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The iPhone 4 isn’t particularly well-named. That’s because one of the things you’ll use this ingenious little device for least is making boring old phone calls. Between the terrific dual cameras, the zippy performance, and the luscious Retina Display, we were quickly absorbed in photography, games, web-browsing, and loads more. It’s truly a dramatic leap forward from the not-shabby-at-all iPhone 3GS.
With so many meaty new features, it’s hard to play favorites, but after a couple weeks of use, the dual cameras emerged as the iPhone 4’s biggest upgrade. The rear camera gives you 5-megapixel still photos and 720p video, and our test shots produced impressive results. That’s in part because Apple began using a back-illuminated sensor in the iPhone 4’s camera, which is techno-jargon for a more sensitive, er, sensor that lets you capture remarkably crisp, detailed shots in even low-light settings. In fact, the new LED flash really only trips for fairly dark scenes--and you’ll want to do your best to avoid using it because its harshness often washes out a lot of detail. When shooting video, the main thing to remember is there’s no stabilizer, so if you get jiggly with it, you’re in for some seriously shaky footage. But the overall quality of photos and video is fantastic--so much so that I stopped carrying around my now-redundant point-n-shoot.
The front camera’s perfect for self portraits, while the rear lens shoots vivid, detailed stills that rival many point-n-shoots.
But that’s just half the story. The front camera is 640x480 VGA quality (or roughly 0.3 megapixels), so it works decently for those casual self-portrait moments. But where it really struts its stuff is during FaceTime calls. Once you enable these video phone calls in the Settings menu, they “just work” in that effortless Apple way. True, FaceTime calls are only possible over Wi-Fi, but that wasn’t a problem as we mostly used this feature at home with family (where Wi-Fi is always available). In that setting, we particularly loved the ability to switch to using the rear camera to show off, for example, the antics of our kids for the loved ones on the other end of the line. We did make a few business calls with FaceTime, including one cross-country conversation to New York, and video calls always performed smoothly for us, though the picture sometimes gets blurry. Still, it’s downright awkward to stare at a colleague or someone you’ve never met before during a call. But that’s not Apple’s fault--it’s just a cultural truth of the moment.
Holding the phone at the proper angle for a FaceTime call can get kinda awkward…
When it comes to horsepower, the iPhone 4’s A4 processor and 512MB RAM make it feel speedy and agile. That impression was backed up in our lab, where it sailed through our tests, posting performance gains of 164 percent over a 3G running iOS 4 and 34 percent over a 3GS running iOS 4 in the benchmarking app Geekbench 2. That power is put to excellent use with iOS 4, which delivers great new features like multitasking, folders, a unified email inbox, Bluetooth keyboard support, and loads more.
Moving through the other key specs, our battery rundown (playing video at 50 percent brightness and 50 percent volume) clocked in at 10.67 hours on a brand-new device, and while that’ll decline over time as battery capacity diminishes, this battery sure comes out of the gate with a bang. Better yet, the new Retina Display is one of the sharpest-looking we’ve ever seen, and at 326 pixels per inch, it should be. The 3.5-inch screen is the same size as the 3GS’s but packs in four times as many pixels. While its superpowers don’t extend to defeating bright sunlight (which washes it out, as the sun’s glare does to every display we’ve taken outside), it’s noticeably more clear, detailed, and just plain pretty than anything you’ve seen on a mobile device before. All told, that’s a lot of pep in a pretty small box.
Folders are the iOS 4 feature we gravitated to first, but once you learn the ins and outs of the multitasking bar, it’s pretty handy too.
Speaking of which, our biggest complaint about the iPhone 4 is that its boxy shape just doesn’t sit as comfortably in the hand as the beveled edges of its predecessors did. Don’t get us wrong--the iPhone 4’s design is gorgeous, and we love the look of its steel band and the crisp action of the new volume buttons. But between that boxiness and the oleophobic coating on the aluminosilicate glass, the iPhone 4 feels slippery and harder to grip than its predecessors, especially when taking photos. Still, that’s a fairly small downside, and on the whole, the elegant design quietly convinces you that you’ve got a high-quality, carefully constructed device in your hands.
And yes, that means the widely publicized “death grip”--where gripping the iPhone around the black band in the lower-left corner of its steel siding seems to disrupt its 3G connection--is not our biggest complaint. At the end of the day, the iPhone 4 absolutely must function as a phone, and in our testing, we detected a noticeable improvement in call performance. Unfortunately, Apple removed the field-test mode from this model of phone, so we had to make day-to-day observations of its phone-calling prowess rather than crunching hard numbers. I spent a week using an iPhone 4 with one of Apple’s Bumpers (which blocks the “death grip” effect) and another using it without one in a remote-ish area with definite patches in AT&T’s coverage, and found no difference. At the same time, I dropped fewer calls than I did in the same area with my old 3G. So while it hardly added up to a gigantic improvement in AT&T’s generally poor service in the San Francisco Bay Area, the iPhone 4 kept me talking a little more reliably.
At press time, Apple released a statement saying it’d found the root cause of the “death grip” phenomenon: an error in how the iPhone 4 calculates the number of bars it displays. Our take is that, at worst, Apple’s been busted for either a software glitch or for fluffing the number of bars, and the promised firmware update will make this all a distant memory. So we’re giving the iPhone 4’s phone the benefit of the doubt for now, but we’ll update this review and score if we discover conflicting info or if the firmware upgrade doesn’t resolve this issue.
(This paragraph was revised on 7/16/10 after Apple's press conference.)
At press time, Apple held a press conference to address snowballing concerns about the “death grip.” While Steve Jobs staunchly defended the iPhone 4’s hardware and its antenna, Apple also announced that anyone buying an iPhone 4 before September 30 could get a free case at apple.com, and anyone who’d already bought an Apple Bumper would get a refund. Also, iPhone 4s can now be returned within 30 days with no restocking fee. While that’s a mixed message, we understand that Apple’s trying to quell consumer concerns while working on a fix for what we’d guess is a software issue. So we’re giving the iPhone 4’s calling performance the benefit of the doubt for now, but we’ll update this review and score if needed as this unfolds.
Follow this article's author, Paul Curthoys, on Twitter.
The iPhone 4’s impressive leaps in performance, its hefty roster of new features, and that lovely screen cement its position as a powerful pocket computer and camera that also makes phone calls. Whether you just bought a 3GS last year or you’re considering your first iPhone purchase, it’s the kind of essential, must-own device that you’ll delight in using every day.
PRICE: $199 for 16GB model; $299 for 32GB model
REQUIREMENTS: Two-year AT&T contract with monthly plan starting at $64.99
Fantastic new dual camera with flash enables 5MP stills, HD video, and FaceTime calls. Gorgeous screen. Significant battery-life improvements. Zippy A4 processor runs iOS 4 smoothly. Better, faster 3G and Wi-Fi connectivity. Lovely design.
AT&T is sole U.S. carrier. Doesn’t sit in hand as comfortably as older iPhones. Glass finish is slippery and smudgy. Must be docked to upload HD video to YouTube.