iPhone 4 Review: One Week Later

by Pedro Hernandez on June 30, 2010 · 0 comments

It’s the object of desire, having crashed AT&T’s and Apple’s ordering systems under the crush of 600,000 preorders and clearing 1.7 million units sold in just three days. But is the iPhone 4 worth all the drama, and more importantly, can you live with it once the newness has faded?

Look and Feel

No bones about it, iPhone 4 (32 GB black in this case) is a stunner and a minimalist’s dream.  The device’s internals are sandwiched between two slabs of jet black “engineered” glass and ringed by a band of stainless steel that doubles as an antenna for its many modes of radio communication (UMTS/HSDPA/HSUPA, GSM/EDGE, Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth 2.1).  Adding to its premium cachet are curved corners, separate metal volume/ringer loudness buttons (no rockers here) and a silent switch on the left side of the phone, and a metal lock phone button up top.

Also along the top is the headphone jack joined by a tiny noise-canceling microphone.  On the bottom is the familiar iPod/iPad/iPhone connector slot flanked on both sides by a microphone and speaker, both tucked behind metal grills, and two screws.  What’s on the right side? Apart from one of three seams that are bridged by black plastic, is a Micro-SIM slot.

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The grill material makes a reappearance on the iPhone’s front, right behind the ear speaker, giving it a neat and polished look.  To its left is the front-facing camera and the familiar home button is where it always is. The back has a 5 megapixel camera, smartly surrounded by a metallic ring. It’s joined by a tiny LED flash to the right. Otherwise, there’s a silver Apple logo and the various branding, model identifiers and certifications that, with no battery covers to hide them, are relegated to the back of the unit.

All told, it’s a beaut, but like most world-class models, it’s also high maintenance.  Have a microfiber cloth handy at all times, because it’s a fingerprint magnet both front and back. But such is the price you pay for such beauty.

In hand, the iPhone 4 feels unlike any other mobile device, which these days means it’s usually swathed in plastics, with perhaps a touch of metal and/or glass. Solid, well balanced and weighted, it has a reassuring amount of heft for its mere 0.37-inch (9.3 mm) thickness. And with no flexing or creaking to speak of, the iPhone exudes a sense that it was built to last, not just look good. More on that later, but for now, it hasn’t lost its luster even after a week.

Oh My Retinas!

If the iPhone’s build quality doesn’t impress you, its screen surely will. While some will bemoan the lack of an OLED screen, the LED backlit IPS LCD display is no slouch. At 3.5 inches, it’s smaller than many of the screens appearing on Android devices, but bigger isn’t necessarily better. With a resolution of 960 x 640, this translates into 326 pixels per inch. Apple calls it the “Retina Display,” alluding to a pixel density that according to Steve Jobs makes it hard for the human eye to perceive individual pixels (300 dpi+), unless you hold it to your eye, of course.  Whether or not it’s true, it sure seems like it to my eyes.

One touch of the home button, and you’re treated to a vibrant screen with smooth fonts and crisp graphics and icons. Even in direct sunlight it’s still very viewable if a little washed out. Performance-wise, it has no problem keeping up with screen transitions and video content. It was completely unfazed by Star Trek’s (2009) action-packed opening sequence. Photos look similarly crisp, and while it certainly isn’t good for your eyes, it’s easy to make out the text on miniaturized web pages in Safari before you even zoom in. However, there’s a downside.  Some apps haven’t been updated for the iPhone 4’s screen, meaning that some icons and artwork will look pixelated. By the same token, you’ll want to make sure that you download iPhone 4-specific wallpapers for backdrops that make the most of out of the screen.

One quirk I did notice however, is in its ambient light sensor. It operates with a bit of a lag, taking several long seconds to adjust on occasion.  It once kept a glaring level of brightness when I moved into a darkened room. This lasted for well over the time it should have taken to adjust (~1 minute), requiring a press of the phone lock button to reset its brightness. Overall however, if you hold the phone at a comfortable distance, it’s a fine display indeed. A week in, it continues to impress.

Features and Performance

The iPhone arrived this summer with a slew of new features. In addition to the higher resolution screen, there’s a laundry list of capabilities that are new to the iPhone, but it’s only fair to say, not exactly new to other smartphones. One such feature is multi-tasking. The iPhone can now launch an app while another is running in the background. So far, this only applies to running certain apps in the background like music and audio (Pandora) or GPS. So it’s not multitasking in the truest sense of the word, but for iPhone users that just want to stream some tunes while they surf the web, it’s a godsend.

The camera on the iPhone also got an upgrade to five megapixels. Not class-leading, but a decent pixel count that can make for some more than serviceable photos for sharing on Facebook or printing out as long as you keep the printing size realistic. Focusing is a snap (tap the screen) and the software shutter is quick to capture an image. As you can see in the examples below, it can shoot pretty sharp photos, though they’re a bit on the oversaturated and contrast-y side. The LED flash helps low-light situations, but as with most flashes of this type, expect your subjects to get a little washed out.
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As for video, it records 720p HD video, and if you decide to shell out $5 for the iMovie app, you can also make polished edits on the go. Another big feature is FaceTime. It basically allows for video calls by using the front-facing camera or rear camera but only works over Wi-Fi (on both ends) not 3G. And since it operates over Wi-Fi, it won’t eat into your plan’s minutes. Neat and simple, as Apple is wont to make their technology, but not exactly cutting edge.

The software is improved too. Now with “Folders” you can also group apps into a single icon to save some screen real estate and prevent having to page through icon-filled screens. This is accomplished by hovering an app’s icon over another icon, which opens up a little panel where you can name the folder and reorder apps. Another neat trick is how iOS 4 (what the iPhone’s operating system is now called) automatically labels similar groupings of apps, applying information obviously stored in metadata.

So far, the phone continues to performs well.  It’s snappy and launches apps quickly. Touch commands register as expected and without delay, and generally, anything you want to accomplish is a few short taps away. Screen transitions, as mentioned earlier, are smooth and seamless.

Don’t Touch Me That Way

Now for the bad news.  The “death grip” definitely exists. At first, it sounded like the start of a new urban legend for gadgets, but I was able to replicate the problem consistently. First, a little background: Soon after preorder deliveries began to arrive, some iPhone owners began to notice a problem. When the phone is gripped in a certain location, the bottom left corner to be exact, 3G signal strength drops. As you can see in the screenshot below, I’m down to two bars in my apartment in which I usually get a full signal.

iPhone 4 "Death Grip" - Picture

Personally, I haven’t suffered any dropped calls or painfully slow 3G connections (yet). But given the fragile nature of AT&T’s network and the many ways people handle their gadgets, the concern is not unfounded. Will Apple fix it? Can it? Let’s hope so.

Living with the iPhone 4

Now that the launch hysteria has passed, many users must be wondering what it’s like to live with the iPhone 4. Will it continue to delight?

As a device, Apple has engineered a winner. Sleek, powerful and multifunctional, the iPhone 4 is a great little smartphone. And after the initial spurt of customizing, downloading a handful of apps and tinkering with all the settings, the iPhone 4 becomes an unobtrusive and user-friendly mobile computing device that keeps you in touch, entertained and more. Battery life, another chief concern of mine, has held up well. After a day and a half of calls, texts, snapping photos and a session or two with DoodleJump, the battery indicator never dipped below 50 percent. It’s a good sign that it will survive all day for all but the most heavy users. All good things, but that’s not to say that it’s not without its limitations.

A big one is an antenna design that negatively impacts signal strength. Sure, it’s clever on paper and beautiful in the flesh, but flawed nonetheless. For a device that virtually invites people to constantly touch and hold it, Apple’s advice to not hold the iPhone 4 a certain way or purchase a case to alleviate the problem is contrary to the iPhone’s very reason for being.

Fortunately for Apple, owners will likely end up buying a case. Although my iPhone 4 survived two waist-high falls with nary a scratch (accidentally, I promise you), others haven’t been so lucky. Glass shatters, regardless of how its processed or tempered. Period. My two scares left me simultaneously relieved and rattled. Ultimately, it’s a shame that I won’t be rocking my iPhone 4 “naked” for very much longer, but it’s a good opportunity to customize the look of my phone, protect it and resolve the reception issue in one fell swoop.

Those critiques aside, Apple’s iPhone 4 is a keeper. It’s fast, fun and functional. And those that admire premium industrial design will find a lot to like as well. However, as Android’s ascendancy makes clear, the competition is closing in fast, and in some ways, surpassing Apple’s efforts. So in the context of the consumer-friendly smartphone market, the iPhone 4 isn’t as jawdropping as when its predecessors first caused mob scenes at Apple stores three years ago. Nonetheless, it’s a polished product that by both form and function earns a spot in a tech lover’s pocket or gadget bag. If like me, you make calls, text, consume the occasional bit of media, have a fondness for time wasters and update Twitter and Facebook on the go, then the iPhone 4 excels.

Bottom line: It’s a quality product that looks, feels and best of all performs the part.

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