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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.)

iPhone 4 on box.jpg

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.)

--

iphone4_clarendon_metro.jpg

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.

iphone4_metro_sign.jpg

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.

iphone_4_self-portrait.jpg

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.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  June 24, 2010; 2:03 PM ET
Categories:  Gadgets , Mobile , Pictures , Video  
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Next: Today's iPhone 4 freakout: calling while left-handed

Comments

Watched your video chat.....those are some pretty spartan surroundings......are you being held hostage in some foreign country?

Posted by: tbva | June 24, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

I hear that leaving several apps running will drain battery life faster. Also, is the antenna function impacted by the way you hold the phone?

Posted by: nitcat | June 24, 2010 3:27 PM | Report abuse

If you can, please ask Apple when they will offer 64 GB of storage space. I'm not buying a smartphone unless it can fit my entire music collection comfortably (36 GB and growing).

Posted by: Miles_Standish_Proud | June 24, 2010 3:35 PM | Report abuse

Next....the iPod touch with the same camera and multitasking via this IOS4????

Posted by: rjrjj | June 24, 2010 3:48 PM | Report abuse

What is the quality of the phone speaker?

This is the biggest issue I have with my 3G iPhone; the sound is so low that I always keep it at max and still have a hard time hearing if there is any noise at all. The speaker phone is also really quiet.

The sound is fine for all the apps, music and video, but the phone sound quality has always been an issue.

Posted by: AnotherMom | June 24, 2010 3:49 PM | Report abuse

Rob,
Did this happen to you? Gizmodo reports that if you hold the phone the wrong way, you lose reception.

http://gizmodo.com/5571171/iphone-4-loses-reception-when-you-hold-it-by-the-antenna-band

Posted by: Booyah5000 | June 24, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

You people need to get a life. It's just a stupid telephone. What losers.

Posted by: Classic60 | June 24, 2010 4:08 PM | Report abuse

This comment is on the iOS 4 - I like the multi tasking but when I used Pandora - it does not shut off without first stopping the song you are listening to, going back to you chooses of artist - then it will shutdown - I think. It maybe running in the background and using the battery unnecessarily.

I did get the iPhone 4 today and so far it seems to be everything as advertised but I still have the same dead zone at work so I am not sure there is an improvement on reception - jury is still out for me on that. I do like the new camera and display I can see the improvements.

Posted by: davebeach53 | June 24, 2010 4:08 PM | Report abuse

Rob, it's been a while since I've been in the Clarendon station... is the lighting really that GREEN, or is the greenish cast in your video an unintended white balance glitch in the iPhone's camera?

Posted by: scooterndc | June 24, 2010 4:19 PM | Report abuse

Anybody who uses nannified, corporate-controlled, "do-what-we-tell-you" Apple products deserves exactly what they get.

Posted by: boogalooba | June 24, 2010 4:30 PM | Report abuse

Apple: Highest retail product price, lowest 3rd World wages...

Balkingpoints / www

Posted by: RField7 | June 24, 2010 5:23 PM | Report abuse

One day, the world will look back in wonder that there was a time when people stood in line waiting for a new electronic toy/phone/camera. Since these things are doing so many different tasks, it is surprising people still call them "phones", isn't it?

What surprises me, also, is that Apple gets all this free pub because their designs are cool and they, often, lead in being the first to put a lot of stuff in the same package. Sprint/HTC has a new phone out with two cameras, but I haven't seen a word about it anywhere in the media.

While I am generally pro-Apple (not rabid, though) it should be borne in mind that none of these things costs $199. The actual price is something like a couple of thousand dollars with the two year contract. The price, in truth, is little more than earnest money: once you drop of couple of bills to buy it, you are going to use it and, therefore, you are going tdo keep paying and paying for data and cell phone time. Give the real, price, please.

Has anyone checked out the JuJu pad computer that came out before the iPad, by the way?

Doug Terry at terryreport com

Posted by: terryreport | June 24, 2010 6:21 PM | Report abuse

By the way, I am in television documentary production and the HD video from the iPhone looks good enough to go straight to air, even with the flaws.

Doug Terry at terryreport com

Posted by: terryreport | June 24, 2010 6:23 PM | Report abuse

Everybody comments on the multimedia capabilities of this new iPhone but none of these iPhone-fans ever discuss its phone capabilities and the coverage that AT&T offers which is reported to be less than satisfactory. I would be interested in knowing how well this phone performs, quality of calls (in and out), speakerphone, incidence of dropped calls, etc.). Any input?

Posted by: NJAnalyst | June 24, 2010 6:44 PM | Report abuse

what would have been really helpful is if you had an Evo in one pocket, (or Droid x) which is about the same, and compared the battery life of the 3 phones, and then the call quality, and then the speed of opening web pages... and the speed of going to video content on the web and playing that, like a youtube video...

and then taking a video on all 3, and take photo's on all 3 in the same situations...

that would indeed embarrass the Android phones, but hey, it needs to be done so we can tell the most important things about a smart phone for a real use...

1. the battery life,
2. the speed (both webpages, and app loads),
3. the price per what you get 16gb, as opposed to 8gb... that sort of thing...
4. call quality.

5. and then picture quality of both video and camera...

there are a few more things... but you get the idea..

Posted by: honkj | June 24, 2010 6:56 PM | Report abuse

Sort of related. I pre-ordered an iPhone 4 from the Apple Store website last week, but the shipping date is "by July 14th." Some people received their iPhone earlier this week, but there is no way of telling when to expect delivery until Apple sends a shipment email. Is there any way to find out exactly when an iPhone is scheduled to ship - like Amazon can?

Posted by: maus92 | June 24, 2010 7:49 PM | Report abuse

What's the word on iPhone 5?

Posted by: tslats | June 24, 2010 9:16 PM | Report abuse

Count me among the disappointed. Having always scored an ' i' item by coming in the afternoon on the first day, that was my modus operandi today. It failed. I arrived at an Apple Store at 5:30 p.m. and was promptly informed that those of us without confirmed reservations would not be getting iPhones. All non-reserved iPhone 4s had sold out We were told we can try again on a first come, first served basis tomorrow.

Posted by: query0 | June 24, 2010 9:20 PM | Report abuse

I am interested in the antenna issue. Does holding it in a particular way cause the signal reading to drop significantly?

Posted by: jethro1 | June 24, 2010 9:31 PM | Report abuse

For what it's worth, that video is spectacular for a phone. My eyes didn't see your 'graininess.' In fact it's so good, I think you sold me...

Posted by: jnardo | June 24, 2010 9:47 PM | Report abuse

BATTERIES! I actually regret getting an iphone vs an android cause they get three days and I get 0.5. I have to bring a cable just to get through the day. I heard this new iphone has better battery life?

Posted by: jefoley | June 25, 2010 1:02 AM | Report abuse

The most frustrating day of my life
Went to the Apple Store in Towson MD and I arrived at 645A.M. The lines were organized and they passed out free water and Chick-Fila but that’s where the positives ended. The Apple employees counted the people in line 6 times asking how many phones people wanted. Well fast forward 13 hours later and I was told by the manager sorry we didn’t guarantee you a phone by waiting we are all out of stock. We asked after waiting so patiently for more than half the day could we be placed on a list for the following day- she said no, we don’t do that but thank you for your interest in the Iphone- I am sure you will get one soon.
No I don’t think I will because I am getting a Droid! The worst customer service I have ever experienced- maybe Steve Jobs can teach her something before he croaks?

Posted by: scubadiver3000 | June 25, 2010 5:22 AM | Report abuse

This new iPhone simply rocks - Android move over please!

Yes, it has a new shape, yes it has a new antenna design that needs to be held without blocking a small spot at the bottom side of the phone but, this new iPhone 4 has the best display by far along with the best operating system, camera, iPod music machine, app store and loads of enhancements that add refinement and class to an already nearly perfect smart phone!

After hours of use and abuse, I can say without any reservation that this new phone is the best phone ever made for the consumer. And the 3g web speed in suburban Maryland is rocket fast so scratch the slow network crap!

I love this new phone and more than anything the word that fits it is "refined" from top to bottom!

No wonder this one will BREAK sales records off all previous iPhones. Its that good.

You will have zero regrets with this beauty, and I am loving it!

GO APPLE - ANOTHER BULLSEYE - IT'S THE PERFECT DESIGN GUYS !!!

Posted by: macking301 | June 25, 2010 6:44 AM | Report abuse

Rob, thanks for the review, but for video review, the black table background when trying to show off black phones doesn't contrast well at all. Hopefully next time you'll have a lighter background!

Posted by: skynzfan | June 25, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

Thought the video was really good, not as good as my 5D MkII, but still good. Hope the face time thing works out tho. It looks like Apple has yet another winner to follow the original and the iPad on which this is being typed!

Posted by: IslandDawg | June 25, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

Just FYI, the first picture (of the subway station interior) doesn't appear to be clickable.

Posted by: Chalres | June 25, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

@tbva: Behold the wonders of our TV studio! We can dress it up--that's where I recorded my interview of Steve Wozniak--but in this case we did not.

@AnotherMom: Haven't noticed any volume issues myself. This is with the phone itself, not using the headphones?

@scooterndc: Nope, Clarendon has the same gray concrete as every other station. Think you're correct about the white-balance thing.

@jefoley: What Android phones do your friends have with that sort of battery life? The Android devices I've tried have had many virtues, but "longest battery life" haven't been among them.

@Chalres: Good catch--I must have forgotten the click the checkbox in our blogging software to have the thumbnail open full-size in a separate window. Fixed now.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | June 25, 2010 1:15 PM | Report abuse

I had the 3G before upgrading

- Speed is mindblowingly faster
- App speed is ridiculously better
- Internet speed on 3G is much improved
- Screen kicks ass quality wise
- HD Video recording is fantastic
- Antenna is average but not surprising

Posted by: Bious | June 25, 2010 5:21 PM | Report abuse

I had the 3G before upgrading

- Speed is mindblowingly faster
- App speed is ridiculously better
- Internet speed on 3G is much improved
- Screen kicks ass quality wise
- HD Video recording is fantastic
- Antenna is average but not surprising

Posted by: Bious | June 25, 2010 5:22 PM | Report abuse

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