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.
By now, the story behind Apple’s white version of the iPhone 4 is pretty well established: the company announced it for a simultaneous June 2010 launch with the black iPhone 4, then repeatedly delayed it due to unspecified manufacturing problems. As weeks and months passed without details from Apple, various sources claimed that the white iPhone 4’s screen or body was leaking light, that the rear camera was having exposure or flash problems, or that Apple couldn’t get the Home Buttons to the right white tone. Ten months later, Apple finally announced a revised release date of April 28, 2011, and briefly suggested that component and coloration issues had indeed been responsible for the delay.
We went out and grabbed one to see what had changed, and there are in fact a number of differences—generally small ones—between the black and white models. They’re discussed in this addendum to our original iPhone 4 review, which is otherwise preserved unchanged.
Packaging and Body
When Apple originally showed the white iPhone 4 to journalists last year, there weren’t many obvious physical differences between the white and black models other than the colors of the front and back pieces of glass. Apart from the black version carrying “A” markings—FCC ID BCG-E2380A versus FCC ID BCG-E2380B, for example—they’re identically labeled with rear silver text and logos, while possessing the same 3.5” displays, beveled steel cores, matching metal top and side buttons, and fine mesh grilles. The AT&T version has three line-shaped interruptions and a Micro SIM tray in its steel center; the Verizon version has four line-shaped interruptions and no SIM tray.
The only obvious difference from one color to the other was an extra rectangular shape immediately above the white model’s front speaker. From a distance, it looked like a gray box, but up close, it was actually a grid of dot-shaped holes in the interior paint, designed to let the proximity sensor peek through the otherwise opaque white coating. These dots were obvious in Apple’s publicity photos, and similar dots—even smaller ones—were subsequently used for the ambient light sensor on the white iPad 2.
Users first discovered responsiveness problems with the black iPhone 4’s proximity sensor shortly after its release, an issue Apple addressed in a software update last year. But the white iPhone 4 obviously had more serious hardware issues: over the last ten months, the company quietly decided to replace the original grid of dots with a black pill shape that enables the proximity sensor to operate without encumbrance. Consequently, our testing of white and black iPhone 4s showed no perceptible difference in the proximity sensors’ responses to objects approaching the screen. Though the black pill doesn’t look great on the front of the white iPhone 4, it’s not awful, either—just another little thing that Apple’s designers will properly eliminate in the future.
Regardless, this change required Apple to reprint all of the white iPhone 4 boxes it had previously manufactured showing the old sensor. The final box depicts the black pill on the face, as well as the thin rings of white plastic that surround the front and black panes of glass. It also shows the still black line-shaped breaks in the white iPhone 4’s steel central antenna, but the angle doesn’t reveal a couple of other tiny changes. The headphone and Dock Connector port holes are now lined with light gray plastic, replacing black parts found inside the black iPhone 4. While this is a trivial difference—an obsessive little “yes, Apple cares about that” design detail that dates back to early black iPods—it’s worthy of a footnote here because the white iPad 2’s black ports didn’t receive the same attention for whatever reason.
The white iPhone 4 also appears to be a hint thicker than the black iPhone 4—seemingly only in the glass panes and surrounding plastic rings—though Apple has not in any way indicated this on its official Tech Specs page for the device. While the added thickness is not enough to impact the fit of soft rubber or partially rubber cases, it potentially could be an issue for certain cases made solely from harder materials.
Last but not least, Apple has noted that the white paint on the iPhone 4 required an extra UV coating, which was believed to be necessary to protect the bright white device from discoloration—possibly yellowing—over time. Straight out of the package, the white iPhone 4 looks extremely similar to the clear acrylic-faced fifth-generation iPod, which was the last iPod model to switch from plastic to metal and glass. We’ll have to see how the white paint holds up over time, but based on the fact that our old white iPods continue to look white years later, we’re guessing the iPhone 4 will do just fine.
The Screen: Light Leakage
Another issue that was once claimed to have delayed the white iPhone 4 was light leakage from the bright Retina Display through the shell. We tested the final white iPhone 4 in pitch black rooms, and saw no evidence whatsoever that its screen was leaking light through either its front or rear casing, even when it was turned up to its maximum brightness level.
You can decide for yourself whether a white bezel will be a distraction to the type of video viewing, game playing, and/or web browsing you plan to do on your iPhone; these days, our editors tend to prefer black bezels, but it’s purely a matter of personal preference.
While we did notice a slight color difference between the screens of the white iPhone 4 and the primary black iPhone 4 we used for our testing—the black iPhone 4’s screen had a slightly blue color temperature relative to the white model’s slight yellow tint—we would ascribe this to device color-agnostic differences in the screens Apple has recently been getting from its suppliers. We noticed a similar tint shift in the black Verizon CDMA iPhone 4 and in a more recent AT&T GSM iPhone 4 we’ve purchased; small color temperature variations of this sort appear to be the norm now rather than the exception.
Another claim was that the white iPhone 4 was delayed due to camera problems: reports suggested that the rear camera was overexposing images due to added light that was coming through the white-painted glass relative to the more light-absorbent black version, and some people believed that the LED flash might exacerbate the problems. Photos appeared online purporting to show redesigned white iPhone 4 rear casings with extra-thick paint around the rear camera and flash, so we naturally wondered whether Apple would do something so drastic and obvious—and whether there was in fact a problem at all.
After testing the white iPhone 4 alongside a black iPhone 4, we were relieved to find that there were no obvious cosmetic differences in the paint surrounding the rear camera and the rest of the glass. We did, however, conclude that there are small differences between the ways that their cameras work, though we can only speculate as to whether they’re due to the white paint, changes in newer camera sensors, or something else. In any case, the differences are highly unlikely to be noticed by average users, and do not uniformly favor one version of the device over the other.
First, we noticed a difference in the two models’ low light performance that slightly favors the white iPhone 4. In a dark room, the white iPhone 4’s camera benefits from gathering just a little extra light, which appears on the otherwise black screen as very grainy additional outlines of shapes. This is a benefit in that the white iPhone 4 is a tiny bit more capable of previewing the scene you’re trying to compose in the dark, though the grain initially looks like rough, unappealing additional noise on the screen.
We also noticed small differences in the cameras’ color rendition, though they’re challenging to completely quantify because of the aggressive auto-adjustments made by Apple’s Camera application. Many of the sample flash and non-flash photos we shot appeared to default to slightly lighter tones on the white iPhone 4 than on the black iPhone 4, but when we used the white balance locks and manual tap-to-expose controls in Tap Tap Tap’s application Camera+, there was no clear winner between the devices—the same image snapped repeatedly on each camera sometimes looked better on one, then the other, then nearly identical.
From where we stand, if an issue existed before, Apple has solved it to the extent that shots taken with either iPhone 4 are for the most part difficult to distinguish from one another. There are circumstances such as low-light or bright light shooting in which one device may appear to have a small edge over the other, but more often than not, additional testing suggested otherwise. The differences are in any case mild enough that users shouldn’t and won’t care about them.
Contrary to some speculation, Apple has not made other major changes to the white iPhone 4. The device’s controversial antenna design remains as susceptible to wireless signal attenuation as before, an issue that the company appears to be waiting to address in the true next-generation iPhone model. It also continues to be fragile due to its use of slippery front and rear glass panes, which our readers and editors have found to be susceptible to scratches, chips, and cracks under various circumstances.
Mitigating the latter issue somewhat, Apple now replaces cracked rear glass for only $29 assuming that no damage has been done to the hardware inside, while charging a higher $199 fee if the front glass is damaged. Additionally, many good to great case and screen film options now exist for the iPhone 4, collectively protecting the device and reducing its wireless connectivity issues. As we’ve said before, if you buy an iPhone 4, you should really use a case; as beautiful as it is, protection is strongly advisable.
Given that Apple’s past iPhones have traditionally enjoyed roughly twelve-month lifespans before successor models were introduced, the company’s decision to release the white iPhone 4 ten months after its black predecessor has struck many people—us included—as surprising, if not downright confusing. Clearly the company wasn’t content to let the device be scuttled by its early engineering challenges, but since white models have twice been discontinued entirely by their first birthdays, it’s hard to know whether this version of the iPhone 4 is destined to become an extremely short-lived collector’s item, or whether it will eventually become the low-end model when the next-generation iPhone debuts later this year.
In any case, the white iPhone 4 is as safe of a purchase today as the black version is—if you’re still considering the purchase of an iPhone 4, there’s no strong reason other than aesthetic taste to choose one color over the other. Late though it was, Apple appears to have fixed or significantly mitigated the engineering issues that plagued the white iPhone 4, leaving only the black pill-shaped proximity sensor as an awkward little scar on an otherwise beautiful design. That little cosmetic blemish aside, this model is as good of a pick as its black predecessor, and worthy of the same ratings and recommendation.