4

The first thing you notice is that the iPhone 4 feels smaller in hand — the decrease in width, even more so than thickness, is quite noticeable. It feels tight.

Then you turn it on, and you see the screen.

Apple seems very confident about the precise size and dimensions of the iPhone display: 3.5 inches, with a 3:2 aspect ratio. Not 3 inches. Not 4 inches. In fact, Apple seems very confident regarding everything it decided for the original 2007 iPhone. There are no new buttons, or even moved buttons. The Retina Display is emblematic of the iPhone 4 as a whole, both hardware and software: the same fundamental idea as the original iPhone, but clarified. It hasn’t really changed so much as improved — like the same picture in increasingly sharper focus.

As I wrote after examining Apple’s iPhone 4 demo units after the WWDC keynote, the Retina Display’s overall effect is like that of high-end glossy magazine print — except that it updates live. It’s living breathing print. I don’t recall ever having seen motion graphics of this resolution, anywhere. And (again as noted previously) it’s more than just the pixel resolution — it’s that the LCD is so much closer to the surface of the glass. Like pixels on glass rather than pixels under glass. This is the result of a new manufacturing process Apple has pioneered. No other company gives a shit about things like this.

The iPhone 4 feels like a major step toward an idealized iPhone form factor. What defines the iPhone, physically, is the 3.5-inch diagonal screen. The iPhone 4, in terms of width, seems about as narrow as you could possibly want it to be without reducing the size of the display itself. There’s just enough of a bezel around the sides to avoid inadvertent touches from fingers holding the phone by the edge. My older iPhones now feel swollen along their rounded edges. And yet somehow, despite making the form factor noticeably smaller, Apple made room internally for the battery to be bigger.

In my review of the iPhone 3G two years ago, I wrote:

The home button on the 3G seems to require a more forceful push. The clickiness of my original iPhone’s home button is better. On the other hand, the clickiness of the 3G’s volume and sleep buttons is better. Apple sometimes seems to be the lone consumer electronics company that pays any attention at all to the tactile response of buttons.

The iPhone 4’s buttons are improved all around. The Home button restores the clickiness of the original iPhone’s. The new volume buttons, silence toggle, and power button all have a better feel than ever before. Apple is so good at making buttons, it’s almost enough to make one wish they made button-laden devices.

The overall build quality seems impossibly good. The iPhone 4 is beautiful to behold and feels like a valuable artifact. It’s like a love letter to Dieter Rams.

The Flat Sides

The flat sides make it feel much more like a real camera — a decidedly thin camera, but a camera nonetheless — while taking pictures. This improvement is equally noticeable when holding the camera horizontally for any reason — like, say, to watch video. When you’re holding a phone vertically, you’re typically cupping it in the palm of one hand. But when holding a phone horizontally, you typically pinch it between your forefinger and thumb. The iPhone 4’s flat sides make this grip far more secure.

Performance

The iPhone 4 is definitely faster than the 3GS, but it doesn’t feel to me as though the difference is as noticeable as last year’s leap from the 3G to 3GS. This video on YouTube, which compares the startup time for Plants vs. Zombies on an iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, and original iPhone, feels exactly right to me: the 4 is noticeably faster than the 3GS, which in turn is way faster than the original iPhone (and the 3G, which performance-wise was nearly identical to the original).

The big win for Apple’s A4 system-on-a-chip, I suspect, is not raw performance (even though it is faster), but rather performance-per-watt. It’s an even better balance between speed and power consumption. And, on a related point, the A4 system is physically smaller, which has enabled Apple to reduce the size of the iPhone form factor and still include a bigger battery.

Battery life seems a tad better on the iPhone 4 than the 3GS, which is saying something, given that the CPU is faster and the Retina Display packs four times as many pixels, is brighter, and offers a better contrast ratio.

Typing on the iPhone 4 keyboard seems better than ever. The increase in performance has made the iPhone 4 more responsive to touch events, and for me this is most evident while using the keyboard.

The increase in RAM from 256 to 512 MB is, no surprise, welcome. More web pages remain in memory in MobileSafari, and more apps remain resident in memory for fast app switching. The combination of more RAM and iOS 4’s new fast app switching makes the process of switching between a handful of apps feel like an all-new experience compared to older iPhones running OS 3.

The Glass Back

Both aesthetically and tactilely, the iPhone 4’s glass back is very pleasing. It has a 2001-monolith-like symmetry. But as a heavy iPhone user since day one, I’m finding it slightly disconcerting. I’ve always carried my iPhone the same way: front right pants pocket, with the glass toward my body, so that if my leg hits something or something hits my leg, the back of the iPhone would take the impact, not the glass. Now it’s glass on both sides, and what keeps happening is that I reach into my pocket to take it out, my fingers feel the smooth glass facing out, and I think, “Shit, I pocketed my iPhone wrong last time.”

I’ll get used to it shortly, I suppose, but there’s really no way to distinguish the front from the back by touch other than to find the Home button or speaker.

And, for obvious reasons, the glass back raises concerns about the iPhone 4’s droppability. With previous iPhones, it was like dropping a piece of buttered toast — there was a lucky and unlucky side on which it could land. With the iPhone 4, it’s like dropping a piece of toast that’s been buttered on both sides.

FaceTime

I don’t really talk on the phone that much, but I’ve had fun trying out FaceTime with a few iPhone 4-enabled friends. It truly is delightfully easy to initiate, whether by starting with a voice call or not.

The video quality is far smoother than anything I’ve ever gotten using Skype or over AIM with iChat — better resolution, far fewer compression artifacts, and almost no pauses or lag. It’s early in the game, but so far FaceTime seems best-of-breed technically.

Audio quality over FaceTime is excellent. This is particularly noticeable with calls that start using voice. The difference is so stark that it makes me wish FaceTime could kick in for audio-only calls between FaceTime-capable phones. AT&T should be ashamed.

Portrait orientation looks perfectly natural for FaceTime, for the obvious reason that it frames the face like — duh — a portrait.

When you initiate a FaceTime call directly — by clicking the “FaceTime” button on a contact — you get an iChat-sounding “ringer” sound while waiting for the recipient to accept the call. If the recipient is not available for FaceTime (e.g. if their device is not currently connected to Wi-Fi), they will get a “missed FaceTime” notification pretty much just like what you get when you miss a phone call. This includes a notification alert on the lock screen, and an increase to the number in the Phone app’s red badge.

Voicemail would be great for these missed FaceTime-only calls, but it’s not there. (“Facemail”?)

When you switch to the home screen or another app during a FaceTime call, the video pauses, but the audio continues. Once you switch a call to FaceTime, you can’t switch back to voice-only, but switching to another app while the call continues effectively turns FaceTime into voice-only.

That FaceTime goes through the Phone app, rather than a dedicated FaceTime app, makes me wonder what Apple will do if I’m right that this year’s upcoming new iPod Touches will be FaceTime-capable. My guess is that it’ll be sort of like with the iPhone’s “iPod” app, which on the iPod Touch is split into separate Music and Video apps: on the iPhone, FaceTime is subsumed by the Phone app, but on the iPod Touch, it could be its own standalone app.

It’s no surprise that FaceTime, not the Retina Display, is apparently going to be the centerpiece of Apple’s TV ads for the iPhone 4. It is instantly compelling. It’s also the sort of thing that drives critics of Apple products nuts. “Look at these stupid people who think Apple invented video chat, or even mobile video chat.Right? What they’re overlooking, and will always overlook, is the value of the “It just works” factor. Normal people aren’t just going to use FaceTime — they’re going to love it.

And if it really takes off, it’ll turn FaceTime into a de facto social network. People will buy iPhone 4’s (or other future FaceTime devices) because two or more of their friends have them and they feel like they’re missing out. Mark these words: FaceTime goes down as one of the most important things Apple has ever introduced.

Helvetica Neue

It’s a subtle change, but Apple has changed the system font for the iPhone 4, from Helvetica to Helvetica Neue. The change is specific to the iPhone 4 hardware (or more specifically, the Retina Display), not iOS 4. On older iPhone hardware, iOS 4 still uses Helvetica as the system font.

If you think it’s hard to tell Helvetica apart from Arial, this one’s going to shoot right over your head. Helvetica Neue isn’t so much a different typeface as a “reworked” version of the same face. Here’s an overview of Helvetica’s history from U&LC. (And a pronunciation thread on Typophile.)

Says my friend and fellow Helvetica aficionado Mike Monteiro,1 “In comparison to Helvetica Neue, Helvetica looks ungainly. It’s 95 percent there. Neue took it the other 5 percent.”

In general, where Helvetica Neue differs from regular Helvetica, its glyphs are slightly wider and rounder. The most telling difference, to my eyes, is the uppercase bold M:

Comparison of uppercase M character in Helvetica and Helvetica Neue.

A good place to spot the difference, side-by-side with an older iPhone or iPod Touch, is the “AM/PM” in the status bar. On the iPhone 4, it’s clearly Helvetica Neue (with the wider M), and on an iPhone 3GS running iOS 4.0, it is regular Helvetica.

Aesthetically, this change is a win. Helvetica is a great typeface; long-time DF readers know I’m a huge fan of it, and the choice to use it for the iPhone’s system font is one of my favorite decisions in Apple history. But Helvetica Neue, subtle though its differences are, is a nice improvement. It is a more Helvetica-y Helvetica.

Why change only on the iPhone 4, though? I suspect it’s because Apple’s digital version of Helvetica is better hinted for on-screen rasterization than Apple’s Helvetica Neue, which makes it look slightly sturdier on the relatively crude pre-Retina Display iPhone screen. I.e., Helvetica looks better than Helvetica Neue on older iPhones, but Helvetica Neue looks better on the truly-print-caliber Retina Display.

In the old days, there was print (high resolution) and screen (low resolution), and a wide resolution gap between them. The iPhone, and devices with similar pixel density, introduced a sort of middle ground — many print fonts that never looked good on screens before looked good on the iPhone. The iPhone 4, however, offers type rendering that is legitimately print quality.

That Apple pays so much attention to the details as to pick a different version of Helvetica for different classes of displays is emblematic of what makes the iPhone the iPhone — software and hardware that are designed in tandem as parts of a single whole.

Helvetica Neue’s Missing Italics

There is, however, one problem with Helvetica Neue in iOS 4.0: it doesn’t include italics. You can see this for yourself on this web page I’ve created that specifies Helvetica and Helvetica Neue alongside each other, including spans of bold, italic, and bold italics.

Here’s how that test page renders in the following browsers:

It renders correctly on the Mac and iPad, but on both iPhones, the italic and bold italic variants of Helvetica Neue are not available, and render as non-italic.

I can only assume this is an oversight on Apple’s part. It affects iPhone developers who use the italic system font in their applications — in all previous versions of iOS (née iPhone OS), [UIFont italicSystemFontOfSize:] returned an italic font; in iOS 4.0 it does not. The iPhone’s OS has long included several non-italic weights of Helvetica Neue. The iPad’s OS (version 3.2) was the first to include the italics. But iOS 4 only includes the same non-italic weights of Helvetica Neue from OS 3.1 and earlier. (Yet another sign of the divergence between the iPad’s and iPhone’s software.)2

I’ve filed a radar on the issue (#8140283), requesting that Apple add the italic weights of Helvetica Neue to a near-future iOS update. The iPhone should include all the same fonts as the iPad. (Those of you with Apple developer accounts who agree should file duplicate radars.)

Camera

I thought last year’s 3GS provided a nice improvement to the iPhone camera, with superior still photos and the addition of video. The new (primary) camera in the iPhone 4 is a bigger improvement. Still photos are of the quality of a low-end dedicated point-and-shoot camera, and the 720p video is surprisingly good. Here are a handful of stills and a video I took over the weekend — none of them post-processed in any way.

The iPhone 4 adds a flash to the main camera. I suppose that’s nice, for when you absolutely can’t get a decent exposure in low light without it, but the new camera is sensitive enough that you can take pretty good photos in relatively low light without it. I’ve turned the flash on mine off, and don’t expect to turn it on more than a handful of times.

Is the video quality just as good as a dedicated 720p video camera like the Flip HD? I say yes. And at the very least, it is very close. Most impressively, video shot with the iPhone 4 doesn’t seem to suffer from any sort of lag or stuttering, even while panning or walking around. Playback, needless to say, is silky smooth.

More importantly, Flip-class cameras don’t offer online connectivity, and don’t offer on-device editing like the iPhone 4 does with iMovie. Flip’s not dead yet, because you can get an HD Flip for about $120. One can imagine sending a class of sixth-graders out armed with a few school-owned Flips; that’s not going to happen with $499 iPhones. But my guess is that we’re going to see a similar camera in this year’s new $299 iPod Touch, which will be next year’s $199 iPod Touch. I think Apple is going to be able to get the price on such an iPod Touch below $200 before Cisco is going to create iMovie-like editing software for the Flip.

It’s hard to overstate just how many wildly-varied devices the iPhone and iPod Touch compete with. Phones and handheld audio/video players, yes, obviously. But now also cameras and handheld game consoles. It’s an old adage that the best camera is the one you have with you. It’s getting to the point now where the iPhone camera isn’t just good because it’s with you, but good because it’s actually pretty good.

The Reception and Proximity Sensor Problems

There are two widely-reported problems with the iPhone 4. First is the issue surrounding 3G reception and hand placement on the device. There’s no doubt that this is an issue for many — but I think a minority — of iPhone 4 owners. I haven’t been able to duplicate the problem on mine, though. Sometimes, but rarely, I can make it drop a single bar, but I can’t duplicate the drop to “No Signal” that many others can.

Best as I can tell, based on the reports I’ve read, including many emails from DF readers, the problem is multivariate. It definitely seems related to signal coverage (or cell tower proximity, or something like that). I’ve received many emails (and a few tweets) from DF readers who can reproduce the problem at will in one location, but can’t in another. Not much help, though, when the problematic location is, say, your home or workplace. But I’ve also heard from a few readers with fellow iPhone 4-owning friends and colleagues, who’ve been able to test several units side-by-side. Some iPhone 4 units seem more susceptible to the problem than others — which makes me question whether this is something a software update can address. I think it’s a combination of software and manufacturing.

The other issue regards the proximity sensor — the sensor which turns off the touchscreen when you hold the phone to your head for a call. The proximity sensor on the iPhone 4 seems far more sensitive than on previous iPhones, such that minor movements away from your head during a call re-enable the touchscreen, which then leads to your cheek inadvertently engaging the Mute or End Call buttons. Here’s a description of the problem at EverythingiCafe; and here’s a 24-page (!) thread about it on Apple’s discussion forum. This problem, I have seen myself. My cheek invoked the End Call button during a call yesterday, something that I don’t recall ever having happened in the three years I’ve been using iPhones. Garrett Murray is afflicted by both these problems.

It’ll be interesting to see whether Apple is able to address either or both of these problems via a software update. And, if so, when? The iPad was released in April and still hasn’t seen a single software update. (Perhaps the iPad is an exception, and Apple has decided against a 3.2.1 iPad update to devote all of its iPad OS development time to iOS 4.1.)

The proximity sensor issue strikes me as more likely to be fixable via software. As for the reception issues, I can see this playing out three ways:

  • Best case: It’s fixable, or at least improvable, via software changes alone.

  • OK case: It’s a manufacturing issue that Apple can address going forward, with future production runs. Apple has sold a lot of iPhone 4’s already, but most of the iPhone 4’s they’ll eventually sell haven’t yet been made. They might take a small hit on exchanges from existing iPhone 4 users who are seeing the problem.

  • Worst case: It’s inherent to the design of the iPhone 4’s novel external antennas, and all iPhone 4 units will be susceptible to the problem.

As I stated before, some people seeing the problem can’t reproduce it (or at least see lower amounts of signal loss) when they try using a different iPhone 4 unit in the same location. That suggests it’s fixable, but perhaps only in manufacturing, not in software for existing units. And even in the worst case scenario, it only seems to be a problem when holding the phone in certain ways while in areas of marginal signal strength. That’s not to pass the blame from Apple to AT&T, but only to say it’s far from catastrophic. It may wind up being more of a publicity problem than a technical one. At the very least it isn’t going to help the iPhone’s perception as a great device but weak phone.


  1. Monteiro uses Helvetica Neue in this excellent series of paintings

  2. Also goes to show that iOS developers should be specifying the font for UI elements via API calls for the “system font”, rather than hard-coding for “Helvetica”. But according to Apple’s iOS 4.0 release notes, “References to the Helvetica font in nib files will be decoded as the system font on these newer devices.” That said, I’ve noticed a few spots in iOS 4 where you still see Helvetica rather than Helvetica Neue; e.g. the “All Contacts” list in the Contacts and Phone apps, and the Phone app’s Recent calls list. (The Phone app’s Favorites list, however, uses Helvetica Neue.) 

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