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One Month With the iPhone 4: Our Thoughts

  • Category: Features

It has been one month since the launch of the Apple iPhone 4 and a lot has happened since then. We wanted to discuss our experience with the new iPhone over the last month, from call reception to overall usability. Some of our experiences are good and some are bad, as with most other iPhone 4 users.

Design

The design of the iPhone 4 compared to the 3GS or 3G is very different. It's noticeably thinner and is more hard edged and not rounded like previous iPhones. It feels much different in the palm of the hand and in our opinion, it feels much better. When we first heard about the non-rounded edges when the iPhone 4 was first announced, we were skeptical, but now we wished it would've been like this since the beginning. Now it's completely understood that this is only an opinion, as are many of what this article details, so it may not be the case for every one.

The glass back of the iPhone 4 is very beautiful and looks aesthetically pleasing. The phone is very easy to hold in hand, even with it being thinner and shaped differently.

Retina Display

The display on the iPhone 4 has a new Retina Display, which has four pixels for every one pixel on the iPhone 3GS' screen, and it really shows. The new display actually has pixels that are so small, they cannot be seen with the naked eye. When we first turned on our iPhone 4 for the first time, we were instantly shocked at the image quality. Text quality is dramatically better and looks absolutely crisp with no jagged edges or blurriness. Graphics also look very crisp and brilliant.

Putting the iPhone 4 and 3GS side-by-side, it's very apparent the new screen makes a huge different. Text looks much crisper and every line looks more defined and pronounced. This is without a doubt, the best screen on any smartphone on the market today, and we don't expect any other phone to beat it any time soon. Huge praise from us to Apple for the new screen.

Application developers are being a little slow in updating their apps with high-resolution icons and graphics. While some have done so, others haven't, even big-name applications still have low-resolution, blurry icons. Some of the ones that we've noticed with updated, high-resolution icons, include Facebook, The Weather Channel, Pandora, PhoneFlicks, and Skype. So far out of the applications that we use, these apps still use the older, low-resolution icons: WeatherBug, Chase Mobile, CNN, Shazam, Wikipedia, AIM Free, Google Earth, Bejeweled 2, Tap Tap Revenge 3, Photoshop Mobile, and others. Some apps haven't been updated to take advantage of multitasking, but most of the popular applications have. All of the Apple-made applications that come with the device are all using high-resolution icons.

Icons
Facebook has a high-resolution icon, while WeatherBug & CNN do not, as evident by blurriness in both icons.

Antenna Design & the "Death Grip"

Antenna Gap
Click to enlarge

The iPhone 4 has a very unique antenna design: two bands wrapped around the edge of the device. Almost as soon as the iPhone 4 came out, people posted videos and comments about losing or degrading the cellular signal when holding it in contact with the bottom left corner, which is where there's a gap between the two antennas. This has been described as the "death grip", when a user holds the phone in their left hand with a firm and almost unnatural grip. We were able to get our iPhone 4 to decrease signal from 5 full bars to 3 bars on average when held in this "death grip". When in areas of lesser reception to begin with, we were able to get the iPhone 4 to completely lose signal and display "Searching..." in the carrier name area. Signal comes right back within a few seconds of not touching the bottom left corner where the gap is.

Some users have been able to prevent this by placing tape over the gap or by placing a case on the phone. We have our iPhone in a rubber case and when holding it in a similar fashion, no signal bars disappear.

Call Quality & Reception

We've been iPhone users for a while now and we have always had a few dropped calls and areas of poor reception, but the iPhone 4, unfortunately, is worse in this category. Over the month we've had the iPhone 4 in the Metropolitan Detroit area on AT&T's 3G network, we have had an estimated 20-25 times a call as dropped, with an average of about 0-2 a day. This may seem unbelievably high, but it's the truth. Some dropped call instances have been while we were stationary outside, stationary in a building and mobile in a car. We should note that the main user of the phone is left-handed and holds it in their left hand, but we do have a rubber case on the device, but the dropped calls still persist, suggesting the problem isn't completely with touching the antenna and causing attenuation.

When using the iPhone 3GS, we encountered very few dropped calls in the same area and with the same user, which also suggests the problem isn't with the AT&T network or the fact that it's held by a left-handed person.

Signal Bars
The top status bar is from not touching the left antenna gap and the bottom is shown when holding the phone while in contact with the antenna gap. Both results were taken without a case on the iPhone 4.

3G data speed tests using the Speedtest application from the App Store found the following results:

  • When placed in a case and not touching the device (5 out of 5 bars): 2813 kbits/s down & 808 kbits/s up
  • When not in a case and holding in contact with the bottom left edge (3 out of 5 bars): 2393 kbits/s down & 830 kbits/s up

Proximity Sensor Problems

Apple also has acknowledged an issue with the iPhone 4's proximity sensor, which sometimes allows the screen to activate while in a call and can lead to buttons being mispressed. In our use of the iPhone 4, we can truthfully say that with almost every call, we seem to accidentally turn on speakerphone or attempt to dial someone from our contacts list, and we've even accidentally attempted to start a FaceTime chat with someone we weren't even on the phone with. This is a software issue according to Apple and they're currently working on a software fix, which will be released hopefully in the near future. To alleviate this, we are pretty much required to hold the phone away from our cheek at an angle to prevent accidental skin contact.

Camera & Video Camera

The iPhone 4's improved digital camera is now 5 megapixels and has a LED flash, which is actually quite bright. Photo quality is very good and we've provided a video (which is in 720p HD). Pictures shot in bright light look excellent and low-light photos don't look bad either, definitely a big improvement from previous iPhones because of the flash and increase in megapixels.


Click "720p" in the quality settings in the lower right to view in high-resolution

The front-facing VGA camera isn't the best, however, but it's good enough for FaceTime chats, but that's really it. Taking still photos with it turn out blurry and are definitely nothing printable.

FaceTime

While we admit to not using FaceTime much, it is a neat feature that a select group of people probably might use frequently. There is one caveat to it: it only works via Wi-Fi connection and not over cellular connection. This will change according to Apple, but no word yet on timing of availability and we aren't holding our breath...as it took one full year to get tethering for the iPhone. In the end, it's more of a novelty and less practical, but fun nonetheless.

Battery Life

We also can report that battery life does seem to be better than the iPhone 3GS, but not by much. On an average day with a few phone calls, many text messages, some Web browsing/e-mail checking with Wi-Fi off, we can get down to around 50% battery life remaining by the end of the day. If you use your iPhone 4 for frequent, long-duration phone calls with lots of Web surfing, you'll want to get a car charger or bring your included charger with you.

iOS4

We don't have too much to complain about iOS4, the software that runs the iPhone. We have noticed a few quirks, such as the multitasking dock not rotating when the device is in landscape mode. We have also encountered a bug that completely freezes the phone when removing too many applications from the multitasking dock to the point where we have to soft reset the device.

Other than that, iOS4 seems to be fairly snappy and runs at about the same pace of the iPhone 3GS, even though the iPhone 4 has a slight hardware bump. We've encountered no slow downs or times where it runs sluggish.

The Final Reaction

The antenna and proximity sensor problems have unfortunately caused us to take a step back from our iPhone-love and question whether or not the iPhone 4 is worth the upgrade from another smartphone or the iPhone 3G/3GS. The proximity sensor problem isn't of too much concern since that can be fixed by a software update (hopefully), but the antenna design is a hardware problem which isn't really fixable. Apple has promised free cases to iPhone 4 users who make their purchase before September 30, 2010 or a full refund to users who have bought the Apple Bumper, which retails for $30.

We have come to the conclusion that the iPhone 4 is "less of a phone" that previous models because of its difficulty performing its main task: to make and receive calls & texts. It's still an excellent entertainment device, as both an MP3 player, organizer, gaming machine, etc, but it does fall short in the phone category. Apple has really disappointed a lot of people with this, even us, and we have a hard time recommending it to someone who needs a reliable cell phone at all times, especially a business person who cannot tolerate dropped calls with clients, for example. If you're in the market to purchase a new cell phone and switch from a non-iPhone, we recommend taking a look at the $99 3GS model before being set on the iPhone 4. But if you're a die-hard iPhone user who has been drooling to get the new model, then go ahead and get it because it's still an excellent device, but it has its shortcomings.

If we had to give the iPhone 4 a numerical rating, it would have to be a 3 out of 5. The antenna design alone merits a decrease in at least 1 point and the proximity sensor 0.5 points.

Pros: Best looking screen on a smartphone, high-quality camera & video camera, sleek design, fast performance

Cons: Major antenna issues that impact cell reception/quality, proximity sensor glitches, FaceTime is Wi-Fi only

What's your experience with the iPhone 4, good, bad? Do you encounter the same issues we did or any issues that we didn't mention? Leave a comment in the comments section below.

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