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.
Since the iPhone 4 body design is completely different from earlier models, it is physically incompatible with the majority of cases that were previously released for iPhone and iPhone 3G/3GS devices, save for sock-styled elastic sleeves. New cases have been announced by many leading manufacturers and are expected to be in stores within three or four weeks of iPhone 4’s debut. Early releases from Speck Products, Hard Candy Cases/Gumdrop, Incipio and United SGP are already available in some stores.
Apple has released its own “cases” for the iPhone 4 called iPhone 4 Bumpers, which sell for $29 each and come in six colors. The Bumpers are two-tone plastic and rubber bands that fit around the stainless steel edge of the iPhone 4, covering all of the metal while slightly recessing the device’s glass front and back in the process. Apple describes them as “a fun and unique way to personalize your iPhone 4,” and sells the six colors separately, without making any promises as to their protective virtues. They’re unimpressive for the price, and we wouldn’t recommend them except to especially desperate users.
iPhone 4 is electronically compatible with the various Works With iPhone (now Made For iPhone) speakers that have been released over the last several years, and has its own Universal Dock Adapter insert, sold in three-packs by Apple for $9. It also remains compatible with car kits, headphones, and other accessories that have been released for the iPhone: as the included Earphones with Remote and Mic suggest, the headphone port continues to support Apple’s three-button remote controls and microphones. Charging continues to work with prior-generation iPhone chargers.
Like the iPhone and iPhone 3G/3GS, iPhone 4 also has its own Dock, which is considerably smaller than Apple’s device-agnostic Universal Docks, and designed solely to hold the iPhone 4 without a case—it doesn’t work with Bumpers, either. Mesh-grilled bottom vents enable the speakerphone to work while in the Dock, and as always, Dock Connector and line-out ports are found on the back. It’s the smallest iPhone dock yet released, and one of the smallest docks Apple has ever released for a portable device.
Despite the considerable hype and subsequent excitement that surrounded iPhone 4’s official debut in June, the reality of actually using Apple’s latest device is somewhat more complicated than we had expected—it looks and in some ways feels great, but there are other parts that could have used more work before its release. Viewed objectively and directly alongside the iPhone 3GS that preceded it, iPhone 4 has far more in common than not with its predecessor, save for the upgraded screen and cameras, the shiny new chassis, and the battery improvements. Users considering an upgrade from an iOS 4-equipped iPhone 3GS to the iPhone 4 will for the most part find the screen and UI differences to be noticeable and better but not earth-shattering, as contrasted with iPhone 4’s hugely superior camera functionality and somewhat better run times, which will be killer features for some users; iPhone 3G and EDGE owners will find it to be a huge jump up in most respects. Literally all of iPhone 4’s new still and video camera capabilities are impressive, even if FaceTime is unnecessarily limited in compatibility for now—iChat integration would have been a no-brainer. Heavy users, particularly those using video recording features, will still find that they need mid-day recharging assistance, while lighter users may be able to stretch out iPhone’s life to a full work day, particularly if they’re willing to fall back to EDGE cellular performance. We wouldn’t be, but first-generation iPhone owners might.
Even while acknowledging the physical beauty of Apple’s latest design—yet another pocketable piece of art from Jony Ive and his legendary team, worthy of awards as much for its execution as the boldness of the chosen materials—it must be said that the glass and metal iPhone 4 has a certain impracticality that will turn off some users as much as it excites others. The challenges caused by its antenna system and scratchable, glossy body are ones that many users will want to mitigate with cases, which may have been beneficial for past iPhones but seem downright necessary now. For no good reason other than to look cool, iPhone 4 feels like it has taken yet another step down the “designed to be damaged and ultimately replaced” path, a point that Apple would surely spin as environmentally friendly due to the recyclability of its glass and metal. But if iPhone 4 was truly a nod to famed German designer Dieter Rams, as noted in the introduction to this review, it should respect his principles that good design is “long-lasting,” “environmentally friendly,” and “makes a product useful.” Products should be built to last rather than disposable, and items made to be moved in and out of pockets shouldn’t break after a few drops, or suffer networking problems when held normally in one’s hand. True environmental friendliness avoids the need for product replacement and recycling rather than exacerbating it; good design also makes a product useful, rather than making the user work around its limitations. As attractive as it is, iPhone 4’s case-dependent body design is the only reason it falls short of our high recommendation, and should Apple provide a reasonable remedy to the obvious problems here, we’ll take the rare step of revisiting our rating in light of that change.
That having been said, iPhone 4 is otherwise the best iPhone Apple has released: it surpasses every past model in horsepower, screen quality, data speeds and versatility while either rivaling or improving upon their feature-for-feature battery life, and the price points are reasonable given the quantity and quality of capabilities Apple is offering. This isn’t another G4 Cube, a product that looked incredible but didn’t outperform other Apple and competing products; it’s an incredibly powerful smartphone, so long as its body is protected. Were it not for the chassis concerns, and the variability of AT&T’s service, which continues to hold U.S. customers back from enjoying the data speeds and call stability they deserve—differentially on a city-by-city basis—this new model would be a close to no-brainer recommendation for all sorts of potential customers, including everyone from iPhone EDGE and 3G upgraders to first-time users. Instead, our advice is as follows: buy into the iPhone 4 solely if you’re in a city established to have reliable 3G coverage and are making the switch from an older phone. Get a case quickly and avoid dropping the phone. If you have an iPhone 3GS, you can probably afford to hold off on this one until next year’s update comes, but the camera and screen improvements may tempt you to jump in anyway. We’d wait, but we’d also understand if you couldn’t. Issues aside, the iPhone 4 once again inspires the kind of lust that will only seem foolish when it’s replaced.
Updated April 28, 2011: After a ten-month delay, Apple released the white iPhone 4 today, and we’ve created an addendum to discuss the changes. It now follows on page 10 of this review; the rest of the pages remain unchanged.