iPhone 4 Review: A gorgeous phone you’ll want to buy

Unlike those lucky ones who got their iPhones delivered early, we braved early mornings and long lines to bring you our own, personal, iPhone 4 review. What do we think of this symphony of glass and aluminum? Does it live up to they hype?

iPhone 4 review

First Impressions

Once I got my hands on it, setting up the phone was a breeze. Activate in store, then sync. Didn’t take very long, though I heard AT&T’s servers melter later in the day. All in all, the restore from backup, then syncing took around 20 minutes, which is perfectly acceptable. Admittedly, this was going from an 8GB phone to a 16GB, so I wasn’t exactly filling it to capacity.

Using the phone, the first thing that hits you is the Retina Display — it’s gorgeous. You can still make out pixels if you peer closely enough, but you’ll give yourself eye-strain doing so. Apps that haven’t updated their icons look humorously bad. It honestly looks like emulating a SNES on your computer — pixels everywhere! Funnily enough, the Pandora app is updated to run in the background, but still runs low-res assets.

Comparing the screens from the old to new, the iPhone 4 has a definite slight yellow tint, coming across slightly warmer than the cool of my iPhone 3G — I don’t have a 3GS to compare with, so you’ll have to make your own conclusions on that front.

The more I used the new screen, the more I fell in love with it. At first there’s a definite sense of “ooh, shiny”, but after awhile you start to really appreciate just how laser freaking sharp it is. I’ve started to use FaceBook and Twitter more from the iPhone just because the text is so easy on the eyes. Little things like the icon for “clock” has much smaller and finer numbers and second hand now. Or Google Maps, which now looks gorgeous at every zoom level.

Sound wise, the iPhone 4 is definitely louder than its predecessor, probably due to the “audio chamber”spotted during iFixit’s teardown, which adds some oomph to the speakers. It makes handsfree mode a bit easier to hear, and certainly helps when listening to music. It’s so much louder that I’ve started using it as a full volume music player. I can just leave it running anywhere in the room the volume of the music can be easily heard.

The beefy new processor is an utter beast. Admittedly, I’m jumping two generation of tech here, so going from the 3G to 4 is a mammoth performance gulf. I booted up Plants vs. Zombies, and that damn loading screen was gone in an instant. Assassin’s Creed II used to suffer major slowdown, and is now smooth as butter — except it crashes all the time.

Hands On

How does it handle? A lot has been made of how it’s smaller and heavier than the previous generations, but it’s a minuscule amount. Sure, you’re shaving off a couple of millimeters and adding grams from the 3G and 3GS, but that’s not enough to make or break it.

The thing is, the iPhone 4 feels much more solid and substantial than its predecessor, and that’s because of the edges. The older models tapered, so you rarely held it at its thickest part, instead interacting with the much thinner edges. The new iPhone has an “ice cream sandwich” build, so you always hold it at the thickest part. This makes it feel more rugged and thicker than the 3G/3GS, but loses the delicacy that they had.

The iPhone’s resilience was an important part of the iPhone 4 announcement. Apple’s specially treated glass that was meant to be incredibly scratch-resistant. Frankly, I’m not really brave enough to put it through its paces on this front. It feels plenty sturdy, but we already know that it can be scratched, and it can be broken. From all indications, it’s much less easy to scrape, but more easy to shatter. So, good for pockets, not good for dropping. Get a case, people.

There’s this beautiful tactility when using the buttons on the new phone. Hitting the volume up and down buttons feels far more satisfying than it should. I don’t know why, but I honestly think that how buttons feel says a lot for the overall quality of a gadget, and these feel amazing.

Photos and Video

The new iPhone has an impressive 5 megapixel camera on the back, and a 640×480 on the front (so people can look at your gorgeous mug). How big is a five megapixel image? Well, if you wanted to print it, you could probably get away with an 8×10, as long as no-one looked too closely — though I’d suggest going a touch smaller.

Taken in low light

The image quality is great for a cellphone camera, and it might just replace your point-and-shoot — assuming you don’t mind having no control. As an occasional photographer, the complete lack of info about ISO, shutter speed, white balance, and all those other wonderful features frustrates me to no end. However, if you just want to pull it out of your pocket, and have it work, then it does the job.

Taken using the flash

The pictures come out looking good, as long as you don’t start eyeing them up at full size. Once you zoom to 100%, the pics look pretty noisy, but that’s bound to happen with a cellphone camera. Resize the shots for the web or Facebook, and they look stellar.

Taken using front camera

Low light performance is good. Again, noisy images, but that’s to be expected, as was the trouble that it had focusing. The flash packs a hell of a kick, but if the camera can’t focus properly, it doesn’t do much good. Using the flash, it would sometimes take me two or three attempts to get the shot in focus.

One issue I did have is that when holding the camera in landscape mode, it’s extremely easy to cover the lens with your fingertips. Watch out for this.

For those of you who are photo geeks, my brief testing showed the following: ISO range 80-1000, shutter speeds 1/17-1/1675. The aperture seems fixed at f2.4. The front facing camera goes all the way up to ISO 1600.

Video looks absolutely stellar. Honestly, I don’t take that much video, but I loved how responsive and the quality I saw from the iPhone 4. Many people have been billing the iPhone 4 as a Flip killer, and I’m tempted to agree. Comparable quality, and one less thing to carry in your pocket.


It works, it’s easy, and it looks good. It doesn’t take up any cell minutes, so if you switch from a normal call to a Facetime call, you can save your AT&T minutes. The video quality is decent — there’s inevitable compression, but from what I experienced there weren’t any breakups or lag.

The real points here are for the simplicity. It works. You press the button, and it goes. You can flip between front and back camera in an instant. Simple, perfect. Ideal for tech-phobic family members.

The biggest head scratcher for me was why it isn’t integrated with desktop iChat? Everyone with a Mac has iChat and an iSight camera, why can’t you set up video chat from your iPhone 4 to them?

Right now it’s Wi-Fi only, but I bet you some third party developers are going to get into that API, and add it to their VoIP apps.

Battery Life

It’s still a bit hard to pin the battery life down, but at this point it looks pretty freaking good. After for four hours, playing music more or less constantly from iTunes, tweaking settings, and getting to know the layout — and was still at 75% power.

24 hours later, including eight hours of sleep based standby, playing a few games, and listening to a ton of music, it sat comfortably at 40% juice left. Nice.

The last 33% always seem to disappear the fastest, but I don’t have access to the gear to test how long until it completely dies.


Honestly, right now I have no idea which of my apps support multitasking and which don’t. Pandora ran fine in the background, pumping out music continuously. The only problem that I encountered has to do with how it automatically quits apps. As you go in and out of using applications, they’re added to to system drawer. After you hit a certain number, the oldest one is quit. That means that if you’re blithely listening to music and doing a thousand other little things, sometimes Pandora will just quit out, as it’s the last app on the list.


Presently, there’s not a lot to take advantage of the gyroscope, but I bet as more apps take advantage of it, we’ll see some very cool new uses. I tried it out on Eliminate: GunRange, a $0.99 app from ngmoco that lets you fire big guns around a firing range. The gyroscope manages to make it feel like your phone tracks absolute location, instead of just motion. So, it handles a bit like an AR app, moving the the phone like a window into another world. The game’s not great, but it’s only a buck, and I do think there will be some cool uses of the gyroscope soon. I think we might see a bit more ways of using your iPhone as a controller for an iPad or Mac with this feature, because it’s as least as accurate as a Wiimote.


The reception issue. Holding the lower left edge of my phone caused be to lose three bars of reception. Decidedly uncool. Given the number of complaints this has caused, I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple pushed through some sort of reparations ASAP.

The front and back of the phone are both billed as oleophobic — oil resistant to prevent smeared fingerprints. Yeah, it still gets covered with smears in no time flat. Maybe I’m just a bit oilier than most people, but after a day it’s fingerprinted beyond belief.


I picked up one of Apple’s Bumper cases, of which only the black was available. It’s an okay case, I’m not wowed. It’s a hard strip of plastic, with soft silicone on either side, which hugs the phone closely. Volume and lock controls are both covered, and the case has buttons corresponding to them. The lock and ports are completely exposed. In its favor, it’s fits very well, will protect the fragile aluminum band, and it stops the reception loss associated with holding the lower left corner. Plus, it looks pretty swanky.

On the other hand, it’s thirty-freaking-bucks, and it doesn’t even cover the back of the phone. I know what Apple’s trying to do here, and really emphasize that the phone is tough enough on its own. I don’t care. I want this thing looked after, because it’s just as likely to hit its back as it is the edges. Sure, the edges of the phone are covered, but the small lip only offers a modicum of protection for the front and back. If you drop it on any surface that isn’t completely even, it won’t to a lick of good.

The headphone port is absolutely tiny. I could not get my Sennheisers to fit on the phone while it had the case on. This effectively limits which headphones you can use with the case to ones that have a small enough plug. Major loss of cool points to Apple for that one.

Plus, the “silent” switch is a pain to reach.

The phone comes bundled with your standard USB-dock connector and wall plug. There’s also Apple’s godawful bud headphones — I thought I’d give them another chance, as I haven’t used a pair in a couple of years. I almost hurled them at the nearest wall after about an hour, and gleefully retrieved my Sennheisers.

Strangely absent are the SIM ejector tool and polishing cloth. The latter wasn’t bundled with the 3GS either, but the SIM ejector? That’s new. Sure, a paperclip works fine, but it should still be included. We’ve heard that UK users (and possibly other countries?) do have the tool, but not the USA. I blame AT&T, personally.

iPhone 4 Review: Conclusion

The iPhone 4 is worth it just for the camera upgrades and the new screen. Both are fantastic, and blow away the older models. iOS 4 is still in its infancy, and I believe that more apps will come to take advantage of the powers of the new phone and its operating system in the near future. Facetime is very cool, but as its limited to others who have the iPhone 4, it’s very restricted right now.

It’s svelte, the design is gorgeous, and it’s a significant upgrade over the fairly minor update we saw from the 3G to the 3GS. It’s definitely the smartphone to beat.

However, it’s been hit by hardware issues. Complaints of discoloration, the reception issue, an overly sensitive proximity detector, and improperly placed volume controls. I believe most of these can be fixed without having to get a new phone. If you’ve loved previous iterations of the iPhone, you’ll adore this one too.

That said, if you’re on the fence, I would suggest waiting a couple of months to see if the situation improves via software update, and picking up a handset when the situation improves.

4 thoughts on “iPhone 4 Review: A gorgeous phone you’ll want to buy”

  1. My initial phone was one that suffered from strange reception issues beyond the lower left corner issue that 99% of us are having. Mine would lose signal sitting on my desk. After talking with Apple support and having my case escalated to a Supervisor, I ended up with an appointment at the Apple store, where after a few questions, they decided to replace the phone out-right. One of the other problems that I was having with the the phone was that it was going through the battery just a little worse than if it was my 3G, averaging less than an hour of usage for every 10% of battery. By 70% battery, I had 2.25 hours of usage.
    My replacement is decidedly different. The antenna is just a little more sensitive to my touch than the first one, but no arbitrary signal loss on it’s own, and the battery is lasting almost twice what the first one was doing. (I believe that the reception issues I was having had the phone constantly talking to a tower, and that’s why the battery seemed weak and the phone would get warm- but that’s just a hypothesis ). All in all, I am very pleased with it’s performance.
    BTW, I picked up an Apple BT keyboard to use when stationary at my desk. Wonderful for text messages and posting, plus it controls my brightness and music, and there is a zoom function, but I did it accidentally, and cannot figure out how to replicate it yet.

  2. Like I said on this forum and others, I had the same initial reception/signal issues that some people seem to be having but I got my iPhone 4 delivered to me on June 23rd. I did a few restores and reset network settings and *by midday on the 24th, all was well and I’ve had clear sailing ever since*. I don’t believe the issues people are having are the hardware, I believe they’re definitely software related. Many people have remarked how crystal clear my voice sounds when speaking to them many states away. I now get more bars in areas than my 3G did. So with this in mind, I believe the way the phone was pinging towers has a lot to do with the reception issues currently being blown up in the media.

  3. My 3GS was always dropping calls in my apartment. I have noticed now with my iPhone 4 that it no longer drops as many calls. I can even sit next to my computer (an area that would always drop my calls) and I have no problems whatsoever. I did add a Griffen Reveal case which has a thin rubbery silicon around the edge. Perhaps, that helps. Overall, I’m loving my new iPhone.

  4. Tim, I wanted to say thank you for this useful review. It helped answer my question about apps in the system drawer during multitasking and how they automatically quit. I appreciate that.


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