iPhone 4 Review

Alongside the release of this new phone, and likely just as important as the sweeping hardware upgrades that Apple has made with iPhone 4 is the new software. Apple announced at WWDC 2010 that they’ve finally renamed the iPhone OS — although available on two non-phone devices — simply as, iOS. The largest additions to the new iPhone software have to be multitasking, FaceTime video chat/conferencing, and HD video recording.

This is my second iPhone. I bought into the iPhone series when Apple released the 3GS, after using a Palm Treo 680 for over two years. I loved the iPhone platform since the day I first used an iPhone OS (now iOS) device, and iPod Touch, and wouldn’t use anything else. I’ve contemplated using other device platforms for mobile usage, and the only one worthy of naming at this point is Google’s Android. However, being tied into that Apple ecosystem — with iTunes, the App Store and all of my ‘iDevices’ — there’s a monumental hump that Google and its partners like HTC need to pull me over in order to get me using a phone running Android.

At the Surface

First of all the design of the phone is remarkable. My initial thought after seeing the leaked photos of this fourth generation iPhone was, “wow, that’s not Apple”. But seeing more and more of those illegitimate images got me thinking, this is where Apple probably would go. With a more industrial design, it takes aspects from the best of Apple’s product family featuring brushed metals; most-notably, the iPad. You can see a lot of the iMac- and iPad-esuqe architecture in this phone, all with a twist. The rear of the phone is glass, and is stunning.

I won’t get into the controversy that entails whether or not Apple has surely ripped off other glass manufacturing techniques (such as “Gorilla Glass”), or if they have in fact mastered a new technique to create a significantly stronger glass material. I’m sure they did their fair share of R&D, as they always do, although I am most certainly skeptical of the durability of the material they chose to use. I’ll for sure be using a case with this phone 100% of the time, in order to hopefully minimize the chance of the phone attaining any scratches or scuffs, and also to protect it from any collisions due to the phone’s almost all glass construction.

Apple’s engineering this time around allowed them to integrate the iPhone 4’s penta-band antenna system into the steel band that wraps around the phone. While there have been issues regarding reception with this technology, the fact that Apple was able to pull something off this savvy with form and function deserves a tip of the hat. They’ve still got Bluetooth 2.1 (with EDR), Wi-Fi n/g/n (2.4GHz only) and 3G data all integrated into this new iPhone.

The hardware setup is the same: A sleep/wake button atop the phone toward the right-hand side, and a standard headphones jack to the left. Volume controls are still on the left side of the phone, with a silent switch just above them. Playing into the architecture of the phone, Apple decided not only to separate the volume controls from practically being a ‘rocker’ switch, but all of the buttons on the phone with the exceptions of the Home button, seem to also be made of the same steel material. The signature 30-pin dock connector and a microphone and loudspeaker still reside on the bottom of the phone. The speaker and loudspeaker, this time around are larger, with their grilles more exposed. Other additions to the hardware include a secondary microphone (for ambient noise control) right next to the sleep/wake button on top. The SIM card slot has also been resituated on the right side of the phone, by itself. This is in addition to the fact that the new iPhone 4 uses a micro-SIM card and not a standard-sized SIM card. Apple also seems to have re-enforced the notorious Home button as well, with a more predominate click (likely due to the addition of multitasking and double-tapping).

The most important addition to the hardware is probably the VGA-quality front-facing camera, placed just to the left of the phone speaker. The light and proximity sensors also have been placed just above the speaker wrapped in a bit of a sleeker all-together look. Pre-release images of the elusive white iPhone 4 blatantly show the sensors, likely because the white casing can’t disguise the sensors quite as well. The rear-facing camera is in its normal position, but this time around, it has an LED flash accompanying it.

The new screen is probably the one feature of the new iPhone that wowed me. This screen is just as intriguing hardware-wise as it is usability-wise. Apple bumped the resolution up from 480 by 320 to 960 by 640. The first power on of my iPhone 4 blew me away. The contrast has vastly been improved, and it’s virtually impossible to actually notice pixels from a normal distance, under normal circumstances. The screen is as sharp as ever, and albeit an LCD (with IPS tech behind it), it can probably hold its own when put up against some of the newer OLED-based screen devices out there. For clarification, it is an LED-backlit (not OLED) IPS LCD display.

Multitasking or “Multitasking”

With this new iteration of the iOS, Apple’s insisting that double tapping will become commonplace. As often as the user hits the Home button to return to the home screen, they’ll likely be double tapping it to bring up a queue of their recently opened and currently running apps. Bringing up this queue will slide the upper portion of the screen to reveal a single row of four icons of apps, which is scrollable, horizontally. Tapping and holding down on an app in this queue will initiate the icons to shake, along with a red and white minus in the upper left-hand corner of the icon to kill the app.

This queue will contain any and all apps that have been opened by the user. However, at this time, not all apps are ‘fast-switching’ capable, meaning that Apple’s hybrid form of multitasking isn’t fully supported. In that case, when apps are switched to in this mode, the app may simply start from scratch, as opposed to a more capable app that will continue from where the user last left it. It’s not exactly clear how much having a multitude of apps “running” in the background has an effect on the performance of the iPhone 4. Although, Apple claims that having a cluster of apps “running” in the background will not significantly affect battery life if at all.

When fast switching between apps, the iPhone will animate (a rotational slide) the screen from the current app directly to the app chosen from the queue, without the home screen being involved. At this point in time, there are a handful of apps that are fully capable with iOS 4’s multitasking and fast app switching. The majority of the Apple apps — those that are pre-installed on the iPhone 4 and those available for download, like iBooks — are in fact capable. These apps will act as you would expect with true multitasking. When an app is switched to from the queue of running apps or from the home screen it will startup from where you left off last. For instance, if you’re a few menus deep into the Settings app, you’ll find yourself back at that same menu level when you open the app again.

One app that makes great use of the multitasking abilities of iOS 4 is Pandora. Not only will Pandora let audio continue to stream and playback once the app has been exited, the iPod controls found to the left of the multitasking queue (by double tapping and scrolling left) integrate the play/pause and skip functions fully with the Pandora app. However, there are many apps available in the App Store now that are not compatible with this kind of functionality in iOS 4. These less capable apps will simply restart when switched to from the queue or accessed from the home screen.

720p & Five Megapixels

The camera on the new iPhone 4 is once again a respectable upgrade from Apple, but not revolutionary. Although Apple probably produces some of the best smartphone cameras on their iPhones, at the surface the spec sheet numbers are nothing to write home about. With phones such as the HTC Evo packing an eight megapixel camera with HD video recording, it would seem the iPhone 4 would take a backseat in the market. However, Apple as expected has integrated somewhat lower megapixel optics that still shoot exceptional photos. And while handsets like the HTC Evo struggle in the frame rate department when shooting HD video, the iPhone 4 as promised does a substantial job maintaining 30 frames per second (FPS) while shooting at a near 1280x720p resolution.

Apple has added a few more features to the camera on the iPhone 4. Hardware-wise they’ve added an LED flash. The flash is usable not just when taking still pictures, but for shooting video as well. When in still mode, the flash options will show up in the upper left-hand corner of the screen. With stills, you can choose the flash to be on, off, or Auto to allow the iPhone’s sensor to determine. When in video mode you’ll have the same option. As a side note, the flash does become warm when used in video mode for an extended period of time.

Another functionality Apple’s added to the Camera app is digital zoom. Once you tap to focus on an area of the shot, a slider at the bottom of the screen allows for up to 5x zoom. This isn’t optical zoom, but rather digital zoom, thus quality will be degraded the more zoom is utilized. Tap to focus functionality has also been added to video recording, now you can continue to focus on new areas of the shot while continuing to record. The icon in the upper right-hand corner allows the user to quickly switch between the front- and rear-facing cameras.

FaceTime video chat is one of the harder features to assess. At the moment, FaceTime is a feature available exclusively to iPhone 4 users. Albeit an iOS 4 feature, video chat will not be available for any of the previous generations of iPhones. In addition to that limitation, FaceTime video chat is also only available for use when a Wi-Fi connection is available. FaceTime is initiated after a standard call is in progress via a cellular network. Once a call is in progress, one of the two callers chooses to start FaceTime, and the call is then handed over to the Wi-Fi network for a connection over the Internet. Although video quality is mediocre at best, it can be severely limited by the quality of Wi-Fi that is available to the iPhone. Audio quality, on the other hand tends to improve when FaceTime is started, because in theory it becomes a VoIP call.

Other Thoughts on the iPhone 4 Experience

Now I’ll sweep through the rest of the more important features that Apple has added to iOS 4.

Folders are one of the more usable features that they’ve added. Folders are a feature that’s available in iOS 4 on the 3GS and the iPhone 4. Folders show up as normal icons, which show a preview of nine of the folder’s contained apps. This is one of the places where the iPhone 4’s retina display shines. The nine apps shown within the normal size of the icon can be fairly easily distinguished; however, the 3GS’s 480×320 resolution would make this more difficult. They can be created on any of your home screens by simply dragging an app on top of another. Once this is done, iOS will generically auto-name the folder loosely-based on the apps’ registered genres. The one limitation that Apple puts on folders is that only twelve apps can reside in a folder at any given time. Folders can be renamed to whatever you choose at any time by holding on the icon and entering the edit (shaky icon) mode.

Mail has gotten a substantial update; the two most prominent features being threaded messages (conversations) and a unified inbox. The Mail app will now show all of the inboxes from the account you’ve set up. It will also show a list of each of those accounts below the list of inboxes. As usual, each inbox and account shows a count of unread messages that is easily readable. The unified inbox works just as you would think, it takes all of the messages from all of your account’s immediate inboxes and throws them into one. Threaded messages works as you would think it would as well. In an inbox, a message that’s part of a conversation or thread of messages shows a highlighted number to the right, indicating how many messages are in the thread. Opening the message that’s part of a thread takes you to a list of the thread’s messages. Otherwise, Mail hasn’t changed much.

Location-based services have gotten a little bit of a facelift. As opposed to the target icon indicating exact location, a northeast-facing arrow now indicates exact location (think Google Maps and the Compass app). Apple has also opened up the granularity of location-based services in association with different apps. In Settings you can now specifically choose which apps are able to interact with GPS location services for your privacy. Another feature they’ve added in that respect is that now, whenever an app is utilizing GPS location services, that northeast-facing arrow will appear in the iOS status bar, just to the left of the battery level indicator.

On the Safari side of things, Apple has added Microsoft’s Bing as one of the search engine providers for you iPhone, alongside Yahoo and Google. They’ve also added the capability of web and Wikipedia search from the Spotlight search screen (to the left of your first home screen). Searching for something in this screen will now yield a “Search Web” or “Search Wikipedia” tab in line with the local search results that Spotlight fetches.

The first thing most will notice as a newly added feature to iOS 4 is wallpapers. Apple has added the functionality to use independent wallpapers for the home screen and the lock screen. Wallpapers are an iOS 4 feature that at the release of iOS 4 is not available for the iPhone 3G.

iTunes has gotten a speck of an update to album screens. Albums now mimic more the way the iPad displays albums and album info in portrait mode. CoverFlow is still present, and is as smooth as ever with the iPhone 4’s 1GHz (proprietary ARM ‘A4’) chip. The iPhone also runs with 512MB of system memory.

Apple has also opened up the iPhone and iOS to external keyboards, much like the iPad. The iPhone will now be able to work with Bluetooth keyboards.

The Photos app will now also allow you to email photos at full resolution, combined with small, medium and large sizes. And , if you sync you iPhone with iPhoto on Mac, you can now browse images by places, events and recognized faces.

The Messages app has obtained a minuscule feature that simply indicates how many characters have been used out of the 160 permitted for an SMS message. This is shown once you reach the second line of text, either in portrait or landscape mode; for example 48 used characters would show as “48/160” just above the Send button.

What’s Missing

The iPhone 4 and iOS 4 aren’t far off from being perfect. Apple certainly does the best at maximizing form and function with their hardware and software. They don’t sacrifice much in either form or function. As per usual, Apple still has most of everything locked down. With all of the little tidbits of features to the seemingly monumental aspects they’ve added in iOS 4, Apple still has a stranglehold on the App Store.

Two of my largest gripes with iOS are home screen modifications and the notification system. Granted, Apple finally allowed users to change the wallpaper on their iPhones, they’ve still got a ways to go on maximizing the usefulness of iOS outside of apps. Why can’t Apple allow a home screen to contain feeds and information pertaining to services like Facebook and Twitter, weather, and maybe RSS feeds? Why is it that the Calendar app is the only home screen icon that live updates? The weather icon could easily display current temperature and weather conditions. Notifications on the iPhone are still horrendous. Palm’s WebOS had perhaps one of the better notification systems I’ve seen on any smartphone OS in the past few years. Apple hasn’t even touched the notification system in iOS 4, and notifications are still just as archaic and unintuitive as they were from the start.

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