Apple iPhone 4: Hands-on review

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Photo: Dean Putney, shot on a Canon SLR
The fourth incarnation of Apple's iPhone is an incrementally improved, familiar device—not a new kind of device, as was the case with the recent introduction of iPad. Yes, the notable features with iPhone 4—both the device and the iOS4, which came out yesterday in advance of the iPhone itself—are mostly tweaks. But what tweaks they are: Apple's focus on improvement is as much key to the quality of its products as innovation. Still, there's one flaw it can't completely eliminate: the unreliable quality of calls placed over AT&T, which remains the iPhone's only U.S. carrier.

THE FORM FACTOR

Thanks to a boy and a bar and a blog, we've already known for some time what the iPhone 4 would look like. The squared-off, thinner, steel-and glass form is more masculine, more substantial. Like a really hot designer watch. There are bevels and grooves and linear details that didn't exist before. It feels really nice to hold. Once my hand got used to it, the 3GS body felt more like a toy, and I didn't much feel like holding it anymore. 

The display is a huge leap forward. It's really crisp, and hues are more true. Side by side, the 3GS display and the iPhone 4 display show that the earlier device gives off warmer hues, more peach/red/yellow casts. The iPhone 4 seems more true to life. This is particularly noticeable when you are reading large stretches of text, or comparing one photo on both devices, side by side. On iPhone 4, whites are whiter, blacks are blacker, and the fonts really pop. It makes long reading sessions much more comfortable, and reading things in low light and high light environments are easier than before. 

The iPhone 4 face and back side are made from "aluminosilcate glass," which Apple says has been "chemically strengthened to be 30 times harder than plastic." Fighting instinct (my... precious!)I banged it on the side of metal tables, attempted to scuff it on the floor, and it did not sustain scratches as my iPhone 3GS and first-edition iPhone have. Granted, I didn't take a hammer or keys to it, and I don't know "Will It Blend"—I felt too protective—but this is clearly a much sturdier face. This also explains why Apple is only selling those little "bumpers" now, to snap around the edges, instead of older style cases that also protect the face and back of the device. The metal volume and mute/vibrate buttons feel nice (and are echoed in metal details on those little snap-on bumpers.)

BATTERY LIFE

Battery life has been an Achilles' heel with earlier versions of this device. It's noticeably improved, and that's a good thing, because much of what this device can do will require more power, over more time. You're gonna want more battery. With light use, but with 3G data and WiFi turned on the whole time, I got a full 4 days of battery life. With very heavy video recording and playback, instant messaging, email and data tethering over 3G, I got a full day of battery life. I didn't have enough time before this review to do careful benchmark testing against Apple's claims, so I can't provide specific percentages, but it felt like the battery life was a good 20-25% meatier. 

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Photo: Xeni at Venice Skate Park with Drew, 11 (L), and Kiko, 8 (R). Shot by Julian Bleecker on a Nikon SLR

Apple promises up to 7 hours of talk time on 3G and 14 hours of talk time on 2G, Standby time of up to 300 hours, up to 10 hours of solid use on Wi-Fi, up to 10 hours of video playback, and 40 hours of audio playback.

Compare that with the stats promised for Apple's iPhone 3GS: up to 5 hours talk time on 3G, up to 12 on 2G. Up to 5 hours of internet use on 3G, up to 9 hours on Wi-Fi. Up to 10 hours of video playback, and 30 hours of audio playback.

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THE PHONE STUFF

Gadget bloggers and tech reviewers have made much over the built-in antenna placement, and speculation that the body construction allows for greater signal conductivity.

I rode my bike around town with iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, and the original iPhone, and observed signal strength differences.

Here's the thing:

AT&T still sucks, and the best engineering out of Cupertino won't change that.

AT&T's network includes black holes and Bermuda Triangles in many places around my town, Los Angeles. Even where signal strength was terrific, dropped or garbly calls did still occur sometimes with this new iPhone. But a little less often.

Overall performance and reception capabilities with iPhone 4 did seem improved, during my limited tests. The connectivity improvements engineered into this device seem to help you make the best of a very imperfect carrier (and, of course, none of them are perfect).

Standing in one familiar trouble spot that used to drive me crazy, I often had one or two "signal strength" bars on the first-gen iPhone, maybe one or two more bars on the 3GS, and 4 or 5 bars on iPhone 4.

Bottom line: I think the engineering is better. But issues of call quality and dropped calls will not be completely gone with this improved device. As we're now four hardware iterations in, I believe that has everything, or nearly everything, to do with the carrier.

IS IT SPEEDY?

Quite. Unlike prior editions, this one uses Apple's A4 processor, which is also present in Apple's iPad. Huge difference in responsiveness, when comparing identical tasks between iPhone 4 and the 3GS or other prior editions.

FACETIME

Video calls are cool. Yes, video calls with Skype and video chat with AIM, iChat, and Google are a well-established part of our internet experience. But FaceTime will open up "video phone calls" to many more users. Here's how it works: using the phone feature, initiate a phone call to someone else who is also using an iPhone 4. A "FaceTime" option will be present for both users, on both ends, and if both opt to initiate FaceTime, you'll be viewing video from each other as you talk.

iPhone 4 offers the ability to switch the orientation of the camera input, from one side to another, so if you and I are talking I can show you my face, looking into the device right back at you on the other end of the FaceTime call, or I can tap the "switch camera orientation" icon on my screen to show you the sunset on the beach where I'm standing. Well, as long as there's WiFi on the beach: currently, AT&T won't allow FaceTime over 3G.

Apple says it will open the Facetime API to developers, which should make for some interesting interfaces between iPhone and social networking or chat services.

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The iPhone 4's camera offers much more detailed shots than before, and performs better in poor lighting conditions.

CAMERA
(Click to view more photos shot with iPhone 4 in this Boing Boing gallery)

Reviews of iOS4 have noted that installing the upgrade on 3G iPhones zooms up shutter speed significantly. This is true. And on the iPhone 4 hardware itself, speed and sensitivity with iOS4 on the iPhone 4 itself become nothing short of stunning. I experienced far fewer "lost moments," those dead shots that happen when you've tried to grab just the right instant, and instead you end up with a photo of several instants after the right instant. I brought my iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4 to the Venice Beach skate park, to take shots of fast-moving skaters in those magical aerial moments, just before a swan-dive into the belly of the bowl. With earlier iPhones, man, just forget it. You're using the wrong device. Response is too sluggish for good odds on getting good action shots. But with iPhone 4, I was able to tap-tap-tap in rapid succession, or tap once at just the right instant, and bring home some real trophy jpegs.

Another strong point of the new version of iPhone's camera is the ability to make better sense of high, low, and medium light within one shot. When you touch on an area of the camera's view to focus, the iPhone automatically senses factors such as exposure, and auto-adjusts for you based on the selected focal point.

There was a tendency on iPhone 3GS and earlier to get overly dark, or overly blown-out shots when an image incorporates bright whites and dark darks. iPhone 4 is smarter in this regard.

iPhone's built-in flash is a welcome addition, and will no doubt lead to a proliferation of attractive, boozed-up people in better-lit nightclub snapshots on Facebook (and a new generation of wannabe Cobrasnakes).

Three options with the flash: on, auto-flash, or off. We're still talking about a tiny flash on an iPhone, so it doesn't perform like a pro flash on a $2500 SLR camera (you're only going to be able to illuminate so far), but it's quite a start. I was able to get intelligible shots of a completely dark room, where without the flash, I'd get nothing but black. One thing I haven't tried yet, which I do with my point-and-shoot digital cameras: making DIY "gels" for the flash. Scotch tape, maybe embellished with highlighter pen ink for rose, yellow, or other human-friendly gel colors.

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At an L.A.-area skate park, Kiko, 8, and Drew, 11, mug for a photo. Taken with iPhone 4

VIDEO
(Click here to watch sample video clips shot with iPhone 4)

I'm very, very excited about the video capabilities in iPhone 4. I've spent the last few years of my life working in web video, so forgive me if I "squee" here. The higher definition video [720p] is spectacular, and far better in quality than what was possible with iPhone 3GS (or, as far as I've seen, with any smartphone). You have to be mindful of that camera orientation switch option noted above with FaceTime: when you shoot video out of one side of the device, you get lower-resolution 640 x 480 footage, and when you shoot out of the other side, you get far higher-res 1280 x 720. As with the still camera function, you can tap an area to focus in, even while you are shooting. Video is saved and exported as h.264 QuickTime, and you can email, MMS, or publish to YouTube right from the iPhone.

LOCATION TAGGING FOR PHOTOS AND VIDEOS

The ability to browse what's in your photo and video library by the location where you shot those items is new, and really fun. I took a bike ride from my office to the beach, and from there down a long bike path along the coast to another town. I shot photos and videos along the way. When I arrived back at the office, I was able to view those clusters of media on a map, and tap the red "pushpin" to view everything I'd shot at the skate park, everything I'd shot at the pier, and so on.

IMOVIE

The iPhone 4 ships is released alongside a mobile version of iMovie ($5), so you can edit clips into iMovie projects with transitions, music beds, stylized or simple transitions, and templated themes ("travel postcard," for instance). Export your final product at medium (360p), large (540p), or HD (720p).

Video snobs may pooh-pooh the notion of editing on a mobile device (which requires a vastly more simplified and less powerful editing toolkit than one has with FinalCut Studio on an 8-core Mac Pro), but hey, a few years ago these same people were also pooh-poohing the notion of shooting video on a mobile device.

What this means to me: if I'm traveling, I can shoot, edit, and produce little reports or impressionistic video vignettes from the field without having to have even a laptop. That is a very big deal for some people (fine, by "some people," I really mean, "me"). And for non-videobloggers, it means you'll now be getting lots more annoying (but visually good quality) home movies of your relatives' Hawaiian vacations in your in-box.

When you're video editing on the iPhone 4, there's a theme sound library to work with, and you can even add songs from your iTunes/iPod library as music beds (ahem cough awesome but surprising, given the possible copyright conflicts ahem cough).

ORIENTATION LOCK

Thank you Jesus. At last. Orientation lock on the iPhone, like we have on the iPad. If you're reading Boing Boing in bed, just double-press the "home" button, then swipe that menu bar all the way to the left, and you can lock the display in portrait mode so it doesn't switch direction on you when you roll over or sit up or whatever. I wish you could also lock it in landscape mode. This would be especially handy for videos or gaming while you're passed out drunk in the gutter or relaxing on your couch at home.

IBOOKS

Apple's iBooks—the store, storage, and digital book reading application—works pretty much here like it does on iPad. There are some additional new abilities, like the ability to highlight and add notes. Given what my own personal reading and device usage habits are, I don't know that I'll personally be spending a ton of time reading iBooks on iPhone, but I suspect that others will be awfully excited about the ability to read one book on iPad, laptop or desktop Mac, and iPhone, and start where you left off at any given device.

MULTITASKING

As noted in early iOS4 reviews, multitasking is here, and feels long overdue. There are limits. You can't multitask everything with everything, but the ability to check email and Twitter while I'm on a conference call, or play music while I'm reading a blog, seems natural now (and didn't result in crashiness).

Double-click the home button to swap between open apps. Holding down the home button for a few moments gets you voice control, as with earlier versions. Touching the home button once, briefly, lets you search iPhone.

TETHERING

It worked flawlessly over Bluetooth, using AT&T's 3G, when the cable modem and wireless network in my office happened to be down for a while. What more do you want? It worked when I wanted it to work.

THE GYROSCOPE

I didn't have an opportunity to make use of the additional motion sensitivity that iPhone 4 offers over its predecessor, with the built-in gyroscope. So I can't say much about it, other than the fact it's there. But I'm sure that as the iPhone 4 makes its way out into the wild, developers of augmented reality applications and games will produce products that use this ability to enrich a variety of experiences. To me, those augmented reality possibilities are particularly exciting.


Would I buy it? Yes.

Apple: iPhone 4