Apple’s iPhone 4S: So-so Hardware, Siri Looks Interesting.

The technology blogosphere has been rampant with speculation about what the next iPhone would be for the last couple months, as it usually is in the ramp up to Apple’s yearly iPhone event. The big question on everyone’s lips has been whether we’d see an iPhone 5 (a generational leap) or something more like a 4S (an incremental improvement on last year’s model). Mere hours ago Apple announced the latest addition to its smart phone line up: the iPhone 4S. Like the 3GS was to the 3G the iPhone 4S is definitely a step up from its predecessor but it retains the same look and feel, leaving the next evolution in the iPhone space to come next year.

If you compared the 4 and the 4S side by side you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between them, since both of them sport the same screen. The difference you’d be able to pick up on is the redesigned antenna which has been done to avoid another antennagate fiasco. The major differences are on the inside with the iPhone 4S sporting a new dual-core A5 processor, 8 megapixel camera capable of 1080p video, and a combined quadband GSM and CDMA radio. Spec wise the iPhone 4S is a definite leap up from the 4, but how does it compare to other handsets that are already available?

My Samsung Galaxy S2 for instance has nearly all the same features as the iPhone 4S and it’s been available for a good 5 months. Except for the screen (which is smaller, but higher resolution) everything on the S2 either matches or exceeds the iPhone 4S and indeed so do a couple other flagship phones. This is typical of Apple however as their development cycles focus much more heavily on the end user experience than the hardware, leaving them to be months behind technologically but quite far ahead in terms of user experience. The hardware isn’t the interesting part of the iPhone 4S release however, that belongs to a little program called Siri.

Siri is a personal digital assistant which is based around interpreting natural language. At it’s heart Siri is a voice command and dictation engine, being able to translate human speech into actions on the iPhone 4S. From the demos I’ve seen on the site it’s capabilities are quite high and varied, being able to do rudimentary things like setting appointments to searching around you for restaurants and sorting them by rating. Unlike other features which have been reto-fitted onto the previous generation Siri will not be making an appearance on anything less than the iPhone 4S thanks to the intensive processing requirements. It’s definitely an impressive feature, but I’m sceptical as to whether this will be the killer app to drive people to upgrade.

Now I was doubtful of how good the voice recognition could really be, I mean if YouTube’s transcribe audio to captions service is anything to go by voice recognition done right is still in the realms of black magic and sorcery. Still there are reports that it works exactly as advertised so Apple might have been able to get it right enough that it passes as usable. The utility of talking into your phone to get it to do something remains in question however as whilst voice commands are always a neat feature to show off for a bit I’ve never met anyone who’s used them consistently. My wife does her darnedest to use the voice command whenever she can but 9 times out of 10 she wastes more time getting it to do the right thing than she would have otherwise. Siri’s voice recognition might be the first step towards making this work, but I’ll believe it when you can use it when in a moving car or when someone else is talking in the room.

Will I be swapping out my S2 for an iPhone 4s? Nope, there’s just nothing compelling enough for me to make the switch although I could see myself being talked into upgrading the wife’s aging 3GS for this newer model. In fact I’d say 3GS and below owners would be the only ones with a truly compelling reason to upgrade unless the idea of talking at your phone is just too good to pass up. So overall I’d say my impression of the 4S is mixed, but that’s really no different from my usual reaction to Apple product launches. 

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