iOS 4: Where It Excels
iOS 4 is a finely tuned mobile operating system. It's a major step forward for the OS previously known as iPhone OS since it was introduced back in 2007. Some may argue that the addition of apps was the most monumental, but when you're thinking about the whole picture, iOS 4 is really significant. There's the addition of native multi-tasking, a unified inbox view, support for FaceTime video calling, the addition of app folders, and did we mention multi-tasking? There's dozens of improvements and tweaks beyond those big ones, too.
Here's the bottom line: Apple has lagged behind in adding a lot of these features, but they've done a good job with implementation. Multi-tasking works well without draining the battery profusely, Folders helps keep a clean slate in your app pages, and the unified inbox view actually does what it says. For existing iPhone OS loyalists, iOS 4 is a major leap. It's lots more stuff you want, with minimal downside. If you're trapped (by choice or otherwise) in the App Store universe, upgrading to the iPhone 4 makes a lot of sense. While iOS 4 will run on the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS, the iPhone 4 is the phone the OS wants to run on.
The A4 CPU is fast, and iOS 4 feels light and zippy during usage. Apps open in a snap, multi-tasking doesn't drag, and everything just feels refreshingly fast. If you've used an iPad, you know the power of the A4. Apple has also throw in 720p movie recording, which is a huge feature to have on a smartphone. This really makes it possible for you to ditch your Flip Video camera and carry one less device. And while we're on the topic of hardware, let's talk about the display. Apple has managed to create an extremely thin smartphone with a screen that isn't crazy big (just 3.5"), but the 960x640 resolution on the Retina Display means that the pixel density is out of this world. What that translates to is the most beautiful display in the history of smartphones. So if you're a fan of watching HD content on the go, the iPhone 4's screen is the one you'll want your eyes on.
The battery is also outstanding; it can easily last 1.5 days without a charge, even with extensive use. That's a claim that most Android phones cannot even come close to making. So if you're a power user who tends to run batteries down in a heartbeat, the iPhone 4 deserves your attention.
Limits...There Are Always Limits
But what if you're new to the smartphone universe, or have just never used an iPhone before? In that case, iOS 4 becomes somewhat of a harder sell. For casual smartphone users, Apple's devices are still tops. They're incredible simple to get into, and they require no nerdy knowledge about computers to actually use. If you have no interest in tinkering with settings or customizing an OS to your specific needs, iOS 4 will suit you just fine. But what if you want control over your smartphone experience?
If so, there are some limitations involved with the iPhone 4 that you should know about. For one, the multi-tasking in iOS 4 isn't true multi-tasking in every sense of the word. It's more like "backgrounding," and you can read more on exactly what that means here in our in-depth iPhone 4 review. But basically, Apple limits what your phone can truly do in the background, and apps have to be specifically written to enable Fast App Switching and background processes. In other words, not every app will definitely utilize multi-tasking, which could be a real pain if your favorite app doesn't make the cut for whatever reason.
Then there's the issue of managing the multi-tasking. The multi-tasking drawer holds just four icons, and deciding which should be in and out isn't really your call. Apple just shoves any opened app down there, and you have to flick through--four at a time--to get to the app you want to pull up. In some cases, it'd be even faster to just re-visit the home page and enter the app that way. Bummer. Then there's the Folders limit. Each Folder can hold just 12 apps; Apple failed to implement a scrolling or swipe mechanism here, so you may end up with Games I, Games II and Games III and then guessing which folder has the game you're trying to access at the moment. That's not the most elegant solution.
AT&T: Is The Carrier A Deal-Breaker?
And then there's Tethering. If you're interested in using your phone as a modem, the iPhone 4 isn't for you. Apple forces you to sign up for one of their new non-unlimited data plans just to add tethering, so you'll be stuck paying a minimum of $45/month for the access, and that only includes 2GB of data for your phone. If you exceed that, it's an extra $10/month per GB. With a phone like the iPhone 4, which uses data so heavily and effortlessly, you don't want to be dealing with those kinds of limitations.
And since we're on the topic of AT&T, this is probably the single biggest downside to iPhone 4 ownership. You have absolutely no options whatsoever when it comes to carriers here in the U.S., and so if you don't get decent AT&T service where you live (or you frequently travel to places with lousy AT&T service), you'll never truly get to appreciate the benefits of iOS 4. Because you'll be pulling your hair out from dropped calls and lackluster connection speeds. Think long and hard about this one. Don't just jump into a 2-year contract with a carrier that doesn't serve your area well just to get an iPhone; if you plan on using it as a phone, you need decent phone service. Plus, if you aren't already an AT&T customer with a $30/month "unlimited" (5GB) smartphone data plan, you'll be forced to sign up for one of two plans that are less ideal for heavy data users (read more on that here).
- Beautiful hardware
- Excellent battery life
- A big upgrade for iPhone OS 3.x users
- Extremely snappy performance
- Native multi-tasking and Folders
- Easy to use, easy to understand
- World-class music integration
- Best smartphone display in the industry
- Limited multi-tasking
- Lock screen isn't customizable
- Only carrier option is AT&T
- Tethering, while supported, is very costly
- No built-in turn-by-turn navigation
- No sideloading of applications
- Impossible to use without iTunes, a sometimes slow and buggy piece of software