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New iPhone 4S Adds Voice Recognition and Goes Global

The iPhone 4S announced at Apple’s media event last week features upgrades across all its systems, with the addition of voice recognition and dictation through a new component called Siri. Improved internals mean a faster phone and notably faster graphics, as well as a potential doubling of the highest mobile downstream rates. What doesn’t change is the industrial design of the phone, which retains the look and feel of the iPhone 4.

An improved camera will produce better photos in low-light conditions, take photos more rapidly, and shoot 1080p high-definition video. An upgrade to the phone’s cellular systems, incorporating both GSM and CDMA technologies, means that the iPhone 4S can be used on any network in the United States and most networks worldwide.

The new phone will be available on 14 October 2011; Apple started taking pre-orders on 7 October 2011 and racked up over 1 million pre-orders in the first day. In the United States, with a two-year contract for cellular services, the iPhone 4S will cost $199 for 16 GB of storage, $299 for 32 GB, and $399 for 64 GB, retaining the same pricing as the iPhone 4 had for the 16 and 32 GB models. (There was no 64 GB iPhone 4.) Yes, they will be available in both black and white versions. Apple will also continue to offer two older phones at reduced prices under two-year contracts: the iPhone 3GS for free and the iPhone 4
for $99, both with 8 GB of storage.

Although this may not be as significant a deal as the addition of Verizon Wireless, the iPhone 4S will also be available from Sprint Nextel in the United States, leaving T-Mobile as the odd carrier out. We’re sure existing Sprint customers will appreciate this. Sprint’s coverage area is among the poorest, and it has been hemorrhaging customers for years. However, among the four major U.S. mobile operators, Sprint retains the only unlimited mobile data usage plan for new customers. (AT&T and Verizon have grandfathered unlimited plans, and T-Mobile throttles services to dial-up modem rates after a monthly limit is reached.) While the free iPhone 3GS will be available only on AT&T’s network, the subsidized iPhone 4 will be
available for AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint customers.

Outside the United States, the iPhone 4S will be available in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom on 14 October 2011. Another 22 countries will follow on 28 October 2011, and Apple plans to hit a total of 70 countries by the end of the year.

Siri Voice Recognition — The iPhone 4S feature we’re dying to try is Siri, a voice-recognition and voice-synthesis system that’s tied in with expert-system analysis of what you say. You can ask Siri for information, such as recommendations for nearby restaurants or the current weather, or use it for dictation. It can speak to you and read items and documents.

During the keynote, Apple’s Scott Forstall demoed Siri with a variety of questions. When asked what the weather would be like today, Siri returned the forecast. Queried for a great Greek restaurant in Palo Alto, Siri responded, “I’ve found five Greek restaurants, and I’ve sorted them by rating.” Siri has direct access to Wikipedia and Wolfram Alpha, and can thus define words and make calculations, such as how many days until Christmas. Other examples include setting timers, looking up contacts, creating notes, and searching the Web.

Siri isn’t limited to command and control, though. Forstall showed Siri reading email messages in the notification queue, and you will be able to compose and dictate email to Siri. The real question is how accurate Siri will be in real-world usage, since there’s little more annoying than talking to a command-and-control system like a toddler or correcting egregious errors in dictated text.

Initially, Siri will work in English, French, and German, and Apple is calling it a beta, promising more languages and services in the future.

It’s worth noting that Siri runs only on the iPhone 4S, undoubtedly due to needing the processing power of Apple’s dual-core A5 CPU. That chip provides up to twice the performance of the iPhone 4, and the dual-core graphics are supposedly up to seven times faster. Despite that, talk time has been increased to 8 hours.

A Clearer Picture — The best camera is often the one you have in your pocket, and while the iPhone camera has improved over time, there’s no question that it hasn’t competed well with even point-and-shoot cameras. With the iPhone 4S, Apple is aiming at that market, switching to an 8-megapixel sensor that takes photos at 3264 by 2448 pixels, which should be sufficient for an 8-by-10-inch (20-by-25 cm) print.

As Charles Maurer has discussed in a number of TidBITS articles, the raw number of pixels in a sensor isn’t the only important factor in image quality. The iPhone 4S has a backside-illuminated CMOS sensor that enables it to gather 73 percent more light than the iPhone 4 sensor. It also features an infrared filter for improved color accuracy and uniformity. Then there’s the lens, which features five lens elements to provide 30 percent better sharpness.

It also lets in a lot of light, with an f/2.4 aperture, which should result in good low-light performance. On the processing side, the camera can do face detection, which can improve focus, and automatic white-balance, which improves color, thanks to an Apple-designed chip. Most importantly, it boasts a mere 0.5-second delay between shots.

Apple has posted several unretouched sample photos for viewing and download, although notably they’re all shot in daylight. We’ll have to wait until the iPhone 4S is released to test the low-light performance of the new lens and processor.

On the video side, the iPhone 4S’s camera is capable of HD video at 1080p, with real-time digital image stabilization and real-time temporal noise reduction.

Cellular Networking — The iPhone 4S is a “world phone” in the true meaning of that phrase for the first time. Past iPhones that worked worldwide were still restricted to the GSM standard, which dominates with billions of users. However, the competing CDMA standard used by Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel in the United States is still employed by hundreds of millions of cell phone owners. Apple made a special model of the iPhone 4 for Verizon. The iPhone 4S now includes both CDMA and GSM technology, allowing the sale of a single model around the globe. Unfortunately, the “world phone” turns out to be more about simplicity in Apple’s manufacturing process than
portability for consumers. (See “Apple’s World Phone Isn’t Global for Customers,” 7 October 2011.)

The iPhone 4S promises improved 3G data speeds for GSM networks, doubling the previous HSDPA download rate of about 7 Mbps (raw, not usable) to 14.4 Mbps. AT&T and T-Mobile have deployed HSPA+ networks that are even faster than that, although those networks will support Apple’s new higher rate along with the previous slower speeds used by other phones. Networks with 14.4 Mbps and faster download rates are also available in many other countries. In practice, faster networks are better at handling capacity — more phones in use in the same area around a mobile base station — than in necessarily speeding up a given phone’s download performance.

Those hoping for an iPhone with LTE (Long Term Evolution) built in to support AT&T and Verizon’s in-progress 4G networks will be disappointed, but it’s not surprising. The necessary chips aren’t yet small enough and cheap enough to include in a handset as small as the iPhone, and they still consume too much power. (Carriers want to call HSPA+ a “4G technology,” by the way, and Apple joked about that during the announcement. But HSPA and HSPA+ are just faster renditions of 3G and share the same old architecture. LTE is something new.)

Apple also said it has created a unique two-antenna system for cellular connections that should improve call quality. While the company didn’t offer many details, it said that the iPhone 4S could switch between the antennas during a call, and this likely eliminates the “holding it wrong” problem that was overblown after the iPhone 4’s introduction. Most cell phones have areas which, if covered by skin, drop signal reception, and the iPhone 4 was no exception. With the capability to switch between two separately optimized antennas — perhaps with different polarization and different lengths — the iPhone 4S would presumably toggle between the two when signal quality drops.

Current iPhone customers of AT&T and Verizon can determine whether they’re eligible for Apple’s advertised pricing. The two-year subscription plan subsidizes the hardware’s initial cost; if you’ve recently bought an iPhone, the price may be higher. For example, Jeff Carlson purchased an iPhone 4 last year. AT&T shows that the 16 GB model will cost him $449 before 25 November 2011, or $199 after that date. You can check your eligibility at Apple’s site.

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