Apple kicked off its annual iPhone refresh on Tuesday, introducing the iPhone 4S. This newest handset sprinkles in many powerful features, including voice commands, a better camera, and "world phone" antennas – things that will keep the iPhone line chugging along at full speed. However, Apple used Tuesday's keynote as a chance to catch up with the competition, not as a moment to zoom past its biggest rival, Android.
The iPhone 4S enjoys the speed and power of Apple's A5 chip, the same processor inside the iPad 2. This faster dual-core engine handles graphics seven times faster than the iPhone 4, a boon for high-resolution apps. Its new camera jumps from 5 megapixels to 8. And unlike the older model, which required shoppers to choose between a GSM or CDMA antenna, the iPhone 4S is a "world phone." That means the same device can hop between Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, or nearly any network overseas.
This new antenna should improve call quality as well, says Apple. While the iPhone 4 has a history of dropping calls – remember "the death grip"? – the company says this new design allows the iPhone 4S to switch between its multiple antennas on the fly, improving call quality and data speeds.
Apple's new line up, which hits stores October 14, follows the usual pricing scheme. A white or black iPhone 4S will cost $199 (16 gigabytes), $299 (32 gigs), or $399 (for the new 64-gigabyte model). The older iPhone 4 is now $99, and the iPhone 3GS will be free. All prices assume that you sign a two-year service contract.
Apple also trotted out a new voice command feature. The free service, called Siri, will answer "natural language" questions. For example, if you ask the iPhone 4S, “What’s the weather like today?," it'll pull up the forecast. During the presentation, Apple exec Scott Forstall told Siri to find a "Greek restaurant in Palo Alto." Siri responded with “I’ve found five Greek restaurants, and I’ve sorted them by rating.”
“Compose and dictate email right to Siri," Mr. Forstall said on stage. "Set timers. Look up contacts, create notes, search the web, search Wikipedia."
Apple spent a significant amount of time introducing Siri, which is curious since the service will come on the iPhone 4S as a beta. Apple has not – at least within recent memory – allotted so much of its keynote time to a feature that will arrive unfinished. The Apple brand usually stands for well-crafted precision, or at least the appearance of such.
Perhaps this marks a new, more experimental Apple. After all, the company's new chief executive, Tim Cook, presided over Tuesday's event for the first time. His presentation felt Jobsian, if a little cooler and more understated. Otherwise, the event seemed thoroughly "Apple."
Or, perhaps this shows that Apple recognizes it needs to play a little catch up.
Sure, the iPhone is the most popular phone in the world – and for good reason. Apple has crammed its svelte hardware with numerous clever, elegant, and revolutionary innovations. Still, Android is the world's most popular phone operating system – again, for good reason. Android phones come in every size, shape, and personality.
If you want a bigger screen, the Samsung Infuse stands a full diagonal-inch taller than the iPhone. If you want a better camera, several Android phones already offer an 8 megapixel option. If you want voice commands, Google baked in dictation and controls long ago. And if you want a new phone off-season, new Android devices come out all the time, not once a year like the iPhone.
Apple did pull ahead of Android in some ways. The iPhone 4S camera can reportedly snap two photos before some Android devices have even taken one. Siri seems more capable than what Google currently offers – we'll see for sure when Apple releases review units. And we didn't even mention the designer card service, real-time video image stabilization at 1080p, and iOS 5's iMessage.
The iPhone 4S is no doubt the most powerful iPhone to date, but with such strong competition nipping at Apple's heels, the iPhone 4S is not the most tempting iPhone to date.
Maybe we'll get a true "iPhone 5" next year.
For more on how technology intersects daily life, follow Chris on Twitter @venturenaut.