Apple Inc. took one of the most ambitious products it has ever created and hid it inside an iPhone.
At one point on Friday, a Globe and Mail editor – a former technology section editor, at that – passed by my desk, where one of Apple’s shiny new iPhone 4S units sat next to a now-dated iPhone 4. The editor picked both phones up and looked them over, convinced he could tell one from the other just by studying the outsides – he couldn’t.
The iPhone 4S, as far as design goes, is an iPhone 4 clone. Only two slight seams on the sides distinguish the new model from the old. The design is still beautiful, the on-board speakers are still terrible, the physical buttons still in all the same places. So similar-looking are the two phones that people who held both at the Globe offices immediately turned into those optometrist patients that can’t decide between lens 1 and lens 2. Maybe the iPhone 4S is heavier? Maybe not? About the same?
But those similarities end once you peer under the hood. In terms of technical specifications, the iPhone 4S is a beast, running on a new dual-core chip that Apple claims can make the phone up to twice as fast. In reality, that claim is about as disingenuous as sales that advertise prices “up to” 50 per cent off. There’s very little you can do with a 4S that will actually feel twice as fast. Game apps definitely run more crisply, thanks to Apple’s new-found emphasis on faster graphics processing, but the difference between the 4S and the plain old 4 isn’t mind-blowing. Both are still among the three or four smoothest-running phones on the planet.
The biggest hardware differentiator between Apple’s two phones isn’t the processor, it’s the camera. The 4S comes packed with an 8-megapixel lens that takes exquisite photos. In fact, everything about the still and video camera capabilities of the 4S is absolutely stellar, from the 1080p high-def video to the low-light image-capturing. This is the first cellphone camera that doesn’t appear to filter its subject matter through the eyes of a fast-moving drunk. If you’ve got a low-end SLR, this phone may just be a replacement.
Call quality is also supposed to be better on the 4S, thanks in large part to Apple’s new anti-death-grip engineering that’s supposed to keep signal strength high no matter how you hold the phone. All this may be true, but we didn’t see much difference in call quality between the 4 and the 4S, except in cases where we went out of our way to hold the devices in outright silly ways. Data download speeds also seemed faster on the 4S. It’s not next-generation, lighting 4G stuff, but there were no delays in playing YouTube videos on the 3G connection (although you’ll probably spend most of your data-eating time running on a Wi-Fi connection, if you value your life savings).
In terms of software, the 4S comes with all kinds of major and minor improvements. The most immediately noticeable new feature is iCloud, Apple’s new service that lets you back up and synchronize pretty much everything – contacts, music, photos, apps, whatever – among your various gadgets. Not only is it a great idea, and incredibly easy to use, it’s also probably going to make the overall Apple ecosystem that much stronger, as customers begin to trust the company to store and transfer all their personal data.
Unfortunately for Research In Motion Ltd., the 4S also marks the debut of iMessage, an instant messaging service that seems purpose-built to steal users from BlackBerry Messenger. The premise is the same – chat with friends for almost no cost – and Apple has built the service into all kinds of media-sharing menus throughout the iPhone.
There are myriad other improvements hidden throughout the newest version of Apple’s mobile operating system iOS5. There’s a better message notification system. There’s a greeting card-mailing app that’s easy to use and almost completely pointless. Everything is just a little smoother, a little more refined.
And really, none of these improvements are what make the 4S fascinating. Apple has hidden something else in here, something that may one day be remembered as a milestone in the Star Trek-ization of consumer technology. It’s a creepily intelligent voice recognition system and all-round digital butler called Siri.
Basically, Siri is voice recognition software in people clothes. Hold down the home button for a couple of seconds, and it starts listening. Then you talk: “Who are you?”
“I’m Siri,” the phone responds. “Here to help.”
And from there on in begins one of the more ambitious feats of artificial intelligence and voice recognition. Google Android fans will complain that a lot of phones can recognize speech – in fact, there are some voice recognition tasks that Android phones can do better than Siri. But where Apple’s new digi-assistant shines is in its ability to understand context: “Do I need an umbrella today?” you ask.