Multi-Tasking, FaceTime and Overall Performance
We've covered the hardware and software sides, and now it's time to talk about performance. For anyone still using an iPhone 3G with hardly any free storage left, you'll probably wonder how you ever considered that the iPhone 3G was "fast." Opening the camera alone can take 5 to 10 seconds, and switching out of one app and into another can take an equally long time. As smartphones have progressed, Apple's hardware and software has grown to feel more and more sluggish. The iPhone 3GS helped out somewhat with a faster set of internals, but we have all been spoiled by just how fast the iPad whizzes through iPhone OS 3.x and the speed of many competing smartphones.
A4 Inside: Does It Pack A Punch?
The 1GHz A4 processor in the iPad purrs along nicely within iPhone OS 3.x, and anyone that has used it probably now feels as if the existing iPhone hardware just doesn't cut it any longer. But with the A4 chip in the iPhone 4 (Apple has yet to clarify the actual clock speed), performance has certainly increased. Put simply, the A4 CPU in the iPhone 4 is fast. Even if it's a downclocked version, it managed to really outpace the older iPhone models. The performance increases offered by the iPhone 4 are a combination of the A4 chip, increased memory, and software tweaks to enhance speed. We wish we had a MHz rating to specify, but Apple's being extremely selfish with the details here. We aren't told the frequency, and we aren't told the amount of RAM. In fact, the only core specification we are told is the amount of storage, which is either 16GB or 32GB depending on model. Due to that, a lot of the improvement has to be judged on feel, but in every test we have tried, it far outpaced the iPhone 3G and even felt noticeably faster than the 3GS.
Digging Deep Within iOS 4
With smartphones, it's hard to accurately benchmark the operating system and phone hardware. There's tons of variables, and no OS is the same; therefore, there aren't any uniform benchmarking tools that work across WebOS, Windows Mobile, iOS and Android. What we're left with is having to "eye" the speed increases, and we can say with absolute certainty that the iPhone 4 is leaps and bounds faster than the iPhone 3G (and even the 3GS). Opening apps happens in the blink of an eye; loading the camera application takes a fraction of a second, rendering Maps takes just a moment compared to what it used to. We felt as if the iPhone 3G didn't have the hardware muscle to handle the complex iPhone OS 3.x, but now we feel as if Apple has delivered a phone with hardware capable of managing the operating system well.
A huge issue that older iPhones had was keyboard lag; you would pull up a new text message, and while the keyboard would pop up, it would take a few seconds for your key presses to start registering. It was frankly annoying, and the new hardware here has eliminated that issue. Keyboard presses are recognized immediately, and new e-mails also open up in a snap.
Multi-Tasking...Or Is It "Backgrounding?"
We should touch on multi-tasking as well. Having the ability to double tap the Home key in order to pull up all running apps from within the app you're currently in is a real plus, and it works seamlessly. The only issue we have here is that just four of your running apps can be seen below, whereas the stock Android 2.1 build shows the last six apps that you accessed in a similar manner. This problem is somewhat alleviated by scrolling left or right to access more previously used apps, though.
One of our gripes with this system, however, is that the task bar can very quickly grow unwieldy. Apple automatically puts the icon of whatever application you open down in that lower bar, so after a couple of days of use you could easily have 30, 40, or more icons down in that drawer. Closing app icons out of the drawer requires more effort than we would like (you have to press and hold each app, then click the X on each one individually), and there are no options in Settings to permanently place or ban a given app from falling into the multi-tasking drawer. We didn't notice any significant performance hit with even 20 apps down below, but it hurts productivity when you have to scroll through pages and pages of apps to find what you're looking for.
Another issue revolves around what exactly happens in the background while you're "multi-tasking." Pandora, for example plays perfectly in the background, and there's even a handy drawer widget that pops up upon command in order to let you pause, play or skip a track without actually having to go back to the Pandora app (but you'll need to re-visit for more complex things, like finding a new station). This is iPhone 4 multi-tasking at its finest. It's a good implementation, but the catch here is that this implementation isn't everywhere. Not every app has a multi-tasking drawer widget to control it from another app, and worse still, you can't always leave one thing processing in the background while you're within a different app. Here's an example: let's say you load a YouTube video, then want to view your e-mail while the video buffers and downloads fully, so you can return in a couple of minutes to watch the whole thing without any pauses. Not going to happen, at least not without some funny business like Jailbreaking. If you load a YouTube video and then hop to another app, the YouTube pane just freezes in place until you return. This defeats the purpose of having multi-tasking, and in fact, is the opposite of multi-tasking.
Now, Apple does allow background processing in some apps, but not in all. Also, this (along with Fast App Switching, which allows an app to remain "on" while not being the app in use) has to be enabled by developers. It's not native. So unless your favorite apps get updated with support for these protocols, you won't be able to take advantage. At this point, some of the larger apps support backgrounding (like TomTom's GPS app, Pandora, Plants Vs. Zombies, etc.), and we suspect that many will add it in the future. But we have no hope that YouTube will gain this support, and this is one app where background processing would seriously come in handy. We suspect that Apple feared that processing that much information in the background would result in poor performance, but we don't know for sure. So in the end, we're happy with multi-tasking performance, but we aren't completely satisfied with the extent at which we're allowed to multi-task.
We never ran into any issues popping out of one app and into another, and we were able to have six apps running in the background at once without any notable hit in performance or battery life. That's impressive. Apple's multi-tasking may be the most elegant we've seen to date, though the ability to add widgets is still sorely missing. This means that there's still no effective way of getting "glanceable" information out of the iPhone, and without Jailbreaking, the lock screen is still useless outside of telling you the current time. We wish Apple would allow widgets to stick on the lock screen so that a simple click would allow you to glance at your current inbox status, waiting text messages, weather, etc. Performance with the new Folders system was also good; loading a folder chock full of apps took no time at all, and it's a great new way to categorize your app collection. Though, we do wish we could load more than 12 apps in a Folder. This exemplifies one of our frustrations with Apple; there's no limit to how many icons can reside in the multi-tasking drawer, yet that same scrolling-through-apps feature is not given to folders. Why? Instead, if you have more than 12 games you'd like in a folder, you'll need to create a Games I, Games II, Games III, etc. folder.
Smile! It's FaceTime!
Another of iOS 4's unique features is FaceTime. Apple is pushing this feature as ground-breaking, but in reality, video calling has been around for years. Even on mobile phones, video calling has been a reality for awhile, but it's rarely used or even supported in the U.S. But what Apple has really done is exploit an opportunity to market video calling in a way that has never been done before. Apple's bringing video calling to the mainstream in America, and in typical Apple fashion, they've made the act of video calling super simple. We tested out a FaceTime call with a fellow iPhone 4 owner using our home Wi-Fi connection (basic DSL), and the entire process was seamless. You simply turn FaceTime "On" in settings (the default is "Off"), then call a contact. If that contact has FaceTime switched "On" on their own iPhone 4, and they have a Wi-Fi connection, a box will appear allowing you to initiate a FaceTime conversation.
Merely seconds later, our call was diverted from AT&T's towers to a Wi-Fi signal, and the video call was underway. It was quick to connect, and there was no lag at all during the 15 minute conversation. Lips were in sync, audio wasn't garbled, and the image never flashed in and out. It was as nice of an experience as they come, and we get the feeling that Apple's engineers put a lot of work into getting the audio and video streaming quality so high. We wish badly that this feature was enabled over 3G, but it works surprisingly well when you (and the person you're calling) are connected to Wi-Fi. Thumbs up on the implementation, thumbs down on the avenues to use it. Once this becomes available over 3G, it'll be more interesting.
5MP Camera Put To The Test
As for the camera? Well, it's a typical phone camera. It won't soon replace your DSLR, but it may suffice in a pinch when you forget to bring your point and shoot along. Apple has included a 5MP camera with LED Flash here, which is lower than some 8MP cameras in the same price range. The difference is that they also throw in a 720p (30fps) movie mode, which is a big step up from before on the 3GS. There's Tap To Focus, a 5x digital zoom and little else; no in-camera editing tools are really available, so you'll have to do your post-processing in Photoshop afterwards if you aren't happy with the stock image results. In general, there's no big difference between the images here and from the iPhone 3GS; the resolution is higher so you have more crop area to work with, but the colors are still somewhat washed out compared to a real camera, and it obviously isn't much good in low-light situations. Below are a couple of shots taken outdoors about an hour before sundown just to give you an idea.
Summing Up Performance
Performance wise, we found ourselves happy all the way around. There were no major instances where we found ourselves longing for things to run a bit smoother or faster, but if we were pressed on the issue, we wish that the accelerometer reacted a bit more quickly when flipping from vertical to horizontal. We should also note that Apple's battery life claims were met here; even with extensive testing, we were able to get well over a full day of life with a couple hours of talking and a couple hours of Web surfing. We're confident in saying that the average user should be able to make it a full day (24+ hours) on a full charge; just make it a habit to charge your phone overnight, if you haven't already.