iPhone 4s Review: An Irishman Talks To Siri

The iPhone 4s has arrived in Ireland from October 28th, bringing the upgraded specs and the new “Intelligent Assistant” Siri to the Republic’s smartphone soaked market.

The improved camera and processor will be welcomed by those trading up, but how does Siri cope with Irish placenames, and an Irish accent? Is it just a gimmick, or a useful interface for the phone?  I put it though its paces with some surprising results, including new weapons technology and a gift for diplomacy.

The iPhone 4 has been reviewed in a million places by people much better than I at judging the smartphone market, so this piece is really focussed on:

  • How it feels for me upgrading from a 3GS
  • Playing with Siri (for fun)
  • Working with Siri (will it do practical stuff for me?)
  • Siri and the local market (Irish accent/placenames)

GETTING STARTED.

If you’re used to the iPhone anyway (and especially if you have already used iOS5 on your older phone) the 4S will be very easy to adapt to – everything is pretty much in the same place, just with extra bells and whistles.

I was moving from a 3GS and found the experience absolutely painless – it takes a while to go through the activation process, but when it is finished, everything has been copied across from your old phone (if that’s what you choose to do) including all your photos, music, apps, favourites etc. The only thing you will need to do is a once-off re-entry of passwords for things such as your Apple ID, email, Google+ etc. (this is a positive – you wouldn’t want someone to be able to access these simply by hooking up to your computer and migrating your data).

In my hands the phone feels much the same, perhaps a little lighter, and certainly more square.  I’m not sure I like the new style of volume buttons, they seem easy to mishandle when simply holding the phone.

Reception seems to me to be identical to my 3GS in difficult places such as my front room, which is in a communications death-zone and only ever gets 1 bar (even right back to my Nokia N95 days).

I have seen today reports of 4S users experiencing battery-life issues, however I’m not in a position to say if this affects my 4S, as I’ve had it on and off the laptop several times during the day doing various tests and copying stuff. I think it is possible that the battery on standby is dropping a little faster than I might expect, but I’ll need another couple of days to confirm that. If some sort of an OS bug is responsible, it should be easily addressed by a patch in any case.

UPDATE: Don’t seem to have the battery issue myself – tested today, 6 hours on standby with 3G, Wifi, Siri and Location Services enabled, dropped 8% in the 6 hours.

The new camera, by the way, is excellent, and the jump in quality from my older 3GS is especially evident. I’ve not had time to try out the video yet.

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AND SO TO SIRI

Siri is the new voice-activated “intelligent assistant” on the iPhone, and the bar that it has to jump for me is not speech recognition itself (such systems have been around for decades, albeit clunky in some cases) but accuracy and more vitally, practical usefullness. By which I mean, yes, it’s fine to have fun playing with the system by having offball conversations, but does it actually do useful stuff that I would need on an everyday basis?

The answer, surprisingly, is yes. (I say surprisingly because I’ve used voice recognition systems in the past, particularly on the Mac 12 or 13 years ago, and while they were fun, they took a lot of effort for very little useful return).

But Siri is on the way to greatness. Not brilliant, yet, because it has a few minor glitches, but there is without doubt a set of useful functions already, and this is just the beta version.

So what can it do?

Well let me start with one tiny, tiny thing, that just on its own makes it worthwhile for me.

It’s 7.30am, it’s a bitterly cold morning, and I am trudging up the hill to work, with my iPhone buried deep in an inner pocket to protect it from the rain. I have 12,000 tracks currently in my collection, and am buying new albums at the rate of three or four a week, plus receiving many as promos, and there are simply many tracks on my system that I do not know yet. Even if I know I am listening to the new Florence album, it’s my first time hearing it, and I want to know what the current track is called.

No more stopping and fishing out the phone in the rain to see what’s playing – a simple squeeze of my earphone button and Siri asks me what i want, and gives me the info, then goes back to playing the song. Simple as that. (whatever you ask Siri, and its spoken response to you is echoed on the screen too, as above).

Likewise, if I suddenly get a gra for some Nine Inch Nails while walking up that hill, a quick squeeze to summon Siry, a simple command “Play Nine Inch Nails” or, if I want an actual track “Play Metallica, Nothing Else Matters” and it is straight on.

This works with other content like podcasts too – I tried it with “Play Podcast Feedback” and it had the latest unlistened episode of the Radio 4 show playing instantly.

Likewise texting, or sending emails.

Simply say “Text” and it will ask you for the receipient, then the content, and then read it back to you, and ask if you want it sent, changed or cancelled. (You can also speed it up, for example, by specifying “Text Steve Conway” and it will then only need the content.  This works well for texts, but for emails it tends to only grab what you are saying until the first pause, and then make it the content of the email, which you can only change in its entirity, not add to.

For emails the way round this is to go into email editing mode, and a microphone symbol appears, you can press this and create your email in chunks.  An ability to add to existing content on an email when in fully automatic mode would be good.

The system can read incoming texts out to you, and ask if you want to reply, but this feature is not available for emails – yet.

Likewise, it is easy to set reminders or schedule meetings.

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SIRI IN IRELAND

So how accurate is the speech recognition? How does it cope in Ireland?

The answer is “pretty well” – it seems to have little trouble accepting my commands and emails, and it even copes with Dublin placenames well enough. The few times it flaked out on me were usually in situations where it understood my words, but not what I actually wanted (it will search for such things on the web if you want).

Below is a test I set the phone for an email with a mixture of Irish placenames and surnames.

First is what I dictated:

Hi Steve here’s the plan.

We meet in the city centre at 8pm and then travel out via Stillorgan to Dun laoghaire on the 46A, after that we can try O’Shaugnesseys, take a walk along the pier, and then go back into town for dinner.

If you can’t make it please send me text, regards Steve

Below is what Siri typed – incorrect parts highlighted red.

Hi Steve here’s the plan

We meet in the city centre at 8 PM and then travel out via Stillorgan to Dun Laoghaire under 40 succes after that recanted electroshock missiles take a walk along the pier and then go back to town for dinner

If you can make it please send me text regards Steve

—-

Recanted elctroshock missiles?  . .

Having said that, Irish surnames are probably a trial for any AI software!

So in review, a very useful tool, will certainly be used by me day to day, and will hopefully get better with upgrades.

Now we’ve done the work, let’s have a little fun:

1> Let’s talk about nature . .

2> – One of Siri’s rare failures, I was trying to educate it on how to find the best alternative music in Dublin, but it had Christmas on its mind . .

3> – Now lets ask it the big question.

OK, how about coming down on one or other side of a current politica; / social divide?

So there you have it. It can copy with the irish voice, knows our placenames, but can’t quite get the hang of our pub names yet . .

All in all, a great upgrade from the 3GS, and a genuinely useful voice interface.

Steve


Phantom’s new iPhone app

Though not an iPhone owner yet (waiting until they are on Vodafone) I’m pleased to see the below news from my friends at Phantom 105.2.

This will be one of the first apps I get when I do get the phone!

Steve


The new Phantom 105.2 iPhone app is now available free for iPhone and iPod Touch devices worldwide!

It allows you to:– Listen to Phantom in crystal clear 48K AAC+ stereo sound
– See the name of the song “Now Playing”
– View our Twitter Feed (great for latest music news and Phantom events)
– E-mail your requests directly to the Phantom studio!

To download, go to App Store and search for “Phantom 105.2”  on your device.

Please note: You should be aware that the Phantom app may download a significant amount of data while it’s running, so please make sure that you have an appropriate data plan if you connect through your mobile network or on a public wi-fi network.