Reviewing the iPhone 4 a month after its US release seems like the work of a cartographer re-mapping New York city; there isn't an opinion to form that hasn't been blogged, tweeted or screamed out about since the phone hit the streets five weeks ago. But of those million little voices praising or cursing the latest Apple smartphone, which ones are correct and which are coloured in bias?
Physically speaking, the iPhone 4 represents the most significant shift in aesthetic for the iPhone to date. Gone is the curved plastic finish and in its stead you find cold, reflective glass. Around the edges are stainless bands, most notable for being the phone's antenna — the cause of the entire antennagate issue, but more on this later. Up front is the iPhone's 3.5-inch, 640x960-pixel resolution display, codenamed Retina by Apple which professes that the screen is so sharp that the human eye cannot differentiate individual pixels from one another. While this may be true, the human eye would also be hard-pressed to differentiate the clarity of the iPhone's screen from any on its competitors using a 480x800-pixel resolution display — these extra pixels are wasted on a screen this size.
Though the new design looks fantastic in renders on the Apple website, in the hand it feels cold and industrial. It lacks the subtle ergonomics of previous iPhone models and the brushed steel trim feels sharp against our much softer fingers. Speaking of fingers, be prepared to wipe maniacally at the fingerprints that accumulate not only on the touchscreen, but also across the glass backside of the new phone. People often buy thin plastic screen protectors for touchscreen phones, but we wouldn't be surprised to see thin plastic handset covers hit the market for the iPhone 4 before long.
The new iPhone 4 beside the iPhone 3G.
Current iPhone users will find little else to coo over once they power up their latest gadget. As with the experience of buying a new Mac or PC, once you boot it up there is an inevitable disappointment to be greeted by the same old operating system as before. If you've downloaded the iOS 4 firmware for your 3G or 3GS then you'll find there are no surprises short of the new phone processing slightly faster.
The continental grip
In tennis, the continental grip is a standard racquet grip, which is excellent for return of serve, or so we've been told. If you hold the iPhone like this, however, you can expect a nasty shock. Yes, we're talking about the iPhone "death grip", and if you thought Apple would solve this issue before daring to release this phone in Australia then you'd be wrong — dead wrong.
The first thing we did with the iPhone 4 when we ripped the plastic off the milky white box was grab it in the death grip and watch for the signal bars to disappear. It takes about 30 seconds before the first bar drops, then the fall off is steady after that. But what does this all mean in real-world situations? It's one thing to watch signal bars come and go, but does this issue affect the way the phone operates?
This depends on where you use the phone. When we tested the phone in the city with strong network coverage, phone functionality remained fine even when the iPhone reported only one bar signal. We ran online speed tests to trial the death grip data throughput and we couldn't find any noticeable loss of speed. Though we did see wild fluctuations in results, we couldn't isolate this issue as being related to the design flaw. However, when we tested in an area of low network coverage, we saw a much more serious issue. Starting with two or three bars of signal the so-called death grip killed the phone's reception entirely and the iPhone continued to report "No Service" until we moved our hand. If you are someone who struggles for reception anyway we suggest you choose a different phone.
Though much of the iPhone 4's hardware remains the same as the previous model, the 5-megapixel camera module has seen a vast improvement. Apple is using a new backside-illuminated image sensor in this camera, which is technology only just adopted by manufacturers of compact point-and-shoot digital cameras, and by no other mobile phone manufacturer. This sensor is designed to deliver better low-light photography, which is a plus for a camera you'll probably take with you everywhere you go.
A shot in our studio with a 100 per cent crop inset.
Photos we've taken in dark rooms under dull incandescent lighting have turned out extremely noisy, as you might expect. But while the image becomes grainy, the iPhone camera still manages to keep the light levels quite high. Under better, some might say more normal lighting conditions, the iPhone camera is among the best camera phones we've tested, and almost certainly the fastest. From the moment you hit the shutter button on-screen it takes less than 300-hundredths of a second to capture. This speed means you can capture those magic moments, and your photos won't suffer so greatly from blurry pics due to handshake.
The iPhone 4 also records HD video, but we're not as impressed with this feature. You could argue that the video capture is better than on other phones (a statement we will test in an upcoming feature) and there will always be someone to shoot a short film using the iPhone as a gimmick. But we can't get past the fact that the resulting video you will most likely shoot with the iPhone will be shaky, often out of focus and accompanied by a tinny, wind-blown audio track.
Would you expect anything less than first-class performance from an iPhone? We wouldn't either. Apple has set its benchmark high with the previous models, but still manages to squeeze out noticeably, if slightly, better processing performance, with thanks to its new A4 1GHz processor. Side by side with an iPhone 3GS you can see web pages load faster and apps launch quicker, but only by a matter of moments.
The new multitasking feature baked into iOS 4 works well on the new hardware and is a major improvement that affects iPhone usage across the board. As we've discussed previously, the multitasking is a saved state implementation, and while this is limited in its functionality, it does help to speed up workflow across multiple apps.
If we have one complaint about the iPhone 4's performance it's that it doesn't differ greatly from the performance of last year's iPhone 3GS. With the iPhone 3GS still for sale this year, customers could pick up last year's model for less but enjoy the excellent user experience.
Apple tried every shady trick in the book to cover up "antennagate", from blaming its customers for holding it wrong, to blaming it on its network signal attenuation algorithm, to playing down the severity by dragging other mobile vendors into the debate. When it's all said and done, you simply can't deny there is a flaw in the phone's design and an easily replicable network reception problem. Slipping a band-aid on the antenna will fix this issue, but it doesn't mask the fact that Apple has designed a phone with a flaw that you won't see on any other smartphone, and for this reason the iPhone does not get our Editors' Choice award.
That said, those who don't mind covering the antenna with a rubber bumper or case will buy a very capable smartphone. It doesn't multitask like a BlackBerry and it isn't customisable like an Android, but the iPhone is slick, fast and supported by the largest of the applications stores. Just remember to take a look at last year's iPhone 3GS before you commit to the new iPhone 4; it may not be the latest gadget on the shelves, but it very nearly matches the newer model's performance and you'll pick it up on a cheaper plan.