The iPhone 4 is a major upgrade from its predecessor, the iPhone 3GS, in everything from the camera quality to data speeds.
Updated on September 9, 2010.
The Apple iPhone 4 ($199 for the 16GB model and $299 for the 32GB version, with a two-year contract from AT&T) is everything that a new piece of technology should be: It’s innovative, attractive, and ahead of its competition. In comparison, previous iPhone upgrades seem inconsequential–that’s how much iPhone 4 brings to the table. But two serious design flaws keep it from being perfect. Before there were fixes, we were hesistant to recommend the phone and therefore removed its rating. Now that both of these issues have been addressed and fixed, we have reinstated a rating for the iPhone 4 and put it back on our Top 10 Phones chart.
By now, you’ve probably heard all about the iPhone 4’s poorly placed antenna and dropped data speeds when the phone is held in a certain way. Apple addressed this issue in a press conference on July 16 and offered free cases to iPhone owners as a solution. This fix is a clumsy solution to the problem, but it does fix the dropped calls issue.
Perhaps a bigger issue was the phone’s faulty proximity sensor, which caused the phone to activate while you made a phone call. Before the fix, we accidentally sent e-mails with our cheeks, turned on FaceTime and muted the phone while on a call. Fortunately, the iOS 4.1 update, available on September 8, completely fixes the proximity sensor problem.
The iPhone 4’s look can be described in one word: stylish. Whereas the iPhone 3GS looks and feels plasticky, the iPhone 4 is svelte and has a premium feel. Surprisingly, it achieves that impression while retaining the same general design, although the edges appear a bit more squared than before.
It’s noticeably slimmer than the iPhone 3GS, measuring 0.37 inch deep versus the iPhone 3GS’s thickness of 0.48 inch (that translates to 24 percent less). The iPhone 4 is also slightly narrower, 2.31 inches to 2.44 inches. The weight stays the same at 4.8 ounces, but the tweaks to the dimensions make the iPhone 3GS seem almost blocky in comparison. (See all iPhone 4 specs.)
However, it’s the aesthetic design touches that make the iPhone 4 an upgrade from the 3GS. The overall design screams elegance–from the rounded, individual volume up and down buttons that replace the plastic volume rocker on the iPhone 3GS to the ring/silent switch and the power/sleep button up top. The face and back are made of glass that is specially treated to withstand scratches and oily fingers, according to Apple. Despite the company’s claims, though, I found that both the front and back of my review unit were ridden with fingerprints after only a couple of hours of use.
The side edging is stainless steel, and doubles as the device’s three cellular and wireless antennas. At the iPhone 4 launch, Steve Jobs proclaimed that this new design would improve wireless reception. Hooray, we thought–until we heard about its serious design flaw. When you hold a phone, you’re sometimes inclined to grip it by its edges. But if you hold the iPhone 4 by its edges, your fingers might block its antennas, thus seriously degrading the wireless connectivity. Senior Editor Mark Sullivan conducted a series of data tests around San Francisco to see how much the connectivity was affected by this, ahem, design fail. In the majority of his tests, he saw dramatic decreases in connectivity. Apple’s response to this problem? The company essentially suggests that users not hold the phone in that way.
Of course, the iPhone 4 isn’t just about cosmetic enhancements, pleasing as they are. What makes this phone such a technological improvement is what’s inside the handset.
Like its predecessor, the iPhone 4 has a 3.5-inch display. But the new phone’s screen doubles the resolution to a 960-by-640-pixel IPS display. At 326 pixels per inch, this is the highest resolution available on a phone to date.
That display truly makes a difference. Whereas the iPhone 3GS’s text–in the menus, in apps, or on Web pages–appears thick, fuzzy, and undefined, the iPhone 4’s text is razor sharp, even when enlarged (as we tried doing when viewing a PDF).
The new “Retina display“–so named because it surpasses the number of pixels that the human retina can process–also greatly improves the sharpness, clarity, and visible detail of images.
In both cases, we’d liken the magnitude of difference to that between a standard-definition 480p DVD and a high-definition 1080p Blu-ray Disc: When you view both on an HDTV, the differences are striking. And once you see them, you can’t go back.
The real value of the new display will become evident for people who spend time reading on the iPhone 4. We expect that the display will make reading a more pleasurable experience (although, clearly, limits will remain given the inherently modest screen size–modest, at least, as compared with handsets such as the HTC EVO 4G, which has a 4.3-inch screen, and with the much larger 9.7-inch iPad screen).
iOS 4: Best Features
The iPhone 4 uses Apple’s A4 CPU, the same processor powering the Apple iPad. It runs the newly renamed iOS 4 operating system (which the iPad will also use, starting in the fall).
As part of iOS 4, the iPhone 4 gains a bevy of capabilities. One of them–multitasking–is long overdue, but as with the long-awaited cut-and-paste feature, Apple delivers on the promise of making multitasking work smoothly.
You quickly double-tap on the home button to pull up a pane that shows which apps are open. From there, you can swipe horizontally through the apps that the iPhone 4 has retained in either a running or suspended state.
When you find the app you want, you just click on the icon. The app will then resume its activity, and, if written to take advantage of this new feature, it will pick up precisely where you left off. At the very least, reaccessing the app will be faster.
Equally as elegant as multitasking is Apple’s implementation of Folders, an increasingly necessary addition. To add icons into a folder, you simply drag one icon on top of another to create the folder, which automatically gets the name of the category those apps share–or, if you prefer, you can rename the folder on the spot. You can pack a maximum of 12 apps within a single folder (giving you three rows of four apps across the home screen). And, thanks to the addition of Folders, you can now add up to a maximum of 2160 apps.
Dramatic Camera Boost
The iPhone 4 brings much-desired camera and video recording advances, as well. The primary camera on the back bumps up from 3 megapixels to 5 megapixels, while retaining the same pixel size (which can further improve image quality). The camera also gains an LED flash, a backlit sensor, and an integrated 5X zoom. The camera now lets you shoot in high-def, at 720p, 30 frames per second; in addition, video gains the tap-to-focus feature already available on the still camera.
PCWorld’s testing methodology for the iPhone 4’s camera (as well three Android smartphones) was a truncated version of our regular testing methodology for point-and-shoot cameras. We affixed each phone to a tripod and shot two images with the flash turned off:
1. One still-life scene with a color chart and delightful random objects to rate exposure quality and color accuracy.
2. A target chart and printed text to evaluate sharpness and distortion levels.
Here’s evidence that megapixel counts rarely matter: Apple’s 5-megapixel iPhone 4 beat out the other smartphones we tested for overall image quality, serving up well-exposed, brightly colored images. However, the iPhone 4’s image quality did lag behind the competition in two categories, sharpness and visible distortion.
We tested the camcorder capabilities of the iPhone 4 (along with those same three Android smartphones) in the same way we test pocket digital camcorders. Lab Manager Tony Leung recorded a 1-minute video of a toy train and Ferris wheel to gauge several aspects of the video quality: smoothness of motion, color accuracy, and artifacting. We shot the same scene twice, with each device in the same tripod location at its highest video-quality setting–once in bright indoor lighting, and again with the overhead lights turned off and a floor lamp turned on behind the phone. Once we shot all of the footage, our panel of judges rated each clip for its overall quality.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get to fully test the front-facing camera, another addition to the iPhone 4. This camera is integral to Apple’s FaceTime videophone app, which works only for communicating between two iPhone 4 handsets.
Improved Voice and Data Over AT&T
Bad-sounding and dropped voice calls are one of the biggest gripes of iPhone users here in San Francisco. Fortunately, the iPhone 4’s new antenna seemed to improve the experience considerably. In almost all the test calls we placed around the city, calls on the iPhone 4 sounded better than calls on the new Motorola Droid X. Calls sounded more natural, and were more pleasing to listen to on the other end of the line. We recorded no dropped calls on AT&T.
In our informal performance testing in San Francisco, the AT&T-connected iPhone 4 registered an average download speed of 1958 kbps (almost 2 mbps) across our five testing locations in the city. In our head-to-head tests with the Motorola Droid X on Verizon, the iPhone 4 was the clear winner in speed. The two new devices posted similar average upload speeds; the iPhone 4 registered 434 kbps and the Droid X averaged 564 kbps. Those upload speeds are fast enough to support basic file sharing but not enough to make fat-pipe apps such as multiplayer gaming or videoconferencing run well.
iPhone 4: Worth the Upgrade?
The iPhone 4 is a must-have for anyone with an original iPhone or iPhone 3G (the former won’t get the iOS 4 upgrade at all, while the 3G won’t support some features). And people who have an iPhone 3GS will find this a worthy upgrade, too.
Unlike the previous jump, from the iPhone 3G to the 3GS–which focused on slight performance improvements–the iPhone 4 bolsters the hardware’s digital imaging capabilities and its display, making it a comprehensive and measurable upgrade over its predecessor.
But the iPhone 4 isn’t the only hot phone this summer–some enticing Android-powered smartphones are out there, as well. If you’re fed up with AT&T’s service issues or want to try something beyond the Apple universe, check out the HTC EVO 4G on Sprint, the Motorola Droid X on Verizon, and the Samsung Galaxy S phones coming to all four major carriers.
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