Design and Hardware
The iPhone 3GS is beautiful in its own right, but a good number of HTC handsets have come along to rival it. The EVO 4G and DROID Incredible are both gorgeous and sturdy, and some might say even more functional thanks to the user-changeable battery, microSD card slot, larger screens, open software model, and the list goes on. The iPhone 4 is the first completely redesigned Apple smartphone since the iPhone 3G, and while the overall size remains nearly the same thanks to the use of a 3.5" Multi-Touch display, it's far thinner than the 3GS and has a number of unique design aspects worth mentioning here.
We'll start with some obvious points: the front and back. The front is dominated by a 3.5" touchscreen. That's the same size display that is used on the iPhone 3G and 3GS, but the panel itself is very different. Apple calls this display the most revolutionary of its time. The new "Retina Display" has a very high pixel density (326ppi), with an equally high 960x640 screen resolution that provides much sharper images than prior iPhone models. It's coated in a fingerprint-resistant oleophobic material, and it's easily the most beautiful touchscreen we have seen on a smartphone to date. Apple claims that you cannot actually see the pixels on the display, and while that's not exactly true if you stare closely at point-blank range, it's definitely the case from a normal viewing distance. Everything just looks perfectly fluid. It's a real joy to look at, and even outdoors it manages to stay bright and crisp rather than washing out.
The touch panel might be the most impressive part of the new iPhone; the touch response is second to none, and the colors are excellent. It's a pleasure to watch multi-media on this screen, and the added pixels mean that web pages render more fully and more completely (except for Flash sites, of course, which Apple still refuses to support). We thought that the iPad had the most impressive mobile screen that we had ever seen, and while that's still true in the world of tablet PCs, we have to confess that the iPhone 4's display looks even better. It's impressive what Apple has done with this panel, and while it's not OLED, it's quite a bit better in most regards (including being visible outdoors).
Beneath the display is that single "Home" button that has resided on the face of every single iPhone in history. It works well, and it depresses a bit further than the prior iPhone models. We think the lower threshold is for the best, and we still prefer physical buttons to the "touchscreen buttons" found on so many Android phones these days. Though, we wish Apple would add one or two more buttons along the bottom so we could easily launch our e-mail client or Mobile Safari browser and free up some dock space. There's just blank space on both sides of the Home button, and that's just begging for another two buttons to be added.
Above the display is the proximity sensor (which turns the LCD off when your face is against it during a conversation) as well as a speaker grille. But there's a new addition to the top of this iPhone: a front-facing VGA camera. This new piece of hardware is for video chatting with others through Apple's own FaceTime software; it's a pretty slick application, but unfortunately it only works with Wi-Fi right now. In turn, it's almost useless. What are the chances that someone you want to video call is both using an iPhone 4 and within range of an open Wi-Fi hotspot when you call? Slim. But the approach is OK, and being that it's open source, you could imagine Skype or Fring integrating this into an app to bring video calling to the iPhone in more ways than one. This is more of a wait-and-see thing than anything else; during our testing, video quality was acceptable (not great), and lag was reasonable. We would still prefer webcam chats on a real computer, and you really need 3G support here to make it worthwhile. Video chatting on phones still has a ways to go, and FaceTime is no different. It's a nice first step, but a few other things need to fall into place before consumers can really begin to care about it.
While we're on the topic of cameras, there's a 5MP one on the rear with an LED Flash and the ability to record 720p movies. It's strange that Apple didn't step up to an 8MP sensor as is found on so many Android phones these days, but the ability to shoot 30fps videos in HD is a real plus. We found the camera to be responsive enough (certainly more so than the laggy iPhone 3G camera), but we still wish there were a dedicated camera shutter button along the edge somewhere. Having to press the screen to fire a shot isn't ideal, as your phone moves every single time and introduces a level of blur that you can't avoid. Image quality from the 5MP sensor was great for a phone, but low-light photography is not its strong suit. Images were grainy and of poor quality in dimly lit rooms, but that's to be expected from a camera within a phone. The video capture is the real spotlight grabber, and the 720p quality is very good. We were impressed with the results we saw, though again, you'll want to film in daylight if at all possible. We could imagine a great many tourists ditching their 720p-capable point-and-shoot camera in favor of just toting this. The quality isn't quite up to par with dedicated cameras and camcorders, but it's stellar for a phone and is definitely good enough for capturing a cute moment on vacation.
Apple has kept the button layout around the edges very minimal, as they always do. There's a Dock Connector port and a speaker and microphone along the bottom, a separate volume Up/Down button on the side, a Ringer Off/On toggle above that, an On/Off + Sleep/Wake button on the top right, and nothing more. We would've loved to have seen an Orientation Lock button as is on the iPad, but there's a software version of that key in iOS 4. Not nearly as handy, but at least having the option somewhere is a big step up from iPhone OS 3.x. Also, there's a 3.5mm standard headphone jack along the top, which supports microphone inputs as well.
A very unique design aspect with the iPhone 4 is that the metallic ring around the edge is actually an extension of the antenna system. Apple claims that this will improve reception, and in our testing, we found that to be true. We were seeing 4 and 5 bars where we saw 3 bars on the iPhone 3GS, and we saw 2 to 3 bars in low service areas where we previously saw 0 or 1 bar. This ring won't do anything to improve AT&T's service nor how many calls you drop, but it should allow you to make clearer calls and hang on to reception longer when straying from a tower, theory.
We should note, however, that it seems at least many early iPhone 4 users are experiencing the opposite. The problem is that if the iPhone is held a certain way, reception drops significantly and leads to dropped calls and poor data connections. We have personally held our own test unit in these described ways, and while we have seen the bars fluctuate somewhat, we have yet to experience a tangible decrease in call quality or reception. There are widespread reports that Apple is suggesting that users simply hold the phone in a different way or use a case to break the contact. The problem is no doubt being magnified due to the hype surrounding this particular phone and the increased scrutiny that it is receiving. Still, this is a potentially large issue, and unless you know from the start that you'll be protecting your investment with a case, you may want to think twice about jumping in before Apple has a chance to officially address it.
Sandwiching the metal ring are two glass panels; yes, that's right, two glass panels. Both the front and back use aluminosilicate glass plates, which is supposed to make the phone more rigid, and the oleophobic coating is also on the front and back to minimize fingerprints. In our testing, the coating did seem to work somewhat, but fingerprints are still easy to apply. We think that even more prints would stick without the coating in place, so it's more of a deterrent than an outright weapon of rejection. The two glass plates did indeed feel extremely sturdy during our testing, and while we didn't try to crush it or anything, we suspect that it could take a bigger beating than the curved rear of the iPhone 3GS.
Internally, Apple has really beefed things up. There's an A4 CPU (which is underclocked compared to the 1GHz version in the iPad, but Apple isn't confirming the actual clock speed), along with a presumed 512MB of RAM (Apple hasn't clarified this either). That's double what shipped in the iPhone 3GS. There's the standard Bluetooth 2.1 module, but 802.11n Wi-Fi support has been added. You're also getting an A-GPS chip, Digital Compass, quad-band GSM / HSPA radio for worldwide cellular connectivity, and a battery of unspecified size that is not user-serviceable. Apple claims that you can get up to 7 hours of 3G talk time, between 6 and 10 hours of Web surfing and 40 hours of audio playback; all of these figures are larger than those on the iPhone 3GS.
For the gamers, there's an accelerometer as well as a new three-axis gyro. The gyro is critical to how accurate the response of tilts and turns are, and hardcore portable gamers should notice the difference. This new gyro is basically the equivalent of the Wii MotionPlus add-on; the Wii remote itself does fine, but it's even more accurate with the MotionPlus. The same is true on the iPhone; the iPhone 4 will be the most accurate game controller of all of the iPhone models thanks to the embedded three-axis gyro. Of note, devs will have to enable support for the gyro, so existing titles may not fully take advantage right away.
So, that's an in-depth look at the hardware that makes up the new iPhone 4, but what good is hardware without software? Let's dive into iOS 4, shall we?