Review: Apple iPhone 4

Apple iPhone 4I was fortunate enough to actually be able to pre-order my iPhone 4 and even more fortunate to have it delivered a day early on Wednesday, June 23rd. I’ve had a couple of days to play with my new iPhone and wanted to provide you with some first impressions. This is by no means a comprehensive review of the iPhone. If you’re reading this I assume that you’re already familiar with the technical specifications and features. This is simply some of my thoughts and opinions as an end user of the device. First Impressions: Pulling the iPhone out of the box I immediately noticed how much thinner it was than my old iPhone 3G. The iPhone 4 is more compact but slightly heaver which gives it a solid feel. I also immediately noticed the glass front and back of the phone. This made me a little nervous because I realized for the first time just how much glass this is. It feels very solid, and my iPhone 3G has held up very well to the rigors of everyday life. But the dual glass front and back makes me nervous.

I also noticed the steel antenna band wrapping around the phone. At first glance, this seemed a little odd and out of place. It gives the edges of the phone a rough and industrial feel compared to the smooth edges of the iPhone 3G. Because the iPhone 3G had a curved back, it also felt a little more comfortable when cupped in your hand. After a few hours with the iPhone 4 I quickly got use to the new form factor.

I turned on the iPhone and was immediately blown away by the screen. I’ve never had a problem with the iPhone 3G screen. I thought the iPhone 3G had a gorgeous display. But the iPhone 4 is phenomenal, everything Apple cracked it up to be. Crisp text, smooth lines and a bright display. Even with the brightness turned down to about 50% the iPhone 4 was just as bright, if not more so, than my iPhone 3G. It’s like the first time you look at the new LED screens on the current generation MacBook Pros when you’re use to the older style LCD screens. There was really nothing wrong with the old LCD displays, but the new ones are so much better. Maybe it’s like the difference between watching standard definition and HD TV? Standard seemed just fine, until you started watching HD.

Durability and Protection I don’t usually use my iPhone with a case, but this is the first time I may consider doing that to offer additional protection. I really like using the iPhone dock and have a number of devices that I dock my iPhone into. Unfortunately, using a case (even Apple’s overpriced bumper) will ensure that the iPhone no longer fits into the dock. Though with the antenna issues (discussed below in more detail) I may need to make an exception to my usual policy. In my previous experience, usually you can get an iPhone with a case to fit in Apple’s Universal Dock by either removing the adapter or using an adapter for a larger product. Unfortunately, the universal dock is much more expensive than the standard iPhone dock so even if this is a solution to my iPhone with a case dock problem it will be an expensive one.

I can also see scratching being a problem, although Apple claims the screen is fairly scratch resistant. Nonetheless, I very quickly applied an Invisible Shield for the front and back glass panels. I’m a big fan of the Invisible Shield product and have used them on all my iPhones, iPods and iPad whether I decide to use a case or not. I have a hard time getting the invisible shields installed just right so I usually opt to take it to a Zagg retailer and have them apply the shield for an extra cost. Because the Zagg retailer near me recently closed I opted to go with the “easy install” kit which includes protection for only the front and back of the device. While the kit was true to it’s word and very easy to install, I wish now that I had opted for full body coverage and made a special trip to a Zagg retailer to have it installed. (There’s one about 2 hours from here.) So, I think I’ll probably do that next time I’m in an area that has a Zagg retailer or booth. Another benefit to the invisible shield is that it really cuts down on fingerprints and makes the iPhone much less slippery. Less slippery = fewer drops.

I also opted to buy a SquareTrade warranty for my iPhone. They were running an iPhone promotion where the warranty was $100 for two years of coverage and included accidental protection. Again, the glass front and back make me nervous. I haven’t had insurance on my previous iPhones, but this one feels like it needs it. In the past I’ve bought AppleCare for my iPhones, but never used it, except perhaps to have a battery replaced near the end of the coverage. I decided to spend the extra $30 on the SquareTrade warranty compared to AppleCare because SquareTrade covers some accidental damage (with a deductible) as well as manufacturer problems.

Camera and FaceTime I’ve never been one to use the camera on my phone all that much, but the improvements to the iPhone 4 camera are quickly apparent. A few sample photos and movies I’ve taken have all turned out to have significantly higher quality than the previous iPhone. For once, there are photos taken from a phone camera that I would actually consider having blown up into prints. The video quality seemed comparable to my old Flip Mino HD and I’m sure there will be an occasion or two where the video camera will come in handy. The LED flash is very bright and seemed to light-up nearby objects well.

I initially wrote FaceTime off as being a gimmick that I would never use. I will probably use it rarely, but it’s a nice treat. I had my first FaceTime call with Allison and Steve Sheridan and was pleasantly surprised by the audio and video quality. While on the call Allison took me on a mini-tour of her house and introduced me to her son, Kyle. I had another call with Victor Cajiao and while the quality was just okay, I noticed there was a little lag in the audio and the video wasn’t quite as crisp. So your mileage may vary. I’m the only member of my family and my immediate circle of friends who has an iPhone, so for now FaceTime will have to be the occasional treat between me and my podcasting buddies. I think this is a feature that will take off far more than I anticipated, especially when Apple brings FaceTime to the iPad, iPod Touch and iChat. Phone manufacturers have been promising video conferencing for decades, but it’s never really taken off. If anyone can make video calls work, it’s Apple.

Speed and Battery I skipped the iPhone 3GS so my basis of comparison is a two year old iPhone 3G. I can tell you the iPhone 4 is fast. It’s no doubt a combination of the 802.11n Wi-Fi, the faster A4 processor and the doubled RAM capacity. Web pages load faster, applications launch faster and overall the iPhone feels quite zippy. The regular syncing and backups with iTunes are also significantly faster. I should note that the 802.11 n Wi-Fi is only 2.4 GHz so if you don’t have one of those fancy new dual-band Airport Extreme, now might be a good time to pick one up so you can keep your network traffic segregated for maximum speeds.

My results with the iPhone battery have been very good. Granted, my two year old iPhone 3G had probably lost some of it’s battery life over the years so my frame of reference is probably skewed. I’m able to get through a full work day of 10-12 hours with normal usage and still have about 50% of the battery or more by the time I get home. I still charge my iPhone every night but I’m trying not to charge it constantly at work in order to try to preserve overall battery health. I am also making a conscious effort to let the battery run down completely at least once a month to try to keep the battery in good shape.

I’ve had some people comment that the iPhone 4 battery life is less than their prior iPhone, but I think this is primarily a matter of usage. I don’t use very many apps on my iPhone and I rarely use apps that take advantage of multitasking. I rarely have music playing in the background or apps that are constantly accessing data.

Screenshot of iOS 4, with folder launcheriOS 4 I won’t say much about iOS 4 since it’s not specific to the iPhone 4. However, I will say that I am generally enjoying the upgrade. The funny thing is that the upgrades I’m appreciating the most are folders and integrated inbox. Multitasking and fast app switching is nice, but I’m finding I’m not using the features all that often. Perhaps it’s because I’ve gotten use to not having multitasking all these years I’ve grown accustomed to not having the ability. Perhaps as more applications update to take advantage of multi-tasking this will become a more useful feature.

I’m finding that the unified inbox is encouraging me to deal with my email more quickly rather than letting it sit for a while. My great wish is that we would gain the ability to customize our email signatures to the specific email accounts, but that’s an easy software fix that will hopefully come soon. I'm also really enjoying the threaded view as it tends to cut down on a lot of the email clutter.

Using folders has allowed me to consolidate my iPhone from six screens to three. I’m also able to find my applications more quickly and am enjoying the reduction in clutter. Home screen real estate is at a premium so I’ve setup one folder in the bottom left corner of my home screen with 4 of my commonly used applications that wouldn’t otherwise fit on my iPhone screen. I call this folder “launcher” and when I click on it the four applications inside form a single row of my commonly used applications. I limit this to only four icons so they line up neatly in a row. I can't have everything in a luncher on the home screen, but this approach seems to work very well.

iOS 4 seems more evolutionary than revolutionary upgrade for the iPhone, I think the bulk of the changes were made "under the hood" for developers to take advantage of. Though I still hope we see features like wireless printing and over the air syncing come with an update to iOS 4 rather than having to wait another year for iOS 5.

The Phone This is where things turn sour. I’m sure you’ve seen online the “iPhone Death Grip” phenomena. I’m sorry to say that my iPhone has it bad. I don’t pretend to understand the engineering behind the new iPhone or whether this is a problem that can be totally resolved by a software update or whether it’s a fundamental design flaw. I can share with you my experiences.

I have two problems which may or may not be separate issues. First, my iPhone signal strength meter drops when the iPhone is held in my bare hand without a case. As has been demonstrated by others, the issue is much more pronounced the further away you are from the tower or in an area with weaker signal. I can replicate this out around town on 3G and Edge towers as well as when using a Microcell and moving from room to room.

For example, in my living room, where I’m only a few feet from my microcell, the signal may drop only a bar or two, or may not drop at all when I hold the phone. However, moving upstairs to my bedroom, where I’m probably 10 – 12 feet from the microcell and with an interior wall between us I can consistently cause the signal to drop from 5 bars to 1 or none just by holding the phone normally for 10 – 15 seconds. When the bars drop, so does the call. When downstairs in the same room as the microcell I’m able to hold a call with no problems. Upstairs, a few more feet away from the Microcell the audio quickly becomes garbled and spotty. Using the application, I can verify that I am effectively stopping network traffic when holding the phone vs. letting it sit untouched. The screenshots I’m posting were all taken from my 2nd floor bedroom within a few minutes of each other. In one shot the phone was sitting untouched, the other the phone was held in my hand casually for about 10 seconds prior to starting the test. App while not holding app results when holding the phone.

The second problem I’m having with my iPhone I believe may be an issue separate from the “Death Grip” and that is that I’m generally having poorer reception compared to my 3G. For example, I would consistently get 4-5 bars of reception on my iPhone 3G and could carry on a conversation for an hour or more when sitting in my office at work. With the iPhone 4, in the same location I have 1-2 bars of service and regularly drop calls or experience garbled audio. This occurs both when I’m holding the device in my hand or sitting it on the desk and using it hands free.

I’ve had similar problems elsewhere. When out to lunch with a friend who had a 3GS, her phone showed 4-5 bars of signal strength where mine consistently showed 1-2 when the phones were sat side by side on a table. I’ve checked this in a few places with a few different people and my results are fairly consistent, my iPhone 4 tends to show less signal strength than other model iPhones. I’ve also notice that just driving around town, I’m dropping more calls than I did before in areas where I don’t usually drop calls. I’m hoping the reception issue is defect in my particular phone, because there are other reports where people are finding their iPhone 4 holds signal better in weak areas.

There are a lot of unknowns at the time I write this blog post. Is this a software or hardware issue? My guess, is that it’s a little of both. Holding the phone and watching signal strength drop before my eyes appears to clearly be a design defect. However, I can see how this is amplified by bad baseband software that may be interfering with reception? I’ve read Apple’s statement about being “shocked to find they calculated the signal strength wrong.” This is really a non-answer to the issue. I don’t care how many bars my phone shows, I care if I can make a call. My experience is thus far that regardless of bars, I was able to make calls and hold them longer on my iPhone 3G compared to the iPhone 4.

There are reports around the web that indicate that there may have been something with the baseband programming of iOS 4 because some users are reporting problems with older model iPhones that have been upgraded. I only have 2 days of experience with iOS 4 on my 3G so that’s hardly a basis for comparison. However, I can at least tell you that the reception with iOS 4 and my iPhone 3G in my office was sufficient such that I did not have any trouble with dropped calls or a decrease in strength on the signal meter in my office.

There are also varying reports as to the severity of this issue. What I’ve pieced together is that if you live in an area that has strong AT&T coverage, you’re less likely to see the impact of these problems. However if you’re in an area that has spotty or sub-par AT&T coverage, and I think pretty much my entire city qualifies, then you’re going to have more trouble. I’m not expecting AT&T to reengineer their network and build a bunch of towers in my town to solve my problem (although hat would be nice.) However I do expect that the iPhone 4 have the same basic ability to make and receive phone calls as the prior model iPhones.

iPhone Bumper CaseResponses to the Reception Issues: I’ve gotten quite a bit of grief online from people who say that this is really a non-issue or that I should just get over it and buy a bumper. I apologize if my tweets or this post come across as “whiney” as that’s not my intention. This is a very real problem for many people, myself included. If you’re having no trouble with your iPhone 4, I’m thrilled for you. Just because you’re not having trouble doesn’t mean that my issues aren’t real.

I should not have to spend $30 or more on a case to make my $300+ phone work. As wonderful as the iPhone is, it’s a phone first. My phone should work at least as well as prior model iPhones, and in fact better since Apple touted the antenna design as one of the revolutionary features of the iPhone 4. I’m sorry, but responses like “get a case” and “you’re holding it wrong” are simply unacceptable. Even a fervent Apple Fanboy should get this is wrong. I’m really offended and embarrassed by Apple’s response thus far and hope that they will change their tone.

Apple has announced that they’ve sold 1.7 million iPhones in the first three days with more devices being sold as fast as they can get stock. I promise you, Apple will not conduct a worldwide recall of their phones. If they do, I’ll eat my iPhone. My guess is Apple will quietly make some minor modifications to the iPhone and we’ll see the iPhone 4’s that come off the assembly line will have some kind of additional clear coating over the antenna and will not be as prone to this problem. Unfortunately, any hardware modification will take time. The question is what will happen to early adopters of the iPhone? My guess AppleCare will quietly take care of these issues either by providing bumpers or replacing out iPhones for those who complain.

I already have a ticket in with AppleCare that is being actively worked. There’s too much to go into on this post, so I will post a separate entry with my experiences dealing with Apple on the issue and if I’m able to get any resolution.

Unexpected Surprises Moving back to more pleasant things, I ran into a few unexpected surprises with my new iPhone 4 that may end up saving me quite a chunk of change. One of my biggest gripes is that I have multiple iPods that I have to keep updated. My iPhones never worked in my car so I have a 5th Generation iPod for the car. I have an iPod Shuffle for the Gym, iTunes library on my home computer streaming to multiple speakers and an iPhone for listening everywhere else. Since most of my listening is podcasts, keeping everything in sync was quite a pain.

When the iPhone 4 arrived, my plan was to upgrade my car stereo to eliminate the car iPod from the mix. This raised another problem because I have a pair of cheap unshielded speakers in my kitchen that I regularly connect my iPod so I can finish listening to a podcast while I’m cooking dinner. The GSM buzz from the iPhone was overpowering to those speakers, so I also planned to buy a mid-range portable speaker system for my iPhone that would live in the kitchen.

Much to my surprise, the iPhone 4 has negated the need for me to spend the $400+ for these additional devices. On a whim the other day, I plugged my iPhone 4 into my car audio system. I have an old JVC KD-AR370 system that was installed in my car to replace the factory unit back in 2005 or 2006 before the iPhone existed. The JVC system has a dock connector but no auxiliary port. I thought this was fine because the dock connector would both charge iPod and play my audio. This speaker set has never worked with any model iPhone, but it works with my iPhone 4.

I don’t know if this has to do with the iPhone 4 hardware or the iOS 4 software or a combination of both. There are a couple of caveats. First, the iPod application on the iPhone has to have been opened before the iPhone is plugged in. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the active application, but it has to have been used and something played since the last time the iPhone was power cycled or synced. A minor annoyance, but to save the $200+ of having a new in-dash system installed, I can deal with it. Also, the iPhone will play audio but will not charge. This is because the old system was setup for FireWire based charging. A $30 PASSport adapter will solve this problem. Again, a small price to pay. (I plan to post a review of the PASSport once it arrives.)

Also to my surprise, the iPhone 4 has not produced the expected GSM buzz to distort speakers. Using my cheap kitchen speakers, even getting my iPhone 3G near the speakers would immediately set them off. I have the iPhone 4 plugged into the speakers for a couple of hours at a time and haven’t gotten a single blip. Nice!

Closing Thoughts and Buying Advice: If you don’t already have an iPhone 4 and in hand, and aren’t in a position where you need to upgrade right now, I would say wait a bit. Let’s see what happens with iOS update 4.0.1 and if the reports of these issues subside. I also think after a few more product runs, you’ll start to see the issue become less pronounced due to Apple’s modifications. If you’re in an area where you always have good AT&T reception, especially if you’re planning on using a case, you’ll probably be fine. Still, make sure you’re aware of your return options.

Reception issues aside, the iPhone 4 is a great upgrade to an original iPhone or iPhone 3G. It’s a less compelling upgrade if you have an iPhone 3GS and are happy with your current screen and camera quality. iOS 4 already brings a lot of improvements to the iPhone 3GS.

The biggest question for many will be whether they want to commit to AT&T for another two years. With the increased early termination fees, leaving AT&T becomes a lot more difficult. Just today, I read a report from Bloomberg saying that Verizon was going to come out with an iPhone in early 2011. I take all these Verizon iPhone rumors with a grain of salt, but it has to happen at some point. If you’re happy with AT&T, this is a non-issue.

So it’s a mixed review for the iPhone 4. My hope is that a combination of AppleCare and future software fixes will resolve my problem. However, I am keeping a very close eye on the 30 day return window for my iPhone. As a last resort, if I’m not able to resolve my reception issues reasonably, I may opt to return and downgrade to a 3GS. I’m not happy about that prospect, for now I will hope for the best and cross that bridge when I come to it.