- Siri is the reason people should buy the iPhone 4S, reviewer says
- Siri is a voice-recognition software Apple inherited from acquiring Siri Inc.
- A voice-controlled user interface is the next logical step in mobile phones
Apple never specified what the "S" stands for in iPhone 4S, and it may as well stand for Siri.
Sure, the fifth-generation iPhone's superb camera and speedy dual-core processor are classy additions. But Siri is the reason people should buy this phone.
When I step out of my apartment today, a reminder will pop up on my iPhone 4S to deposit checks at the bank. Tonight I'm meeting my friend Peter, who wants to eat steak, so I can say, "I want prime rib" to find steakhouses nearby. I have a meeting with a colleague Alexis this Thursday, and I can add that in my calendar just by saying, "Schedule meeting with Alexis on Thursday at 3 p.m."
I did all of this with the iPhone 4S's new built-in app Siri, a voice-recognition technology that Apple inherited when it acquired Siri Inc., a San Jose-based startup, in 2010. The enhanced voice tool is an iteration on Apple's previous Voice Control feature that debuted in the iPhone 3GS in 2009, which only allowed voice-powered phone dialing and music selection.
To give you an idea of how convenient Siri is, it takes about three seconds to create a reminder with a voice command, as opposed to the 10 seconds it takes me to manually type an event into a to-do list or calendar entry. Before, with the standard iPhone calendar, I would often forget to add an event because I was too busy to type it, and as a result I would forget I had something scheduled altogether. With Siri and Apple's new Reminders to-do list app, it's unlikely I'll forget anything important again because the process is so effortless.
It's kind of like having the unpaid intern of my dreams at my beck and call, organizing my life for me. I think Siri on the iPhone is a life changer, and this is only the beginning.
Voice-powered artificial intelligence like Siri and Google Voice are shaping up to become the next-generation user interface. The first iPhone's introduction of capacitive touchscreens were a major leap into making technology fluent to people of all ages and skill levels. The sense of touch is one of the first experiences we become accustomed to after we're born, so it wasn't surprising to see that even children and our grandparents could pick up an iPhone or an iPad and figure out how to use it in seconds. Swiping, tapping and pinching interactive objects on a screen? No problem.
Voice-controlled UI is the logical next step. We learn how to speak when we're infants, and most of us can talk faster than we type. Therefore, as the technology matures, voice commands will become the quickest way to get in and out of our phones (until Apple or Google figure out mobile telekinesis).
Just imagine what powerful voice-recognition software means for people who barely touch keyboards or mice. And imagine how important this tool is for the visually impaired -- their lives are about to get much easier. In the coming years, voice control is going to be huge.
Currently Siri works with some core features of the iPhone, and Apple's initial partners incorporating the voice-powered AI are Wolfram Alpha and Yelp. That means in its beta state, Siri is limited to controlling the iPhone's built-in apps (e-mail, SMS, phone, iPod, calendar, web search, looking up directions), finding restaurants or businesses with Yelp, or performing gimmicky calculations such as "How many inches to the moon?" with Wolfram Alpha.
You would think that dictating commands to a phone would look awkward in public, but Apple thought of a trick to make this less weird. By default, if you hold the iPhone up to your ear, Siri is activated, so it looks like you're talking to someone on the phone rather than talking to the phone itself. Clever, huh?
I suspect most iPhone 4S customers will primarily be using Siri for controlling the iPhone's default apps, such as creating reminders, setting the alarm clock and composing an e-mail or text message.
But if and when Apple opens up Siri to third-party app makers, the possibilities are endless. Some hypothetical examples include using Siri to pay your credit card bill through the Chase app, or to order you Chinese delivery through GrubHub, or to book your flight through the Kayak app.
Seeing as Google has already opened voice-recognition to Android programmers, it's a safe bet we'll see Apple eventually allow third-party iPhone apps to take advantage of Siri, too.
I've spent a week with an iPhone 4S loaned to me from Apple, and I got hooked on Siri quickly. Creating Reminders with Siri was the most useful. I found it silly, however, that items you create with Reminders do not show up in the Calendar app. That means if I create reminders and calendar events, I have to open two different apps to see everything I have to do. The idea of having to check two separate event organizers is silly; I'm hoping Apple integrates Reminders into Siri in a future update.
The only other problem with the iPhone 4S is that once you start using the robot assistant, you'll wish it did a lot more. It is limited, but really good at what it can do so far.
Here are some of my favorite examples from experimenting with Siri:
Me: "I'm drunk."
Siri: "I found a number of cabs fairly close to you." (Perfect; it didn't dial my ex-girlfriend.)
Me: "I have a flat tire."
Siri: "I found 14 towing services. 12 of them are fairly close to you."
Me: "Remind me to steal a ream of paper when I arrive at the office."
Siri: "Here's your reminder for when you get to work: Steal a ream of paper. Shall I create it?"
Me: "I'm going to kill myself."
Siri: "I found four mental health agencies. Three of them are fairly close to you." (This was just a test — don't be alarmed.)
And here are some examples of where Siri let me down:
Me: "Book me a table at Mission Beach Cafe tonight at 7."
Siri: "OK, here's Mission Beach Cafe. It looks pretty close to you." (No option to book the restaurant. That's disappointing because before Apple's acquisition, the older Siri app had partnered with OpenTable.com to book restaurants for you.)
Me: "Add Steve Urkel to my address book."
Siri: "Sorry, Brian X. -- I'm not allowed to create contacts." (Shucks. It still takes too long to add a new person to my address book, and the third-party app Bump for wirelessly swapping contact information is very poorly designed.)
Me: "Lower screen brightness."
Siri: "Sorry, I don't understand 'Lower screen brightness.'" (This would be really useful, because it takes too many steps to do this on the iPhone normally.)
Me: "Remind me to buy toothpaste when I arrive at Safeway."
Siri: "When would you like me to remind you?" (Turns out Siri and the Reminders app can't yet create a geo-fence for anywhere besides your office location or your home. And dammit, I forgot to buy toothpaste again when I was at Safeway yesterday.)
With all that said, the list of what Siri can already do is quite long, and this is a great start. It will be exciting to see where Apple, and presumably its army of app developers, take voice-powered AI in the years to come.
Performance, camera and dual-antennae
Oh, yeah, the iPhone 4S includes upgrades for the processor, antenna and camera, too.
The new Apple phone has the same dual-core A5 chip as the iPad 2, and the performance boost will be most noticeable when playing games, launching apps and browsing the web.
Here's a quick SunSpider benchmark comparing the iPhone 4S' browser speed with that of an iPhone 4 running iOS 5 (less is better):
iPhone 4S: 2,232.2 milliseconds
iPhone 4: 3,679.2 milliseconds
Besides browsing and playing games, the smaller parts that make up the whole iOS experience all feel faster. Everything from typing to sending a text, and from powering on the phone to taking a photo is zippier.
Apple also made several improvements to the iPhone camera. The camera sensor has a large 4.3 millimeter f/2.4 aperture lens -- which is getting close to the same size as a really good point-and-shoot camera. The bigger the aperture, the more light and clarity.
The camera resolution was upped to 8 megapixels, and not only are the number of pixels increased; more light gets into each pixel thanks to backside-illumination technology. That basically means you can take artsy photos in low-light conditions. My test shots in a dimly lit bar looked pretty good, but in dark settings, it doesn't hurt to just try shooting with the flash.
And then there's the antenna. Now that metal band surrounding the iPhone contains two antennae for your cellular services, and when you're on a call, the handset will automatically switch to the antenna that's pulling a stronger signal.
From my experience, talking on an iPhone 4S on AT&T sounds noticeably clearer than it did on past iPhones I've owned. In areas with good reception, the handset still hasn't dropped a call. And no, I haven't experienced any degraded call performance when holding the phone "the wrong way."
However, in dead zones where there is spotty AT&T coverage (pretty common here in San Francisco), the reception is still poor. There's not much a phone can fix about an overloaded network, even with a fancy dual antenna.
Though these are all nice improvements, the antenna, camera and processor upgrades are minor compared to the addition of Siri. The previous iPhone 4 already took great pictures for a phone, the antenna was OK (despite the notorious grip-of-death design flaw), and it was already plenty fast. Siri is the fancy bow on the package that makes this a sharp upgrade overall.
Should you upgrade?
For people who own an older iPhone, such as the 3GS, or for those looking to dump a creaky Android phone, the decision is obvious: The iPhone 4S will be a big jump in performance, camera quality and call clarity, and Siri will be a fat bonus.
If you're an iPhone 4 owner thinking about upgrading, you have a tougher choice to make. Thanks to the two-year contract imposed by AT&T and Verizon, you're not yet eligible to pay the $200 upgrade fee for a new phone, so you'd have to spend over $600 just to get the 4S.
I think it'd be wiser for iPhone 4 owners to wait another year for the next iPhone, which will probably be dubbed the iPhone 5 and sport a radical new design and more internal enhancements, if the pattern holds.
But be warned, iPhone 4 owners: If you try Siri for a few minutes, reaching for that credit card will seem irresistible. Try not to give in. I'm betting that some clever hackers out there in the jailbreak community will figure out how to integrate Siri into older iPhones. So if you're brave enough to tinker, I suggest waiting to see what they come up with before blowing a huge wad of cash just to have Siri.
The iPhone 4S looks exactly the same as its predecessor — but who cares? If it was shaped even slightly differently or came in a new color, people would still go nuts over the stuff that's more important anyway: the insides. And both inside and out, this is a magnificent smartphone.
The late Steve Jobs once called the computer the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds. I think of the smartphone as the rocket ship for our minds. With increasingly powerful sensors and technologies, and access to hundreds of thousands of apps enabling us to do just about anything, the iPhone keeps soaring to incredible heights and taking us to places with limitless potential. I guess that's what you have to do to create a ding in the universe.
WIRED Siri is the best androgynous unpaid intern you'll ever meet. Dual-core guts make for faster apps and a smoother interface. Camera is much-improved. Call quality gets a boost.
TIRED Siri is limited in what it can do and understand. Looks the same as the iPhone 4 -- what's up with that? A 2-year contract means you may not be eligible for the best upgrade pricing.