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Tech Report – iPhone 4S

After months of rumors, Apple yesterday finally unveiled the latest iPhone. But it wasn’t the expected iPhone 5; instead it was a very familiar looking iPhone 4S. In fact, the iPhone 4S looks identical to its predecessor. All the changes – and there are some big ones – are on the inside or “under the hood” as industry analysts termed it.

Perhaps the biggest change – but not one that is going to capture too many headlines – is the improvement in processing speed. With smartphone owners downloading more data and streaming more and more video, handset manufacturers have been struggling to keep up with the extra demands.

To counteract this, Apple’s has loaded up the iPhone 4S with the dual-core A5 chip, which is the same microprocessor that’s used in the iPad. That means faster download speeds and better graphics – even though the iPhone 4S will still not be available on the carriers’ upgraded 4G networks.

There is a new 8-megapixel camera, a new antenna that will improve reception, and, despite all the extra power, an enhanced battery life that can accommodate up to 8 hours of talk or 10 hours of video watching on a single charge. But the add-on that caught most people’s attention – and which was the centerpiece of yesterday’s press briefing – was a new “virtual assistant” feature, which Apple is calling Siri.

Voice recognition technology has moved forward in fits and starts for most of the past decade, with consumers becoming easily frustrated by efforts that seem to get it wrong more often than they get it right. But in the last couple of years, engineers have made big strides, with features like “talk to text” now becoming standard on the better mobile devices.

Siri takes voice recognition to another level, accepting commands such as “Wake me up tomorrow at 6 am” and “Remind me to call my wife” and translating those commands into actionable events using the iPhone’s regular features. Whether consumers become comfortable talking to their phones as if they were live personal assistants remains to be seen, but for now, Apple has jumped ahead in this ambitious and often awe-inspiring arena.

Existing iPhone users and those waiting in the wings will have to decide whether the iPhone 4S offers enough of an incentive to go out and buy now, or whether they are better off waiting for the iPhone 5, which surely won’t arrive until Fall 2012 at the earliest.

The iPhone 4S will be available in black and white and will cost $199 for the 16GB version, $299 for 32GB, and $399 for the 64GB model. Sprint has been added to the list of carriers, leaving T-Mobile as the only member of the big 4 that’s still not offering an iPhone. Pre-orders begin October 7 and the phone will be available in US stores from October 14.

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