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Talking Siriously with the iPhone 4S

Apple's new personal assistant, Siri, has personality, and can even tell you whether to carry an umbrella.

I’m having a relationship with another woman, but my partner doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, she has a new man in her life.

No, we haven’t separated or embraced a swinging lifestyle. All we’ve done is upgraded to the new iPhone 4S.

There are several differences between our three-year-old iPhone 3Gs and the new iPhone 4S. The new phone is much slimmer, sleeker and swifter, of course. But the major difference is Siri.

Siri is the iPhone 4S’s built-in voice-activated personal assistant. And Siri is something you should pay attention to, even if you despise Apple, its products, its fans and Steve Jobs. It’s almost magical (in the Arthur C. Clarke “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” sense of the word). Hold the phone to your ear, even if it’s in lock mode, and when you hear the tiny double beep, just start speaking.

“Read me my last message.”

“Do I need an umbrella”?

“Play London Calling.”

"Remind me to call dad tomorrow."

 and a friendly voice will reply:

“New message from Joe Smith: Sorry, I’m running late”

or “No, I don’t think it’s raining right now”

or “Here’s The Clash”, followed by the actual music playing through iTunes.

or "Setting reminder to call dad at 9 a.m. tomorrow."

For added clarity, Siri's words (and yours') are also displayed on the screen.

If you’re in America, Siri does even better. S/he can tell you the nearest Thai restaurant or directions to your friend’s house. Geographical information is not yet available in Canada, but even without it, Siri is still a marvel.

Siri can also look up information for you. Ask, “What is the second law of thermodynamics?” and Siri will connect with the WolframAlpha search engine and display the answer:

We’ve been having a lot of fun with Siri. My partner has selected the U.K. English voice, which is male, while I have the U.S. English voice -- female. I could have chosen Australian English (female), French (female) or German (male) as well, but my French and German proficiency isn’t that good and I find the Australian accent a little annoying.

Siri doesn’t always work. Background noise can confuse her, especially if you’re using a bluetooth headset. For example, a few nights ago while walking across the Burrard Bridge I decided to let my partner know I was on my way with the following results:

ME: “Siri, text Sharon I’m on my way.”

SIRI: “Okay, calling your parents.”

ME: “No! Abort! Stop! Cancel!”

SIRI: “Sorry, I don’t understand ‘about stoop council.”

(Meanwhile, a couple walking towards me on the bridge look startled as I shout, cling closer together and hurriedly edge by me.)

After apologizing to my mother for waking her up I vow never to try to use Siri again against a background of roaring cars.

The good thing is that Siri is getting better at recognizing my voice. She makes far fewer mistakes, and is proving very useful.

For one thing, it’s far easier to send text messages. Here’s the old way:

1. Turn on phone

2. Enter password to unlock phone

3. Tap Message app icon

4. Tap “new message” icon

5. Type number or name of person to message

6. Type (or try to) message

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