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.
Camera. Located on iPhone 4’s Home Screen, Camera is the single most improved application on iPhone 4, backed by some of its most impressive new hardware. The heart of Camera remains its ability to capture still photographs that are instantly ready to share via e-mail, but successive gradual improvements to past iPhones have added one-tap focusing, video recording, and most recently a 5X digital zoom to certain earlier models. On iPhone 4, there are now two cameras to choose from, each with still and video capture capabilities, and the rear camera has optional assistance from a small but bright LED flash.
As noted in earlier sections, one camera faces frontwards and offers VGA-quality resolution, while the other camera faces backwards and has a 5-Megapixel (2592x1936, or 5,018,112 pixels) sensor. When the rear camera is active, a button on the top left of the screen toggles the LED flash between auto, on, and off settings, while a top right button switches between the cameras. Tapping on the screen to focus in still camera mode also causes a sliding digital zoom bar to appear; adjusting it does nothing more than create a cropped version of the 5-Megapixel original image, blown up to fill the same 2592x1936 pixels of a fully zoomed-out image. This isn’t a replacement for an optical zoom lens, but serves as a convenient alternative to using a third-party application to crop the raw image taken by the camera.
The rear-facing camera’s sensor has seen tremendous quality and speed improvements from the ones on past iPhones. It doesn’t just capture bigger and more detailed pictures than before under a wider variety of lighting conditions—it also snaps and saves shots quickly enough to let you grab new full-resolution images roughly once per second. Even in the dark of night with limited outdoor lighting, iPhone 4’s new backlit photo sensor is capable of capturing usable—albeit grainy—images, and its LED flash is optimized to brighten up subjects several feet away from the device. Under poor light outdoors the camera has more of a tendency to exhibit slight motion blur because it’s keeping the shutter open longer, but some shots come out stable, and the results compare so favorably to prior-generation iPhone cameras that it’s hard to really complain.
We shot photos in pitch black rooms that were illuminated only by iPhone 4’s LED flash, and though they’re pared back in color rendition in a manner that approximates Sony’s NightShot night vision camera features, they capture so much more detail than earlier iPhones that the results aren’t even comparable. The shot above shows a picture taken in a hallway that was pitch black, other than illumination from the iPhone 4 LED. Autofocus was dicey under low-light conditions like this, but otherwise remarkably good.
Under superior lighting conditions, iPhone 4’s camera really begins to shine. Images fall only modestly short of the dynamic range seen in low-end to midrange point-and-shoot cameras, and in some cases look indistinguishable apart from resolution; in other cases, color bleed and blown-out colors make iPhone 4’s images look less polished than they could be. While iPhone 4 lacks for optical zoom, it has great macro and depth of field capabilities, enabling deliberate blurring and sharpening effects that are more impressive than on iPhone 3GS or most point-and-shoot cameras. A tap on the screen shifts the focus to nearby or faraway subjects, softening either the foreground or background even if you’re very close to the object you’re shooting. Moreover, the images are instantly GPS tagged, then preserved at full size or resized at your choice of three smaller sizes for immediate e-mailing, features that very few cameras offer today. Consequently, iPhone 4 can serve as a truly viable substitute for a low-end still digital camera, handily surpassing its capabilities while on the road or in the dark. Photos transfer at full resolution to your computer’s photo management program upon wired connection, generally ranging from to 1.2 and 3.1 Megabytes each, depending on the color spectrum and detail captured by a given shot. A complete collection of photos comparing the iPhone 4’s camera to a Canon PowerShot S90 is available on Flickr.
Video from the rear camera is a somewhat different story, though not a bad one. It’s recorded at an unchangeable 1280x720 resolution—720p in TV parlance—which is achieved by a combination of resizing and substantially cropping the output of the 5-Megapixel still camera. As a result of the cropping, and despite a change in aspect ratio that might normally make videos look wider than photos, videos shot through the rear camera actually have a much narrower width than still photos, appearing more like closeups than wide shots. Within minutes of our first comparative test, it was obvious that videos were being recorded with considerably greater actual detail than ones created with the iPhone 3GS—iPhone 4 isn’t just creating oversized files from a low-end sensor. The iPhone 4’s ability to change focus during video recording distinguishes it from low-end standalone digital camcorders such as Flip’s Ultra HD, which maintains a nearly fixed focus that keeps everything looking pretty sharp, rather than being capable of deliberate artistic blurs.
However, the iPhone 4 rear video camera’s focus system, sensor, and overall performance make comparisons to rival products somewhat challenging. Because of its ability to shift focus, iPhone 4 is more versatile than low-end video recording rivals, but videos may accidentally wind up looking a little softer if the tap-to-focus feature is used incorrectly. The sensor captures a ton of detail at 1280 by 720 resolution, but also exhibits a jelly-like jiggling effect when it’s moved around, and tends to blow out sunny backgrounds relative to foregrounds. A sample video we filmed shows the camera hunting for the proper balance of sky and foreground colors, and other videos showed a decidedly brighter, arguably overexposed tendency, improving the color balance only when the tap-to-focus feature was used. We would give the iPhone 4’s camera the edge on detail per frame under the right circumstances, with superior macro performance and a tie at distance shooting, but the Flip Ultra HD takes the edge on automatic color balance. They’re a rough draw. But the fact that a very popular phone is capable of rivaling a physically larger, single-feature device should be a point of serious concern for Flip and similar budget camera developers. A collection of videos comparing the iPhone 4’s video to that of the Flip Ultra HD and iPhone 3GS can be found here.
Videos created by the iPhone 4 rear video camera are saved by default as 1280x720 (wide) or 720x1280 (tall) depending on the orientation you’re holding the iPhone in at the start of recording—tall videos are presented right-side up, but look odd playing back on a monitor. They’re encoded with H.264 for video at a data rate of 10.5Mb/second, and monaural AAC format audio at 44.1KHz. Expect 30-second clips to consume around 41 Megabytes at full resolution, or roughly 82MB per minute.
iPhone 4 automatically compresses the 720p videos for e-mailing. Sample files arrived at 568x320-pixel resolution (or, when tall, 478x849 resolution) with a data rate of roughly 0.78 Mb/second, including monaural AAC audio at 44.1KHz. A 30-second video clip thereby shrinks to 3 Megabytes, or 6 Megabytes per minute. In addition to the loss of resolution, compressed video is noticeably softer than the original video, and compression artifacts are occasionally noticeable—no huge surprise given that over 90% of the original data is being lost during the compression process. Videos are capped at a little over 5MB for e-mailing, so you’ll need to choose your favorite 52 or so seconds of any longer video in order to meet the cap.
By comparison, videos and still photos shot with the front camera both are recorded at 640x480 resolution, without any change in aspect ratio, and benefit less from the quality and focus improvements of the rear camera. This camera is really designed to be used with FaceTime and for low-quality self portraiture, but its recordings are entirely usable, just with reduced detail, and downscaled to 480x320 resolution—again, softening the quality—when e-mailed. The front camera has poor low-light capabilities, impacting both recording and FaceTime video calling features in dark rooms; stick with the rear camera for proper low-light results.
Photos. As a main Home Screen application, Photos is designed to display individual photos and albums synchronized using iTunes, as well as pictures and videos made with the iPhone’s camera, and images captured using either the iPhone’s screenshot creator, the “save image” feature found in Safari, or image saving tools in some third-party apps. Though Photos now supports “Faces” and “Places” sorting of images, features carried over from the Mac application iPhoto ‘09, these features are part of iOS 4 for earlier iPhones, as well; the only changes on iPhone 4 relate to the very obvious visual improvements offered by the new 960x640 display, which make pictures look more detailed and color-accurate than before. As with iPhone 3GS, the iPhone 4 version of Photos contains a Camera Roll that holds both pictures and videos taken by the built-in cameras. It features the same photo transitions found on iPhone 3GS.
iPod. Located initially in the bottom-of-screen Dock, Apple’s iPod application is a storage and playback area for music, movies, TV shows, podcasts, and audiobooks, capable of playing individual files, playlists, or randomized collections. It performs audio through the iPhone’s speaker, headphone port, or Dock Connector port, and video through either the screen or the Dock Connector port. As with the speakerphone, iPod output through the bottom speaker is louder on the iPhone 4 than on the 3G and 3GS: setting the 3GS at maximum is equivalent to the iPhone 4 at around 70%, and the iPhone 4’s a little clearer at that level, with room to go louder.
As a music player, iPhone 4 is virtually the same as the very good- to excellent-sounding iPhone 3GS: for instance, headphone port audio between the devices is not identical, but might as well be. We tested the iPhone 4 against the iPhone 3GS using three different pairs of high-end earphones, including two different versions of the $1,150 Ultimate Ears UE 11 Pros and Shure’s $500 SE530s, finding that the iPhone 4 had what sounded to be a very modest, targeted reduction in treble, which in some songs resulted in a softening of sizzle and a very slight lessening of sharp treble detail in others The difference was so minor that we had to listen to numerous songs repeatedly to hear it; users of most headphones will never notice the change. We’re still finishing testing of the Dock Connector audio, but it suffices to say that the sonic similarities between the iPhone 4 and iPhone 3GS from the bottom port appear to be very considerable.
As a video player, iPhone 4 is largely excellent, and more capable than iPhone 3GS in several ways. First, as noted earlier in this review, the 960x640 iPhone 4 display is capable of rendering greater than DVD-quality detail natively, so standard-definition movies and TV shows look as sharp and colorful as they would on a great home TV. Additionally, the iPod application benefits from support for HD video playback—downsampled from a maximum of 1280x720 resolution down to some portion of the 960x640 iPhone 4 display, or output via video cables (sold separately) to a separate TV or monitor. With Apple’s Component AV Cable, DVD-quality videos can be output to a TV at full resolution, and HD videos are automatically downsampled; the Composite AV Cable is built for older, lower-resolution displays. Unlike earlier iPhones and iPod touches, iPhone 4 works with Apple’s iPad VGA Adapter to connect to VGA cable-equipped computer monitors, and it’s subject to the same limitations when using that accessory: neither HD nor SD iTunes movies will play through the Adapter, but self-encoded movies at 720p or lower, and HD or SD iTunes TV shows will play without complaint. iPhone 4 also supports unconverted playback of 720p Motion JPEG AVI files created by certain digital cameras, a feature that makes more of a difference on the iPad, where it was first introduced, than here.
YouTube. As a main Home Screen application, YouTube is a browser for the Google-owned video sharing service, enabling users to stream free videos directly from YouTube’s servers to the iPhone screen. Though Apple doesn’t market YouTube as having improved over the iPhone 3GS version it largely resembles, the new application does play back HD versions of YouTube videos when it finds them over a Wi-Fi connection, resulting in visibly but not hugely improved detail relative to the standard-definition versions of the same videos—the difference is not as noticeable as it is when playing HD YouTube content on an iPad. That having been said, recently encoded SD and HD videos viewed on YouTube are hugely better on iPhone 4 than early YouTube videos were two years ago on earlier models, and are capable of being output through video cables as an alternative to the iPhone’s built-in screen.