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Overview


Apple's iPhone 4 is truly a smartphone for the Beta Age. iPhone 4 is at once a state-of-the-art gadget that's a joy to use and a phone so hampered by issues that it really shouldn't be shipping. Voice calls sound far and away better on this iPhone than any that have come before it, and yet a massive design flaw results in loss of signal when the phone is held the wrong way. The new ultra-high resolution screen is truly stunning, and yet it has a tendency to malfunction and hang-up in the middle of calls.. 

This is what happens when companies rush to get the New Greatest Thing out to market. This is the Age of Beta Products.

Design and Features

iPhone 4 is thinner, shorter and ever so slightly heavier than iPhone 3GS. Gone is the curved plastic back plate, replaced by a flat glass panel and a shiny metal band that wraps around the perimeter of the device. This is the first major redesign since the original iPhone debuted three years ago. The basic design - touchscreen and single front-panel button - is the same as it's always been, but the styling cues, accents, and overall hand feel are markedly changed.



While I'm not a huge fan of my new black 16GB iPhone 4's overall look, I have grown very fond of its feel over the two weeks or so I've had it. The new iPhone feels incredibly solid and classy, the aforementioned flat metal band makes it easier - and just plain nicer - to use while capturing photos and videos, and at just 9.3 mm from front to back, this thing is amazingly, deceptively thin. iPhone 4 slides in and out of pockets with the greatest of ease.



Thing is, while the new rear glass plate is nice and luxe, it also makes iPhone 4 incredibly fragile - at least according to those who've dropped and shattered their new toys. I dropped my old iPhones many, many times. My first-gen iPhone had a huge dent in the metal portion of its backside, and my 3GS has a few little gouges along the top edge of the device near the headphone jack, all the results of various falls from various heights onto various hard surfaces. The 3GS suffered one of those scrapes when it slipped while I was trying to re-holster it after changing songs during a run. Actually, that's how it suffered at least two of those scrapes.

Given the newly fragile glass design of iPhone 4, I'm very, very hesitant to take it for a run. Metal dents when you drop it, while plastic gets gouged or even cracked upon impact. Glass, on the other hand, shatters. Apple claims the glass used in their new smartphone is incredibly tough, but evidence contrary to that claim abounds across the Net. Given that iPhone now has glass on both sides, and not just the front (screen) panel, who wants to take their chances on finding out first-hand just how durable the thing really is?



Feature-wise, iPhone 4 runs the same iOS 4 that the old iPhone 3GS is also now running, but it adds a few exclusive tricks to its bag as well. Most notably, 4 sports an ultra-high resolution 3.5" touchscreen Apple calls "Retina Display," a front-facing VGA camera, and Apple's "FaceTime" video calling feature, which works with other iPhone 4s over WiFi connections only. The new iPhone also features an upgraded rear camera with a 5MP camera and larger optical sensor, auto-focus with tap to focus, flash, and 720p HD video capture. Apple also added 802.11 n WiFi (2.4 GHz only) and HSUPA to iPhone 4's connectivity options, along with a faster processor and more RAM to make the thing hum along.

iPhone 4 is currently available in 16GB and 32GB versions in black only. A white version is coming, but as of my writing this is still delayed due to production issues.

Usability and Performance

Like the original iPhone, 3G and 3GS before it, iPhone 4 running on AT&T is a mixed bag when it comes to usability and performance. iPhone 4 suffers from more build quality issues than its predecessors, but also shows the most noteworthy generation-over-generation performance gains of any iPhone to date.



The first time I made a call using iPhone 4, I was literally shocked at how good it sounded. I placed the call using the same AT&T account from the same desk in the same location in Oakland, CA that I'd placed countless iPhone 3GS calls. The good voice vibes kept up for a few days before the old ways of iPhone started creeping back in: A dropped call here, an "I can hear you, why can't you hear me?" there, and a "You sound like you're in a wind tunnel, man!" over there. On par voice calling on iPhone 4 has been an improvement from the 3GS before it, and when a good connection is made, voice quality is excellent - thanks in part to the new iPhone's dual-microphone noise canceling setup. But the bugs interfering with voice calls are noticeable, annoying, and as of yet unresolved:

 

  • The "Death Grip": This is the one most people know about. Hold an iPhone 4 so that your hand covers the lower left hand corner of the device and you'll most likely notice quick drop in signal strength, if not an outright loss of voice and/or data service. The issue stems from Apple's new antenna design and the age-old problem of hand position causing cellular interference and signal degradation. Apple's official response has been, "Hold the phone differently," "Use a case," and "We're working on a software 'fix' that will better show you how few bars you're really getting on AT&T."
  • For the record I've been able to intentionally recreate the bug and have noticed some wild fluctuations on the signal strength meter on my phone. I've also experienced some dropped calls. But I've yet to be able to link my hand position to signal meter/connection problems. Plenty of other folks have made that link, however.
  • The Proximity Sensor Bug: This one drives me mad. There's a problem with the iPhone 4 such that the phone's display doesn't' always stay off when it's near  your face during a call. My cheek has hung up on people, put them on speakerphone and muted my end of the conversation on multiple occasions over the past few weeks. Whether this is a hardware issue affecting certain devices, a software problem that can be fixed via an iOS update, or a widespread failure that will require a recall remains to be seen. All I know is that as of now I no longer cradle iPhone 4 between my shoulder and ear while on a call. It's just too risky.

 

On the bright side, FaceTime video calls are fantastic, likely because there's no cellular signal involved (you're limited to WiFi calling). Video and audio are great, it's easy to switch between front/rear cameras and landscape/portrait orientation in the middle of a call, and the narcissist in me loves flicking the preview window from corner to corner instead of paying attention to the person I'm FaceTiming with. Apple was incredibly smart to make video calling "just another button" in the standard phone interface, making it much easier to place a video call on an iPhone than a comparable Android device. The limitation with FaceTime, of course, is that for now you can only make video calls between two iPhone 4s. But that's kind of the point, from Apple's perspective. 



Speaking of cameras, the upgrades made to iPhone 4's main camera have placed it firmly in the upper echelon of cameraphone performance. Stills taken with the 5MP camera have been excellent, and 720p video shot in decent lighting conditions has also impressed. iPhone's incredible display adds to the effect, as photos taken with and then viewed on the device have honestly been stunning to look at. I've read some reports that Apple's white balance system may actually be inaccurate, but to be honest I'm far too amateur a photographer to know the difference. What I do know is that pictures and videos taken with iPhone 4 look great, and the camera is generally quick to reload for the next shot - though I did suffer one full-system lockup while attempting to take a photo while filming my video review of the device.



And then there's the display. I hate the name Retina Display. At the iPhone 4 launch I got a few minutes of hands-on with a few devices and I wasn't so impressed with the new screen. But now that I've been using one for two weeks? It's amazing. Honestly. It's amazing in good light and at least usable in all but the worst lighting conditions - certainly better in bright sunlight than AMOLED. I don't know that the 3.5", 960 x 640 screen is that much of a game-changer compared to the 3.7" and 4.3" 800 x 480 displays on the current breed of high end Android phones, but iPhone 4's display is currently the best available on a mobile phone. It really is that good, despite the silly name and overindulgent marketing speak.

The phone has a faster processor than the 3GS, and it's noticeable. Line a 4 up next to a 3GS, make sure both are running iOS 4, and do some simultaneous app launching and Web browsing and you'll see what I mean. iPhone 4 is fast. The display is responsive, the processor zips along and the addition of multitasking - or at least a very tightly controlled version of limited backgrounding plus fast app switching that's called multitasking - is great. 

Conclusion

I could go on, but it all boils down to this: iPhone 4 takes what iPhone 3GS did and makes it better: Faster, richer, sharper, clearer … better. When it works right, anyway. Currently there's too much that gets in the way of iPhone 4 constantly working right for me to give it the sort of unconditional love that it might actually deserve. Especially when voice calls and cellular connectivity are involved (ah yes, the old "iPhone sucks as a phone" complaint!). 

Whatever you think of iOS, Android, Symbian or any other mobile platform, Apple has clearly produced a state-of-the-art smartphone and incredibly luxurious object in its new iPhone 4. As a pocket computer this thing is fast, capable, and very easy to use. It lacks Android's integrated Navigation and Voice Search capabilities and doesn't offer a modern notifications system like Android and webOS devices have long had. But most people won't care because it's an iPhone, it's the new iPhone, and it's the best iPhone Apple's ever made - and by a healthy margin.



What people should care about is that this device feels like it was rushed to market. We're living in the Age of Beta Products, where most consumer electronics are rushed to market because companies and carriers know bugs can be stomped after the fact via software updates. Unfortunately, Apple's pursuit of high design in addition to high tech may have caused them to commit an unfixable error in that antenna design … and possibly even the proximity sensor. As of my writing this, Apple has said that a forthcoming update will address miscalculations of signal strength, but will not do anything to help with actual reception issues. Nothing has been said by Apple in regards to the proximity sensor problem, though some users have been able to fix the issue by resetting their devices' general settings. 

I can't say whether or not these bugs will affect iPhone 4 users adversely in the long run, or if other issues will crop up over time. Hopefully fixes will be offered and mountains made from molehills will quietly fade into the sunset. In the meantime, I'd exercise some caution before hopping on the iPhone 4 bandwagon. There's no doubt that Apple has created one of the best smartphones in the world in their new iPhone 4. The problem is that of the million-plus devices sold in its first two weeks on the market, an inordinately high percentage of them seem to be plagued by fairly serious bugs.

Usually I wrap up phone reviews by saying - or at least thinking - that a week or two with a new smartphone is hardly enough time to get to know it, let alone be able to tell how it'll hold up over the long haul. In this case I've got the opposite feeling. By now all iPhone owners are familiar enough with the operating system, the iTunes/App Store ecosystem, and the way an iPhone works that a few weeks with iPhone 4 is plenty of time to get to know the thing. The question that remains isn't how well Apple's new phone will hold up over the long haul so much as whether or not Apple will be able to fix the issues that are plaguing the device right out of the gate, or if they'll wind up as part of the cost of being an iPhone user. As always, only time will tell.

Summary

What's Good: Stunning ultra high-resolution display; High quality camera and HD camcorder; Smooth, responsive performance as pocket computer; Super thin but retains solid feel

What's Bad: Bugs galore, including antenna design problems and proximity sensor malfunction resulting in loss of signal, dropped calls, and inadvertent hang-ups; Glass-heavy new design is possibly damage-prone

The Verdict: Apple's new iPhone is plagued by some serious design flaws, bugs, and production quality issues. And yet it's the best iPhone yet and arguably the best smartphone on the market. Welcome to the Age of Beta Products.

Check out Aaron's experiences with his iPhone 4 review, or go in-depth with Adriana's 5 part iPhone 4 review series.


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