The latest in Apple's iPhone 4 series is heralded by the manufacturer as the next big step forward in mobile phone technology, but is it enough to regain Apples place at the top of the smartphone tree?
It has been argued that the recent surge in the development of smartphones is in no small part thanks to the launch of the iPhone. In 2007 Apple introduced its first device to the mobile phone market, and the iPhone was an instant hit, taking the market by storm.
The company’s latest, the iPhone 4, boasts an impressive feature set and the first-class design for which Apple has become synonymous. The handset features a 3.5in display, which is by no means class-leading in size but does boast world-leading performance. It’s labelled the ‘retina display’ – a moniker referring to the fact that the individual pixels are indistinguishable to the human eye. The handset also features Apple’s A4 processor, designed specifically for the handset, while a three-axis gyroscope also now features.
The camera for the iPhone 4 features a 5MP sensor that is backlit with the goal of reducing image noise. The camera also features a Xenon flash, as well as touch-to-select focus points, the ability to geo-tag images and Full HD video capture. The iPhone also benefits from Apple’s App Store – with over 200,000 applications available for download, including a vast number of photography apps, the out-of-the-box camera functionality is just the start of the experience.
Apple iPhone 4 review – Features
The first and most striking feature of the iPhone 4 is the new ‘Retina Display’. The resolution now stands at 3.5in and 960 x 640 pixel, with a pixel density of 326ppi, making it the highest-resolution phone screen ever. The retina moniker comes from the fact that, owing to the incredibly small size of the pixels it renders detail finer than the eye can distinguish. What this means in real terms is that the display is particularly eye-catching, displaying text much akin to the printed word and photos with excellent contrast and levels of detail.
The iPhone 4 also features a host of improvements under the hood. The device now features a gyroscope as well as the accelerometer seen on previously. What this means is that the iPhone 4 can now sense motion in 3D, rather than just on horizontal and vertical planes. The device also features an improvement in the processing department, with a brand new A4 processor, the same as that in the iPad, present. In fact, there’s so much tech inside the iPhone 4 that the device now utilises the smaller micro SIM card format rather than the previous larger SIM card.
The arrival of the new iPhone also heralded the launch of a new operating system for the iPhone, cunningly titled iOS4. The operating system is available as an upgrade for the two previous generations of the device – the 3G and 3GS – though the iPhone 4 ships with it installed out of the box. As is the case with the iPhone 4’s camera, a lot of the functionality introduced with iOS 4 simply serves to bring the iPhone 4 up to speed with its competitors. For example, the device now supports multitasking with apps – a feature already present on many other smartphones – though you’ll to have to wait until app developer’s issue updates to fully utilise it, as apps have to be designed specifically for the job. Apple also claim that the latest version of its operating system is its fastest and most stable yet, offering extended battery life as a result.
Apple iPhone 4 review – Camera
One of the criticisms of the first iPhone was the quality of the camera. This was an area where manufacturers such as Sony Ericsson and Nokia had excelled, offering decent megapixel counts and features such as face recognition and LED / Xenon flashes. Though the iPhone was missing such features in previous incarnations, the iPhone 4 has upped its game. The iPhone 4 features a 5MP backside illuminated sensor, promising better image quality, while it also offers HD video capture at 720p resolution and 30fps. The functionality of the camera remains much the same as the previous iPhone – when shooting, you simply tap the screen at the point you’d like to focus on, though you can leave the iPhone 4 to decide upon the point of interest. The camera also now features the simple yet previously overlooked idea of a flash – much like a lot of other phone cameras on the market, the iPhone 4 features an LED flash, and the operation can either be left to auto activation or can be forced on. What’s slightly disappointing is that the flash isn’t of the more powerful Xenon type, though its worth observing that this would probably put further strain on the already groaning battery.
With regards to further innovation, the iPhone 4 now also features a front-facing camera that facilitates video calling, or ‘FaceTime’ as Apple label it, though this only works over a wireless Internet network as opposed to 3G. Furthermore, not only does the iPhone 4 support HD video capture, but it also offers in-phone video editing. Apple has launched an iMovie application, priced at just £2.99, with much of the functionality of the Mac desktop version, while other third-party manufacturers are surely soon to follow suit.
The camera on the iPhone for also offers a zoom, though this is a digital zoom as opposed to an optical zoom, and effectively simply crops, enlarges and then interpolates the image to achieve the same size as a normal image. While this is effective at expanding the size of the image, it does result in a degradation of detail.
Although the resolution of the iPhone 4’s sensor isn’t the largest on the market, and in fact is some way behind the market leaders. However, as we’ve seen with many cameras in recent times, resolution and megapixel counts aren’t everything – Apple has taken this approach and has decided to develop the technology on the sensor. As mentioned previously, the sensor boasts backside illumination technology that, Apple claims, will provide better images in low light conditions.
The improvement from the camera of the previous generations to the iPhone 4 is instantly noticeable when inspecting the images. Tone is much more pleasing, with an even distribution of shadows and highlights throughout the frame. When images are viewed closer, a reasonably high level of image noise and grain is noticed, though this is somewhat expected for a 5MP cameraphone sensor and the compression process taking place on the JPEG files. Another point worth noting is the rendering of fine detail, which is fairly impressive – despite the aforementioned noticeable noise, fine detail is maintained and is kept crisp and sharp right up to the corners of the frame. The 720p HD video recording is also an eye-catching feature, offering movie capture at a quality equivalent of a range of compact cameras.
Apple iPhone 4 review – Design
One of the key principles of all things Apple is to put a premium on design, and this is definitely true with the iPhone 4. While the handset received a lukewarm reception when first leaked a few months ago, the final product has received a much better reception. The iPhone 4 is marginally heavier than it’s predecessor, but is in fact much thinner – at just 9.3mm thick, it is in fact the thinnest smart phone on the market. The extra weight, no doubt, comes from the newly designed and engineered chassis. The old plastic rear has now been replaced by pair of aluminosilicate glass panels, according to Apple of the same type used in the windshield of helicopters and high-speed trains. The glass has been chemically strengthened and as a result is some 20 time stiffer and 30 times harder than plastic, and also offers greater scratch resistant, again according to Apple. Not only is the glass chassis stronger, but it also results in a handset that feel much more solid in the hand, and generally feel more like a quality piece of engineering than a phone
The antenna of the iPhone has also seen a design change, and is an area of some impressive innovation. Around the exterior of the phone runs a stainless steel band – formed of Apple’s own custom alloy no less – and is forged to be five time stronger than standard steel. Not only does this provide extra protection for the device, but it also serves as the phone’s WiFi, Bluetooth, GSM, UMTS and GPS antennae. The button configuration on the side of the phone has also changed – two separate buttons now control volume rather than just the one. The iPhone lock key also now features on a recess on the camera, and as such is sturdier and less likely to be easily flicked on and off.
Another interesting addition to the device is the introduction of a second microphone. The aim of the second microphone is to operate in conjunction with the main microphone during your phone calls and serves the role of suppressing unwanted background noise in a noise cancellation role. Furthermore, the second microphone operates in FaceTime calls for better audio quality.
Apple iPhone 4 review – Performance
All of the improvement under the hood of the iPhone 4 has resulted in a device which feels much snappier in use. Obviously, the handset now has to support multi-tasking and as such the device features a boosted specification. ‘Teardowns’ of the device, such as the one seen on ifixit, have revealed that the handset features 512MB of Ram, which is double that of the companies recently launched iPad. Obviously, this extra processing power will place extra strain on the battery, and as a result Apple has improved the battery, which is now a 3.7V 1420 mAh Li-Polymer version, which Apple claim offers 7 hours of talk time on a 3G network, a claim that is supported by noticeably improved times.
Despite the improvements with the camera specification and added functionality, the on-board camera controls are fairly average. While the ‘touch to focus’ feature is nice, that’s essentially the extent of shooting features. However, this is of course an area where Apple can afford to be fairly complacent – one of major successes of the iPhone is the app store, featuring some 200,000 apps and offering an open platform for developers to improve the functionality of the device. As a result, there are a host of apps that improve the usability of the camera no end – for example, the Camera+ app features a ‘stabiliser’ that effectively operates as a self-timer.
There’s no doubting the improvement in the quality of the screen as well. It’s often easy to become complacent when manufacturers talk about improvements in pixels and the like, as rarely are they noticeable to an unscientific eye. The iPhone 4 screen, however, renders images beautifully, displaying a stunning level of detail and tone. Individual pixels are very difficult to discern, if at all, making the written word appear as if it were printed rather than rendered on a digital screen.
The new operating system, as mentioned previously, offers the prospect of multi-tasking. While this is an exciting prospect, it’s going to be some time before it’s broadly implemented. This is due to the fact the Apple require all developers to reprogram the apps to support the multitasking, so we could be waiting for some time. The other major change in the operating system is the ability to group apps into folders, which serves nicely as an organisational tool for keeping similar apps together.
While the design of the phone’s antenna is no doubt an impressive piece of design integration, there have been issues noted with a loss of reception when holding the phone in a certain way. It transpires that if you bridge the gap on the bottom of the handset, effectively creating a circuit between the two parts of the steel band that form separate antennae, signal will slowly drop. This is, without question, a design flaw of sorts, though it must be said that forming this bridge takes quite some effort and doesn’t happen with in the natural hold of the handset. Also, there have been rumours that Apple are doing more to rectify the error than simply suggesting people hold the handset differently and are in fact looking in to a firmware fix.
Apple iPhone 4 review – Value and Verdict
Apple iPhone 4 review – Value
In a first for the iPhone – and in an attempt, some say, to stop the habit of people ‘jailbreaking’ their phones in order to use them with a carrier of their choice – Apple has taken the decision to sell the device direct to the customer unlocked and unattached to any particular network. The devices are currently priced at £499 for the 16GB version, and £599 for the 32GB version: while this is no doubt expensive for a mobile phone, is it by no means extortionate for an unlocked handset, and especially one with as much hype surrounding it as the iPhone 4. Obviously, as the main function of the iPhone 4 is for making calls, it is available on a range of different networks and contracts. If you’re willing to stump up around £60 a month, over the duration of a 24 month contract you’ll be able to get your hands on one for free, though this is quite a financial undertaking.
Apple iPhone 4 review – Verdict
With the launch of the iPhone 4, Apple have opted to use the tagline of ‘This Changes Everything. Again’, and though it’s hard to agree with that statement in its entirety, there’s no doubting that the iPhone 4 has advanced mobile handset technology. As noted several times through the review, the new Retina Display is visually arresting, and a feature that will no doubt force other manufacturers to up their game. Comparing the handset to the previous version from Apple, the 3GS, then it’s fair to say that the iPhone 4 is a more than worthy upgrade and that it’s most certainly a step forward in that respect.
However, as much as Apple would like to make you think that it stands alone in the smartphone market, the fact is that it doesn’t. A lot of the new features that it’s added have been around for some time on other devices, and are in fact bettered. The 5MP camera and LED flash is relatively middle-ranked compared to Sony Ericsson’s offering, while HTC smartphones have screens up to 4.5in in size, and can offer video calling over a standard network, and as such on the go. And the final potential nail in the coffin is that, owing to the other manufacturers lacking that Apple desirability, they’re often available for much less and on cheaper contracts.
Despite all the arguments against getting the iPhone 4, there’s no escaping the fact that it’s a visually arresting handset featuring a good cameraphone specification, class-leading mutil-touchscreen, jaw-dropping design and a host of innovative features.