The iPhone 4 is a major upgrade from its predecessor, the iPhone 3GS, in everything from the camera quality to data speeds.
Retina display! 8-megapixel camera! Video calls! HDMI port! The last few days have seen lots of shouting from proponents of the hot phones of the minute, the Apple iPhone 4 and the Motorola Droid X. Which phone really delivers the best experience? We got our hands on both and tested them in seven categories: cost of ownership, storage, connection speeds, still and video image capture, display and resolution, operating system, and multitasking and media playback.
The iPhone 4 won the majority of our battles–but barely. Both phones are incredibly fast, have superb displays, and come loaded with multimedia features. Some of our tests, such as OS and media playback, come down to personal preference. On the other hand, our display, still camera, and camcorder tests clearly prove that the iPhone 4 is stronger in those categories. And the iPhone 4 won our data-speed and voice-quality tests, though they were confined to San Francisco; the results could be different in other parts of the country.
Soon, we’ll be putting the HTC EVO 4G and the Samsung Galaxy S through the same testing, so check back for those results.
Meet the Contenders
At this point, you’ve probably become pretty familiar with the iPhone 4 (available now on AT&T; $299 for 32GB, $199 for 16GB, both with a two-year contract) and the Motorola Droid X (available July 15 for $200 on Verizon, also with a two-year contract), but here’s a quick refresher. The Droid X’s standout features include a 4.3-inch display, an 8-megapixel camera, HDMI and DLNS connectivity, and a 1GHz TI OMAP processor. The iPhone 4’s headlining features include its “Retina display,” an improved 5-megapixel camera and a front-facing video camera for video calls, and HD (720p) video capture. To see how the specs stack up against each other, take a look at our comparison chart (click to enlarge).
Connectivity: Data Speeds and Voice Quality
The Stats: In the connectivity department, the Droid X and the iPhone 4 both come with Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth. What the Droid X can do and the iPhone 4 can’t is to act as a mobile hotspot. For an extra $20 per month, the Droid X allows you to connect up to five compatible Wi-Fi devices, such as your laptop, your iPad, or other gadgets, to Verizon’s network.
Both phones boast noise-cancellation technology, which is supposed to improve call quality by blocking sounds around you, leaving only your voice.
Testing Methodology: We tested the iPhone 4 and the Droid X in five San Francisco locations and used the same testing methodology we use for our 3G speed tests. We used the FCC-endorsed Ookla testing app on both the iPhone 4 and the Droid X to measure upload speeds and download speeds. The Ookla test sends a stream of packets from the phone to a network server and back, and then measures the average speeds at which the packets make the round trip. We ran three consecutive speed tests on each phone at each location and then picked the best upload and download speeds of the three. Our voice-call tests were more subjective; we placed calls to a common local number, listening for static, jitter, delay, dropped calls, or a failure to connect, and then assigned a score to each call.
Data Speed Winner: iPhone 4
In our informal performance testing in San Francisco, the AT&T-connected iPhone 4 registered far faster download speeds than the Verizon-connected Droid X did. The iPhone 4 showed an average download speed of 1958 kbps (almost 2 mbps) across our five testing locations in the city. The Droid X had an average download speed of 1130 kbps–still more than enough speed for reasonably fast Web browsing and standard-definition video watching. The two new devices posted similar average upload speeds; the iPhone4 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.
Voice Quality Winner: iPhone 4
The iPhone 4 showed an even greater advantage over the Droid X in our voice-call quality tests. In almost all the test calls we placed around the city, calls on the iPhone 4 sounded better than the 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 test calls using the Droid X, the audio coming out of the earphone was usually clear enough, but it didn’t sound as full and pleasing as that coming out of the iPhone 4. On the other end, I’m told, my voice sounded loud enough, but not as dynamic and even a bit shrill. We also noted some minor static on some calls, as well as a warbling sound in other calls. We recorded only one dropped call using the Droid X.
Obviously, you can’t generalize too much from these tests. We were able to test in only one city, and testing over wireless networks is inherently unpredictable–weather and network traffic can affect the results in unknown ways.
Total Cost of Ownership, Plus Storage
Let’s break down the cost of owning the phones. We looked at the most inexpensive voice and data plans as well as at the priciest plans for each phone to see how they compare. (Click the chart to enlarge.)
Our conclusion: With the cheapest options, Droid X costs about $360 more over two years than the 16GB iPhone 4 does, but the Droid X plan includes unlimited data, compared with 200MB for the iPhone 4.
With the high-end plan options for both smartphones, the Droid X costs $120 more over two years. The Droid X plan includes unlimited data, while the iPhone 4’s data is capped at 2GB per month (though, to be fair, few users will exceed the 2GB limit).
You should also consider how much storage you’re getting for your money. The iPhone 4 comes in only 16GB and 32GB models, as the previous 3GS generation did. As we all know too well, the iPhone 4 does not have expandable storage. The Droid X, on the other hand, has 8GB of storage built in, and comes with a 16GB MicroSD card in the box. And because the Droid X supports MicroSD cards up to 32GB, you can extend its storage up to 40GB.
Winner: Droid X
The total cost of ownership is not significantly more, and you get a larger data allowance and the potential for more storage capacity.
The Specs: The iPhone 4 sports a 5-megapixel camera sensor with an LED flash, which is a nice upgrade from the iPhone 3GS’s 3-megapixel camera with no flash. The camera supports tap-to-focus in shooting mode, as well as photo geotagging.
On paper, the Droid X’s camera seems a bit stronger. It has an 8-megapixel display with a dual-LED flash. The Droid X offers no tap-to-focus, but it does have a face-detection feature that will automatically focus on a (human) subject. In addition to an Auto mode, the Droid X has a handful of basic scene modes that you can adjust based on the shooting environment: Landscape, Portrait, Macro, Sports, Steady Shot, Sunset, and Night Portrait.
Testing Methodology: PCWorld’s testing methodology for the iPhone 4 and Droid X cameras 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 are the still-life shots from the iPhone 4 (left) and Droid X (click to enlarge).
Below are the text and target charts, again with the iPhone 4 on the left (click to enlarge).
Winner: iPhone 4
Here’s evidence that megapixel counts rarely matter: Apple’s 5-megapixel iPhone 4 beat out the Droid X for overall image quality in our tests, serving up well-exposed, brightly colored images in our lab tests. However, the iPhone 4’s image quality did lag behind the competition in two categories: sharpness and visible distortion. The 8-megapixel Droid X scored closely behind the iPhone 4 in all tests, however, and even beat the iPhone 4 in our sharpness tests.
The Specs: Both the iPhone 4 and the Droid X boast HD (720p) video recording up to 30 frames per second with audio. The iPhone’s tap-to-focus for still photos also works with video. And of course, the iPhone 4 also has a front-facing video camera; switching between the two cameras is as simple as tapping an icon in the upper-right corner. The Droid X’s camcorder has three microphones and allows you to choose from four different audio recording modes: Everyday, Outdoors, Narrative, and Subject. You can also use the flash as a light if you’re recording at night or in a dark environment. The Droid X has a handful of shooting effects, too, such as a sepia tint, black and white, and negative.
Testing Methodology: We tested the camcorder capabilities of the iPhone 4 and Droid X in the same way we test pocket digital camcorders. Lab Manager Tony Leung records 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 shoot the same scene twice, with each camera 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 camera. Once we’ve shot all of the footage, our panel of judges rates each clip for its overall quality. We also play an audio clip through speakers in the scene to determine how well each camera picks up sound.
Winner: iPhone 4
The iPhone 4 walloped the Droid X in our camcorder tests. It scored significantly higher in our video tests shot in regular lighting and our tests shot in low light. The Droid X and iPhone 4 earned identical scores for audio quality, however. Overall, the iPhone 4 received an overall word score of Good while the Droid X posted an overall word score of Fair for video quality.
Display and Resolution
The Specs: The iPhone 4 has a 3.5-inch, 960-by-640-pixel screen with “Retina display” technology. What, you might ask, is a “Retina display”? According to Steve Jobs, it’s a display that has a resolution that either meets or exceeds the maximum resolution that the human retina is capable of resolving, assuming perfect vision. But some debate has arisen over whether the iPhone 4’s display is a true retina display; read what one expert at DisplayMate had to say about Apple’s claims.
The Motorola Droid X sports a 4.3-inch screen–a whole 1.2 inches larger than the iPhone 4’s display. But its resolution is lower, at 854 by 480 pixels.
Testing Methodology: I did some side-by-side comparisons. I set both phones to their maximum brightness setting and loaded PCWorld.com on both. I placed the two handsets side by side, and didn’t zoom in at all. I asked various PCWorld editors to look at the text and pick which display was more readable. You can judge for yourself with the photo below–the iPhone 4 is the smaller display at top. (Click to enlarge.) Keep in mind, though, that the differences are more marked and easier to see in person.
Winner: iPhone 4
The bigger the better? Not in this head-to-head. The contrast in quality between the iPhone 4’s display and the Droid X’s was astounding. Text on the iPhone 4 appears sharper, the white background is brighter, and the black text is blacker than on the Droid X. Because the text without zooming is barely legible on the Droid X, we’re guessing that the Droid X’s browser does not perform subpixel rendering. I do like the Droid X’s extra screen real estate, especially when it comes to browsing and video watching, but there’s no arguing that the iPhone 4 has a sharper, brighter display.
Operating System: iOS 4 vs. Android 2.1 With Motoblur
The Specs: The iPhone 4 ships with iOS 4, the latest version of the iPhone operating system. Aesthetically, iOS 4 looks similar to iOS 3, but it has a couple of major new features. The biggest update, of course, is the addition of multitasking. We’ve covered iOS 4 extensively since its announcement, but take a look at our breakdown of its best features.
Unfortunately, the Droid X does not run the latest iteration of Android, version 2.2 (aka Froyo). You’re stuck with 2.1 until later this summer, when the 2.2 update arrives for the Droid X (and, we hope, other Android phones on Verizon). The biggest difference between 2.1 and 2.2 is a boost in performance.
The Droid X has Motorola’s custom skin, Motoblur, running over Android. Other than making Android a little easier on the eyes, this version of Motoblur features two widgets that can show the latest updates to your social networks, such as Facebook or Twitter. Another new feature is a navigation bar that lets you quickly switch between your various home screens without having to flick through all of them to get to what you want.
Testing Methodology: Opinions about most aspects of phone OSs are extremely subjective. Some Android phone owners find iOS simplistic and limited. Many iPhone owners think Android is messy and unappealing. So trying to deliver a verdict on the OSs as a whole is a fool’s errand.
But we did look closely at multitasking, an emerging area where it’s easier to compare the two approaches. And the comparison is striking.
Apple’s approach is typically, well, Apple-like. Apple has more control over the multitasking experience–only apps that have been designed and approved for multitasking will work. And at the moment, the number of apps that support multitasking is extremely limited.
But the interface is smooth and intuitive. You double-tap on the home button to call up the multitasking bar, which appears at the bottom of the menu screen just up from the home button. The bar shows four icons across the bottom of the screen at a time, with the most recently opened apps starting at the left; you flick your finger left to right to scroll through the other icons (the one farthest right being the app you opened the earliest). If you want to close an app out of memory, you press and hold the app’s icon, and then click the red circle with a dash.
The Android approach is more wide open, but harder to navigate. Android keeps other apps actually running in the background, and not just in a suspended state as iOS 4 does. For example, in Android a Web page might continue drawing, even after you have left the browser to do so something else.
To see your open apps, you can press and hold the home button. But wait–you can view only six open apps at a time. Unfortunately, the only way to see all of the apps running at any given time is to dig down, into Settings, Applications, Manage applications. Once there, you must then scroll down to Controls and press Force stop to close the app.
You can, however, download a third-party app, such as Advanced Task Killer, to make viewing and closing open apps easier. For some users, this might be a burden–why can’t you view all of your open apps simply by pressing a button, à la iOS 4? On the other hand, some users enjoy having this sort of control and customization over their phone, and the Android platform’s openness certainly allows that.
It really comes down to personal preference.
The Specs: According to Apple, the iPhone 4 has an audio frequency response of 20Hz to 20,000Hz. It supports AAC, Protected AAC (DRM-protected content from iTunes), HE-AAC, MP3, Audible, Apple Lossless, and WAV. As for video, the iPhone 4 supports H.264 video up to 720p, MPEG-4, and Motion JPEG formats.
The Droid X supports MIDI, MP3, WAV, AAC, AAC+, and eAAC+ audio files. It supports HD playback via its HDMI and DLNA ports, as well as H.263, H.264, MPEG-4, and WMA video formats.
Testing Methodology: I didn’t have time to run PCWorld’s audio tests to judge the audio quality of the Droid X and iPhone 4, so I did some very casual testing. I loaded the same MP3 on both phones (“Fazer” by Quicksand) and listened with my own V-Moda Remix Remote earbuds. I also played the song back through the external speakers on each phone, and I asked my PCWorld colleagues to give their feedback for the song on each handset.
Video was tougher to test subjectively. I couldn’t compare YouTube videos fairly, because the iPhone 4 does not have the HQ feature in YouTube (on the Droid X’s YouTube app, the HQ feature enables you to watch better-quality videos if they are available). Even so, I compared the same Despicable Me trailer on YouTube on both phones. I also had a hard time finding one H.264 file that would play back on both phones. I downloaded a few trailers via iTunes and rented a couple of HD movies to play on the iPhone 4. On the Droid X, I downloaded a few H.264-format movie trailers from H264info.com. For whatever reason, I couldn’t get the Blockbuster application on the Droid X to work, so I couldn’t rent any feature-length movies.
Winner: Droid X for Audio,Draw for Video
It was a close call, but my colleagues and I unanimously picked the Droid X over the iPhone 4 for better sound quality. Bass sounded deeper, while vocals sounded crisper and richer over the Droid X. We noted a slight tinny quality during playback over the iPhone 4, but everyone agreed that its sound quality was still quite good.
Video was harder to judge, since I couldn’t play the exact same file on both phones. When HQ is available, video playback via YouTube on the Droid X blows the iPhone 4 out of the water. If you watch a lot of YouTube videos, this is something you might want to consider. Then again, downloading movies onto the iPhone 4 via iTunes, directly on the phone, was incredibly easy; using a third-party Website like H264info.com is risky, not to mention time consuming. Playback on both phones was smooth, with no stuttering, pausing, or pixelation. And though the video quality looked better on the iPhone 4 (see our displays comparison), I really appreciated the larger screen for video on the Droid X. My eyes felt more comfortable watching videos on the larger screen, where faces and objects are larger (though not higher resolution). On the iPhone 4’s 3.5-inch display, I had to strain my eyes a bit.
Senior editors Tim Moynihan and Mark Sullivan contributed to this report.
When you purchase through links in our articles, we may earn a small commission. This doesn't affect our editorial independence.