Oct 132011
 
iPhone 4S

Image by tenz1225 via Flickr

What’s in a name?

A lot, apparently. Apple’s new iPhone is called the iPhone 4S. But what people really wanted was the iPhone 5.

The rumors online had predicted the second coming — or, rather, the fifth coming. It would be wedge-shaped! It would be completely transparent! It would clean your basement, pick you up at the airport and eliminate unsightly blemishes!

Instead, what showed up was a new iPhone that looks just like the last one: black or white, glass front and back, silver metal band around the sides. And on paper, at least, the new phone does only four new things.

THING 1: There’s a faster chip, the same one that’s in the iPad 2. More speed is always better, of course. But it’s not like people were complaining about the previous iPhone’s speed.

THING 2: A much better, faster camera — among the best on a phone. It has a resolution of eight megapixels, which doesn’t matter much, and a new, more light-sensitive sensor, which does. Its photos are crisp and clear, with beautiful color. The low-light photos and 1080p high-definition video are especially impressive for a phone. There’s still no zoom and only a tiny LED flash — but otherwise, this phone comes dangerously close to displacing a $200 point-and-shoot digital camera.

THING 3: The iPhone 4S is a world phone. As of Friday, you will be able to buy it from AT&T, Verizon and, for the first time, Sprint ($200, $300 or $400 for the 16-, 32- or 64-gigabyte models). But even if you get your iPhone 4S from Verizon, whose CDMA network is incompatible with the GSM networks used in most other countries, you’ll still be able to make calls overseas, either through Verizon or by inserting another carrier’s SIM card. Call ahead for details.

Each carrier has its selling points. Sprint is the only one with an unlimited iPhone data plan (example: $110 a month for unlimited calling, texting and Internet). AT&T says it has the fastest download speeds. But if you care about calling coverage, Verizon is the way to go.

THING 4: Speech recognition. Crazy good, transformative, category-redefining speech recognition.

Exactly as on Android phones, a tiny microphone button appears on the on-screen keyboard; whenever you have an Internet connection, you can tap it when you want to dictate instead of typing. After a moment, the transcription appears. The sometimes frustrating on-screen keyboard is now a glorified Plan B.

Apple won’t admit that it’s using a version of Dragon Dictation, the free iPhone app, but there doesn’t seem to be much doubt; it works and behaves identically. (For example, it occasionally seems to process your utterance but then types nothing at all, just as the Dragon app does.) This version is infinitely better, though, because it’s a built-in keyboard button, not a separate app.

But dictation is only half the story — no, one-tenth of the story. Because in 2010, Apple bought a start-up called Siri, whose technology it has baked into the iPhone 4S.

Siri is billed as a virtual assistant: a crisply accurate, astonishingly understanding, uncomplaining, voice-commanded minion. No voice training or special syntax is required; you don’t even have to hold the phone up to your head. You just hold down the phone’s Home button until you hear a double beep, and then speak casually.

You can say, “Wake me up at 7:35,” or “Change my 7:35 alarm to 8.” You can say, “What’s Gary’s work number?” Or, “How do I get to the airport?” Or, “Any good Thai restaurants around here?” Or, “Make a note to rent ‘Ishtar’ this weekend.” Or, “How many days until Valentine’s Day?” Or, “Play some Beatles.” Or, “When was Abraham Lincoln born?”

In each case, Siri thinks for a few seconds, displays a beautifully formatted response and speaks in a calm female voice.

It’s mind-blowing how inexact your utterances can be. Siri understands everything from, “What’s the weather going to be like in Tucson this weekend?” to “Will I need an umbrella tonight?” (She has various amusing responses for “What is the meaning of life?”)

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