Apple made a big deal of FaceTime vid chat at WWDC, and I have to say — it does feel like the future of communication. No, Apple’s not the first to come up with vid chat, but I can see how this might make usage more widespread. It’s not unrealistic to think that the iPhone 4 may eventually do for vid chat what the original iPhone did for application stores and touchscreen smartphones, but only time will tell.
As it stands, the FaceTime feature works pretty well. It can use either front or back cameras, and
allows users to start a standard phone call and hit a button to continue it as a vid chat. It’s not a perfect feature, though: The VGA video sometimes seemed slightly slow sometimes and even froze one or twice (and I’m not a heavy user). But as a first release, it was still impressive and very easy to use.
The big thing about FaceTime is that it only works via Wifi for now and only with other iPhone 4 users. So it's a bit limited, but interestingly, apps like Fring have already started to make use of that forward-facing camera to expand communication possibilities. (Even though Skype blocked Fring, the app still allows for vid chat via 3G and Wifi, with any other Fring users.) Apple made the technology free and available to developers, so look for more third parties to jump in and put the front cam to good use.
The rear camera, at 5MP, may seem measly compared to 8MP cameras on behemoths like the HTC Evo 4G. But let’s be realistic for a second: If you’re not planning to shoot and print poster-sized prints of your phone pics, this may not be an issue. The real question is, how good is the camera quality? Do the photos offer decent detail, and lights and darks? Toward that end, this iPhone also features an enlarged optical sensor, as well as an LED flash to help with night-time photography. The flash works as well as any you'd expect on a phone camera and can remain on, for use with the video camera or as a flashlight.
During the day, shots taken yielded vibrant colors and very decent whites and blacks. As for detail, the autofocus does a great job, and the zoom slider works as expected. (Digital zoom is better than nothing, but as with any other camera, 5x digital zoom is overkill, given what it does — which is magnify a view via software, not an optical lens. As such, there’s no extra detail, so at the 5th zoom level, the image is so blurry or jagged, it seems almost pointless. This is a general gripe though, and a universal limitation. I only point it out here to inform potential buyers not to expect too much.)
Overall, the single best thing I found with this camera is the shutter speed. Too often, my phone is the only camera I have with me, and I miss photo opportunities because of how long it takes a handset to snap the picture. The iPhone 4’s shutter speed is fast, which means I’ve managed to catch more on the fly than I ever did before.
In an aviary at the San Diego Zoo, a little friend came up and said hello. And below, I got a whale of a pic on a New England boat. I would’ve totally missed these shots with my old phone.
HD video recording on smartphones has really taken off in the industry, as more devices like the iPhone 4, HTC Evo 4G and the Samsung Vibrant cater to the YouTube generation of amateur Scorceses. On the iPhone 4, HD video recording (at 720p) works very well and is easy to use, with tap-to-focus that works prior to and even in the middle of a shoot. Colors were rich, with good detail, especially in sunlight. Many of my friends didn’t even realize that some of my vids were shot on a phone instead of a full camcorder.
The LED flash works in vid capture mode, which is also nice touch. The flash and the microphone, however, had a rather limited range, so for maximum quality, subjects needed to be well-lit and loud, or within a few feet of the phone. But this is pretty typical of smartphone camcorders.
As for the 3.5-inch screen, if you’re wondering if the Retina Display meets the hype, then let me fill you in. In my opinion, it absolutely does. In fact, at 960×640 res and 326 ppi, it is perhaps the best screen I’ve ever seen on a smartphone, AMOLED or otherwise. Colors are bright, crisp, and viewable in daylight. Fonts render beautifully, with no jagged edges or pixelation. And apps optimized for the iPhone 4 have glorious visuals. And yes, all of this was definitely visible to the naked eye.
For someone like me, who is prone to headaches, the crisper text and detailed graphics means I won’t have to pop Advil as often. Frankly, this more than anything else is what’s keeping me from reverting back to my 3GS.
Click here to go to Part 4 of our iPhone 4 review: Usability & Performance