I'm not sure how this keeps happening. The first year I waited at a mall for 5 hours to get the original iPhone. The following year my friend Mark Rein convinced me to see a midnight showing of Hellboy II and then wait outside of an AT&T store all night to get the iPhone 3G. You'd think I'd learn by the third year but once more I was in line at the mall hours before the Apple store opened to get the 3GS. This year I thought it would be different. Apple offered free overnight shipping to anyone who wanted to pre-order the iPhone 4. Figuring everyone would go that route I decided to beat the FedEx trucks and just show up at the mall at 6AM. I'd be in and out in a little over an hour, which would give me a head start on battery life testing on Apple's 4th generation iPhone.

I promise that not all of my decisions play out this poorly. Those who pre-ordered the 4 and requested overnight delivery got their phones early and my one hour wait turned into six hours at the mall, for the fourth year in a row.


Apple's iPhone 4 with Bumper Case

It's a self fulfilling prophecy. Steve gets up on stage, proclaims the iPhone 4 to be the biggest introduction since the original iPhone, and the public flocks to Apple stores to fork over $200 on day one and around $2500 over the course of two years for the privilege. But this isn't 2007. Apple has real competitors in the smartphone space. Android phones have grown in features, polish and popularity. Even Palm entered the race with a competant offering, and Microsoft isn't far behind. It's easy to start a revolution when everyone else is doing the wrong thing, but what about when more companies actually get it? Was Steve justified in his excitement over the 4? That's what we're here to find out today.

Straight on it looks like just another iPhone. You get the black face with a shiny trim. From the side it is the redesign that Apple has needed for a while now. It’s not revolutionary but it’s the type of improvement that makes its predecessor feel old. And that’s exactly what this does. Have a look for yourself:


iPhone 4 (left) vs. iPhone 3GS (right)

The straight lines, smaller dimensions and lack of unnecessary bulk make the 3GS feel like a car from the 90s, unnecessarily curvy. The styling is now so much more compact. Compared to the iPhone 3GS the 4 is around 5% narrower (but no more difficult to type on) and nearly 25% thinner. It even makes the Nexus One look dated:

The iPhone 4 is slightly heavier than the 3GS (4.8oz vs. 4.7oz). You feel the added weight but I wouldn't call it heavy. The front and the back of the iPhone 4 are both made out of glass, and they protrude beyond the stainless steel band that wraps around the phone (more on this controversial decision later). While this gives the 4 an amazing finish, it also makes carrying the phone nerve racking. Coupled with the smaller, more dense form factor I’m now deathly afraid of dropping and shattering this thing. Apple has done a lot to reinforce the glass, however there have been enough reports already of shattered iPhone 4s for me not to feel very safe. Only Apple would think to make the two surfaces most likely to hit something out of glass. It's like making mouse traps out of cheese, something bad is bound to happen.


iPhone 4 (left) vs. iPhone 3GS (right)

The physical buttons (but not their layout) have changed on the 4. The ringer switch has shorter travel and feels sturdier as a result. The volume rocker has been replaced by discrete volume up/down buttons, also very sturdy in feel. The power/lock button is also now made out of stainless steel. Only the home button remains unchanged, although it does seem to make a deeper click when you use it.

The speaker moved to behind the right grill at the bottom of the phone instead of the left. The dock connector thankfully remained unchanged. It looks like Apple is committed to maintaining this connector until it makes the jump to something wireless (or optical?).

The back of the phone is pretty. Apple broke with tradition and finally included a single LED flash on the phone. The flash comes on in low light conditions and is enough to take shots in total darkness.

The camera has been upgraded to a low noise 5MP sensor. It can shoot stills at up to 2592 x 1936 or video at 1280 x 720 @ 30 fps. We’ll go into greater detail on its quality in the camera section. The iPhone 4 also adds a front facing camera capable of shooting both photos and video at 640 x 480.

Apple quotes contrast ratio as 1000:1, in our measurements we got very close (952:1). A significant improvement over the 188:1 ratio of the 3GS. Apple achieved this by both dropping black levels and increasing the white levels on the display. Improving both is always fine by me.

Internally the iPhone 4 uses Apple's new A4 SoC, built around an ARM Cortex A8 CPU and a PowerVR SGX GPU. The new SoC is built on a 45nm process and features 512MB of memory on the package. Apple hasn't made CPU clock speed public, but I'm guessing around 800MHz compared to the iPad's 1GHz for reasons you'll see later. GPU clock speed is unknown as well. Having more memory on package is an interesting move by Apple as it makes the iPhone 4 better suited for multitasking compared to the iPad. Also implying that shortly after the iPad gets multitasking it'll be updated to a version with more memory as well.

The iPhone now has an gyroscope as well the rotation sensors of its predecessors. Developers are given full access to the gyroscope making the iPhone 4 capable of becoming a very expensive Wii-mote.

Physical Comparison
  Apple iPhone 4 Apple iPhone 3GS HTC EVO 4G (Qualcomm Snapdragon QSD8650) HTC Droid Incredible (Qualcomm Snapdragon QSD8650) Google Nexus One (Qualcomm Snapdragon QSD8250)
Height 115.2 mm (4.5") 115 mm (4.5") 121.9 mm (4.8") 117.5 mm (4.63") 119 mm (4.7")
Width 58.6 mm (2.31") 62.1 mm (2.44") 66.0 mm (2.6") 58.5 mm (2.30") 59.8 mm (2.35")
Depth 9.3 mm ( 0.37") 12.3 mm (0.48") 12.7 mm (0.5") 11.9 mm (0.47") 11.5 mm (0.45")
Weight 137 g (4.8 oz) 133 g (4.7 oz) 170 g (6.0 oz) 130 g (4.6 oz) 130 g (4.6 oz)
CPU Apple A4 @ ~800MHz Apple/Samsung A3 @ 600MHz Qualcomm Scorpion @ 1GHz Qualcomm Scorpion @ 1GHz Qualcomm Scorpion @ 1GHz
GPU PowerVR SGX 535 PowerVR SGX 535 Adreno 200 Adreno 200 Adreno 200
RAM 512MB LPDDR1 (?) 256MB LPDDR1 512MB LPDDR1 512MB LPDDR1 512MB LPDDR1
NAND 16GB or 32GB integrated 16 or 32GB integrated 8GB micro SD 8GB micro SD micro SD
Camera 5MP with LED Flash + Front Facing Camera 3MP 8MP with dual LED Flash + Front Facing Camera 8MP with LED Flash 5MP with LED Flash
Screen 3.5" 640 x 960 LED backlit LCD 3.5" 320 x 480 4.3" 480 x 800 3.7" 480 x 800 AMOLED 3.7" 480 x 800 AMOLED
Battery Integrated 5.254Whr Integrated 4.51Whr Removable 5.5Whr Removable 4.81 Whr Removable 5.18 Whr

The iPhone 4's logic board shrinks in size thanks to further component integration, making room for a much larger battery. The 5.25Whr battery in the iPhone 4 is a 16% increase from what was in the 3GS, and 95% of what HTC put in the EVO 4G. While raw performance improved, it's clear that Apple's focus this time around was battery life. Again, we'll dive into specifics later in the review.

Moving back outside Apple surrounded the phone with a stainless steel band. This band doubles as the 3G, WiFi and Bluetooth antennas. And if you hadn't noticed, it also moonlights as a giant elephant. Let's talk about it.

The Real Story on iPhone 4's Antenna
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  • plastic_avatar - Monday, July 12, 2010 - link

    How can you not respect the research of someone who slides in an apt geek reference? Reply
  • zholy - Tuesday, July 13, 2010 - link

    Only Apple can release a product with such a design flaw and respond to complaints with either "you're holding it wrong" or "buy another product to make it work correctly". Any other company would have their product returned in droves, Mac fanatics just say "ok" Reply
  • Hengie2000 - Saturday, July 17, 2010 - link

    Help! I am a wireless tech that uses field test daily to survey in building wireless projects, but the iphone 4 or 4.0 upgrade lost that capability. I am willing to pay for someone to make a field test app or follow the steps that Brian and Anand have listed in this story. Is there any way to reach these guys for more details to get field test running on the iphone4? Does this give full field test menus or only replaces the signal bars with decibels? Reply
  • Stang289 - Monday, July 26, 2010 - link

    It would be great if you had Palm Pre Plus and Pixi Plus performance numbers included in smartphone reviews. I would like to see how they stack up against other smartphones. Reply
  • marxster - Thursday, September 9, 2010 - link

    ...after all that, I'll give you my real world experience. We have a 3Gs and a 4 in our household. The 3Gs always shows more bars and does not drop calls at all while my iPhone 4 does drop calls and has less bars.

    We live far away from the closest tower and the iphone 4 doesn't ever get better reception here than -103db.

    I'm now afraid to receive calls because I know they'll be dropped. Makes my phone useless.

    I should say that both phones are on the latest iOS version and there isn't much of a difference whether I use a case or not.

    By the way, please explain this to me. Why did Apple bother to spend millions of dollars shipping out cases when they clearly don't get rid of the problem. When I cup my phone with the case on, the bars drop just the same as without.
    Reply
  • MisterQED - Wednesday, October 20, 2010 - link

    I am not a member of the “tin foil hat” crowd, I’m a guy with a physics degree and a Ham license, so I know a bit about radios. What I am about to point out seems so obvious to me, but I have never heard it discussed anywhere. Your article discusses the effects of having a exposed antenna as it effects phone reception, but that misses the main point, this is a receiving and transmitting antenna. Having skin contact with a transmitting antenna is not safe. Allow me to explain my thought process and tell me if I have a flaw in my logic.

    1) Constant irritation causes cancer. Whether it is fiberglass fibers, silica dust or coal dust in our lungs, to UV radiation from skin exposed to the sun, if you irritate an area consistently for long periods of time, you are just asking for cancer.

    2) RF radiation from most phones is a subject of worry and present discussion, but it doesn’t worry me. RF radiation is a worry because it will cause electrical conduction thru body tissue. This would be an irritation and consistent irritation can lead to cancer. RF radiation from most phones has two methods of conduction, capacitive and inductive.

    a) Capacitive needs: a sizable area, small dielectric distances and high frequencies. Cell phones have the high frequencies, but all other designs keep minimal gaps between antennas and the operator’s skin. Also the operator’s finger tips provide a rather small area to support capacitive conductance.

    b) Inductive conduction needs frequency matched radiators to allow conduction i.e. a good antenna on each end. Body parts make poor antennas, and bodily dimensions generally don’t match the proportions of ideal radiators, so inductive conduction isn’t really a worry.

    3) iPhone 4s, unlike any previous device, allow a third and a magnitude more effective connection between an operator and a transmitting antenna, a resistive connection. All a resistive connection needs is a low resistance, which skin has when sweaty or damp and the antenna has if it is not covered by a non-conductive coating. To add insult to injury, this contact de-tunes the antenna making it less efficient. This inefficiency causes the transmitter to up the power output as cell phones work on a “yell loud enough to be heard” system, so the worse the reception the more power the phone will pump into the antenna to be able to communicate with the cell tower.

    So unless you can show me where my logic has lead me astray, I would expect that in the future some percentage of the population that use an iPhone without a case may find a small possibly cancerous mole forming on one of their fingertips.

    That is a bigger problem than some dropped calls, so why didn’t you mention it.
    Reply
  • smithpercy - Sunday, November 14, 2010 - link

    Does this mean that I could cold weld a suitable socket to the gsm antenna side strip to allow a patch cable to an external antenna and get reception in the very marginal areas that I spend most of my time in?? I know that the shield would have to be grounded but that could be done thru one of the other connectors. I understand that would void the warranty, and give apple a conniption fit but that is their problem. Reply
  • keri - Thursday, February 24, 2011 - link

    serious question here. Reply

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