The iPhone 4 landed at the Automated Home a day late but here’s our low down on the handset after a few days of
(playing around) exhaustive scientific tests including sample photos and video…
Apple claim it’s the thinnest smartphone on the planet with the best screen too. We didn’t hear too many complaints about the quality of the old iPhone screen. However at 960 × 640 the new one has four times the pixels of the previous gen and with 326 pixel per inch it’s as sharp as a laser printed page. With the display now bonded directly to the glass front, the LED backlit screen really is exceptional. It’s taken a few days to realise what the screen remind us of and we finally nailed it. You know when you look at a dummy phone in a mobile phone shop it often has a printed sticker on it representing what the screen looks like. It’s always so crisp and lovely and always a let down when you see the actual screen. Well that’s what the real iPhone 4 screen is like.
If, like us, you are jumping from the 3G rather than the 3GS, you’ll also gain a compass and voice dialling / control too. The sensor tally has grown by one with the addition of a built-in gyroscope which promises to bring more accurate spatial positioning as well as some innovative new games too no doubt.
The Camera(s) – It’s no exaggeration to say I may never carry my compact digital camera again. The new 5MP camera on the rear is fantastic. The tap-to-focus works well and gives you the ability to produce limited depth-of-field shots that really look like they came from a ‘proper’ camera. The LED flash is a poor substitute for a Xenon one though, but it is useful in some circumstances, particularly when turned on full-time for video recording. On that note the camera now records 720P HD video at 30 frames per second. The quality of this is incredible – see our sample video below – amazing that it’s coming off a phone.
The new VGA res front facing camera allows video calls with Apple’s new ‘FaceTime’ feature. I had a front facing camera on my phone 4 years ago. I didn’t use it then and I can’t really see this one being any different . Its Wi-Fi only for 2010 – as Apple no doubt try to convince the carriers that using even more of their bandwidth is a good idea. While it’s not new, it’s a typical Apple implementation, polished and working well with zero config required from the user.
CPU & Battery – One of our favourite features of the new phone is something you’ll never see – its CPU. Even with early reports appearing to point to it being underclocked in comparison to the iPad (which it also powers), the iPhone 4 is incredibly snappy. Apps launch in a blink and the camera application for example seems incredibly fast compared to its predecessor.
The underclocking an addition to the A4’s improved power handling features also allow it to nibble away at the electron store in its case, eking out more run time on a single charge. The battery is advertised as providing a 16% improvement. Talk time rises from 5 to 7 hours and one review we read said the phone made 38 hours on a single charge – pretty unheard of in the world of the cutting edge smartphone. It’s too early for us to confirm it right now (we’ll update this section when we know more) but it certainly looks like the iPhone battery life is a significant improvement and one over on many of the new Android phones that suffer terribly in this area.
iOS4 & Multi-tasking – The new version 4 of the Apple mobile operating system brings some useful additions like folders (at last) and a unified inbox with a threaded email view. However the biggy in iOS4 is multitasking. This is special Apple pseudo multi-tasking though, don’t let anyone tell you any different. Saying that, here are the common scenarios that I personally needed it to solve…
- RSS Reader Caching. I need to be able to kick off my RSS reader (ByLine) downloading its stories and associated images, then leave it to do its thing while I launch another app – This now works as required with iOS4!
- Maintain IRC Connection – I need to be able to leave my Internet Relay Chat client (Rooms & Colloquy) to look at email for example, then go back in without my session having ended – This now works as required with iOS4!
- Maintain GPS – I want my navigation app (TomTom) to continue to guide me even if a text or phone call comes in – This now works as required with iOS4!
- Play Live Audio – I want to continue to lsten to my live This Week in Tech app (TWiT) broadcasts while surfing and reading email – This now works as required with iOS4!
- I want to run InstaPaper in the background and periodically refresh its content, downloading the latest stories I’ve saved – This still does not work with iOS4.
So 4 out of 5 then, not bad. We assume Apple will expand the number of APIs available to developers and most remaining scenarios will be catered for in the future. The advertised upside of this type of multitasking is improved battery life, and it looks like that is the case. The phone now has 512MB of RAM (double that of the 3GS and even the iPad) which helps maintain the speed of instant switching for these ‘paused’ apps.
The Software – New apps of note include the iPhone version of iBooks (free). Now you can download a book on the iPad and start to read it. Then grab a few pages in your lunch break on the iPhone, both machines syncing your place – a la Kindle.
The iMovie app (£2.99) allows you to take that amazing 720P video you’ve recorded and edit it right on the phone. The resulting output is pretty incredible and you could easily have a polished looking video of your holidays edited and uploaded straight to YouTube before you’ve even arrived home (although you will need to transfer it to a computer first to upload it to YouTube at the full 720P res). Here’s a quick sample of a video both recorded and edited solely on the iPhone 4 from Automated Home reader Paul Gale (double click the video to open in new window and then make sure to watch it in 720P full screen).
The Problem – The 4 has launched with its own controversy based on the ‘innovative design’ that incorporates the antennas into the stainless steel band that runs around the phone. While videos have emerged showing other phones doing the same, (and there has been a similar issue with the Nexus One) – it’s seems incredible that Cupertino could have released the phone with a fundamental flaw like this. We have been able to reproduce it here easily and it’s looking like in areas of poor signal iPhone users are going to have to learn to hold the phone in a special way (pinky out) or add a Bumper or other case to cure this problem. It’s making Apple look pretty silly – requiring an addition like this to a new state-of-the-art smartphone just so it can function properly is pretty shocking. Steve Jobs’ email reply – “Just avoid holding it in that way” has also been made to look pretty crass when you look at how he demo’d it and how all their marketing material shows the phone being held.
Pricing – While most US reviews of the iPhone have rounded squarely on AT&T as the single biggest negative with the phone, we’re lucky to be able to choose from all the major carriers in the UK. Here’s a couple of useful links to help you decide which deal is best for you.
The Future – When the original iPhone launched in 2007 it brought a huge advance in the smartphone world overnight. However it’s no longer a decade ahead of the competition. Android is hot on its heals and it has significant advantages over the iPhone in some areas. Notifications are one of the most obvious, but Android also wins on openness, voice input and its free built-in turn by turn Google navigation (will this feature ever make it to the iPhone with the robust competition between the two companies now?).
The iPhone still wins on the user experience, the UI, battery life, screen, hardware quality and the big one – its App Store. The sheer selection (approaching a quarter of a million apps) and the quality is totally unrivalled. In a smart home context there is simply no alternative if you want the best looking apps and the widest selection of manufactures own system controls – they are available first, and often exclusively on the iPhone.
However with 60 Android devices currently available from 21 OEMs and Google announced just last week that 160,000 new Android devices are activated every day, it’s clear it’s only a matter of time before Android overtakes the iPhone in sheer numbers. As the installed base grows there’s bound to be more developers wiling to publish on both platforms.
It’s certainly not all rosy in the Android garden either though. The perception is growing that the coolest Android phone only lasts for 5 minutes as the next new and improved device comes along so quickly. At least with iPhone you can have the ‘best’ for a whole year. Also the recent news that up to 1 in 5 Android apps could have privacy issues with 1 in 20 having the ability to send SMS messages to premium rate numbers without the owner’s knowledge is a worry.
But we love the free Google services – having been careful not to get locked into Apple’s MobileMe ecosystem, instead preferring the combination of GMail, Google Contacts, Google Calendar and DropBox. Our contacts and calendars were up and running on the new iPhone – all syncing over the air – moments after setting up our GMail account. If we ever did decide to switch platforms in future it will be just as simple.
One thing’s for sure. We love the competition between iOS and Android. It’s driving innovation at a never before seen pace and it’s us the consumers that are the ones benefitting.
Conclusions – So is the iPhone a major advance over the 3G and 3GS? Definitely. The camera alone is worth the upgrade. While the screen is stunning, it might be of less significance day-to-day to us though. It’s the faster CPU, the 512Meg RAM, the thinner form factor and the pseudo multitasking that all combine to make the biggest impression here. There’s just that niggling feeling over the antenna issue. It will be interesting to watch how it develops in the land of the class action lawsuit.