Why You'll Lust for iPhone 4, Even Though You Don't Need One

Not since the original iPhone was introduced back in 2007 has an Apple device been so dramatically unveiled to the public. Journalists have been handcuffed over this thing. And after months of leaks, rumors, spy shots, and speculation, Apple finally announced the iPhone 4 at today's Steve Jobs keynote at the 2010 Apple Worldwide Developer's Conference in San Francisco. I got some time to play around with the iPhone 4 after the announcement, and came away extremely impressed. This phone is gorgeous—but hardware is only half the equation.

It's almost a guarantee that any iPhone will be a huge, smashing success—there is just so much momentum behind the device already. But whether or not this newest version is a critical hit may come down to the software more than the hardware. I didn't have enough time to really test out new features in iPhone OS 4.0 (newly christened iOS 4) like multitasking, video editing, and background notifications, all of which will heavily impact how pleasant the phone is to use. But I did try out the hardware—and I don't think anyone will be disappointed in that department.

The iPhone 4 is thin. Crazy thin. The iPhone 3GS, which isn't exactly a plumper at 12.3-mm, seems bloated and bulbous compared to the iPhone 4's 9.3-mm thick body. The phone is flatter as well—Apple's entire design philsophy is moving in that direction, what with the flat aluminum-and-glass design of their MacBook Pro and iMac lines, and the iPhone 3GS's rounded body seemed like a throwback to the days of the white plastic design of earlier hardware (remember the old bulbous iMacs?). Not so with the iPhone 4.

The design overall is less plasticky than previous versions. The volume buttons, now separated, are metal, and feel pleasantly clicky. The buttons are placed into the metal borders of the phone, which are singularly impressive. When Gizmodo took apart the phone they didn't find an antenna, and it's because those borders are the antennae.

It feels great in the hand, fairly light but certainly not chintzy. It's certainly lighter than my Droid, but then again the Droid weighs about as much as my car (it's a subcompact). The iPhone's glass front and back are supposed to be fairly scratch-proof—Jon Ives, Apple's lead designer, compared it to the strength of "sapphire crystal," not that that means anything to me—and while I didn't attack it with my keys to test that out, I can say that both front and back are fingerprint magnets. The Apple staff was wiping each iPhone 4 down after every single use. That's nothing new, but it's worth noting.

The white version of the iPhone 4 is surprisingly beautiful. The white iPhone 3GS, last year's model, almost seemed like a black phone that had a white plastic back slapped on it, but the white iPhone 4 is white on the front as well as the back, and it looks great. It seemed to be the favorite among the frantically scrabbling press corps.

But that screen—oh, that screen—is what got the most attention. The iPhone has had the same screen, with the same now-paltry 640x480 480 by 320 resolution, since 2007, and Apple badly needed to upgrade. The new display, a 960x640 IPS LCD, is incredibly sharp, with no visible pixels at all, and an impressively wide viewing angle. I compared it to the Droid's also-excellent 854x480 screen, and the iPhone 4's was visibly brighter, with more "pop" to the colors. Technically speaking, the iPhone 4's screen has a higher pixel density, and Jobs claimed better color reproduction, but I couldn't really test that while fighting off other reporters in the four minutes I had with the device.

In the below picture, I should note that the Droid (right) is on half brightness, while the iPhone is cranked—but you can see in the lettering (hopefully despite my camerawork) how clear the iPhone is.

I can't wait to view HD video on this screen to really see what it can do. It's immediately and impressively vibrant—from my limited time with it, the best mobile screen I've ever seen.

I couldn't really test out the A4 processor enough to be able to pass any kind of judgment on it. We know it's a vastly improved processor—it runs the iPad nimbly—but there were a limited number of apps on the test unit and I couldn't do much that was very intensive. There was no lag at all when switching between apps, and the camera app in particular was nearly instantaneous—much faster than any smartphone camera app I've ever used.

The FaceTime app, which allows for video chat, was as quick as could be expected, much quicker than Fring on Android. Video quality was fine; nothing to write home about, but not jerky, pixelly, or jumpy as many other video chats are. It's extremely usable, and the interface is simple enough for the neophyte—you access it through the phone app. Switching between the front and rear cameras during video chat is near-instantaneous, which is great for showing whoever's on the other line what you're looking at. That's likely due to the iPhone 4's speedy A4 processor.

It's not all perfect, don't get me wrong. The hardware is just about ideal, though anyone who's used, say, an HTC Evo 4G will feel let down in certain areas—the iPhone 4 has a far smaller screen (the Evo's is 4.3 inches to the iPhone's 3.5) and is still on a 3G network (the Evo's 4G WiMax connection achieves near-broadband speeds), for example.

The software is more worrisome. It does not offer true multitasking, and that'll feel like a hindrance to anyone used to Android, Palm WebOS, or BlackBerry. The iPhone's notifications are intrusive, clumsy, and annoying, pausing whatever you're doing to stick a giant blue bubble in the middle of the screen. And, of course, AT&T remains somewhat of a liability, perhaps even more so now that they've instituted limits on data use. That fancy new Netflix app is going to eat up a lot of data—you might have to be prepared to pay for it.

But that doesn't stop the iPhone 4 from being one of the most desirable phones around. Not that anyone should be surprised, given how heavily this phone was leaked, but the iPhone 4 feels like a winner. It's eye-catchingly thin, stylish and modern, and hardware upgrades like the screen and processor give the makeover some heft. You'll want one.

Dan Nosowitz, the author of this post, can be followed on Twitter, corresponded with via email, and stalked in San Francisco (no link for that one—you'll have to do the legwork yourself).

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2 Comments

  • Chris Jones

    Great review, it makes me want one, even though I wasn't that bothered before! Shame to hear about the multitasking in iOS 4 though, I though with all the hype it would be properly implemented. It will be interesting to see what Apple do about the dodgy antenna at their press conference tomorrow.

  • Daniel Gorter

    Great article. One error: the previous iPhones' displays were not 640 by 480, but 480 by 320.