What's not: Not a phone you want to drop, reception and call quality iffy.
October 2011 Update: Check out our review of the iPhone 4S.
Reviewed June 25, 2010 by Lisa Gade, Editor
in Chief, with Thomas Slayton on Facetime
Glass and stainless steel, still the apex of modern design. Though it might sound like I'm talking about a Manhattan skyscraper, I'm really describing Apple's latest iPhone. The iPhone 4 departs from the rounded corners and (literally) feel good design of the past 3 iPhone models and goes for modern, angular sharp edges. It's a thing of beauty to look at, though I'm not sure I prefer it over the iPhone 3GS. Maybe that's a gender thing; women are supposed to prefer soft lines, but being a tech geek I'm not typical-- I actually loved the Motorola Droid's incredibly angular design. But that's up to you, prospective buyer.
See the cat in the background? iOS 4 lets you use a camera image as a background.
On a more objective front, a naked iPhone 4 is much less comfortable to hold than the 3G and 3GS. The stainless edges dig into the hand, and as Steve Jobs has already told us, we're supposed to hold it like a dainty watercress sandwich when talking on the phone. If you hold the phone in a typical manner with your left hand (as most right-handed people do), your hand will cover and bridge the antenna reducing bars and call quality (we've witnessed this on two review phones). Steve says to be particularly avoidant of the lower left corner. Only Apple, a company with a marketing machine that could sell oxygen to anaerobic bacteria, manages to get away with these design failings and dictums. Take the MacBook Pro and it's toasty underbelly: Apple says (really) that it's not a laptop, it's a notebook. Therefore you shouldn't expect to use it on your lap. Whooboy.
The iPhone 4 (right) is thinner than the iPhone 3GS.
This means you'll want to use your iPhone 4 with a case: your hand won't touch the antenna directly, you won't have to worry that the glass front and backs might shatter (at least not so easily) if you drop the phone, and a case will improve comfort. Given the near ubiquitous nature of iPhone 3 and 3GS cases (I see maybe 1 in 100 sans case), this likely won't be a problem. And it will keep the incredibly healthy i-accessory industry alive in a recession.
The glass panels are made of Gorilla Glass, a product that is supposed to resist scratches like all heck. Glass in general is hard to scratch since it's one of the harder materials on earth; but just in case your wife gets mad at you and drags her diamond wedding ring across your iPhone, it might survive without looking like scarface. The glass surfaces certainly look gorgeous and it's a pleasant change from the super-scratch prone back on the iPhone 3 and 3GS. But you'll never see it since it will be wearing a case, remember?
The iPhone 3GS was supposed to be the iPhone on speed, but the iPhone 4 runs circles around it. It has double the RAM (512 megs) and it uses Apple's new custom A4 CPU that's also found on the iPhone's pal the iPad. I would never have described the iPhone 3GS as slow, even when running iOS 4, but it seems like the iPhone 4's slightly slow cousin when you use them side by side. Fast is good these days where we take life in 3 second tweets and fast forward our way through TV shows courtesy of the DVR. It's especially good if you like gaming, and the iPhone still reigns as the best mobile gaming platform, bar none. Even the most demanding games run fluently on the iPhone 4, and when enhanced for the new Retina Display, they look better too.
The Retina Display, which packs 4 times more pixels into a 3.5" touch screen than the previous gen iPhone's, is indeed sharp. Whether you have young and keen eyes or old and presbiopic eyes, you'll see the difference if an old gen and iPhone 4 are placed side by side. Amazon has already updated their Kindle application to take advantage of the Retina Display and fonts are smooth enough for an amoeba to slide down the slope of the letter s. Despite the much higher 960 x 640 pixel resolution vs. the old 320 x 480, you won't see more stuff on screen. This is something akin to pixel-doubling where icons, text and other UI elements are scaled up, because it would be incredibly difficult to read on a screen that small running at such a high resolution, even with 326 ppi (pixels per inch) of clarity. Example: the Sony Vaio P 8" notebook running at 1600 x 768 resolution (with something around 210 ppi density) is incredibly sharp but hard on the eyes nonetheless.
100% crop macro shots of the iPhone 3GS display (left) and the iPhone 4 in Safari. Seeing is believing.
OK, so the iPhone 4 looks great from the casing to the display. How about call quality? Do any of you still make calls, or are threaded messaging and social networking (with background multi-tasking apps in the works for iOS 4) enough for you? Some reviewers have stated that call quality is much better than previous generation iPhones, despite the often lower signal bars and troublesome antenna design. Sorry to say, but our iPhone's call quality is no better than the 3GS. Despite the new tower tuning method that looks for the tower with the least congestion (even if it means fewer bars), our iPhone 4 garbles outgoing words a bit when the signal is at 33% or lower according to signal bars (Apple has removed the old code that showed you signal in the industry standard -db). Incoming audio is on the other hand much improved and volume is good.
The iPhone 4 is a relative rarity: it's not just quad band GSM (that's common), it's quad band 3G HSDPA. That means 3G will work in the US on AT&T, in Canada, Europe and Asia where GSM networks with 3G are available. It will not work on T-Mobile's US 3G network however.
Our iPhone game and accessory reviewer Thomas Slayton reports on Facetime:
As I lounged on the couch, I surprised my wife in the next room with her first “Facetime” call. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Facetime, it’s video chat over WiFi made easy. You can send video from your choice of front or rear camera. The iPhone 4 wasn’t the first to offer this feature, but Apple certainly has taken what was arguably a toy for techies and brought it to the mainstream. I say this because I could never see my mother drilling down into a video chat app to tweak settings and build a friends list. However, I sure as heck could see her pressing the large, friendly Facetime button. In short; this works as advertised. As long as you have a WiFi connection, you can engage in a video chat with other iPhone 4 owners. I certainly wouldn’t use it to call my boss but for friends and family, it’s solid gold.
Marketing tells us that lots of megapixels is a good thing. Our eyes tell us that it isn't so. We've seen some 5 and 8 megapixel smartphone cameras that just plain depress us. And Apple is the undisputed king of marketing, so when Steve Jobs told us the iPhone 4's camera was the bee's knees, we took it with a grain of silicon. Happily, Steve was telling the truth, and the iPhone 4 not only beats the mediocre iPhone 3GS for still image quality, it's among the best 5 megapixel shooters. In fact, it takes better photos than the HTC EVO 4G and its 8 megapixel shooter.
Here are two sample photos, with a 100% crop of each:
Video quality on the 3GS was pretty good, at least relative to its photo quality. The iPhone 4 takes 720p video at a natural 30fps that's good enough to leave an older generation Flip Video at home. It's not as good as Nokia Nseries smartphones, at least not those made in the past 2 years, but it's better than most camera phones on the market. We did note a tendency to overexpose, which you'll see in our sample video. That video was shot indoors on a cloudy day-- we'd understand if we were outside in bright sunlight but that wasn't the case here. Given the light loving sensor, videos shot in less bright locations actually look better. Recorded volume was too low in our tests.
The nearly featureless camera application gains a few features: zoom and selectable focus points. Tap on the viewfinder to select the focus point and bring up the digital zoom bar.
Unlike most camera phones, you can shoot in portrait mode as well as landscape. Video file sizes are surprisingly small, our sample video is 40 seconds and 53 megs. After the camera has saved the video, you can email it, send it via MMS or upload it to YouTube. The recorded video format is 1280 x 720 resolution, MPEG 4 MOV /H.264 format with AAC mono audio.
Since iOS 4 has user selectable wallpapers, you can use camera images as wallpaper.
Continuing reception issues aside, the iPhone 4 is the best iPhone yet, and it's still one of the best smartphones on the market. After 4 years, the competition is catching up though, and we've seen this before with Apple. I started life as an engineer working on Apple peripherals back when Steve Jobs had yet to leave Apple, and over the course of years I've seen truly innovative products come out of Apple that were by far better than anything else on the market. But other manufacturers manage over time to copy and improve their own products, and Apple's lead diminishes. Apple is great at new products that set the tech world on its ear, but they're not so great at revising those products to maintain that clear lead. Not that the iPhone 4 isn't beautiful, incredibly fun and so easy to use that a non-techie grandma could come up to speed in 20 minutes. It is all those things, and Facetime is particularly ingenious because it's so easy to use and it doesn't require any additional plan features or charges. But right now, it's marketing and the incredible App Store that keep the iPhone at the front of the pack. There are other smartphones that have better and more rugged hardware (faster CPUs, larger displays, expandable storage, higher resolution cameras) and a more open app market. They've copied the multi-touch capacitive display, focused on ease of use, true robust multi-tasking and started their own (still smaller) app markets, particularly Android. The Motorola Droid X, HTC EVO 4G on Sprint and the HTC Incredible are strong contenders. Even the aging Palm Pre Plus, thanks to its extreme pocketability, hardware keyboard and innovative, super-friendly OS with more elegant multi-tasking has something to offer against the iPhone. If you're an iPhone person, by all means get the iPhone 4. If you're an AT&T customer who enjoys AT&T service, then get the iPhone 4. But if you're not happy with AT&T, remember that their iPhone exclusive ends next year (2011), and you'll probably be able to get the next iPhone on another US carrier. And AT&T's ETF for the iPhone 4 is $325, so you won't be able to leave AT&T until June 2012 at the soonest (assuming you got the phone the week it launched) without coughing up some dough.
Price: $199 for the 16 gig model and $299 with the 32 gig.These prices are with a 2 year contract, and note that AT&T has a higher ETF (early termination fee) of $325 if you end your contract early.
Display:Retina Display: 3.5" capacitive IPS multi-touch display running at 960 x 640 resolution, 326ppi, 800 to 1 contrast ratio. Supports both portrait and landscape modes via accelerometer. Has ambient light sensor, proximity sensor, compass and gyroscope.
Ion rechargeable. Battery is not user replaceable. Claimed talk time on 3G: up to 7 hours.
Performance:Apple custom A4 CPU (lower power version of the CPU used in the iPad), 512 megs RAM.
x 2.3 x 0.37 inches. Weight: 4.8 ounces (according to Apple, 5.0 ounces according to our digital scale).
Phone:GSM quad band world phone 850/900/1800/1900MHz. Quad band 3G HSDPA/HSUPA 850/900/1800/1900MHz.
Camera:Rear (main) camera: 5.0 MP with autofocus lens and LED flash. Can shoot video at 720p, 30fps. Has front-facing VGA camera that can be used with Facetime video calls over WiFi.
in speaker, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
jack. iTunes player built-in.
WiFi 802.11b/g/n (2.4GHz only) and Bluetooth 2.1 +EDR.
Software:iOS 4 (iPhone 4 operating system). Google Maps, Safari web browser, email, threaded text/MMS messaging, Stocks, YouTube Player, iTunes, App Store, Phone, Clock, Calculator, Photos, Camera, Voice Memos, Contacts, Calendar, Notes, Compass and Settings.