AT&T Wireless, Sprint, and Verizon Wireless, these models cost $649, $749, and $849, respectively, without a contract, and $199, $299, and $399 with a two-year contract. Apple also sells an unlocked model that can be used on any GSM network; it's intended for international travelers who swap SIMs in and out as they move among countries.

You can't tell an iPhone 4S from an iPhone 4, as they look identical. Apple claims the iPhone 4S weighs 3 grams less than the iPhone 4; I'll take the company's word for that tiny difference. Inside, though, there are several changes. One is the use of an 800MHz dual-core ARM-based Apple A5 processor rather than the previous 800MHz single-core A4. The result is that everything feels faster, smoother, and more responsive, from Web browsing to application switching.

A second difference is that the Verizon and Sprint models are now "worldphones," meaning they can work on GSM networks overseas in addition to these carriers' CDMA networks. However, you have to make prior arrangements with Verizon or Sprint to roam overseas on GSM networks, and you're limited to using their overseas carrier partners, which is very expensive. AT&T, which uses the GSM technology in the United States, similarly partners with carriers overseas. If you get an iPhone 4S from a U.S. carrier, you can't just swap out the SIM as you can with Apple's unlocked models.

The third big change is that the graphics system now allows screen mirroring via a dock-to-video cable (HDMI or VGA), so you're no longer restricted to just those applications such as Keynote, Videos, and YouTube that have video-out support built in. You can now display anything and everything on the big screen, just as you can with an iPad 2.

The final big change to the iPhone 4S's hardware is its rear camera, which has been bumped from 5 megapixels to 8 and includes support for 1080p video capture, better optics in low-light situations, and electronic enhancements for image stabilization when shooting video. It's darn close to a pocket digital camera in quality, though I wish it had image stabilization when taking still photos.

Where the iPhone 4S feels behind is its screen size. The 3.5-inch screen is cramped, especially compared to the 4.3-inch screens that are becoming widely available in competing mobile platforms. A larger screen really should be part of the next-generation iPhone.

Except for the Siri service, the rest of what the iPhone 4S offers are the stock capabilities from iOS 5, which are also available to the iPhone 4 and, to a lesser extent, the iPhone 3G S.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Business connectivity (20.0%)
Web and Internet support (20.0%)
Security and management (20.0%)
Hardware (10.0%)
Application support (15.0%)
Usability (15.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Apple iPhone 4S 8.0 9.0 8.0 9.0 10.0 9.0 8.8
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