iPhone 4: First-commute impressions
Apple's new iPhone 4 is in no danger of being mistaken for any of its three predecessors. Its angular contours and precision-engineered metal buttons feel dramatically different from the smooth, streamlined shapes of the original iPhone, the iPhone 3G and the iPhone 3GS.
On the inside, the iPhone 4 -- $199 for a 16 GB version, $299 for a 32 GB version -- offers a few other departures from the past that emerged during this morning's commute. (Apple's PR department loaned two 32 GB models for this review.)
The most welcome such change -- one also available to owners of the iPhone 3GS who install the iOS 4 operating-system update that Apple shipped Monday -- is multitasking. Or something like it. Although the iPhone 4 doesn't keep third-party applications running side by side, it allows updated versions of them to hand off some tasks -- for instance, music playback or tracking your location -- to the operating system before suspending their activity until you switch back to them.
On the iPhone 4, though, this seems to happen so seamlessly that you can't tell the phone is really performing "fast app switching." Tap the home button twice, and whatever you had on the iPhone's screen slides up to reveal a drawer showing any "open" applications. Slide a finder left or right to switch among them; a set of controls for the iPhone's iPod application await at the left of this list.
Apple talks with considerable pride about the iPhone 4's ultra-sharp, 960-by-640-pixel screen. But this 3.5-inch "Retina Display" -- named because, Apple says, the human eye can't even distinguish that level of detail from a foot away -- doesn't always look dramatically superior when you're looking at the iPhone's home screen. Only when you view a picture, zoom in on a map or open a book in Apple's iBooks program do the benefits of those extra pixels become obvious -- you can't see any jagged edges in images or text.
The iPhone 4's cameras represent a major advance over the hardware on earlier models. The back camera offers 5 megapixels of resolution and (finally) a flash, plus the ability to shoot video in 720p high definition. The front-facing camera -- intended both for self-portraits and for video chats using Apple's FaceTime software -- provides far less resolution, at just 640 by 480 pixels.
I'd been meaning to try FaceTime, which allows free video calls as long as you're on a WiFi wireless network connecting you to the Internet. But my attempt to launch a FaceTime chat with a co-worker using the second iPhone 4 failed without explanation: We could only see ourselves on our respective devices' displays, instead of being able to see each other. My guess, based on reports by other users: The Post network's firewall blocks FaceTime communication.
What else would you like to know about the iPhone 4 as I continue to work on this review? Post your questions in the comments. Or, if you were among the masses lined up outside Apple's stores or waiting for a delivery at home today, tell me what you think of your own iPhone 4. We've also set up a discussion forum for anybody running into unwanted issues with their new devices.
(And if you use a different sort of smartphone and want to point out how your gadget offered all of these features before Apple got around to adding them to the iPhone, you're welcome to do that as well.)
So how does the iPhone 4's camera work in the field? Consider these three sample shots, taken in one of the worst environments for any camera phone -- the poorly lit confines of a subway station. (I picked up the review hardware at Apple's Clarendon store this morning.) To get the best sense of these pictures' quality, click on each one to open it in a new window at its original size.
The first two were taken with the iPhone's primary, 5-megapixel camera. Note that the flash didn't fire in either case -- the right call, as it would only be able to illuminate the closest areas of the shot and would leave the rest badly underexposed. (Many point-and-shoot cameras' auto-everything routines fail to think that issue through.)
The third photo is a self-portrait taken with the iPhone's front-facing camera. It looks much more like a stereotypical camera phone shot -- and it should, considering that camera's woeful resolution and lack of a flash. You'll also notice that when you click to open this picture in a new window, it should easily fit on your monitor -- while those of you reading this on smaller laptops, netbooks, iPads or smartphones probably had to scroll to see the previous two shots.
Finally, I've embedded a YouTube-hosted copy of the video I shot of my train approaching. It should play in HD automatically, but if you have any issues with that the original is on my YouTube page. Look for how much sharper the footage appears when the lens was able to steady its focus, as compared to how grainy and blurry the side of the train looks as it pulls into the station.
June 24, 2010; 2:03 PM ET
Categories: Gadgets , Mobile , Pictures , Video
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