A Fourteen Year Old’s Review of the iPhone 4
This is extraordinary.
Those were the first words I uttered when I unboxed the iPhone 4 last Friday. Even after days of laboriously attempting to craft sentences to describe Apple’s latest marvel, I always ended up coming back to those few words. Why? They are the most telling. In the timeframe of a few days, this device has turned into my personal assistant more so than my original iPhone ever did after almost three years. This device can be said to represent Apple in its finest hour – a singular blend both design and function. This is my review.
- My Phone’s Story
Every gadget has a story. Every gizmo a history. Every appliance a biography. For my iPhone 4, the first chapter is probably set in a factory located in China. But in the confines of this blog post, that’s just a prolog and therefore not the part I will be recounting today.
Unfortunately, I did not get my pre-order in during the window for launch day delivery as I did not want to attempt to order through an already taxed Apple and AT&T system. By the time I looked again, they had taken 600,000 preorders and had pushed the shipping date to the 17th of July. I therefore had two options, I could either order online and wait about three more weeks for delivery or wake up early one day and camp out for the phone. I went with the latter. I knew it would be absolutely hectic on launch day so I decided to wait a day and take a shot at buying one that was reserved but never picked up.
Therefore, my scene opens at about four thirty in the morning on Friday June 25th – one day after the launch. Waiting outside an Apple Store about three hours before they open, and a day after the product launch, is not exactly the most thrilling experience. However, they had free Wi-Fi so I managed to keep myself busy during the time before dawn. I spoke briefly with the woman sitting next to me and soon discovered that she was a Blackberry user but decided the time had come to switch to an iPhone. We shared some things that we had read online about the phone and then we bid each other adieu and I went back to checking my emails. By the time the store opened, I had probably hit my email client’s refresh button upwards of fifty times – even though I didn’t expect to get an email at five in the morning – and about twenty people had gathered to form a line in hopes that they would have enough iPhones for all of us. As it turned out, they did.
The Apple worker walked me through the AT&T contract renewal process, and then I finally got what I had been waiting for – a new iPhone 4. I took it home and affirmed that it was definitely worth that long, cold, dark wait.
I opened the box almost with a sense of unreality. I owned a product that had been the topic of a remarkable number of discussions and something that I had anticipated for months.
The first thing that hit me when I opened the box was the aesthetics of the phone. Both sides are full glass plating that are separated by a stainless steel band that houses the majority of the physical buttons on the device. I recall thinking to myself that the design should be found in a museum rather than my pocket.
Refinement seems to be a foundational part of Apple. Once they get something right, they just keep modifying the other details until they are left with a device that is as polished as it can get. In my opinion, they did something very right with the first iPhone. That’s why they kept the basic design for these years and even though they added features in all the editions, they always kept the same essence of their design. Comparing my two phones, they look more similar than different. Almost an identical front plate (with the exception of the camera and the LED flash), the same button features, and the same silver Apple logo on the back. In a way, it seems as if the evolution of the phone design has been circular. With the metal band on the sides of the iPhone 4, I think it looks more like my original iPhone then the iPhone 3G or 3GS.
At first, the non-rounded back seemed to be unweildy in my hand. I couldn’t quite define the feeling, but something just felt off. It only took a day for my hand to adjust to the new shape of the phone because I picked it up again the following day and the “off” feeling had disappeared.
John Ive and his team have crafted made something very remarkable here. Even forgoing the other features, the design is a work of art.
To be honest, before I got the iPhone 4 I didn’t perceive having a new display to be a big deal. When I watched Steve Jobs announce the new screen during the WWDC keynote, I said to myself, “I doubt I’ll notice that, but that’s a nice addition I suppose.” For something that might seem like a small and insignificant detail at first, the new display proves to be a highlight of the new device.
Apple decided to name the display technology “Retina Display” because – apparently – the normal human eye cannot different pixels when there are more than 300 per square inch. They put 326 in the new iPhone, which is four times more than in previous versions. In other words, once you cross that barrier everything looks much more fluid. The change that I noticed most was in text. Reading is more enjoyable on the new display because the arches on letters are seamless and feels more like you are reading a printed document versus a webpage on a screen. In addition to text, the added pixels give application graphics an increased amount of space to display details and really shows.
However, in order for you to see the difference in third-party applications, developers have to upgrade their graphics to twice the size of their old ones. Until they do this, you will be stuck with un-updated graphics on your phone, which clash with the graphics in the rest of the operating system. For applications that aren’t converted, the system scales them up and the application end up pixilated. Trust me, if you get the option, you don’t want this to happen.
After using this screen for only a few days, I don’t want to go back to using the display on my old iPhone. When compared to the iPhone 4, it seems that quality of the letters that once seemed fine are absolutely pixilated in comparison. Perhaps it is the added screen real estate on my computer, but I can’t tell as much of a difference during individual use. But once I put the two next to each other, the contrast is striking. On a screen where you can actually make out the pixels, everything looks much more blocky and is almost difficult to use once you are exposed to what is possible with screens.
What first seemed like a small detail of the iPhone 4 for me, the display is one of the features that I noticed most during my trials. It’s one of those details that people don’t necessarily notice at first, but over time absolutely love that it was put in.
Upgrading from an original iPhone, I am not sure how the new iPhone’s speed compares with later models, but the A4 chipset coupled with the increased 512MB RAM is an immensely powerful combination when starting from any mobile phone. As this is the iPad also has an A4 chipset, the two devices perform very closely when faced with the same task. The hardware speed bump between my two phones was absolutely extraordinary, with startup screens loading close to instantaneously and greatly enhancing the function of all applications on the device. Scrolling is uninterrupted and it enables you to smoothly interact with your content. In my unofficial testing, I found that a game takes about three seconds longer to load on the iPhone 4 than the iPad, about twenty seconds on the original generation iPhone. This demonstrates the speed changes between the first model and the latest.
The bump in speed that the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4 share (albeit with different chipsets) also allows for one of the most requested features on the iPhone; Multitasking. iOS 4 introduces Apple’s solution to how you do multiple things “at the same time” on a mobile platform.
The iPhone still doesn’t – and likely never will – display multiple applications on the screen at the same time. It’s simply too small of a space to have even two things happening at the same time. Their solution to multitasking entails giving users a drawer at the bottom of the screen, activated by double clicking the home button, where they can access all the applications they have opened and not specifically quit. Any application that isn’t currently in the foreground is put in a kind of sleep mode. If the application registers a specific (and accepted) background process with the operating system, the application will remain in an inactive state, but the process will still be preformed even while you are not in the application.
One of the earliest applications to multitask is Pandora. The online music streaming service that once required users to be inside the application while streaming now plays in the background so you can continue your normal tasks in other applications with the streamed audio. Even with many applications in the multitasking bin at once, I haven’t noticed a difference in speed on the device. It doesn’t really seem to matter if there is one application open or ten.
Apple has taken a lot of heat about how long it has taken them to add multitasking to the operating system. But I will say that their implementation seems to be well thought out and does not affect the performance of the device, which is perhaps the most important part. At the end of the day, the iPhone is a communication device, and multitasking should not inhibit its ability to keep you connected. With iOS 4, it doesn’t.
As a part of your cell phone, this is the camera that you always have with you. It’s in your pocket and ready to take photos whenever you so choose. With the iPhone 4, Apple has upgraded the sensor to 5MP and enhanced it with backside illumination which results in higher quality photos in low light. In addition, they added a LED flash on the back that can be turned on, off, or left on auto for photos in the dark.
As a test of the iPhone 4’s camera, I pitted it against the original iPhone, a Canon T1i (a DSLR), and a couple of years old Canon PowerShot A95 (a medium sized point and shoot with a 5MP camera for comparison). As expected, the T1i came out ahead, which is expected from a digital SLR. The T1i was followed by the iPhone 4, the PowerShot, and finally the original iPhone.
Compared to those that I have seen from other cell phone cameras, the iPhone 4 takes absolutely stunning photos. When I don’t have access to my T1i, this is the camera that I’m going to turn to take photographs. It’s the camera that I have in my pocket most often and can help in capturing moments in high quality that previously wouldn’t have been caught.
But perhaps the best way to judge the photos is to see for yourself.
[Click to enlarge]
In addition to the photographs the 5MP camera takes, it also records in 780p high definition. With the feature set that it shares with the 3GS, such as focusing while recording, in addition to the upgraded quality, I believe this will replace small video cameras (such as the Flip) for many people.
FaceTime is Apple’s answer to mobile video conferencing. There are two cameras on the new iPhone, one facing away from you and one facing towards you. Both of these cameras are integrated into FaceTime, and when you call someone that owns an iPhone 4 and is connected to a Wi-Fi network, you can choose to video chat with them and switch between the two cameras. This lets them both see you and what you’re looking at.
However, for regular day-to-day chatting you might be out of luck if you don’t have any friends that own an iPhone 4. And as it currently only works on Wi-Fi, they also need to be connected to a wireless network before they can video chat. The latter part might change when the cellular networks can stand more data transfer, but for now it’s Wi-Fi only.
In practice, you may not use this feature of the iPhone 4. But when you do find the chance, you will be in awe. It requires no setup before hand and only needs you to request or accept an invite and you’re off and running. You can walk around your house and still keep your friend right in your palm, and it is much more convenient then video conferencing alternatives on the desktop.
Even though it’s not too practical yet, I think FaceTime has great potential. Once other companies begin to implement the standard that Apple has created, you could see other devices capable of FaceTiming with the iPhone. And once cellphone companies get rid of the Wi-Fi only requirement, you very well may see this being used as a wide stream alternative to regular calling.
For all of the positives of this device, my biggest gripe about this phone is its problem with reception. As part of the phone’s design, three antennas are placed in different location on the metal band. These antennas control Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS, UMTS, and GSM.
The problem is that when holding the phone, many people have reported their bars dropping from five to zero simply because their fingers were positioned over the antennas. Once they moved their fingers, they returned to full bars. This has been shown to affect both phone calls and Internet. In my experience, Wi-Fi functions better than cell reception when its antenna is covered.
In the past few days, I have experienced this problem this issue several times. I have taken it out of my pocket, run some Internet-related application, and watched the bars drop from 5 to 2 before realizing that I must have covered the antennas. My download speed slowed to a crawl as the phone seemed to lose the connection even in a metropolitan area.
There are two ways to solve the problem – purchasing a case or a DIY method to somehow separate the antennas from your hand. However, for me, the design of this phone is one of its advantages and I’m not going to destroy that. I suppose I’ll just have to train myself to hold the phone in a way that doesn’t cover the antennas.
- Why the iPhone?
I bet a few of you are wondering why I got the iPhone 4. Or why I wouldn’t return it once I figured out there were some antenna problems. Or even why a fourteen year old needs a device like this at all when some professionals only use a fraction of the features. The reason is because over the past few years, my iPhone has become more than a phone that has Internet access. It has become a personal assistant to both my family and myself. It’s the object that helps inform us to which restaurants we should choose, checks my emails and social network details on the go, figures out what star constellations we’re looking at, is the camera I always have on hand, and a myriad of other uses.
The iPhone is obviously not the only touch screen cell phone on the market. It’s not the one with the largest screen, a removable battery, or a slide out keyboard. But this will be my primary phone because in the aggregate, this device is truly unique.