Review: iPhone 4 First Look

Jun 27, 2010 (05:06 AM EDT)

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The iPhone 4 is the best iPhone yet, but that doesn't mean Apple's latest device scores high marks across the board. The hardware is outstanding, but iOS doesn't enjoy the lead it once did. Slab-style touch phones are so prevalent now, standing out from the pack takes effort. Apple no doubt put a lot of effort into the iPhone 4. It does stand apart from the pack in many ways, though not all. For Web and media fanatics the iPhone 4 still reigns, but Apple needs to make more leaps with its operating system if it wants to stay ahead of Google, Palm, Research In Motion and others.

Image Gallery: Apple iPhone 4, A True Teardown
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The iPhone 4 is the easiest touch-phone to use. Because Apple hasn't changed the nature of iOS4 very much, veteran iPhone owners will have no trouble picking up and becoming an instant expert. Even newbies will have it easy, as Apple has taken all the complexity out of iOS and provides a polished, efficient user interface. iOS4 combined with the newer hardware makes for a powerful device that will surely make Apple richer than ever.

Hardware and Design

The iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS were identical in terms of shape, size and design. iPhone 4 is a radical departure from the smooth, curved lines of the iPhone 3G/3GS and favors a more industrial look. The iPhone 4 matches Apple's MacBook Pro and iPad design language much more closely than the previous iPhones.

The iPhone 4's main components are two glass plates that are rimmed with a metal band. The display is made from Gorilla Glass, which is tough stuff. The back plate is also made of what Apple describes "resilient" glass. Early user experiences show that casual drops -- even from one foot -- lead to shattered back plates on the new iPhone. Perhaps it isn't as resilient as Apple hoped. This is not a tough phone and certainly not MIL-SPEC certified.

It is thinner, but less comfortable to hold. The rounded lines of the iPhone 3G/3GS made it perfect for most hands, and slip in and out of pockets easily. The iPhone 4 has hard edges all the way around. It is much more noticeable when dropped into a pocket. The controls spread around the outer rim are all easy to reach and use. I had no trouble with any of the buttons. Some might complain about the lack of a dedicated camera key, but everything else necessary is present.

The iPhone 4 moves the SIM card tray from the top of the phone to the right side. A thin paperclip is still required to pop it open. The new iPhone uses a micro-SIM, which is a smaller version of the SIM card that AT&T and T-Mobile customers are already used to. Most people won't ever eject the SIM card. For those who want/need to, be forewarned: the micro-SIM won't work in any other phone (unless modified). It's too small.

The look and feel of the iPhone 4 is something that each user will have their own opinion about. To me, the metal and glass materials and they way they are constructed are elegant, refined, simple, and complex at the same time. Apple's minimalistic approach works.


The iPhone 4 uses a TFT LCD display with in-plane switching (IPS) that measures 3.5 inches. While the display has the same diagonal size that the iPhone 4's predecessor's did, it offers four times the pixels. It is the best mobile phone display I've ever seen.

Text, in particular, looks fabulous. Whether you're reading a Web page or an HTML email, the iPhone 4's display is as close to ink on high-quality paper as you're going to get. It's fantastic.

Images, icons, graphics, and colors all look superb. The display is also very bright. It is easily read outdoors when under sunny skies. Many other displays become unreadable outdoors. The iPhone 4's doesn't.

The IPS technology makes for a better viewing angle. Brightness dies off a bit when the display is viewed at a steep angle, but everything on the display is still visible. Comparing it directly next to high-def screens such as that of the Motorola Droid X asks for more resolution than the human eye can really discern. Trust me, you're going to be impressed when you see it.


One of the iPhone's biggest improvements over its progenitors comes in the camera department. It steps up to a 5 megapixel camera with autofocus and flash. In my tests, the new camera blows the old iPhone cameras out of the water. The iPhone 4's new low-light sensitivity made for dramatically sharper images, with less noise and grain. The camera is also much faster. The camera application launches faster and shoots pictures faster. This means you are more apt to catch that special moment rather than miss it.

There is also a user-facing camera above the display on the front. There is a permanent software button on the iPhone's screen that lets users easily switch back and forth between the two cameras. This second camera is mainly for the iPhone's excellent FaceTime application, and taking self portraits. Users can also control the camera's flash, and the iPhone has now gained up to 5x digital zoom.

The iPhone 4 probably won't replace a dedicated SLR camera, but I can see leaving the point-and-shoot camera at home if you have an iPhone 4 in tow.

The iPhone 4's gallery application hasn't changed much at all in the three years that iOS has been out. The new features include the ability to sort images based on Faces and Places. Faces depends on tagged photos from Apple's iPhoto software. Places sorts photos based on the geographical location of where they were taken. There are no advanced editing or sharing features. Users will have to rely on third-party software for that.

The iPhone 4 also shoots video in 720p HD. The video I captured with it looked fantastic. There was no odd waviness or distortion in the video, it reacted quickly to drastic changes in light, and color representation was spot on.

Add to all these the ease of which the iPhone syncs with Apple's iPhoto software, and you have a powerful imaging tool.

Multitasking and Folders

With iOS4 on the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4, double-tapping the home button brings up a list of open apps that users can jump to quickly. The multitasking is probably more accurately described as "fast app-switching." Only certain applications can truly run in the background, and the app switching doesn't necessarily show you other open apps so much as it lets you jump to recently used apps faster.

The most important aspect of iOS4's multitasking ability is that the iPhone preserves the "state" in which you leave apps. In other words, if you've started typing an email, and jump to the browser, you won't lose your spot in the email when you return. iOS4 and the iPhone 4 don't multitask as Android, Symbian, BlackBerry OS, or Windows Mobile do, but it does make it less painful for users to navigate between applications.

With iOS4, the iPhone 4 can create folders for organizing applications, games, utilities, and so on. Folders can be created directly on the handset or through iTunes. Up to 12 applications can be stored in each folder. Tap the folder, and a window drops down to show the apps stored inside. Drag-and-drop one app on top of another to start building a folder. If the apps share the same category in the iPhone App Store (i.e., "games"), the iPhone will automatically name the folder "Games." Users can name folders anything they want.

Neither of these solutions is perfect, but it does make using the iPhone 4 a lot easier to manage. The folders capability alone has allowed me to delete three extra home pages from my iPhone, and the way multitasking lets you jump into the iPod controls quickly means you can stop the music faster when necessary.

Perhaps the biggest complaint is that the Home button loses the double-tap-to-open feature. For example, in iOS3, users could choose what application launched when the Home button was double-tapped. That functionality is gone.

Enterprise Features

From an enterprise perspective, the iPhone 4 doesn't make many dramatic improvements over the iPhone 3GS. The most notable and obvious changes have been made to the email program.

iOS4 now supports threaded email and a unified inbox. Similar to Gmail, threaded email on the iPhone lets users group received emails into a conversational format. Let's say you receive 10 emails with the same subject. When scrolling through your inbox, you'll see the most recent message with the number 10 next to it. Tap the message and it will open up a mini inbox window with the 10 messages inside. You can then scroll through each individually, in order. The biggest problem is that it can require more clicks, and doesn't add the emails you have sent into the conversation. The result is a one-sided email conversation that doesn't compete with the threaded email Google offers to Android devices.

The unified inbox will lump all the email from each email account on the iPhone into one master inbox. This makes it easier to scan through multiple accounts at once. Another bonus is the ability to sync notes between the iPhone and your email. The option to do so is found in iTunes.

The iPhone 4 also has the improved spell check software. With iOS3, Apple's predictive software would guess what you were trying to type and insert words as you went. Often, Apple's software gets the predictions wrong. Now, the software will offer several options when it can't figure out what a user is attempting to type. Giving users this extra choice leads to fewer corrections later.

iOS4 already supports Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync, which gives enterprise IT departments the ability to require complex passwords and remotely wipe the iPhone.


The iPhone 4 is the fastest, most responsive device in the market. The 1GHz processor and 512MB of RAM have made a huge different in its ability to open and run applications quickly. It has HSDPA/HSUPA radios inside, and can access faster download/upload speeds. In my simple tests, I reached a max of 3.1Mbps download and 879Kbps uploads through AT&T's network. The previous best-case I ever saw with the iPhone 3GS was 1.8Mbps up and 634Kbps down.

The iPhone 4 also has 802.11n Wi-Fi. Even though it is limited to the 2.4GHz variety of Wi-Fi, it is still capable of faster surfing speeds with the proper Wi-Fi equipment. In my speed tests over 802.11n Wi-Fi, the iPhone 4 reached download speeds of 7.44Mbps and upload speeds 4.05Mbps. Real-world translations? You can share pictures and videos much faster.

Battery life has been great so far. I brought the iPhone 4 to a full charge by Noon on June 24. At 3PM on June 25, the battery still had 56% left. I have Gmail synced via Exchange. I've spent hours browsing the Web; have watched some video; shot about 50 images; and captured 5 minutes of HD video footage. The iPhone 4 indeed improves upon battery life.

In the 30 or so hours that I've been testing the iPhone 4, I haven't dropped a single call. This experience is going to vary on many, many conditions. The quality of calls is somewhat improved for several reasons. Apple has improved the noise-cancellation abilities of the iPhone 4. It now has two microphones: one to capture the sound of your voice, and another to listen to background noise and filter out extraneous sound. It works. The earpiece of the iPhone 4 is also louder than its predecessors. This is very good news. It doesn't compare to the excellent Motorola Droid, or amazing Nokia E73, but it is much improved. The speakerphone is also much louder than before, and will be a much better tool in the office than it was before.


Apple says iOS has over 100 new features. Finding some of them can be tough. The basic user interface of the iPhone is the same and so are many of the base applications. . . and that's probably the iPhone 4's biggest weakness.

Android -- and to some extent webOS -- have surpassed Apple's iOS4 in features and functionality. Take social networking, for example. Android has support for Facebook at the API level, which lets developers do all sorts of interesting things. For example, the way Android handsets can sync not only profile photos, but information, status updates, and messages between Facebook and the contacts application is interoperability that needs to happen on the iPhone. Instead, Apple relies on third-party applications to cover a lot of the bases that it skips.

Android offers far more flexibility and customization to the end user. iOS4 recently added the ability to pick wallpapers behind the home screen applications. Android has supported that from day one. Android also supports widgets. Widgets can be used to place controls directly at the fingertips of users rather than buried deep down in settings menus as on the iPhone. Android also supports shortcuts to performing certain actions. For example, users can place a shortcut on the home screen that with one press will call a specific contact from your database. Apple needs to take social networking more seriously. Its competitors do, and some have already outpaced Apple with innovations.


Apple has crafted a fine device. The iPhone 4 easily surpasses the iPhone 3G/3GS in terms of design, performance, and capabilities. Where Apple use to be the leader, however, it now has peers. Android, in particular, has caught up to iOS4 quickly and in many ways is superior. Research In Motion is set to debut its new operating system in the coming months. Under HP's ownership, surely Palm will kick out a heavily revised version of webOS by early 2011. Apple needs to make more drastic improvements to iOS5 if it wants to stay well ahead of the competition.

If you're looking for the best Web-browsing, best gaming, and best media consumption device, the iPhone 4 is the clear winner.