iPhone 4: Initial Impressions Part 2 (iMovie, Gyroscope, Location Awareness, Glass Case)

iPhone 4 Gyroscope

Yesterday we took a look at some of the more headline making aspects of the iPhone 4. Today I am digging into the iPhone 4′s killer app (iMovie for iPhone), and some of the subjects that interest me more personally about the iPhone 4.

I’ll be covering FaceTime a bit more in my final piece on first impressions of the iPhone 4 on Saturday. But for now here is a little bit on some of the initial experimentation I have done with FaceTime and some friends today.

FaceTime is great! But it also takes some getting used to. It is initially very weird chatting face to face with someone on the other end of a mobile connection. More weird than I expected, to be honest! You almost want to put the iPhone 4 down, as it feels awkward holding it in-front of you. But if you put it down you seem to be looming over your chat buddy – which is also weird. The dock angle is not quite right for FaceTime either. But I am sure I’ll get used to it… eventually!

I found it a little bit easier to get into FaceTime as my experimentation progressed, as I was doing it with long standing friends. I am not sure if I would want to, or be able to handle FaceTime effectively on a day to day basis with anyone. And certainly not for the first time I ever spoke to someone on the phone.

But I can see myself occasionally sharing brief moments of my life, or work related snippets over a quick video chat from the office, or out and about – before retreating back to a voice only call, or the more normal Twitter / Text stream that we all seem to communicate with today anyway. Having a video phone in your pocket is probably one of those things that you will use to show off, and once or twice a year when it will pay for itself that one time alone in comedy value, or by solving a communication problem you could not have solved any other way.

There are also some great personal opportunities to exploit the technology. One of my calls today was to a friend who was in a supermarket which sells specialist food. I was able to have my buddy locate some items for me, and then verify that they were indeed the correct products by switching between front and back cameras and showing me what he was picking up. Much hilarity ensued with the staff of the shop also. If we’d had him dressed up in a Star Trek outfit that would have made the experiment perfect!

At peak traffic times, if you have a low bandwidth connection on either end the signal will drop out from time to time as FaceTime requires a fairly high up-speed for video. And that up speed can be close to what some internet providers provide – over here in Thailand anyway. But audio keeps going, and then things pick up again. We experienced these sorts of problems today when stealing WiFi connections in busy locations downtown. Sometimes the image got pixelated. And it is not really good enough for showing small text from magazines and the like. But great for packets of food!

More on Face Time in a later piece.

iMovie for iPhone:

It is incredibly easy to capture video on the iPhone 4. You simply fire up the video recorder and start shooting. If you are in low light conditions you can even switch on the Camera Flash and have it act as a permanent light. If you are happy with the video you have shot you can simply upload that directly to YouTube, or send it to someone.

If you want to trim a little bit off the end of your clip at either end you can also do that using the iPhone 4′s in built functionality, right out of the box.

It is worth noting that sending videos by email requires that they are less than a minute. None of that requires iMovie though.

But when iMovie for iPhone is around the cost of a good cup of coffee, well.. why shouldn’t we have that too.

iMovie is either something you will love or hate for its simplicity. It is just like a mini version of iMovie on the Mac, and very Apple in the way that it controls your workflow. Constrains it even.

You must choose a Project Template when you first fire up the app. And it must be one of the five that comes with the app. I am sure Apple will improve on this in the future with updates. But for now, a lot of people are going to be producing very similar iPhone iMovie end products. Having said that, the balance of minimalist to more complex templates is good. So there is something for everyone.

Once you are into editing your movie it is a very focussed environment. You can import your existing video clips, photos and music. There is also an option to make a quick video recording on the fly, to insert into your ongoing timeline. That is handy.

Much like iMovie on the desktop you have a timeline of thumbnails representing your clips, and transition makers in-between them. Everything is manipulated through touch actions, as you would expect, and by scrolling through the timeline, and dragging stuff about.

One thing I found frustrating was the inability to fade individual clips in or out at the end. So, when you shoot your beginning and end portions of your epic it’s a good idea to make sure you contrive some kind of beginning or end at that time. Similarly you can’t change the duration of a lot of the intro portions of Apple’s templates. So there is room for improvement in any update Apple provide.

Overall, and it is worth remembering I have only had an afternoon to play with iMovie, it is competent, snappy, and it does “just work”. But there is not a lot of room for individual flare outside of the actual shooting of your clips.

Location Awareness:

The iPhone 4 really has a great idea of where it is!

I am not sure if it’s the new antenna setup, or simply software and hardware upgrades. But this iteration of the iPhone 4 seems significantly more self aware than the 3GS I have sitting on my desk to compare it to.

Using the CoreLocation APIs in iOS, developers can make use of GPS (both assisted via cell towers and WiFI location triangulation – and from an inbuilt GPS receiver), along with the Compass in the iPhone 4 to get your location and which way you are facing. This is not new. The 3GS could do all this of course.

I live in a condo block just outside Bangkok, and the walls are made from something akin to nuclear bunker material. I have to get a guy with a special drill in to help me put up hooks for picture frames!

When I activate the compass it instantly spins to correctly give me my orientation. Tapping on the button to go to a Google Maps view it locates where I am to within about 5 or 10 meters within a couple of seconds. Then progressively over the next 20 – 30 seconds the iPhone hones my position down to what I would estimate to be within a few meters. I can also walk around my condo and see both the direction I am facing, and my location moving around on the map being updated instantly. Even with the fairly low grade satellite images of Thailand that we get from Google I can see my location dot on the balcony of my condo when I step outside. It’s very easy to sink a portion of your day into simply walking around with the iPhone 4 confirming where you are. OK, I am a geek!

On the Retina Display the maps look better, and the Compass really seems to gleam. And the way that everything updates simply seems silky smooth. The Compass particularly looks like a physical thing spinning just under the iPhone’s glass front. Very nice indeed.

Outside, away from our building, the initial pinpointing of your location is slightly quicker. But at the end of the day it will always take a while for GPS to kick in. I would say that the initial position information the iPhone 4 gets from our fairly sparse cellular and WiFi infrastructure in Thailand is incredibly impressive. And that overall the GPS performance in the iPhone 4 outstrips that of my dedicated in-car GPS Navigation unit from a few years ago.

If there is ever a navigation app for this part of the world, specifically for the iPhone, I’ll be buying it.

The iPhone 4 Gyroscope:

The Gyroscope is kind of the last piece in the puzzle of the iPhone 4′s location awareness and motion tracking arsenal. I am extremely excited about it.

On the iPhone 3GS we have GPS, an accelerometer (which is gravity sensitive), and a compass. With those three functionalities it is possible to tell where the iPhone is, which way it is facing, and roughly what orientation the device is at. All iPhones up until the iPhone 4 have a fatal flaw though. Because the accelerometer is gravity driven it can not measure any rotations around the vertical axis. This means that you can use the iPhone 2G thru to the 3GS as a steering wheel, or to tilt marbles around on a simulated flat surface, but you can never accurately tell the way the device is facing in all planes

Enter the Gyro…

iPhone 4 Gyroscope

Many of you may have had a gyroscope as a kid (Picture above). If you did you’ll remember that when you spun up the fly wheel it seemed able to defy gravity by standing upright on a single thin spindle. If you then picked it up and tried to rotate it you would be able to feel strong resistance to your movements as it tried to stay upright. This resistance to movement away from it’s spin axis is what a gyro uses to measure you turning your iPhone. Now, there isn’t actually a spinning thing inside your iPhone 4. Even though it’s nice to imagine one there. The gyro magic is all done electronically. But it relies on similar physics. And the truly amazing thing is that it is incredibly accurate, and works in all directions of rotation. i.e. It is not dependant on gravity like accelerometers are.

So what? Well by itself the gyro can tell us exactly how far the iPhone has been turned from an arbitrary position at any time. But that is not that useful unless we know where the iPhone was when we started. By combining GPS, the Compass and the accelerometer, already in the iPhone 4 (and previously in the 3G/3GS), with the gyro’s incredibly accurate sensing of motion in all directions, we can tell exactly where the iPhone 4 is, and which way it is facing at all times.

The gyroscope in the iPhone 4 can distinguish movement with an accuracy of up to 2,000 degrees per second – over 600 times more detailed than the movement of the second hand on a clock.

Using the CoreMotion APIs in iOS, developers can make use of the gyroscope to measure true roll, pitch, and yaw, making the iPhone sensitive to motion on six total axes.

I can’t say too much about an app that I am working on exclusively for the iPhone 4 right now. But what I am working on has not been possible before now on a mobile phone. And from my own initial testing with the gyro, it is just as accurate as the specs. boast.

At the moment if you want to experience the Gyro in action on the iPhone 4, and feel just how accurate it is for yourself, there is a game from ngmoco called “Eilminate:GunRange” in the iTunes App Store. That app is only for the iPhone 4, and uses the Gyro for aiming at targets in a shooting range. Strangely ngmoco are charging for it. But I guess they are trying to cash in on the iPhone 4 launch and have decided to forgo their normal Freemium model for now on that one!

But believe me, that is nothing compared to what you are going to see in coming months from myself, and other developers…

The Glass Case:

One of the reasons I kept my original iPhone as my day to day iPhone for so long was that I really don’t like the curved, plastic design of the 3G and 3GS. It was pretty inevitable that I would upgrade around this time anyway, as there are just too many features that I lacked on my 2G. Luckily the new iPhone 4 design is exactly where I think Apple should have gone with the iPhone’s look and feel after the original.

The iPhone 4 is 0.37 inches thick, compared to the 0.48 inches of the iPhone 3G/3GS. Because it is not curved it actually feels considerably thinner. It is also not quite as wide.

When I first saw shots of it the iPhone 4 I did have my doubts though. The way that the Stainless Steel frame of the iPhone 4 juts out from the front and back looks odd until you hold the device in your hands. When you do it makes perfect sense. It gives you some purchase on the device with your fingers, especially when you hold it in landscape mode to use as a video, or stills camera.

The combination of glass and steel also gives the iPhone 4 a solid, and physically cool feel in your hands. I mean cool as in colder than room temperature. Those two sensations when coupled with the iPhone 4′s smaller, slightly heavier and more solid form factor all combine to make this thing feel great in your hand.

And the glass display doesn’t seem to attract grease as much as previous iPhone screens. It also feels silky smooth when you make gestures on it, and solid when you tap it. It’s so good I didn’t even notice how natural it feels until I used a previous iPhone model later today and then spotted the difference.

Apple have used Gorilla Glass for the front and the back of the iPhone 4, and this is not without its controversy. If dropped at the wrong angle it is a lot easier to crack either the front or back cover of the iPhone 4 than on previous versions. And I have to admit to being a little nervous at breaking my run of good luck over the last few years. I have not yet dropped or broken any iDevice.

Some people have noticed that the iPhone 4′s glass back can get slight scratches in it in day to day use. And others have found that if you put it down on a flat, slightly damp surface then it can literally suck itself onto the surface because its glass back is so smooth and flat. Necessitating sliding it off that surface, which will then increase the risk of scratching.

But all these things are fairly esoteric quibbles in my opinion.

Ultimately this makes me all the more convinced that I will be wrapping an Apple Bumper around my iPhone 4 as soon as I can get hold of one. So far this week my iPhone 4 has spent most of its idle time in my original iPhone 2 dock on my desk. But it has also been out with me, in my pocket, flat on my desk, and moved around a fair bit on my notebooks as I try things out. I am not about to drop test it, or scratch test it. But it still looks brand new after almost a week of use!

Basically, don’t drop it. Don’t shoot it. And don’t put it into your pocket with your keys, and I think you’ll be very happy.

Well that’s the end of part 2.

Tomorrow I’ll be covering more on the overall look and feel of the iPhone 4, its Speed, some more on FaceTime and some Final Thoughts. I’ll leave the final part on Saturday as a surprise.

Do let me know your thoughts too in the comments.

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Stephen NorthcottiPhone 4: Initial Impressions Part 2 (iMovie, Gyroscope, Location Awareness, Glass Case)