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Apple iPhone 4 Review

DT Editor's Choice

Highs

  • FaceTime video chatting
  • High resolution Retina 960 x 640 pixel 3.5-inch display
  • 5-megapixel camera with LED flash; HD video recorder
  • 16GB or 32 GB built-in memory
  • Long battery life

Rating

Our Score 8.5
User Score 5.0

Lows

  • Sharp edges
  • Less memory than 3G S; no 64GB version
  • Greenish screen tone
  • No HDMI out
  • Orange hue on indoor photos
  • No external camera shutter button
The iPhone 4 delivers a super-sharp screen and clever videoconferencing abilities, but existing iPhone owners shouldn’t be in a hurry to upgrade.

The Reception Issue

We had none of the reception problems reported by other folks, primarily because we don’t hold a bare iPhone up to our ear, left-handed, in a bear grip. Using the phone hands-free (Bluetooth or wired headphone – it does come with one, you know) is simply more comfortable and, if recent studies have shown, safer. We held the iPhone 4 with our hands covering the metal perimeter band, a manner many folks have described as inhibiting reception, for two extended phone conversations and while using FaceTime without a single problem.

FaceTime

Speaking of these two FaceTime calls, they varied greatly in quality, although both seemed to be running at around 15 frames per second from both the front and rear camera; we assume the video is down-converted to around half VGA resolution for transmission. A call to a colleague in midtown Manhattan was crystal clear, with little pixilization. A second call to a colleague outside of Milwaukee was highly pixilated. Both us and our callers were using N routers. Calls were not quite full duplex – it was better if one person spoke at a time, and there was a second or two of lag.

So it isn’t exactly the instant tête-à-tête video call Dr. Heywood Floyd makes to his daughter from the space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the experience is both weird and fun nonetheless. You see yourself in a small window that can be dragged around to any of the four corners. But you and your caller are looking either at the tiny picture of yourself to make sure you stay centered in the frame or, more often, at each other rather than at the camera lens above the screen. As a result, you’re not really looking eye-to-eye at your caller, but a bit off center, which makes everyone look shifty. Switching to the rear camera to give your caller a view of your surroundings is a neat and, in some cases, useful feature sure to be emulated by other phone makers.

Two problems. One, who do you call? As noted, you have to know someone else with an iPhone 4, and you both have to be connected via Wi-Fi. Why didn’t Apple make FaceTime an extension of iChat, so anyone with at least a webcam-enabled Mac could make and receive video calls from the iPhone 4? One has to believe such a link will be established at some point. Or that Skype will create a video call app, if Apple allows it. Or better still, that AT&T’s network will become capable enough to enable cell video calls. But we’ll probably have to wait until 4G LTE before this happens.

In the meantime, if you have an iPhone 4 and no one to FaceTime with (yes, we’re already turning it into a verb), call Apple at 1-888-FACETIME (332-3846) between 8 am and 8 pm Central Time to chat with an Apple employee for testing purposes.

The second problem: Why do we need it? Insurance adjusters, real estate agents, spouses who need an assist while solo shopping – okay. But both calls we made were primarily comprised of “Isn’t this cool,” reminiscent of the early “I’m calling you from a cellphone!” thrills from a generation ago. The techno thrill is bound to wane unless a desktop or HDTV video calling component can be created, or even just establishing compatibility with other emerging cell video telephony solutions, like Qik for the EVO 4G.

Web

Even more than it is for movies, the Retina screen is a boon for reading smaller Web site print, and drastically improves ease of reading for text of any size, especially e-mails.

Web sites and pages all load a second or two faster on the iPhone 4 compared to the 3G S, even on AT&T’s much-maligned 3G network in Manhattan. Since both phones support high-speed 7.2 Mbps HSPA technology, the speed improvements must be attributed to the faster processor and improved antenna array.

Camera

Just because the iPhone 4′s camera is “only” 5 megapixels rather than the 8- and even 12-megapixel imagers showing up on other phones doesn’t mean squat. A 5-megapixel camera is all you need on any digital camera, unless you plan on creating billboards. It’s all about the lens and the processing. And the iPhone 4′s camera, sans flash, is the fastest we’ve used. We were frankly stunned at how quick – a second, maybe – the iPhone 4 captured and processed images and was ready to snap another. Shooting with the flash added a second or so delay between pushing the touch-screen shutter release and image capture. Larger icons would have been preferable for switching between still and video recording.

In terms of quality, indoor images and video all had an orange hue, even when we used the flash. Zooming was easy – tap the center focusing square and a touch 5x slider pops up, although indoor and night results look extra grainy. Photos also maintain focus across the entire frame, unlike the larger images on some of the other superphone cameras.

Sadly, there’s still no self-timer.

-This sample video has been compressed for the web.

Battery Life

Apple says the iPhone 4 will give you seven hours of talk time and six hours of 3G Web surfing, with 30 hours of audio listening, compared to five, five and 40 on the 3G S. Both are rated at 10 hours of video viewing. With only a few days of use under our belts, it’s impossible to judge exactly how accurate these figures are, but FaceTime does seem to drain the battery faster than a normal call. After 45 minutes of FaceTime, the iPhone 4′s battery went from 100 to 68 percent.

Conclusion

The iPhone 4′s cool factor alone will grab your attention, but unless you’re a current AT&T customer sans iPhone, we would say hold on to your 3G S for a bit. Apple iOS 4 is a major upgrade, but it brought improvements to the 3G S as well, mitigating functional differences and perhaps lowering the reasons to upgrade. If you’re a Verizon, Sprint or even T-Mobile customer, you have plenty of worthwhile iPhone 4-like choices.

Highs:

  • FaceTime video chatting
  • High resolution Retina 960 x 640 pixel 3.5-inch display
  • 5-megapixel camera with LED flash; HD video recorder
  • 16GB or 32 GB built-in memory
  • Long battery life

Lows:

  • Sharp edges
  • Less memory than 3G S; no 64GB version
  • Greenish screen tone
  • No HDMI out
  • Orange hue on indoor photos
  • No external camera shutter button

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