Let’s face it: If you just laid out $200 to upgrade from the iPhone 4 to the 4S, you need something to show off to your friends other bragging about a “dual-core processor.” That’s where Siri comes in.
Perhaps the most novel and visibly cool feature of the iPhone 4S, Siri acts as a “virtual personal assistant,” allowing to you to control your phone through voice commands. If you’re thinking back to existing voice control systems that let you dial a number by saying someone’s name, or even the voice integration on Android that will transcribe your words into text messages, this is a bit more sophisticated.
Siri can play songs from your library, set meetings, alarms and appointments, find directions, transcribe emails, find stock quotes, scribble down notes, search the Web, and even unearth rudimentary facts like the population of Sweden. Imagine driving down the road and handing off your phone to a passenger to look something up. That’s pretty much Siri’s job in a nutshell.
More impressive than what it can do is how it does it: You can actually talk to Siri like a person because it understands natural language. Rather than remembering rigid commands like “Tell me the weather,” you can ask any number of more natural ways. “Is it raining?” “How cold is it outside?” “What’s the weather?” “Do I need an umbrella?”
As long as you understand what Siri can and can’t do, it does an excellent job parsing related requests, and it’s ability to transcribe voice commands is perhaps some of the most accurate we’ve seen, even with a little background noise. Fast-fingered whippersnappers can likely outperform Siri’s speed because of the “think” time from command to execution, but we envision Siri opening the world of smartphones to less tech-savvy users who can’t already jam text in at lightning speed.
That said, it’s still a ways from the soothing voice of the Starship Enterprise computer that seemed to perfectly understand Captain Picard’s every command in Star Trek, and know just what to do. Asking “What else can I say?” instead of “What can I say?” inexplicably trips Siri up. Sometimes it leads things in the wrong direction: Asking how much an Xbox 360 costs prompts it to list nearby toy stores, rather than offering to search the Web. Sometimes you just reach the limits of what it can do, like when you tell Siri you need a flight to Tokyo. “Sorry, Nick, I can’t help you with flights.” Don’t worry, though, Siri is more than happy to direct you to Apple.com if you ask about a MacBook Pro.
Apple didn’t make much of the HSPA+ capabilities in the iPhone 4S at launch, and unlike many Android competitors on AT&T, was too sheepish to even label it 4G. Surprising, considering HSPA+ may be the biggest improvement over the previous model.
Maybe Apple decided to leave it alone because even bringing up iPhone 4 speeds on AT&T to compare to would have been an embarrassment. In a series of network tests conducted indoors and out in downtown Portland, we weren’t able to get the old dog past 0.3Mbps. Meanwhile, the iPhone 4S returned 0.4Mbps as its slowest result, and actually managed to hit 3.0Mbps at times, averaging somewhere around 1.0Mbps. The new model at its very worst, in other words, outperformed the old model at its very best.
Of course, it’s worth noting that none of the speeds we measured came anywhere near the 14.4Mbps theoretical peak for the technology, and even that unattainable summit looks low beside Verizon’s 4G LTE tech. The Droid Bionic, for instance, consistently delivered between 18Mbps and 22Mbps, making the iPhone 4S look like a meat wagon next to an Indy car.
Reception on the iPhone 4S seemed to match the iPhone 4 wherever we carried it, though we never got a chance to test in the most remote areas where Apple’s new antenna-switching tech would likely benefit the 4S. Unless you were one of the few who experienced dropout issues with the iPhone 4, don’t expect to see much of a difference with the new device. Call clarity, likewise, was identical.
Despite increasing in speed for this year and keeping the battery the same physical size, the iPhone 4S actually has better battery life than the iPhone 4. Apple advertises eight hours of talk time (up from seven), 200 hours of standby, six hours of 3G Internet use, and 10 hours of Wi-Fi Internet use (up from nine). Realistically, it’s a small boost and not one that’s likely to break the iPhone from the need for a nightly charge, but welcome nonetheless.
After all the rumors, speculation and outright fanboy fantasies preceding the launch of the mythical “iPhone 5,” it’s easy to see what ended up being called the iPhone 4S as a disappointment. No LTE. No bigger screen. No slimmer shape. But if taking one of the best-selling smartphones ever and adding new features is a disappointment, maybe that bar was a little too high to begin with. The iPhone 4S adds a number of useful features to its capable predecessor, including a much-needed speed boost and the uniquely intuitive Siri voice assistant. While we have a hard time recommending an upgrade for current iPhone 4 users, the new additions prevent the iPhone from becoming antiquated in a quickly churning smartphone market, and maintain its position as the smartphone of choice for nongeeks.
- Ultra-capable camera
- Siri voice assistant is handy, novel
- HSPA+ delivers speed boost
- Same gorgeous Retina display
- Solid, attractive design
- Still nowhere near 4G LTE speeds
- No expandable storage, replaceable battery
- Fragile glass back necessitates case