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.
The heart of every iPhone is its Home Screen—a touch-based collection of rounded square application (“app”) icons, divided into a dock and a scrollable, desktop-like surface. You choose four of your most-used apps to go into the dock, and then scroll through pages of 16 additional non-dock icons. iPhone 4 includes Apple’s latest operating system, iOS 4, which arrives with 22 Apple-developed applications already installed, most appearing as individual icons on the first Home Screen. Four of these apps are in a folder, one is on the second Home Screen page, and the last is hidden from the Home Screen by default. The next three sections of this review discuss briefly how each of the installed applications works, and what’s changed on the software and hardware side for iPhone 4, starting first with the most heavily updated apps. Additional apps can be downloaded for free or at variable prices from Apple’s App Store, accessible either wirelessly from the iPhone or via a wired connection to iTunes on a Mac or PC.
Phone. Located initially in the bottom-of-screen Dock, this application includes a list of contacts, a keypad for manual phone dialing, a voicemail screen—generally with support for “Visual Voicemail” non-sequential playback of voicemail messages—and tabs for both your favorite and recent callers. As with iPhone 3GS, the Phone app can also be activated via Voice Control by holding down the Home button. On iPhone 4, Phone adds the ability to make video calls using FaceTime, Apple’s proprietary iPhone 4-to-iPhone 4 video chat feature. For now, FaceTime only works between two iPhone 4 devices, when both are connected to Wi-Fi networks, and can be activated by pressing a new FaceTime button during a voice call, or at any other time by hitting a FaceTime button at the bottom of any Contacts page.
Handset Performance. The most noticeable improvements on the iPhone 4 relate to its two speakers, which have both seen dramatic volume upgrades. In handset mode, the iPhone 4 at 9/16 of its volume is roughly equivalent to the iPhone 3G at maximum volume, so the iPhone 4 at peak volume is roughly 40-50% louder—an extremely noticeable difference. iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4 have a smaller gap in peak volumes, but it’s still obvious. iPhone 4’s handset speaker also sounds a little clearer than the ones in iPhone 3G and 3GS, even at higher volumes, for “very clear” overall sound that has roughly the same tonality as before.
iPhone 4’s noise-canceling microphone works properly and impressively in handset mode. During silences, the microphone sounds just a little clearer than with the iPhone 3G and 3GS, such that words are will be a little more distinct to your callers. However, iPhone 4 opens up a huge lead over the iPhone 3G and 3GS’s performance when there’s ambient noise in the background. During an iPhone 3G test call, music playing loudly in the background could be heard during both gaps in speech and while the person was speaking; with the iPhone 4, the music was completely filtered out after only a couple of seconds, becoming all but impossible to hear during either gaps or speech, with only very slight clipping of the speaker’s voice—the caller can hear virtually everything perfectly. The effect is similar to the Jawbone series of headsets, only built right into the phone.
Headphone Performance. Sonic differences were very modest between the iPhone 3G and iPhone 4 when testing with the same pair of Apple Earphones with Remote and Mic. Audio sounded ever so slightly clearer on the iPhone 4, but not in a meaningful way. Notably, the iPhone 4’s second noise-canceling microphone doesn’t work as well when you use microphone-equipped headphones; trickles of ambient noise pop in and out both during silences and speech.
Speakerphone Performance. The iPhone 4 at 10/16 volume is roughly as loud as the iPhone 3G at maximum volume, and doesn’t suffer from the same audio clipping and harshness that the earlier speaker did at the peak volume level. At maximum volume, there’s a substantial difference—the iPhone 4 is roughly 40% louder than the iPhone 3G, and still clearer than the iPhone 3G or 3GS at peak. Unfortunately, these improvements benefit only the person listening with the iPhone 4, while the person on the other side doesn’t get a huge benefit. Noise-cancellation with iPhone 4’s dual microphones doesn’t appear to work very well, if at all, in speakerphone mode; the iPhone 4’s mics pick up as much ambient noise as voice, making it difficult to discern one from the other. On the other hand, the iPhone 4 user in a noisy music-filled room can hear you talking if the iPhone 4 is at maximum volume, whereas the iPhone 3G/3GS are drowned out.
Bluetooth Calling Performance. Bluetooth wireless performance with iPhone 4 is essentially unchanged from the iPhone 3GS. Calls placed over a monaural Bluetooth connection still sound a little compressed by comparison with ones taking place solely over the handset, losing access to the noise-canceling microphone in favor of whatever they have built in. iPhone 4 supports the same Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR and earlier accessories as the iPhone 3GS.
FaceTime Performance. If you’re on a Wi-Fi connection—and assuming that the feature is turned “on” under the iPhone’s Settings application, under Phone—you have the option of another way of making calls with iPhone 4: FaceTime. FaceTime is Apple’s just-announced standard for H.264 video and AAC audio-based video calling, and is apparently being offered by the company to competitors who may wish to support the same feature in their video-capable devices. Currently, FaceTime is solely for one-on-one conversations over Wi-Fi, limitations that may change in the future, and since there are no devices other than iPhone 4 that currently support the FaceTime standard, the feature works only between two iPhone 4 handsets. Battery drain is considerable when using FaceTime: iPhone 4 loses a little under 30% of its battery life for every hour of video calling, which is to say that a fully charged device can run for a little over 3 hours of continuous conferencing without assistance from a charger, or roughly half as long as for audio calling.
Apart from the power and Wi-Fi requirements, FaceTime works very well. So long as FaceTime is turned on, FaceTime buttons appear on two screens—one replaces the Hold button when you’re in the midst of a cellular phone call and in range of a Wi-Fi network, while the other is added to the bottom of any contact on your Contacts list, eliminating your need to start a phone call to begin a video call. No configuration is required to use FaceTime; if the other person has an iPhone 4 and the feature enabled, video calls go through, but if no iPhone 4 is found or FaceTime is turned off, it won’t work. At the start of a FaceTime session, any active cellular voice call is disconnected, a beep identical to the Mac program iChat sounds on the caller’s side with a ring on the receiver’s side, and three buttons then appear on screen: a mute button to cut off audio, a call end button, and a camera icon with two arrows. There’s also a picture-in-picture image enabling you to see a small preview of your own camera, which can be moved to any of the screen’s four corners. Video automatically shifts orientations between tall and wide depending on how you’re holding the iPhone, rotating dynamically on the other user’s screen regardless of how that user is holding his or her iPhone. If you attempt to multitask in the middle of a FaceTime call, the video pauses, but the audio continues until the Phone app is brought back to the fore—a nice touch.
Though you’re forced to start your video chat with the front camera, which is less than ideal for people who aren’t feeling photogenic, the camera with arrows button lets you toggle to the rear camera at any time. Because of the compression needed to ensure smooth motion, video from both cameras is limited to something lower than the 640x480 capabilities of the front-facing camera, with roughly 20 frame per second performance and only modestly noticeable macroblock artifacting under peak conditions; the frame rate falls to something in the 5-10 per second range at other times, while attempting to preserve the clarity of individual frames. The video and audio quality will be extremely familiar to users of iChat video conferencing on Apple’s computers—smooth enough visually and sonically to be impressive to people who have never video conferenced with one to three other people before, albeit with a greater emphasis on preserving the audio stream even in the event of video frame drops.
Our overall impression of FaceTime is that it’s a very strong first pass at pocket-sized video calling: once you’re past the “is FaceTime turned on” question, a one-time concern, the simplicity with which calls are initiated and received is impressive, and across multiple calls tested locally and even on opposite sides of the country, the quality was solid enough to be worth actually using. That said, the video’s not so smooth or detailed that talking to someone feels just like doing so in person—somewhat of a surprise over 802.11n Wi-Fi connections, actually, and perhaps a deliberate decision on Apple’s part to mitigate expectations for eventual FaceTime performance over 3G—so there is some room for improvement going forward. Our hope is that cellular data companies don’t attempt to double-charge users for FaceTime calling—or use voice minutes for this data service—as there’s certainly an opportunity for nightmarish new battles between customers and their wireless carriers to develop over this feature.