iPhone 4: Nearly all it's cracked up to be

First look: Apple's new iPhone is faster, slimmer, slicker, better -- except for potential reception problems

If there ever was an over-hyped product, it's... well, actually, it's the iPad. But the iPhone 4 is close on its heels. But even after all the hoopla -- from the speculation and rumors to the "lost" phone incident and police action -- the arrival of the iPhone 4 is no letdown. The iPhone 4 really is all that was promised and more. Except for a potential reception problem.

The first reason to love this phone is the screen. The beautiful, extraordinary screen. Whether you believe Steve Jobs's claim that the pixel density is beyond what the human retina can interpret or not, you really do have to see this screen for yourself. The Retina Display in the iPhone 4 is simply amazing.

[ The excellent iPad is a sleek media player and a highly functional tablet computer, but there's room for improvement. See "InfoWorld review: Apple iPad surprises, disappoints." | Find out what iOS 4 does -- and doesn't -- do. ]

In fact, it's almost too amazing. While Apple's iOS4 application icons have clearly been enhanced for the new display, existing applications from independent developers -- which appeared perfectly crisp on an iPhone 3GS -- are suddenly looking hazy and unfocused. Looking at the Apple Compass application icon adjacent to, say, iWant Pro, it's immediately apparent that developers everywhere will be rushing to release updates of their applications with higher resolution icons.

That "problem" extends to the applications themselves,  which now appear extraordinarily pixelated, especially when interposed with the text that is rendered so shockingly clear on the new display. The exception to this rule appears to be games, with several popular titles still looking quite sharp.

iPhone 4 horsepower Games are also performing quite admirably on the iPhone 4. Of course, they're more than happy to take advantage of the enhanced CPU and RAM resources, which from all accounts appears to be an Apple A4 SoC with 512MB RAM -- the same central processor and twice the RAM found in the recently-released iPad.

Measured side by side with an iPhone 3GS, the iPhone 4 is noticeably faster in a variety of common tasks, and it really excels at handling the new iOS 4 capabilities such as multitasking. While there aren't a huge number of multitasking-aware apps available yet, the extra oomph provided by the iPhone 4 makes app switching and application backgrounding extremely snappy. All the new bells and whistles in iOS 4 simply fly on the iPhone 4, while they may stutter a little on iPhone 3G S and iPhone 3G hardware. In the case of the iPhone 3G, some of the new features are not available at all.

Other hardware improvements include the much-ballyhooed front-facing camera, and the enhanced main camera. Speaking as the owner of a Nokia N95 that had a front-facing camera way back in 2007, I'm not too impressed with this addition, but I am impressed that there's finally a framework to use the thing. In all the years I owned the Nokia, there wasn't a single application that took advantage of the forward camera in a general-purpose way. With FaceTime, Apple's mobile videoconferencing tool, a front-facing camera is suddenly useful. Anyone else with an iPhone 4 can take part in a video chat, simply by looking up their contact info, or calling them on the phone and clicking the FaceTime button.

The iPhone 4's newly enhanced rear camera is quite a step up from any previous iPhone incarnation, taking 5 megapixel photos, and leveraging an LED flash. I'm certainly not a photographer, but the few photos I've taken have been on par with my two-generations-back Canon Elph. It's not a DSLR, but it's certainly a usable camera. Coupled with the 30FPS HD video recording, and we'll be seeing much higher quality pictures all over Flickr and YouTube in the very near future.

There are several other goodies in the iPhone 4 that aren't intrinsic to the device, but rather to the new iOS4.These include the multitasking, which is obviously a welcome addition, but also the unified mailbox and email threading features, which are extremely handy. Also a soft key for orientation lock and quick access to running applications and sound controls by double-clicking the home button. If the iPhone could feel more polished, iOS 4 makes it happen.

iPhone 4 issues and oddities I've only had a few hours to work with the device, but I've found some oddities -- namely that the signal strength seems to wax and wane significantly while in a fixed position. Others are reporting that holding the phone in a certain way (in which your hand bridges the metal exterior strips) causes signal degradation. I couldn't reliably reproduce this problem at first, but after some experimentation, I was able to reliably decrease and increase the signal with certain hand positions. However, I sometimes witnessed apparent signal loss without touching the phone at all, and then signal resurgence while holding the phone in a variety of ways.

Apple claims this is a software bug that will be fixed post-haste -- so this may be a spurious problem or something greater, but it's too soon to tell. That said, it's telling that Apple released the Bumper Case along with the iPhone 4, as presumably, the Bumper Case reduces or eliminates this apparent problem.

Also, I had a few problems downloading and installing applications from the App Store. They appeared to fail at first, and then completed. Given that I had the same problem at the same time on an iPad, it may be due to load on Apple's servers, which are currently handling a high volume of activations or downloads, but it's certainly worth noting.

But beyond function comes form. The iPhone 4 is a sleek, lithe device, with the obvious Apple flair that leads one to think of high-tolerance machining and an overall quality product. It has good heft, but isn't heavy, and generally fits the hand quite well. Apple boasts that it's 24 percent slimmer than the iPhone 3GS, which may be true, but frankly I almost miss that extra width. The iPhone 4 can feel almost too thin for my admittedly large paws.

Also, you can't tell the front from the back of the phone without looking. With the previous incarnations you could easily feel which side was which while it was in your pocket. The back was rounded, the front flat. With the iPhone 4, there's no tactile differentiation. In fact, both sides of the phone are glass, so unless or until you discover the location of the home button, you won't be able to easily orient the phone in your pocket. It may seem like a little thing, but I've only had the phone for a day and have already had several occasions to lament this fact.

But then, I don't have a case for the phone. Nobody does. The aforementioned Apple Bumper Case just started shipping today. Until you have one, there's no alternative but to handle with care. I'm generally one to put screen protectors and some form of slim case on my phones, and the iPhone 4 really does scream out for some kind of protective cover, no matter the promises of scratch-resistance.

But however you slice it, no matter its detriments, from just about any angle you approach the iPhone 4, it really is a marvelous device. Assuming the reception issues are addressable, this iPhone is the best yet, and that's saying something.

Related articles: 

This article, "iPhone 4: Nearly all it's cracked up to be," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest news in mobile computing, Apple, iPhone,iPad, and software development at InfoWorld.com.

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Paul Venezia

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