Published
By Dan Seifert

Read user comments (21)

Usability, iOS 5 and Siri

Usability

The Apple iPhone 4S features an upgraded processor with the dual-core A5 processor that debuted on the iPad 2 earlier this year. Apple says that the A5 offers twice the web browsing performance and seven times the graphics capabilities as last-year's single-core A4 processor, and it certainly shows when using the smartphone. Every task is fluid and effortless, and screen animations and transitions feel like butter. Apps open nearly instantly, and the phone never bogs down when you really go at it hard with multitasking.

I did not notice an appreciable difference in games on the iPhone 4S over the iPhone 4, but that could be because developers just haven't had the time to optimize their games for the new processor yet -- possibly developers won't even bother to do so until a larger user base has moved to faster CPUs running iOS, too. Of the dual-core powered smartphones that I have tested this year, including the Samsung Galaxy S II family, the iPhone 4S outshines them all when it comes to a responsive and fluid experience.

Despite the major changes to some aspects brought about with version 5, iOS is still mostly the same, and users who have been working with earlier versions of the platform will have no issues picking it up and running with it.

The biggest change in iOS 5 comes with the new Notification Center, which seems to borrow heavily from Android, webOS, and even Symbian. Gone are the modal pop-ups that plagued users on earlier iOS versions (though, you can add them back if you insist), replaced by a pull down menu that organizes all incoming notifications into a list, which can then be acted on at the user's will. iOS 5 groups relevant notifications together, so all of your Facebook comments will be in the same grouping, separate from text messages and emails, for example.

You can control what notifications appear in the pull-down menu from the Settings app, and you can specify the order of them or just let them be sorted by time of arrival. Each app's notifications can be dismissed without disturbing other apps' alerts, so you can leave things in the pull-down tray that need later attention. If you receive an alert while you are in another app, a shade will drop down from the top of the screen for a few seconds and then disappear, allowing you to get back to what you were doing and handle the notification later. Also, you don't have to worry about a pop-up alert crashing your favorite racing game anymore.

The Notification Center is also home to Apple's first use of widgets in iOS, though they are a bit limited at this point. You can have a local weather widget, which will also display a 6-day forecast, or a running stock ticker. The pull-down tray will also display upcoming calendar appointments if you'd like. Hopefully Apple will expand this in the future and allow third-party developers to take advantage of it. A widget to control commonly used settings, such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or orientation lock, would be a great addition.

There is more to the Notification Center too, as you can have it display your incoming alerts on the lock screen. A quick left-to-right slide across the alert will open its associated application, letting you quickly clear the notification or respond to it if need be. Certain Android phones offer shortcuts to apps on the lock screen, but Apple's implementation is more dynamic in my opinion, and supports all third-party app notifications. Say what you will about copying other platforms and taking too long to address a much-complained about feature, but Apple did a really good job here. I do wish there were persistent icons in the status bar that remind you that there is an alert needing attention. Both Android and webOS execute this well.

Siri

iOS 5 includes numerous other enhancements, and I will address some of them later on in the review. All new features and improvements in iOS 5 are available to users of the iPhone 4 and iPhone 3GS, but Apple saved one pretty big feature exclusively for the iPhone 4S, its new voice-controlled personal assistant, Siri.

Siri is not the first implementation of voice controls in iOS -- earlier versions allowed users to play music or call a contact by saying a command -- but it is a completely different experience than before. Other platforms, most notably Android, and to a limited extent Windows Phone 7.5, allow users to speak voice commands to perform actions on their phones, but none of them reach the level of interaction that Siri offers. If 2001: A Space Odyssey's HAL 9000 frightens you, well, then this might be the time for you to run and hide in your bunker. Siri is the closest thing to artificial intelligence that I've ever used. It can accept commands in natural language, provide responses, and understand context for follow up questions.

Siri can be activated by holding down the home key for a few seconds, or bringing the phone up to your ear as if you were to make a phone call. A query of "Is it going to rain today?" will be met with a voice response and the forecast for the day. Follow up by saying "What about in London?", and Siri will know that you are asking for the weather in London and will provide the appropriate information. Siri is also tied into your calendar and contact list, so a request to "schedule a dinner with my wife on Friday at 7 p.m." will initiate a calendar entry with my wife attached as an attendee for that time slot. If I already have plans with somebody else at that time, Siri will let me know and offer to reschedule the appointment (though, if I know what is good for me, I will push the other appointment to a different time and keep the dinner with my wife). It all happens remarkably quickly and with little effort, making it almost fun to perform tasks with Siri.

Apple has partnered with Wolfram Alpha and Yelp to provide information about facts and restaurants to Siri. A question of "who won the 1986 World Series?" will be answered with the correct response, along with some related facts about the New York Mets, who happened to be the winners that year. If I am traveling and in a new city, I can ask Siri for the best Mexican restaurant in the area, and Siri will give me a list of nearby restaurants sorted by their Yelp rankings. It is not yet capable of booking me a table at the restaurant of my choice, but that could be something that could added in the future, provided Apple partners with the right companies (OpenTable would be a good choice in this instance). There are countless questions that you can ask Siri, and its sometimes snarky responses really give the system a personality that is lacking in most computer interactions.

As part of Siri, the iPhone 4S supports voice-to-text transcriptions, a first for the iOS platform. To the left of the on-screen keyboard's space bar is a microphone button that when pressed will cause the phone to listen for a command, which it will then transcribe into text and insert into a text field. It works system-wide in any text field that is not considered a password. The transcriptions are remarkably fast and accurate, and the system handles punctuation and capitalization with aplomb. It can also recognize brand names and proper nouns, so saying something like iPad will lead to the proper camel-case text. I have used similar voice transcription with Android for years, and I have to say the iPhone 4S' system is faster and more accurate in all of the tests I threw at it. Google claims that Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich will offer the fastest and most accurate voice-to-text yet, so we will have to see how that stacks up when it is released.

Yet Siri isn't perfect, and Apple says it is still in beta, but it has a lot of potential. There were a few instances where Siri did not recognize what I was asking it to do, and a number of other times when Apple's servers that power Siri were clearly being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of new users hammering the system with assignments and questions (not to mention it just went down completely this week). It also doesn't offer restaurant or local recommendations outside of the U.S. However, Siri works well more often that not, and offers a new way of interacting with a smartphone that we haven't seen before.

Aside from the Notification Center and Siri, the experience of using the iPhone 4S is largely unchanged from previous iPhones. You are still presented with a grid of icons for your apps that can be organized into folders, and each app is siloed from the others, giving the whole system a feeling of bouncing in and out from one task to the next.

Apps generally are unable to share information with one another, which effectively renders them islands in a sea of apps. Apple's form of multitasking helps alleviate this, and I found that by using the multitasking menu I was able to jump between apps easily enough to avoid the separation anxiety that earlier versions of iOS presented. The one platform that does a really good job of integrating your data throughout the whole system into a fluid and easy-to-use manner is Windows Phone 7.5, and Apple's method feels very different from that. It comes down to personal preference as to which method is right for you, and frankly, I have no issues with the way Apple's system handles things. Different strokes for different folks, as they say.

Calling / Data

The version of the Apple iPhone 4S that I tested for my review was the AT&T model, which features HSPA+ 14.4Mbps connectivity - an upgrade over previous iPhones that were limited to 7.2Mbps HSPA connections. The iPhone 4S has support for both CDMA and GSM networks, so users on Verizon and Sprint can bring their phones overseas and roam on local GSM networks.

One of the biggest issues that plagued the iPhone 4 was the so-called "antennagate" problem, which led to dropped calls and loss of signal depending on how the phone was held. We haven't heard too much about the issue since last summer, and thankfully it's been eliminated with the iPhone 4S. As far as connection speed goes, the iPhone 4S was comparable with other HSPA+ smartphones that I have tested this year, including the Galaxy S II from Samsung. Download speeds were about 3Mbps on average, with upload speeds averaging 1 to 1.3Mbps, which is about as good as you are going to get with AT&T in my area. Certainly no one will confuse the iPhone 4S' speeds for a true 4G device that has an LTE or even WiMAX connection. Users on CDMA networks can expect to see lower speeds than those on GSM networks, as CDMA connections have a lower theoretical max speed.

As far as call quality goes, the iPhone has never been known for being the best phone in this particular area, but the 4S performed well. Calls were loud and clear, and I could be heard well without distortion or breaking up. The speakerphone does a good job of getting loud without breaking up into a crackly mess, as well. Like the iPhone 4, the 4S features a noise-canceling microphone and processor, which does a good job of isolating your voice from background noise. I did not experience any dropped calls with the iPhone 4S during my review period, but those who live in areas with spotty coverage might have different experiences.

The iPhone 4S also supports Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.0, a first for mobile devices. Bluetooth 4.0 offers lower power consumption and faster connections than previous iterations of the standard, and allows for pairing with more universal accessories. Since the iPhone 4S is the first phone to support Bluetooth 4.0, it is a technology that will likely be used more widely in the future and doesn't offer any immediate advantages today.