GCN LAB REVIEW
The iPhone 4S: Rise of the machines
- By Carlos A. Soto
- Dec 12, 2011
I used to give companies that charged more than $300 retail for a mobile smart phone without a contract a hard time. I never came across a smart phone worth that ridiculous amount of money, until the original iPhone 4. Although I got the iPhone 4 for $199 on a contact renewal, after a year of use, I would have happily paid the $600 retail price just for the phone.
With the improved features and functionality of the iPhone 4S, Apple makes the $649 non-contract price for an introductory 16G phone seem more insignificant.
To be clear, the jump in features from the 4 to 4S is not enough for me to take the plunge. Had the 4S come with an upgraded 4G antenna, I’d be singing a different tune. But for anyone looking to move to Apple or for anyone who is tired of the iPhone 3x, the cost of a 4S is well worth it.
For starters, Apple has beefed up the processor on the 4S from a single A4 processor to a dual-core A5 chip. I never thought my 4 was sluggish until I tested the 4S. This upgrade alone adds up to twice the power and up to seven times faster graphics. And you need that kind of improvement when running improved features like a souped-up camera.
One of the drawbacks with the original iPhone 4 was its blurry pictures and inconsistency in image quality, particularly in varying light. However, the 8-megapixel resolution and a custom lens with a larger aperture on the 4S improve automatic white balancing and color accuracy. And it has features such as face detection, which reduces motion blur and increases the consistency of good shots.
Apple iPhone 4S
Ease of Use: A
Price: $649 without contract; $199 with contract
Pros: Faster processor; a better camera; a smarter virtual assistant and twice the storage.
Cons: Expensive without contract; Siri beta glitches.
Apple iPhone 4S gets smart, talks back
Of course, this feature and the camera’s ability to record video in high-definition 1080p is not always a desired feature in many federal, state and local agencies. The only thing more potentially dangerous than a camera in a high-security area is a high-def camera with the capability to send the images wirelessly.
Obviously, administrators could always disable the camera features, but with a high-def masterpiece like the camera on the iPhone 4s, that would break my heart.
Perhaps the coolest and most impressive feature on the iPhone 4S is Siri. If you haven’t heard about Siri or seen the demos on TV, you don’t know what you’re missing.
Siri is a technological breakthrough in artificial intelligence and voice recognition technology. Branded by Apple as an intelligent personal assistant, Siri is a user-prompted embedded software application that executes your commands without the need for you to train it to recognize your voice or learn key phrases.
It lets you use your voice to execute functions in the vernacular. Using Siri, you can perform native iPhone functions such as sending messages, scheduling meetings or placing phone calls. You can also execute functions that require feedback from an external data center or cloud, such as asking questions about contemporary history, or philosophical paradoxes if you really want to stretch Siri’s knowledge.
But the true magic of Siri is its ability to answer mundane and useful questions, which it does by creating a seamless interaction with the user. If I ask “Where is a good Chinese restaurant around here?,” Siri uses the embedded search application on the iPhone and then takes it a step further by executing a query for Chinese restaurants that requires contact with the Internet and Apple Cloud, and it finally initiates multiple responses, in this case showing me a map and telling me what it found.
The same thing can happen if you ask about the weather, whereupon Siri will check the weather application that comes with all iPhones to get you a proper response to something like “Will it snow today?”
As cool as Siri is, it’s not perfect yet. It’s often limited by the slow 3G speed and by network demand, especially when it has to go outside of whatever applications are on your 4S to get an answer. Siri needs the processing power of the dual-core A5 chip in iPhone 4S, but it also uses 3G and Wi-Fi networks to communicate with Apple’s data centers. And that is where problems seem to stack up. If those data centers are overloaded, which happened a lot during business hours in our tests, or the 3G connection is slow, the result can be a long wait or the inability to complete your query at all.
Apple even states that Siri is currently still in beta, which is a wise move by the company to address its network growing pains, though it does seem odd to center a product and the bulk of the advertising for it around beta software.
It’s easy to see the amazing potential with Siri, the first step in creating a true digital personal assistant, but as it stands today, Siri cannot even interface with every app on your iPhone. In fact, the only apps that Siri can interface with are the most commonly used ones: Phone, FaceTime, Music, Mail, Messages, Calendar, Reminders, Notes, Contacts, Weather, Stocks, Web Search, Find My Friends, Alarms, World Clock and Timer, Wolfram|Alpha (English only), Wikipedia search, Maps, and local search with Yelp!
Also, Siri is limited by what information is actually stored in the external data servers on the Apple Cloud. Some people recently got angry when Siri would not tell them how to get an abortion, leading to claims that the software was programmed with a conservative anti-abortion agenda. Apple said that the fault was simply that the information was not in the database that Siri checked, but in any case, this shows some more of Siri’s limitations.
Wolfram functionality with Siri, by the way, is one of the most impressive capabilities of the iPhone 4S and one of the most useful tools to have on your mobile device if you’re in a technical field in the government.
Founded by Stephen Wolfram in 1987, Wolfram Research is a powerhouse of scientific and technical software. It pioneered computational science by developing the science, technology and mathematical tools that academics or professionals can use to perform complex calculations. Using Siri with Wolfram can provide the user the ability to execute complex algorithms and mathematical computations vocally. In that sense, Siri is incredibly smart and helpful.
The performance and functionality of the iPhone 4S takes mobile computing to a whole new level. It provides so many capabilities at your fingertips that it leaves you impatient for the next stage of iPhones.
And if Siri is ever able to connect through a 4G network, and the Apple Cloud gets over its rapid growing pains, the iPhone 4S could very well be at the start of another revolution in human/machine interaction.
For that reason along with general improvements in hardware and usability, the iPhone 4S easily earns a Reviewer’s Choice designation.
Apple, Inc., www.apple.com
Carlos A. Soto is a former GCN Lab technology analyst.