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iPhone 4S and iOS 5 raise the smartphone IQ once again

It's not the iPhone 5, but it's far from disappointing

By Michael Gartenberg
October 18, 2011 03:50 PM ET

Computerworld - It came late and with a different name than many expected. Some were anticipating a new hardware design (some case vendors went as far as to order cases made on rumored design changes), others a larger screen. More than a few expected something called iPhone 5.

But the fifth release of Apple's iPhone, called iPhone 4S, shows that looks and names can be deceiving, as Apple has once again raised the bar in the smartphone world.

Physically, the 4S is nearly a dead ringer for the older iPhone 4, but changes under the hood set it apart enough that it could have been called iPhone 5.

There have been physical changes, but they aren't cosmetic. A new antenna design addresses notorious dropped-call problems that plagued iPhone 4. I couldn't get the 4S to lose a signal, no matter how I held it. Inside, there's an A5 processor, the same speedy chip that powers the iPad 2. Apple claims that the 4S up to twice as fast as the iPhone 4 and up to seven times faster in terms of graphics speed. IMy informal speed tests bear that out. Apps that used to take a few seconds to open now open immediately. The phone's camera, meanwhile, has been upgraded to 8 megapixels, can record 1080p video with image stabilization and has just about zero lag time between photos. Unless you need optical zoom, the iPhone 4S is good enough that you could toss your point-and-shoot into a drawer and forget all about it.

Then there's the software. The new iOS 5 powers the iPhone 4S (it's also available free to iPhone 3GS, iPod Touch, iPad and iPhone 4 users). There's a lot to like in this operating system, with existing features nicely polished. I was especially happy with improvements to notifications, which have gone from dismal on previous releases to state of the art and useful.

Notably, iOS introduces Apple's iCloud, which seamlessly synchronizes your information across computers, phones and tablets. While iCloud offers some Windows support, it's really geared toward tying all Apple devices together neatly. I've often said that if you control sync, you control the mobile world, and Apple is working very hard to create that seamless experience for the consumer cloud.

The real showstopper in the iPhone 4S is Siri. It is artificial intelligence from a company of the same name that Apple acquired last year (and that started as a DARPA project). Siri brings voice assistance and recognition to a new level, no training required. Outside of the realm of science fiction, there has never been such a smooth implementation of voice dictation, command, control, query and response in a handheld device. For many people, Siri brings to mind the kind of human-machine interaction we've all been expecting since we first saw HAL on the big screen in the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. (For fun, ask Siri to open the pod bay doors for you.)

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