It’s an impressive upgrade. The iPhone 4 ditches the curvy plastic case of the older models in favor of a thinner, squared-off glass body laced with a stainless-steel band. It has a higher-resolution display, a brand-new front-facing camera, an improved back camera with flash, double the RAM of the iPhone 3GS, and the same A4 processor that powers the iPad. Grip it in your hand, and the iPhone 4 feels like the phone of the future. The defining feature of the iPhone 4 is its 960-by-640-pixel display, which has a pixel density of 326 pixels per inch, far higher than any other consumer display. Apps, websites, photos and videos look stellar. Text is crisper, images look rich and detailed, and colors are stunning. It’s been hard to put down this phone: Staring at that screen is addictive.
The second most compelling addition is the front-facing camera, which works with a built-in video-chatting client called FaceTime. Remember when George Jetson’s boss chewed him out on a video phone in The Jetsons? It looks a lot like that. Choose a contact, then tap FaceTime, and within a few seconds you’ll see your buddy’s mug. (Better keep your finger out of your nose from now on.)
Video chatting is nothing new: Plenty do it with webcams on their computers already. But video conferencing on a phone makes a dramatic difference, as you have the liberty to take the camera with you wherever you go. Give a virtual tour of your new apartment to friends across the country. Hold a FaceTime chat with a retired co-worker, and pass the phone around the office for everyone to say hello. This new method of communication — digital coexistence — is fresh and exciting, even to journalists who live and breathe gadgets every day.
There are some big limitations. Currently, FaceTime is only available for iPhone 4 users, so the number of people you can video chat with is limited. However, Apple published FaceTime as an open protocol: Any software developer can integrate the service into their third-party software on Macs, Windows machines or even competing smartphones, such as the HTC Evo 4G. It’s a mystery why Apple hasn’t already provided integration with its own desktop chat client, iChat, which would greatly expand the number of people you could video chat with.
Second, FaceTime only works over Wi-Fi, until the carriers’ networks get better, says Steve Jobs. Provided you have a strong Wi-Fi connection, FaceTime works well, and it’s a blast. With a weak or overloaded Wi-Fi connection, it’s an exercise in frustration. And without Wi-Fi, you can’t use it at all. That’s stifling, but for now, most of us will probably be video chatting in more private settings, where we presumably have decent Wi-Fi anyway, so we’ll let you off the hook for this one, AT&T.
However, AT&T’s overloaded 3G network remains a major concern for old-school telephoning. Call quality sounds clearer with a noise-canceling microphone on top of the handset, but reception problems persist. We experienced plenty of dropped calls with the iPhone 4 in San Francisco. Network coverage varies from city to city, and your mileage may vary. But we can’t file this away as a non-issue until either AT&T expands its network to accommodate data-guzzling iPhones everywhere or Apple shares the iPhone with multiple carriers to mitigate overcrowding on AT&T’s network.
Adding to our cellular woes, many customers have reported a strange antenna problem, where squeezing the steel band on the bottom-left corner of the iPhone 4 results in dropped signal strength. That just happens to be the way many left-handers are naturally holding the iPhone. We were able to replicate this behavior, but only by squeezing the iPhone very hard. Jobs’ e-mail response to a concerned customer was to “just avoid holding it that way” — which doesn’t seem fair — and Apple’s recommended solution is to buy a $30 protective “bumper.” Whatever the remedy, when a number of people are complaining about the same issue and the proposed solution is a band-aid, this appears to be a design flaw.
Whether it’s AT&T’s network or Apple’s design, the iPhone 4’s semi-frequent dropped calls create the same old headaches. This is still an unreliable phone, period.
That’s a shame, because the iPhone 4 is solid with just about everything else it does. The new 5-megapixel camera (up from 3 megapixels in the iPhone 3GS) takes photos that look better than a lot of dedicated point-and-shoots we’ve used. However, white balance seems slightly off, often appearing too yellow, so you’d benefit from touching up photos with an image-editing app. Also, photos shot with the iPhone 4’s new LED flash look eerie — as you’d expect with an LED flash.
Did we mention the iPhone 4’s snazzy back camera also shoots high-definition, 720p video? It looks great, too, with smooth motion and crisp clarity, although the yellows again appear heavy.
Finally, the iPhone 4 subtly improves on speed compared to the iPhone 3GS. It’s not tremendously faster, but you’ll notice that complex tasks finish up more quickly. In the photo-editing app CameraBag, for example, photo processing took about a second per photo, whereas on an iPhone 3GS it took about three seconds.
The iPhone 4’s main competitors are the crop of high-end Android phones currently on the market. The Nexus One, Motorola Droid X and HTC Evo 4G all have impressive hardware and match the iPhone 4 nearly feature for feature — in some cases, exceeding the iPhone 4’s specs, as with the Droid X’s 8-megapixel camera.
Any day now, a manufacturer will likely deliver a better piece of hardware than the iPhone 4. However, Apple is still far ahead of the curve with its new iOS 4 software and ever-growing App Store. The entire experience of iOS is far more elegant and intuitive than Android, and for many people, that ease of use will outweigh iOS 4’s relative lack of flexibility and its subpar telephone capabilities.
Interestingly, the iPhone 4 has more RAM than Apple’s other hot product, the iPad, with 512 MB in the iPhone 4 compared to 256 MB in the iPad. It also has two cameras, a newer OS and a higher-resolution display than the iPad, which might inspire some buyers’ remorse among early iPad adopters.
With the iPhone 4, Apple has blown Android rivals, previous iPhones and even the iPad out of the water. It’s that big of an upgrade. And for now, it’s the uncontested leader in the smartphone market.