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.

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