So with its boosted spec and updated functionality, will the iPhone 4 be ready meet the new standards set by its rivals? Will it raise the bar even higher for would-be challengers? After using the iPhone 4 for two weeks, we're ready to give our verdict.
Retro, industrial, futuristic and more
The iPhone 4 design has changed a fair bit compared with the mark-3 versions. First of all, the new model is slimmer than the iPhone 3GS (12.2 mm vs 9.4 mm) and it's 2 g heavier. Plus, the curvy casing we all came to know and love has been ditched for a flat design and a more rectangular look—think minimalist industrial. Apple has long championed the cause of 'less is more' in design and, once again, the brand has proved its ability to make a simple, attractive and yet understated product.
It's out with the glossy plastic casing too, and in with tough 'engineered' glass, which Apple claims to be 'much more resilient' (read 'less prone to scratches') than the plastic casing of its older-generation phones. A metal band runs around the outer edge of the iPhone 4, which, as some of you may already know, also houses the phone's antennae. After having carried the iPhone 4 around with no protective cover in an oversized (and some would say cluttered) handbag for the last two weeks, we can safely say that there's still not a scratch in sight. The finish is quite simply excellent.
For anyone who's used to a 3GS, the iPhone 4 can feel a little surprising the first time you pick it up. Some 3GS (or 3G) users are even complaining that they don't like the new design, claiming its sharper, more angular body makes it less comfortable to hold than the previous generation.
A Bumper—the protective case designed and sold by Apple for an extra £25—further accentuates the phone's harsher look. However, while its main aim is to protect the outside of the handset, the Bumper also seems to the improve network reception issues (see insert) caused by some users holding their iPhone 4 'the wrong way,' according to Steve Jobs. Could it be a coincidence that the Apple Bumper has magical properties? Could it be a coincidence that it was released at the same time as the phone? Who knows, but in any case we would have preferred to see a Bumper supplied with the phone as standard.
Marketed as a 'Retina' display, the iPhone 4 actually has an IPS-type LCD screen with LED backlighting and a much higher resolution (960 x 640 pixels) than the 3GS (480 x 320 pixels). The improvement is, quite honestly, astounding. Websites can be read perfectly clearly with no need to zoom in, the text in SMS messages is much sharper, and I could go on. Picture quality on the iPhone 4 screen is at least as good as the Super AMOLED in the Samsung Wave (480 x 800 pixels) and Galaxy S. However, colours on the Apple display are less saturated than the Samsung and so they're not so sharply contrasted.
The 3GS already had a sharp, clear display, but the iPhone 4 really moves things up a gear. Viewing angles have improved too, and in bright sunlight, you can see what's on the screen a little more clearly than before. The screen does still have a glossy finish, though, so you can expect just as much glare and reflections as with the 3G or 3Gs!
With such a high-quality screen, the App Store (currently stocking 225,000 different apps) will no doubt soon be inundated with a whole load of applications that make use of this new resolution and display quality. Expect games, photo apps and much more.
iOS 4: from multitasking to FaceTime
The arrival of multitasking has long been awaited by many iPhone users, some of whom considered its absence in the 3GS as a sign of Apple lagging behind the competition. Now it's here, users will no longer have to close an app that's already open in order to start up another. Tapping twice on the Home button brings up the multitasking menu bar at the bottom of the screen, so you can scroll though all the applications you've got running and chose which one you want to view and which ones you want to shut completely. Open applications put themselves on standby and keep running in the background, making them quick to open up when you decide to switch back to them.
Note that not all apps are fully compatible with Apple's new multitasking system, notably its 'pick up where you left off' function, although they're likely to be updated by developers before too long. Whether multitask-compatible or not, each app you open can still be found in the multitasking menu bar. This can prove a little disorientating.
Plus, anyone used to older models of iPhone will probably have trouble giving up the instinctive reflex actions they developed using that model. We found ourselves constantly closing one application before opening another, completely forgetting about multitasking. No doubt we'll get used to it before long.
Another change brought by the iOS 4 is the ability to create folders for your apps so you can file them away and unclog the homescreen. About time too! It's just a shame Apple didn't include a native social hub (a page displaying all the latest news and updates from your various e-mail and social networking accounts), as this is a great feature in Samsung and Microsoft mobiles.
The iPhone 4 also brings videoconferencing to Apple's handset in a new feature known as FaceTime. A front-facing 3 MP VGA video camera allows you to chat face-to-face, whereas the 5 MP 720p camera on the back can be used to show the person you're talking to exactly what you can see.
Let's not forget that this is videoconferencing à la Apple though, and the firm is working hard to turn FaceTime into a new open standard for video calling. It does, however, remain to be seen whether other manufacturers and developers will want to play ball with Apple.
For the moment, the use of FaceTime remains somewhat limited, as the person you're calling must also have an iPhone 4. No surprises there then, since the whole Apple business model is based on creating an ever-increasing but firmly closed circle of faithful users.
A second limitation is that you must be connected to a Wi-Fi network. Although this does mean that the video calling service is free, and should also help unclog 3G networks, it does mean you'll need guaranteed access to a Wi-Fi connection wherever you go, which just isn't feasible.
Anyway, in spite of its (as yet) limited use, FaceTime does bring an interesting and attractive new feature to the iPhone. The audio and visual quality of the calls we made was really quite good and the system was very easy to use. FaceTime actually manages to bring a touch of fun to what could otherwise be a drab videoconferencing function.
Finally, as well as having an accelerometer, the iPhone 4 now has an integrated gyroscope for advanced motion sensing. It's true that movements are handled more accurately too, which is great news for games fans. Note that, for the moment, it's only compatible with updated applications.
Underneath its sleek new casing, the Phone 4 is more powerful than previous generations of iPhone, notably thanks to the 1GHz processor and twice as much RAM. This boosted spec brings it in line with other top-of-the-range handsets currently on the market, such as the Samsung Wave, HTC Desire, Google Nexus One and Samsung Galaxy S (which uses the same Cortex A8 processor). As a result, the iPhone 4 has a start-up time in line with its main competitors, at 26 seconds.
We already loved the 3GS for its speed and responsiveness, but this new model is faster still. In fact, everything flows seamlessly and flawlessly all the time, even when you've got several apps running in the background. Plus, all the applications and websites we looked at loaded up quickly and with no problems at all.
In a nutshell, the iPhone 4 has got to be the fastest, most responsive mobile around right now.
Multimedia: better photos
Audio features are the same as in previous-generation iPhones, with only the music player interface slightly modified in the new-gen model. However, photo and video functions have quite clearly been enhanced.
First of all, focusing (still on-screen), and taking and saving photos is all much faster. In fact, you'll have no problem shooting pictures back to back.
For a mobile phone camera, picture quality is actually very good. Whereas the 3G and most other mobiles can't really hold their own in lower-light conditions, the iPhone 4 actually does a decent job, as the new sensor absorbs more light. There's less digital noise too, with photos that are crisp and clear, no doubt thanks to the effective backlit sensor. Colours are accurately reproduced and the resulting images are richly detailed and sharper than those taken with a 3GS, a Nexus One or a Samsung Wave.
However, you might as well not bother with the camera flash, as it does tend to overexpose shots. The digital zoom isn't really worth it either, as it inevitably affects image quality.
Video is recorded in 720p at 30 frames per second, and here too, the quality is really quite good. However, as there's no stabilisation system, we often found the footage looked a bit shaky when we were moving around while filming. DivX videos aren't supported natively (remember, this is iTunes we're dealing with) so you'll have to convert them to a compatible format if you want to view them on your iPhone.
The video function comes with easy-to-use editing software, but we would have liked to see Apple's new iMovie app integrated directly into the phone. Apple's iMovie video editing software was originally designed for Mac computers and was recently released as an app, available to download from the App Store for £2.99. It's a user-friendly app for putting together and editing videos (in several resolutions, including HD), as well as adding music, text and photos to your footage.
Web browsing is as pleasant and effective as ever. Pages load up quickly—certainly quicker than a 3GS or a Wave in Wi-Fi mode—and the browser's design and handling (browsing history, favourites etc.) feels natural and intuitive. The multi-touch control for zooming in on pages is incredibly accurate, and thanks to the excellent new screen, pages are also easier to read. All in all, surfing the web on the iPhone 4 is quick, easy and impressive.
Note that the iPhone 4 still doesn't support Flash, and as Steve Jobs doesn't look set to change his mind any time soon, you'll have to make do with HTML 5.
Boosted battery life
With a fairly intensive use of the handset, particularly for data (push e-mail, Internet, in 3G/Wi-Fi), text messaging, taking and playing back photos and videos, listening to music etc. the iPhone 4 we tested lasted a good day and a half before we had to recharge it. It therefore looks like the infamously dud iPhone battery life is now finally a thing of the past.
- Design, finish, screen quality
- Multitasking & single inbox
- Photo & HD video quality / FaceTime is free and fun
- Improved battery life
- Reception drops when you hold it in a certain way (reception display issue?)
- FaceTime can only be used over Wi-Fi and with other iPhone 4 users
- Could use a video stabilisation function
- No Flash support for web browsing
- High SAR level
The iPhone 4 may well correct many flaws of the 3GS, but is it really the hottest new touchscreen mobile out there, setting new standards for others to follow? Well, yes, so long as you don't mind being tied to the restrictive world of iTunes. The high-definition screen, faultless speed and responsiveness, excellent picture quality, improved battery life, highly intuitive interface and great choice of applications, all make the iPhone 4 a truly excellent handset. The iPhone 4 has definitely raised the bar even higher for top-end smartphones.