iPhone 4 – Quick impressions

I stood in line for 13 hours to get the iPhone 4.  That was an interesting experience, to say the least … I'll save that for a later post.

My opinion of the iPhone is that the product really came together with the 3GS.  The original iPhone was a revolution in UI and hardware.  The 3G was faster still and brought the App Store to the masses.  But none of this really came together until the 3GS … the phone itself was still slowing down the whole experience.  Speed is important … Google knows this in terms of search results, and it's especially true with phones, where the goal is to use it and be on your way as quickly as possible.

So does the iPhone 4 represent another quantum leap in mobile smartphones?

In short, no.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing.  The iPhone 4 hits on all the important points … things that aren't as sexy to announce, but that we all need.  It is 25% thinner, yet has about 25% more battery life.  The screen has 4 times the pixel density in the same size screen, which, while it is a pleasure to view, does not make it much better for reading things from a practical perspective.   The processor is faster … not like the 3G to the 3GS, but it is faster.  And the phone has twice the RAM, which is noticeable in subtle ways while browsing … pages need to be reloaded less frequently when switching between them.

None of this fundamentally changes the way I use the phone.  Basically, this is how the phone experience went.

I picked up the phone from the store and headed to work.  Waited for the phone transfer to activate itself from my 3GS on AT&T's network and ended up just rebooting the phone to get carrier reception going.

At my desk, I noticed the phone was, in fact, having the dreaded reception issues noted by various pre-orderers … 1 bar in a known 5 bar zone.  I fiddled for a while and watched the bars drop very slowly if held in a certain way and return if held another way.  This wasn't always reproducible, but it was common enough.  Anyway, I had the good fortune to pick up a bumper at the Apple store as well.  I'm not normally a fan of cases … I don't like the extra bulk in my pocket and I think they detract from the industrial aesthetics of the phone.  But, I put on the official bumper and observed the problem was, if not gone, at least tolerable like any other phone.

In hindsight, it's blindingly obvious from an engineering perspective that touching the antenna band is going to mess up the signal.  My understanding of this is that the change may have been mandated by new regulations requiring a minimal amount of radiation near the user's head.  Therefore, the primary reception area is down at the bottom of the phone instead of in the portion where you put your head to.  Antenna design is a black art and Apple probably didn't have time to work out all the kinks before the product cycle was due.

Anyway, I tend not to complain about these things if there's a suitable way to deal with it, and the bumper is just that.  I suspect other people will raise a stink about it.  It is, after all, not unreasonable to expect your phone to have good reception when held in a normal way.  From a design and product release cycle perspective, that's sort of a disaster and I'm curious to see just how Apple ends up handling it. 

Anyway, after getting down to using it, and doing the obligatory demos throughout the day, I found it feeling just like my 3GS.  It does everything my 3GS did, just slightly better.

Multitasking has, so far, done pretty much nothing for me.  Everything I actually needed to multitask was already part of the OS and already multitasking enabled.  We'll see if this changes, but, so far, this addition has not made my mobile life any better.  I can see streaming Pandora in the background will be somewhat useful, and mobile check-ins / GPS announcement and background uploads will be nice whenever apps get around to really doing something interesting here.

The camera is much improved, as is the ability to record HD video now.  I don't use the camera much, tho. And the HD video isn't really accessible unless you pull it off the phone via syncing to your computer.  You cannot upload to YouTube or e-mail clips in 720p … the phone always downsamples it to a very low quality.  That's very disappointing, and I think it needs to be fixed.

Finally, I've tried FaceTime a couple of times now.  It's fun, but not something I need.  If you are addicted to talking to certain people all the time, especially partners or children, you may find this a more engaging way of doing it.  I do think the ability to do this more on the go will increase adoption in a way we haven't seen before.  But it will take time.  Not everyone owns an iPhone 4 yet, and the inability to conference to a PC or Mac is a gaping hole in the strategy.

I feel like we're starting to enter the period with phone hardware where everything that really needed to be in the phone has been added.  Think back to how PC's needed to be expanded with sound cards and network cards.  Now it's all thrown in along with the kitchen sink.  Of course, that's simplifying the issue.  4G speeds will be a huge improvement when it comes out.  There's still a ton of improvements to be made in software and services.  I'm probably missing a few other things as well.

In conclusion, the iPhone is still the best smartphone on the market.  If you have a 2G or 3G model, you will get a lot out of this upgrade.  If you have a 3GS … well, the iPhone 4 is better across the board, but it will not change your life in any particular area.  But if you use your phone a lot, the improvements are not all gimmicks.  They are in key fundamental areas that will be with you in the background, every day.  It may just be worth it.

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