Review: Apple iPhone 4 (16GB/32GB)
Pros: The most museum-quality phone design yet from Apple, packing the most powerful iPhone hardware in history into the smallest and sleekest enclosure. Overall camera performance is outstanding, even by comparison with low-end dedicated still and video cameras, with configuration-free video calling an option over Wi-Fi. New 960x640 display equals past iPhones in brightness and off-angle viewability while surpassing them by a factor of four in detail, improving the smoothness of photos and fonts. Improved speaker performance across the board, and markedly better microphone performance in handset mode amidst ambient noise. Markedly faster data performance under some conditions. Reasonably priced given the technology inside.
Cons: Smudge, scratch, and shatter issues await users who avoid cases. Antenna reception is more noticeably reduced under some conditions than on prior iPhones, particularly impeding cellular performance in certain indoor environments. Despite improved screen, user interface is only modestly improved from iPhone 3GS. Lowest capacity version feels cramped given video recording capabilities and release of high-resolution apps. High-resolution video output to monitors is confusingly limited; video calling is presently incompatible with even Apple’s own iChat application. Data consumption due to higher-resolution screen is ill-suited to lowest-end limited data service plans. Sole U.S. cellular data provider AT&T continues to provide inconsistent and sometimes poor service. Updated: Click here for Verizon iPhone 4 details.
As its name suggests, iPhone 4 is Apple’s fourth-generation iPhone, and the most completely overhauled revision of the impressive device released in 2007. Apple’s original pitch for the iPhone was that it combined a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone, and a breakthrough Internet communications device—later expanded with new software to include a fourth major asset, downloadable third-party applications. Unlike Apple sequels that have pared off features in the name of minimalism, iPhone 4 preserves literally all the functionality of each of its predecessors, but upgrades each key feature with new powers: the iPod gains superior video quality and battery life, while the phone adds video calling capabilities and a noise-canceling microphone, and both Internet and third-party apps get faster and have higher-resolution graphics. Apple has also dramatically improved iPhone 4’s rear camera to the point that it’s now as legitimate a selling point as any other part of the design.
Yet these improvements don’t all leap out at you from moment one, as they’re all folded into the same iOS4 applications that run on the prior-generation iPhone 3GS—none of them are hidden, but in typical Apple fashion, there aren’t big flashing buttons or “new!” signs all over the user interface. In fact, turning on the iPhone 4 for the first time feels almost exactly like turning on an iPhone 3GS, except that you’ll begin to notice little graphical details that weren’t obvious before: fine gold contacts within the Connect to iTunes screen’s USB cable, and fonts that have no apparent jagged edges, even when you hold iPhone 4 at an uncomfortably close distance of several inches from your face. Contrary to suggestions made at iPhone 4’s unveiling, prior-generation iPhone screens and graphics don’t look awful or even so-so by comparison at normal viewing distances, but that’s in part because Apple has done so little on the software side to differentiate iPhone 4 from its immediate predecessor, and in part because the earlier screens were chosen so well.
Apple and its U.S. service provider AT&T have kept the U.S. prices the same as for last year’s iPhone 3GS: $199/$399/$599 for the 16GB model or $299/$499/$699 for the 32GB model, with the lowest price available to customers signing new two-year data service contracts, the middle price for existing customers with seven or more months remaining on prior contracts, and the highest price for customers with no contract commitments. At press time, iPhone 4 is available in limited quantities in five countries, with further international rollouts and wider domestic availability expected through September, 2010. Additionally, although there are two different iPhone 4 colors, manufacturing difficulties led Apple to delay the white version until mid-July, so only the black version shown in most of our photos will be available until then.
The first three iPhone generations looked and felt far more alike than not: apart from Apple’s decision to drop the hybrid metal and plastic body of the original iPhone for an almost entirely plastic enclosure on the iPhone 3G and 3GS, the devices had the same screens, ports, and buttons, with only small changes. It’s a testament to the original iPhone’s forward-thinking design that the core elements of that first model—headphone port and Sleep/Wake button on top, 3.5” diagonal multi-touch display, speaker and Home button on the face, and Dock Connector port, second speaker and microphone on bottom—remain in the same places on iPhone 4, with the same features.
Those items aside, however, iPhone 4 has been redesigned from top to bottom, inside and out. Apple has replaced the iPhone 3GS’s plastic rear shell and metal front bezel with a new stainless steel central frame and glass back, the former a fine-dotted silver and the latter a high-gloss black or white, ringed with a super-thin plastic around the edge. As mentioned in this review’s introduction, the steel frame notably doubles as part of the iPhone 4’s antenna system, with three small gaps in the sides and top that separate the antennas between the Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and GPS antenna, and a larger one used for cellular GSM/UMTS radios; once again, all of the antennas are inside the phone’s body rather than jutting out. As with the iPhone 3GS, the ringer switch, volume and Sleep/Wake buttons are all made from metal, but with slightly different shapes than before, while other design elements are intact, albeit with small changes. The bottom microphone and speaker holes are wider now, and the camera on iPhone 4’s back has a slightly larger lens than the ones on prior iPhones.
Major changes are apparent on iPhone 4’s front and back. There’s now a front-facing video camera on the left side of the front speaker, recessed behind the glass face, capable of self-portraiture and video calling. The prior 480x320-pixel, 3.5” screen has been replaced with an identically sized but dramatically upgraded 960x640 display, featuring four times the pixel density and four times the contrast of any iPhone or iPod touch screen used before. And the rear camera, formerly a 2-Megapixel sensor on the iPhone and iPhone 3G, upgraded to 3 Megapixels with 640x480 video recording on the iPhone 3GS, is now a 5-Megapixel still camera with 1280x720 video recording on the iPhone 4. A small, bright LED flash sits off to its right behind the glass, as well. Less obvious are the internal changes that power these features: the battery’s a little bigger, the CPU is faster, and there’s a gyroscope inside for more precise and complex motion tracking.
Another big change is found only on the white iPhone 4, which we previewed at Apple’s WWDC unveiling earlier this month. For the first time on an iPhone, this version’s white back is now matched by a white front plate, complete with a white Home Button, contrasting with the jet black faces of iPhone 4, iPad, and all past iPhone and iPod touch models. Unusually, the white version’s front-mounted speaker is topped by a small grid of dots that appear to be aiding the proximity and ambient light sensors; these dots are very uncharacteristic of Apple designs, but no doubt necessary to enable the sensors to work properly. Apple has also relocated the SIM card tray to the right of the iPhone 4 body from the tops of its predecessors and switched from a full-sized SIM to a micro-SIM card—a change that will make it a little harder to find cards that work in this model—and added a second microphone in a hole alongside iPhone 4’s headphone port. This mic acts as a noise-canceling partner to the bottom-mounted mic; its performance is discussed later in this review.
Both iPhone 4 versions measure 2.31” wide by 4.5” tall by 0.37” thick, versus the 2.4” wide by 4.5” tall by 0.48” thick iPhone 3GS, and weigh 4.8 ounces, the same as iPhone 3GS. By keeping the weight the same while narrowing and thinning the body, Apple has increased iPhone 4’s apparent density—it feels even more solid in the hand than its plastic predecessor—yet achieved a form factor that’s almost as compact as the still wow-inducing iPod touch, no easy feat for a device with all the hardware iPhone 4 includes. If there was ever a question as to Apple’s willingness to continue slimming its devices down, iPhone 4 puts that to rest.
Unfortunately, iPhone 4 also demonstrates conclusively that fragility is not Apple’s primary design concern. Like iPhone 3G and 3GS, iPhone 4 comes out of the box looking equally beautiful and delicate, like something born to attract battle scars rather than to discourage them. The glass front and back initially conjure up nightmarish thoughts of a shattered phone—an issue Apple engineered around with glass that’s flex-capable, as well as stronger and supposedly more scratch-resistant than the iPhone 3GS’s prior plastic. Both sides are coated with the oil-resistant “oleophobic” coating found on the iPhone 3GS screen, which makes fingerprints easier to wipe off, though they’re just as noticeable as before—arguably more so than on the smudge-ready iPhone 3G and 3GS. Hairline scratches also quickly appear in the oleophobic coating if it’s placed near anything sharp. Moreover, glass is still glass, and initial third-party testing has shown that the iPhone 4 casing can break after a few of the accidental drops that seem to be common to cell phones. Only extended real-world testing will determine whether the glass actually holds up to the types of use most people subject their devices to; for now, a protective case and/or fingerprint-resistant screen film would be a wise early investment.
Videos comparing the iPhone 4, original iPhone, and iPhone 3GS, showing the new phone from all angles, along with a full interface video for the iPhone 4, showing off everything from FaceTime to iBooks, iMovie, iOS4 multitasking with the Pandora application, and the iPhone 4’s other built-in applications, are available on YouTube via the above links.
Packaging and Pack-Ins
Though Apple has shifted to clear plastic boxes for most of its iPods, iPhone 4 continues the iPhone family’s tradition by arriving in an opaque cardboard box. Unlike the all-white iPhone 3G and all-black iPhone 3GS boxes, the iPhone 4 box now features a black front with an angled front image of the iPhone 4—the first time the device has been shown on Apple’s package in a diagonal orientation—plus white sides that have word and logo designs mostly unchanged from the prior iPhone packages. This box is modestly smaller than the iPhone 3GS’s, as well.
The company packs iPhone 4 with basically the same items found in the iPhone 3GS box: a Dock Connector to USB cable that has the same modified USB plug shell as the one included with iPads, a pair of Earphones with Remote and Mic, and a USB Power Adapter—notably the 1-Amp version included with the iPhone 3G and 3GS rather than the more powerful 10W USB Power Adapter used for the iPad. A “Finger Tips” documentation pamphlet provides pointers on using the device, and is found inside a small folder with Apple stickers and warranty information. At least for now, the SIM tray ejection tool included with past iPhones is no longer packaged with the iPhone 4 in the United States; it’s still found in the packages in at least some other countries, however. More shots of the iPhone 4’s packaging and the unboxing process are available on Flickr.
As has been the case for years, the user is expected to download the media and data management program iTunes on his or her own, and install it on a Mac or PC to transfer songs, videos, photos, and contacts between the iPhone and computer. The iPhone’s included Dock Connector to USB Cable is required, at least for now, to perform this synchronization process. iTunes is a free download from Apple, and iTunes 9.2 or later is required to use iPhone 4. Our Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 9.2 feature article discusses the software at length.