I’ve had a few days to go over the iPhone 4’s features and such, and I feel reasonably confident in giving a review of the device.
The short version is that I feel this is the best smartphone on the market right now.
Okay, let me start with the things that I dislike about it. First: yes, there is an issue with the antennas. It puzzles me that Apple didn’t think to put a thin nonconductive coating on the case edge, but when viewed from the perspective of their metal fetish of late it makes perfect sense that they’d leave it exposed. However, for my part, I can’t reliably replicate the issue except in areas where the reception was spotty or crappy on the old 3G anyway. There are conflicting reports as to what permanent solution Apple is going to provide about the issue (besides the inappropriate “buy a bumper case”– I don’t want to buy a bumper case because then I can’t dock the phone in it), but signs are pointing to a better bar-discovery algorithm or faster frequency-switching inside the phone. If a hardware issue can be overcome in software, that’s a pretty damn good thing– but I still have to wonder why this issue left Cupertino to begin with. Maybe that’s what Gray Davis was supposed to be testing.
Next, and this is IMO equally on both Apple and third-party developers, but the behavior of apps not yet optimized for the 4.0 OS is not exactly ideal. I’ll admit that I didn’t expect everything to be perfect, but the multitasking features are completely unusable when even one of the apps you want to use isn’t ready for 4.0. Case in point: The last.fm player is a great tool that I’ve perennially got a lot of use out of, particularly with the fact that I still have the unlimited data plan (and it was really low of AT&T to force their customers to choose between unlimited data and tethering). However, it’s still only working with the 3.0 APIs. This means that if I want to tweet a thought, or take a photo, while I’m getting my vocal trance fix, I have to stop the music, do what I wanted, then wait a few seconds for last.fm to start from absolute scratch. I’m not asking for a whole lot, but Apple could have alleviated this by keeping a “sandbox” area open for 3.0 apps. The sandbox would have allowed a 3.0 app to stay loaded, but non-operational, for a few seconds or so or until the memory was needed, so that it could give the illusion of the seamless switching that most 4.0 apps have. Sort of like how the PowerPC/Intel switch was handled.
Finally, the phone is not terribly comfortable to hold in the hand while talking. I don’t use it without a headset very often, but the fact is, for impromptu conversations, my hand was cramping up after ten minutes or so, and sometimes those talks can go for over an hour. The included earbuds are better than before, but I still prefer an in-ear pair, or even better a Bluetooth stereo headset. (Oh, incidentally, the phone still doesn’t support AVRCP.)
That said, I still think it’s the best pick on the block.
One of the first things you notice about the phone is that the display is very, very sharp. I’m far from a graphics whore but in all honesty this is the kind of display that I’ve always wanted. The pixel density is sufficient to trigger in some way an “uncanny valley” effect: it’s clear enough that it looks weird when you realize it’s as manipulable as pixelated text. Again, though, the effect is most shown in 3.0-level apps as those render text using the crisp display and images get scaled up and look slightly chunky (the last.fm app’s loading screen best shows this).
Next, it’s fast. Really fast. Apps load in record time, and if they’re fast-switch enabled they load in time measured in eyeblinks. The exemplar here is Plants Vs. Zombies and Echofon. Plants Vs. Zombies is a Popcap game and drags a ton of data into RAM with it on initial startup, but once that load is done you can jump out and into the app in literally less than a second. It’s not just limited to loading and unloading, either: data connections are far faster and more responsive. Echofon used to take its time starting up and loading the updated tweet timeline, whereas now new tweets show up before I realize the app has even loaded. Everything about the phone is faster, and it’s a welcome refresh.
The cameras have received the lion’s share of attention in terms of the hardware, and while I still don’t think a phone camera will ever replace a dedicated device for capturing stills or video, the iPhone 4’s cameras are pretty damn good in a pinch. You’ve seen the image quality for the front-facing camera on Thursday’s Bailout vid, but the primary camera’s got a decent set of lenses on it as well. I used it to record some video of the bathroom leak yesterday, and it looked gorgeous. More to the point, the flash worked great, too: it wasn’t underpowered or weak at all, though it does tend to tinge everything ever-so-slightly blue (LEDs tend to do that). It’s still going to serve its primary purpose of being a portable information-capture device– say, snapping photos of pricetags and the like– but if I want to grab some video on the fly, the end result isn’t going to look like a mess. (If it does, it’s probably not the fault of the hardware.)
Finally, and what I think is the biggest and most welcomed improvement: the battery life. I tweeted on Friday or so that I ‘trust’ a numerical percentage of life left more than I do an imprecise battery icon, but the real reason is that I tend to view icons like that as working on gas-tank rules. Full means full, Empty means you’ve got about 50 miles left, and once you get below Full the needle plunges like a rock. Apple’s battery estimates are usually better than that, but I’ve still traditionally kept the phone docked and charging whenever possible because the 3G liked to suck down power quickly, even in standby mode. In comparison, the 4, if it were a car, would be the kind where you’d have to stick your mouth on the exhaust to even know if it was running. It consumes so little power on standby and so little power even on relatively heavy usage that I’m willing to believe I don’t have to obsessively carry charge cabling everywhere. I’m still going to carry the cables, of course– who do you really think I am– but it’s nice to know I’m less likely to be in dire need of them. I spent yesterday and, so far, today going from departure undock to returning home and the power level never dropped below 50% even on heavy usage (streaming audio over Wi-Fi, some streaming over 3G).
I’m not going to say that the iPhone 4 is for everyone looking at a smartphone. Some of the choices Apple’s made, in contrast with Google and Android, are not going to be terribly welcome– I’m still concerned with the whole closed-platform thing, though there’s a lot of FUD being thrown around about that. And some people just are opposed to, what they see, as giving Apple and AT&T control over “their” data. I’m going to be honest, now that I have a “live” device the only thing stopping me from jailbreaking the old 3G and tinkering with that is the lack of a full-functionality jailbreak for iOS 4 right now. I like Android, and I have an Android device that I use on an almost-daily basis (the Nook). I don’t want to tell anyone already using Android that they shouldn’t buy an updated Android phone, if they’re sure that that phone is what they want (or if they’re unwilling to go to AT&T, which I can totally understand). What I am saying is that the iPhone 4 has some pretty good features that work well compared to other smartphones on the market. The iPhone isn’t going to convince someone to switch from Android, but it does offer some pretty damn good reasons to stay with the Apple platform, or to sign on with it if you’re looking for your first smartphone.