iPhone 4: Initial Impressions Part 3 – Look & Feel, Speed, Final Thoughts

In Part 1 of my iPhone 4 Initial Impressions article I discussed my view of Multitasking, The Retina Display, The iPhone 4’s Cameras, and finally Signal Issues with Apple’s new iPhone.

Yesterday in Part 2 we looked at iMovie for iPhone, Location Awareness, The iPhone 4’s Gyro, and The Glass Case of the iPhone 4.

Today we’ll look a little bit more at the iPhone 4’s overall look and feel, it’s Speed (and battery life) when compared to earlier iPhones, and a few bits and pieces that don’t really fit into any particular category.

The Overall Look & Feel:

Everything about this iPhone screams quality. I’ve already remarked on the heft of the device, and how its glass and steel construction feels cool to touch. But there is another subtle feature to its overall form factor. It really feels incredibly thin. The original iPhone comes closest to the iPhone 4 in this department. The 3G and 3GS feel like they have a beer gut by comparison to both.

But the iPhone 4 feels almost credit card like in its thinness by comparison to all earlier models of iPhone. It is too heavy to comfortably put in your shirt top pocket, but its just about right to put in a jacket pocket.

And, as has been oft repeated by many – including myself, the Stainless Steel frame, and it being slightly proud of the iPhone4’s glass front and back make it feel exactly right in your hands when you hold it to use it as a camera, or to play games which involve motion controls. In some respects this extra grip has gone some way towards making me less fearful of dropping it and breaking the glass, than I am with the current iPod Touch and the 3GS.

The buttons and switches are all solid, and give great feedback when pushed or switched. And the screen is like hard smooth marble to touch, but with just the right amount of friction to make touch activities feel tactile to exactly the correct degree.

Discounting any qualms people may have about the iPhone 4’s performance in any technical department for a moment, the case design, and manufacture quality, as well as the materials used in the iPhone 4’s construction are about as good as it gets in the tech and industrial design industry today.

If the iPhone 4 was a car body it would be a top of the line Porsche, Mercedes or Jaguar – inside and out.

Speed & Battery Life:

The iPhone 4 sports a slightly revised Apple A4 SoC (System on a Chip). Embedded in that device is an ARM Cortex A8, very similar to the one inside the iPad. The iPad is known to run at 1 GHz. It is very clear that for battery life reasons Apple has down clocked the processor in the iPhone 4. But not by a huge margin. Most benchmarks have it coming in at around 800 Mhz. So a cut of 20% in raw horsepower.

Memory wise Apple have done with the iPhone 4 what they should have done with the iPad. They have upped its memory to 512MB. This not only gives a lot more space for multitasking, or suspended apps to hang around in memory. It also gives us a lot more room for tabs to be open in Safari, games to use, and for the system to run smoothly overall.

iOS 4 is noticeably able to handle the kind of tasks that we expect from the iPhone 4, and with far less stuttering than on the 3GS.

Overall the iPhone 4 is around 20% faster at most tasks than the 3GS, and around 35% slower then the iPad. This is across the board on most processor intensive tasks.

When it comes to rendering web pages with lots of graphics the iPhone 4 is on a par with the 3GS. My reasoning for this is because the GPU in the iPhone 4 is working hard to push those 4 pixels for every one that then 3GS and other earlier iDevices are pushing. And this comes back to my caveats in my first iPhone 4 Impressions piece, where I said that we are not going to see a huge leap in graphics performance on the iPhone 4 over the most recent generation of iPhones and iPods.

It is certainly not the end of the world. But it would have been nice if Apple had done something to beef up the GPU in the iPhone 4. But without going to an entirely new GPU they didn’t have much choice. As iOS 4 is refined I expect we may see some improvements to the quite complex rendering pipeline in the iPhone Operating System. Just as we did in revisions of iPhone OS 2.x and OS 3.x on earlier devices. Apple may even decide to turn up the wick a little bit on the iPhone’s SoC, and that may or may not give the graphics a bit of a boost later in its product life cycle.

Having said all that the iPhone 4 is still a very fast beast when compared to all of its immediate rivals. I just always want more!

For more mundane web pages, and general text processing the iPhone 4 is not quite as fast as the Android Nexus One running Froyo, but it’s not far behind, and it sits quite comfortable in the middle of the iPad and the iPhone 3GS in terms of performance.

On pure GeekBench style raw CPU based processing tasks the iPhone 4 comes out a good 20 – 25% faster than the 3GS overall.

All of this performance balancing, and Apple’s decisions on the iPhone 4 lead to one thing. A compromise to give us the best performance possible and still maintain battery life. Just as with iOS 4 “multitasking” Apple have made decisions to ensure that we can surf the web, listen to music, and make calls all day long without trailing a power cord around behind us.

Battery Life:

I’ve done some tests of my own, and also compared my results with other tech experts that I respect to come up with these average results for battery performance on the iPhone 4:

Web browsing over 3G yields around 6.5 hours on the iPhone 4, even with its better performance. That is around an hour and a half longer than on the 3GS.

WiFi browsing tops out at just under 10 hours. An hour or so longer than the 3GS will go. Talk Time is far better than any other mobile phone in its class. At around 7.5 hours it is almost twice the time the 3GS could manage, and the Nexus One is about half of that.

For a quick test on multitasking I had my iPhone 4 run iTunes today while browsing web pages alternately over 3G and Wifi, and checking the odd app from time to time in a repeating pattern throughout the day. My battery ran out after 6 hours. For all of that time my screen was on, and music was playing. That is pretty impressive.

I feel very confident taking my iPhone 4 with me all day and using it as much as I need, and not worrying about charging again until I get home. At a pinch I think I could survive two days without a power point if I was frugal during the second day. Considering how much more is going on on the iPhone 4 when compared to the original iPhone (which has always been great on battery life) that is very impressive – and streets ahead of the iPhone 3GS and 3G.

Final Thoughts:

A lot of differing opinions have been expressed in the press this week about the iPhone 4. At first it launched in an explosion of positive reviews and consumer excitement. Even today stores across the world are either selling out, or sold out already.

And then this reception issue reared its ugly head. It is very clear that some iPhone 4s exhibit a characteristic that can mean that signals get dropped. It is a very well defined and isolated to one small area of the iPhone’s case. And if you have the issue easy to replicate. You can, and should then either take that up with Apple, or simply ignore it by using a carry case. Something that all iPhone users I know have anyway. It also bears repeating that all mobile phones will exhibit this same issue if you hold them in some particular way.

Apple have issued a Press Release today where they explain that the issue with the iPhone 4 is simply the algorithm they use for displaying signal bars on the iPhone 4. In some ways this is true. All cell phones will lose signal if they are insulated by the hand holding them. And Apple argue that their algorithm is misleading people by showing too many bars of signal when in a weak signal area, and that then people are further confused by the signal suddenly dropping away when they touch or squeeze the iPhone 4 case in a particular way.

I am more or less on Apple’s side in this case. But not because I accept their explanation as being the only cause of this problem, or Steve Jobs’ comments that people are “holding the iPhone incorrectly” as being acceptable. I am on Apple’s side because I think that the problem is getting blown out of all proportion by a media scenting blood.

I have used quite a few iPhone 4s this week, and none of them exhibit this problem at all. This makes me very sure that Apple have a manufacturing problem with a small number of iPhones, and not a design problem. A problem which can be fixed for consumers by exchanging faulty iPhone 4s. They also have another problem, which is not actually a signal issue, but the issue they describe with the cell signal strength meter software. I think some people are being misled by Apple’s own cell bar indicator on the iPhone 4, and consequently think they have a faulty iPhone 4, when they don’t. I hope that made sense!

Unfortunately Apple are not dealing with it very well. Their explanation in their Press Release is like something out of a Monty Python script :

Upon investigation, we were stunned to find that the formula we use to calculate how many bars of signal strength to display is totally wrong.

Our formula, in many instances, mistakenly displays 2 more bars than it should for a given signal strength. For example, we sometimes display 4 bars when we should be displaying as few as 2 bars. Users observing a drop of several bars when they grip their iPhone in a certain way are most likely in an area with very weak signal strength, but they don’t know it because we are erroneously displaying 4 or 5 bars. Their big drop in bars is because their high bars were never real in the first place.

We are also making bars 1, 2 and 3 a bit taller so they will be easier to see.

We will issue a free software update within a few weeks that incorporates the corrected formula. Since this mistake has been present since the original iPhone, this software update will also be available for the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 3G.

None of this will convince those with problems that they don’t have one. But it also won’t put off those that want an iPhone 4, and look at the problem from the perspective that I think we all should. Some iPhone 4s are not made as well as others.

If you get a bad one, return it. Ask for a new one. Or go buy another brand of phone. Apple do actually suggest this themselves.

As a reminder, if you are not fully satisfied, you can return your undamaged iPhone to any Apple Retail Store or the online Apple Store within 30 days of purchase for a full refund.

This article is purely about my subjective impressions of the iPhone 4 after having bought one for myself. If you’ll take a leap of faith with me and ignore the reception issue for a minute then I can say that quite honestly this is the mobile phone I dreamed of when I first went into an electronics store in the UK in the late 80’s / early 90’s and paid a small fortune for a Motorola Brick the size of a shoe box. The iPhone 4 is the culmination of all the dreams I had of a Star Trek Communicator when I was a kid, and my own copy of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy when I was in my teens, and what I hoped The Apple Newton Message Pad would be.

Quite simply it has the best camera, both for video and stills, that I have ever used on a mobile phone.

The operating system still destroys any other mobile operating system out there for usability and elegance of use.

The GPS is better than some in car GPS systems.

FaceTime is just “sick”. And I mean that in the way it is defined in the urban dictionary vernacular.

And web browsing, emailing and making calls all work fine. More than fine in fact. In my week of use they outstrip anything I have seen on the iPhone 2G, 3G and 3GS by far.

Should You Buy One?

Quite simply.. Yes!

I can’t see a reason not to. If you are still using an original iPhone then the upgrade is a no-brainer. Likewise if you are on an iPhone 3G.

If you are still using a fairly new iPhone 3GS you might want to perhaps wait. You have a fully functional version of iOS 4. And apart from the slight improvements to the GPS unit and the addition of the Gyro in the iPhone 4, you have comparable hardware in your iPhone.

There is the possibility that Apple will move to a dual core ARM Cortex A9 with a vastly improved GPU for the next gen iPhone (iPhone 5 or iPhone 4GS?). In what I believe will be the Apple A5 SoC in an iPhone 5. But it’s going to be a long year for you. And you are going to miss out on some cool stuff.

But I have done that by sticking with my 2G for a long time. And there is no reason you shouldn’t be as happy with your 3GS as I have been with my 2G since the iPhone was first made available to an expectant public.

Game wise I think you are going to see the same quality of entertainment on the iPhone 3GS as you are on the iPhone 4 for some time. And app-wise with the exception of some cool Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality type apps and games you are going to be able to do anything on your 3GS that I can do on my iPhone 4.

But don’t be put off by these reception problems. If it is an issue then Apple will fix it.

If you are unhappy, Apple will exchange it, or refund you.

Well that’s about it for Part 3.

Part 4 will be the end of this series tomorrow. It will be a little shorter, but packed with some cool stuff. I hope you’ve enjoyed it so far.

Do be sure to let me know your thoughts on what I have said in the comments.

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