Apple’s iPhone 4S (a quick preview)

by Mike on October 4, 2011

“Remind me to call my wife when I leave the strip club”.

“Ok.” – Siri.

It’s been a longer than normal, leak-filled wait but finally Apple took the wraps off its latest iPhone – the fifth iPhone since the original launched in 2007. Apple’s taking no chances with this release with numerous improvements all round on the hardware and software. The iPhone 5 looks to be a solid successor to the iPhone 4 despite looking exactly the same. Internally it boasts the A5 chip as found in the iPad 2 (presumably underclocked to maintain battery life), an improved camera for still image and video capture,  , a more reliable aerial which now supports the fast 3.5G wireless HSPA+ technology, and the thoroughly dev-tested iOS 5.0 firmware which is more evolutionary than revolutionary, adding approximately 200 new user features and 1,500 new API’s for developers.

The camera – The camera looks to be an incredible piece of work. The iPhone 4 camera already tops the “most popular camera” chart on Flickr and I can attest to the unbelievable quality of the photos and video that it produces. The iPhone and the iPod were one of the main drivers for the failure of Cisco’s popular “Flip” line of dedicated portable camcorders. The iPhone 4 killed the “Flip HD”.

What else is there to say? The camera’s sensor has more pixels (increased resolution from 5MP to 8MP) and those pixels are larger (more sensitive to light). The aperture ratio has increased from f2.8 to f2.4 which means wide open it lets in 25% more light for a given shutter speed. Better portraits and blurred backgrounds, face detection, image stablisation (not yet known if this is optical or digital) mean that Apple are probably onto a long-term camera winner here and I’m considering replacing my venerable workhorse Canon S95 with the iPhone 4S camera. That’s how good the spec sheet looks.

iCloud  – Backup and sync up to 5Gb of mail and photos on Apple’s cloud. Sync your iTunes library. A bit of a yawn for me but I’m sure others will find it useful and might want to check another blog for opinions on this.

The killer software feature has to be in iOS 5 Speech recognition (which only works on the 4s, although there’s no technical reason for it…) – I’m sceptical here since Apple demoed their original iOS speech recognition software in version 3.0 (2009) and it worked flawlessly on stage. In practice, I find that saying, “Play songs by Queen” usually turns into “No match found” or worse, initiates a phone call to a customer. Needless to say, this is not good in the evenings and weekends! Since the last iPhone & iOS version, Apple has acquired third party Nuance-powered “Siri” voice recognition technology so one hopes that I’ll be listening to Queen and not calling mistakenly calling my customers at 3am…

But as it happens, Siri appears to be able to handle complex and conversational requests, for instance:

“Where is the nearest strip club?”

and then…

“Remind me to call my wife when I leave”

And if Siri is challenged with a question that she cannot answer, a web service call to the fabulously impressive “Wolfram Alpha” web based knowledge engine will handle the query with aplomb. I’m particularly looking forward to being able to ask Siri when the ISS will pass overhead for that photo opportunity when I go stargazing.

Using Siri to read messages and dictate responses is a big win when driving or out and about and will be a real productivity boon for those days when I’m on the road.

No mention has been made of Facetime HD calling on the iPhone 4 – why not, Apple?

Lastly the iPhone 3Gs is still being sold. In the US it will be available for free on contract. No doubt it’s still being manufactured in smaller quantities, presumably still with the old Cortex-A8 processor.

Release Info

United States, United Kingdom, Canada and a few other countries: Pre-order on Friday 7th October. Release date: Friday 14th October. Rest of the world to follow. UK pricing is £499 for the 16GB version in either black or white. In this day and age it would be nice to see 32GB as a meaningful base point or at least to see a memory expansion slot.

For developers

One big problem I’ve been having with my iOS apps is that of memory management and garbage collection. It’s ok when you have a simple utility application but as you start to add extra views, when you have to count the references to objects manually it gets a little tiring and bug-prone. Apple’s introduced Automatic Reference Counting in iOS 5 which not only makes programming a little easier, it should lead to more robust software in the App Store too.

iCloud Storage API’s and Notification Center make it easier to store documents, data and files remotely (without having to provide a cloud service yourself or use a third party service) and Core Image, OpenGL ES look outstandingly simple to integrate and Storyboards and extra performance profiling tools make the act of producing better software even easier. Again, the outcome will be higher quality software and a better overall experience for users.

For my mum

The iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad are now PC Free, so no PC is required to use – or update – the device. That’s a big win for someone wanting a computing appliance without the rig moral of iTunes updates and syncing. Since Amazon have taken the same ‘PC Less / No Sync’ approach to their new Kindle, the tech world is moving away from desktop computing towards appliance computing in it’s own right.

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