Hands on: iPhone 4S 'meets every expectation, and then some'

Don't let the exterior looks fool you -- inside, this is a new phone

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Siri, your own virtual assistant

I'm a big fan of iOS 5, the new OS that Apple rolled out earlier this month. But until I got the iPhone 4S, I hadn't had a chance to try out Siri.

Siri virtual assistant
Siri finds the info you need, fast.

Siri is Apple's first attempt at voice-activated artificial intelligence on a commercial device. What does that mean? It means simply that you can tell your phone what to do, and it will just do it. No doubt other smartphone owners are saying, "Hey, my phone can accept voice commands, too." Trust me, not like this.

Compared to voice commands built into other phones -- including previous iPhones -- Siri is much more flexible about what questions and requests it understands, and it can ask you contextually appropriate questions that will help it help you.

For instance, when I asked it a specifically ambiguous question like, "What's good to eat around here?" Siri responded with a list of restaurants within a few miles of my location, sorted by rating.

When asked, "What's the phone number to Crisper's?" Siri responded, "I can't find Crispers in your address book. Do you want me to search local businesses?" When I responded yes, Siri answered with a list of businesses, their locations, star rating, and how far away they were from my location. With a tap of the screen, I was able to initiate a phone call.

You can ask Siri to do many functions, and an entire list of hints is available by tapping the "i" button in the Siri interface (called up by holding the Home button for two seconds). You can ask Siri to set alarms, create reminders, take notes, take email dictations and read text messages. You can also make silly requests such as "Tell me a joke." When I asked that, Siri replied, "Mike, I don't know any good jokes. None." When I insisted, she said, "I can't. I always forget the punchline!"

Located next to the space bar on the virtual keyboard is a little microphone; a quick tap there allows you to dictate messages. Siri is so well implemented that it quickly made third-party apps like Yelp and Dragon Dictation obsolete for me. But it's not perfect. You can ask Siri for directions, but it doesn't offer up turn-by-turn specifics.

And you still have to be careful what you say to Siri. I inadvertently interrupted several text messages because, after the message was dictated and Siri asked if it was ready to send, I said, "Send the message," assuming that Siri would, you know, send the message. Unfortunately, this command is close enough to the "Send a New Message" command for Siri to forget all about the one I had just dictated.

Siri virtual assistant
Siri can handle smart alecks with aplomb.

One glitch: When I woke up Saturday morning, Siri had stopped working for me, complaining about networking errors despite the fact that every other app found Internet services without issue. Everything worked fine once I turned Siri off and back on. This issue is being reported by other iPhone 4S owners on user forums and for some, turning Siri off and on doesn't work.

While Apple has done a good job of integrating Siri with some of the built-in Apple apps, I really hope access to Siri is made available to third-party developers. I'd like to see what non-Apple developers could do with the technology. Still, Siri is impressive on arrival, and I'm sure Apple's continuing work on it will make today's Siri feel as basic as the software in the first iPhone.

Conclusions

So, should you upgrade? If you're like a lot of iPhone owners whose contract is ending, you're likely upgrading from a 3GS, as that's the model that was on the market two years ago. If you're still interested in staying with Apple, then yes, the 4S is a wonderful upgrade.

If you have an iPhone 4 and want to upgrade, don't be fooled by the fact that the new model looks the same as last year's. Inside, the iPhone 4S is all new: the antennas, the processor, the camera system, Siri, the battery. Everything has changed except for the external case and the 3.5-in. screen.

The question, really, becomes whether the new hardware is worth the cost of upgrade -- or whether you absolutely must have Siri. I can't answer that for you, but don't let the exterior looks fool you: This is a new phone.

The late Apple CEO Steve Jobs once said: "We want to make the best products in the world for customers.... If we succeed, they'll buy them. If we don't, they won't. And it'll all work itself out."

As far as I'm concerned, the iPhone 4S succeeds in that mission Jobs set. Recommended.

Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is a writer, computer consultant and technology geek who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter (@mdeagonia).

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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