iPhone 4

The iPhone 4 is no small thing to review. As most readers of Engadget are well aware, in the gadget world a new piece of Apple hardware is a major event, preceded by rumors, speculation, an over-the-top announcement, and finally days, weeks, or months of anticipation from an ever-widening fan base. The iPhone 4 is certainly no exception -- in fact, it may be Apple's most successful launch yet, despite some bumps on the road. We've already seen Apple and AT&T's servers overloaded on the first day of pre-orders, the ship date for the next set of phones pushed back due to high demand, and die-hard fans in line outside of Apple locations a week before the phone is actually available. It's a lot to live up to, and the iPhone 4 is doing its best -- with features like a super-fast A4 CPU, a new front-facing camera and five megapixel shooter on the back, a completely new industrial design, and that outrageous Retina Display, no one would argue that Apple has been asleep at the wheel. So the question turns to whether or not the iPhone 4 can live up to the intense hype. Can it deliver on the promises Steve Jobs made at WWDC, and can it cement Apple's position in the marketplace in the face of mounting competition from the likes of Google and Microsoft? We have the answers to those questions -- and many more -- in our full review, so read on to find out!

Perhaps the most notable change with the new iPhone is the drastic industrial design overhaul -- Apple seems to have completely rethought its strategy on how the phone should look and feel, and the results are nothing if not striking.

Industrial design
In his WWDC keynote, Steve Jobs likened the design of the iPhone 4 to that of a "beautiful, old Leica camera," and as we've said before, he wasn't off the mark. Instead of hewing to the curved, plasticky, silver-bezeled look of the iPhone 3G and 3GS, the company has turned the casing and face of the device into something decidedly more detailed and sophisticated. From the design aesthetic through to the actual build process, Jony Ive and his team have reset what we expect in an iPhone, coming up with something that clearly harkens back to the retro-future Braun designs of Dieter Rams. The iPhone 4 is made up of three basic parts: two pieces of smooth, strengthened glass, and a stainless steel band which wraps around the sides, top, and bottom of the phone. The effect is clean but not simple, and Apple has added little details, like altered volume buttons (what used to be a rocker is now separated into circular clickers labeled + and -), and notches in that metal band which serve to improve radio connections (more on that in a minute). The phone is noticeably thinner than the 3GS at .37 inches compared to .48 inches, but it weighs the same 4.8 ounces, making the whole package seem tighter and denser. It feels great in your hand, with good heft, although it might take a little time to get used to the lack of a rounded back if you're coming from the 3G or 3GS.

We can't overstate how high-end the design of the iPhone 4 is. The 3GS now feels cheap and chubby by comparison, and even a phone like the HTC Droid Incredible -- which just came out -- seems last-generation.

As we said, there are three main pieces of the phone, which together create an effect not wildly dissimilar to that of an ice cream sandwich. You know, but far pricier... and not edible. The face of the device is made up of extremely strong glass which Jony Ive says is "comparable in strength to sapphire crystal, but about 30 times harder than plastic." A small slit for the earpiece and the front-facing camera are embedded in the glass above the display, with the familiar home button towards the bottom -- a button we should note feels much clickier than on our 3GS. On the left side of the phone you've got the new volume buttons, a redesigned mute switch, and a small notch towards the base of the unit. On the right side is the Micro SIM slot and another notch in the band at the bottom, and up top there's the power / sleep button, headphone jack, another notch, and new noise-canceling microphone. Along the bottom is a speaker, microphone, and the 30-pin dock connector port. The backside of the phone is made from the same kind of ultra-strong glass as the front, interrupted only by the new five megapixel camera, its LED flash companion and, of course, the Apple logo.

It's not just the face of the phone that's undergone a transformation -- the iPhone 4 is all new inside as well. For starters, Apple has moved on from the Samsung-built ARM Cortex-A8-based CPU used in the 3GS to its custom A4 chip used in the iPad, which funnily enough... is an ARM Cortex-A8-based CPU. While the company hasn't yet said what the clock speed of the processor is, we're guessing it's something below the 1GHz touted for its tablet cousin. The phone is definitely snappier than the 3GS, so we're not about to volley complaints just yet -- in particular, graphics seemed to render faster, and overall responsiveness was slightly higher, though admittedly, it wasn't blowing the doors off the joint. It's certainly faster, but the 3GS wasn't hurting on speed to our eyes, so it's not as wildly noticeable a leap as the 3G to the 3GS.

As usual, Apple isn't fessing up about the RAM situation, though we have on very good authority that the iPhone 4 has 512MB onboard, a big step up from the 256MB in the previous model and the iPad. We would have liked to see it futureproofed with something like 1GB, but then again, Apple's got to sell a new phone in a year. As far as internal storage goes, you can buy the new iPhone in either 16GB ($199 on contract) or 32GB ($299 on contract) capacity -- fine for now, but since the company has just introduced 30FPS 720p video recording, you could find yourself outgrowing that number pretty quickly. It's a little odd, in fact, that the company didn't double down here and bump the capacity to 64GB, as it's recently done with the iPod touch. In terms of wireless, the iPhone 4 is packed with an 802.11n WiFi radio, as well as a quad-band HSUPA chip and Bluetooth 2.1.

By now you should know that iPhone 4 has an all-new display, as well. Apple is calling the LED backlit, 960 x 640 IPS screen the "Retina Display" due to its high resolution and pixel density. At the same 3.5-inches as the older screens, the new display manages an insane 326ppi pixel density along with an 800:1 contrast ratio. Steve made a huge point about the science behind this technology during his keynote, claiming that the resolution of the screen essentially tops what is perceivable by the human eye. There have been some debates as to whether or not this argument holds water, but we can tell you this: to our eyes, there has never been a more detailed, clear, or viewable screen on any mobile device.

Not only are the colors and blacks deep and rich, but you simply cannot see pixels on the screen. Okay, if you take some macro camera shots or get right up in there you can make them out, but in general use, the screen is free of jaggies of any type, unless you're looking at a last-gen app that hasn't had its artwork updated. Text rendering is incredibly clear and clean -- webpages that would be line after line of pixelated content when zoomed out on a 3GS (say, Engadget or the New York Times) are completely readable on the iPhone 4, though the text is beyond microscopic. It's impressive, and doubly impressive when you look at higher-res graphics or watch 720p video on the phone -- the detail in moving images is particularly striking. What's nice is that most apps with text in them will benefit from this tech whether or not they've been updated, as long as they're using Apple's font rendering. Text in the Engadget app, for instance, looks cleaner, clearer, and much easier to read on the new iPhone.

The cameras on the new iPhone are going to be a topic of much debate, since this has been an area where Apple has been slow to innovate. The 3GS sported a measly three megapixel shooter with few bells and whistles (and no flash), and while it was fine for quick snaps, it wasn't an artist's tool by any means. The company finally seems to be listening to a public that's interested in leaving the point-and-shoot at home in favor of a phone with a capable camera, by adding a five megapixel shooter to the backside of the iPhone 4 and a VGA camera up front.

As far as video goes, we were definitely impressed by the 720p capture, though there are stability issues with the lens and the all-too-familiar "jellyvision" CMOS issues that tend to rear their head if you're not holding the phone very steady. Still, we can't see carrying around a Flip HD instead of just keeping this in our pocket (though as we said, we'd like to see a higher storage capacity). Everything we shot looked crisp and mostly artifact-free, and we didn't see any hiccups in the 30 FPS rate Apple claims, even in lower light. Adding iMovie to the mix for on-the-fly editing is a nice touch too (more on that in the software section). The video below was shot and edited completely in-phone, so enjoy -- and here's the raw output to download.

Speaker / earpiece
We've never had a particular problem with the speaker or earpiece on previous iPhones (well, the speakerphone has never been loud enough for our taste), but it's obvious that Apple has done some work on getting both call quality and speakerphone quality up. Beyond making the phone considerably and consistently louder in both places, the clarity of the iPhone 4 is noticeably improved from the previous generation. If you read our review, then you know that we thought Motorola's original Droid had some of the best sounding components we've heard on a phone, and the new iPhone definitely gives them a run for the money.

The first time we took a call on the device we were walking down New York's extremely noisy Fifth Avenue, and right away it was obvious that the secondary, noise-canceling mic was doing some heavy lifting, at least on the other end of the line. Even though sirens were wailing behind us and we were surrounded by chatty shoppers, it was easy to hear our party on the other end, and they could hear us perfectly (unless we were lied to). There's clearly a difference between the sound in the earpiece on the new phone versus the 3GS, and it ranks highly against newer competition like the EVO. As far as the speakerphone goes, it gets loud without distorting or producing cutting midrange, a problem we've noticed on quite a few recent phones. We'd liken the iPhone 4 in quality to something along the lines of the BlackBerry Bold -- a bearable tone even when it gets hot.

As with the other revisions to Apple's phone line, the hardware is only half of the story. Along with the iPhone 4 comes iOS 4, the re-branded iPhone OS which boasts loads of new features, most notably a very Apple-ized version of smartphone multitasking, a video calling feature dubbed FaceTime, folders so you can organize your apps, enhanced Mail, and lots of other nips and tucks -- both big and small -- that refine the company's growing operating system. Additionally, Apple has ported the iPad's iBooks to the smaller screen, and has created a new version of its popular iMovie just for the iPhone 4. Overall, the OS is still very much the same as it's always been, but there are some big changes here that bear investigation.

This is a big one, and more than just a little controversial. Since the dawn of apps for the iPhone (remember, way back in 2008?), people have been up in arms about the lack of third-party backgrounding for applications. Sure, you could keep Mail, Safari, iPod, and a few other Apple programs cranking while you used your phone, but those privileges were strictly off limits for third-party devs working on the device. It's arguable that one of the driving forces behind the jailbreaking movement was a desire for this feature -- something a phone as powerful as the iPhone was clearly capable of. Apple's argument has always been that multitasking causes an undue amount of battery drain from phones, and had to be approached with caution, lest we all end up with juiceless phones at high noon. Recently, however, that tune has changed. Apple has -- in true Apple fashion -- "figured out" how to "do multitasking right" -- namely, the company isn't allowing full backgrounding as much as it's allowing a handful of APIs that mimic backgrounding. Things like holding onto a GPS signal, letting music play in the background, staying connected to VoIP calls (or receiving them), and fast switching (basically a way for you to return quickly to exactly where you left off in an app).

So, does Apple pull it off? Can this scarce handful of APIs makeup for true backgrounding? In a word: yep.

Here's the thing -- this may not be "true" multitasking for a lot of us, but it amounts to multitasking for most of us. That is, it looks, feels, and acts like multitasking, so it's pretty tough to complain about it. In fact: we're not going to complain about it, especially given the fact that some of our favorite apps -- the IRC client Colloquy being one of them -- do just about exactly what we need them to do, all according to Apple's rules and regulations. Previous to the new OS, we'd been jailbreaking our phone just to keep an IRC session running in the background. Now, utilizing some of those new APIs, the Colloquy developers have created an elegant and useful solution that pleases both users and the Cupertino Cops. The point is: it works, it does so bug free, and without a major drain on battery life (quite the contrary... more on that in a moment). We're not saying we liked waiting for this kind of thing to come around, and yes, we'd prefer something more open and flexible -- but this works, and works well.

If you didn't know anything about video calling, Apple would definitely have you convinced that they just up and invented the concept based on never-aired Jetsons footage judged too futuristic for TV. Of course, the truth is that in lots of other places (and even in the US to an extent), smartphone video calling isn't exactly a new thing. In fact, in much of Europe and Asia, this technology is old hat. But Apple isn't going to let a little thing like facts get in the way of a good marketing play, and in their (slight) defense, no one's effectively brought video calling to the masses just yet. (One of our European editors says that he's gone ten years without seeing anyone make a video call in his neck of the woods.) While this may be an unscientific perspective, it suggests that it's not enough to just have the tech -- the feature needs to be sold to people.

So has Apple done it? Maybe, and maybe not. We're certainly impressed by the concept and Apple's willingness to open up their "FaceTime standard" to anyone who wants to get in on the party. That means that developers on any platform -- provided they can meet all the necessary requirements -- can create applications that talk via the protocol (or set of protocols, really). We're also impressed with the tech itself, which feels polished and slick out of the gate. But right now, there's only one way to do FaceTime calls, and that's via the iPhone 4... and only over WiFi, which means that the opportunity to make these calls is pretty limited for now. Additionally, in our testing, we found that you really need to have a good, strong, nearby WiFi signal to hang onto a connection. More than once we had video freeze on us, and we had one fully dropped call because someone went out of the WiFi range, but hey... you need to be in range for even the most basic tasks, so we can't fault Apple too much for that. It does seem clear that the iPhone video chats are moving quite a few bits around, however. What's nice about FaceTime is that unlike Qik or other third-party options for something like the EVO, there's no setup here and it's completely integrated into the dialer of the phone -- meaning the only hangup is whether or not you have decent WiFi.

What can you really say about folders? Basically: it's about time. We're happy that Apple has seen the light and included something like this in iOS 4, and the implementation is elegant enough, but it would have been nice to store more than 12 items at a time. As it stands, if you have a lot of one kind of app, you're going to end up with a group of folders in the same category. We have a second "Games" folder, but some of you out there will have more like six or seven of those. That helps the problem, but doesn't solve it completely. We get why Apple made this decision -- likely a desire to keep it simple -- but it would be nice to be able to make the room if you wanted it.

Mail improvements
For a lot of us, the new tweaks to the iPhone's Mail app have seriously been a long time coming. Among the major improvements in iOS 4 are a unified inbox and threaded messaging (finally!) -- both of which have made dealing with email on the iPhone a considerably more enjoyable experience. We still think that the mail client is lacking in comparison to Gmail, but that has more to do with our addiction to Gmail than anything else, we suspect. Overall, Mail feels much more complete now, and Apple has solved the same problem in Mail that it had with app switching -- that feeling of constantly jumping into and out of your inboxes.

iBooks / iMovie
This isn't a barnstormer, but it's a nice inclusion. If you've used iBooks for the iPad, the experience is about the same... just smaller. There's not a ton to say about it, except that in addition to lots of other great book apps on the iPhone, Apple has now given you its own. We still don't think it stacks up to Amazon or Barnes & Noble in terms of selection, though the presentation is better in many ways, and it will sync your notes and bookmarks across platforms.

iMovie, on the other hand, is something new entirely. We can't say we didn't see this one coming since Apple just added video recording and editing to its arsenal with the introduction of iPhone OS 3 and the 3GS -- but this takes things one step further. The $4.99 app gives you access to more advanced features, like a (very) limited selection of transitions between clips, the option to add audio to your videos, plus a handful of themes and titling effects. We found it to be extremely capable for fast edits, though everything is pretty sandboxed here, so while you do have the most basic editing tools, things like splitting a clip can be a little bit of a hassle. Since you can only edit the beginning and end of a snippet, if you want to split something into multiple parts you have to drag the clip into your edit repeatedly and then scale the start and finish points for each one. It can be a pain if you're doing lots of jump cuts -- though we don't expect everyone to be making the next Casino on this thing... though, someone probably will, right? For a few bucks, it's definitely worth having, and we expect that after a few people start using the thing, Apple might be prompted to add a few more options.

What's not in the new OS
It's not all wine and roses as far as we're concerned. While Apple has made huge strides in many areas here, this wouldn't be an Engadget review if we didn't have our nitpicks. In particular, we still cannot understand or accept the company's approach to notifications. We're at version 4 of this OS, and we're still plagued by these intrusive, productivity-freezing alerts. If you're as busy as we are, then you know what it's like to get invite after invite for your calendar, text messages, and push notifications that just stall the phone out. While every other modern OS-maker has figured out an elegant way to deal with notifications (including the forthcoming Windows Phone 7), Apple clings to this broken system. Why? We can't really say. We find it hard to believe that there aren't folks in Cupertino who feel the way we do -- in fact, we're sure of it. Maybe that explains the hiring of Palm's "notification guru" Rich Dellinger. We sure hope!

The other thing that's driving us crazy is the lack of widgets. Apple almost gets there with its new extensible music player controls, but there are still no good solutions for glanceable information on the iPhone. We'll admit that it's better now that fast app switching is in play, but we'd still like that weather icon to actually show us the temperature where we live. Is that too much to ask? The competition seems to have this one licked -- we'd really like to see Apple take a stab at it.

It wouldn't be a new iPhone without some accessories, but Apple has kept it tidy. The company is offering a new dock, of course, for twenty-nine of your US dollars (that's $29), and a selection of colorful "bumpers" that protect the phone for the same price. We've got a few bumpers in-house, and while we're not really big fans of the way they look or feel, they do seem to protect the phone pretty well. On that note, we've actually seen the iPhone 4 tossed with and without a bumper across a room (one hit a wall) with no issue, and we dropped ours pretty hard from about two feet up onto tile with nary a scratch.

Battery life
This is a big one for many people, and we have some fairly surprising news to report. The battery life on the iPhone 4 has been outstanding thus far, exceeding our expectations for longevity during testing. We've only had a short time to use the phone, but in the week or so we've been carrying the device as our main phone, we've had pretty amazing results under normal to heavy use. In fact, we managed to squeeze more than 38 hours -- yes, 38 hours -- of life out of a single charge using the phone as we normally would.

We're talking calls, some gaming, lots of push email and calendar invites, playing music over Bluetooth in the car, and just general testing (like downloading new apps, rearranging icons, tweaking settings). We went from 10:30AM on a Saturday morning till 1:00AM on Monday without needing to charge the phone. Of course, it switched itself off just after the clock struck 1, but it was thrilling -- like that episode of Seinfeld where Kramer and the car salesman see how far they can get in a car with the tank on E. Sitcom references aside, the battery life seems markedly improved in the iPhone 4, and why not? It's got a much larger battery coupled with that iPad-powering A4, which has already shown that it can sip rather than gulp power.

We're not going to beat around the bush -- in our approximation, the iPhone 4 is the best smartphone on the market right now. The combination of gorgeous new hardware, that amazing display, upgraded cameras, and major improvements to the operating system make this an extremely formidable package. Yes, there are still pain points that we want to see Apple fix, and yes, there are some amazing alternatives to the iPhone 4 out there. But when it comes to the total package -- fit and finish in both software and hardware, performance, app selection, and all of the little details that make a device like this what it is -- we think it's the cream of the current crop. We won't argue that a lot of this is a matter of taste -- some people will just prefer the way Android or Symbian works to the iPhone, and others will be on the lookout for a hardware keyboard or a particular asset that the iPhone 4 lacks -- but in terms of the total picture, it's tough to deny that Apple has moved one step past the competition with this phone. Of course, in the hyper-accelerated smartphone market where the Next Big Thing seems to always be just around the corner, it's anyone's guess how long they keep that edge.