Tuesday, October 11, 2011
iPhone 4S conceals sheer magic
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?")
It's even more amazing how Siri's responses can actually form a conversation. Once, I tried saying, "Make an appointment with Patrick for Thursday at 3." Siri responded, "Note that you already have an all-day appointment about 'Boston Trip' for this Thursday. Shall I schedule this anyway?" Unbelievable.
Siri can perform an incredible range of tasks. She can get stock prices, weather, currency and price conversions, dictionary definitions, measurement conversions, math totals. She lets you use your voice to edit or check the Clock, Calendar, Notes and Address Book apps, the new Reminders app and the renamed Music (formerly iPod) app. She can read your new e-mail and text messages to you -- and let you respond, all by voice (big news for drivers). She uses GPS to know where you are, so you can say things like, "Remind me to pick up the dry cleaning when I leave work" -- and she'll do it.
She is not, however, as smart as "Star Trek's" computers. She draws an apologetic blank if you say things like, "How many AT&T minutes do I have left this month?" or "How do you get ketchup stains out?" And it's surprising that she doesn't interact with more of the built-in apps. It would be great if you could open an app by voice ("Open Angry Birds") instead of hunting through 11 screens, or turn on Airplane Mode by voice, or display a certain set of photos.
Apple says Siri will improve with time -- both because she adapts to you, and because Apple itself will periodically upgrade her brain.
But already, Siri saves time, fumbling and distraction, and profoundly changes the definition of "phone." I find myself using certain commands constantly, especially "Wake me at," "Call," "Send a message to," "Give me directions to," and "Remind me."
It's a shame that Siri isn't available for older iPhones. Apple says that she requires the 4S's faster processor, although before Apple bought the company, there was a Siri app that ran just fine on other models.
Most of the new software features in the 4S, however, are indeed available to older iPhones, thanks to the free iOS 5 software update.
Some of its 200 new features play Android catch-up. For example, a tidy, attractive Notification Center appears when you swipe a finger down the screen. In one place, it lists all of your missed calls, text messages received, coming appointments and other updates -- a tremendous convenience.
You can now fire up the camera right from the Lock screen, saving you a detour to the Home screen. You can now press the Volume Up button to snap a picture; it falls exactly where a real camera's shutter button would be. Basic photo-fixing tools (auto-color adjust, cropping and red-eye removal) are now built in.
If you're sending a text, photo or video to another iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch, iOS automatically uses a new, proprietary service called iMessages instead of sending a traditional text message. (It's not a separate app; it's built into the existing Messages app. These iMessages appear in blue text bubbles; regular text messages appear in green.) This new service lets you see if the recipient has read your message yet, and it can save you money; instead of counting as a cellular text message, each i-to-i message goes over the Internet and costs you nothing.
Starting Wednesday, iOS 5 will be available as a free download for the iPhone 3GS and 4, all iPads and the last two generations of the iPod Touch.
(Speaking of older models: The iPhone 4 is still for sale, for $100, and so is the iPhone 3GS -- free with a two-year contract. That ought to be catnip to people who think that a phone's price is significant next to the $2,000 two-year cost of the contract.)
The iCloud service goes live on Wednesday, too. Like its predecessor, the $100-a-year MobileMe, iCloud wirelessly, automatically synchronizes your calendar, address book and mail among your phone, tablet, Macs and PC's. But iCloud also synchronizes your photos, music, e-books, apps and TV shows among all of those gadgets -- far more reliably. And it's free.
Android phones seem to come out every Tuesday at 3:45 p.m. Apple updates iOS and the iPhone only once a year. So Apple had a lot of catching up to do, even some leapfrogging. There are some rough spots here and there; for example, every now and then the 4S's camera app gets stuck on its startup screen. And while the battery still gets you through one full day, standby time is shorter than before (200 hours versus 300). But over all, Apple has done an excellent job.
The question isn't what's in a name -- it's what's in a phone. And the answer is: "A lot of amazing technology. And some of it feels like magic."