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Apple iPhone 4 review: Love it or hate it

Posted by Herman Chee on 2:24 PM

Introduction

You can't make a phone that everyone loves and Apple is not even trying. Much like any other iPhone so far, the iPhone 4 is a phone that everybody loves AND hates.

Apple’s latest is always the greatest – you have to give them that. Sometimes it seems they put less effort into making it than in letting people know they did. But with the Apple iPhone 4, they were obviously hard at work. The 4th generation iPhone has an all new look, new feel and plenty of new skill. We already caught a glimpse of the iOS4. But there’s much more: a 1GHz chip, two cameras, HD video and of course the Retina display – the highest-res screen we’ve seen so far on a GSM phone.




Surely there are still enough blank spots on the feature list but that’s Apple and its iPhone. Compromises are being made in every phone out there anyway. But the simple fact is Number 4 is the best iPhone to-date. Let’s see how good that is.

Key features

  • Quad-band GSM and quad-band 3G support with 7.2 Mbps HSDPA and 5.76 Mbps HSUPA
  • 3.5" 16M-color LED-backlit TFT capacitive touchscreen of 640 x 960 px resolution
  • Scratch-resistant glass front and rear, with fingerprint-resistant coating
  • 1GHz Apple A4 SoC; 512MB of RAM
  • 5 MP autofocus camera with LED flash and touch focus
  • 720p video recording at 30fps
  • Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n
  • GPS with A-GPS connectivity; digital compass
  • 16/32GB storage options
  • Accelerometer, proximity sensor and three-axis gyro sensor
  • Active noise cancellation with a dedicated secondary microphone
  • Standard 3.5 mm audio jack, stereo Bluetooth v2.1
  • Excellent audio output quality
  • Slim waistline at only 9.3mm
  • Secondary front-facing camera
  • Some degree of multitasking
  • Rich AppStore

Main disadvantages

  • Hardware design is prone to reception issues
  • MicroSIM card support only
  • No Flash support in the web browser
  • No true multitasking for all applications
  • FaceTime video calls work only over Wi-Fi
  • No file transfer over Bluetooth or USB Mass Storage mode
  • No hardware shutter key for the camera
  • No FM radio
  • No stereo speakers
  • No microSD card slot
  • No smart dialing
  • Too dependent on iTunes for loading multimedia content
  • Poor loudspeaker performance

As you can see, most of the main disadvantages are simply passed from one generation to the next but - whatever iPhone you’re coming from - the Number 4 will tick most of your boxes. Upgraders will be used to the shortcomings, and unbiased observers will have less points to complain against.

It just seems some features will be forever missing. The iPhone’s memory isn’t expandable and you can’t use the thing as an external drive (this also means that files are only transferred via iTunes, again). Bluetooth has been upgraded to cover not only for music and calls but a compatible wireless keyboard too. File transfers however are a no-go.

The lack of Flash support in the Safari browser is no surprise given the Apple-Adobe feud. Luckily there’s the good old YouTube app to partly make up for that but Flash games are still out of the question.

There is now a secondary video-call cam but the “reinvented” FaceTime video calls feature only works over Wi-Fi (for now) and between two iPhone 4’s.

As for the multitasking, this is the closest the iPhone has ever gotten but there is no true multitasking, and certainly not for all apps.

You've probably also heard of the user reports of reception issues and you're wondering how much of that is true. Well, we've checked that in detail, too.




All that (and a bit more) aside, the new goodies seem to merit at least some of the iPhone 4 hype. The Retina display is gorgeous. The 3.5” capacitive TFT touchscreen has four times the resolution of the older iPhones. At 640 x 960 pixels, it’s the best we’ve seen – statistically. But perhaps the most impressive too, for its actual performance.

There’s a generational leap in imaging too. The first two iPhones had a single 2MP fixed focus camera on board. Last year’s 3GS tried to make some sense with a 3-megapixel autofocus snapper. With the iPhone 4, Apple are finally beginning to look good. The primary 5-megapixel autofocus camera not only takes impressive images but shoots 720p videos too. Oh, and it has a LED flash.

Now, let’s see what else is in that tiny white retail box and check out those shiny glass panels. Let the iPhone 4 unboxing begin.


Unboxing the Apple iPhone 4

The new iPhone comes in a tiny white box with not much in it. Underneath the phone itself, we found the usual set of accessories: a charger, a USB cable and the same set of earphones with a 3.5mm audio jack as the one of the 3GS.







Amidst the booklets (an iPhone 4 brochure and product guide) we came upon the SIM eject tool and a couple of stickers with an apple on them. That’s that. No free bumper case, no polishing cloth, no dock. You’re buying a 600 euro phone SIM-free – and you’re supposed to be able to afford some extra accessories.

Apple iPhone 4 bumper case

We finally got out hands on the iPhone 4 original Bumper case. It turned out pretty much what we expected it to be.

The Bumper case is made of high quality rubber with external buttons for the volume and lock keys, duplicating the iPhone 4 ones. They are made of the same metallic material as the iPhone's own keys and leave the impression you are actually using the real keys instead of external replacements.

The only exception is that the top side of the Bumper case had the nasty habit of pressing the Sleep/Wake button on the iPhone 4 no matter where you touched it.

The Bumper case tightly sticks to the metallic iPhone frame. Thanks to it the iPhone 4 has now much better grip and feels secure when held in hand.







As for the most important question - the iPhone 4 bumper case solves all antenna issues you may be having. It successfully prevents the attenuation and you will be safe from dropped calls.

The iPhone 4 bumper case is definitely a looker, but it conceals all metallic elements on the iPhone 4 (the frame) thus toning down the looks of the phone. The black variety that comes free from the Apple bumper case program is no match for the iPhone 4 stylish personality. A brightly colored case would have been much better.

Apple iPhone 4 360-degree spin

Three generations and an iPad later, the iPhone finally looks different. Better. At 115.2 x 58.6 x 9.3 mm the iPhone 4 is impressively slim and obviously less curvy. The weight has stayed almost the same at 137 g, an emphatic statement of the newly found poise and presence.

The metallic frame around the body actually consists of two separate parts and both are individual antennas. You probably have heard by now, that this design is reportedly causing some reception issues. Well, we're about to test that further down in the Telephony section of this review.

Design and construction

OK, a new look for the iPhone does sound risky. After all, they didn’t bother to change the design for three generations and still sold ship loads of the thing. The Number 4 is here to open a brand new page in the iPhone history but a complete departure from the original styling could’ve been way too adventurous.



To be honest, Apple simply nailed it. Some will tell you the Number 4 has just about nothing in common with its predecessors. They may be right. We wouldn’t call it a complete overhaul though. You know, one of the things that made iPhone what it is, was the belief that no design is the best design.

When all you have is touchscreen and an interface that sets the standards for user-friendliness, you don’t need to put the focus elsewhere by getting too fancy with the finish. The iPhone is one of the most minimalist phone designs out there and Number 4 knows better than to try anything stupid.

So, Apple had no design to start with, made very little changes to it and ended up with a brilliant new design. What do you call it? Here’s one – magic. The iPhone 4 is thinner, sharper, more advanced, refined. The one thing to note probably is that it somehow feels more delicate than the older versions. This has nothing to do with the build and finish – we wouldn’t call the iPhone 4 fragile (despite glass being inherently quite easy to shatter).

If you put a 3GS and an iPhone 4 side by side on the table, you may have a hard time noticing a profound difference. That’s when the screens are off though. Once that gorgeous Retina Display powers up, you will want to turn off the 3GS and put it hastily away to save it the embarrassment. Hard to believe it was considered one of the better phone screens out there.

At the rear, the new styling is way more prominent. Instead of plastic there’s glossy glass surface that is said to be scratch-resistant and quite more sturdy than plastic. But as it turned out, if you want to get it scratched or broken, you’ll succeed.






The oleophobic coating – both front and rear – is supposed to reduce fingerprints but there isn’t much you can do to keep the high-gloss surface clean. The special coating at least makes sure smudges are easily removed.

Up front, the newly added secondary camera is located right next to the earpiece, on the left. Above the display we also find the proximity and the ambient light sensors. The round Home button is all there is at the bottom.

The Retina display

The iPhone 4 Retina display is the highest resolution screen we’ve seen in a mobile phone. Retina is just a marketing name made up by Apple to differentiate it. But it doesn’t need the extra differentiation cause it’s among the best screens we’ve seen too.

The new display has the same size as those on the previous iPhones (3.5 inches) but the the resolution has been bumped up four times. From 320 x 480 pixels on the previous generations, the new iPhone 4 screen has the amazing 640 x 960 pixel resolution.

Thanks to the increased pixel density (reaching 326 pixels per inch) images now appear way sharper (or smoother, if you like) than before.

Based on an IPS panel, just like high-end desktop displays, the new iPhone’s LCD screen has LED backlighting and resulting contrast ratio of 800:1, which is 4 times the previous ones, as well.






Going around

The left side of the Apple iPhone 4 features the Ring/Silent switch and the volume controls - two separate round knobs instead of the rocker button in previous versions. Those are prominent enough and surprisingly solid to press.




On the right side the microSIM card slot is all there is. To remove the SIM card you need to use the enclosed SIM eject tool or a paper clip – or even a pinboard pin would do. Again, there is no hardware camera key.




At the top we find the traditional Sleep/Wake button as well as the standard 3.5mm audio jack. Next to the audio jack is the the extra mic for the active noise cancelation during phone calls.


The bottom is reminiscent of the previous iPhone generations. It has the proprietary Apple USB cable/charger/dock connector, as well as the tiny loudspeaker grill and mouthpiece on either side of the connectivity port.The iPhone 4 surely would have made a good use of a pair of stereo speakers. As it turned out in our dedicated loudspeaker performance test the single loudspeaker is not that good. But more on that further on in the review.

The flat glossy rear features the lens of the 5-megapixel autofocus camera. The LED flash next to it is another iPhone novelty. As usual, the battery is not user replaceable and there is no memory expansion slot.

The Apple iPhone 4 is powered by a 1420 mAh Li-Po battery, which is quoted at up to 300 hours of stand-by, up to 14 hours of talk-time and up to 40 hours of non-stop music playback.

We just concluded our dedicated iPhone 4 battery life test and we are pretty pleased with it. The iPhone 4 managed almost three days on a single charge under some normal usage (or at least what we consider normal) including the following:

  • 30 min of general usage
  • 90 minutes of video playback
  • 40 minutes of voice calls
  • 40 minutes of web browsing
  • 40 minutes of gaming
  • 40 minutes of photo browsing
  • 2 hours of music playback

That's better than what we hoped for and certainly much better than the iPhone 3GS. We were even pleasantly surprised by the dedicated video playback test - the iPhone 4 played our test video for 9 hours and 40 minutes before the battery went down. Downright impressive!

Come to think of it, Apple were too kind to original iPhone owners. They used pretty much the same design over three generations and the iPhone 2G users didn’t feel their device outdated.

But Number 4 turns it all upside down. All the functionality upgrades aside, rarely have we seen an upgrade that makes the previous one feel so old, if not obsolete? The Apple iPhone 4 has an extra premium feel that few contemporary flagship phones can match.

The finish is impressive – the level of refinement and sophistication is all the more remarkable considering the altogether minimalist design. The iPhone 4 is nothing short of beautiful. Handling will perhaps be less comfortable at first, if you’re coming from any of the older iPhones. The Number 4 just doesn’t allow as secure a grip.

iOS 4.0: at full throttle

The iOS 4 is can be installed on any iPhone 3GS and – technically – 3G. We see no point porting it on a 3G though – the whole thing gets dismally slow and some of the new features are not supported anyway. What matters now is how the OS performs on the iPhone 4. There's a quick video you may have already watched in our blog.

Thanks to its gorgeous new screen, better still camera and vastly improved camcorder, gyro sensor and video-call camera, the iPhone 4 is the device on which users can genuinely appreciate the potential of iOS 4. iPhone 3GS can run it almost without any compromises but you’ll get the fastest and most seamless performance on the iPhone 4 and its 1GHz Apple A4 platform.

On an iPhone 3G you will get neither homescreen wallpapers nor multi-tasking. The rest of the stuff is there, but the performance drop is too much to bear.

But let’s be positive here – we have an iPhone 4 and a 3GS to enjoy, which is more than enough. You might have already been through our iOS 4 review – you'll find it's got a lot of common with the follwoing part of the iPhone 4 review. You will find identical wording, don’t you worry, we’ve made sure all the details are updated with iPhone 4 specifics.

Let’s start with the changelog:

General UI changes

  • Homescreen wallpapers
  • Applications can be organized in folders
  • Multitasking – fast app switcher with app specific pause or backgrounding
  • You can do Google/Wikipedia searches straight from Spotlight
  • Minor icon facelifts
  • Video call support (only in iPhone 4 and only over Wi-Fi)
  • Settings menu gets you the last toggled setting screen

Text input and management

  • Keyboard layouts now cover QWERTY, QWERTZ, and AZERTY
  • Spell checker

Contacts

  • Simplified contact adding and editing

Messaging

  • SMS character counter
  • SMS search
  • Email threading
  • Unified Email inbox
  • Email archiving is now available as an option when you setup Gmail

Camera

  • 5x digital zoom in still camera
  • Touch-focus in video capture

iPod player

  • iPod music player can now create, edit and delete playlists

Bluetooth

  • Bluetooth keyboard pairing support

iTunes store and AppStore

  • Free iBooks e-book and PDF reader
  • iMovie adds advanced video editing to the iPhone 4 (paid app)
  • iAd service allows for free, ad-supported apps

And the stuff iOS 4 failed to deliver

  • No Flash support in the web browser
  • No true multitasking for all applications
  • No quick switches for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or 3G on the homescreen
  • No social networking integration in the contact list
  • No lockscreen or homescreen info widgets or plugins
  • No new ringtones or SMS tones
  • SMS,,email, and calendar tones are still not customizable
  • No proper file browser or access to the file system
  • No USB mass storage mode
  • Screen has no vibrating haptic feedback
  • No Bluetooth file transfers to other mobile phones
  • Contacts lack a swipe-to-delete or mass delete feature
  • No SMS/MMS delivery notifications
  • No smart dialing (but Spotlight is a somewhat of a substitute)
  • No DivX or XviD video support and no official third-party application to play that
  • The whole iPhone is too iTunes dependent and you’re also limited to syncing particular types of content only with ONE computer..

General user interface and key features

The traditional flat interface should be all too well familiar by now. Tap an icon to open an application; press the hardware Home key to close the application and return to the Home screen. That's all there is to it. Only the Settings section goes several levels deep. Basically that’s all you need to control your iPhone.



The folder animations on 4 and 3GS are fast and fluid, while on 3G you can notice a slight lag. Still we are happy Apple didn’t cut them out of the iOS 4 for 3G users.

The new iPhone 4 does pack a serious punch under the hood. The previous iPhone 3GS is a responsive device by all means, but the capable hardware in the Number 4 makes quite a difference. The iPhone 4 is faster in all aspects - general interface response, programs, menu scrolling, web browser, app loading, etc.

Multitasking

Now it’s time for multitasking. Just to be clear here, Apple gave due warning it wouldn’t be the multitasking that hardcore users expect. It’s more of a quick app switching than actual multitasking.

To start the task switcher you double click the hardware home button below screen (there goes our Favorite contacts shortcut). At the bottom of the screen, a side-scrollable row of icons will display, showing the running apps. You can kill apps by tapping and holding on an icon – you then hit the red corner switch.


Apple’s idea of multitasking is not to let apps run in the background, but instead pause them at their current state for later access. There are exceptions for certain apps – such as the iPod or Pandora – they can actually play in the background.

So the paused apps are not actually working in the background and that way you can have more than 30 different apps readily accessible in the task switcher.

The positive side is the ability to quickly resume any of these apps exactly where you left them even games – with no new loading times.

The only one drawback is you can’t leave MOST regular apps do their thing in the background and return to them later. If they are not among the lucky few enabled to properly run in the background (such as Pandora), they would simply pause instead.

Bear in mind that not all apps are multitasking enabled. If you minimize a game that’s not yet compatible, later when you get to it again, it will start from the beginning instead of it resuming where you left.

As we said, the task switcher is a scrollable list of icons – but if you swipe to the right you’ll get quick iPod controls and shortcuts, along with the accelerometer lock switch. The latter will enable or disable portrait orientation lock.


Despite iPhone 4 and 3GS finally have multitasking support, the push background notifications service is also onboard. The service can inform you of new events in applications that support it (such as some IM client) by changing the app icon (via an icon badge), by invoking a pop-up reminder or via sound alerts. In the same time the applications can simulate that you are constantly online.

Homescreen wallpaper

Apple at last has the one thing that should have been there from the very beginning. Yes, we knew it would be there, we’ve seen it on jailbroken devices, but it’s still kinda cool to finally have it official.





There are 27 pre-installed wallpapers which you can set on both the lockscreen and homescreen. At least half of them are really nice and colorful too.

T
he homescreen scrolling is fluid and the animation looks good, as it should. You can also set a custom picture – move and scale options are available too.

Bluetooth keyboard support

The last piece of new stuff is in Keyboards. You can now choose your preferred keyboard layout: QWERTY or QWERTZ, for example. What’s more, you can set the layout of the Bluetooth keyboard you’re pairing.



There is also limited dictionary functionality. It becomes available when you choose a specific secondary keyboard – we’ve so far confirmed only Chinese Simplified. Then under the keyboard settings you’ll get a new option for a custom dictionary – a place where you can enter custom words that are off the standard punctuation.

Other than all that, iOS4 looks just like the previous releases except for a few updated icons here and there. By the way, the new Calculator icon – it’s a complete WinMo 6.5 rip-off.

#1 AppStore

The AppStore is the place to browse, buy and download all available third-party applications available for the iPhone platform. There are both free and paid apps with detailed descriptions and screenshots.

User ratings will help you decide which ones are worth it or which not. There are also numerous web sites that do app reviewing with videos and everything, so you can get pretty much all the information on any of the available apps.

The AppStore has an effective app update system to push all new goodies available for your currently installed software. If an app has been updated you will be notified with a red badge on the AppStore icon.

Apple introduced in April a new advertising service for the AppStore called iAd. It launches today (1 July) and offers inline multimedia advertisements for AppStore applications. We’re not quite sure how bugging the new iAd system will be in everyday use, but at least it holds a promise for getting us some interesting, but free ad-supported apps.

The Apple AppStore is currently the largest official repository of mobile phone apps with more than 200 000 titles available.

Final words

We would be lying if we told you we don’t like iPhone 4. Quite the opposite, the iPhone 4 has a way to impress.

The iPhone 4 is not the perfect smartphone but you’ll be inclined to believe it’s the perfect product. It can’t be just how they market it, or can it? Apple is great at giving people what they want, but even better at telling them what they get is the best for them. The iPhone still has very important features missing, some software and multimedia limitations and an annoying iTunes dependency.

But come a new iPhone launch, and you’ll still see people putting up tents at Apple Stores to be the first to get one. Even if they hear about easily breakable glass panels and some bizarre reception issues, they’ll still want to get one and learn to hold it right (or buy some Bumper cases).

The iPhone 4 will probably outsell the older generations and there are good reasons for that. It’s just gotten sexier, flaunts a killer screen, incomparably better imaging and a blazing fast CPU. Apple offers great support for their products and usually takes good care everything runs smoothly on every iPhone. It’s also got one of the richest application markets out there. The AppStore turns Apple handhelds into unsurpassed entertainment centers – games, social networking, video and imaging, silly pranks or whatever – the heaps of available apps fighting for your dollar are changing how we use mobile phones in our daily lives.

We do understand the millions of people out there who are less than impressed with the iPhone concept. Apple-imposed software limitations are stupid, even unfair at times, and their phones lack the flexibility you may be used to on other devices. The iPhone 4 is ridiculously expensive too – 630 euro for the 16GB iPhone and 740 euro for the 32GB version. No matter how you look at it, it’s the most expensive GSM smartphone on the market right now.

For this kind of money, you can get whatever high-end handset you lay your eyes on. And competition is probably at its fiercest.

The newly released Samsung I9000 Galaxy S is the first device to go head-to-head with the new iPhone. Samsung’s Super AMOLED screen, similar hardware and camera plus the great Android OS v2.1 inside are just the start of the Galaxy S feature list. It’s exactly the phone for those who don’t like being told what they can or cannot do with their devices. Yes, its plastic case makes it feel cheaper, but there’s no denying that the Galaxy S IS less expensive than the iPhone 4.

Samsung I9000 Galaxy S
Samsung I9000 Galaxy S

If you are interested in more high-end Droids, you should definitely check out the HTC Desire and Google Nexus One. The Desire enjoys the great HTC Sense UI, while the Nexus One has already been updated to Android v2.2 Froyo for a performance boost and native Flash support. HTC Desire should also get a bump to 720p video recording via a software upgrade before the end of the year. Stateside, a monster of a phone is about to make Android even more compelling. The lethal Motorola DROID X boasts a massive 4.3″ high-res screen at and a top-of-the-line imaging package.

Nokia N8 should be released this quarter and, given the reported iPhone 4 market shortages, it might just land in time for the big show. It brings the revamped Symbian^3, a nice capacitive AMOLED screen and the hottest feature of all – 12 megapixel camera with Carl-Zeiss-certified optics and Xenon flash. Oh, there is 720p video recording too. Nokia N8 is an excellent package and it will be offered at the very tempting price of 370 euro (before taxes). That’s almost half the iPhone 4 price tag.

Nokia N8
Nokia N8

And finally, there’s the iPhone 3GS, which some of you may consider if your local iPhone carrier can give you a good deal. Buying last year’s Apple tech is a good enough way of getting the iPhone experience. Software-wise, the iPhone 3GS is nearly the same as the iPhone 4. Here's a rundown of the advantages the iPhone 4 has over the 3G - they're all hardware-related.

iPhone 4 advantages over iPhone 3GS

  • Sexy new design, exclusive glass panels
  • New display has 4x the resolution and contrast ratio, wider viewing angles
  • 1GHz Apple A4 platform is faster than ever before
  • Double the RAM amount (now reaching 512MB)
  • Quad-band 3G with HSDPA and HSUPA
  • 802.11n Wi-Fi support (though conclusively faster even in G mode)
  • Three-axis gyro sensor for unsurpassed motion control
  • 5MP AF camera with backside illuminated sensor and LED flash
  • Camcoder shoots 720p HD videos at 30fps
  • Front video-call camera (FaceTime calls)
  • Active noise cancellation with a dedicated mic
  • Improved battery life

So, to wrap it all up – we admit we enjoyed the company of Apple’s latest toy and we would like to keep it around. We wouldn’t mind a Samsung Galaxy S either to watch some movies or a Nokia N8 to take some cool pictures and videos. And we wouldn’t say no to a Moto DROID X that gets along with European networks.

No, there isn’t a perfect smartphone out there. There’s always something for anyone to love or hate. What makes the iPhone so special is that it takes love and hate with the loftiness of a royalty.


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