iPhone 4 review hands-on
- Amazing new industrial design
- Retina Display is stunning
- iOS 4 makes major improvements
- Annoying pop-up notifications
- Reception is improved, but still has issues
- Desperately needs widgets
As we said, there are three main pieces of the phone, which together create an effect not wildly dissimilar to that of an ice cream sandwich. You know, but far pricier... and not edible. The face of the device is made up of extremely strong glass which Jony Ive says is "comparable in strength to sapphire crystal, but about 30 times harder than plastic." A small slit for the earpiece and the front-facing camera are embedded in the glass above the display, with the familiar home button towards the bottom -- a button we should note feels much clickier than on our 3GS. On the left side of the phone you've got the new volume buttons, a redesigned mute switch, and a small notch towards the base of the unit. On the right side is the Micro SIM slot and another notch in the band at the bottom, and up top there's the power / sleep button, headphone jack, another notch, and new noise-canceling microphone. Along the bottom is a speaker, microphone, and the 30-pin dock connector port. The backside of the phone is made from the same kind of ultra-strong glass as the front, interrupted only by the new five megapixel camera, its LED flash companion and, of course, the Apple logo.
As usual, Apple isn't fessing up about the RAM situation, though we have on very good authority that the iPhone 4 has 512MB onboard, a big step up from the 256MB in the previous model and the iPad. We would have liked to see it futureproofed with something like 1GB, but then again, Apple's got to sell a new phone in a year. As far as internal storage goes, you can buy the new iPhone in either 16GB ($199 on contract) or 32GB ($299 on contract) capacity -- fine for now, but since the company has just introduced 30FPS 720p video recording, you could find yourself outgrowing that number pretty quickly. It's a little odd, in fact, that the company didn't double down here and bump the capacity to 64GB, as it's recently done with the iPod touch. In terms of wireless, the iPhone 4 is packed with an 802.11n WiFi radio, as well as a quad-band HSUPA chip and Bluetooth 2.1.
Of course, the big internal story is what has become external: namely, the UMTS, GPS, WiFi, and Bluetooth antennas. Apple has made the stainless band around the phone essentially a couple of big antennae, and they seem to be doing a pretty good job at hanging onto radio signals. The big question is obviously whether or not this fixes or helps with the constant dropped calls iPhone users on AT&T's network have gotten used to. Well in our testing, we had far, far fewer dropped calls than we experienced on our 3GS. Let's just say that again: yes, the iPhone 4 does seem to alleviate the dropped call issue. It wasn't perfect, and we had some connection issues in downtown New York City in particular, though it's tough to say if it was the fault of our phone, the cluster of buildings we were near, or the person we were speaking to, who was on a 3GS in the same location.
iPhone 3GS on the left, iPhone 4 on the right
Not only are the colors and blacks deep and rich, but you simply cannot see pixels on the screen. Okay, if you take some macro camera shots or get right up in there you can make them out, but in general use, the screen is free of jaggies of any type, unless you're looking at a last-gen app that hasn't had its artwork updated. Text rendering is incredibly clear and clean -- webpages that would be line after line of pixelated content when zoomed out on a 3GS (say, Engadget or the New York Times) are completely readable on the iPhone 4, though the text is beyond microscopic. It's impressive, and doubly impressive when you look at higher-res graphics or watch 720p video on the phone -- the detail in moving images is particularly striking. What's nice is that most apps with text in them will benefit from this tech whether or not they've been updated, as long as they're using Apple's font rendering. Text in the Engadget app, for instance, looks cleaner, clearer, and much easier to read on the new iPhone.
Nexus One up top, iPhone 4 below
Because Apple is using IPS and LED technology for its screen, the iPhone 4 is mercifully visible in full sunlight, and performance in low light and at extreme viewing angles are favorable. Overall, you simply won't find a better display on a phone, and that's not just lip service.
Let's first take a look at the higher-res main camera. At his WWDC keynote, Jobs said that getting great looking images wasn't just about upping the camera's megapixels, but had more to do with grabbing more photons. Increase the photon count, let more light in, and your images will look better, the thought goes. So Apple's using a newer backside-illuminated sensor that's more sensitive to light in addition to upping those megapixels -- and we must say, pictures on the iPhone 4 look stunning. Our shots looked good right out of the gate, with few problems when it came to focusing or low light. With the flash on, we managed decent if somewhat blown out results (fairly common with smaller LED flashes) though impressively, the iPhone 4 was usually able to take completely useable and even handsome photos in fairly low light without the flash. It seems like that photon situation is definitely in play, because even shots taken in fairly dark lighting came out looking good. Autofocus worked well in most situations, and we were actually able to get some impressive looking macro shots (see the flowers and Penny below). In general, we'd have no trouble using the iPhone 4's camera as a stand-in for a dedicated camera. Not only did it take beautiful shots, but the A4 and iOS 4 combo have considerably sped up the time it takes to snap pictures -- it's now almost instantaneous. Otherwise, you have options for a 5x digital zoom (which produces results that look like a digital zoom) and basic on / off / auto settings for the flash. It's pretty bare bones, and we wouldn't have minded a few basic options like white balance settings -- but c'mon, this is Apple we're talking about. Luckily, the App Store is chock full of applications that improve upon the stock camera app -- we expect to see a handful of new ones that take advantage of the new sensor soon.
iPhone 4 camera shots
As far as video goes, we were definitely impressed by the 720p capture, though there are stability issues with the lens and the all-too-familiar "jellyvision" CMOS issues that tend to rear their head if you're not holding the phone very steady. Still, we can't see carrying around a Flip HD instead of just keeping this in our pocket (though as we said, we'd like to see a higher storage capacity). Everything we shot looked crisp and mostly artifact-free, and we didn't see any hiccups in the 30 FPS rate Apple claims, even in lower light. Adding iMovie to the mix for on-the-fly editing is a nice touch too (more on that in the software section). The video below was shot and edited completely in-phone, so enjoy -- and here's the raw output to download.
Around front, the VGA camera is... well, a VGA camera. It actually does a fine job of capturing your face during video calls, and worked surprisingly well in low light, but it's not going to win any prizes for being the most advanced shooter on a handset. It does provide for some interesting angle options when it comes to video shooting, and we expect a lot of people will be taking advantage of the weirdly video game-like perspective. All in all, it looks good, but it's pretty utilitarian.
Speaker / earpiece
We've never had a particular problem with the speaker or earpiece on previous iPhones (well, the speakerphone has never been loud enough for our taste), but it's obvious that Apple has done some work on getting both call quality and speakerphone quality up. Beyond making the phone considerably and consistently louder in both places, the clarity of the iPhone 4 is noticeably improved from the previous generation. If you read our review, then you know that we thought Motorola's original Droid had some of the best sounding components we've heard on a phone, and the new iPhone definitely gives them a run for the money. The first time we took a call on the device we were walking down New York's extremely noisy Fifth Avenue, and right away it was obvious that the secondary, noise-canceling mic was doing some heavy lifting, at least on the other end of the line. Even though sirens were wailing behind us and we were surrounded by chatty shoppers, it was easy to hear our party on the other end, and they could hear us perfectly (unless we were lied to). There's clearly a difference between the sound in the earpiece on the new phone versus the 3GS, and it ranks highly against newer competition like the EVO. As far as the speakerphone goes, it gets loud without distorting or producing cutting midrange, a problem we've noticed on quite a few recent phones. We'd liken the iPhone 4 in quality to something along the lines of the BlackBerry Bold -- a bearable tone even when it gets hot.
MultitaskingThis is a big one, and more than just a little controversial. Since the dawn of apps for the iPhone (remember, way back in 2008?), people have been up in arms about the lack of third-party backgrounding for applications. Sure, you could keep Mail, Safari, iPod, and a few other Apple programs cranking while you used your phone, but those privileges were strictly off limits for third-party devs working on the device. It's arguable that one of the driving forces behind the jailbreaking movement was a desire for this feature -- something a phone as powerful as the iPhone was clearly capable of. Apple's argument has always been that multitasking causes an undue amount of battery drain from phones, and had to be approached with caution, lest we all end up with juiceless phones at high noon. Recently, however, that tune has changed. Apple has -- in true Apple fashion -- "figured out" how to "do multitasking right" -- namely, the company isn't allowing full backgrounding as much as it's allowing a handful of APIs that mimic backgrounding. Things like holding onto a GPS signal, letting music play in the background, staying connected to VoIP calls (or receiving them), and fast switching (basically a way for you to return quickly to exactly where you left off in an app).
So, does Apple pull it off? Can this scarce handful of APIs makeup for true backgrounding? In a word: yep.
Here's the thing -- this may not be "true" multitasking for a lot of us, but it amounts to multitasking for most of us. That is, it looks, feels, and acts like multitasking, so it's pretty tough to complain about it. In fact: we're not going to complain about it, especially given the fact that some of our favorite apps -- the IRC client Colloquy being one of them -- do just about exactly what we need them to do, all according to Apple's rules and regulations. Previous to the new OS, we'd been jailbreaking our phone just to keep an IRC session running in the background. Now, utilizing some of those new APIs, the Colloquy developers have created an elegant and useful solution that pleases both users and the Cupertino Cops. The point is: it works, it does so bug free, and without a major drain on battery life (quite the contrary... more on that in a moment). We're not saying we liked waiting for this kind of thing to come around, and yes, we'd prefer something more open and flexible -- but this works, and works well.
So how is Apple making this magic happen? Here's a breakdown of just exactly what multitasking really means (and feels like) on the new iPhone (and the 3GS):
- Fast app switching: You know how you can leave off in Mail halfway through writing a response and go back to exactly where you were? Well that happens everywhere now. When you leave the app, you go back in exactly the same place. And it happens quickly. Fast app switching is essentially like toggling between "paused" applications. This combined with Apple's new app switcher (double tap the home button to bring up your most recently used apps) destroys that annoying iPhone feeling of going in and out and in and out. It just doesn't exist anymore, provided all your apps are up to date, which is going to take some time. It's amazing how much this single feature counts -- it's definitely one of the prime movers here, and it's so simple it's stupid. We would have liked to see options for "favorite" apps or some way to prioritize what you're switching to, but once you get used to this system -- which just puts whatever you've used most recently to the far left -- it makes some sense.
- Task completion: Basically, task completion lets an app do its thing even if you leave it. So if you're uploading or downloading a picture in Evernote or Dropbox, or saving an article in the New York Times app, even if you navigate away, the job is done when you get back to the app. This accounts for a lot of what we think of as multitasking. Most of your apps are just idling -- it's only when you interact with them that it counts. We don't know the boundaries for this API, though it seems to leave a lot of room for creative use. We know it's not just big jobs, it's little ones too -- Colloquy uses this feature to keep you connected to your IRC host. To be honest, that kind of behavior is one thing we thought we wouldn't see in iOS 4, and here it is. Hopefully Twitter app devs and other instant messaging clients will utilize the API in a similar manner.
- Background audio and VoIP: These two are straightforward. The first allows for music playing apps to keep their stream running in the background (and even gives them little widget controls in the app switcher), and the second allows VoIP connections to stay active. That means you can stay on a Skype call and go check your mail, but it also means that the VoIP connection will be aware of incoming calls when you're not actively using an app. Additionally, this API can be used to allow for recording even if you exit an app, as demonstrated effectively in the new version of Evernote.
- Background GPS: Basically, GPS apps can keep running in the background... for obvious reasons. This one will drain your battery if you're not docked -- but who's using a GPS app and not plugging that thing in? Okay, we might be a little guilty of that. Regardless, this will keep your navigation software afloat if you have to take a call, and apparently will let GPS-centric apps like FourSquare check in even if you're not running it in the foreground.
So has Apple done it? Maybe, and maybe not. We're certainly impressed by the concept and Apple's willingness to open up their "FaceTime standard" to anyone who wants to get in on the party. That means that developers on any platform -- provided they can meet all the necessary requirements -- can create applications that talk via the protocol (or set of protocols, really). We're also impressed with the tech itself, which feels polished and slick out of the gate. But right now, there's only one way to do FaceTime calls, and that's via the iPhone 4... and only over WiFi, which means that the opportunity to make these calls is pretty limited for now. Additionally, in our testing, we found that you really need to have a good, strong, nearby WiFi signal to hang onto a connection. More than once we had video freeze on us, and we had one fully dropped call because someone went out of the WiFi range, but hey... you need to be in range for even the most basic tasks, so we can't fault Apple too much for that. It does seem clear that the iPhone video chats are moving quite a few bits around, however. What's nice about FaceTime is that unlike Qik or other third-party options for something like the EVO, there's no setup here and it's completely integrated into the dialer of the phone -- meaning the only hangup is whether or not you have decent WiFi.
But what is it like? Well in truth, it's actually a teensy bit amazing. Yes, we're a little numb to the PR speak about how game changing it is, but there's still something deeply sci-fi about dialing up a friend and being able to hold this thing in your hand and have a video chat. We did a call with Apple's Greg Joswiak while he was in Paris (see the image above), and when he walked outside and flipped the camera to show us the Eiffel Tower, it was a legitimately weird experience -- a "you are there" moment. As you can see in the call below with USA Today's Ed Baig (his take on the iPhone 4 is right here), it's a pretty new way to talk to someone, at least for us. Having a random face-to-face conversation with a kid about what he's having for lunch is just the tip of the iceberg -- we can definitely see this feature coming into play in all sorts of ways in our lives.
Technically speaking, actually making calls is straightforward; you can switch to a FaceTime chat while you're already connected, or you're given to option to launch right into a FaceTime connection. We were a little surprised by the fact that you can only mute the audio on your calls; if you want the video off, you need to cover the lens in the old fashioned way -- with your hands.
All said, it's a fascinating inclusion, and we've got a sneaking suspicion that Apple intends to do more than just basic calls with this. Obviously the addition of conference FaceTime sessions would be huge, and we're also looking forward to using the function on a 3G network -- it's nice to have a chat from your house, but what would really be great is taking these kinds of conversations out into the wide world. We think that coupled with active development for clients on lots of platforms (not just the iPhone) will make FaceTime much more interesting -- it's a curiosity right now, but it could be something else entirely with a little time and elbow grease.
What can you really say about folders? Basically: it's about time. We're happy that Apple has seen the light and included something like this in iOS 4, and the implementation is elegant enough, but it would have been nice to store more than 12 items at a time. As it stands, if you have a lot of one kind of app, you're going to end up with a group of folders in the same category. We have a second "Games" folder, but some of you out there will have more like six or seven of those. That helps the problem, but doesn't solve it completely. We get why Apple made this decision -- likely a desire to keep it simple -- but it would be nice to be able to make the room if you wanted it.
For a lot of us, the new tweaks to the iPhone's Mail app have seriously been a long time coming. Among the major improvements in iOS 4 are a unified inbox and threaded messaging (finally!) -- both of which have made dealing with email on the iPhone a considerably more enjoyable experience. We still think that the mail client is lacking in comparison to Gmail, but that has more to do with our addiction to Gmail than anything else, we suspect. Overall, Mail feels much more complete now, and Apple has solved the same problem in Mail that it had with app switching -- that feeling of constantly jumping into and out of your inboxes.
iBooks / iMovie
iMovie, on the other hand, is something new entirely. We can't say we didn't see this one coming since Apple just added video recording and editing to its arsenal with the introduction of iPhone OS 3 and the 3GS -- but this takes things one step further. The $4.99 app gives you access to more advanced features, like a (very) limited selection of transitions between clips, the option to add audio to your videos, plus a handful of themes and titling effects. We found it to be extremely capable for fast edits, though everything is pretty sandboxed here, so while you do have the most basic editing tools, things like splitting a clip can be a little bit of a hassle. Since you can only edit the beginning and end of a snippet, if you want to split something into multiple parts you have to drag the clip into your edit repeatedly and then scale the start and finish points for each one. It can be a pain if you're doing lots of jump cuts -- though we don't expect everyone to be making the next Casino on this thing... though, someone probably will, right? For a few bucks, it's definitely worth having, and we expect that after a few people start using the thing, Apple might be prompted to add a few more options.
What's not in the new OS
The other thing that's driving us crazy is the lack of widgets. Apple almost gets there with its new extensible music player controls, but there are still no good solutions for glanceable information on the iPhone. We'll admit that it's better now that fast app switching is in play, but we'd still like that weather icon to actually show us the temperature where we live. Is that too much to ask? The competition seems to have this one licked -- we'd really like to see Apple take a stab at it.
Once the rest of the team has their iPhones in hand, we'll do some hardcore battery life testing and see what we come up with, but we think under pretty active use, the iPhone 4 blows Apple's previous generation phone out of the water, and makes a lot of the competition look downright needy.