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 balance of iPhone 4’s applications are largely identical to the ones on iPhone 3GS apart from the impact made by their higher-resolution fonts and imagery. We note the basic features of these well-established apps, as well as iPhone 4 changes, below.
Safari. Located initially in the bottom-of-screen Dock, Apple’s web browser uses iTunes-synchronized and other bookmarks, or manual keyboard entry, to guide you to web pages that have been scaled down to fit the iPhone’s screen. It can keep up to eight pages open at once, though it typically dumps and reloads pages that weren’t recently used in order to free up memory. Safari benefits from higher-resolution text and graphic capabilities than the version found on prior iPhones, though large scaled-out web pages remain nearly as difficult to read with the additional microscopic pixels as they were without them.
Maps and GPS. As a main Home Screen application, Maps provides users with instant access to Google’s satellite and street level photographs of the world, as well as line art renditions of streets, realtime traffic data, and a massive points of interest database. Individual locations can be looked up, and turn-by-turn directions calculated in text form, with the barest assistance from a blue pulsing GPS dot and an integrated compass.
Apart from the higher-resolution imagery it displays—smooth-curved line art and more detailed photography—and the benefits it derives from the iPhone 4’s more stable compass (see Compass, below), there are no iPhone 4-specific enhancements to this application. Maps still does not provide spoken turn-by-turn directions, automated guidance, or a widescreen mode akin to the iPad’s, though it remains capable of using your Contacts database to locate addresses.
It’s worth a brief note that third-party turn-by-turn navigation applications and Maps both benefit from what seems to be more accurate, timely GPS data by comparison with the iPhone 3GS. The same TomTom application running on both devices simultaneously showed smooth driving paths and roughly time-accurate turns on the iPhone 4 but not the 3GS, which lagged a little behind and struggled with turns. Our belief is that the turn performance has improved in part because of…
Compass. As a main Home Screen application, now hidden initially within the Utilities folder, Compass uses a magnet-based sensor inside the iPhone to determine your rough cardinal orientation, and the GPS to give you your current longitude and latitude. A button press takes you over to Maps to see your position on a satellite image of your neighborhood. In the past, Compass frequently brought up magnetic interference warnings and was less than totally reliable at judging the current direction, floating 20 degrees even when being held still. On iPhone 4, Compass provides what appears to be a more reliable, stable current orientation, potentially due to the device’s new gyroscope hardware, which most likely accounts for iPhone 4’s superior judgment of turns during use of Maps and third-party navigation applications.
Voice Memos. As a main Home Screen application, now hidden within the Utilities folder, Voice Memos enables users to record audio using either the iPhone 4’s integrated microphones or one attached to either of its accessory ports. It also provides simple trimming and sharing tools, enabling audio clips to be sent via the Messages or Mail applications depending on your needs. Apart from a subtle redrawing of the old-fashioned microphone graphic used on the main screen, which appears in lower-resolution form on iOS 4.0-installed iPhone 3G and 3GS devices, there are no iPhone 4-specific enhancements to this application. Notably, Voice Memos does not appear to benefit from the noise-canceling microphone system on iPhone 4, as ambient noise is recorded as clearly as voices are.
Mail. Located initially in the bottom-of-screen Dock, this application collects and sends e-mail from multiple accounts you’ve synchronized with iTunes or set up on the device. It can display the contents of PDF, Office, and iWork documents either within e-mails or using a full-screen viewer, as well as opening certain documents in separate standalone applications—including Apple’s free downloadable iBooks. Mail does not benefit from any obvious iPhone 4 hardware-related changes other than text and image detail tweaks.
Messages. As a main Home Screen application, Messages sends abbreviated text, audio, photo, and video messages using the cellular phone network rather than e-mail, with a set charge for each message sent or received by your phone. On iPhone 4, Messages benefits from being able to send pre-recorded photos and videos from the device’s front-facing camera, a method of quickly communicating more personally even with people who don’t have iPhone 4s for video calling purposes. The text used in this application is noticeably a little thinner than on the iPhone 3GS and earlier iPhones, which may make it a little more difficult for some users to read.
Settings. As a main Home Screen application, Settings is a text and list-based collection of iPhone-wide and application-specific settings, varying between on-off switches, sliders, buttons, and text entry forms. It hides a huge collection of important device features, including switches to turn on and off iPhone’s cellular, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth wireless capabilities, change its default ringtone, wallpapers, and screen brightness, and tweak the behaviors of both Apple and certain third-party applications.
There are very few changes to the Settings application for iPhone 4. The Wi-Fi option looks no different from iPhone 3GS or iPhone 3G, but now finds and joins 802.11n 2.4GHz networks in addition to 802.11b and g networks. Included wallpaper looks the same as on iPhone 3GS, but contains higher resolution versions of the same artwork and photography. Under Regulatory, which shows the international certifications iPhone 4 possesses, the new device is shown to have far fewer regulatory approvals than iPhone 3GS, pending its release in additional countries. The Restrictions menu for iPhone 4 adds a FaceTime on/off switch, which enables the FaceTime feature to be locked down separately from the Cameras, which are collectively locked with another switch. On a related and final note, the Phone menu includes a switch to turn FaceTime on and off; if disabled, callers will not know you have FaceTime as an option, and will not be able to send FaceTime requests.