First impressions of the iPhone 4

I had the honor of being the last person to get an iPhone 4 in Cambridge on launch day, wandering in to the Reserved line at 8:59, stupidly thinking the store closed at 9:30 instead of 9. Am I glad I braved the line and the self-loathing attendant with standing in line to buy a cell phone like some teenage girl camped out to buy Justin Bieber tickets? Yes. Yes I am. Below are my impressions on a few major elements of the phone.

Physical Build

This has the nicest feel to any consumer electronics device I’ve ever used, let alone a a phone. Using Corning Gorilla Glass for both the front and back was a beautiful touch. Not only does it look nice, but it resists fingerprints (due to oligophobic coatings which makes grease happier to stay on your finger than stick to the coating) and makes scratches nearly impossible. Early users who report scratches in the glass are likely seeing scratches in the coating, not the glass. While it’s a myth that only diamond can scratch glass, you’ll nonetheless have to try very hard to scratch Corning’s chemically hardened glass.

Another nice touch was going with a squared edge instead of the visually weak rounded edge of the prior generation. It’s like the difference between a ’91 Ford Taurus and ’65 Chevy ’67 Shelby GT. The phone has a solid heft, and the hard edges give it a more secure feel in the hand. (This will be especially important as you try to delicately hold the phone so as not to cause reception to drop, as I’ll describe below.) It has the feel of something substantial, that you might actually use for more than two years before throwing out.

Interface Feel

The A4 chip is impressive. The phone feel orders of magnitude faster than the 3G. No waiting for menus to come up. Everything is fluid and quick. They are going to save a bundle in post production when they do the iPhone 4 ads, as no special effects will be required to keep the ad under two minutes. (I’ve been tempted to make my own ad for the iPhone 3G where I do exactly what Apple does in their ads, except my ad will be shown in real time, with the announcer making awkward comments about the Met’s bullpen while he waits for the screens to come up and the keyboard to unfreeze.)

The iPhone 4 actually works as well in real life as the iPhone 3G does on TV.

Display

Shockingly vivid and sharp. I thought this was just going to be another phone, and I’d simply hoped it would (ironically) fix the reception problems I’ve had with my 3G. I had no idea how blown away I was going to be by the display. If you buy one of these phones, enjoy the feeling you get the first time you see it, because it’s going to be the last time you ever feel that way about a phone: despite the false controversy, these displays really are at the limit of what the human eye can see (unless you’re a 12 year old with 20-15 vision). There’s really no better they could do. Pictures look like slides placed on a light box. It’s quite an effect that you really have to see to appreciate.

Reception

Now, the ugly. The reception problems are true, and have already been acknowledged by Apple and Steve Jobs. Apple packed so much stuff into the inside of the phone that they had to put the antenna outside. The outer metal band of the phone is comprised of three distinct stainless steel segments that form the antenna used for (at least) cell and WiFi reception. (I’m not sure if the GPS antenna is internal, someone please let me know.) What this means is that when you hold the phone, you’re holding the antenna directly. Anybody whose ever touched a TV antenna knows that touching an antenna can affect the signal.

In this case, however, there is an even worse effect: if you hold the phone in your left hand (which you will if you’re right handed when using the touch screen with your right hand) your sweaty little palm will likely bridge two of the segments of the antenna. Since sweat conducts (due to dissolved salt) you will partially short the antenna. I can get the phone to drop from five bars to two just by holding it in a natural position. Even when not touching the phone, the reception is significantly worse than my wifes 3G phone, also on AT&T. I guess we’re in for another generation of iPhones that do everything well but make calls. Steve Job’s response to a user who e-mailed him about this was “A non issue. Just don’t hold it that way.” Yes, he actually said that. Even more amazingly, I’m guessing Apple will actually get away with this.

I can also tell you right now exactly what Apple is going to do about this: they will issue a software update in the near future that “fixes” the issue by artificially boosting the number of bars shown. This is what they did on the 3G, and people actually fell for it. Apparently having calls dropped while five bars are showing isn’t enough to raise any suspicion in the average Apple user. I have to sincerely admire a company that can achieve this kind of user loyalty. Steve Jobs is nearly ready to trade in the black mock turtleneck of a Sith apprentice for the hood of a master.

How did Walt Mossberg possibly miss the reception issues in his review? Robots don’t sweat.

Camera

The camera on the phone is so good that it’s probably going to replace my small Canon digital camera. Having a camera always with you that also geotags your photos is really nice, and something I never anticipated as a significant benefit of the iPhone. Nonetheless, I find myself taking a huge number of pictures with my 3G, because it’s just always there when my kid does something worth recording. So, at least for me, one significant justification for the upgrade is that Apple finally got the camera right on this model. While it’s not actually as good as a dedicated camera (even a small one) it’s close enough that it’s certainly worth not having to lug around a second device. Obviously, you’re not going to replace your DSLR with your iPhone, but when was the last time you, your SLR and something worth photographing all found themselves in the same place?

The iPhone 4 can also take 720p HD video. It’s not great quality, and is only at 23 frames per second. It has a slightly blurry quality to it, which I think is due to the detector being used at it’s full native resolution, rather than interpolated from a higher resolution. You can tell this is the case because the scene “zooms in” a bit when switching to video mode, which I believe is a technical limitation; there likely just isn’t enough camera transfer bandwidth available to allow for a full frame capture and then interpolation down to 720p, at least not in a way that wouldn’t require further reduction in the frame rate. I hoping there is a way to do lower resolution video at a higher frame rate, but I haven’t found it yet. HD video of any kind of pretty impressive for a cell phone, so it’s hard to complain about this at all.

Final Thoughts

Aside from the poor RF performance, it’s an amazing piece of engineering. You’ve got a high-end GPS chip, custom low-power processor, human resolution-limited display, broad spectrum LED backlight, a micro-machined gyroscope and accelerometer array, all clothed in chemically hardened glass package the size of a cigarette case. You basically have some of the most impressive modern optics, electronics, microtechnology and radio circuitry available, all in your hand. In fact, the RF problems stem from a design compromise they had to make in order to fit all of this in such a small package.

Having given them this much credit, however, one has to wonder about the wisdom of a design choice that puts size above reception on a cell phone. You know, a pebble is small, but it doesn’t get good reception, either. That’s why I don’t carry pebbles in my pocket even though they are incredibly portable. I’m willing to have a slightly larger phone if it actually works.

Will I keep the phone? I don’t know yet. I’ll have to see how well the phone works in problematic areas for reception, like MIT’s campus. I’ll also look at comparative download speeds between the 3G and the 4, to see how much the reception issue really affects things. However, for now I’m inclined to keep it and just tell myself that it’s really so much more than a phone, how can I expect it to make calls? Steve Jobs really knows what he’s doing…

Update: I recently did a download speed test. Holding the phone normally: 0.2 MB/s. Holding it with the tips of three fingers: over 2 MB/s. This is repeatable.

6 thoughts on “First impressions of the iPhone 4

  1. David

    “It’s like the difference between a ’91 Ford Taurus and ’65 Chevy Shelby GT.” In what respect? I’ve just been flipping back and forth through images of the Taurus and SHelby on Google images and I’m not sure of your analogy. Are you saying that the Taurus has squarer corners than the Shelby?

    Reply
    1. Jonathan Post author

      Hi David. It was probably a badly made analogy, but I was trying to say that the 3G’s design is a bit bubbly, with “weak” lines, whereas the 4G is a very bold, strong design. I feel the same about the Taurus, which I think is one of the lamest automotive designs ever, and has aged terribly, versus the Shelby GT, which has sharp lines which look good even today. I think the 4G, industrial design-wise, is destined to be a classic. It will look good long after we’ve all upgraded to the iPhone 5. But hold it next to the 3G and you’ll see the 3G design will be quickly forgotten. I know this is all vague, as subjective visual appeal must be, so the best way I could think to explain it was by comparison to another set of designs with similar strengths and weaknesses.

      By the way, your response made me realize I wrote the wrong car. I meant to talk about the ’67 Shelby Mustang, the one in the movie “Gone in 60 seconds,” not the ’65 Corvette. Maybe if I’d gotten the car right, you would’ve agreed more with the analogy! Check out pictures of the ’65 Shelby GT500, and tell me if you don’t agree.

      Reply
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