iPhone 4S soars with Siri

The beefier hardware is welcome, but the star of the show is the voice-controlled Siri personal assistant

What can you say about the iPhone 4S, the most written-about smartphone ever? Well, I can say it's a really good smartphone that continues to best the competition in so many areas. At first glance, the iPhone 4S appears to be a modest upgrade to the iPhone 4, with a faster processor and higher-quality camera. It's nice, but nothing stunning.

Until you start using Siri, that is. The voice-based "intelligent" assistant is simply amazing to use. It does dictation in any app with a keyboard, and it can handle many spoken commands across multiple apps and Web services, asking for clarification in some cases. There's simply nothing like it out there; even Google's longtime voice recognition in Android doesn't hold a candle. It's technology like Siri that you didn't expect, didn't expect you'd really care about, and end up really liking that explains Apple's continued success with the iPhone and most of its other products -- and why the iPhone 4S remains the mobile champ. (More on Siri later.)

[ See iOS 5's and iCloud's new features in "iOS 5 and iCloud: The InfoWorld visual tour." | InfoWorld picks the best iPad office apps, the best iPad specialty apps, the best iPhone office apps, and the best iPhone specialty apps. | Learn how to manage iPhones, Androids, BlackBerrys, and other smartphones in InfoWorld's 29-page BYOD and Mobile Deep Dive PDF special report. ]

The iPhone 4S comes in several versions, with choices of black and white bezels and storage capacities of 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB. Available from AT&T Wireless, Sprint, and Verizon Wireless, these models cost $649, $749, and $849, respectively, without a contract, and $199, $299, and $399 with a two-year contract. Apple also sells an unlocked model that can be used on any GSM network; it's intended for international travelers who swap SIMs in and out as they move among countries.

HardwareYou can't tell an iPhone 4S from an iPhone 4, as they look identical. Apple claims the iPhone 4S weighs 3 grams less than the iPhone 4; I'll take the company's word for that tiny difference. Inside, though, there are several changes. One is the use of an 800MHz dual-core ARM-based Apple A5 processor rather than the previous 800MHz single-core A4. The result is that everything feels faster, smoother, and more responsive, from Web browsing to application switching.

A second difference is that the Verizon and Sprint models are now "worldphones," meaning they can work on GSM networks overseas in addition to these carriers' CDMA networks. However, you have to make prior arrangements with Verizon or Sprint to roam overseas on GSM networks, and you're limited to using their overseas carrier partners, which is very expensive. AT&T, which uses the GSM technology in the United States, similarly partners with carriers overseas. If you get an iPhone 4S from a U.S. carrier, you can't just swap out the SIM as you can with Apple's unlocked models.

The third big change is that the graphics system now allows screen mirroring via a dock-to-video cable (HDMI or VGA), so you're no longer restricted to just those applications such as Keynote, Videos, and YouTube that have video-out support built in. You can now display anything and everything on the big screen, just as you can with an iPad 2.

The final big change to the iPhone 4S's hardware is its rear camera, which has been bumped from 5 megapixels to 8 and includes support for 1080p video capture, better optics in low-light situations, and electronic enhancements for image stabilization when shooting video. It's darn close to a pocket digital camera in quality, though I wish it had image stabilization when taking still photos.

Where the iPhone 4S feels behind is its screen size. The 3.5-inch screen is cramped, especially compared to the 4.3-inch screens that are becoming widely available in competing mobile platforms. A larger screen really should be part of the next-generation iPhone.

Except for the Siri service, the rest of what the iPhone 4S offers are the stock capabilities from iOS 5, which are also available to the iPhone 4 and, to a lesser extent, the iPhone 3G S.

 

 

Email, calendars, and contactsiOS 5 covers all the major bases for business communications: It can connect to multiple Exchange, IMAP, POP, and Gmail accounts; make and synchronize appointments; and manage contacts. It tries to autodetect your mail server settings wherever possible and does a good job of handling nonvanilla settings. There's a client app for Lotus Notes, and you can access GroupWise if you install its Exchange-compatible server add-on.

Email. I'm not a big fan of iOS's UI for mail accounts, which iOS 5 leaves unchanged. There's a unified inbox for all your email accounts, then a separate list of your accounts so that you can go to their traditional folder hierarchy (for Exchange and IMAP accounts). I don't know why Apple had to break these into separate lists; for someone like me with four separate email accounts, the result is extra scrolling to switch accounts based on the mode I want to see. Android 4 "Ice Cream Sandwich" handles multiple accounts with a nicer, easier arrangement, though it doesn't preserve folder hierarchies in IMAP accounts. But iOS does let you designate which folders are automatically synced as part of the mail settings; competing mobile operating systems do not.

iOS 5 brings another welcome capability to email not available in competing mobile operating systems: the option to apply rich text formatting, including boldface, italics, underlining, and indentation. I only wish I could apply the character formatting while typing, such as through keyboard shortcuts or formatting buttons, rather than have to select the text first and then apply the formatting via the contextual menu.

iOS's native Quick Look viewer handles a nice range of formats (Microsoft Office, Apple iWork, PDF, text-only, and Web graphics formats), and it opens attachments with one tap, even downloading them if needed at the same time. But iOS 5 -- still! -- doesn't open zip files without the aid of a third-party app such as the Swiss Army Knife file utility GoodReader ($5) or a dedicated unzipper such as ZipBox Pro ($2) and Unzip ($1).

Once you're in your folders, iOS is easy to use for most operations, such as deleting messages and moving them. You also can add and delete mailbox folders. iOS lets you easily search for mail by From field, To field, Subject field, or entire message. In the message list, you can delete, move, and flag multiple messages, though you can't select or deselect all messages.

When reading an individual mail message, you can delete, move, flag, reply, or forward it, as well as mark it unread or add the sender or a recipient to your address book. Unfortunately, iOS 5 has no way to view just your flagged messages, reducing this feature's utility. iOS also remembers the email addresses of senders you reply to, adding them to the database of contacts they look up automatically as you tap characters into the To and Cc fields.

iOS provides a message-threading capability, which organizes your email based on subject -- you click an icon to the left of a message header to see the related messages. That adds more clicking to go through messages, but makes it easier to find the messages in the first place. You can disable threading if you don't like it.

Calendar. You can easily switch calendar views in iOS in the main calendar screen, and you can send invites to other users for non-Exchange calendars by adding an invitee's email address to the appointment. Your invitations for Exchange accounts show up in your calendar as a pop-up; you can accept them there within the full context of your other appointments. For both Exchange and other email accounts, you can open the .ics invitation files in Mail, then add them to the calendar of your choice.

When creating appointments, you can set up to two reminders beforehand at user-specified periods. A nice addition in iOS 5 is the ability to set the default alert intervals for calendar entries -- there are separate settings for regular events (those with start and stop times), all-day events, and birthdays. What iOS lacks is the kind of sophisticated scheduling available on a BlackBerry, such as the first Monday of the month, or every second Monday and Wednesday.

You can set the time zone for each appointment you add -- a very nice tool for those of us who travel across time zones or set phone conferences with people in other time zones and have difficulty translating the time to our current time zone or our calendar's default time zone. (iOS lets you specify a fixed time zone for your calendar or set it to change automatically to the current time zone as you travel.)

iOS 5 lets you sync local calendars (and local contacts) from your desktop PC or Mac via iTunes if you connect the device via a USB cable or Wi-Fi -- or over an Internet connection via a free iCloud account. That way, you can get your Outlook or Address Book contacts into your device easily and even keep them in sync with your iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch. Server-based contacts (and calendars and email addresses) are of course synced through the relevant server: Exchange, Google, and so on.

Contacts. It's easy to navigate through your contacts in iOS's Contacts app: Jump to names by tapping a letter at the side of the screen, such as "T" to get to people whose last names begin with "T." Or search quickly for someone in the Search field by typing part of the name.

When creating address information, Contacts provides dozens of fields you can use. You can also assign custom ringtones and custom vibrations to each contact. But iOS's Favorites capability is limited; you can designate a person's specific contact info -- say, a phone number or email address -- as a favorite, which puts it in the Favorites list in the iPhone's Phone app (if a phone number) or FaceTime app (if an email address). That's it.

Where iOS falls surprisingly short is in its inability to create groups. It supports email groups created on your computer or available on your server, but you can't create new groups on an iOS device. Also, you can't pick a group in iOS's Mail address fields. Instead, you select a group, then open it up to select just one member, repeating this step to add more names -- a really dumb approach. What you can do in iOS is link contact cards to create virtual groups; for example, if you have separate entries for a couple, you can link their cards so that each person's contact information appears in both of the cards.

Note that iOS does not automatically put Exchange contacts into its Contacts app; you have to add them manually from within an email. This is not a bad thing, as it means that departing employees don't have your entire company contacts database on their mobile device, and it keeps the Contacts app from being filled with contacts a user probably doesn't need.

Social networking. iOS comes with Apple's Messages app for instant networking among friends, but it works only for text messages to other smartphones and, with no SMS charges, to friends who have iOS 5 devices. iOS 5 does integrate Twitter sharing into several core apps, such as Safari, but you have to install the free Twitter app yourself. Other social networking apps, such as Facebook and Google+, are available for free but do not integrate with apps' Share menus. There is no single-view social networking app for iOS as there is for BlackBerry OS 7 and Windows Phone 7.5. If social networking is your primary use of a smartphone, an iPhone is not the right device for you.

Applications It's now part of the popular culture: "There's an app for that." There are hundreds of thousands of apps for iOS, from games to scientific visualization tools. Sure, there's a lot of junk, but you'll find many useful apps as well. No other mobile platform has the breadth and depth of apps available to iOS users.

The native apps included with iOS include email, contacts, calendar, maps and navigation, the Safari browser, a music player, a YouTube player, and SMS messaging (including the iOS 5-only iMessage service). iOS also includes FaceTime, Apple's videoconferencing app that works only with iOS devices and Macs and only over Wi-Fi networks.

iOS's Notes app is simple (no formatting) but integrates with IMAP and Exchange servers, so your notes can be automatically synced to and made available from your email. This is an amazingly useful feature, as your notes are always available. Apple's iCloud extends this utility for locally stored notes. iOS 5 also adds Reminders, a basic task manager that integrates with Exchange's to-do capabilities and syncs via iCloud to iCal on the Mac and Outlook in Windows 7.

The document-syncing protocol introduced in iOS 5, Mac OS X Lion, and iCloud is a game-changer for many business apps. The fact that a Keynote presentation syncs across all my devices, reflecting the current version no matter where I edit it, is a huge productivity boon. As app developers beyond Apple adopt this protocol, it will become increasingly easy to work in a mobile context without all the sync and file-management hassles that currently slow us down. Google has nothing similar.

Another big deal in iOS 5 is its enhanced AirPlay support. You can now send your screen image and audio to an HDMI-connectable presentation device attached to a $99 Apple TV, as long as the iOS device and the Apple TV are in the same wireless network. And you can use a VGA or HDMI cable for a direct connection. With the iPhone 4S (as with the iPad 2), you can mirror the entire screen as well. Thus, it's very easy to give presentations from an iPhone 4S. Too bad you can't use a Bluetooth keyboard with the iPhone 4S -- with such keyboard support and the exisitng screen mirroring, you could use the 4S as a computer in a pinch.

Siri. Available only in the iPhone 4S and officially labeled beta software, the Siri voice-controlled personal assistant is an amazing technology. To use it, you need a network connection, as your speech is digitized and sent to Apple's servers for speech recognition -- you'll get faster response when on a Wi-Fi network. What's so great about Siri is that it is available throughout the iPhone 4S. By contrast, Android 4 limits voice commands and transcription to specific apps, such as navigation for speaking destinations, Browser for speaking Google search terms, and in any app that has a text field. And note the word "transcription" -- you dictate text to Android; you speak to Siri on the iPhone 4S.

Tap and hold the Home button to invoke Siri, or just raise the iPhone 4S to your face as if you were on a call. Speak your command or inquiry, and wait for Siri to respond. In apps with text fields, you can have Siri take dictation by tapping the microphone icon button on the keyboard (Android uses the same method for its transcription). I was amazed at how accurate Siri's voice recognition is, even with multiple people speaking and with background noise such as the radio playing. It's far better than Android's speech recognition, especially when it comes to dictation.

When used as a personal assistant, Siri does a good job of handling queries such as "What's my next appointment?" and "What are the directions to 501 Second Street?" With such basic queries, Siri figures out the context (such as the city you're in), looks up the information, and replies. Siri also asks you for context when it needs it, so the first time you say, "Call my mother," it asks for your mother's name to associate "mother" with a specific person in the future. It also shows you what it heard so that you can correct it as part of ongoing speech-recognition training. You can also use it to send emails, take notes, and add items to the Reminders task list. In these cases, you do need to use certain trigger phrases, such as "Send an email," "Take a note," and "Add a reminder" -- other forms of such commands are interpreted as Web search requests.

When searching the Web, Siri tends to favor shopping results when it doesn't really understand the question. For example, when I asked if I had enough cat food in the house, it responded with an offer to list nearby pet stores. It could figure out that the question was related to pets, but as it has no way of knowing what my cat food inventory is so defaulted to a list of providers, as it did with similar requests that required information Siri would have no access to.

Siri, of course, can also be used as a game, to see if you can fool it or elicit funny responses. (When asked what the meaning of life was, Siri told me, "I don't know, but I'm sure there's an app for that.")

Siri is not quite the "Star Trek" computer voiced by Majel ("Nurse Chapel") Roddenberry, but it's sometimes amazingly close, and it gets better the more you use it. It truly is amazing -- and useful.

App management. As you install apps, iOS simply adds them to your home screen, appending more home screens as needed, up to 11. iOS also lets you add Web pages to the home screens as if they were apps -- great for the many mobile Web pages that are essentially Web apps, such as m.infoworld.com, InfoWorld's mobile site.

You can move apps to new locations by tapping and holding an app until the icons wiggle, then just drag it to the desired location. The first home screen is reserved for Apple's apps, so new apps aren't added to it, though you can move apps -- including Apple's -- to and from that first screen as desired. iOS also lets you create app folders (just drag an app onto another one to create a group), which can be useful to reduce scrolling among home pages. Unfortunately, the folder icons are still too small to make out, so knowing what's in a folder is not always easy.

iOS alerts you to app updates by using a badge on the App Store app's icon, indicating how many updates are available. You can download them wirelessly, or sync them from iTunes. iOS also lets you manage apps -- including their home screen arrangement -- and update them via iTunes, in addition to from the iPhone itself. iOS 5 adds the ability to update the operating system itself wirelessly, as well as to set up a new or reformatted iOS device without a computer (you need a Wi-Fi network available, though).

iOS 5 has copied the Android-style notifications-tray capability in what it calls Notification Center, but Apple's version is better. In iOS 5, you pull down from the top of the screen to get a pane of notifications, and tap any to open it within its app. You can also delete groups of notifications -- such as for mail messages -- by tapping the X icon to the right of the group's name. I like iOS 5's notifications better than Android's because iOS's notifications are much easier to read and Notification Center shows individual messages and tweets, whereas in some cases Android shows only a group alert, such as "5 new mentions," rather than list them. (iOS lets you specify a max number of notifications per type to display, by the way.)

iOS 5 can also display notifications on the lock screen, and by sliding a specific notifications icon, you can open the app and the relevant notification item, such as an email. Plus, unlike Android, iOS 5 lets you decide which apps may present notifications on the lock screen and elsewhere -- you're not restricted to a predetermined set. Not only does iOS 5 let you turn notification on or off on a per-app basis, but you can specify whether the notification sounds a tone, whether it appears in the lock screen, whether its badge updates with the number of relevant notifications, and how the notification appears onscreen (as an overlay in the middle of your screen or just in the Notification Center pull-down pane). You get to choose when and how you are interrupted.

iOS 5 adds a new storage management API that eases file handling when you want to free up space. The Settings app's Usage pane now shows how much storage each app consumes. If you tap a compatible app in that list, you get a sublist of all its document files, which you can delete individually as needed. Incompatible apps show only their total data usage; you'll need to manage their documents within the apps themselves or via the iTunes file management facility.

Location support. iOS supports GPS location and can triangulate location based on Wi-Fi signals. The bundled Google Maps app can find your current destination, provide directions, and otherwise help you navigate. But it's no substitute for a navigation app such as the $45 Navigon MobileNavigator (on an Android device, you could stick with the free bundled Navigation app).

iOS 5 lets you control access to location services per application, so you can control at any time which apps can monitor your location. iOS 5 also has location-permission controls for system-level services, including iAds, time zone, compass calibration, traffic services, cell network search, and diagnostics. Plus, it can show you those apps currently tracking your location as well as those that have done so in the last 24 hours.

Web and Internet Apple is a strong force behind HTML5 and other modern browser technologies, so it's no surprise that it offers a capable Web browser. Based on the HTML5 Test site's scores, Safari in iOS 5 has taken a major leap forward in HTML5 compatibility compared to its previous version, scoring 296 (out of 450) versus iOS 4.3's score of 217. By contrast, Android 4, BlackBerry OS 7, and Windows Phone 7.5 lag significantly, scoring 230, 260, and 141, respectively.

I experienced the iPhone's HTML5 advantage firsthand in iOS 5 Safari's newfound support for the contenteditable attribute in HTML5, and thus its ability to work many of the capabilities in WYSIWYG AJAX Web-editing tools such as TinyMCE, used by Drupal and countless other sites. Hallelujah! Item dragging doesn't work, perhaps because iOS's drag gesture starts with a tap, which opens the drag handle's internal URLs, thus blocking any drag action. I now can do most of my work on InfoWorld content directly in our content management system from my iPad. It's not 100 percent -- text selection in AJAX floating dialog boxes often grabs the content underneath, for example -- but it's at least possible.

From an operational perspective, Safari has persistent buttons or fields for Back, Forward, Bookmarks, Refresh, and navigating browser windows. On an iPad, iOS 5 now shows a row of tabs at the top for each open browser window, as does Android "Honeycomb." iOS 5 also adds two features that debuted on Mac OS X's version of Safari: Lion's Reading List and Snow Leopard's Reader. Reading List is a separate bookmarking utility meant for content pages you want to read later and then remove from the list, whereas Reader strips out most of the Web page so that you can concentrate on its contents.

iOS 5 lets you share Web pages via email and Twitter, as well as print the page to an AirPrint-compatible printer. iOS has separate Search and URL boxes, which are less convenient than Android's unified URL and Search box -- you have to be sure to tap the right box on iOS. You can also search the current page in a separate field that displays. You can select text and graphics on Web pages, as well as copy text and save images to the Photos app.

The onscreen keyboard displays the .com button when entering URLs, which is a significant timesaver. And it pops up a list of alternative domains, such as .edu and .org, when you tap and hold the .com button. Safari has settings to control pop-up windows, search engines, JavaScript, cookies, history, cache, form data, passwords, image loading, autofill, fraud warnings, and debugging.

User interface It's often a throwaway comment that Apple's UIs are better than everyone else's, and it's not always true (as the soon-to-be-discontinued MobileMe service attests). But in mobile, iOS is in fact a better-designed UI, one that makes accessing capabilities and information easier and faster. iOS 5 doesn't mess with what you already know from previous versions, but it does enhance the UI further with the Notification Center, improved gesture support, much simpler synchronization capabilities, and a few enhanced settings. Then there's the iPhone 4S's Siri, which opens up a whole new, hugely convenient way to interact with many apps and services.

Operational UI. Apple is smarter than competitors about bringing common capabilities to the top level of iOS apps' UIs, so they are accessible through a quick tap -- yet they don't clutter up the screen, even in the screen-constrained iPhone. iOS also has strong UI support for the visually and hearing-impaired, such as options for zooming text, presenting screens in high contrast, and enabling text-to-speech for text selections. In iOS 5, these are augmented with gesture assistance for those with motor coordination issues.

A nice change in iOS 5 is the ability to set custom sounds to various alerts. Now, in a room full of iPhones and iPads, you have a better chance of knowing whether it's your device that just beeped. Plus, you can set custom vibrations for individuals.

Text selection and copying. In iOS, you tap and hold where you want to insert the text cursor (sort of like using a mouse), and a magnifier appears to help you move precisely to where you want to go -- no competitor offers such assistance. You then add and delete text at that location. Additionally, controls appear above the text for selection and other services (such as copying and pasting, and formatting in Mail or dictionary suggestions in Pages). It's easy, intuitive, and universal.

Security and management Apple's not known for supporting enterprise-level security and client management demands, yet iOS is second only to BlackBerry in terms of enterprise security and management support. It has remote wipe, certificate-based authentication, and an assortment of password controls (such as requiring a strong password or disabling access after a specified number of failed log-in attempts) that are manageable through Microsoft Exchange and, soon, through iOS-enabled management tools from companies such as Good Technology and MobileIron. iOS also supports several types of VPNs, provides SSL message encryption, and has on-device encryption for all data that can't be turned off. iOS 5 adds S/MIME support for encrypted email.

It's easier to use VPNs with iOS than with BlackBerry or Android because iOS figures out most of the settings, so an IT admin doesn't have to do the configuration manually. (Windows Phone doesn't support VPNs at all, and Android does not support Cisco IPSec VPNs.) Likewise, iOS easily connects to PEAP-secured Wi-Fi networks that use certificates -- again not needing hands-on involvement from IT as in the case of BlackBerry. (Android doesn't support certificate-based PEAP.)

iOS can back up settings, contact, calendar, and email data wirelessly to Apple's iCloud service. In addition, iOS can back up all of your device's data and apps to iTunes, both over a USB connection and, new to iOS 5, over Wi-Fi. Of course, most large businesses would prefer not to have iTunes on corporate PCs, even with iOS's support of backing up specified types of data on one computer and other types on other computers, to keep data backup separated based on type. Still, whether you back up to iCloud or iTunes, you get the option to encrypt those backups -- a security feature IT should appreciate.

The iPhone 4S is simply the best smartphone available There's no question which is the better mobile OS: The iOS 5 definitively beats Android 4, Windows Phone 7.5, and BlackBerry OS 7. The rest of Apple's ecosystem -- iCloud, iTunes, and the App Store -- also can't be beat. The iPhone 4S is more capable in most respects than the competition, though it does fall short in social networking integration, screen size, and Bluetooth keyboard support. Siri makes the iPhone's many strengths even stronger.

Unless you have animus against Apple or want a smartphone only for social networking, there is no other real option than the iPhone 4S. It's simply the best.

This article, "iPhone 4S soars even further with Siri," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile computing, read Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog at InfoWorld.com, follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter, and follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

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