iPhone 4 Review

How can a flawed iPhone be the best yet? Here's how:

***

iPhone 4 Review

I'm at dinner. The waitress is slow to take our order. I don't mind. I reach into my pocket for the iPhone 4. It seems like the fifth time I'm doing this tonight. It's probably the fifteenth.

It's nearly impossible to tell which side is the front. Both are slippery and oleophobic and smudged by fingerprints—flat, delicate and hard. I respond in cursory agreement to whatever it is my wife just said. My mind's too busy concentrating on fingertip sensations, maneuvering so the screen faces the right way when it emerges from its hiding place.

Success. Slide to unlock. One bar again. Once I pull it out of my pocket, the reception returns. I've never seen this issue with the three previous iPhones.

I wait a few seconds as the iPhone's antenna adjusts to freedom from the confines of my pants and hand. Then I realize there wasn't anything I needed to look at. It's a reflex at this point, like John Marston reaching for his gun.

I slide the phone back in my pocket.

* * *

The screen is the first thing I notice, naturally, because it's the one thing I couldn't test when I saw the phone back in April.

Cramming more pixels into a smaller space is the opposite of what Apple did with the iPad, which uses a relatively low amount of pixels in a large space. So why do both displays look so fantastic?

The iPhone 4 has so many more pixels that I can't see them individually with the naked eye. When I try I can just begin to defocus my eyes when the phone comes too close to my face. It's the one thing iPhone 4 users should be proud of, provided they're not one of the unlucky few with yellow spots or white dots.

Then frustration and practicality set in. Why are there more pixels if I can't see more stuff on the screen? Why are there the same same seven rows of text messages and eight rows of items in the iPod app I saw three years ago when there are four times as many pixels? Photos and videos are great, and text is sharp, but UI elements need to be updated. Only having five emails simultaneously visible is a shame on this screen. At least give me the option.

But the display itself is still better. It has more pixels in a smaller space than all the other phones I've ever used. It's sharp. Tiny text is readable, and everything is just better. I take it outside. It's no brighter, or more visible in the sun, but everything looks great. What more could I ask from a screen?

When looking at the screen, I get the same sensation I do when finishing the last slice of ice cream cake: I want more of it. My 30-inch Dell, my 63-inch Samsung and my 27-inch iMac all have more pixels, but my first thought when seeing them was look how big. When I see the iPhone's screen, it was wow, everything is so clear. Now give me bigger and clearer.

* * *

The phone glimmers from the reflectiveness of exposed glass. No more plastic. Much more aluminum. It looks and feels...more breakable.

As something carried around nearly at all times, I understand the need for a case. People drop things. Keys are absentmindedly shoved, thrown and scraped across its surface. Phones need to be set down. But the iPhone is in more danger of being irreparably damaged than its predecessors. Many previously fine resting surfaces are now verboten. A case might now be mandatory.

iPhone 4 Review

Yet to acquire a case would admit defeat. This aesthetic—industrial glass and steel—was meant to be the iPhone's public face. It was never supposed to be stifled by plastic to spare it from harm, or wrapped with rubber to shield the antennas from human interference. If the iPhone were meant to have a case, it would ship with a case. Attached. Out of the box.

* * *

Flick. Flick. Twitter. Swipe. Flick. New York Times. Tap. Tap. Email. Maps. Fruit Ninja. Photos. Vuvuzela. Every touch feels more responsive than the 3GS, which was more responsive than the 3G.

Swipe. Swipe. Swipe again. There's a delay from a half-inch dead zone on the side of the phone. When I swipe from that edge, nothing registers. I try the same thing on older phones. Odd, this was there all along, in the 3G and 3GS, but I'm only noticing now because the bezel is gone and it's all glass. There's no barrier to guide me.

* * *

Matt licks me. Or rather, he puts his tongue in front of the front camera in FaceTime. I enjoy it more than I should!

Buchanan sounds clear, our respective AT&T chains thrown off, our faces and voices streaming fluidly over Wi-Fi. Finally, a mass-market video calling device that's going to have enough built-in audience to actually have a chance at success. It's fun. Useful. Futuristic. Easy. My parents could do this. (Until they can't, and have to ask me for help.)

iPhone 4 Review

But the secret is that—when he's not licking me—I'm looking Matt right in the eye. The camera and screen are so close that they create the illusion of a camera behind Matt's eyes—so I really feel like we're talking face to face. When Skyping someone on a laptop, they're always looking at me on their screen—away from their webcam.

I say goodbye to Matt. The next time I expect to see his face in a phone conversation will probably be in 2011. Voice is enough for most. He's not my wife.

* * *

On a drive in a car that's not my own to a place I don't recognize, the Nexus One is along for the ride. There's no free, usable and decent turn-by-turn bundled with the iPhone 4.

The alternative? Fifty bucks for an app. I don't have fifty bucks. Not for this shit. Especially not when my normal car has navigation. The iPhone has been capable of turn-by-turn directions since the 3G added a GPS chip. It's time for a better solution—from Apple.

* * *

"Can you show me that video chat thing?"

"I can't. There's no Wi-Fi here."

Frustration? Anger? Embarrassment? None of the above. I feel like I've let someone down.

There was no limitation in Star Trek. Riker didn't have to have a hotspot set up in order to chat from Farpoint Station. James Bond doesn't have to locate a Starbucks to talk to Q. Batman doesn't...Batman doesn't do anything he doesn't want to. Because it was 70 years ago, Dick Tracy had the entire AT&T network all to himself to make video calls.

"But hey, it's got a better screen."

* * *

Sitting on the most intimate of chairs, I watch my own previously uploaded HD YouTube videos, marveling at the display quality. It's downscaled from the video's original quality, but still, I'm impressed.

iPhone 4 Review

I get bored and move on, flipping through honeymoon photos and skimming 720p videos taken in Japan, each pixel a tiny fraction of a wonderful memory that was well worth the lousy exchange rate. It makes me wish that I was in Tokyo right now, with their Toto Washlets in every home, office and public facility. But then I wonder, how much space are these bigger photos and videos taking?

Back at my iMac, I check. 3.26GB. The same photos only took up 1.6GB on the 3GS. Videos are a similar story.

We're gonna need a bigger NAND.

* * *

It's not my birthday.

I suggested the birthday song as a quick test for voice quality, because it inherently necessitates changes in tone and pitch. It's a quick song, out of necessity. I'm not sitting through the full eight-and-a-half minute rendition of Won't Get Fooled Again. Though making Rosa do that ten times successively might justify the price of the iPhone 4.

The call quality testing we did matches what I observed in my own use.

My friend seems surprised to hear from me. I haven't called him in a while, usually relying on IM and email, because this is 2010 and we are not old. Many people are getting called with the iPhone 4 today, in the name of science.

More than once my test subjects surprised that I'm switching back and forth between standard hold and speakerphone. The dual-microphone noise cancellation setup makes a huge difference for filtering ambient noises from a speakerphone. But regular calls aren't much better than before, seeing as I'm not surrounded by vuvuzelas.

"Thanks, talk to you later. Bye bye."

I look down, confused. Random buttons have been inadvertently pressed by my face. My face hasn't changed very much since using the 3GS, just days ago. Place this issue among the "to-fix-in-iOS 4.01" pile.

* * *

I keep hearing variations of the same anecdote when discussing iMovie for iPhone 4. "You could barely edit movies on a computer ten years ago."

My head bobs in agreement. Very true. I'm surprised at how quick it is, joining clips, adding themes, making titles and transitions. Exporting? Takes about as long as the clip is, on average resolution.

iPhone 4 Review

Then I try uploading a natively shot 720p video to YouTube from the phone. It's tiny! And grainy, even after letting it fully render over a day. And fuzzy, and definitely not 720p. How could this be? Would it be better if I uploaded over Wi-Fi, or emailed it to myself to upload from somewhere else? No. Every one of those options down-converts before sending it off the phone.

I discover that the only way to get the full 720p video from my phone to YouTube is putting it on a computer first. Dreams of shooting HD videos from the field, over that faster HSUPA upload, and not having to do extra post-processing at a computer later have vanished. Why would I edit on iMovie on a phone if I have to dump the resulting file onto a computer to upload at full-resolution anyway?

Is this AT&T's doing again?

* * *

Brian calls me, enthused, and asks me to guess where he is.

"Home."

He hasn't been able to make an iPhone call from his house without it almost immediately dropping for the last year and a half. He's had to resort to getting a Microcell. He tells me he's turned it off.

It's six minutes into the call. The iPhone 4 is smarter, choosing towers that can actually handle calls, rather than just the one with the strongest signal.

iPhone 4 Review

"Can you hear me? I can't hear you."

He sounds like he just went into the bathroom, filled his bathtub and dunked himself phone first. Sure, he can make calls now, but something's still keeping the phone from making great calls. After thirty seconds of this, the connection breaks. Maybe we should have used FaceTime.

Update: Actually, the 3gs miraculously has 5 bars in his house now, too. So it seems like a convenient tower change or installation or upgrade may have occurred recently.

* * *

I'm reading a chapter of Shit My Dad Says in bed, trying not to disturb the wife. There's very little eye strain, though I don't know if I could reach the end of the book reading this way. Even for a lover of ebooks, the size of the phone is too small to accurately represent a "book". It requires me to turn the page too often, like some iPad mini parody. Page turns are actually responsive enough to be pleasant.

Added up over a year, I would probably save about seven hours of cumulative time not waiting for book pages to render, apps to load and photos to resize, compared to the 3GS. I can't go back.

Now to find a use for those seven hours.

* * *

Is it too thin? Is it too delicate? I'm afraid of holding it. I never used to be.

I go to play with my bunny. When I pick him up, he squirms as if I'll never let go for all eternity. I try to lower myself to the ground as much as possible before he scratches my arms and jumps out of my hands. He can adjust his body to land on his feet, absorbing most amount of impact in the least damaging areas.

iPhone 4 Review

This iPhone cannot. The iPhone 4 is not as drop resistant as a rabbit.

* * *

While the wife's driving the two of us to McDonalds, I take the chance to catch up on email, Twitter, Giz and the latest episode of the Adam Carolla Show, flipping back and forth with fast app switching in iOS 4. Doubling the amount of RAM to 512MB is just like gas expanding to fill a vacuum—programs will find a use for it. Along with the smoother transitions thanks to the faster processor, every flip between programs is fluid. Things are kept fresh, ready for me when I need them.

I try to put down the phone, only to get bored and pick it up at the next red light.

The last time I charged the phone was yesterday morning, and it's already past noon today. 20%—not bad. Better than the 3GS, because the battery is bigger. Still, good thing I turned off Bluetooth.

Another red light. I'm motion sick...possibly going to vomit. But I can't stop playing with the phone.

* * *

It's Friday night. The guy from Hypermac surprises me at my table.

"You're here with your family?"

"Yup! Did you get your iPhone 4?"

He waves takes his out and does the Miss Area Woman local parade wave. I smile.

"Yup."

Three years ago a waitress asked to see my first-generation iPhone. I showed her. Ten minutes went by. She forgot to take my order. I'd forgotten, too, until she walked away.

iPhone 4 Review

Tonight's waitress isn't as impressed. "Oh, is that the new iPhone? My boyfriend has the old one. Does this one drop fewer calls? Well, that's good. So what are you having?"

The newness is gone, but that doesn't mean people aren't still excited.

I text Mark and Matt. They both reply within a minute—the fastest I've seen them respond in the last six months. It's clear they were both playing with their phones, or at least, had them in reach.

* * *

I'm taking photos of my food. I don't know why—I've been here before, and I'll come back again. It has more to do with the act of taking the picture than the result, which is that I have a photo of what I'm about to eat. "Remember that," I'll think to myself some months down the line. But I won't. I might not remember how the meal tasted, or what happened, nor do I really need to. There's evidence. Now the evidence is clearer and more saturated, with the better lens and smarter processing. The colors pop. They look more delicious than they do when I was actually there.

I get up real close to shoot macros of my bunny. The camera responds quicker than I'd expect—quicker than other cellphone cams. Sometimes, still, not quick enough. Bunnies are fast.

I get in closer. Autofocus kicks in, rendering orange-tinted shots that I will have to fix later in on my computer. Wish there was white balance.

I get in even closer. The limit's reached, and the shots turn out blurry.

Bunny sniffs the phone.

* * *

Everything is more crisp. I tap out a message and the new keyboard noises make the old 3GS keyboard noises seem muddy. The speakers themselves are more clear as well, but a little softer.

The home screen. The volume buttons. The power button. The screen itself. Everything is crisper, sharper, more angular. All softness is gone. The rounded back, an awkward turtle-shell of necessity, is out. It's hard. It is a hard phone. Thirty times harder than plastic, as the too-often repeated marketing phrase goes. But hard still shatters, as our own intern Ryan saw.

It was designed this way. It's probably a mistake.

* * *

The engineers have lost. The industrial designers have won.

Antenna problems, confirmed by Apple themselves, are the symptom of a problem that goes into the heart of Apple's product process. Right brain won over left brain. We all suffer.

I'm making a call, trying to adjust myself to the phone, holding it at the top instead of the bottom, so as to not jeopardize reception. What happened to Apple's iPad marketing, where the device adjust itself to you? Why am I changing the way I've held cellphones for the last decade to avoid a design issue? It feels foreign. It feels like I might drop my phone.

iPhone 4 Review

Then I forget. My hand slips down to the accustomed position, covering up the antenna with meat and sweat and humanity. The call maintains. There's ever-so-slightly more distortion in the voice, but I can still hear the other person fine. I'm lucky to live in one of AT&T's well-covered areas. Those with mediocre reception to begin with see a bigger impact, documented, when they use the death grip.

I'm fiddling with the phone over 3G, flipping through maps, searching Twitter, checking mail. The otherwise zippy phone feels winded. There is no alternative to the death grip when I hold the phone in the left hand and point with the right—that's the only way I can hold the phone.

I don't want to get a case.

* * *

How was my $500 Sanyo camcorder, bought on that trip to Japan, obviated by a 720p cellphone camera? The same way point and shoots and Flip minicams are now being eaten into with the camera that everyone has on them—the one on their phone. And hell, this phone is actually better than most of those single-use devices.

My 1080p Sanyo is fantastic. It has one thousand and eighty pees. Someone even emailed me to ask what camera it was, when I uploaded my own reception problem video. But hell if I ever carry it with me, even if it's only slightly bigger than my fist. There's only room for one fist in each of my pockets, and pocket one is spoken for.

The iPhone will be there. It's the camera that counts, the camera that's with you when you get into a traffic accident, when someone's about to do something stupid, when you're doing something you've never done before.

But I have to decide, do I put more consumable content on my phone, or do I save more of that 32GB for making memories?

* * *

iPhone 4 Review

My dad calls. He needs his printer fixed, or he forgot how to log into Gmail, or he had a recurrence of old-person syndrome and entirely forgot how to use a computer. It doesn't matter which.

He asks me about the new iPhone. I recommend he doesn't get it.

"You actually make a lot of phone calls, unlike me. Plus, AT&T is lousy where you are. Plus there's the reception issue, which gets exacerbated* when there's low signal. As for the rest, it's improved in many ways. But stick with what you've got now."**

* I didn't use the word "exacerbated" over the phone.
** Also, this conversation actually occurred in Chinese.

* * *

Flash

I surprise, no, shock, my wife with the iPhone flash in the dark. She is not amused. I am. I am a child.

There's now light where there was no light before. Drunken New York bar exploits will be all the clearer now, illuminating various conquests, trophies mounted on Facebook the next morning, all with tiny pupils adjusting to the harsh glare. It's not perfect, but it's better than not having a flash.

I imagine thousands of these damn iPhone flashes at the next basketball game I go to, illuminating all of a full three feet ahead of these people, making the back of the bald guy's head in Row 27 look amazingly clear. Kobe, on the other hand, will still be lit just fine by the fluorescent bulbs of the Staples Center.

* * *

I keep picking up the phone, looking inside, and finding things to do. I want to use it.

I can't go back to the 3GS. The speed, the camera, the screen, the non-humpback, the video chatting. Once you have it, you can't give it up.

iPhone 4 Review

But I'm scared. Not of dropping calls because I'm holding it wrong—I don't make a lot of them, and when I do, they're not so critical that I can't call someone back. Plus, I have a Batphone landline and work at home. I'm scared for data. I can never hold the phone naturally because I'm afraid I'm getting a quarter of the speeds I was getting before. Like a parent with a child too lazy or too difficult to live up to his potential, I'm frustrated and confused and sad. You love it too much, and you can't give it up, but something's wrong. So like most, I focus on the good qualities. The speed, the camera, the screen. So what if he throws a tantrum when I hold him wrong? He's my boy.

* * *

iPhone 4 Review

Appendix

Test Notes
Design: Fragile Beauty
Screen Quality
Camera Quality
Call Quality
App Speed
FaceTime
iMovie
iPhone 4 Uploads 5-10x Faster

Guides, Tips and Experiences
The Complete Guide to Using iOS 4
The Best Semi-Solutions for iPhone 4 Reception Problems So Far
The Apps Updated For iOS 4
The Incredibly Slow, Incredibly Hot Soho iPhone 4 Line
iPhone 4 Voice Command Cheat Sheet
Your iPhone 4 Warranty and Insurance Options
iPhone 4 and iPhone 3G Screens Compared Under Microscope
iPhone 4's Real Cost Versus Other Top Smartphones
Call Apple To Test Out FaceTime With A Real Person
StealthArmor Is A More Attractive "Fix" Than A Bumper Case
How To Replace Your Broken iPhone 4 Screen
iPhone 4 Unboxing Video
6 Takes on Apple's iPhone 4
The iPhone 4 Review (By You)

Problems and Issues
If You Have These iPhone 4 Problems, You Should Exchange Your Phone
iPhone 4 Loses Reception When You Hold It By The Antenna Band
Test Shows iPhone Antenna Issue Impacts Voice Transmission Too
Apple Acknowledges iPhone 4 Reception Issues, Says Don't Hold It Like that
Some iPhone 4 Displays Have Yellow Bands And Spots
Apple Says iPhone 4 Yellow Tint Problem is "Residue From Manufacturing"
First iPhone 4 Broken After One-Foot Drop
I Accidentally Broke My iPhone 4 on Day One
I Had My Shatter iPhone Replaced by Apple on Day 2
We Missed This: iPhone 4 Requires OS X 10.5.8
FaceTime Does Not Work Over Google Voice
White iPhone 4 Delayed Until Mid July

The iPhone Leak
The Tale of Apple's Next iPhone

Illustration: Wendy MacNaughton