In a lot of ways, Apple's iPhone 4 announcement was short on surprises. We've been playing with the new iPhone OS 4 (now dubbed iOS 4) for a while, and photos of the hardware had been widely disseminated, a rarity for an unreleased Apple product. Still, Apple managed to fill in the gaps and build up the hype, and there's plenty to know about this handset that extends beyond what you can glean from bricked hardware of dubious provenance. Follow along with us as we break it all down, including detailed impressions from our hands-on time with the device.

Hardware


Specs

The iPhone 4 marks the most dramatic shift in form factor for the iPhone since the original, but it still looks pretty much exactly like an iPhone. As per usual, it's what's inside the phone that matters most, and Apple has made plenty of changes. For a full spec-by-spec comparison with the previous-generation iPhone 3GS, check out our tale of the tape chart, but let's hit the main points:

Build

The iPhone 4 is just barely heavier than the 3GS at 4.8 ounces vs. 4.76 ounces, but it's is significantly thinner (9.3mm vs. 12.3mm) and a bit narrower (58.6mm vs. 62.1mm). It's sandwiched front and back by aluminosilicate glass, which very scratch resistant and strong (30 times harder than plastic, says Apple), and similar in theory to the impervious Gorilla Glass we whaled on recently.

Display

The Droid and Nexus One have popularized the once unheard-of WVGA resolution in high-end smartphones, but Apple's doing them one better with a 960 x 640 display -- a higher resolution at the same 3.5-inch size of previous iPhones, and a smaller size than flagship smartphone competitors. The size tradeoff is all about pixel density: Apple's branding the screen with the "Retina Display" name because the 326ppi resolution is denser than what the human eye can perceive. The Retina Display is also LED backlit, and uses the IPS screen tech from the iPad for wide angles and a high 800:1 contrast ratio. Apple also claims to be doing some software tricks to enhance the quality of the screen even further, and with all this combined the company claims to be "years" ahead of the competition on screen tech, although we're sure the competition would beg to differ.

iPhone 4 pixel density examined

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Processor

One of the other most important hardware improvements is the A4 processor the iPhone 4 now shares with the iPad. While Apple was happy to declare the 1GHz clock speed of the iPad, it has been less forthcoming with the iPhone 4, and it's very possible the chip has been downclocked somewhat to conserve battery life. Either way, the chip itself is a tighter package that uses less power while running faster than the processor in the 3GS, and that's always a good thing.

Battery life

Speaking of battery life, Apple has actually managed to improve this spec over the last generation, with seven hours of 3G talk and 10 hours of WiFi data, vs. five hours of talk and nine hours of WiFi data on the 3GS. The phone is also rated at 40 hours of audio playback and 10 hours of video runtime, with a 300 hour standby time.

Cameras

Apple's added a front-facing VGA camera, as well as a new five megapixel camera around back to replace the 3.2 megapixel sensor from the 3GS. The camera is capable of shooting 720p video at 30fps, and iOS 4 now allows you tap to focus while taking video and stills. There's also a new LED flash to help illuminate your shots. Apple is using a newer "backside illuminated" image sensor, a technology that's cropping up in all manner of compact digital cameras and other high-end phones like the HTC EVO 4G -- essentially, these types of sensor are better able to capture more light. While we appreciate Apple sticking with a lower megapixel count to enhance image quality, the real proof will be putting this phone up against the likes of the Nokia N8 and HTC EVO -- Apple's example shots are always a lot better than anything we can eke out of its sensors. Here's a full gallery of unedited photos from the iPhone 4 -- you can see they're good, but it won't replace your DSLR.

iPhone 4 camera samples

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Radios

The iPhone 4 supports the same theoretical 7.2Mbps HSDPA downloads of its predecessor, along with adding 5.7Mbps HSUPA uploads, and adds on top of that quad band 3G, making more of a world phone when it comes to data (though T-Mobile US's odd 3G spectrum is still out of the loop). Perhaps more exciting for many folks is the addition of 802.11n, though unfortunately it's only the 2.4GHz flavor, leaving out the exciting possibility of escaping runaway interference into the relatively clean 5GHz band. There's also the usual Bluetooth and GPS hardware inside. The iPhone 4's design is somewhat unique in that Apple is using the multi-part stainless steel band that runs around the device as a pair of antennas -- hopefully this will alleviate some of the iPhone's existing coverage woes.

Sensors

Apple's added a three-axis gyroscope to its usual complement of sensors, giving it almost a Wii Motion Plus's level of input when paired with the existing accelerometer and compass. Unfortunately, with tens of millions of gyroscope-free iPhones on the market, we might not be seeing too many major titles putting it to good use right off the bat.

Accessories

Like with every iPhone since the original, there's no dock included -- it's $29 extra. Unlike every other iPhone, Apple's actually building a case for this phone: the colorful Bumper, which only surrounds the sides of the phone, leaving the front and back free and clear. A bit steep at $29, however.

Hands-on

The essential layout of the iPhone 4 is not dramatically different from the 3GS -- all of the expected parts are where you expect them to be -- but there are major, substantial differences. Firstly, this thing is thin. Deathly thin. We were shocked by just how svelte and tiny it feels in your hands. That's especially impressive when you realize that the iPhone 4 is sporting the same 3.5-inch screen size as the original iPhone, but has cranked-up battery life, a faster CPU, and two entirely new cameras.

In your hand it feels really solid, which of course belies its construction of two tempered glass slabs sandwiching a steel band that wraps around the device. In a way, the phone looks like a really thin, really sexy ice cream sandwich. Jobs said it reminded him of a "classic Leica camera," and we can't disagree. There's a retro quality to the design that gives the iPhone 4 a timeless feel -- like khaki pants that never seem to go out of style. It doesn't look like it's from the future so much as it looks like it's from the future as conceived by Dieter Rams, and that shouldn't be a surprise. It is an elegant, beautifully executed piece of industrial design.

The front of the phone is very much classic iPhone, save for that new high-test glass. The home button seems to have more travel and click to it, which we liked. There's also the new front-facing camera, which is barely noticeable. Around the back it's more smooth glass, interrupted only by the camera and LED flash. Everything is flush and smooth, and nothing feels out of place. Up top there's the headphone jack, a new noise-canceling microphone, and the sleep / wake / power button. On the left side you've got those new rounded volume buttons, which are really nice and clicky, and a mute switch. On the right side there's a small microSIM tray, and along the bottom there's the speaker, microphone, and dock connector. There are three notches in that stainless steel band which allow antennas to reach the outside of the casing. Some people don't care for the look of them, but we happen to like the detail.

Holding the phone is comfortable, but it takes some getting used to because there's so much less "back" to it than the previous versions. You definitely need to shift your fingers if you're going from a 3G or 3GS to the 4 -- it's just way thinner around and side to side. We'd also say the iPhone 4 feels slightly more hefty than a 3GS -- in a good way -- since it's the same weight in a smaller package.

But the main course here is the new screen, Apple's "Retina Display." That 960 x 640 resolution is really quite dramatic when it's packed 326ppi tight into the 3.5 inch display. Comparing the new display to the 3GS is stunning, but the difference is apparent even compared to more modern phones like the HTC EVO or Incredible -- the iPhone 4 just kind of blows everything out of the water. It's hard to describe without seeing it, but you cannot really see pixels on this screen (provided you're rendering text or images at full resolution). Text just looks like printed text, images look incredibly warm and deep, and video is stunning. We're trying not to be over the top, but it's just a really, really gorgeous display. This is one case where Apple's hype actually matches reality.

In short, the new iPhone design is a big step up from the previous versions, and it places the goal line -- from a hardware perspective -- a little further out for the competition.

iPhone 4 first hands-on

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iPhone 4 hands-on (black)

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Software


iOS 4 overview

It's likely you already know a lot about iOS 4 -- we've covered it in depth in the past, when it was still called iPhone OS 4. Obviously the big additions are multitasking, folders, iBooks, along with user-defined wallpapers, Mail's new unified inbox, Bluetooth keyboard support and some 1500 other features, most of which require updated apps in order to really shine. Here's a quick list of the biggies -- you can get most of this stuff on your iPhone 3G or higher / iPod touch 2G or higher right now if you're a dev, and it'll be free for everyone on June 21st:
  • Background audio (think Pandora).
  • Background VoIP (think Skype).
  • Background location data, both with live GPS for backgrounded turn-by-turn, and cell tower-based for lower power draw.
  • Orientation lock -- you can set it to always stay in portrait
  • Spell check (like on the iPad).
  • Bluetooth keyboard support (again, on the iPad).
  • User-defined wallpaper (a jailbreak favorite).
  • Tap to focus when recording video, just like with photos, and a 5x digital zoom for the camera.
  • Playlist creation and nested playlists
  • App folders for sorting apps. You can even put an app folder in the dock.
  • Enhanced Mail. You can have a merged inbox view, switch between inboxes quickly, and sync to more than one Exchange account. There's also threaded messaging (at last!) and in-app attachment viewing.
  • iBooks, just like on iPad, only smaller. You can wirelessly sync books between platforms, a la Kindle.
  • Enterprise features, including remote device management and wireless app distribution.
  • Local notifications. Like push notifications, but sends a notification straight from the app without needing a push notification server, perfect for an alarm, for instance.
  • Fast app switching. Saves the state of an app and resumes it from where you left off, without dwelling in memory.

We've been using iOS 4 since it was announced on our iPhone 3GS, and it's very much the same iPhone experience with some extremely welcome tweaks, like being able to quickly switch between apps by double-clicking the home button, and being able to lock the phone in portrait orientation. But other than that it'll be up to the app developers to really take advantage of these 1,500 new APIs -- we haven't seen too many apps make use of the new features yet, and that's where iOS 4 will really shine.

iPhone OS 4.0 device screenshots

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Hands-on with the iPhone 4's new features

So what does iOS 4 feel like to use on the new iPhone 4 and its A4 chip?

Well, it feels really snappy. The OS is definitely brisk in most of its tasks, and when it comes to something like the camera app, it's a whole new ballgame. We were actually really surprised at how fast the iPhone 4 can snap pictures, especially considering the higher resolution of the camera. If you're an impatient photographer, you'll love the iPhone 4. The same was true for HD video capture -- there wasn't any lag in getting things done. Apps, folders, and task switching also went off without a hitch. If you think your 3GS feels tight, the iPhone 4 is like a vise grip.

The big iPhone 4 software exclusives -- and likely your big questions -- concern FaceTime and the new cameras, which are untested ground for Apple. We were confused at first because we expected FaceTime to be its own app, but instead it's baked into the phone app. Here's how it works: if you place a call to someone else with an iPhone 4, it's able to autodetect that they're FaceTime-compatible and you're given the option of requesting a video call. Otherwise, you can go into the contact card and initiate a FaceTime call right from there (like sending a text message). We experienced varying levels of smoothness when we tested things out -- we experienced some stuttery video and freezes when there were a lot of people crowding the demo booth and trying to make calls, but things were much, much better when the crowds died out a little. Our impression is that if you're on your home network, this will be a really great experience, but you need to have some bandwidth -- hence FaceTime's current WiFi-only status. Of course, the real question is whether or not anyone will actually want to make video calls at all, and we'll have to wait and see on that. There was something oddly sci-fi about using FaceTime -- even though we know there are other video calling options out there, Apple's presentation makes it all seem a little more futuristic. Apple says the FaceTime standard will be open and people will be able to create apps around it, but we haven't heard much in detail on that front -- it sounds promising, however.

At the end of the day, iOS 4 on the iPhone 4 is still fundamentally the iPhone OS you know and love (or hate with a passion). There's little here you don't know, and there aren't any game-changing features. We love the multitasking, and we love the music-player controls (hopefully there's more of this to come), but Apple is sticking to what it knows with iOS 4. That said, iOS 4 and the iPhone 4 are definitely a match made in gadget geek heaven.


How to get one


Buying a new iPhone -- or any phone on contract, for that matter -- can be a harrowing experience filled with legalese, unexpected expenses, nail-biting, and signatures that commit you to a solid 24 months of loyalty. Both AT&T and Apple have released all the particulars on getting a brand-spanking-new iPhone 4, whether you're a new AT&T customer or you're coming in for an upgrade -- but in an effort to prevent any last-minute drama on the 24th, let's break it down in one spot, shall we?

If you're new to AT&T or you're adding an additional line, you'll pay $199 for the 16GB model and $299 for the 32GB one, assuming you're comfortable with signing a two-year contract. If you'd like to keep yourself out of contract so you can leave at any time you like, you're looking at $599 for 16GB or $699 for 32GB.

What if you sign the contract and decide to ditch out in the middle of it? You'll pay $325 minus $10 times the number of months you've been in the contract in penalty fees. For example, if you're ten months into your iPhone 4 contract and you decide to jump ship, you'll pay $225 to leave. If you bought a 32GB iPhone 4 for the subsidized price of $299, that means you will have effectively paid $524 for it (not including the cost of your monthly plan over the course of those ten months, of course).

Interestingly, this means that you could theoretically save $75 on the no-commitment price of the 16GB model by buying it subsidized and breaking your contract immediately (excluding fees), but unless you're insistent on unlocking the phone immediately (assuming there's a reliable unlock available) and taking it to T-Mobile to use with 2G service alone, there probably isn't much logic in doing that.

If you're upgrading a line of AT&T service that you already have, the situation is a little bit more complicated, but AT&T has made it about as painless as possible. The first thing you need to do is confirm whether you're eligible for what AT&T refers to as the "new activation" price -- this is the same price you'd pay as though you were a new customer coming in off the street, and it's usually the best price a carrier offers on a phone. AT&T's extended eligibility by six months to many of its current customers, so make sure you check! You've got three options:
  • Visit AT&T's website. From there, you'll log into your account and click on the "Check Upgrade Options" link.
  • Dial *639# on your current AT&T phone. In a few seconds, you'll get a reply text message telling you what's up -- whether you're eligible, or if not, the date on which you will be.
  • Call customer service. No offense to AT&T's call center reps, but we'd use this as a last resort.
It's important to note that your upgrade eligibility date is not necessarily your contract expiration date -- in fact, the two are only tangentially related -- so you can't assume that buying a phone from AT&T since June 24, 2008 takes you out of the game. The way AT&T calculates upgrade eligibility dates is a closely-guarded secret that involves your monthly spending, the length of time you've been with the carrier and other mysterious factors, but we've been told by an AT&T spokesman that iPhone customers who spend at least $99 a month can generally expect upgrade eligibility to come every 12 to 18 months. In this case, though, the company has pulled ahead any existing iPhone customer who'd previously had an upgrade date in 2010 so that they can get the best $199 / $299 pricing on the iPhone 4.

You may also be required to pay what AT&T calls an "upgrade fee" of $18. Like the upgrade eligibility date, the way AT&T determines whether you've got to shell it out isn't publicly divulged; we're just told that it involves the length of the contract, the customer's payment history, monthly spend, and so on.

If you're not eligible for an upgrade, not all hope is lost; you could either add another line of service (assuming you pass the credit check) or pay what AT&T calls the "early upgrade" price. It's more than the new activation price, but it's still better than the full price of $599 / $699 -- the only downside is that your current contract is extended to a full two years again from the date of your purchase. This early upgrade pricing comes in at $200 more than the $199 / $299, which means you'll pay $399 for the 16GB iPhone 4 or $499 for the 32GB version.


Regardless of how you get the new phone, you might be wondering whether you're able to take your $30 unlimited data with you when you go in light of AT&T's recent data pricing changes. The short answer is yes, you can -- unless you want to add the $20 tethering option, which requires that you switch to the new $25 DataPro plan that includes 2GB with overage of $10 per additional gigabyte. Be warned: if you do decide to switch to DataPlus or DataPro, you'll never be able to go back to the $30 option, so think long and hard before you take the leap.

Wrap-up



So what's the verdict? Well, we're obviously holding final judgments until we have a chance to give the iPhone 4 an official Engadget review, but from the short time we spent with the device and OS, we're definitely impressed. Apple has answered quite a few of the minor questions and issues we've had with the current model, and even seems to be tackling some of the bigger problems like connectivity with those new antennas. When it comes to the competition -- judging by specs and OS capabilities -- the new phone puts Apple ahead of the curve. It's still got some very stiff competition in devices like the EVO 4G and Nexus One, but a gulf has been created by the combination of the iPhone 4's look and feel, an increasingly polished OS, that insane display, superfast CPU, and solid new camera additions. It might not be a revolution tantamount to the introduction of the original iPhone (as Steve and company would like you to believe), but in terms of evolution, Apple just took a giant step forward.

With contributions by Paul Miller, Chris Ziegler, and Nilay Patel.

Further reading:

iPhone 4 news
Impressions
iOS / Software
Availability

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