A date with Siri

Other than the improved camera, which has now been bumped up to 8MP with improved optics and a backlit sensor (from 5MP on the iPhone 4), the one feature that’s gotten everyone (including Malaysians) talking about the iPhone 4S is Siri.

At the unveiling of the iPhone 4S, it wasn’t the faster dual-core processor or the new iOS 5 operating system that got everyone talking, it was the voice recognition software that took centre stage. Siri is unique among voice recognition applications because it has the ability to not only understand what you say but also know what you mean when you say it.

With Siri, you don’t merely say commands like how you would with Vlingo or Google’s Voice Actions. With Siri you converse with the software and it talks back as if it was having a conversation with you. Siri doesn’t merely scour the web to look for answers, Siri crafts tailor-made responses for you and this makes Siri special amongst voice recognition software.

Along with this high degree of sophistication comes a multitude of things that you can get Siri to do for you. With Siri you can set reminders, set alarm and timers, you can send a text message or an email, check the weather, look for information on the web, schedule meetings, play your favourite music, find a contact in your phone, get directions and few more other things.

All this is fine and dandy but there’s a catch. You can only get Siri’s full functionality in the US. Many of the cool features you see in the Apple videos about Siri don’t work in Malaysia and many other countries outside of the US. In fact Siri can only understand three languages, English (in three accents – US, British and Australian) French and German. With such a limited scope, we initially resigned the Siri as just a gimmick from Apple – something that is definitely a conversation starter and interesting but not very practical or useful.

But is it?

To find out whether Siri is useful for iPhone 4S users outside of the US, especially in Malaysia we took the iPhone 4S for a spin.

About the iPhone 4S
Before we delve deeper into Siri, let’s talk about the iPhone 4S for a bit. When the iPhone 4 – yes, the iPhone 4 – was revealed, we couldn’t stop singing praises about the device. We said that the iPhone 4 has excellent built quality and engineering that’s beyond other devices in the market. At the time, we said that it was the most advanced smartphone available and that it was built like no other smartphone.

That was over a year ago and things have changed tremendously since then yet the iPhone, even in its new guise – the iPhone 4S, has remained relatively unchanged. Aside from an update in specs, which includes an 8MP camera with improved optics and a backlit sensor, and a dual-core 800Mhz processor (the slowest among dual-core smartphones available currently), the iPhone 4S looks identical to the iPhone 4. Therein lies the first problem, it is a familiar shape and as a result it feels exactly the same as the model it replaces, and because of that the iPhone 4S doesn’t feel special. It just feels new, not exciting or exceptional, just familiar.

You will argue that there’s nothing wrong with the design of the iPhone 4 to begin with and yes, you are absolutely right, the iPhone 4S feels just as good and the built quality is top notch too but a year after the iPhone 4 was launched we expect Apple to refine the design further, to evolve the iPhone 4 to make it just that little bit better, but in the iPhone 4S, everything is as they were.

Going into the user interface, familiarity is once again an overbearing feeling that you get with the iPhone 4S, everything just feels the same exactly like it did in the iPhone 4. Yes, with the iOS 5, you get enhancements like a drop down notifications tray, OTA updates and iMessage, but overall, we didn’t notice any considerable boost in performance using iOS 5 in the iPhone 4S over the iPhone 4 or even the iPad 2. Also, almost all of the new features in iOS 5 are available on the iPhone 4 anyway so iOS 5 is really not a big deal on the iPhone 4S.

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The one thing that really shines through with the iPhone 4S is the camera. While we’re still analysing the pictures from our camera comparison test that pits the iPhone 4S against the Samsung Galaxy S II, Samsung Galaxy Note, Sony Ericsson Xperia ray, Motorola RAZR and even the Nokia N8, our initial findings reveal that the 8MP camera on the iPhone 4S is very special indeed. It is one of the best cameras you can get on a smartphone today. Pictures from the iPhone 4S capture amazing detail, the colour reproduction and contrast management are wonderful as well. We’ll talk more about this in another post but it is suffice to say that with the iPhone 4S you get an amazing camera. We’d even go as far as saying that if you are looking for a reason to upgrade to the iPhone 4S from the iPhone 4. The camera would be it.

So is the iPhone 4S worth it? If you’re an iPhone 4 owner, maybe not, the bump in performance is nice but we feel that it is not worth the upgrade. The iPhone 4S just feels so much like the iPhone 4, not just in looks but in every way, in its interface, its performance and its usability. If we’re and iPhone 4 owner we can’t justify upgrading to the iPhone 4S, except of course if taking videos and pictures is a big, big deal for you. As we’ve mentioned before, the camera on the iPhone 4S is one of the best you can get but then again that’s not to say that there is no comparison. In the Android camp, there is at least one smartphone that can match the iPhone 4S when it comes to picture and video quality but that discussion is for another time.

If you’re an iPhone 3GS user, the iPhone 4S is a no brainer. The new iPhone offers significant improvements all round over the iPhone 3GS but this is pretty much expected considering the latter is already over 2 years old.

What about Siri then? Is it worth getting the iPhone 4S because of Siri? Let’s get into that.

All about Siri
We’ve talked about Siri in some detail at the beginning of this post so we won’t go into what Siri can do here. We will however talk about what Siri can’t do. As we mentioned earlier, most of Siri’s location-based services are useless outside the US. Even in countries that speak the languages that is supported by Siri (Australia, England, France and Germany), location-based services don’t work. What you can do is ask Siri for locations in the US. For example if you ask Siri for the “best Malaysian restaurants in New York” it will be able to find that for you but even then it can only do so if you set the language to US English (it doesn’t work in Australian or UK English).

The reason for this is that Siri’s “brain” – so to speak – is powered by Wolfram Alpha. Wolfram Alpha is an online service that answers factual queries directly by computing the answer from structured and curated information and at the moment, almost all of the information known to Wolfram Alpha is based on the US.

So in this respect you can forget about asking Siri for the best Char Kuey Tiao in Penang or for the best satay in Kajang. Siri has no information about these things or places and so it can’t gain context as to what you mean when you say these things. When Siri is not able to find an answer on Wolfram Alpha it will direct users to the web via Google, and frankly speaking for finding relevant localised information, you’d be better off using Google Voice Search.

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You can however ask Siri what is Char Kuey Tiao, if it understands you and the question is asked often enough that it is curated by Wolfram Alpha, you will be able to get an answer. If not, Siri will direct you to a web search via Google, which again is the same thing as using Google Voice Search, which in Malaysia, in our experience, works better. The caveat for this is that for Siri to be able to look for answer in needs to understand what you’re saying, and for many local terms, this is a major challenge for Siri. As you can see in our Siri walkthrough video, Siri has a hard time understanding what we are saying because of how the words are pronounced. While proper pronunciation is very important, Siri still generally fumbles when Asian tongues speak English.

Another issue we have with Siri is that it is almost impractical to use in noisy environments, this is a common affliction for all voice recognition applications. A work around for this is to hold the iPhone 4S up to your ear and speak into it like you would while on a call. In this way the noise cancellation microphone on the iPhone 4S work to help cancel out background noise and increase the chances of Siri understanding what you’re saying but it is still not perfect. This is, of course, compounded by the fact that Siri is already finding it difficult to understand Malaysians speaking English in the first place.

Another point worth noting is that Siri processes much of the requests it receives through servers and not in the phone itself. This means Siri requires constant data connection to work. Also this means that the servers that do much of the work for Siri are also prone to overload. When this happens, Siri is rendered useless and will not be able to take your queries. We encountered this numerous times during our test.

We’ve already established that location-based queries are useless with Siri and that you’ll probably be better off using Google Voice search if you want to look for answers on the web, so how can Siri be useful to Malaysians?

How Siri can be useful to Malaysians
One thing we think Siri will be very useful for Malaysians is in scheduling appointments and setting reminders. This is where Siri is outstanding and at the moment, no voice recognition software available can match Siri in this respect.

Side by side, scheduling dinner using Siri is much faster and easier than using the standard method with keyboard and screen taps. As you can see in the video we can begin scheduling an appointment by simply saying “schedule dinner”. Siri knows what we mean and will then ask us for related information like when, where and with whom. When we say “schedule dinner” Siri knows from the word “dinner” that the event is happening at night. We only then need to say “eight o’clock, Friday” and Siri would schedule the appointment on the next available Friday at 8pm without us having to specify the exact date or time or say am or pm.

Even more amazing is that you can get Siri to identify a date by just saying what is happening on that particular day. For example you can say “schedule lunch at one o’clock on New Year’s day at La Bodega Bangsar” and Siri will know that you want to have lunch at 1pm on January first (while it may be able to register La Bodega as the venue because location based services are not supported outside of the US, Siri will not be able to tell you where the venue is).

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In this respect, no other voice recognition software comes close. This method also works with major holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving but only if the holiday is happening in the US, we tried scheduling lunch on Deepavali day and Hari Raya, it didn’t work, though curiously, Siri knows when is Chinese New Year as can be seen in the video.

Beyond that, tasks like playing music, setting alarms and reminders are made much easier with Siri. While Siri is able to also send texts and emails we don’t think these features would be used much here for two reasons, 1) because we use a lot of local terms in our text messages and emails, 2) because it’s very difficult to pronounce Asian names in ways that Siri can understand.

While on the topic of Asian names, Siri does trawl through your address book to match a name to what you say. This makes it possible for Siri to understand the names you are saying but this entails you keep a meticulous address book with proper first name and last name conventions. On top of that, you would have to also add a phonetic field for the more challenging Asian names so that Siri can match those names as well. If you have an address book with hundreds, you can see how excruciating tedious cleaning up your address book into a format that Siri can understand.

One a side note, much like Android, the iPhone 4S keyboard supports voice inputs as well but unlike Android it’s language support is very limited and this renders the voice keyboard useless in pretty much every situation. Once again, the major hurdles are getting the application to understand local terms and local names.

At the end of the day
While revolutionary, Siri is still a long way away from mass adoption in Malaysia, its major Achilles heel is local support in terms of languages, location and is the limited range data it can draw upon to offer local users useful and relevant information.

With support for only three languages and location-based services that only works in the US, Siri’s functionality is severely limited in Malaysia. Don’t expect to use Siri like how Apple wants you to believe in its Siri ads but that is not to say that Siri is completely useless here. As we mentioned before there are other aspects where Siri shine despite the language and location barrier, still we can’t stress enough how Siri’s scope is very limited outside of the US.

Also, while its conversational interaction is special, it is not without its drawbacks. As you converse with Siri you will find that there is actually a finite number of sentences and commands that Siri can understand. We discovered that while saying one sentence might not yield any results, rewording the same sentence into something Siri can understand does produce an outcome. This can be a problem because it leads people to think that Siri is not capable of finding an answer for a certain question when in fact all that is required is rewording the question into a sentence that Siri understands.

So back to the question we ask at the beginning of this article, should you get the iPhone 4S because of Siri? Right now due to the lack of local support, we have to say no. Siri does not present a compelling enough case for us to recommend iPhone 4 users to upgrade to the iPhone 4S. But then again for most, purchasing Apple products is an emotional decision rather than a logical or practical one.