We try to keep our Apple coverage to a minimum, as we know that it's not the favorite company of most of our readers. That’s why you generally won’t see a review of a new MacBook or iMac on this site even though these machines are, for all intents and purposes, personal computers.
All the same, we’ve always covered new iPhone releases, and we’re not about to stop with the release of the iPhone 4. It’s not that we’ve suddenly developed an affinity for the House That Steve Built. Nope, our motivation is based purely on comprehensiveness: It’s simply impossible to cover smartphones in any authoritative way while ignoring the biggest single player in the field. You can read about what the critics are saying about iPhone 4 here . That’s why we trundled out to the local mall in the black of night and lined up for the iPhone 4. Here’s everything you need to know about the device, and how it’s going to change the mobile landscape.
Even if you somehow managed to ignore the entire, ridiculous Grey Powell brouhaha , it would have been hard to avoid seeing pictures of the new phone online, thanks to Apple’s unstoppable marketing juggernaut. So it probably won’t be much of a revelation when we tell you that the iPhone 4 has a flat, glass-covered back surface instead of the domed plastic back of the previous two phones. The edges of the phone are similarly de-curvified, with a flat metal band connecting the front and back. The new model is a bit more functional-looking than the older versions, but is exquisitely designed all the same. There are plenty of reasons to dislike Apple, but you’d be very hard pressed to pick up the iPhone 4 and play with it without being impressed by its looks and build quality.
There are, however, two issues with the physical build of the iPhone 4. First, because both the front and back surfaces are flat panes of glass, setting the phone down means laying the glass flush on top of whatever surface you're dealing with -- wood, Formica, concrete, or whatever else your resting platform might be made of. Although glass doesn’t scratch anywhere near as easily as the old plastic backing, it’s still a little unsettling to just toss the phone onto a countertop.
Second, and more damning, is an easily replicated issue with the aforementioned metal band around the outside of the phone. That band is also the iPhone 4’s antenna, and there are widespread reports that if you hold the phone in a certain way, it loses its signal. We tested this ourselves, and sure enough the reports are correct. Every time we held the case with a finger touching the lower left-hand part of the band, the signal strength would drop by up to four bars. This is a huge issue. Simply holding the phone in a common, natural way is enough to cause slower browsing and dropped calls.
Fortunately, there’s a common solution for both problems: get a case. The official Apple bumper case, in particular, looks very nice, lets you access all the buttons on the side of the iPhone, and completely resolves the antenna issue. It also gives the front and back of the phone a slight lip, preventing the glass from scraping against surfaces. More than any other version of the iPhone, this one needs a case. Especially given the issue with dropped signals, Apple really should give out bumpers for free to anyone who buys an iPhone.
With Android heavy-hitters like the Nexus One, the Incredible and the Evo 4G starting to make the iPhone 3GS look like a low-res toy, it’s no surprise that Apple included a screen upgrade in the iPhone 4. What is a surprise is how far they went. The iPhone 4 has—simply put—the nicest screen you can get it a smartphone right now. Its 3.5-inch so-called "retina display" manages to display a maximum resolution of 940 x 640 pixels, for a pixel density of 326 ppi. That handily beats the Droid Incredible’s (already fabulous looking) 252 ppi screen, and makes the iPhone 3GS’s 163 ppi screen look like garbage. To get an idea for how dense the iPhone 4 screen is, click on the following image to view the full screen one (assuming your browser window is large enough to view a 640 pixel-wide image) and notice how much screen space it takes up on your screen. Then, imagine all that display space shrunk down and packed into a screen that’s just a bit larger than a business card. Pretty wild.
To fully appreciate the screen quality of the iPhone 4 you don’t even have to go past the home screen. Certain app icons, like the contacts list, turn out to have details that weren’t visible before. What we had always thought were simply tiny dots running down the right side of the contacts list icon are actually fully formed letters, perfectly visible on the iPhone 4.
And an even more dramatic example is the web browser. You can load up nearly any page, maximally zoomed out, and read every word on the page. Of course, unless you enjoy reading nearly microscopic, ridiculously crisp letters, you’ll still want to zoom in, but the effect is still dramatic.
The only problem with the iPhone 4’s high-res screen is that developers are taking their time in upgrading apps to take advantage of it. As of today, only some 10 percent (if that) of the 3rd party apps we have on our iPhone have been updated for the iPhone 4. This is an easy calculation to make, as un-upgraded apps still have the old, low-resolution app icons, which looks positively ugly on the high-res desktop.
The iPhone 4 comes with the same 1GHz A4 ARM Cortex chip found in the iPad, and 512 MB of RAM—double that of either the iPhone 3GS or the iPad. The hardware is pretty much the same as other top smartphones, like the Droid Incredible, but as before, Apple is the best at leveraging that hardware to provide a completely smooth experience when using the phone. The iPhone 3GS was already incredibly fast, smooth, and responsive to use, so it’s hard to see much of an improvement in the iPhone 4, but the fact that it keeps that same smoothness while quadrupling the total number of pixels being rendered is a big achievement.
A gyroscopic sensor has also been added to the iPhone, allowing for true 6-axis motion control. There are very few apps out that can take advantage of this new functionality yet, but the few there are (such as Ngmoco’s Eliminate: Gun Range, seen below) feel very precise.
The camera in the iPhone has received an upgrade, as well. The new 5 megapixel camera is complemented by a VGA-resolution frontward facing camera and an LCD flash. The main camera is capable of recording 720p HD video, using the same touch-to-focus functionality used when taking photos.
Although the iPhone 4’s camera doesn’t pack the sheer number of pixels found in, for instance, the Evo 4G’s 8 megapixel camera, it takes full advantage of the pixels it does have, capturing excellent photos in all lighting conditions. The flash is pretty decent (though of course it sometimes leaves photos blown-out or with an orange tint) but is rarely used, as the camera takes great pictures in even dim conditions.
A final, greatly appreciated update to the camera is in its capture speed. Where on the 3GS there was a gap of more than a second between hitting the capture button and the phone being ready to take another picture, on the iPhone it’s almost instantaneous. If you’re the type that likes to take lots of pictures at once and hope that one turns out alright, the speed is a godsend.
Remember the VGA-quality front-facing camera we mentioned before? There’s a reason it’s there. The biggest entirely new feature in the iPhone 4 is FaceTime, a built-in video calling feature that lets you talk, face to face, with anyone else using an iPhone 4. The feature only works if both parties are on a Wi-Fi network, but when they are the quality is surprisingly good.
Most of the time the framerate stays above 10 fps while making a video call, and the lag isn’t very noticeable. The image is pretty clear, although there are some compression artifacts visible. Supposedly, Apple’s using all open standards in FaceTime, so other companies will be able to use it as well, but who knows if any will choose to do so. Video chatting isn’t really our thing, but if you’re the type that it appeals to, this could be a major selling point.
The iPhone 4 comes with the newest version of the iPhone OS, now called “iOS 4.” Most features of the operating system have been available to all iPhone (3G and 3GS) owners for a few days now, but they’re worth repeating here, as they address many of the issues people have had with the iPhone in the past.
Most significantly, iOS 4 now provides for a (limited) form of multitasking. If you’re using one app, and would like to switch to another without closing it, you just double-click the Home button. A switcher bar pops up at the bottom of the screen, allowing you to choose another app to switch to. Tapping the Home button once takes you back to the home screen, as usual, but now the app you were on is added to the background bar, not closed entirely. Some functions work while the app is in the background (music playback for instance) but most don’t. As such, the background bar is more frequently a sort of suspended animation that you can put apps into, so you can come back to them later. It’s not true multitasking, but it’s enough for most things you would want to do on a smartphone.
Other OS features include folders for organizing applications and customizable homescreen backgrounds. Nothing Earth-shattering there, but nice all the same.
With the iPhone 4, Apple has done what was necessary to retain its title as manufacturer of the most polished, most full-featured smartphone on the planet. They took care of most of the lingering criticisms about the iPhone (such as lack of multitasking) added a couple of features that people have been clamoring for (a front-facing camera for video chat, for instance) and wrapped it all up in a fantastic-looking and wide-ranging hardware upgrade.
The problem with dropped calls is a real one, and its surely something Apple knew about before the launch. But it’s easy to fix with a bumper or a case—something you should probably have anyway, to protect your investment. The right thing for Apple to do would be to offer a free bumper to everyone who buys an iPhone 4. Until they do that, consider the price of an iPhone 4 to be $30 above what it says on the price tag.
Apple’s oppressive app store policies are as much of an issue as ever (though the phone is already easy to jailbreak), as is the fact that the phone is tied to AT&T’s spotty coverage and stingy data plans. We’re not going to dwell on these issues here because we figure by this point you know whether they’re enough to keep you from picking up an iPhone. If you can get past those hurdles, the iPhone 4 is an incredible piece of hardware, and has set the bar high for the rest of the industry.