Apple’s annual update to its iPhone comes at a time when the latest Android handsets from companies like HTC are providing stiff competition. iPhone 4’s big selling point is its sharper Retina Display screen, a beefier processor and battery life, and a front-facing camera with Apple’s new FaceTime video calling tech. Is it enough of a leap over the iPhone 3GS? Read on to find out.
What we like
The iPhone 4 is certainly a slinky piece of hardware: it’s flatter and slimmer than the 3GS, with a toughened glass coating on the front and rear, and a stainless steel band running round the edges. It feels reassuringly solid too, although only time (and a few accidental drops) will tell if it really can stand up to the knocks and bumps that Apple promises it can.
The screen? It almost lives up to the hype. The iPhone 4’s display is noticeably sharper than the 3GS and its competitors, and comes into its own when zooming in on webpages and photos. Its value will become more apparent as games (in particular) get their resolution boosted to match it, but an early glimpse can be seen in driving title Real Racing, which was first to get its pixels bumped up for the device. While on a games tip, the iPhone 4 also has a built-in gyroscope, which will mean more sensitive motion-sensing for games in the coming months.
The main camera is also a big improvement on the 3GS. It’s now a five-megapixel model, which certainly isn’t the largest seen in a smartphone by a distance. However, it’s super-fast at taking snaps, and now comes paired with an LED flash for night-time shots. For speed and ease of use, it goes toe to toe with its more-megapixelled rivals.
The iPhone 4’s video recording abilities have also been boosted – it can now shoot HD video at 720p resolution. Released alongside it is Apple’s iMovie app, which lets you string your home movies together with titles and cross-fades, then export them to the device, to then be uploaded to YouTube or shared via email (and even MMS).
Apple’s unveiling of FaceTime at the iPhone 4 launch a few weeks ago provoked scoffs from some of its rivals, who rightly pointed out that video calls have been around for donkey’s years, without anyone actually wanting to use them. Apple is betting that FaceTime’s Wi-Fi-only nature – which means better quality – will win people over.
It certainly works well, with a distinct lack of visual and/or audio distortion. You can switch between the front and rear cameras mid-call, too, to show off your current location. We’re also impressed with the lack of setup, since it automatically detects if you’re calling someone with an iPhone 4 and lets you switch to a FaceTime call.
We’re also big fans of Apple’s iOS 4 software, although it’s not exclusive to the iPhone 4. Multi-tasking, the ability to group your apps into folders and a unified inbox are all welcome improvements. As we said, you can get all this on an iPhone 3GS, but if you’re planning to have apps multi-tasking in particular, iPhone 4’s better battery life is a real boon.
Talking of which… The new handset is undoubtedly less of a juice-sapper than its predecessor, by which we mean it can comfortably get through a whole day’s usage. It’s not quite on the level of the iPad, but will certainly do nicely even for heavier app users.
What we don’t like
FaceTime works well, but it only works on the iPhone 4. If you’re calling someone with a different iPhone model or another manufacturer’s handset, you can’t use it. What’s more, there isn’t yet a desktop app that supports FaceTime, so you can’t videochat with people on a computer either.
That means that some of the key potential usages – videochatting with your children when away on business, for example – only work if you’re a two-iPhone-4 family. Apple is aiming to change this, by making FaceTime a standard that any manufacturer can use in its products. It may launch a desktop FaceTime application, but in theory the technology could also be used by Nokia, Samsung, HTC or whoever. For now, FaceTime is a great feature whose potential is limited by the number of people using it.
Meanwhile, the iPhone 4’s external antenna design – it’s built into the stainless steel band which runs around the outside of the device – has caused a big controversy since the handset went on sale last week. Bloggers and early buyers quickly discovered that when held in a certain way, the handset loses reception.
It’s undoubtedly embarrassing for Apple, which had hailed the new design as revolutionary. Claiming that the problem goes away when the iPhone 4 is inside a case or one of Apple’s new ‘bumpers’ – which it does – is guaranteed to raise hackles among early adopters, given that those bumpers cost £25 a pop.
Two things may happen now. Apple could start bundling a free bumper with every iPhone 4 as a short-term measure. However, it’s also been suggested that the problem might be fixed via a software update.
We’d stress, though, that we’ve had no problems making or receiving voice calls, using connected apps or surfing the web on ours handset when holding the phone normally. We tested this using an iPhone 4 on both O2 and Vodafone. In any case, if you’re one of the many people who kept their iPhone 3GS housed in a case, it won’t be an issue at all if you follow suit with the iPhone 4.
Finally, the geek in us wishes that Apple had followed Android’s lead in providing a ‘create your own hotspot’ feature in iPhone 4 and/or the iOS 4 software. We’d love in particular to be able to tether the device wirelessly to an iPad to share its connection, rather than paying out for two separate tariffs.
Every iPhone elicits strong reactions from the fanboys on one side and the detractors on the other. Picking your way between the hype and the hate, there’s no doubt that iPhone 4 is a hugely impressive smartphone. It corrects key flaws in the previous model – particularly the battery life – and is one of the most user-friendly handsets when it comes to shooting hi-res video. The screen also sets new standards for smartphones. For now, it’s king of the hill. Your move, HTC.