iPhone 4S Hands-On Impressions: Siri Test Drive, Superfast Camera, and More

Right after Apple announced the iPhone 4S, the company let a select group of journalists get some hands-on time with the device. We couldn’t take photos or video, but were able to experience some of the best new features. Here’s our initial impressions of the iPhone 4S, which should hold you over until it launches Oct. 14th.

Siri

The Siri personal assistant is the iPhone 4′s most unique feature, and it has some pretty impressive capabilities. Using your voice, you can control music playback, ask for directions, get the weather, respond to messages, schedule appointments, and more. During our hands-on time, we asked an iPhone 4S a bunch of questions, and it delivered satisfactory answers most of the time (it is in beta).

When I asked Siri if there were any good steakhouses nearby, it returned a list from Yelp, complete with user ratings. To engage Siri, you press and hold the Home button. While the assistant proved more accurate when we pressed the microphone button–to inform the phone we were done talking–we expect better results in a quieter environment. In that case, Siri is smart enough to sense pauses and keep the conservation going. Yes, I said conversation.

Siri doesn’t just respond to very specific commands. You can ask it to schedule a dinner and then say “I change my mind” and it will start over or ask what you want to do next. You can also get driving directions to business results you look up. Siri did get tripped up a few times, but we were told that it learns your voice and that the accuracy improves over time. The female voice for Siri is friendly if slightly robotic.

Siri works with Apple’s apps as well as some third-party services, such as Yelp, Wolfram Alpha, and Wikipedia. But we’d like to see Siri integrate with other apps, such as TripIt for flight info and travel updates.

Faster, Brighter Camera

The iPhone 4S doesn’t just have a sharper camera (8-MP vs 5-MP). It’s brighter and faster. When we put the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 4S side by side when taking pictures, we noticed that the image on the iPhone 4S’ screen looked brighter. That’s because the iPhone 4S has a f/2.4 aperture lens that lets in more light. When we started shooting pics side by side, the iPhone 4S was noticeably faster, thanks to the A5 processor’s dedicated image sensor. It captured images instantly, compared to a half-second or so lag for the iPhone 4.

iCloud and AirPlay

At another demo station Apple was showing off iCloud and how the service keeps things in sync across multiple devices, whether it’s an iPhone 4S, iPod touch, Mac, or Apple TV. With Photostream, for example, you can upload pics to the cloud and then access them within a few seconds on your Mac in iPhoto or on an iOS device. Unfortunately, you can only upload photos over Wi-Fi and not 3G, which is a bummer. Apple also showed off how iWork apps keep your changes in sync across devices, and the ability to create an iTunes playlist on the iPhone 4S and then add to it on your Mac. It’s all pretty seamless.

Speaking of seamless, AirPlay on the iPhone 4S makes it easy to stream content directly to an Apple TV, just as you can with an iPad 2 (with iOS 5). We tried it out with a car racing game. The graphics looked pretty jagged on the big screen compared to the iPhone 4S’s display, but the visuals and controls were pretty much in sync. And, unlike the hopelessly clumsy DLNA, you can stream DRM-protected content.

Outlook

Overall, the iPhone 4S looks like it will be able to give the latest Android superphones a run for their money. It’s faster, smarter, and it looks like it will take better pictures and video than the competition. On the other hand, the iPhone 4S has the same design as last year’s model and doesn’t have 4G data.

We have some unanswered questions about the iPhone 4S, especially whether the new antenna system will truly improve data performance. We disabled Wi-Fi on both a Sprint and Verizon version to gauge the 3G speeds, but neither device was activated. We also want to see how well Siri works in the real world–and whether we’ll use it after the novelty wears off.

Stay tuned for our full review of the iPhone 4S.

AUTHOR BIO
Mark Spoonauer
Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptopmag.com, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.
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