iPhone 4 Initial Impressions: Multitasking, Retina Display, Camera and Signal Issues (Part 1)

iPhone 4 pre order

iPhone 4

Apple’s latest iPhone, the iPhone 4, has been out in the wild for just about a week now. And in that week it has been the centre of tech news for so many diverse reasons that it is hard to know whether the iPhone 4’s launch has been the kind of success that Apple expected, and of course wanted for their new flagship iDevice.

It is also a hard device to review, for many reasons. Luckily most of them are good reasons, and related primarily to just how much stuff there is to explore and play with on the new iPhone.

For example, I spent 2 hours walking around my apartment the other night just playing with the Compass, Gyroscope, GPS and Google Maps. It is really amazing to have a device in your hand that so decisively tells you where you are and which way you are facing! More on that later. But I really do expect us to see a lot of Augmented Reality apps in the iPhone 4’s future.

I will be upfront about my views on the iPhone 4 now. I absolutely love it. There you have it!

It’s actually my first personal iPhone upgrade since the original iPhone 2G. So there is a lot to take in for me personally. Although I have used both the 3G and 3GS models extensively for work, there is a big difference between having them on your desk for work, and carrying one around with you day to day as your life helper! I am however, happy to point out the iPhone 4′ s flaws, and will do so. So don’t expect this set of articles to simply be a gushing endorsement of Apple’s PR message. But overall the iPhone 4 is an amazing piece of kit, in my opinion. With that out of the way we can move on with my first impressions.

I’ve split this “First Impressions” piece into four parts. In the first part I will be covering Multitasking, The Retina Display, The iPhone 4’s Cameras, and finally Signal Issues with the device.

In the next three pieces I will start to look at iMovie, some of the iPhone 4’s Location Awareness Features, as well as the Gyros capabilities for other applications, the iPhone 4’s Glass Case and Stainless Steel Frame, and along the way pick out some points on all of this from a developer’s perspective.

Finally, on Saturday, I’ll get to some final thoughts on the iPhone 4’s look, feel and effectiveness in day to day use. Including how well the battery holds up under a few full days work. Most of this tail end stuff has to come closer to the end, because by then I’ll have had it a few days!

I’ll also report on Face Time experiences once I’ve made a few more calls with people who have iPhone 4’s both in Thailand and abroad, and the iPhone 4’s speed when compared to other phones, and finally wrap up with conclusions and whether you should buy one or not.

Spoiler Alert : If you haven’t bought one already, then do so! The iPhone 4 is a winner, despite some of its problems being discussed very publicly around the web at the moment.

So without further ado…

Multitasking:

For those that don’t already know, it is worth repeating that multitasking in iOS 4 is not what we expect when we “multitask” on a modern desktop machine. It has a lot more in common with multitasking on older desktop computers. And that is because resources are constrained in a somewhat similar way on mobile phones to how they were a few years ago on our desktop machines.

Although the iPhone 4 sports a very spacious, and welcome, 512MB of RAM, twice that of the iPad, its processor is still only a single core affair and even 512MB of RAM is small when dealing with the kind of files and media that we use day to day on mobile devices today.

If you were uncharitable you might call iOS 4 multitasking, simply “Fast Task Switching”. The reason for this is that with the exception of a few core background tasks, applications don’t really run in parallel with each other on the iPhone 4.

You can’t have two windows open at once doing different things, for example. What happens is when you switch from one app to another the current program is suspended in memory, as if it is frozen in time. Unless it is a special case. Special cases are things like music, email, messaging services or tasks given special permission by the OS to run slowly, or periodically in the background. In that case, the main portion of the app that has been put into the background is still frozen in time, but some core functionality of the app stays awake, and is allowed to keep working with the iPhone in a limited fashion; to play music, periodically check for data, or receive messages.. and so on.

In reality though, we don’t need, nor do we want multiple windows open on the iPhone 4’s screen. What we do want is to be able to have mail checked constantly, play music, keep connections open to messaging services, and pause apps and games to take, or make, calls and then go back to what we were doing as painlessly as possible. Or perhaps switch away from a FaceTime video call, but have it keep going as a voice only call while we check a spreadsheet or word document, and then switch back to full video when we have done that.

Multitasking on iOS 4 does all of this with aplomb. So although some people may argue over the semantics of what multitasking really is in iOS, it is exactly what a mobile device needs it to be. And what’s more it means that our all important battery life is preserved.

From a developers perspective I have been able to experiment with how well the iPhone 4 handles task switching, and it’s quite impressive. Even frustratingly so at times.

When you publish an app to the App Store, Apple check to see if you have implemented all the hooks for multitasking, and exiting your app cleanly in iOS4. Depending on your app’s scope they may or may not reject it if it behaves in certain ways. And I will of course make sure any app I publish is compliant… Do be aware though, that until developers update apps to run under iOS 4, and use the multitasking functionality things may not always run as you expect. Although having just said that I can say that the iPhone 4, with its extra memory, really does do its best to Fast Switch older apps that are not really multitasking compliant yet.

When developing quick test apps for myself I sometimes skip some of the functions which handle shutting an app down nicely, or saving its active state. Even when I did this the iPhone 4 still backgrounded my development apps, and caused me quite some confusion initially. When I would subsequently try to re-launch them, thinking I was running a fresh copy of the app, it would actually simply un-pause the existing version. Impressive, but confusing initially!
At the end of a day of coding I realised, as others have found, that when you think you have quit an app the iPhone has actually backgrounded it. I actually had around 20 apps sitting in my task tray at days end. Once you have filled up the iPhone 4’s memory this way, it will start to cull apps. And this is when developers like me earn our pay. If we’ve done our job properly, our suspended app will then save its state to the iPhone’s Flash Memory, and the next time you use it it will still resume, but just not quite as quickly as a backgrounded app.

In reality this is all quite impressive, and shows just how many small apps you can have in memory at the same time. But at the end of the day the difference between multitasking and app quitting and launching is simply a small amount of time.

What it does show is that the iPhone 4 is certainly backgrounding anything it can, whether or not that app is even supposed to “multitask”. Neat.

The iPhone 4 is certainly making good use of its 512MB of RAM to background tasks and make your life more convenient. Launch times for backgrounded apps is incredibly fast. Making the iPhone 4 feel incredibly snappy all day long. And with double the memory of the iPad you can have a lot more tabs open in Safari, as well as apps suspended in memory before things start to chug.

I have not got my iPhone 4 to chug yet by the way! But I am trying!

The Retina Display:

The iPhone’s new LCD display is probably almost as big news as its alleged ability to lose 3G signals. Some users have reported yellow spots on their displays, but this has been cleared up as simply a function of solvents used in the manufacture of the iPhone not having had time to dry before shipping. Normally it clears up in a day or two, apparently. On all the devices I have seen to date I can say that none exhibited this problem. Even on display models, and behind the counter models, which are showing up with the princely price tag of over $2000 in our local malls this week.

Overall though, everyone seems to be in agreement about one thing. The iPhone 4’s Retina Display is like something out of a science fiction movie when compared to all other mobile phone displays on the market. It has even made me quite picky about text on my super high resolution Apple Monitors and 17 ” Unibody MacBook Pro’s screen. They all now look slightly pixelated to me, by comparison to the iPhone 4’s display! Safari looks positively awful for me now, on anything other than an iPhone 4!

Four things strike me about the iPhone 4’s Retina Display:

Firstly, it is unbelievably high resolution. Even if I literally stick my eyeball on the screen of the iPhone 4 I cannot make out pixels. Text is smooth and crisp, almost like the characters are actually little plastic stickers, or rub-on transfers, just behind the touch panel. I’d go so far as to say that if it wasn’t so brightly backlit you could believe that the screen is actually a sticker on a fake display model iPhone in a store – until it scrolls, or reacts to your touch. Then it looks like a glossy magazine!

Secondly, it is very evenly lit. Some 3GS iPhones I have used have had a little imbalance to their backlight. This panel seems to be very constant in its illumination. Much like my iPhone 2G. Bless it.

Thirdly, the icons and text seem to be much closer to you than on previous iPhones. This is undoubtedly because of Apples new manufacturing process that bonds the LCD panel and the Touch Layer all into one. Further enhancing the illusion that the iPhone 4’s display is actually displaying glossy magazine content.

Finally, overall the iPhone 4 screen has a more yellow hue than previous iPhones. It’s something you notice when you put the iPhone 4 next to an older iPhone. It’s a little disconcerting at first, probably because I’ve become so accustomed to the earlier iPhone’s colour balance. But you barely notice it unless you are comparing screens side by side. In summary, older iPhones seem to have a blue hue to them, whereas the new iPhone has a more warm yellow hue.

From a developers perspective the one downside to this screen size is the amount of pixels it has. If you imagine pixels on a screen are like a bag of sand, and that the GPU in your iPhone or iPod Touch is an automated shovel that fills the screen with those pixels, then you can imagine quite easily that it has to work a lot harder when filling the iPhone 4’s screen. Four times harder. Four times more pixels to shovel around.

Apple have not upgraded the graphics chip in the new iPhone since the 3GS. Whilst at the moment, on a day to day basis most people won’t notice any slow down, it is worth noting that the GPU in the iPhone 4 is now working 4 times as hard as it is in the iPhone 3GS, simply to keep that screen going. I write games, and graphically intensive software, and I would have liked to have seen perhaps a small speed / performance bump in the graphics chip in the iPhone 4.

All this means is that the iPhone 4 is probably not going to blow us away visually in games any more than an iPhone 3GS or iPod Touch will. Its CPU is faster, about twice as fast as the 3GS overall. But its GPU is actually maxed out.
Technically the iPhone 4’s GPU is fill rate limited now (as opposed to having horsepower to spare on the smaller screens of the iPhone 3GS and iPod Touch), and in some ways it is more comparable to the iPhone 3G in terms of raw polygon drawing power. But iOS is very snappy, and this will really only affect people like me trying to get as much as they can out of visuals for games.

I have experienced this first hand in the last few days when comparing my own software on an iPod Touch 3G, against the iPhone 4. Overall the iPhone 4 is not quite as snappy when running flat out as an earlier iPhone 3GS or iPod Touch 3G. But only in very graphically intensive applications with a lot of visuals. The iPad is affected similarly with it’s even larger screen and identical GPU.

Just to be clear, this does not in any way affect day to day applications, videos, iMovie, or any aspect of iOS overall. So don’t worry about it too much. I am just passing on an observation from “dev. land”.

The iPhone 4’s Cameras:

Where to start here? We’ve already covered the technical specs of the iPhone 4’s cameras in previous pieces, and this article is about impressions of actually using the device. But I will briefly recap. The iPhone 4 has the following capabilities:

  • Video recording, HD (720p) up to 30 frames per second with audio
  • 5-megapixel still camera
  • VGA-quality photos and video at up to 30 frames per second with the front camera
  • Tap to focus video or still images
  • LED flash
  • Photo and video geotagging

The 5 megapixel CMOS chip, with backlighting technology, and an improved lens, is about as good as it gets on mobile phones for taking pictures casually. Apple have maximised the technology to provide what I think is the best mobile phone camera setup I have used to date. Forget the 8MP pixel Androids. The overall package of the specialised 5MP backlit CMOS, and improved lens in the iPhone 4 is better for getting accurate data (more photons – to quote Steve Jobs) into the pictures you are taking.

The LED Flash is competent, and I’ve been able to snap shots in all lighting conditions with great results. In fact my Canon G5 stills camera (also 5MP) is now in my spares draw. My new iPhone is able to it’s job as well as it could on a day to day basis, and fits in my pocket. The iPhone 4 shutter speed, and startup time is noticeably faster than on previous iPhones. And unless I am setting up for some specialised sports shots (which require grown-up camera settings) I cannot see me bothering to throw my real camera in my bag, or on the back seat of my car very often these days.
The LED Flash also doubles as a constant light for use with the Video Camera, and works very well. That is such a cool feature. I am guessing it might be handy on a dark night if you drop your car keys too!

Switching between the front facing, and back facing cameras is seamless, achieved by tapping very responsive on screen controls, and even accompanied by an animation that rotates the entire screen from one camera to the other live. The front facing camera is great for quick snaps for ID pictures, or quick head shots for web sites and more – and of course for FaceTime calls. More on FaceTime in a later one of these articles.

Tap to focus is fast and responsive, and the ability to manually turn the Flash, or Video Light on and off, or leave them on auto is all you really need from what is, after all, a phone!

One problem I did have with my upgrade process was that a few pictures seemed to go missing from my iPhone 2G’s library when moving my shots over to the iPhone 4. And that in the big scrolling view of all my photos the iPhone 4 does not have any thumbnails for those shots. I have no idea why this is. But it is disappointing as it looks bad when you open a couple of years worth of photos to see a mainly black screen. The photos are there to look through individually, but not as a scrollable tiled wall of thumbnails. Hopefully if I sync again in the future this might resolve itself.

Signal Issues:

I actually had four iPhone 4s brought into Thailand on the Sunday just gone. Apart from mine they have gone to friends based in and around Bangkok. Mine is with me just outside Bangkok. Some are in good areas with a full 3G service. Others are in areas which simply have 2G coverage. Make no mistake, Thailand’s mobile phone network is by no means a world leader. 3G has only just come here, and we are currently in the rainy season. If we are going to get signal problems it will be at this time of year, and in this part of the world.

For myself I am primarily in a 2G area, and I have had absolutely no problems making or receiving calls. On my iPhone 2G I often have to lean precariously off my balcony to make calls at certain times of the day, and in certain weather conditions. With my new iPhone 4 I can sit at my desk inside my office, surrounded by computers and WiFi and make and take crystal clear calls without issue. So for 2G voice calls the iPhone 4 is a significant improvement over my previous iPhone.

Two of my friends live right in the heart of 3G land in downtown Bangkok, and both have marvelled at the speed at which they can pull down videos and mail on the iPhone 4. (Just don’t ask how much their phone bill will be this month!)

I asked both of them to try and get their 3G signal to drop out by following the instructions on various web sites around the web. Neither they, or me when I visited 3G areas, have been able to get voice calls, FaceTime calls or data services to drop out on iPhone 4s when using either 3G or 2G. It is baffling to hear these reports from other people.

In fact I cannot even get the bars on my iPhone 4 to drop at all. And that is in places where both my iPhone 2G and iPhone 3GS have problems.

I totally believe that some people are having this problem on their iPhone 4s. If I was asked to make a judgement call on what it is exactly I would guess that it is related to manufacturing tolerances to do with the iPhone 4’s Stainless Steel surround. Something that Apple can hopefully address moving forward for future iPhone 4s, and also existing early adopters. I don’t expect to see a software fix solving this problem. And hope that Apple don’t try to mask it with a faux software upgrade.

In any case this signal issue is certainly not something that would stop me buying, or recommending the iPhone 4. I was aware of it before I had iPhones sent here from the UK. As were all my friends. And none of us were concerned. Rightly so, in our collective options. Especially when I cannot conceive of anyone not having a carry case, or Bumper on one of these phones. Which by all accounts clear up the problem 100% for those that have it.

It is also worth noting that the iPhone 3G, 3GS and most Android and Nokia phones all exhibit similar problems if held in similar ways that obstruct their antenna. This is simply a functions of having so many signals in such compact devices, and is not an “Apple issue” in my opinion.

That’s all for this part of my iPhone 4 Initial Impressions.

Please do feel free to comment on what I’ve said so far, and share your experiences with your iPhone 4, if you are lucky enough to have one.

Tomorrow expect to read about iMovie, Location Awareness, The Gyro and my views on the Glass Case and more…

To follow on from what I have been saying about my findings with the iPhone 4 so far. AnandTech have done an in depth review on the iPhone 4’s Performance and Signal Strength characteristics from a technical perspective. There follow some interesting conclusions from them so far…

Holding the iPhone 4 without a case, in your left hand, crossing the black strip can result in a worst case drop of 24 dBm in signal. […] The fact of the matter is that either the most sensitive region of the antenna should have an insulative coating, or everyone should use a case. For a company that uses style heavily as a selling point, the latter isn’t an option. And the former would require an unprecedented admission of fault on Apple’s part.

iPhone 4 performs much better than the 3GS in situations where signal is very low, at -113 dBm (1 bar). Previously, dropping this low all but guaranteed that calls would drop, fail to be placed, and data would no longer be transacted at all. I can honestly say that I’ve never held onto so many calls and data simultaneously on 1 bar at -113 dBm as I have with the iPhone 4, so it’s readily apparent that the new baseband hardware is much more sensitive compared to what was in the 3GS. The difference is that reception is massively better on the iPhone 4 in actual use.

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