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Review: The Beautifully Flawed iPhone 4

Thu, 06/24/2010 - 12:49pm
Andrew Berg

Love it or hate it, the iPhone 4 marks yet another step towards a more mature Apple. The company’s latest marvel exudes sophistication. The weight and design of it alone gives it the air of a PhD when compared to its lowly undergrad brethren, the iPhone 3G and 3GS.  While a few design flaws – screen strength and the antenna – have me worried, I’m unable to turn a blind eye to what looks and feels like the pinnacle of smartphone technology.

After putting the phone through its paces, the iPhone 4 settles two of my biggest concerns as follows: Yes, the iPhone 4 is enough of a reason to sign up for another two years with AT&T. Yes, the iPhone 4 is reason enough to stay with a mobile platform that doesn’t support Flash. Will there be reasons to go with another smartphone by the end of the summer? Maybe. But my guess is that will be because they have either followed Apple, or equaled Apple, but not because they beat Apple.

As a way of keeping myself honest, I’m going to get the bad out first and then move onto the reasons you’ll want the iPhone 4 in your pocket by the end of the summer. For this review, I’ll stick to the hardware, allowing for the distinction between the iPhone 4 and iOS 4 (if that’s at all possible with an Apple product).

30 Times Harder Than Glass
The iPhone 4’s hardware is as beautiful as it is maddeningly fragile. As humans, we are drawn to beauty, and Apple knows this well enough that it won’t be the first time it has sacrificed performance for style. The glass plates on front and back of the device are both the device’s most beautiful parts and most delicate. It is Apple’s “Gorilla Glass” that gives the phone heft and sheen, as well as its perilous fragility. Accessory companies are going to make a mint on cases for the iPhone 4. I watched a drop test on YouTube that showed the front screen shattering from about four feet off the ground.

Apple claims the new glass has been chemically engineered to be 20 times stiffer and 30 times harder than plastic. That may be true on paper, but it’s simply not true when dropped from four feet off the ground. Of course, Apple also claims a “fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating on front and back,” and I’ll be the first to tell you that the shiny surface of the iPhone 4 is a forensic expert’s dream. Break out your wallets; you’re going to need a case for this one but then that’s nothing new. Check out the drop test below. 

Better Reception?
Well, maybe, but there are some things you should know about this “revolutionary new antenna” that Apple has engineered. If you happened to have nodded off during that part of Steve Job’s unveiling of the iPhone 4, the new antenna is embedded in the stainless steel band that runs around the iPhone 4. While the antenna may result in less dropped calls (I haven’t had it long enough to ascertain this) and stronger 3G signal (I’m getting a much stronger signal at the office than with the 3GS), it’s also terribly exposed. So what does that mean to users?

I didn’t believe it when I heard it, but I was able to confirm it with my own device. If you hold the iPhone 4 in your left hand, cupping the lower left-hand part of the antenna in your palm, you’ll notice that 3G, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals are almost immediately lost. I’m still searching for a technical explanation for why this happens. Unfortunately, it does happen. The one thing I do know is that the stainless steel antenna does not like the effect that skin has on the transmitting signal. The problem is easily remedied with a rubber “bumper” from Apple, or any other protective case, so don’t worry, all you awkward lefthanders out there, you’ll still be able to own the latest and greatest from Apple. 

So why would Apple do this? Because contrary to popular belief, Apple deals with the exact same set of challenges that other OEMs are met with when designing a phone. We’ve come to expect a lot out of our smarpthones and as a result, OEMs are forced to pack more goodies into the same amount of space. Moving the antenna from the inside to the outside of the device could be what made room for the extra battery that comes packed into the iPhone 4. I can live with a case around my phone if it means I get better battery life than my 3GS allowed. God forbid that this phone came in worse than the atrocious battery on the Droid Incredible.

So far, I’d say things are looking up in the battery life department. On a normal day with my 3GS, I’d be under 40 percent by now. With the iPhone 4, I’m still hovering right around 60 percent with the same usage.

Smile
With all of that said, you may be running for the hills, but stick around, we’re just getting to the good stuff. Apple has made some major improvements in this new phone, and they’re worth smiling about. The retinal display that lies beneath the glass that we talked about earlier really is stunning. If you care, the technical specs amount to a 960-by-640 backlit LCD display that packs a pixel density of 326 pixels per inch. Claims that a day on the iPhone 4 makes it hard to look at the 3GS screen are not exaggerated. This display takes smartphone technology to the brink of what’s discernable with the human eye. Granted, Samsung’s strides with the Super AMOLED display technology are equally impressive, but if you put one next to the other, I doubt your mortal visual acuity tell the difference.

Say Cheese
As more and more impressive photography apps come available for download at the App Store, I’ve been longing for a better lens on the iPhone. The underwhelming 3.2-megapixel lens of the 3GS was barely adequate for a 4x6-inch print. Banish the thought of a 5x7, or the occasional low-light shot.

iPhone 4 users will welcome with open arms the new 5-megapixel camera with built-in LED flash and 5x digital zoom. Add 720p video capture and that impressive retina display for viewing your content and you’ll be amazed at what you can do. This is a big step for Apple, and I’ll say that after viewing photos that a friend took with the 8-megapixel camera on his Droid, I can safely say that the lens on the iPhone 4 is competitive with the rest of the market.

The addition of the front-facing camera is a nice addition. Sure, video calling is great and all, but I was more excited about the fact that it will allow my wife and me to take well-framed photos of ourselves this summer, as we proudly pose in front of such famous Wisconsin landmarks as the “World’s Largest Muskellunge” and the “World’s Largest Hunk of Cheese.”

Need for Speed
I’ve never bought a device because it was supposed to be “fast.” I’ve never been one to curse a Web browser’s speed over fractions of a second lag time. Nevertheless, the quick-trotting iPhone 4 has impressed. There’s a fluidity to everything, which has undoubtedly been helped along by improvements made to the UI via iOS 4.  Of course, compared to the 600 MHz processor on the 3GS, the iPhone 4’s 1 GHz A4 doesn’t hurt the speed side of things either. Together, iOS 4 and the A4 create an experience that screams quality and refinement.

The Big Picture
If you’ve ever owned an Apple device, you understand that there’s something about these devices that really is special. For the longest time I would have told you that the only thing “special” about Apple products was that they come from a company that specializes in marketing. But as I watch Android’s attempts at beating the iPhone, I think there’s something else going on here.

Apple’s devices are special because they’re orchestrated by an eccentric perfectionist who is hell bent on creating devices that truly change the way people live their lives. Sure, he’s a bit of a control freak, but so was Frank Lloyd Wright, and he created some of the most beautifully flawed structures (reference the Johnson Wax Building) in the history of modern architecture. The iPhone 4 is beautifully flawed. Like many of Wright’s structures, it requires specific accessories, like Apple’s “bumper.”

Nevertheless, Apple and Steve Jobs have done for technology what Frank Lloyd Wright did for architecture; they designed around the human being. The iPhone 4, as well as its predecessors, has presented an otherwise sophisticated technology in a manner that is palatable to everyone, from a 4-year-old to an 80-year-old. But the real “magic” is that they’ve done this without sacrificing the power and reach of the technology.

The Power of iOS 4
So let’s say that after reading everything you can about the new iPhone, you’re simply not willing to take the risk of a shattered screen. And you’re also not sure about that antenna thing (maybe you believe that bumpers are for cars). No problem. I would suggest that you can come pretty darn close to the iPhone 4 by purchasing the 3G S for $99 with a two-year contract. One of the benefits of a closed system like Apple’s is that your OS smoothly runs across all your hardware, and iOS 4 is almost as impressive on the more durable 3G S as it is on the iPhone 4.

I’m certainly not pushing the iPhone or Apple products. I’m actually in the middle of testing out the Samsung Galaxy S, which holds its own against the 3G S in terms of specs, UI and performance. Still, I have to say that Apple products have that little bit of something, call it continuity, call it 225,000 apps, call it mojo. Call it whatever you want, it makes a difference when it comes to the final product.  

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