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Apple is a company with some clear priorities when it comes to designing mobile devices. The ideal Apple mobile device is razor-thin, with a simple design and killer battery life. You can see those principles at work in the iPhone 4, the latest generation of Apple’s smartphone hardware. This is a smaller, thinner phone, with a stripped-down design and an impressive improvement in battery life compared to previous models.
Three years ago, the original iPhone blasted a hole in the side of a listless, boring phone market. That initial success has spawned numerous strong competitors, but with the iPhone 4, Apple seems to be competing more with itself than trying to respond to the competition.
A pair of fours
If there’s one thing that defines Apple as a company, it’s the idea of creating products that are a synthesis of hardware and software. Apple makes Macs and Mac OS X. It makes the iPhone and the iOS. Many tech products are the melding of two different visions; Apple’s products are generally singular.
As a result, much of the appeal of the iPhone 4 is in its tight integration with iOS 4, the latest version of the recently-renamed operating system that drives the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. My colleague Dan Moren has already reviewed iOS 4, which adds features such as multitasking support and App folders to the mix, and I won’t repeat those points here. However, many of the iPhone 4’s hardware features wouldn’t make sense were it not for corresponding additions to iOS 4. It’s the Apple way, and iPhone 4 is no exception.
But first, the hardware
The iPhone 4 is recognizably an iPhone, bearing most of the same traits as all the other iOS devices Apple has released over the past three years: Glass front, rounded corners, big screen, circular button at the bottom. The white model, sadly unavailable on launch day, exposes that the iPhone owes a design debt to the classic iPod as well.
This iPhone differs in details of design. The faces of previous iPhones have been surrounded by a chrome bezel, but that’s gone. Instead, there’s just the phone’s glass face and the thin silver edge of a stainless-steel frame that wraps around the device’s circumference. The frame’s matte texture is more in line with Apple’s current design aesthetic than the shiny bezel of previous models.
Another big change is on the device’s back, which is now a flat glass surface rather than a curved polycarbonate shell. By swapping out the bezel and replacing the curved back, Apple has dramatically changed the feel of the iPhone. The curved edges of past iPhones are gone, replaced with 90-degree angles and flat surfaces, like a cake that’s been removed from its pan.
In general, the product feels like a remarkably solid slab of technology. It’s thinner and narrower than its predecessors, but the same height. Since it packs its 4.8 ounces into a smaller space (4.5 inches by 2.31 inches by .37 inches), it’s noticeably denser—and I mean that in a good way. Like the iPad, the iPhone 4 feels like a remarkably solid, well-built product. The fit and finish are immaculate; not a single thing about the iPhone 4 feels cheap. If you don’t like my cake metaphor, try this one: in terms of styling, the iPhone 4 feels like the most expensive electric razor ever made, or maybe like a finely-tuned luxury watch.
Apple has designed the iPhone’s steel frame to act as its wireless antennae; the strip of frame on the device’s left side serves at the antenna for its Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios, and the strip on the right side and bottom works as a cellular antenna.
Attempts to quantify cell phone reception are always dodgy—reception varies from city to city and even block to block within a city. One of our editors reports that her iPhone 4 can actually get a (weak) signal in her apartment, where her iPhone 3G simply reported no service at all. Our colleagues at PCWorld report that the iPhone 4 has faster data speeds than the iPhone 3GS. In my testing, the iPhone 4 was extremely fast, especially when it came to data uploads. This boost in upload speeds is due to the iPhone 4 supporting HSUPA, a high-speed 3G upload protocol, in addition to the HSDPA protocol that was added to the iPhone line with the 3GS. In any event, the iPhone 4 was so fast, it put my poky old home DSL connection to shame—so much so that I’m finally going to replace it! But unless you live in my particular suburban San Francisco neighborhood, your mileage will likely vary.
Now about that cellular antenna. Reports all over the Internet suggest that if you hold the iPhone 4 in such a way that your hand makes contact with both antennae (generally by holding the phone down toward its base, specifically touching on the left side), you can drastically decrease the iPhone 4’s cellular reception. The method of holding the iPhone in question is actually how I hold my iPhone—and I discovered, sitting in my own house, that I could slow or even stop my iPhone 4’s cellular data transfer by holding the phone in that way. It was such a dramatic effect that I was able to cause cellular data transfers to fail mid-stream just by shifting the phone in my hand.
Judging by the Internet, just as many people have failed to reproduce this problem as have reproduced it. Maybe it varies based on your skin type, or what kind of cellular tower you’re connected to, or the relative strength or weakness of your cellular signal. Apple released a statement late last week saying that this sort of thing is common with cell phones.
I’m not a cell phone engineer. Nor have I had the time to compile a detailed, scientific study of iPhone 4 performance to nail down just what’s causing this signal loss issue. (One would hope some Apple employees who qualify as the former are busily doing the latter right now.) What I do know is that when I hold the iPhone 4 as I am accustomed to holding it, in many cases the phone completely fails to transfer cellular data. And that’s not good.
If you’re someone who doesn’t hold their iPhone that way, you won’t be affected by this. If you wrap the phone in one of Apple’s $29 iPhone 4 bumpers, they’ll insulate the phone from your hands and prevent them from causing interference. (I was able to hold the phone in the style to which I am accustomed, and with a bumper affixed I saw no connection problems at all.)
I expect Apple will address this issue one way or another, either with a software fix or a hardware recall. For everyone’s sake, I hope it’s fixable in software; at the very least, I think Apple owes a free bumper to everyone who is affected by the problem while the company figures it out.
Ports and sorts
In terms of ports and the like, the iPhone 4 is similar to its predecessors. There’s a standard Apple dock connector on the bottom, right between the speaker and microphone. The device’s left side still has a hold switch and volume up/down controls, though they’ve been redesigned: the hold switch is broader and slightly harder to budge; the volume rocker has been replaced by two discrete volume buttons, etched with plus and minus symbols.
On the phone’s top is the Sleep/Wake button, a standard headphone jack, and a new addition: a second microphone. This new microphone can be used in a few different ways: when you’re shooting video or video chatting via the new FaceTime feature, it’s the primary microphone. When you’re holding the phone to your face and speaking via the microphone on the bottom of the phone, the top microphone is gathering in ambient sound to be used for noise-cancellation purposes. The trick seems to work, too: One of the first calls I made with the iPhone 4 was to a colleague, also with an iPhone 4, who apologized for the loud alarm going off in the background. “What alarm?” I asked him—because I couldn’t hear it at all, only the sound of his voice. The iPhone 4’s noise cancellation won’t make your voice sound like you’re whispering into the ear of your interlocutors—it’s still a cell phone call, after all—but it does seem to do a decent job of dropping out extra junk and leaving just the sound of your voice behind.
The iPhone 4’s right side is barren of landmarks, save a micro-SIM slot like the one found on the 3G iPad. By using a micro SIM, Apple freed up some space on the inside of the phone, while also ensuring that your old phones with full-sized SIM cards wouldn’t be compatible with your new devices without some SIM surgery.
If you’re a fan of the curvy style of previous iPhone models, you may be disappointed by the design direction Apple has taken with the iPhone 4. Personally, I’m liking the flat surfaces and sharper angles. But Apple’s iPhone 4 bumpers, while providing some degree of protection for the device itself, also return some of that classic curvy feel when you hold it in your hand. (They also conveniently insulate the phone so that your hand can’t cause interference on the cellular antenna.)
The only part of the iPhone 4 design that gives me pause is the all-glass back, which doubles the chance that if you drop the iPhone, you’ll end up hitting with the glass side down. I never really liked the polycarbonate back of the 3G and 3GS, but at least it was nearly bulletproof. As gorgeous as the iPhone 4 is to look at, I fear that most people will be cloaking them in protective cases in order to avoid shattering this shiny new toy.
If there’s a single feature that defines the iPhone 4, it’s the device’s new high-resolution screen. Dubbed the “Retina display” by Apple, it’s got four times the pixels of previous iPhone models, packed into the same space. This 960-by-640 pixel display has a screen resolution of 326 pixels per inch, up from 163 ppi on previous iPhone models.
When the first iPhone was released, its screen was amazing because 163 ppi was already a much higher resolution than the average computer screen. I shouldn’t even use the past tense there: the original iPhone screen is still quite good. Looking at it by itself, you can notice some jaggedness, but it’s nothing compared to what you’d get on a traditional computer.
But technology has moved along. When I spent a week with a Google Nexus One smartphone earlier this year, I was impressed by its higher screen resolution, which made text on the Nexus One noticeably smoother than on my iPhone 3GS.
Apple’s response to the improvements in display technology has not been to create a larger phone—a direction some of its rivals have taken—but to increase the number of dots in the existing space to the point where the average human eye (hence the “retina display” moniker) can’t even tell they’re there.
The result is marvelous. The retina display is an enormous improvement on the already-good iPhone 3GS screen, brighter and with better contrast as well as a slightly warmer color temperature. The screen, which uses the same IPS (in-plane switching) display technology found on the iPad and iMac, has a massive viewing angle, so even at an odd angle you can see everything on the screen clearly. And since the screen is bonded to the layer of glass immediately above it, it’s a bit closer to your eyes—there’s less of the sense that you’re looking at a display through a layer of glass than there was on previous iPhones or the iPad.
As for the increased resolution, it’s staggering. High-definition videos play back with such smoothness and clarity that you feel like you’re looking through a tiny window into the real world. Tiny details on photos are clear as day. When I watch a video on my iPhone 3GS, I don’t notice that the individual stalks of wheat in the Van Gogh episode of Doctor Who aren’t clear. But when I watch that same in HD quality on the iPhone 4’s screen, I can see the individual kernels on the stalks. It’s the same scene, but with exquisite detail that was lacking before.
Text is similarly gorgeous. Yes, black text on a white background in Safari or iBooks looks like it was printed on paper. But what really exposes the power of the display is colored or gray text, which tended to look a bit jaggier on previous iPhones. On the iPhone 4, even light gray text is immaculate.
If you’ve not yet seen an iPhone 4, you may stare at your current phone (or even PC screen) and wonder how this new display could be that much better than what you’ve already got. After I handled the iPhone 4 a few weeks before its release, I couldn’t quite believe what I had seen. When I stared at my iPhone 3GS display, I saw a really good screen. How could the iPhone 4’s screen have put it to shame? And yet, when you view the two models side by side, you can see that the difference in quality isn’t even subtle. The iPhone 4’s screen is so good, it’s shocking.
Smile for the camera(s)
We are rapidly approaching the day where every device we own will be able to shoot HD video. Is the oatmeal in the microwave boiling over the side of the bowl? Check the HD video. Did the washing machine get that stain out of your favorite shirt? HD video. A mountain lion ran right across the trail in front of your bike? HD video or it didn’t happen.
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.
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
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
iPod touch 3G
iPod Touch 2G
iPad (OS 3.2)
iPhone original (OS 3.1)
iPod touch 1G (OS 3.1)
Best results in bold. Smaller numbers are better except in the V8 v5 test.
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?
The iPhone 4 is, in many ways, the best iPhone Apple has ever made. It’s faster than the 3GS, yes, but it’s the screen that is the biggest leap forward in quality. The new face-forward camera not only works well with FaceTime, but opens the door to all sorts of other videoconferencing possibilities in the future. And the rear-facing camera has taken a big step forward from the 3GS, offering quite high-quality stills and Flip-class HD video. With the addition of iMovie, you’ve got an entire home video studio in your hand. If only the iPhone 4 could play those HD-caliber videos back on an external HDTV itself.
The iPhone 4 is also the first real design departure for the iPhone in two years; I like the metal styling and the solid feel, and the flat glass front and back are gorgeous. But I’m concerned that the glass back adds an unnecessary level of fragility to the product. What’s the point of designing a beautiful product if it’s so fragile that your customers need to stick it in a case (or wrap it in a rubber bumper) in order to protect it? And of course, I’m concerned about the fact that touching the phone in the wrong places can hamper cellular reception.
The recent changes to AT&T’s wireless data plans means that a base level of iPhone service costs $15 less a month ($15 for 200MB versus $30 for unlimited data), which may entice many bill-averse consumers to finally take the iPhone plunge. For them, and for owners of original iPhones and two-year-old iPhone 3Gs, the iPhone 4 is a perfect match.
If you’re a user of the iPhone 3GS, though, this new model is less of a step up–and you’ll probably have to pay a large upgrade fee to get it. If that’s the case, you’d probably be better off waiting until you’re eligible for a fully subsidized upgrade. Though you’ll miss out on the high-quality screen and front-facing camera in the meantime, the 3GS is still quite a fast device and takes full advantage of iOS 4.0.
Editor’s Note: This review was originally published in June 2010 when Apple released the iPhone 4. In October 2011, as part of the iPhone 4S launch, Apple pared down its iPhone 4 lineup to a single 8GB model, available on either GSM or CDMA networks. This review—including its rating—applies to the 8GB iPhone 4 that’s compatible with AT&T’s network.