MASSIVE APC REVIEW: iPhone 4

MASSIVE APC REVIEW: iPhone 4


Note: this review was done on an iPhone 4 locked to AT&T so we weren’t able to test all of the features on Australian mobile networks (notably the telephony side of it!).

Since its inception the iPhone has been the benchmark that every other smartphone is measured against spawning dozens of copy-cat devices that have never been quite as good as the real thing. With the iPhone 4 Apple has set the bar even higher and despite stiff competition from the Android camp it’s still very much at the top of its game.

[#PAGE-BREAK#The famous Retina display#]

The capacitive multi-touch screen that Apple debuted with the original iPhone revolutionised the way users interacted with a mobile device. But now that those technologies are readily available on other devices Apple has had to come up with another way to differentiate the iPhone’s display.

Enter the iPhone 4′s ‘Retina’ display. This isn’t a fancy marketing term – it’s actually the name given to a display with a pixel density that out-resolves the ability of your eye to make out individual pixels. Apple achieved this by giving the iPhone 4 a 960 x 640 pixel resolution – the highest that’s ever been available on a smartphone. Paired with the same 3.5in screen of its predecessor the iPhone 4 now has a pixel density of 326ppi (pixels per inch) which is almost double that of the iPhone 3GS.

Guess which screen is the iPhone 4?

This doesn’t result in any additional screen space like it would on a PC – instead everything gets allocated four times as many pixels making text icons and graphics incredibly clear and sharp. The resolution boost is mainly an aesthetic difference although the extra detail means you can read the text on a desktop-formatted webpage without having to zoom in.

Apple has also upgraded the display to an IPS (in plane switching) LCD panel resulting in a wider viewing angle of 178 degrees and better colour accuracy. While it looks dimmer next to the iPhone 3GS indoors it’s much more legible in direct sunlight.

[#PAGE-BREAK#Back and front glass -- updated design#]

The curved sides and well-rounded rear of the 3G and 3GS have been replaced with hard edges and a completely flat back on the iPhone 4. It’s like Apple took a paring knife to the 3GS and trimmed all the excess fat from around the sides and back. This means the iPhone 4 doesn’t hug the hand as nicely as a 3GS but it does have a pleasing heft that makes it seem more solid and substantial (in a good way) – despite weighing only a couple of grams more at 137g. Like the 3G and 3GS before it it’s available in black or white but the latter colour now extends to the bezel on the front as well.

The 9.3mm depth officially makes the iPhone 4 the skinniest smartphone available. Apple achieved this feat by relocating the antennas to the outside in a stainless steel band that runs the perimeter of the phone with black antenna notches on either side of the home button and one on the top next to the headphone jack. Unfortunately this doesn’t appear to have been the best design choice as users are reporting a loss of signal reception when it’s gripped a certain way. We’ll come back to this later.

Another questionable design choice lies in the materials that Apple used for the iPhone 4. The 3GS had a glass front and plastic back and while many users experienced a shattered screen after dropping it (this writer included) the back always remained relatively unscathed. On the iPhone 4 both the front and back are aluminosilicate glass panels that according to the Apple website are “chemically strengthened to be 20 times stiffer and 30 times harder than plasticâ€. Be that as it may numerous users online have reported both front and backplates shattering on impact suggesting that the iPhone 4 is actually more fragile than its predecessor.

There have been minor changes to the iPhone 4′s button layout. The volume controls on the left hand side are now two discrete circular buttons that stick out more prominently than the 3GS’s volume rocker and the SIM card slot (which now uses a smaller microSIM like the iPad) has been relocated to the middle of the right hand side. A new noise-cancelling microphone sits on top next to the headphone jack and this works in tandem with the main microphone at the bottom to cancel out background noise. The other new additions are the front-facing VGA camera next to the earpiece and a small LED flash next to the camera which we cover in more detail below.

[#PAGE-BREAK#Five-megapixel stills#]

At long last the iPhone has a camera worth using! Apple has gone all out on the iPhone 4 not only upgrading the resolution to five megapixels but also equipping it with an LED flash 720p HD video recording and a secondary front-facing camera for self-portraits and video calls.

Of course better image quality relies on more than just a boost in resolution especially since most cameraphones achieve this by shoehorning more pixels onto the same tiny chip. The iPhone 4′s camera chip has been made bigger to accommodate the extra pixels with each pixel measuring 1.75 µm (typical compact cameras have a pixel pitch of around 2 µm). The new backside illuminated sensor which is more sensitive to light than a standard front-illuminated sensor also gives it a leg up on low-light performance.

The LED flash is less impressive compared to the Xenon flash that we’ve tested on other high-end cameraphones. It illuminates objects that are up to a couple of feet away but like other LED flashes it’s about as subtle as a jackhammer and it’ll blow out skin tones and other colours in your shot.

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Unfortunately there’s no way to adjust the colour temperature using white balance settings – as there are none. Nor are there any other camera settings to tinker with like scene modes red eye reduction ISO or exposure. Apple has kept things as simple as it did on the iPhone 3GS with most of these settings automatically set – the only new additions are a flash setting (off on and auto) a button for switching from the back to the front camera and a five times digital zoom. As with the 3GS you can selectively focus on one part of the frame by tapping on it.

[#PAGE-BREAK#HD video recording#]

Apple has taken big strides on the video recording front going from no recording on the 3G to VGA recording on the 3GS and finally both 720p HD recording and VGA recording using the back and front cameras on the iPhone 4. The tap-to-focus feature is available at any time while you’re recording and if you trigger the LED flash it stays on until you switch it off again.

The video quality is almost as good as that of other compact HD camcorders like the Flip Mino HD and what it lacks in fine detail and audio quality it makes up for with its tap-to-focus larger built-in memory and the ability to edit clips and send them off directly from the device. Like the Flip it records video in H.264 at 30 frames per second.

Video editing hasn’t seen any change from iPhone OS 3.2 – you’re limited to trimming the start and end of the clip and uploading it to email MMS MobileMe or YouTube. For more editing features you’ll need to cough up US$4.99 for Apple’s new iMovie app. The only way to get the videos off the iPhone at the full 720p quality is by exporting them to your PC or Mac using an image manager like iPhoto or Windows Photo Viewer or using a third party app like Pixelpipe. If you send a video via email or MMS or upload them to MobileMe or YouTube iOS4 automatically compresses it a smaller 568 x 320 resolution. Our 30-second test clip originally 42MB was shrunk down to a 3MB file when we sent it by email.

[#PAGE-BREAK#Multimedia playback#]

It’s a shame that Apple hasn’t bumped up the maximum storage capacity on the iPhone 4 to 64GB especially given its 720p video recording capabilities and support for 720p movies. As it is you can pick between 16GB and 32GB capacities and once again there’s no memory card expansion slot for adding more memory.

There are subtle differences in the speaker audio quality between the iPhone 3GS and 4 – the former has a brighter sound and clearer high-end and mid-range while the iPhone 4 has better bass response at the expense of distortion in the treble. With headphones on the quality is a closer match although the iPhone 4 has a slight edge with a warmer and more full-bodied sound.

The Retina screen makes a big difference to watching videos on the iPhone 4 although it really comes into its own when you watch them in high definition. We downloaded an episode of The Office in HD from iTunes and the clarity and detail was simply extraordinary – on the same level as a high-end HDTV. Of course the HD video takes up a lot more space – the 21-minute episode of The Office in HD took up 754MB while the standard definition version was only 359MB.

[#PAGE-BREAK#System performance and battery life#]

Apple has been a bit cagey about the system specs of the iPhone 4. The official specs state that it has an A4 processor like the Apple iPad but there’s no mention of clock speed or RAM. According to the MacRumors website however Apple confirmed at one of the developer sessions at the WWDC that it had 512MB of RAM which is double the amount that’s available in the 3GS and the iPad.

The 3GS was no slouch in the performance department but the iPhone 4 is just that little bit faster at doing everything. Connected to the same wireless network it loaded the APCmag.com webpage two seconds faster and it also had a two-second lead in cold booting into iOS 4 at 30 seconds. Opening a large program like TomTom Australia was also a couple of seconds faster. But it’s not zippier at everything – tasks like turning the screen on returning to the home screen opening system apps and bringing up the multitasking dock are equally fast on the iPhone 4 and a 3GS running iOS4.

The biggest controversy currently surrounding the iPhone 4 is the antenna issue. Numerous users have reported that holding the iPhone in a way that covers both antenna notches at the bottom (which you’d typically do if you’re holding it with your left hand) causes a significant loss in signal reception. This method of holding it has now been dubbed “the death gripâ€. Apple denied there was an issue at first but an email apparently sent from Steve Jobs regarding this issue apparently had him declare that it was a non-issue and to “just avoid holding it in that wayâ€. This was followed by an official Apple statement saying that it wasn’t a problem exclusive to the iPhone 4 and that “gripping any phone will result in some attenuation of its antenna performance.â€

We’ve get to give the death grip a try ourselves as our test iPhone 4 is currently locked to AT&T. We’ll update this review once we’ve unlocked it or the iPhone 4 is released in Australia – whichever comes first. On the same note we’re going to save our battery tests for when we can do a real-world test that includes phones calls and 3G web access.

[#PAGE-BREAK#iOS 4#]

And then there’s Apple’s freshly-baked iOS 4 operating system. The user interface hasn’t changed dramatically on the face of it – it still has the same lock screen a springboard that supports multiple home screens and a Spotlight search that’s available by sliding the home screen to the right.

But there are fundamental changes that make it easier to move between apps and organise your email and shortcuts. Apple has introduced a modified version of multi-tasking in iOS4 that lets certain categories of app run in the background (namely VoIP GPS and audio) and every other app use the new fast app switching feature for returning to each app in exactly the same state that you left it. This is facilitated by a new dock that appears when you double-click the Home button which shows all of the last apps that you’ve opened.

So what happened to the old iPod control box that used to appear when you double-clicked the Home button? That’s still there. If you flick the multi-tasking dock to the right you’ll see iPod controls the name of the currently playing track and a shortcut to the iPod app. To the left of the iPod controls is an orientation lock similar to the hardware one found on the Apple iPad – tap this and the screen will lock to whatever orientation it’s currently in.

Apps need to be rewritten to support multi-tasking and fast app switching. While many of the audio and GPS apps have been updated to run in the background Skype is yet to release an iOS 4-compatible version.

Another new feature that speeds things is support for app folders. Now instead of flicking through page after page to find an app you can group up to 12 apps into a folder to make them easier to find.

Of the dozens of other new features and improvements in iOS 4 the other three we’ve found to be immediately useful are the updated email client updated Photos app and wallpaper support for the home screen. Mail has been updated with a unified inbox so you can see messages from all email accounts in a single area – a welcome improvement given how fiddly it used to be to move between email account inboxes. The client now supports email threading as well so all related messages are grouped together in a single screen. Finally multiple Exchange accounts are now supported.

The updated Photos app now has Events Faces and Places tabs at the bottom of the screen (in addition to Albums) so you can navigate through your photo library in different ways. The Events and Faces tabs will only show up if you’re syncing events/projects and tagged photos from compatible apps like iPhoto and Aperture.

If you’re tired of the same black home screen background that every other iPhone owner has you’ll be pleased to know that the iOS 4 now supports wallpaper for the home screen as well as the lock screen.

[#PAGE-BREAK#iPhone 4 availability in Australia#]

Apple has opted for a staggered release with the iPhone 4. It was released on 24 June 2010 in the US Germany France Japan and the UK and will be available in Australia “by the end of July†along with 17 other countries. The rest of the world gets its hands on it throughout August and September.

None of the local carriers have announced pricing or plans yet although Vodafone Optus Three Telstra and Virgin Mobile all have registration pages for expressing your interest.