Apple iPhone 4: Full review
It’s guaranteed to be a big seller, but is Apple’s newest iPhone a must-have?
Published 24/06/2010 | 11:26
In the three years since the first iPhone went on sale, the mobile landscape has changed irrevocably.
Most phones now offer apps, internet browsing, social-networking widgets and email, while the higher-end smart phones continue to innovate around speed, features and build quality.
That means Apple has an increasingly difficult job on its hands; responding to the innovations of the chasing pack while turning out a new handset every year.
The iPhone 4 is this year’s effort, and overall, it’s a corker. Not everyone will be a fan of the iPhone’s new industrial look and feel, which has done away with the shapely, curved edges of the iPhone 3G and 3GS in favour of a more functional, practical design.
But I think iPhone 4 feels like a truly premium product, on a par with expensive designer handsets such as those made by Vertu.
It’s slimmer than its predecessors, and now features a glass shell made from the same super-strong aluminosilicate material used for helicopter windscreens, which makes it tough and scratch-resistant.
The stainless steel band that runs around the middle of the iPhone, like the buttercream filling in a particularly delicious Victoria sponge, not only helps strengthen the overall construction, but is also part of the iPhone’s cellular and Wi-Fi antennas.
The difference in screen quality between iPhone 4 and previous models is acute.
The new iPhone’s special “retina display” has four times the resolution of the iPhone 3GS, and Apple claims the pixels are so small that they can’t be detected by the human eye.
That means that icons, text and pictures are pin-sharp on iPhone 4, with crisp, defined edges. Colours are luscious and seem to pop out of the screen, while whites appear brighter, and blacks take on a deep, inky hue.
In short, it’s the kind of screen performance you’d expect from an AMOLED display, but Apple has somehow managed it with a simple backlit LCD screen.
Where this display really comes in to its own – more than with photos, more than with movies, more, even than with web pages – is with ebooks.
The iPhone 4 supports iBooks, Apple’s own ebook reader software, and the pages of Winnie the Pooh are rendered with a clarity and precision you simply do not find on any other device, not even an iPad.
There are plenty of other hardware improvements, too, including a five-megapixel camera with LED flash that’s capable of taking some great shots in lowlight conditions.
And the iPhone 4 can also capture high-definition 720p video at 30 frames per second.
The makers of the Flip range of camcorders should be very worried indeed; videos shot on the iPhone 4 look fantastic, with good colour balance, while a version of iMovie for the iPhone makes it incredibly easy to edit clips using the iPhone and create a pleasing, professional video ready for sharing.
The new A4 processor ensures everything zips along, and the bigger battery makes a world of difference – not once, in the time that I have been testing the iPhone 4, have I had to give it a lunchtime boost.
The improved battery life and nippier performance prove crucial for one of iPhone 4’s most hotly-anticipated features – multitasking.
It’s worth noting that it’s not really multitasking in the strictest sense, because not every app will be able to work fully in the background; Apple is allowing some apps, such as music-streaming services, to continue playing while users open other applications, but true multitasking is restricted because of the potentially catastrophic impact on battery life.
So that means that Twitter and Facebook, for instance, do not continue pulling down real-time updates even as you work on an email or browse a web page.
Instead, they are “paused” when you switch between apps; if you return to an app, you can pick up exactly where you left off.
Multitasking is not just restricted to iPhone 4 – it’s part of the iOS4 software update available to existing iPhone 3GS users.
The new operating system brings some welcome new features to the iPhone range, including the ability to organise apps in to “folders”.
You can have a maximum of 12 apps in a single folder, which means some apps, such as games, may have to be subdivided by genre (puzzle, shooter etc).
Annoyingly, all of the folders look the same on the iPhone’s Home screen – you can’t choose an app logo to represent the whole folder, so there’s a lot of squinting at the screen while you try to see which folder is which.
One feature of iPhone 4 that Apple has been pushing hard is FaceTime, its video-calling app.
The iPhone 4 has a front-facing VGA camera, which can be used to make video calls to other iPhone 4 users over a Wi-Fi network.
Video calling has never really taken off in Europe, mainly because it offered such an awful user experience, but FaceTime really is dramatically different.
It’s easy to use, for starters – you can start with a FaceTime call, or switch to FaceTime midway through a conversation, at the touch of a button.
The iPhone 4’s top-notch screen provides a really clear picture, while its dual microphones and noise-cancelling capabilities ensure good audio that remains in sync with the video.
It’s a shame the service is restricted to iPhone 4 users and that it works only on Wi-Fi, though Apple hopes that will change in time.
It’s also giving away its FaceTime technology to other mobile phone makers, which could really help to increase uptake of this solid video-calling app.
The iPhone 4 has its flaws. I wish the Home screen had a different look and feel that tied in with the device’s new industrial design; perhaps something more akin to the user interface on Microsoft’s forthcoming range of Windows Phone 7 handsets.
And it would also be great if it supported “widgets”, so that I could see, at a glance, what my most recent email or text message is, a real-time weather forecast for my locale, or even the latest stock prices.
But overall, the iPhone 4 is an excellent, beautifully built device that cements Apple’s position as the leading smartphone maker.
Upgrading to iPhone 4 won’t come cheap, though – buying the handset SIM-free from Apple will cost at least €610, and you’re still looking at a substantial outlay on the handset if you buy it on contract from a network operator.
If you own an iPhone 3G, or are simply in the market for a new phone, then upgrading to iPhone 4 is a no-brainer.
But if you’ve got an iPhone 3GS and are still in contract, don’t rush to upgrade; instead, install the new iOS4 update on your handset and put the new software through its paces.
After all, this time next year, Apple will have a new handset for us to drool over.