Amid much fanfare, and subsequently much controversy (due to various issues that will be covered later in this review) – Apple’s latest handset, the iPhone 4 has made it to market in the UK. Not being subject to any of the launch delays that the iPad suffered earlier this year, version 4 of the phone is the latest in a long and distinguished lineage of phones from the Cupertino company. Arguably, this year’s revision is perhaps the most important in the phone’s history. Apple phones were beginning to look distinctly under-specced when compared to some of the latest Android powered handsets, with possibly only the apple store and the unrivalled responsiveness of the screen and operating system keeping people tied to the Apple platform. Add to this the rather lacklustre upgrade from the 3G to the 3GS last year, and many people (myself included) were beginning to be slightly disillusioned with the brand. Yes, the 3G has been the best phone I had ever owned by far – and also the phone I had owned for the longest period. But nothing short of a spectacular update by Apple was going to keep me on the platform.
Possibly the most bizarre thing about this launch was just how unsurprising it was. Whether deliberate or not, the accidental leaving of a prototype in an American bar led to early and steady releases of new features that were coming to the hand set. So, with the surprise factor gone the launch had to deliver something truly special to wow the faithful and to pull in new customers.
In Britain, the iPhone 4 is available currently on contract with Orange, O2, Vodafone, Tesco mobile and through Carphone Warehouse. It is also available sim-free through Apple online, and in their stores. It will be coming soon to T-Mobile and Three. The phone is a radical revision from last year’s 3GS. It runs the much admired “retina display”, and the latest itineration of Apple’s operating system – iOS4. Whereas this operating system has also been delivered to 3GS and 3G, the latter phone is incapable of running many of the benefits, in particular multi-tasking. It is probably also important to note that as Apple refuse to allow it, you will not find any network branding on the phone, whoever you source it from.
Here at AV Forums we have been living with the phone since launch day, fully testing it under everyday conditions to bring you a full and frank review. It has been a tough job (I even had to spend a raucous night in the pub to test the camera in dark, spontaneous conditions) but it is all part of the service.
Design and Usability
The very first thing we notice is just how weighty the phone feels in your hand. It certainly feels more substantial than previous versions of the hand set. Much has been made of the difference in shape and thickness of the iPhone 4, so I was surprised to fine that the difference in practical everyday use is not actually that great. Apple have sensibly stuck with the standard iPhone look on the front of the device, with the speaker and proximity sensor at the top, and the usual “home” button at the bottom. The only difference on the front is the addition of a front facing camera. The phone is noticeably thinner than the previous models, and the side is now silver, due to the antenna’s being placed around the side of the phone. The back is also black, and has a glass covering over it. This is an immediate drawback when compared to older iPhones. Whereas it looks a lot nicer, the back seems far more prone to scratches than previous models. I would say that in less than a month of use, the back is already more scratched than my 3G was in two years. This is a drawback in my opinion, and certainly needs to be kept in mind if you are considering eventual resale value.
When held in your hand, the iPhone 4 is as comfortable as it always was. It fits snugly to the side of your head. The thinness does tend to make a slight difference to the way you hold it – I find that rather than wrapping my hand around it with my fingers on the back of the phone, now my fingers fit flush on the side of the phone. It’s not any more comfortable or uncomfortable; it just feels more natural to hold in this way.
Apple have made much of the display on the iPhone 4 – and strangely at first I was not that impressed. Whether it is the fact that iOS4 superfically looks the same as all other iPhone operating systems, I am not sure, but initially I found the screen overrated. The more I began to use it though – the more I realised just how gorgeous it actually is. The screen is the same size as previous models at 3.5 diagonal inches. It now displays at a resolution of 960 by 640 resolution and with a pixel density of 326 pixels per square inch, and also features the same IPS (in-plane switching) that is found in the iPad. This means that the viewing angle is much greater than the older iPhones. How does this affect everyday use?
Well, for a start web browsing is an absolute joy. However far you zoom in, the text and images still look incredibly sharp and clear. Viewing higher resolution images shows a much bigger level of detail and much more colour depth and density than previously seen. It doesn’t actually matter how far you tilt the screen – you have to go an awfully long way to alter the viewability of the screen. The fact is, the longer you use the phone the better the screen performs. The improvements become more and more obvious, and games that have been optimised for the retina display look stunning.
In terms of buttons, you have always had only five on the iPhone and this has been continued. At the bottom of the front panel you have the home button, which is exactly the same as on previous models. The off switch at the top feels slightly more recessed and slightly more tactile than previously. The volume buttons are now separated and the mute button seems slightly smaller and again more recessed. Whereas the mute button may seem only slightly redesigned I found this to be the biggest difference in real life use. I found the button to be far less intuitive than on previous iPhones and sometimes find myself actively having to look at what I was doing – whereas on previous models it was easy to find and manipulate. This is only a small thing, granted, but it certainly bears mentioning.
Now to the most important, yet often ignored, aspect of the iPhone – the call quality. Amongst all the other additions to the spec sheet, the least heralded is the noise cancelling function. Basically, it should now be possible to make calls in the most noisy environments you can find. Of course, this had to be tested so in the middle of the world cup semi final between Spain and Germany, with the vuvuzelas blasting through the surround sound, I called my Manchester City fan friend to discuss just how useless Boateng is. To my amazement, he could hear no background noise whatsoever. Even when I cranked my amp up 10db beyond my normal listening level, to where it was almost uncomfortable, he could still hear me fine and not hear any of the background noise. The cacophony was so loud I couldn’t even hear him. So with all the controversy about signal issues, it is good to note that when it comes to placing a call – the quality in the noisiest of conditions is excellent.
Ah yes. Signal issues. I am sure by now you are fully aware of the controversy surrounding the signal loss on the iPhone 4. If not I suggest a quick Google. I’ll still be here when you get back. Ok, well here is my experience. I have, once, managed to make the signal drop to nothing by holding the phone in a death grip with my left hand. This has only happened once, and I have not been able to replicate it despite trying on numerous occasions. However, even before the controversy erupted I had spotted an issue. At first, with the signal – all seemed fantastic. At work, where I got zero O2 3G on my old phone, I now had full 3G. At least so it appeared. However, closer examination showed the signal to fluctuate quite dramatically. I have found this in several situations. The signal meter on the iPhone 4 does not seem to be particularly accurate or reliable. You can think you are going to get a full, fast 3G signal and you find slow speeds or you can think you will get nothing and can actually surf reliably and speedily. This is not the case in all signal areas, but the issue has revealed itself in enough areas for me to see there is a problem. Whether the much mooted Apple fix will solve the issue, I have to say I am sceptical. However, I will add a paragraph here once the fix is implemented to say how it affects the issue.
I have also noticed some interesting issues when integrating the phone with my parrot car kit. The sync was not as easy as it had been with the 3G, needing several goes to get the devices talking. Once they were, however, the downloading of contacts was immaculate and quick. The voice dialling that the Parrot provides was much more accurate on the iPhone 4 – it picks up instructions far quicker and more reliably than the 3G, probably down to the voice recognition feature that is built in. You can also now voice dial by reading the name out properly rather than read the surname first and then the first name. However, I have also spotted a delay when using some apps, especially CoPilot satNav. When the instructions start to be read there is a delay before they come through on the hands-free, meaning you lose the first five words of the instruction. This could well be app based of course, rather than a problem with the phone. But it was not an issue with the 3G and it is one now so again, it has to be mentioned. I should also briefly mention that you can no longer answer the phone in the car using the “accept” command. You have to manually push the green button. Again, I offer no reason why this should be the case – but it should be mentioned.
Much fuss has been made of facetime, but as this only works with other users who have an iPhone 4 and a wi-fi connection then I am unable to test it. I can see this as nothing but an impressive specification until more people have the phone.
Anyone who has used an iPhone before will be well aware of how well the contacts and messaging app is integrated into the phone, and everything words exactly as before, only much quicker. Sending an MMS no longer exhibits a long delay at the end of the progress bar, texts exhibit how many characters that you have used, and dialling a contact from within the contacts app brings up the dialler even quicker. Amongst all the fuss about screens, and operating systems, it should be remembered that the simple act of dialling, messaging, and using voicemail is just beautifully implemented. After all, despite all the bells and whistles sometimes all you want to do is make a call or send a message – and the phone enables you to do this simply, easily and well.
As already mentioned, the iPhone 4 runs the latest Apple operating system - iOS4. The operating system implements multi-tasking and does so very well. Despite what some have said, applications CAN run in the background. The new version of iDisk, for example, enables you to play music in the background over 3G whilst doing other things. Co Pilot will give you direction guidance during phone calls and whilst running other applications. The disadvantage of this system is that you have to physically bring up the “running tasks” bar by double tapping the home button, and then hold the icon of the app you want to close, and then press the “x” feature before you can actually terminate it. Many times have I left a running, processor intensive application and found my battery life diminishing rapidly. It is an elegant system, but it really does need an option to terminate apps completely when closing them down. It should be noted that the sheer power of this handset is such that I have never noticed any performance issues, even with 20 apps running at the same time.
The phone has built in support for multiple email providers, including gmail and Apple’s own mobileme service. I spent some time switching between the both, and also running both together. Email is almost exactly as before – clean, intuitive, quick, and easy to use. I did experience some problems with calendar sync with Gmail, however – as hard as I tried I could only make the phone sync with two of my calendars.
Browsing is carried out via mobile safari and as before it works astoundingly well. We are hoping to review many more handsets and web browsing options over the next few months and years, as we expand this section – but as things stand at the moment this is quite simply the best mobile phone browsing experience we have had. The rendering of pages over wi-fi is stunningly quick with none of the hatched pattern that you can see whilst the phone loads the page. Even over 3G, the rendering of the page is much quicker. The one touch zoom feature and the finger pinching and expanding both run much quicker than before, meaning manipulating pages is an absolute joy. The custom processor that the phone is packing handles everything you can throw at it with no slowdown. When you zoom in, the stunning resolution that the screen runs at means that text remains super-sharp however close you are. We think that if you want to do a lot of browsing on your phone, the resolution, speed, and ease of use means that this experience cannot be beaten.
The iPhone 4 comes with plenty of connectivity options out of the box, although as we will see, Apple has placed some annoying restrictions on these. Obviously wi-fi is included and the signal strength and speed seems to be a lot faster than it was on previous models. 3G is also included, and with the caveat of an unreliable signal bar as mentioned earlier, also seems to be faster than it was on previous models.
As before, you can also use tethering and Bluetooth. Tethering is enabled for use with a laptop or other device, and is usually offered as an add-on with your tariff for a monthly fee and is usually data-limited. For example, O2 charge an extra tenner for theirs. Sadly, if you are an Apple iPad user you will not be able to tether to your iPhone 4. Apple, in their wisdom, have disabled this function.
Bluetooth has also been hampered somewhat. A2DP is enabled, which means you can fully integrate with car kits such as Parrot. This enables you to download contacts, voice dial, remotely stream audio, and other functions. Where you run into problems is in communicating with other phones. Apple simply do not allow this function. Whereas you can use third party applications such as Bump to remotely transfer files via Bluetooth to other iPhones there is currently no way to do so to other types of mobile. This is a frustrating limitation that seems to have been artificially placed by Apple.
When moving from an Apple 3G iPhone, this is probably the biggest upgrade on the device. There are two cameras, a back facing and front facing one – and both shoot video and stills. The front camera shoots at a maximum resolution of 640 x 480, and the back camera shoots video at 720P and stills at 5Mp.
Whereas 5Mp may not seem like a lot, in practical use the images that the camera produces are excellent. The addition of a flash also means that you are no longer resticted to shooting in bright daylight. I am not a photo professional, so those who are used to digital SLRs may sneer, but for everyday use, the images the iPhone 4 produces are just as good as my existing 10Mp Fuji camera. In bright daylight, colours are accurate and vivid with the depth of field being superb. You can focus on different parts of the image simply by tapping it with your finger, meaning you can produce some quite arty effects by focussing on either the background or the foreground. In a dark pub the images may slightly lack the clarity of their daytime counterparts, but on a recent raucous night out the iPhone 4 outperformed everyone else’s phone camera. The images may not be quite as saturated as they are in natural light, and there may be some colour blooming but these are minor concerns when you consider the images produced. Suddenly, the iPhone 4 is something you can reach for with confidence in any circumstances when you want to capture something. The forward facing camera may well shoot at a lower resolution, but you are most likely to use it to take pictures of yourself for sending via mms, or as a profile pic for an avatar. For this use the camera is perfectly fine, and it makes it nice and easy to take self portraits.
Unsuprisingly, the video quality is also superb – both in natural light and in dark conditions. When shooting video in the dark, the flash may be set to be on permanently this provides illumination enabling you to shoot in almost black conditions. Again, on the aforementioned raucous night out – plenty of embarrassing film was produced of various people singing Karaoke in a dark corner. The video looks crisp and clear, the quality of the sound captured on the mic is excellent – and it easily outperforms the standard def video recording of my Fuji. Daylight film, however, takes things to another level entirely. I took some video on the beach, and the sheer level of detail was breathtaking, running right back to the horizon in the distance. The contrast between the dark blue sky and the yellow sand was well rendered, and again sound was picked up well even at a distance. The overall result of this is that no-one is likely to be disappointed by the video and still quality of this camera. You can shoot video from the front camera too (although you can’t switch between the two when filming which is a shame). The resolution is obviously SD, but for a fun bit of filming of yourself it is more than adequate.
The media player on the iPhone 4 has seen no upgrade, so anyone who has used a previous phone, or indeed an iPhone touch will be totally at home here. The iPod features are tightly tied in with iTunes – which some will feel happy with, whilst others will regard as something slightly worse than spending eternity as one of Satan’s personal whipping-boys in the depths of Hades. One thing is for sure – there is no drag and drop facility for your music here.
The iPod built into the iPhone is basically identical to the iPod Touch. This means that once you touch the ipod icon, your music collection becomes available in one of two ways. If you are viewing in portrait mode, then you can view your collection in pretty much every way you can imagine. You can view playlists, Artists, and albums via clear easy to read touch icons along the bottom of the screen, and you can customise these if you want via the “more” icon. This means if you never watch videos but you listen to podcasts, then the menu can be configured for you. The “more” option includes : Audiobooks, Compilations, Composers, Genres, iTunes U, Podcasts, and songs. I cannot think of any way you may want to view your collection that isn’t included within these options.
Of course, the original iPhone and iPod touch introduced the innovative coverflow system and this is also included on the iPhone 4. Go to albums or artists and rotate to landscape view to see your album covers and flick through them on a carousel. I have always used the highest resolution covers I can for my artwork, and the iPhone 4 vindicates this decision. The interface was always very slightly clunky on the iPhone 3G but here it is seamless and a fantastic way to choose which album to listen to.
All phones are tested with a pair of Bose noise-cancelling over the ear headphones which are designed to render the music with no “pre processing” applied. Therefore with all tests any equalisations that are built into the device are not uses. The results from the iPhone 4 were excellent, rivalling any other dedicated MP3 player that I have listened to. The base was deep and natural, without overpowering the mix, and the treble was nicely balanced. The stereo separation was also nice and wide and the music just sounded dynamic and natural. Volume is also pleasantly pitched, with the ability to dial up to a decent level. The iPod plays MP3, Apple Lossless, AAC, Protected AAC, HE-AAC, MP3 VBR, Audible, AIFF, and WAV. It is without a doubt a replacement for your existing music playing device and eliminates the need to carry more than one device around with you.
The waters are slightly muddied when it comes to video playing, however. In order to get video onto the device you will either need to buy your content from iTunes, or run your video through a conversion program. These are freely available, it is true, but it does add an extra step that some people may find a nuisance. Of course, quality of playback will depend on the quality of the file you are playing, but the shape of the screen means that you are very likely to be viewing with black bars. On a screen of this size, this does mean that the image can appear quite small in the centre of the screen. For this reason I would probably never want to watch a movie on an iPhone 4 screen. If you do want to watch video on it, however, the increased resolution of the screen means that if your video is encoded properly then the quality is sublime. Colours are vibrant, blacks are deep, and the image is pin sharp. I ran some digital copy movies (Watchmen, Star Trek, Mama Mia), some downloaded clips from the Muse website, and encoded some home movies. All of these looked fantastic.
As a media player, then, the iPhone can be rated very highly. Easily capable of replacing any personal media player you may already own, the iPhone 4 is a powerful player restricted only by being tied to iTunes and the processes you need to go through to get video onto the device.
I am sure that Apple’s App store needs little introduction – but it is worth stressing that this is arguably the finest selection of apps available on any Smartphone. Yes, a lot will cost money, whereas a lot on Android are free – but the cost isn’t massive and what you get for your money is certainly good value. I have only come across one app which isn’t fully functional on the iPhone 4 (ipeng) – although many apps do need updating to work fully on the retina display and to support multi tasking. Once they are updated though, all the extra functionality you expect will be available to you. Gaming, weather forecasts, money management, etc – all functionality can be added to the phone by apps. Unlike other systems, you know that the app you have paid for will work on your phone. Apple’s approval system may not be to everyone’s taste, and the lockdown on what is available will irk some end users – but the fact is that you KNOW what makes it through the process will work and be of a decent quality.
Access to the app store is as well organised as before. You can search by name, by the most popular / highest grossing apps, within categories, or the “featured” selection. There is even a “genius” option which will recognise your previously downloaded apps and recommend others you might like. With such a huge selection you are not going to have any trouble finding something that you like.
Apple iPhone 4 Review
So, we have reached the end of the first of hopefully many phone reviews on this site and this is the section where we try and sum up the review in a couple of paragraphs. We treat each handset objectively here – and look at it accordingly. You will not find any brave proclamations from us stating whether a phone is the “best currently available”. We recognise that each user has different requirements from a handset, and what is best for one user may not be so for another. We simply look at the plus and minus points of each handset.
When it comes to the iPhone 4 there may well be more minuses than you might expect. For example, the artificial hampering of the tethering and the Bluetooth functions just make no sense – meaning that tasks that are second nature to most phone users are out of reach to the iPhone 4 user. The phone can run incredibly hot as well, even when filming a video. The top left of the back is hot to touch under intensive use – and on several occasions when using satnav the phone has actually overheated and shut down. It is a shame that there is no option to kill a running app straight away, having to minimise it and then access the “running task” bar is an annoyance – and the redesign has created signal issues as well as an incompatibility with many existing accessories.
However, no-one can argue that the iPhone hasn’t delivered many significant advancements over the existing design. The phone is thinner, the screen is gorgeous, the speed of the processor is faster and as always the functionality of the device is truly multi-faceted. As mentioned before, it all depends what you want from a phone. If you want a mini PC that is also your iPod and your phone, which can multi-task and help you out with every conceivable part of your life, then the iPhone 4 is probably for you. For the money you are getting the best screen currently available and, whether you like it or not, the Apple design that is always iconic; but that comes at a price. Of course, it is true that such functionality is available on other devices for a fraction of the cost – and we hope to look at many more phones over the next few months. At the moment, it is probably true that the iPhone 4 has nosed Apple back ahead of the competition, but at a cost to the end user that some may find prohibitive. It will be interesting to see what the opposition come out with in the next few months.
Call and Signal Quality
Email, Browsing, Calandar, Contacts
App support and functionality
Value for Money
Our Review Ethos
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