iPhone 4: First impressions

Black and white iPhone 4 models at 30-degree angles.Apple says that the iPhone 4 is much more than just an incremental tweak from previous iPhone. And while it can defend that claim, the arrival of the iPhone 4 reminds me quite a bit of the arrival of the iPhone 3GS in many ways. First, a large part of the value lies in the release of new software, in this case the newly renamed iOS 4. Second, much as the iPhone 3GS ushered in video capture to the platform, iPhone 4 has added video (and stills) capability to the front of the device, providing the key hardware for the FaceTime videoconferencing.

Software

The three most significant new features in iOS 4 are multitasking (albeit Apple’s limited flavor of it), folders, and the universal threaded e-mail discussions, and they all improve the efficiency of working with the iPhone.Multitasking is particularly helpful when you need to switch among more than two apps and especially if those apps were located on different home screens (a scenario that folders also ameliorates). Apple’s approach has its drawbacks. For example, when you return to the e-mail client or a Twitter client, those apps will only then connect to the network and start downloading new messages. So if, for example, you haven’t remembered to switch to that app before entering a place with no coverage, you won’t have access to the latest updates. The upside to limitations like this is enhanced battery life, which I’ll discuss later.

In a release that has done much to alleviate the repeated swiping to move among home screens and e-mail inboxes, the task switcher seems like a throwback. While swiping to the left to access media controls is a good idea, Apple need not have so many screens of recently opened apps, and removing them from the selection row takes too much time and is potentially confusing. Also, it’s not clear why Apple preserves so much of the screen to the near-useless space of the active app when you are in task switching mode. These could all be addressed with simple fixes – devite, say, half or even 3/4 of the screen to task switching and implement WebOS-style flicking away of icons (or, even better, preview screens) to remove them from the app switcher.

My main complaint about the universal inbox is that, while it has greatly reduced the amount of repeated swiping, it hasn’t completely eliminated it. While the iPhone’s new threaded discussion feature is helpful, it inserts an intermediate screen between inbox and message that I’d rather have the option to bring up instead of it always being there. Also, it would be nice to have some indication in the universal inbox of what account the e-mail is fron (as Android provides with its colored bars).

And speaking of e-mail and other smartphone platforms, there are a few things about the BlackBerry that I continue to miss in the iPhone. Foremost among these is the ability to set up auto-replacement text macros to save time typing (an OS-level feature that Apple would clearly prevent third-parties from implementing). Another is full-text search in e-mail. I also often use the “Search Sender” command to quickly call up all e-mails from a given party. A welcome sleeper feature in iOS 4, though, is integrated background spell-checking.

Then there are folders, and Apple has done a good job here although it would have been relatively easy (from a UI perspective) to allow (at least) 12 apps per folder by dynamically moving the folder icon to the top row when it is in opened “mode”. One interesting bit of trivia  is that you can have multiple folders with the same name; iOS won’t complain as folders are mostly cosmetic and not part of the hierarchical file path that they are in Mac OS. (This is amusing to me because it is the way folders first worked on the Macintosh and its original MFS file system.) Anyway, just as it was a hassle to move icons around screens before (and still is); iTunes needs to step up its game here), rearranging them into folders can be tough at first, but the effort is definitely worth it and easier to maintain in the long run.

While many have complained about iOS 4 on the 3G, I tried it on the 3GS before getting te iPhone 4 and it is an excellent and worthwhile upgrade to that device.

Hardware

The iPhone 4 has always been one of the most striking phones in the market, and the iPhone 4 indeed takes it to the next level. The glass back is in a class of its own, the overall feel is more study and dense, and the buttons respond more crisply. I have warmed to its flatness that’s a throwback to the original iPhone although I still preferred the feel of the humpbacked 3GS in the hand. The ability to now position the phone on its side has some practical benefit, although video viewing is not one of them, and it doesn’t seem in Apple’s gimmick-averse nature to add a kickstand.

Probably the feature that Apple has talked up the most on the new hardware is the new high-resolution display. I’ve found its improvements to be relatively subtle most of the time except for when viewing small text, where it pays dividends. Having recently seen both the Droid X and the Galaxy S phones, moving to a 4.3” display could be overwhelming for many consumers, but Apple could definitely and probably should take the iPhone to 4” to display more information on the screen. One thing’s for sure. The iPhone’s IPS LCD is incredibly bright, and more than held its own as I put it side-by-side against the “Super AMOLED” display of the Galaxy S with both at full brightness. While I did not try this outside, though, the Galaxy S did very well in direct sunlight.

The iPhone 4 is noticeably faster than the 3GS, although not as huge an improvement as the 3GS was over the 3G. But by far the most incredible boost in the device is battery life. Whereas I’d generally reach the 20 percent mark at about 4 pm and struggle to make it to 8 pm without a recharge, the iPhone 4 is registering about half full well into the evening. The iPhone 4 stands unassailed at the intersection of rich functionality and long battery life.

The iPhone camera’s improved camera and high-definition video capture are also welcome improvements. It’s somewhat paradoxical that Apple, which has opted for such a tightly-controlled approach to commercial music and video syncing via iTunes, just allows good old drag and drop to manage personal photos and videos (in contrast to the Flip camera’s FlipShare), but I’ll take it any day. The camera does much better in low light and the flash certainly helps in cases where it’s required. I was very pleased with the video capture and iMovie really makes the iPhone the best personal video solution among smartphones — and maybe beyond — in the market right now. I have encountered two issues, though. HD movies can take quite a bit of time to save, and there have been a few frustrating occasions where the digital shutter has simply refused to open, leaving me stuck at the opening frane of a James Bond title sequence..

I’ve not done any head-to-head comparisons with the 8 megapixel cameras of the Droid X or HTC EVO 4G yet, but intend to do so. The other feature I’ve not yet tried is Internet tethering, but I do wish Apple would allow mobile hotspot functionality via Wi-Fi versus relying on cable or Bleutooth.

I’ve had limited opportunity to try out Facetime given that both callers must be in a Wi-Fi hotspot and have iPhone 4’s for it to work. It is a fun and natural way to communicate that in many ways makes more sense on the go than at home, and has tremendous potential particularly if clients surface for other platforms, which I expect will happen. Hopefully Apple and AT&T can get this cleared for 3G next year.

Finally, there is the famed antenna issue, and I frankly have not had any issues with the iPhone 4’s reception. It has been much better than that of the iPhone 4. As an Apple product manager told me in reference to AT&T, “The’y’re getting better. We’re getting better.” I was able to maintain a phone call on the iPhone for the first time while driving through New York’s Midtown Tunnel, something I’d only been able to do previously on Verizon and Sprint phones.

Conclusion

Unless they’ve been experiencing some of the antenna issues, those who stood on line to obtain the iPhone 4 are likely very pleased with their purchase. Those with 3GS devices can achieve a lot of the benefit by upgrading to iOS 4, but the increased battery life and improved camera capabilities of the new iPhone makes it an enticing upgrade for heavy users, and one will likely become a .compelling one as Facetime spans 3G and more devices. While Sprint and Verizon battle back with screens that boast larger screens (and at least in the case of the EVO 4G, challenged battery life), the iPhone’s smaller footprint and superior integration will likely still prove menacing to them for most mainstream users.

2 Responses to iPhone 4: First impressions

  1. Glenn Fleishman says:

    “Foremost among these is the ability to set up auto-replacement text macros to save time typing”: this isn’t the solution you want precisely, but TextExpander touch for iOS is a shared library of macros that can be used among supported apps. It would be great if it could simply work systemwide, but I can’t imagine we’ll see that any time soon.

  2. Ross Rubin says:

    Thanks, Glenn. Really enjoyed your excellent article on femtocells.