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Siri is best part of iPhone 4S

A customer tested the new iPhone 4S at the AT&T store in Boston.

Wendy Maeda/globe staff

A customer tested the new iPhone 4S at the AT&T store in Boston.

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Why did thousands of people in Boston and across the country stand in line at dawn yesterday to buy the newest smartphone from Apple Inc.? Why not just wait a few days, until the crowds ebb? I asked the new iPhone 4S, the latest version of Apple’s best-selling device, which was released yesterday. The phone didn’t know. But it did know last week’s lottery numbers, next week’s weather report, and the capital city of the Asian nation of Uzbekistan.

I simply spoke to the phone, and it displayed the correct answers in seconds. That might explain why so many people stood in line for the newest version of the iPhone. Its most vaunted new feature, the voice command system called Siri, responds to human speech with speed and precision. With the new iPhone’s faster processor, and its host of major software improvements, yesterday’s buying frenzy made a little more sense.

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The popularity of the new iPhone is a surprising contrast from the early reaction to its unveiling on Oct. 4, when Apple revealed its new product would be an upgrade of the device rather than a whole new model. Apple’s stock price dropped that day, and disappointed industry analysts complained that the new device wasn’t much of an advance over the previous version, the iPhone 4.

But Apple posted 1 million pre-orders for the new phone in just 24 hours, and Carl Howe, analyst at Boston’s Yankee Group, predicted yesterday that Apple could sell 4 million of the phones this weekend alone. On Boylston Street yesterday, both the Apple Store and the AT&T Inc. cellphone store down the street opened at 8 a.m. to greet long lines of shoppers.

BWith people lined up at 7:30 a.m. outside the Apple Store in Boston, why not come back later? The iPhone 4S wasn’t sure.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

With people lined up at 7:30 a.m. outside the Apple Store in Boston, why not come back later? The iPhone 4S wasn’t sure.

At the head of the line at the AT&T store was Chris Saunders, 20, a Northeastern University student who’d been waiting since 5 a.m. Even though the iPhone 4S wasn’t a huge step up from the earlier iPhone 4, “it’s a good enough improvement for me to want it,’’ he said.

Carly Tefft, 18, a student at Berklee College of Music, said the popularity of the new phone is a tribute to Apple cofounder Steve Jobs, who died on Oct. 5, one day after the new iPhone was unveiled. “I think he’s such a genius,’’ said Tefft.

Just as eager to get an iPhone as the teens and twentysomethings that surrounded him was Chris Evans, 40, Boston-based regional director for BevIntel LLC, a company that does inventory auditing for bars and restaurants. “I couldn’t wait for today to come,’’ said Evans. “That’s how excited I am about this new technology.’’

BevIntel is replacing the obsolete Palm Pilots supplied to employees with iPhones. Employees will use the phone’s camera to scan product bar codes, and enter information verbally through the Siri speech-recognition feature. Evans said the iPhone 4S “can transform how we do business.’’

The iPhone 4S is available from three of the nation’s four biggest cellular carriers: AT&T, Verizon Wireless, and Sprint Nextel Corp. Yesterday, all three vied for customers by vowing to provide a superior iPhone experience.

AT&T said it offered the only version of the iPhone that allows a user to talk and surf the Internet at the same time. Verizon pointed to independent surveys that gave its network the highest marks for quality. Sprint declared that it’s the only carrier that provides unlimited data service for iPhone users.

The new iPhone boasts a fast, new computer chip with two processor cores instead of just one and an upgraded graphics chip for better-looking images. But its main improvement is Siri, the speech recognition system that grew out of research financed by the US military. Other smartphones can recognize spoken words. Siri is able to put questions into context and respond in pleasantly sensible ways.

Tell Siri you need to buy bread on the way home from work, and it will generate a reminder to pop up later on your phone. Ask if you’ll need a raincoat tomorrow, and it tells you the weather. You can use it to text your daughter, or order it to play your favorite James Brown tunes.

Siri easily fielded some statistical questions, but it fumbled with others. Siri instantly announced the closing price of Apple stock in a cool female voice; Apple shares surged 3.3 percent yesterday, rising $13.57 to close at $422 - a new high - on the Nasdaq stock exchange, it told me. But ask for the cheapest gasoline; Siri can point you to nearby gas stations, but unlike many commonplace phone apps, it can’t tell you which has the cheapest gas.

Clearly, Siri has a lot to learn, but these capabilities can certainly be added over time.

Apple describes it as “beta,’’ or trial, software and vows continued improvements. Already a remarkably smart program, Siri will be even smarter in a year or so.

Just in time for people to stand in line for another new iPhone.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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