It’s the fourth revision of Apple’s smartphone, and Apple says it’s the biggest set of changes we’ve seen since the original device was introduced three years ago. The first day’s pre-launch orders were over 600,000. That’s a staggering number for a device few consumers had even seen and even fewer had spent actual hands-on time with. As more users get to see the device up close and personal, I expect Apple is going to break previous sales records by a very wide margin, but does the latest revision of the iPhone stand up to the hype? My embargo is over so read on.
I took a first look at the device when Apple first announced it at their developers conference earlier this month. I’ve now spent some more time with a final production device and my experience largely matches Apple’s claims. Comparing the iPhone 4 with the original is like looking at an iPod touch next to the original—a lot of the heritage is there but it’s a very different and a much better experience. This is what next year’s technology will look like, except it’s at last year’s prices.
The first thing you notice is the design. Taking elements of the first and second generations of the device, Apple has come up with one of the most striking phone designs that has ever come to market. The glass and steel construction begs to be touched and there are few products that have ever come to market with this degree of caressability. Once you get over the design aesthetics it’s hard to miss what Apple calls the iPhone’s “Retina Display.” With a very high resolution and a pixel density well above 300 PPI, it’s going to be very hard for most users to see the individual pixels of the display. The result is the most paper-like display I’ve ever seen on a mobile device. Content that was just too hard to read with my 40+-year-old eyes without zoom is now easy to read without strain.
The second thing that leaps out is performance. Thanks to the A4 chip that powers it, the iPhone 4 feels noticeably snappier than prior devices. Combined with the new OS’s capabilities for multitasking (apps continue to get updated seemingly on an hourly basis) it feels like there’s less and less that this phone can’t handle in terms of tasks. (I personally can’t wait until we start seeing this OS on the iPad).
Third, there are the new features added with iOS 4 which address many of the minor issues that plagued the iPhone from day one. Things like a unified inbox view, the ability accept CAL DAV invites, and support for multiple Exchange accounts make for a much more refined usability experience. New applications like iMovie for iPhone show the powerful possibilities when both hardware and software are tightly integrated into one holistic experience.
Finally, the big show-stopper is FaceTime. Taking advantage of the iPhone 4′s front-facing camera, FaceTime is mobile video conferencing done right. Though it works iPhone 4-to-iPhone 4 only and is restricted to Wi-Fi for 2010, it is undeniably simple. There’s no setup, there’s no configuration, there’s no lag. Audio and video are fully in sync. In short it just works. We knew there might be this sort of capability from some of the leaks, but the truth is, until you see it in action, it’s hard to appreciate. Even cooler, it’s an open standard, so developers can easily add this functionality to their apps. Skype, are you listening? Apple isn’t the first to market with video conferencing on a phone but they’re the first to get it right. It’s not a feature unless the mass market uses it and I expect FaceTime will drive a lot of sales. That said, while I understand the need for Wi-Fi only at this time, it does detract somewhat from the experience to not have the feature everywhere. It also would have been nice to see some integration with the desktop (even at the expense of some added setup) or the ability to send video to non-iPhone 4 users. Hopefully, we’ll start seeing some FaceTime applications that adhere to the protocol for both the desktop and other platforms, solving this issue.
What’s missing? Well, a few things. First, iPhone 4 is still AT&T only here in the US and the new micro-sim makes it even harder to move your SIM from device to device. While Apple talked about the combination of form and function in the device’s new antenna system, I couldn’t see much of a difference in reception or call quality over the iPhone 3GS. Places where I had problems with AT&T were still just as problematic. As much as I like the iPhone, AT&T’s network still leaves lot to be desired. Rumors aside, I don’t expect to see another carrier anytime soon. I’d also like to see a 64GB SKU. In the past, Apple matched the prior year’s iPod touch capacity with iPhone. 32GB just feels a little too cramped for a phone with the capabilities iPhone 4 has. iOS is also starting to look a little dated. Rows of apps or folders feels very 2007. There’s no support for widgets or the kind of glanceable information that has become a standard UI enhancement on Android, Windows Phone 7, and Symbian. In an age of social ubiquity, iOS still treats social networks as discreet entities with little integration between applications such as Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. While some users might prefer that silo approach, more users are looking for ways to integrate their social graph into a holistic view of their personal, business, and public networks.
Bottom line? Apple has raised the bar for both handset vendors and platform providers with the release of iPhone 4. The tight integration of hardware and software provides a unique experience that once again raises and sets the standard for the rest of the industry. With strong visible differentiation, iPhone 4 is going to capture the hearts and minds of both existing iPhone users and new users entering the purchase funnel for their next phone. Nevertheless, the gap between other vendors and Apple is not nearly as huge as it was as recently as a year ago. Later this year new versions of Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry and Symbian are all expected to come to market, and no vendor is prepared to cede this market to Apple. With a rate and pace of innovation never seen before, expect to see more challengers to the iPhone and vendors who will seek to raise the bar even further. It’s too early to judge how successful those efforts will be, however. For now, iPhone 4 is the gold standard other devices will be measured against.
Update – Special thanks to Bill Fisher for taking the time to edit properly :)