Apple led off its introduction of the new phone by talking up its processor, a version of the dual-core A5 used in the iPad. The Cupertino, Calif., company says the faster chip powers vastly better graphics in games and, in a more useful vein, a new voice-driven application called Siri.
Siri will let you enter text into applications by speaking it, much as Google Android-based phones work. But it also lets you speak plain-English commands and queries, as shown in the Apple-provided image above. Siri also taps into the iPhone's GPS to provide location-specific services; for example, reminders to call people when you get to a set place.
That sounds like science-fiction made fact, but we'll have to see how well Siri works in a crowded airport or train station.
(Apple didn't stream live video of the event, but reporters from such sites as Ars Technica liveblogged it — when their own liveblog systems didn't crumple under the demand. Afterwards, Apple's own site went offline, an ugly failure for a company about to launch its iCloud Web-based data service.)
The iPhone 4S's Internet connection remains limited to 3G speeds, although it now supports the faster "HSPA+" flavor that AT&T markets as 4G. On the other hand, Apple's battery-life estimate of six hours of Web browsing should exceed those of phones supporting the strictest definition of 4G, Verizon's LTE.
Each iPhone 4S model also speaks the two major wireless languages, CDMA and GSM. That will allow for easy international roaming, but it will cost you dearly if carriers continue to lock its SIM card slot against use with other services.
The back camera on the iPhone 4S may have benefited from the most design refinements. It has finally caught up to competitors its eight megapixels of resolution, but, Apple says, also takes pictures much faster than competitors and brings features such as face-detection focusing once confined to "real" cameras. So the prospects for point-and-shoot cameras now look even uglier than before.
The iPhone 4S goes on sale in the United States on Oct. 14: $199 for a model with 16 gigabytes of storage, $299 for a 32 GB version and $399 for a new 64 GB option. And for the first time, Sprint will sell the phone alongside AT&T and Verizon — a noteworthy development for frequent Web users, since Sprint has yet to impose the data caps of its two larger competitors.
Older iPhones remain on sale. Apple has cut the price of an 8 GB iPhone 4 to $99, while the iPhone 3GS is free. All those prices require signing a two-year contract.
The iPhone 4S runs Apple's new iOS 5, but it will ship as a free download for iPads and most older iPhone and iPod touch models on Oct. 12. It brings a app-notifications system that no longer interrupts users with an irritating pop-up dialog (a smart borrowing from Android) and the ability to install future updates over the air instead of through iTunes (ditto). There's also extensive Twitter integration, better photo-editing tools and a free iMessage service you can use instead of text messaging, if all of your friends use Apple hardware. But the inexplicably weak Maps app looks to continue as one of those puzzling oversights in Apple's software.
Do all these iPhone 4S features add up to a mandatory upgrade from the iPhone 4 that the new model resembles so closely on the outside? That's not so clear. What's your call?
Credit: Courtesy Apple PR