An iPhone Lover’s Take On The iPhone 4

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Regular readers will know that recently I’ve liked to state my bias in the title of my mobile device reviews: I love the iPhone. Some will call that being a fanboy, and that’s fine. But really, it’s just my opinion that the iPhone is hands down the best mobile device out there. If there were a better one, I would use it. But there’s not. So I use the iPhone. And that’s the angle I take towards these mobile device reviews. It’s simple: if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. Well, one finally has: iPhone 4.

Yeah, if you hate these types of reviews, you’re really going to hate this one.

Before I dive into specifics, I’ll say right away that the iPhone 4 is easily the best mobile device I’ve ever used (notice I didn’t say phone, more on that later). But a lot of you probably already thought you knew I was going to say that. The more interesting question may be: how does it compare to the other iPhones? Or, perhaps even better: is it worth it to upgrade? The short answer is yes.

In my view, iPhone 4 is the biggest leap forward that any iPhone has taken yet over the previous generation. It’s not really any single thing that makes me say that, but it’s the combination of changes to the hardware. The screen is much better. The camera is much better. The video quality is much better. The form factor is much better. The device is faster. It can do more at once (thanks to double the RAM). The battery lasts noticeably longer. And, of course, it has FaceTime.

The main upgrade of the iPhone 3G from the original iPhone was the 3G chip which brought faster download speeds. The main upgrade of the iPhone 3GS from the iPhone 3G was the CPU speed increase and the video-taking capability. All of those were nice upgrades. But again, the iPhone 4 offers much more from a hardware perspective. And that makes it worth the upgrade from an older iPhone, as well as worth an outright purchase if you’re new to the platform.

I wrote down my initial thoughts about the iPhone 4 after playing with it for about 20 minutes after the WWDC keynote in June. This time, I wanted to play around with the device for an entire week, using it as much as possible before I wrote up a full review. Now I have, so here it is.

The Screen

The element most played up by Apple during the WWDC keynote was the iPhone 4’s screen. And rightly so, it’s fairly amazing. The so-called Retina display offers 960×640 pixel resolution at 326 pixels per inch. And it has a great 800:1 contrast ratio. Those specs make it great for both reading text and for watching video content or looking at pictures.

The screen is so sharp that when you’re looking at it, it almost looks as if you’re looking at a sticker overlay that they may put on a display unit at an electronics store. It looks more like you’re looking at a printed out picture than an electronic display.

But here’s the curious thing about the screen: More than a few people I showed it to thought it looked great, but wondered what was exactly so different from the previous iPhone screen. Part of that is because the previous iPhone screen was already good. But then I showed it to them side-by-side with the iPhone 3GS screen and they were blown away.

If Apple really wants to emphasize the screen, I recommend they do the same thing in Apple Store. Of course, then they may have a hard time selling the iPhone 3GS.

But when you do put them side-by-side, it’s easy to see just how much sharper text is on the iPhone 4. And just how much better colors appear. If you bring both close to your eye, on the old one you can see the pixels. On the new one, you can’t. Just look at the picture below — I don’t think I have to tell you which is which.

As I said, previous iPhones already had pretty solid displays, but they had since been passed up by the screens on a few Android devices. For example, I love the Nexus One’s screen, which is 800×480. But the iPhone 4 now destroys that. And, as a bonus, you can actually see it in daylight (which the Nexus One’s use of OLED makes very difficult).

The Speed

The iPhone 4, which uses Apple’s A4 chip just like the iPad, is definitely faster than the iPhone 3GS. However, the most part, it’s not noticeably faster in the same way that the iPhone 3GS was noticeably faster than the iPhone 3G. But it is in some cases, such as photo manipulation. One of my favorite apps is one called CameraBag (you can find it here for $1.99). On the iPhone 3GS, it can take several seconds to apply various filters to pictures in this app. On the iPhone 4, the same tasks take about a second.

Likewise, some games are noticeably faster, even those not yet optimized for iOS 4 or iPhone 4. Also, the few lags that previously existed in things like typing are now gone as well.

When you’re on WiFi, browsing the web can actually seem like a faster experience than doing so from a desktop computer. This is undoubtedly mostly thanks to the proliferation of iPhone-optimized sites. But still, for getting at raw information, the iPhone is now faster in quite a few cases, I’ve found.

On top of the new chip, another factor in the speed boost is like the 512 MB of RAM now included in the device (double what it was in previous iPhones — and double what is even included in the iPad!). But more than speed, this helps with the iOS 4’s new multitasking capabilities. In the week I’ve been using the iPhone 4 with iOS 4, I haven’t noticed the device having to quit any app I’ve loaded that takes advantage of fast app switching. Of course, that’s sort of the point, you’re not supposed to notice this. But with the iPhone 3GS running iOS 4, I have noticed a few times when an app has to restart when I switch back to it.

But the biggest speed difference for the entire device has to be the vast improvements to upload speeds. I like to send pictures I take from my iPhone to Flickr via email. On the iPhone 3GS, this takes a while, as each picture tends to be a little over a megabyte in size. On the iPhone 4, sending these pictures is so much faster — and that’s despite the files being much larger (thanks to the new 5 megapixel camera).

This upload boost is thanks to the iPhone 4’s use of High-Speed Uplink Packet Access (HSUPA), a 3G data protocol which can boost upload speeds by as much as 10x. If you do a lot of media uploading from your phone, this alone may make the new iPhone worth it.

The Antenna

While we’re on the subject of connectivity speeds, there’s no point in beating around the bush any longer — you likely want to know about the antenna issues of the iPhone 4 that have been widely reported.

At first, during regular use, I didn’t notice anything abnormal about the device with regard to its connection. Of course, I also live in San Francisco where AT&T offers up shitty connections as standard practice.

Then I started reading all the reports and decided to see if I could get the signal to drop myself. Sure enough, I could. I even tried it on a second iPhone 4 in a different area — same result. When wrapping your palm around the lower left corner of the iPhone 4, at least on the two devices I tried, the reception bars definitely start to drop.

I also tried making calls and using data while doing this. In both cases I was able to push the connection to failure when I would shove the iPhone into my left palm. Calls would drop and data would stop. When I released from that specific area of the phone, things would start working again.

But then I decided to try something out. I did the same thing with the iPhone 3GS — and guess what? Same results. Granted, it is much hard to push the connection to this point of failure on that device, but it can be done (by wrapping your hand around the entire bottom of the phone, where the antenna resides). Interestingly enough though, when I would do this on the iPhone 3GS, the signal would degrade, but the bars wouldn’t fall. Perhaps this is why no one noticed this issue on the iPhone 3GS but they are noticing it now (though other videos show the bars falling on the iPhone 3GS as well).

Yesterday, Apple finally issued an official response to this antenna issue. The basic gist? It’s a software bug. More precisely, they claim that the iPhone software currently incorrectly shows signal strength to be better than it is. A software update is supposedly going to “fix” that. Of course, that’s not really a fix at all for the actual signal, it’s just a fix for being misleading about it in the first place.

This seems to go against Apple’s earlier suggestion that you hold the phone a different way or use a case (both of which, of course, imply there is something to the idea that the design of the new device impacting the signal). That said, I spent last weekend in Lake Tahoe which has areas of decidedly better AT&T service than San Francisco. There, I didn’t notice the same falling bar issue, even when I held it in the corner (it would sometimes drop one bar, but not more). Others have noted this as well — when you’re in an area with good service, the bar loss doesn’t seem to be an issue. When you’re in an area with bad service, it is an issue. So more accurate software should at least solve the bars being high enough to drop in the first place.

But all that being said, there is still clearly something to this notion that holding the phone in the lower left corner degrades signal quality. My tests show it, dozens of other tests have shown it as well. And Apple even somewhat acknowledges it, saying this is an issue with all cell phones to some degree.

Here’s my take on this (and while I’m no expert, this seems to be pretty common sense): Apple’s software update should alleviate some concern about the signal drop by being more accurate in the first place. But the signal drop when holding the phone is very real — again, just as it is on other devices like the iPhone 3GS. The fact that the iPhone 4 is the first phone with the antenna on the outside of the phone, I have to believe must exacerbate this issue. And this combination of software plus hardware issue is why we’re all talking about this for the first time.

But at the end of the day, all that matters is this: does the device work? While that’s a more complicated question for me to answer than it should be because I happen to live in an area with notoriously bad AT&T reception, the answer is yes. In regular use (so, not holding the device a certain way to try and get it to fail) the iPhone 4 seems to perform the same with regard to data usage as the iPhone 3GS did. Without all the hubbub over the signal issue, I don’t think I would have noticed a problem (aside from day one when AT&T’s network was clearly getting slammed harder than usual).

As for call quality, I think the iPhone 4 is actually a bit better, believe it or not. I’ve been to at least three spots where I couldn’t make a call before, and now I can. This lends some credence to the idea that the iPhone 4 actually has a better antenna than the previous iPhones, despite the fact that it’s now exposed and seemingly more susceptible to signal degradation.

I have also tried using the iPhone 4 with the new bumpers Apple sells for the device, and it definitely seems to help the lower left corner issue. It’s too bad these things cost $29.99 a pop. I know Apple’s current stance is not to give these things away, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t start doing it if the software update isn’t as effective as they hope.

The Design

All this antenna talk is the direct result of something else: design decisions Apple made for the iPhone 4. Ultimately, they may regret the exterior antenna choice, but it’s hard to argue with the overall package. The iPhone 4 is easily the best piece of mobile hardware I’ve ever laid my hands on.

In my initial thoughts (again, after playing with the device for about 20 minutes), I noted that the iPhone 4 made the iPhone 3GS feel a bit like a toy in comparison. Well, if the iPhone 3GS feels like a toy, most other smartphones out there feel like toys from the 99 Cent Store compared to iPhone 4. It’s just at a whole different level.

I happen to have 10 other recently popular cell phones laying around my apartment (dating back to the Motorola RAZR — the phone I used right before the original iPhone). I decided to pick each up just to see how they feel compared to the iPhone 4. It’s kind of a joke. Some feel okay (the EVO and Nexus One), but nowhere close to the iPhone 4. Some feel pure amateur by comparison (the Palm Pre and the myTouch 3G). And some feel like I’m holding a Zack Morris or Gordon Gekko-style brick (the G1). In fact, the best of the bunch was the original iPhone with its aluminum back, in my opinion.

There has never been an iPhone that feels more solid, looks so symmetrical, and has buttons that feel so right. I’m sure someone will tell me there’s a phone out there that’s crafted at least as well (perhaps in one of the European countries). But I have no doubt that if such a device exists, it’s one that 99.99% of us will never see or use because it probably costs thousands of dollars. That may be the most impressive thing about the iPhone 4 — it’s priced to move at just $199 (or $299 — both after AT&T subsidy, obviously).

No other phone in that price range can touch the iPhone 4 in terms of design and build quality. Not by a long shot.

That’s actually the other thing that saddens me about the bumper — it just makes the device feel (and look) cheaper. That said, the bumper is very useful when setting your device down flat because it provides some room between the all glass back and whatever surface it’s on. This glass is supposedly extremely strong, but that doesn’t mean sticky substances can’t muck up say, the back camera.

The Camera

Speaking of the camera, it’s a thing of beauty. Maybe you’ve heard Apple’s marketing talk that “it’s about more than megapixels” — coined because the iPhone 4 has a 5 megapixel camera while rivals like the EVO have an 8 megapixel one. Well, it’s not actually just marketing talk, it’s absolutely true.

I have both devices and the iPhone 4’s camera is definitely better the EVO’s. And that’s just in quality — as previously mentioned, the camera software on the EVO seems to be buggy and often has issues saving pictures. I haven’t had an issue once on the iPhone. The EVO also makes it hard to switch between the back and front camera on the device. On the iPhone 4, it’s a one-click process right there on the screen.

What most impresses me about the iPhone 4’s camera though is its ability to shoot in low light. In that regard, it reminds me much more of my Canon S90, than any other camera phone I’ve ever used. The iPhone 4 includes an LED flash, and it works fine, but I’m tempted never to use it because this thing is so good in low light. (See: the picturea below taken with the iPhone 4.)

Just as impressive as the still camera is the iPhone 4’s ability to shoot HD video (720p). This matches the EVO and other Android phones in terms of quality and it also brings it up to par with the stand-alone Flip HD cams. The quality of HD videos taken with the iPhone 4 is excellent. There are some stability issues if your taking the video while walking, but standing still, things look amazing (see: below).

FaceTime

The other big element of the iPhone 4 Apple is playing up (and, in fact, the only element they’re playing up in commercials right now) is FaceTime. Yes, I know, other phones have done video chat for some time now. But the fact that seemingly everyone is talking about mobile video chatting for the first time with this release says just about all you need to say.

As a technological demo, FaceTime is impressive. It really is one-click-and-it-works provided both parties have iPhone 4s are are connected to WiFi. There’s nothing to set up, nothing to configure. You hit the button and it works.

As a real world usable technology, FaceTime is profound. It’s one thing to do demos for your friends. It’s another when you make your first real FaceTime call. There you are, somewhere in the world, face-to-face with someone else, someplace else in the world. Once the initial cool factor wears off, it’s like your in the room with them. And Apple is ingenious to play this up in their commercial (below).

But what’s even crazier about FaceTime is that Apple says they will open source the technology — something which Apple doesn’t often do. If third-party developers choose to utilize it, it could be really interesting.

Android

During Google I/O this past year, Google didn’t beat around the bush: the updates they were making with Android 2.2 were aimed squarely at the iPhone. The problem that Android as a platform faces (with regard to challenging Apple) is that they don’t have the control over the software + hardware mix in the same way that Apple does with the iPhone. Yes, they may have taken charge of the design the Nexus One — and that is still, in my mind, their best phone to date — but they don’t have the type of industrial design expertise that Apple does in-house. And it seems unlikely that they ever will unless they change strategy.

Android now brings a lot to the table — plenty of things that the iPhone doesn’t offer such as WiFi hotspot creation, true voice search, and tight Google Voice integration. From a technological and spec sheet perspective, Android is impressive — and it continues to get more so. But from a regular consumer and practical perspective, iPhone remains the device to beat. There are just so many things you can do on the device with such ease that are kind of a pain in the ass on Android. It doesn’t appear that Apple is letting Android phase them — they still focus on quality over quantity.

But that doesn’t mean the moves Google is making with Android don’t alter Apple’s selective areas of focus for the iPhone. And I think it’s great that there are two companies playing off each other in that regard. They’re pushing one another to continue to innovate. And that means all of us, as consumers, win.

From a hardware perspective, iPhone 4 rises to the challenge brought by many Android devices in the year since the iPhone 3GS launched. And it surpasses those devices. It offers a better screen, better camera, better speed, and better battery life than any Android device. But I have no doubt that much of that will again change in the next year, as Android continues to rapidly iterate.

And then iPhone 5 will come out, and we’ll be having this discussion all over again.

Conclusion + One More Thing

In conclusion, if you said you were buying a phone today, I would absolutely tell you to get the iPhone 4. Are there antenna issues? Yes, but they don’t adversely affect the overall experience to the point where I wouldn’t buy this phone over all others. And in fact, in normal day-to-day usage they don’t seem to adversely affect the iPhone usage that I’m used to at all (and that’s not so much a statement in favor of Apple as it is a statement against AT&T).

That brings me to the caveat. And it’s a big one. Since the initial launch of the iPhone there have been rumors about the device coming to Verizon — but those rumors are now louder than ever. The current ones suggest a January 2011 launch date for such a pairing.

If I 100% knew that was the case, there is no way I would recommend anyone to buy the iPhone 4 right now. But, just as was the case last year, I simply don’t know that right now — and I’m not sure anyone besides Apple really does (including both AT&T and Verizon). Basically, buying the iPhone 4 right now is a several hundred dollar bet that it won’t launch on Verizon in 6 months. It’s a gamble.

But there is a silver lining if you choose to make the bet. Even if the Verizon iPhone does launch, it should help the iPhone on AT&T, because there will undoubtedly be defectors by the thousands (if not more). Those users switching will ease the strain on AT&T’s network and could actually render it usable at all times again. It really could be a win-win.

Speculation aside, the iPhone 4 is the smartphone to beat from this point going forward. It will be fun to watch Android try to answer and see if they can dethrone the king before iPhone 5. Leading up to iPhone 4, Android has kept inching closer, but this latest device from Apple is the biggest leap forward the product line has taken yet. It’s going to be hard to beat.

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