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iPhone 4 review

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The iPhone 4 is the latest device to bring HD video to the party, and is capable of shooting 720p video at 30 frames per second. That’s not the only upgrade over previous models, though: the device’s rear-facing camera is powered by a 5-megapixel sensor. With the iPhone 3GS, Apple managed to build a cellphone camera that outperformed other phone cameras with higher megapixel counts, and that story continues with the iPhone 4. Though some comparable phones offer 8 megapixels of resolution, in our tests, the iPhone 4 (with its strong low-light performance and backside-illuminated chip design) outperformed all but dedicated point-and-shoot cameras.

There’s no doubt that the iPhone 4’s camera is good. HD videos are clear and crisp and stills show remarkable detail. The redesigned Camera app in iOS 4 keeps things simple—rather than fiddling with settings, you just touch to set the point you want to use for focus and spot metering, and the camera adjusts immediately. There are simple controls to turn the iPhone 4’s new LED flash on and off and flip between the iPhone’s two onboard cameras (more on that second camera in a bit), as well as a digital zoom slider.

I’m not a fan of the concept of digital zooming, which is more like an in-camera cropping effect than an actual zoom. It would be nice if the iPhone 4’s camera had an optical zoom, but given the space considerations it seems impossible. If you’re taking pictures of a kids’ soccer match, you might want to bring a camera with a real zoom. But if you can fill the iPhone 4’s frame with whatever you want to shoot, you’ll get good results.

The iPhone 4’s included LED flash addresses one of the big complaints about previous iPhone cameras: They just didn’t work very well in the dark. Well, now there’s a flash, so you can check that box. But quite frankly, I was disappointed by the flash. If you’re in a pitch-black room and there’s simply no other way to get a shot, you should use it. But in dim light, I found myself more satisfied with images I took without the flash. Using the flash generally left me with strangely colored shots full of red eye and (more often than not) an ugly mix of overilluminated and underilluminated sections, as if I had been shining a flashlight on a small portion of the frame.

I appreciated the quality of the iPhone 4’s HD video, which approaches that of the Flip video series of cameras. I bought a dedicated HD camcorder last year, but it’s too big to carry everywhere. Having an HD video camera in your pocket all the time has got to be a good thing. I’m not saying the Flip products are doomed, exactly, but devices like the iPhone 4 are narrowing their potential market pretty severely. If you’ve got an iPhone 4, you don’t really need a Flip.

Another reason an iPhone 4 beats a Flip: the introduction of iMovie for iPhone, an app that lets you quickly edit the videos you shot and then post them online. You can read our full review of iMovie for details. iMovie is by no means a perfect app: I find that I tend to shoot a bunch of stuff in one go with the intent of splitting it into different clips later on, a style that is completely useless with iMovie since it can’t split clips. But the fact remains, it lets you edit HD video on a phone, quickly and with a minimum of hassle. I can’t tell you how many times I wished I could stitch two or three clips together and mail them to a family member while on a trip; with iMovie, I can.

Still, I’m not dumping my HD camcorder. The fact is, video shot with a dedicated camcorder will be of vastly better quality than video shot with any cell phone, including the iPhone 4. Like nearly all pocket camcorders, there’s no image stabilization, and bright colors against a dark background are badly blown out. The lack of a physical zoom limits your shooting options. And the audio recorded by the iPhone 4 when shooting video is of poor quality.

On the other hand, the quality of still photos from the iPhone 4 is much more impressive. The iPhone 4 can’t compete with the still image quality of a current point-and-shoot camera, but the images are still quite good—on par with a dedicated camera from a few years ago.

Actual-size image samples of the same object taken by all four generations of iPhone.

Of course, there’s a second camera on the iPhone 4, just to the left of the speaker on the phone’s front. In terms of tech specs, it’s nothing to write home about: its resolution is a meager 640-by-480. But of course, this is Apple we’re talking about. That camera exists for a reason, and the reason is a software feature of iOS 4 that’s only available on the iPhone 4.

Get some FaceTime

FaceTime images will automatically rotate as your iPhones rotate.

People have been placing video calls on their computers for years, and in some parts of the world phones have been capable of video chat for a while now. Recent smartphone releases in the U.S, such as the HTC EVO 4G, have integrated forward-facing cameras in order to enable face-to-face videoconferences.

And yet, for all of that, Apple has managed to get people to talk about iPhone 4’s FaceTime feature with a degree of buzz that it doesn’t seem to deserve. Although some of that has to do with Apple’s marketing genius, I suspect a lot of it has to do with the fact that no video call implementations on cell phones have really gained momentum. People have come to expect that when Apple implements something, that technology has finally arrived.

The interesting choice Apple has made with FaceTime is implementing it as a part of the Phone app, rather than creating a unique FaceTime app devoted to videoconferencing. There are a few ways to start a FaceTime session with someone; you can dial their iPhone 4 and, once you’ve connected, tap the FaceTime button on the screen. You can also just tap on a person in the Contacts list, scroll down, and tap the FaceTime button, bypassing the traditional cell phone network altogether. All FaceTime calls appear in your recent call list, just as if they were traditional phone calls.

It’s a simple approach that makes a whole lot of sense in a system that’s designed to connect iPhone 4 phones to each other. But in announcing the iPhone 4, Apple said it would encourage the adoption of FaceTime by other devices as well. As a result, it’s a little perplexing that FaceTime appears to key off of something as mundane as a telephone number. (For now, FaceTime also requires a Wi-Fi connection, and uses the Internet for all its communication—adding a little cognitive dissonance to the choice of the Phone app as the place where all FaceTime communications happen. If the person you’re trying to call is using a Wi-Fi network that’s behind a strict firewall, you may also have trouble connecting to them—just as it’s sometimes impossible to do a iChat video conference with some people on tightly controlled office networks.)

It’s also unfortunate that, at least for now, iPhone 4 owners can only use FaceTime with other iPhone 4 users, and not interoperate with other video-chat clients such as Apple’s own iChat. (Given that FaceTime uses all the same sound effects as iChat, it seems inevitable that the two products will one day interoperate. Then again, the Messages app looks and sounds like iChat, and Apple has steadfastly resisted creating an iOS version of iChat.) It’s likely that Apple has tried to keep FaceTime as simple as possible for its initial roll-out on the iPhone 4, and then will modify it as needed as it adds other devices (such as Macs, iPads, and iPod touches) to the FaceTime party.

Details of the implementation aside, FaceTime worked flawlessly for me. I connected with several fellow iPhone 4 early adopters and could see and hear them without any trouble at all. I even made an international FaceTime call, to Scotland, with ease. The iPhone 4’s speakerphone is loud enough to hold a FaceTime conversation. FaceTime’s smart enough to rotate the video window properly depending on how you’re holding your iPhone—and how the person you’re talking to is holding theirs. When someone rotates their phone, their window rotates as well. It’s very well thought out and couldn’t be easier to use.

My only question is, will people use it? Despite the hype when iChat AV was released, I don’t find myself video chatting routinely with anyone except my family on business trips. (And even if I take my iPhone 4 with me on those trips, I won’t be able to chat with my family on our iMac until iChat is updated to talk to FaceTime.) Video phone calls are very much something we all expected to happen in the future, and the future is clearly here—but were those visions of the future right? A video call requires your full attention; I can wash dishes while I talk on my iPhone, but not if I’m using FaceTime. Holding that phone so that the camera is pointing at your face can also tire out your arm.

My guess would be that user adoption of FaceTime will grow over time, as more devices support its protocols and especially once you can make those calls via the cellular network. And, of course, other apps should be able to access the iPhone 4’s front camera for their own purposes. (Skype, for example, should be able to build a version of its app for iPhone 4 that’s compatible with other Skype video chat services.) I’m not sure video calling will ever be as common as it is in science fiction, but if anything’s going to popularize it, FaceTime will.

Bigger, Faster, Longer

Although Apple doesn’t like to talk about specs, we know that the iPhone 4 is, like the iPad, powered by a custom-built A4 processor. It’s also got 512MB of onboard RAM, twice the amount found in the iPad, iPhone 3GS, and third-generation iPod touch (and four times the amount found in the first two iPhone and iPod touch models). As a result, it’s the fastest iPhone ever made, and even faster than the iPad in some tests. Its larger amount of RAM means it will be able to take advantage of iOS 4’s multitasking features to keep more apps open simultaneously, as well.

iOS speed tests: How the iPhone 4 compares

 BootPeggleStar DefenseSunspiderV8 v5NYTimes.com
iPhone 4 33 3 18.3 10.3 87.7 14.7
iPhone 3GS 34 8.5 22.7 14.0 44.6 20
iPod touch 3G 26 6 20.9 13.6 68.3 15.8
iPhone 3G 51 16.5 43.8 39.1 DNF 45.1
iPod Touch 2G 36 11 32 30.7 DNF 30.5
iPad (OS 3.2) 24 4 16.4 10.4 99.7 10.8
iPhone original (OS 3.1) 34 15.2 36 43 DNF 45.4
iPod touch 1G (OS 3.1) 30 22.9 35 44.9 DNF 60

Best results in bold. Smaller numbers are better except in the V8 v5 test.

All devices tested with iOS 4.0 except where otherwise noted. Boot time in seconds. Peggle and Star Defense tests measured time from tapping the app on the home screen to reaching first interactive “game ready” screen. Sunspider is a WebKit JavaScript performance test, with results in seconds. V8 is version 5 of Google’s V8 JavaScript benchmark. NYTimes.com test measured number of seconds to load home page of nytimes.com.

You can feel the iPhone 4’s speed everywhere you turn. Apps launch in an instant. Switching between apps happens in the blink of an eye. Actions that cause even the speedy iPhone 3GS to bog down, such as bringing up playback controls on streaming video such as in the MLB At Bat app, are instantaneous on the iPhone 4. Even high-resolution game graphics move fluidly.

According to Apple, the A4 processor has the advantage of bringing more power to the equation while consuming less energy. That, combined, with the iPhone 4’s larger battery, gives Apple the confidence to claim that this model has 40 percent more talk time per charge than the iPhone 3GS. Testing a battery this large takes time; we’re in the process of running some tests and will report on them in the near future. From my first few days with the iPhone, my impression is that battery life is improved, making it a bit easier to get through a day without needing a charging session.

Media master, with caveats

Since the iPhone was introduced, there’s one app that I’ve used more than any other, by far: iPod. I use my iPhone to listen to music and podcasts during my public-transit commute, when I’m mowing the lawn, and when I’m washing the dishes. Media playback is where the iPhone shines, both in the hands-down excellent iPod app and (especially thanks to the multitasking features of iOS 4) third-party apps such as Pandora and MLB At Bat 2010.

If I’ve got the choice between an iPad and an iPhone, I’ll choose the former to watch video, owing entirely to its larger screen. But the iPhone 4’s high-resolution display is spectacular for video playback, and finally there’s an iPhone that’s capable of playing back HD-quality video files. (Previous models couldn’t handle resolutions higher than standard-def.)

Unfortunately, those 720p video files that play back with aplomb on the iPhone 4 can’t be played back on an HDTV via the iPhone. The iPhone 4 has the same external playback limitations as its predecessors: it can use an RGB, composite, or component adapter to display standard-def video, but that’s pretty much it. I’m not sure whether it’s a limitation of the iPod dock connector or just the onboard video circuitry, but it’s a shame: A device with the muscle to handle HD video should be able to display it on an HDTV.

Macworld’s buying advice

The tech world has changed in the year between the announcement of the iPhone 3GS and the iPhone 4. In the intervening time, Apple released the iPad, and created a whole new way for people to interact with iOS apps. As someone who has both an iPhone and an iPad, I’ve discovered that the amount of time I spent using my iPhone has been dramatically reduced, as I’ve moved my attention to the iPad versions of my favorite apps.

So I have to view the iPhone 4 as something other than the ultimate expression of the iOS. Though its total screen resolution is nearly that of the iPad, the goal of the iPhone 4’s display is to ramp up detail—which is good, because otherwise the iPhone 4 wouldn’t fit in your pocket, and what good would it be then?

At a Glance
  • Apple iPhone 4 8GB Black (GSM, AT&T)

  • iPhone 4 8GB White (GSM, AT&T)

  • iPhone 4 16GB Black (GSM, AT&T)

  • iPhone 4 16GB White (GSM, AT&T)

  • iPhone 4 32GB Black (GSM, AT&T)

  • iPhone 4 32GB White (GSM, AT&T)

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