Apple's new smartphone, the iPhone 4S, lands in stores around the country Friday. The company says consumers pre-ordered more than 1 million of the phones within 24 hours last week, when it became available online.
One of the new iPhone's biggest rivals will be the Motorola Bionic, which runs on Google's Android operating system. Both phones are very capable, and very fast. Here's a chart outlining their features:
Test-Driving The iPhone 4S
The 4S doesn't look very different from its predecessor, the iPhone 4. But as Bloomberg technology columnist Rich Jaroslovsky tells NPR's Steve Inskeep, you can't judge a phone by its cover.
"It's kind of like a car where the exterior styling hasn't been changed, but under the hood they've popped in a new engine," says Jaroslovsky, who received a review model of the phone.
"They've added a whole lot of new features and things, and you can't really tell the difference until you take it out for a spin," he says.
Siri: A 'Personal Assistant'
One of the most-discussed features of the new iPhone is "Siri," a voice recognition and response system. It answers questions and takes voice commands — whether the user is requesting restaurant recommendations, adding reminders and appointments to a digital calendar, or even dictating text messages. All of it is done hands-free.
Jaroslovsky demonstrates the "personal assistant" by asking it, "What's the best smartphone?"
Siri's response: "I think you've already answered that question."
The voice recognition technology isn't perfect, though. The software occasionally misunderstands what the user says. And if the answer to a question isn't readily available, Siri simply displays results from a Web search on the phone's screen.
Better Photos, And Speed
The new iPhone also has an upgraded camera, moving from a 5-megapixel sensor to an 8-megapixel sensor — which lets it take more detailed photographs than the iPhone 4.
In terms of download speeds, the iPhone 4S beats many of its competitors on AT&T's network, according to Jaroslovsky. Although the phone isn't labeled as "4G," he reports being able to browse the Internet faster with the iPhone 4S than with the Samsung Galaxy S II — a phone that uses Google's Android operating system, and is advertised as being "4G."
The iPhone 4S is also available on Sprint, a first for that carrier, as well as Verizon, which has the 4G LTE, or "Long Term Evolution," network. Jaroslovsky calls the 4G LTE the fastest network available — but it comes at a cost: Phones that use it tend to suffer from a shorter battery life.
Motorola's Bionic is one of those phones — the Android handset is available only on Verizon, and it runs on the speedy LTE network.
"Essentially, devices running on Verizon's LTE network will be faster than the 4S running over the AT&T network," says Jaroslovsky, who earlier this year wrote an extensive article about mobile network speeds.
"But a 4S running over the AT&T network proves to be faster than the phones that AT&T is selling as 4G," he says, "and faster than a 4S running over either the Verizon or Sprint networks."
Jaroslovsky also points out that while iPhones are well-known, smartphones that run the Android software enjoy a slight majority in terms of sales.
"To a certain extent, what they used to call the 'reality distortion field' around Apple sometimes distracts people from that fact," he says.
Jaroslovsky explains that Google's strategy has been very different from Apple's. While Apple releases a new generation of iPhone only once a year, there are many Android phones available, as Google allows many manufacturers to use the software in their phones.
He adds that Apple's tactic of reducing the price of the iPhone 4 — and making the iPhone 3GS free for users who sign up for a two-year contract with their carrier — may be an attempt to counter Google on its own playing field.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Apple's new iPhone 4S will be in stores tomorrow. The company says that consumers preordered over a million phones in less than 24 hours when they went on sale online last Friday. Only this week, though, have technology writers had a chance to put the new iPhone through its paces. One of them is Rich Jaroslovsky of Bloomberg. He joined us from Stanford, California to tell us how the 4S stacks up against the competition. And he says it doesn't look all that new, at least on the outside.
RICH JAROSLOVSKY: Physically, it's identical to the previous iPhone 4. It's kind of like a car where the exterior styling hasn't been changed, but under the hood, they've popped in a new engine. They've added a whole lot of new features and things, and you can't really tell the difference until you take it out for a spin.
INSKEEP: And the most spectacular, perhaps, of these new features might be this voice instruction software. What is it, exactly?
JAROSLOVSKY: Well, it's a feature called Siri, and it is a voice recognition and response system. They call it a personal assistant. You ask it things, it tells you or it finds stuff for you. You can ask it, you know, where's a good sushi restaurant around here? It knows where you are, and it returns a list of restaurants. You can ask it to schedule a calendar item for yourself or set a reminder. If you're driving, you can dictate a text message and have it sent without taking your hands off the wheel.
INSKEEP: Okay. What are some of the questions you've been asking it?
JAROSLOVSKY: Well, let's see if it'll answer something for us right now.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)
JAROSLOVSKY: Siri, what's the best smartphone?
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)
MECHANIZED VOICE: I think you've already answered that question.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
INSKEEP: Oh, that's great. That's great. Have you stumped it?
JAROSLOVSKY: I have stumped it. I've - a couple times, it sort of misunderstood me. Sometimes it'll just come back and say I don't understand you, Rich. It does call me by name, which is a little unnerving. Sometimes it will take what I tell it and it doesn't have an answer itself, but it'll offer to do a Web search for me.
INSKEEP: What are a couple of the other features here that make this distinctive, if anything?
JAROSLOVSKY: Well, a couple of things that I was very struck by, besides Siri, are number one, it is very fast, particularly on the AT&T network. Now, the phone is available also on Verizon, and for the first time Sprint. The other thing that's different about it is that they've done a lot of work on the camera. They've improved the optics. They've improved the software. And it's now at a point where the camera is roughly comparable to a low-end point-and-shoot camera.
INSKEEP: What does Siri think of the competing phone that's been released by Verizon, the Droid Bionic?
JAROSLOVSKY: Siri, what do you think about the Droid Bionic?
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)
MECHANIZED VOICE: I'm sorry. Rich, I'm afraid I can't answer that.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
INSKEEP: How sad. Well, Rich, you can answer it. What do you think of the Droid Bionic?
JAROSLOVSKY: Well, to a certain extent, the Droid Bionic, which is a new Verizon phone, is a little bit of apples and oranges. You should pardon the expression.
JAROSLOVSKY: The Bionic runs on Verizon's LTE network, which is the fastest wireless network out there - much faster than any of these iPhones. But the tradeoff is battery life. When you're on an LTE network, it really sucks the juice.
INSKEEP: Am I correct that even though the iPhone takes virtually all the oxygen when it comes to smartphones, that there are actually more Androids out there than iPhones at this point?
JAROSLOVSKY: There absolutely are. And to a certain extent, what they used to call the reality distortion field around Apple sometimes distracts people from that fact. But Google has had tremendous success with the Android operating system, and they take a very different philosophy. They make Android available to all manufacturers and carriers that want to use it, and as a result, there's just a huge variety of Android devices out there.
INSKEEP: Rich Jaroslovsky, thanks very much.
JAROSLOVSKY: Thank you.
INSKEEP: He's a technology columnist at Bloomberg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.