Review: iPhone 4

Review: iPhone 4

June 29th, 2010 by


By now you have either had a few days to play with your new iPhone 4, or a few days to tell all of your friends that the iPhone 4 is stupid and you wouldn’t want one anyway (at least until your pre-ordered unit arrives sometime in late July). Either way the iPhone 4 is here and has utterly demolished the pre-sales records for its prior generation cousin the 3GS, which you have to admit is pretty awe-inspiring.

I almost forgot: you can have wallpaper on your home screen now!

You’ve probably already read a review or five of Apple’s latest money press, but most reviews just after launch were based on having some hands on a unit for a day or two at most. I’ve been fondling mine for a week or so now (it arrived in the mail the day before retail launch, thank you Fedex!) so I thought I’d share my real-world experiences with the rest of you.


You probably already know the thumbnail sketch of the latest wonder-phone, but I’ll do a quick run through just to get everyone up to speed:

  • 2 cameras – 5MP on the back and VGA on the front, which is primarily used for…
  • Facetime, Apple’s proprietary video chat app. I know Apple claims that it’s based on open standards, but I’ll cover that in more detail below.
  • Rear-facing LED flash
  • 720p video capture (and VGA output via an accessory purchase)
  • iOS4 – more on that below
  • 802.11n WiFi capable
  • Faster processor (rumored to be the same chip used in the iPad)
  • More memory (rumored to be double the 256M included in the iPad
  • 960×480 Retina Display (again, more on that below)
  • A gyroscope!

First Impressions

The first thing you notice when you open the box is how different the new iPhone looks from the older models. It’s square, flat, thinner than the 3GS, and there’s the new dot on the front face for the Facetime camera. When you pick it up for the first time you may feel a bit like you’re picking up a space brick made of glass and aluminum. It’s radical new design (radically different from the old iPhone designs, anyway) gives it a solid feeling in your hands, while the metal and glass construction make you feel like you’re holding something from another planet. Activation is easy if this is your first iPhone, you simply hook it up your computer and follow the prompts in iTunes. If you are migrating from another iPhone the prepare to spend a couple hours not just activating but migrating all of your old data, photo, videos, apps, and music. It kind of kills the new iPhone buzz.

The next thing you’ll notice is the beauty and crispness of the display, it truly is sharper and clearer than any mobile display you’ve ever seen. The iPhone 4 is also noticeably faster than any smartphone on the market, even the latest high-end Android phones that I’ve played around with. Every action is smooth and instantaneous, especially when you factor in the new app-switcher and multitasking features in iOS4 and the ability to categorize apps into folders on your home screen.

The phone feels solid in your hand, like every square centimeter of space inside is packed with… something important, I’m sure. You may also unfortunately feel like I do, which is that it is so densely packed with glass and goodness that one little drop to the floor will utterly demolish it. I have however dropped it at least twice so you can lay that fear to rest, if I do finally destroy it I’ll update this review and let you know.

Hardware & Performance

With its faster processor and greater memory, the device is definitely faster than its predecessor and even faster than the iPad (which kind of makes your iPad feel a bit inadequate). The new, higher resolution camera is coupled with a larger internal light sensor that supposedly gathers more light, and the

See the whiz-bang new camera features: zoom, flash, and swap cameras.

difference shows. Pictures taken with the rear-facing camera are more vibrant and sharper than older iPhone models. The new LED flash is also a welcome addition to the hardware spec, at least giving you the option to take pictures when out on the town (though they come out about as well as can be expected with a camera-phone and LED flash).

As I mentioned before, the new iPhone is fast. Large apps (mostly games) will take less than half the time to load as before, snapping pictures is almost instantaneous (there is basically no discernible shutter lag at all), and web pages render much faster (subject to your internet speed, of course). I’ve also noticed that the built-in speakers seem much louder than my 3GS, though the quality of sound itself hasn’t necessarily improved much.

The major hardware change that everyone is talking (and arguing) about is the extension of the antennae to the outside of the device itself. The different antennae are arranged as three aluminum bands around the outside of the iPhone, lending it an old-fashioned squarish look and giving it a solid frame to surround its considerable heft.

The Retina Display is also a popular argument topic. Steve Jobs stated in his WWDC keynote that when held at a standard distance (around 12″) the human retina does not have the resolution to discern pixels on the iPhone’s display. In everyday terms, this means that the new display resolution is amazing. The most notable difference is in the resolution of text: if an app uses Apple’s text rendering technology then no update is needed to take advantage of this new feature. Text is noticeably more readable on the iPhone 4 without even having an older iPhone to compare it to. Even a week later I’m pleased every time I browse my RSS feeds or read my book in the Kindle app.

With the new antennae arrangement comes a promise of better call quality (or at least better call reliability). In the week that I’ve had mine I’ve only experienced one dropped call, and that was in an area known to have very poor cell quality for AT&T and while in a call with another AT&T user. I haven’t kept detailed records of my dropped call history but it does seem that this phone is performing better than my old one.

Other than that the device is very familiar: you plug in headphones on the top, where there is also a power button. The dock connector and speakers are on the bottom. The volume buttons and ringer switch are on the left as you hold the device in your hand. The only other notable change is that the SIM card slot has been moved to the right-hand side.


The iPhone hardware changing every June is a given; the real substantial difference this summer is the launch of iOS4. It includes notable features that people have been clamoring for practically since the iPhone’s launch: multitasking and app folders. Those two features are also available on the 3GS if you choose to update to iOS4. Facetime is included in iOS4 only for the iPhone 4.

Folders are handled intuitively and work well: you simply tap and hold an

A folder, with some apps inside it.

icon until they wiggle and jiggle, then drag an app icon on top of another to create a new folder for them. By default the folder is named after the category of the dragged app, but you have the option to change this as well. When tapping a folder it slides open like a drawer, showing you the apps inside. A nice touch is that the folder icons on the home screen give you tiny previews of the apps contained inside, giving you a quick idea of what’s in there so you’re not playing hunt-and-peck with your app icons.

Multitasking is not handled exactly the same as in a Windows Mobile or Android phone. Apps are not truly running constantly in the background; instead, developers are given a specific set of APIs that allow them to have certain tasks continue to run in the background after leaving an app. For instance, in Dropbox or Evernote you could start an item uploading or downloading, then leave the app to do something else; or the best example yet, you can listen to music in Pandora while performing other tasks.

Now when double-tapping the Home button a drawer slides open at the bottom of the screen, showing you your most recent apps.

The last four apps I've used...

This works on any screen in any app. A quick swipe to the right will show you music controls and the orientation lock button. Good news for Pandora (or other music app) fans: the music controls work on the iPod as well as Pandora, depending on what app is currently playing the audio.

Now for the glamour app, Facetime. At first I thought this was the app I wanted with me on my cross-country road trip, so that I could have left my laptop at home. Unfortunately it’s not quite ready for prime time.

The idea is simple: you start a phone call and then tap the Facetime button to initiate a video call. You can switch between both cameras during the call, which is nice, but you can only place the video call over WiFi, which is not. Another problem is that currently Facetime only works from iPhone 4 to iPhone 4, so you better start talking your family and friends into buying them.

The Facetime app is based on standards in use throughout the video calling industry, though not “open” standards as Steve Jobs stated in his keynote. I’m assuming (more like hoping) that other software vendors start putting in the tools necessary to connect to iPhone 4 users from desktop and web-based software, but for now it’s strictly between iPhone 4 handsets and WiFi only.

... and a quick swipe brings you music controls and the orientation lock.


I have only a “Cons” section, since you’ve no doubt noticed that this entire review is more or less “Pro” iPhone 4.

  • Antenna issues – The external antenna array is causing problems for a lot of users, because of the issue with bridging the connections between different antennae while holding the device. You can get around this by holding it differently (Apple’s suggestion, naturally) or by simply getting a case for the device. One thing about getting a case: they’re all backordered too, until mid-July. I don’t have one yet either and there are a couple dings on my phone to show for it.
  • Facetime – I covered this a bit already, but the main issues with Facetime are that it’s currently WiFi only and iPhone 4 only.
  • Weird blank email – I’ve had on several occasions an issue where emails show up as blank on the iPhone email client. Luckily, with multitasking came the ability to kill running apps (tap and hold an app in the quick launch tray, you get the wiggly apps, then you tap the red icon to kill a running app), which is what I have to do each time this happens to get my readable email back. It’s strange and annoying, but doesn’t happen too often and is easy to fix.
  • Battery life – Though the battery life on this one seems better than my old 3GS, I think we all need to face facts: when you use a powerful smartphone that is basically a pocket computer, battery life is generally the first thing to go in the face of raw power. We can probably only pick one or the other. There’s just not a lot of room inside those little cases for big batteries.
  • The higher resolution camera means photos take much longer to save to the Camera Roll. What used to be instant now takes a few seconds.


There are a handful of other features that I haven’t touched on here, including camera enhancements like digital zoom, as well as the new gyroscope. In the case of the digital zoom it’s because you should avoid digital zoom like the plague in all cases and I wish that it could be taken out, while I simply have not had a chance to play a game that uses the new gyroscope’s capabilities.

The bottom line here is that if you’re an iPhone lover you will love this phone, though if you have a 3GS and the iOS4 update you won’t be missing any features except the Retina display and Facetime. I found that my old 3GS actually runs faster with the new iOS4.

Non-iPhone users may find that this is the model that actually wins them over: it’s the first iPhone that’s  felt to me to really have caught up with what the rest of the phone industry is doing with their handsets, and it’s only taken four iterations in which to do so.

iPhone haters can move along: it’s definitely a better phone than the prior models, but the same basic formula is in effect. If you don’t like the old iPhones than you probably won’t like this either.

The iPhone brand overall is easy and fun to use, and the iPhone 4 adds new hardware and software features that simply make it an even more enjoyable phone to have.

  • btrebelc

    Wow, stellar review. Thanks for doing this!

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