The way we usually like to write our gadget reviews is after we had some time to play with them and we worked out the kinks, the good things, the not so good ones and have a comprehensive image about how the product behaves in the day to day life. While coming later that other iPhone 4 reviews, we offer you Review Horizon’s version today to celebrate exactly 3 months since its US launch.
I bought my iPhone 4 shortly after its launch so the unpacking pictures reflects a different season 🙂 Most of the current iPhone 4 users (myself included) upgraded from iPhone 3G, not 3GS due to the 2 year AT&T plan cycle so I’ll base my observations and comparisons on the older model.
iPhone 4 Unpacking
The box itself is very small and contains the iPhone 4 itself, the USB cable, a pair of headphones (microphone included) and a very tiny USB charger that you can use to power your Sony PSP, Kindle / Nook reader or any other device charging via a low power USB connection. If your PC can charge it, Apple’s mini USB charger will do it as well.
Apple distances from its well know curvy design for the 4th generation of iPhones instead providing a neat industrial design, elegant although squarish, made out of metal and glass. The surfaces are made of Gorilla Glass sheets an order of magnitude tougher than plastic (so less scratches here). The edges are made of stainless steel and contain the various antennas iPhone 4 provides (GSM, GPS, Bluetooth, Wifi). The external antenna design created the famous antenna scandal that forced Apple to provide free cases. While the iPhone 4 edges feel more rough in your hands that its curvy predecessors, it provides a more satisfying feeling, maybe in part due to its increased weight. The built quality is also much better than other phones I used.
The buttons are similar with the older generations but are more pronounced. The volume buttons are now separated. The whole phone is thinner at 0.37 inches compared to 0.48 inches of the previous generations, has the same weight but since it is more dense, it feels heavier.
The iPhone 4 contains the same CPU found in the iPad (1GHz A4 ARM Cortex) which feels very fast. The memory capacity was quadrupled from iPhone 3, doubled from iPhone 3GS and stands at 512 MB of RAM. In many cases, the memory is responsible for the applications start time. Why ? Well, from 128MB available on iPhone 3G, the OS (4.0) used around 100MB with 28MB available for running programs (I jailbroken my device and have SBSettings installed). Because of limited memory available for application in older models, multi-tasking was almost impossible using iOS 4.0 and beyond. It was simply very hard to keep more than two applications open at the same time. iPhone 4 is a completely different story. With 512MB available, the iOS will still use around 100MB (maybe more due to its own optimizations) with the rest being available for the applications. After a fresh re-Spring SBSettings shows 321MB memory available, roughly 10 times more than iPhone 3G in the same conditions. You can have 15-20 applications opened at the same time and switching between them is very fast.
If you had jailbroken your iPhone 3, or just updated it to iOS 4.* you probably felt it much slower. Not anymore. iPhone 4 is very fast with no noticeable lag regardless of your usage.
Beside improvements in the memory capacity and CPU speed, new hardware components have also been added like a gyroscopic sensor to allow 6-axis motion control and an extra front facing camera for video conference. The main camera was also upgraded to 5 megapixels, but we’ll get later in more details about this.
As storage memory goes, there are to models currently on the market: 16GB and 32GB models retailing for $199 and $299 respectively.
This is one of the chapters where iPhone 4 really shines, and not only against its older siblings, but also compared with other similar devices across the industry. Apple embedded the best 3.5″ display currently available featuring an astounding 960 x 640 resolution with a pixel density of 326 pixels / inch, 800:1 contrast and 500cd brightness, covered by an oil resistant coating (to protect it from your fingerprints, of course). The resolution is high enough that you won’t be able to see the pixels with the naked eye even if you look up very closely and the icons and photos look really sharp.
The applications will need to be re-written to take advantage of the higher resolution but the existing ones will also look better due to the image interpolation support provided.
Let’s talk the truth in here: iPhone family always sucked at taking still photos (compared with other phones), especially in low light where the quality was atrocious. The iPhone 4 is a decent improvement, but in my opinion still not good enough. The back camera was upgraded to a 5 megapixels sensor offering autofocus and LED flash. The photos are much better during the daylight, but in low light they’ll be still blurry as hell and doesn’t even start to came close to the quality of a dedicated camera, even a cheap one. We should note that Apple just released iOS 4.1 that brings HDR photo capability to the iPhone 4. One of the most important qualities of the new camera is its capability to record HD video (720p) and it does quite a good job at it. The HD support is due of course more to the improved processor than to the camera upgrade. Also to be noted, the improved hardware speed means that you can take pictures much faster than before, with your iPhone 4 ready to take pictures in less than a second.
New for this model is a VGA resolution front camera used for video conferencing. We’ll get into details later when we’ll describe Facetime capability.
The speakers are more clear and louder than previous model but don’t expect HiFi quality. It’s a phone after all, but considering the size constraints, the quality is quite good.
The battery from iPhone 4 is quite better that the one in the iPhone 3G model – a 1,420 mAh Li-Polymer that should deliver (by Apple’s estimates) any of the the following:
- up to 300hrs standby
- up to 7hrs 3G talktime
- up to 14hrs 2G talktime
- up to 6hrs 3G internet browsing
- up to 10hrs internet browsing over WiFi
- up to 10hrs of video playback
- up to 40hrs of audio
The numbers are not quite there but I think the battery life is obviously better than iPhone 3G. For the 3G version I had to buy the Mophie battery case to keep me working through a full day, however iPhone 4 battery life seems to be 30-25% better. What I have yet to find out is how much the battery life will degrade in the next two years of usage. In the first 3 months the effect is negligible.
Voice and connection quality
Despite its antenna issues, in my case the number of iPhone 4 dropped calls are less than half compared with iPhone 3G. The signal level looks about the same but iPhone 4 is just better than the older models. The call quality seems about the same for me and I would appreciate a louder speaker (maybe I’m getting old!!!).
As we mentioned, Apple added a VGA front facing camera for video conferences. Together with the camera, they also released a service to enable you to use it, called FaceTime. The first thing you need to know is that FaceTime only works on WiFi (presumable not to cripple the already overloaded AT&T network). You can start a FaceTime call directly or you can switch it on during a call (provided of course you are under WiFi coverage and the party you are talking to also has an iPhone 4 and WiFi coverage). Unfortunately, at this moment the only client that supports FaceTime calls is FaceTime so no Skype for you ;).
The video quality is reasonable and you can switch to the back camera as well (for a sort of BackTime 🙂 ). The stability however is not and I experienced huge reliability issues with the video connection dropping after several seconds for no reason. That being said, we are still waiting for video calls via 3G (maybe next year).
This is a very tricky feature and it was discussed “ad nauseam” in any imaginable ways. Let’s put it this way: Up to iOS 4.0 none of the iPhone models had multitasking if you did not jailbreak. Very annoying especially if you wanted to do something rather simple: listen to the radio while surfing the Web. In fact, this feature (or lack of it) drove me to jailbreak my iPhone in the first place. And of course, after I did jailbreak it, I understood in part Apple’s reluctance to provide multitasking: It does eat your battery like there is no tomorrow (hence the need for Mophie). But, at least for me, having multitasking was more important than the abttery life so I learned to live with it.
Fast forwarding to 2010, Apple implemented multitasking in iOS 4.0 (but only for iPhone 3GS and 4, the older 3G phones were out of luck). The Apple’s way to multi-task is done by letting most of the programs sleeping in th memory with few APIs actually allowed to work while in the background, notably GPS, music, streaming, VOIP calls and that’s about it. Since the current multitasking covers my needs, I am satisfied. Others may not be.
New in iOS 4.0 are folders. It is basically a way to group functionally similar applications under one name. Nothing amazing and something that jailbroken devices offered already 2 years ago. The folders are one level only so you won’t be able to nest them which is unfortunate. You can also have only up to 12 applications per folder ,so if you have a lot of games, you’ll have to split them and remember after that which game in what folder is.
Another visual enhancement is the addition of background images, even animated ones.
New for iOS 4.0 and up is the addition of threaded e-mails, similar with the way GMail works. e-mails exchanged with the same recipient are paired together and sorted based on the time received. A nifty feature to have.
The real power of Apple’s ecosystem consists in software, not hardware. Somehow Apple managed to build a good App store before everybody else and most of the developers jumped ship simply because they had a streamlined way to cache from their development efforts. Currently the Apple’s App Store contains over 200,000 applications and, while most of them are junk, you can find enough gems to last a lifetime. While I won’t create a top NNN games / apps for iPhone list, I’ll list some applications screenshots I enjoy using to give you an idea about what is available.
At the same time with iPhone 4 launch, AT&T started to offer cheaper data plans but canned the unlimited one (you can still get it if you had it before). The two plans currently available for new accounts are the 200MB ($15) and 2GB ($25 per month). Tethering is available for an extra $20 over the 2GB data plan. I monitored my data usage and even in the heaviest months I never got past the 2GB limit, which I believe applies to most of the users. If you go over your data limits, AT&T will charge you for another slice, same limits, same price. For example if you are using the 200MB plan and go over it, you’ll get charged $15 more for another 200MB.
JailbreakingWe have a dedicated section that deals with iPhone jailbreaking here.
iPhone 4 is undoubtedly a big step both hardware wise and software wise over the older iPhone generations. Its Retina Display, 720p recording, front facing camera with FaceTime capability and more than enough memory for todays’ applications, iPhone 4 is a multimedia powerhouse. Although historically very controlled, Apple’s App store also shows signs of opening, recently allowing applications like Google Voice clients to come in so Apples moving in the right direction. We would like to see competing technologies as well (Flash) but another good step is the recent changes in the iOS Developer Program to allow 3rd party dev tools in again. Apple is changing and it is for the better. The competition doesn’t sleep and Android devices are more popular than ever.
Multimedia wise, I wish Apple would make an iPhone with a larger screen, like HTC Evo for example. For me, a 4.3 inches or even a 5 inches device would perfectly replace a video-player and a navigation system at the same time.
Note: You probably noticed that I have 5 icons in my dock instead of 4. If you jailbreak your iPhone 4, you can search Cydia repository for five icon dock application and install it. It well worth it!
- Retina Display
- Faster Processor
- 512MB memory
- Dual cameras with better performance
- Price (especially if you buy more than one)
- Screen is too small considering the resolution
- Lack of widgets
- Photo quality in low light
- No video calls over Skype, at least for now
Let’s put it this way: The new iPhone 4 looks so nice, you don’t want to drop it. I also bought one for my wife and she did not want to use it before buying a case. While its a pity to cover such a nice device, its better safe than sorry so I strongly advice you to get a case. And yes, it might fix the antenna issue as well. Apple currently offers free cases but the program will end on September 30th.