The science fiction reality
Apple iPhone 4S review
What is it: Apple's latest mega-phone, with more powerful hardware and smarter software.
What's great: the dual-core processor flies, and the new camera is way better - but Siri is the star of the show.
What's not: it's still hideously expensive, and the battery barely makes it through the day.
Bottom line: some people may be disappointed, but the iPhone 4S is an absolutely cracking smartphone.
What's in a name? The internet rumour mill led the whole world to expect an all-new iPhone 5 from Apple earlier this month - but what we got instead was the iPhone 4S. Past experience with Apple's iPhone updates has shown that slapping an 'S' onto the model number simply implies a 'speed bump' - a new model that is faster but not radically different from its predecessor. So, if you believed the rumours about a completely redesigned iPhone 5 with a larger screen then, yep, you were probably disappointed.
Apart from anything else the iPhone 4S looks virtually identical to the iPhone 4, so we didn't even get the childish glee of ogling a shiny new design. Yet that superficial similarity is actually misleading, because on the inside the iPhone 4S is a whole new beast.
Let's start with the basics. The launch of the iPhone 4 was marred by a major hoo-ha about the phone's apparently dodgy reception, so the iPhone 4S now has a new design that allows it to automatically switch between its two internal antennae in order to provide better reception. There don't seem to have been any early reports about reception problems with the iPhone 4S, and while I personally never had any problems making calls with my iPhone 4 I have noticed that I get a more reliable connection when using the iPhone 4S with my wifi network at home.
The iPhone 4S is a lot faster too, as it now uses the same dual-core A5 processor as the iPad 2. There are other smartphones out there with even faster processors, but there's no doubt the iPhone 4S feels really snappy when you're starting up apps and loading web pages. Apple says that overall performance is about twice as fast, but that graphics performance in particular is as much as seven times faster, so it'll be interesting to see what sort of new games start to appear as we approach Christmas. The new processor is very power-efficient, so battery life seems to be about the same for this model.
Another component that gets a complete overhaul is the iPhone's camera. The resolution for photos steps up from 5MP to 8MP, while video recording increases from 720p to full 1080p high-definition. The new camera also has additional sensors and a wider aperture (f/2.4), which allow it to capture light more efficiently. I'm not the world's greatest photographer, but I certainly noticed a marked improvement in the sharpness and clarity of the photos that I've taken in just the brief time that I've had the new phone. Check the MSN Tech & Gadgets Facebook page for some pictures I took with the iPhone 4S.
The faster processor helps here as well, as it allows the camera to focus more quickly when you tap on the screen, and to respond more rapidly when you want to take several shots in rapid succession. You can activate the camera from the lock screen too, so the iPhone 4S will definitely appeal to people who like to point and shoot on the spur of the moment.
These are all good, solid improvements, but they're not going to have the likes of Samsung's Galaxy S2 quaking in its boots. However, the iPhone 4S does have one last trick up its sleeve - and it's a real blinder too.
That new feature is Siri, a technology that Apple describes as an 'intelligent assistant' that can respond to spoken commands or questions. To be honest, I wasn't expecting much from Siri, because the iPhone 4 already has a voice-control feature that simply doesn't work very well. It can just about handle brief commands such as "call Pete" or "play Abba" - but that's about it, and it falls flat on its face if you throw a name like Kylie Minogue at it.
Siri, however, is far more advanced and can actually cope with entire sentences. If you say - "what's the weather going to be like today?" - it will look up the weather forecast for you on the internet. Tell it to "remind me to feed the dog when I get home" and Siri will link up with the new Reminders app and create a reminder for you. It will even track your movements so that it can pop the reminder onto your screen when you arrive back home.
I have to admit that I was impressed - especially since Siri is still officially in its 'beta' prototype phase. It was able to cope with most of the commands and questions that I threw at it - including playing some Kylie Minogue tracks, and song titles such as Bohemian Rhapsody. It's not great for dictating long emails or notes, but it can handle short email messages and internet search queries with far greater accuracy than I'd expected.
There are some limitations - the main one being that Siri will only work if you've got an active 3G or wifi internet connection (and how will that affect your 3G data cap?). Some other features, such as the ability to locate restaurants and other businesses using the Maps app, are only available in the US at the moment. Even so, Siri is still an improvement on any other voice-recognition system that I've used before and it will be a real challenge for Apple's smartphone rivals to come up with something that can match it.
Apple was probably wise to call this the iPhone 4S. It's a slick and classy smartphone, but not really different enough to merit that symbolic step up to the magic number '5'. Siri is a genuine step forward for voice-control technology, but it's still a work in progress and may take some time to really fulfill its potential. In other words, the countdown for the iPhone 5 starts here...
Price: (unlocked, SIM-free) 16GB - £499; 32GB - £599; 64GB - £699
Screen: 3.5-inch, 960x640 resolution
Processor: 1GHz, dual-core A5
Camera: primary camera - 8MP still photos, 1080p video; secondary camera - 640x480 photos and video
Battery: talk - eight hours (3G), standby - 200 hours
Dimensions: 115mm x 58.6mm x 9.3mm