Let’s start this review of the iPhone 4 by saying that after picking up the phone on Thursday in the middle of a rushed day of travel and work, not to mention waiting in line, I felt initially disappointed. Even before getting the phone in my hand, I didn’t feel like this phone’s hyped up hyperbole (This changes everything. Again) was going to be true, and to be honest by the end of a very long day, my suspicions that the iPhone 4 was merely evolutionary and not revolutionary were making me think that this thought was even a bit optimistic.
For starters I didn’t like the feel of the phone in my hand. While the design of the phone is indeed a work of industrial art, it felt far too fragile for my tastes and I found myself afraid to grip it and use it the way I normally would. I also wasn’t that smitten with another of its big “tent pole” features, the Retina Display. I was (and still am) experiencing the mysterious and wrongly named left handed reception issue as well.
But then over the weekend as I used the phone the way I used its predecessors my opinions and feelings changed quite a bit. For clarity, when I say “the way I used its predecessors” I simply mean I picked up the phone and used whatever function I needed without thinking twice about what i was doing or how I would go about it. That said, I don’t think the iPhone 4 is the second coming of smart/super phones. I still believe it is more evolutionary than revolutionary, but I think the evolutionary steps are positive ones. It is a worthy next step for Apple on its continued march into the mobile maelstrom Apple keeps stirring like some sort of demonic deity from on high. I’m sure some might think I’m working hard to rationalize the purchase, but that’s not the case at all. I’d describe the experience this weekend as kin to trying a different beer or a different vodka with some hesitance, and then perhaps a first taste rejection, and following that, in the end, liking the subtle differences.
Here are my thoughts.
Hardware Design and Feel
As I stated earlier, the design of the device is indeed a work of industrial art. At first glance I liked it better than my reaction to 3G/3GS design and I don’t think the gazillions of pictures we have seen do it justice. But then I picked it up and started to work with it. While the weight and size feel very good in my hand, the hard edges and glass screen and back initially made me feel like I was holding something far too fragile to actually be worked with. It’s odd. I had similar feelings about the iPad. I appreciated the aesthetics and the engineering, but the fragility I sensed didn’t make me comfortable holding and using the device until I put a case on it. Similar to my experiences with the iPad, as the weekend wore on and I stayed busy, those feelings changed as I grabbed and used the phone without much thought. Adding a Bumper also helped, although that covers up a good portion of what makes the device design so attractive. In retrospect, I’m chalking up some of my early impressions to the design and feel as a reaction to the differences from the 3G/3GS design that I had become accustomed to. The iPhone 4 is different to hold and use, and I was feeling queasy about those differences.
The weight of the iPhone 4 compared to the 3G/3GS feels no different in my hand. The iPhone 4 may be slimmer, but fundamentally it doesn’t appear that way due to the flat design versus the curved back of the 3G/3GS. That said, the combo of glass and metal contribute to the iPhone 4 feeling more dense in my hand. I’d equate that feeling to the difference between tasting a cold beer from a bottle or a glass to tasting it from a can. Not sure why all the beer analogies here, maybe it is the very hot day. Speaking of heat, I’ve seen where some say the device can get hot in their hands. I’ve not experienced that in my use so far, and in fact, in very hot weather it actually feels cooler to the touch than the 3GS did.
I was looking forward to seeing this in action after all the hoopla and early reviews. In short it’s very nice and an obvious improvement. But I don’ think it is as big a game changer as some make it out to be. In daily use the Retina display’s higher pixel count really doesn’t make much of a difference to my eye. Study it and compare it and you notice the difference. Expand a page of text until the letters get larger than anyone would want to read them in real life and you notice the difference. Putting it side by side with the iPhone 3GS or other late model smart phones (I compared it to an EVO and a Nexus One today) and from my perspective the difference is negligible. Those who say you can’t go back after using it might actually view it that way, but for me it is just a very nice and crisp display. It does make reading a lot of text easier on the eye and pictures and video do look much more vibrant.
I’ve written at length about my early positive experiences with this and you can read those thoughts here. Suffice it to say I’m impressed given that I didn’t do any tweaking to achieve excellent results.
What a difference the A4 chip set and extra RAM (now at 512 up from 256) makes. This is an upgrade that I can’t go back from. Everything is snappier in ways that are still surprising to me and make the device feel completely new. I felt similarly about the difference moving between the 3GS and the 3G, but the jump between the 3GS with IOS4 on it to the iPhone 4 is a much more noticeable. It’s like accelerating in a compact car on a hot day with the air conditioner turned on full blast or having it turned off. You notice the speed difference right away.
Connectivity and the Death Grip
I’d say the jury is still out on this issue, but it would be better to say it hasn’t even been chosen yet, and the jury pool is probably so tainted that Apple ought to move for a change in venue. There may be solvable technological issues here, be they hardware or software, but Apple has lost the PR war on this with stupid statements that don’t match the visual semiotics they themselves have made ubiquitous. The iPhone 4 will forever have the wrongly named left handed reception issue attached to it, regardless of how this works out.
About that left handed thing. I know from reading many other thoughts on this issue that I’m not alone in how I hold and use the phone. I hold and use the phone in both hands quite frequently depending on what I’m doing. In fact in my daily use, although I’m right handed, I more frequently use my left hand and thumb to enter text in one handed operation than I do my right. I also hold the device in my left hand quite a bit while poking at the screen with my right. So, whomever started this left handed meme needs to have their brain examined in my view.
That said, my experiences over the weekend show that I can duplicate the signal drop when holding the phone in the supposed wrong way. I spent a good portion of the weekend with the Bumper on the device which does indeed remove the issue. But late Sunday afternoon and early evening I did some tests at work and at home. At work, the AT&T signal is not as steady as it is at my house. And there I can duplicate the signal drop with disappointing ease and regularity. At home the 3G signal is much more consistent (always has been, with a few exceptions) and while I can recreate the issue, it doesn’t happen with the same regularity.
My experiences also say that I’m getting better reception by and large, although this is completely unscientific. I do notice that upload and download speeds appear to be faster.
Voice and audio quality
Those I’ve talked with on the phone notice a decided upgrade in the voice quality, obviously helped by the microphone array and noise cancellation Apple is now employing. The speaker has more volume and more heft to the sound. This is a win all the way around.
With the iPad battery life claims matching reality, Apple, I hoped, erased the silly game that is played over battery life marketing mumbo jumbo. We’ve all become so accustomed to claims that don’t match real usage that we’ve unfortunately accepted it as a way of life. Apple has perhaps put an end to another marketing numbers game with the camera on the iPhone 4. That’s the old increase in megapixel game or those scoring at home. Apple stated upfront that it wasn’t just about megapixels and in my early testing, Apple knows what it is talking about here. The 5 megapixel count of the rear facing camera might not look good in a comparison chart against other camera phones, but the proof is in a different pudding. Apple puts its 5 million pixels on a backside-illuminated CMOS sensor that effectively moves the wiring from the front of the sensor to the back. This essentially allows more light to reach the sensors helping in low light situations. The iPhone 4 camera also retains a larger pixel size and larger pixels capture more light. Again, the result is a better, clearer picture, with sharper color. Adding this technology to what Apple brought to the camera on the 3GS (touch to focus or adjust exposure) is a perfect example of evolutionary innovation.
Of course this camera can also now capture 720p HD video at 30fps. But you’ll need to offload the video to a computer to get that in a finished product from what I’m reading elsewhere. Sending the video via email or to YouTube compresses the product apparently to a point that makes the HD recording a bit of a waste.
The 1.2 megapixel front side camera is primarily intended for the FaceTime chat and it works well enough. Switching between the two is simple with the on screen control. More about FaceTime in later.
There is also now a LED flash that you can control from the screen, turning it on or off or setting it to auto. I’m not finding this of much use at the moment and pictures taken with it on or set to auto have a yellow/orange tint. The Zoom control hints at something good. The result of using it is not.
All of that said, the iPhone 4 camera(s) is a great improvement, especially for a camera in a phone. I’m sure we’ll see tons more comparisons flying around the Internet, but from what I’ve seen Apple is winning this race on innovation.
A Bug in the Photos App
The Photos app now lets you view photos by Albums, Faces, or Places. That’s great if that’s your thing, but by and large Albums is sufficient for me. I have discovered what I think is a bug in the Photos app. If I sync photos to my computer and then delete them on the phone from the computer following the sync (I’m using a Macbook Pro and iPhoto) when I return to the photos app the next time, there will be a large black box or boxes where the deleted photos used to reside. This is fixed and the black boxes go away by tabbing back to the Albums screen, but it is disconcerting. I’m assuming this will get fixed in a software update.
Glass back and front
Gorilla or not, too fragile or not, the glass panels on the front and back add a nice feel and look to the device, but contribute to my paranoia about fragility. The oleopathic screen coating seems to be even easier to clean off when the inevitable smudges appear than it does on the iPad or the 3GS. Even so, I’m sure I, like many, will be adding screen protection to the device soon.
That’s it on the hardware, now for some thoughts on iOS 4 on the new iPhone
Folders are a great advancement on the iPhone 4, although it is a way of playing catch up to other mobile OS organization methods. It allows for me to keep some apps on the phone that I only use rarely and that’s a plus. A downside is that it adds an extra tap to reaching those apps.
Another feature that is playing catchup is multi-tasking. Much has been said and written about Apple’s version of multi-tasking. I’m sure much more will be written and said in the future. Apple’s control of both hardware and software is on vibrant display here, and I somehow get the feeling that this is a foot in the water to test the temperature and that Apple is as anxious as we are to see how and what multi-tasking they do allow will work before plunging in deeper.
In what testing and use I’ve done it works as advertised. Primarily my use of the new capability has been with two apps that support it in different ways. The first is recording voice notes in the Evernote app and allowing that syncing to continue in the background, while I move on to other things. That’s called task completion. In preparing this review I also used the multi-tasking feature that allows me to keep recording after I’ve closed the app and moved on to another app. I’m betting this is going to make for some pretty interesting secret taping of conversations in the future, legally or not. The second is with Flickit Pro, which I use to transfer photos to Flickr. Flickit Pro also supports task completion so I can start an upload of pictures, quit the app to move onto something else. The pictures will continue to upload. That’s a huge improvement over waiting for the pictures to upload before moving on.
I’ve also tried Pandora in the background, and yeah that works. But to me that’s not as big a deal as it for others. Fast app switching works very well for the apps that support it, and there are more coming every day. Beyond that I can’t comment at the moment on how the suspending of an app works or not. Whether or not this is multi-tasking, it does make for a smoother transition from one app to another. This is a wait and see for me.
The fact that the most frequently used apps appear on the ribbon when you double tap the home button is a plus. The first four apps that appear are the last four you’ve used and you can swipe to the right to reveal others that you’ve recently accessed. It’s another easy way to get to your most frequently used apps. It’s also here that you can swipe to the left to reveal multi-media controls and a screen lock button that allows you to lock the screen in portrait mode only. The app you’re using to listen to music appears to the right on this control bar, which is a nice touch.
Beyond that I haven’t really pushed Apple’s version of multi-tasking to any sort of limit. But what little I’ve tried offers me advantages that I didn’t have before. There’s more I’d like to see here, but maybe we’ll see that in future versions once everyone’s toes are good and wet.
Another “new” catch up feature that should have been there from the beginning is the unified inbox. If you’ve got multiple email accounts this is a real time saver, as is the threaded mail update. You can now see emails in a thread that belong together with a little numeric indicator that shows up in the latest email in the thread in your Inbox. Again, a welcome update that should have been there from the beginning.
As advertised it does just work without any configuration. I’ve only done this twice since picking up the phone and I’m not sure how much I will use it, but I can see the direction this is heading in and the consumer appeal. Yes, it is WiFi only, and AT&T seems to have built in a way to cash in once it feels (if it feels) comfortable enough to open up its network to FaceTime traffic. It works fine with a MiFi card (I use the Sprint version), and that gives me a bit of flexibility should I need to use it when I’m not around a WiFi network. I don’t see this as a “must have” feature for myself, instead it is a “nice to have” feature. I’m sure we’ll see more innovation around this in the future and we’ll be talking quite a bit about FaceTime down the road. For now, I’d call it a great beginning for those who see a big need or desire for this kind of communication.
iBooks and iMovie
iBooks on the iPhone gives Apple a start at chipping away at Amazon’s multi-platform approach. The addition of PDF viewing is a real plus. You can add PDFs via syncing through iTunes or send it to iBooks from an email attachment at the moment. As other apps take advantage of the built in File Association functionality you’ll be able to add them from those apps as well. I’m betting Dropbox will be the first app to do this, and probably soon. As with the first version of iBooks you can order from the store inside the app, another advantage that iBooks has over the Kindle App.
I purchased and downloaded iMovie but haven’t had enough time to figure it out. It is not an app that you can learn to use in a few quick minutes.
I’ve mentioned that I picked up one of Apple’s Bumpers when I picked up the new iPhone. And, as I’ve stated, it does eradicate the reception issue. Aside from hiding some of the sleek design of the new iPhone, it doesn’t add any real bulk to the device, and it does make me feel less insecure about how I handle the phone. That said, when I’m using the phone one handed (left or right) the Bumper makes it more difficult to thumb the edges of the virtual keyboard given how it creates a non-flush rim around the screen. The Bumper does have some style as well. The volume buttons and the on/off button are made of chrome which hint at what the Bumper is covering up. That said, it is more difficult to flip the volume switch with the Bumper enclosing the device. One other thing the Bumper offers, if you don’t have a screen protector on the device, the Bumper keeps the back and front glass from touching whatever surface you lay it on, possibly avoiding scratches.
There you have it. My thoughts on the features of the new iPhone 4 and IOS4 that I feel are worthy of my commenting on. It is still early in the game and I’m sure I’ll discover more that I like and more that I wish were better as time goes on.
So much is being made of the comparisons between Apple and Google’s mobile wars these days that it both points up the good things about competition, and the bad things about the religiosity of the righteous on either side. I’m only minimally tested out Android phones and consequently feel completely incapable of making any real comparison, so I won’t. But judging the iPhone 4 on its merits alone, I’ll say that Apple has kept itself squarely at the head of whatever race it and others see itself running with Google. The biggest black mark on the iPhone is still AT&T, and even that can’t seem to keep folks from buying iPhones in record numbers. The Apple and AT&T coupling is much like a marriage that everyone around it knows has gone completely sour. Following the analogy further, you know the marriage only stays intact for the money. But when it ends, if it ends, everyone touched by it will be happy to chip in to pay the divorce lawyers. I get ragged on all the time by those who find my continual complaining about AT&T as hypocritical given that I still buy and use an iPhone. I’ve said often that as a customer, I’ve got a right to complain of lousy service that I pay good money for to use on a phone that I find a joy to use. I’ve also repeated that in my area, AT&T is no worse or no better than any other carrier available.
But back to that “joy” thing. As stated earlier, I found the feel of the new iPhone so different in my hand and this contributed to my acute paranoia about its fragility. Quite frankly, I was afraid that “joy of use” was about to go away because of those early reactions. But as Thursday turned into Friday and then the weekend, and work continued unabated, with me using the iPhone 4 in the way i used its predecessors, I slowly came to realize that the upgrade was more than worth it. As I discovered some of the new features I’ve chronicled here, and how well the evolution of what I’ve enjoyed so much in the past has indeed improved I’ve become quite impressed. Does it change everything? Again? Not really. But the buzz I get from partaking is remarkably similar, just as effective, and as easily enjoyed with some new taste sensations thrown in for the bargain. It is still early, but I’m feeling pretty good about the iPhone 4.
Now it is time for that cold beer.