iPhone 4 upgrade – first impressions

Sarah needed a replacement iPhone after hers suffered an embarrassing accident. Apple have just released a new iPhone, and I wanted it. A perfect combination!

I stood in a queue for about an hour at my local O2 store to get the new device, a 16Gb version as I’m frankly too cheap to pay another £100 for functionality i won’t miss except for the ‘luxury’ of having my entire iTunes library with me on the move in a very compressed format. I can do better with a laptop with or without remote access to my home network. I don’t *need* to carry my whole iPhoto library around to show people when I’m on the move, and I have about 1GB in the way of apps, so I’m not exactly hurting for space. 16Gb is a significant enough step forward from the 8Gb 3G to still feel ‘new’ and exciting.

First impressions were good. The glass front and rear, and ultra-then bezel make the device look and feel much smarter than the previous (admittedly very good-looking) models. It’s perhaps a little too thin to hold for any length of time as-is, the glass getting very slippery in warm sweaty hands in London’s current heatwave.

Activation of the new SIM took a couple of hours, during which time the old phone with it’s old SIM carried on working as normal. Turning the old phone off once I was home and not needing to be contactable seemed to hurry the process on a little.

The new phone was activated at the store, but needed settings copying from the old unit to the new. This was a case of using iTunes to back up the old phone, and for good measure i told iTunes to transfer purchases (apps, music etc) to my mac. I then plugged in the new unit and when prompted i told iTunes to restore from the backup.  Everything transferred smoothly, including text messages and contacts, along with the custom home screen folders and layouts. The only thing missing was passwords for MobileMe, wifi and App Store/iTunes purchases. No big deal.

Having moved from the older device (itself running iOS 4) things didn’t seem that different at first. It’s subtle things that add up to make a huge difference, such as:

  • Increased screen resolution. Text rendering is simply stunning, on this screen that now seems to have double the pixel dimensions of the old. This means that graphics in older apps designed for the older iPhones scale evenly and are just as crisp as originally designed. Nice touch – no scaling artefacts to get in the way of clarity or legibility.
  • Speed. This thing is quick. Facebook, Messages and many other apps were quite laggy on the 3G whenever communicating over the mobile or wifi data connections. Not so on the iPhone 4. Updates happen near instantly. Apps load quickly and are ready to use soon after.
  • Keyboard. No change in layout or concept from the old phone, but much more responsive and more accurate as a result. Still not as quick as a real laptop or desktop unit, but it comes remarkably close considering one tends to type on small devices with two thumbs.  The autocompletion/autocorrect functions are much quicker too, meaning they don’t get in the way like they tended to on the 3G.
  • Web browsing. Much quicker and smoother. Multiple pages in Safari now stay in memory (thanks in part to both more hardware RAM allowing multitasking) during switching and can even load in the background. As an example, I was able to load up the BBC News page in one ‘window’ while reading content from TNT Audio in another. When I’d finished checking TNT and switched back to the first window, the News page was loaded and ready for me to read or interact with, just like on the desktop.
  • Multitasking. Not quite what it says, in that only some functions can do this, usually data access and audio access. For example, LastFM is currently playing audio from the WiFi connection in the background while I type this in the ‘Notes’ application, and I can switch back to LastFM near-instantly without it having to log back in again.  If Skype can ever do this kind of thing, i could stand to be a lot more contactable and still remain productive on the move.
  • Productivity. The increased CPU and RAM capability makes the new device a much more productive place to work. The increased screen resolution combines with the speed of task switching and processing to make a remarkably crisp environment to do real work, including email with the built-in IMAP client and the third-party QuickOffice app. I can even forward email attachments to a Quickoffice address to edit them on the iPhone, before saving them either to the phone or to another remote server to get them back to the outside world.
  • Battery life. Just awesome. Perhaps I’d been getting used to a faulty unit, but with iOS 4 installed I’d been lucky to get 2 or 3 hours’ use from the 3G before the battery flaked out on me. Standby was still measured in days though, so I guess it wasn’t all bad. However, I’ve been hammering away at the iPhone 4 pretty much all day now and I’m still 65% full, having clocked up what the iPhone informs me as being 2h38m of usage time. That’s better than pretty much any laptop I’ve owned so far, and seems comparable to the claimed battery life of the iPad.
  • Audio quality. For headphone output in particular (that’s what I care about most!) the playback quality of audio and video is better than the 3G. My Shure in-ear headphones can tend to sound quite tinny if not driven by a unit with good headroom, and their revealing nature tends to show up any digital grain or quantisation in the volume control implementation. Neither has been an issue with this new phone, so that’s making me very happy.
  • Reception issues. Contrary to what I’ve seen reported in the media about signal drops when using or holding the phone left-handed, I’ve not been able to recreate the issue myself on this handset. That said, I’m not a south-paw so I might not have the particular ‘knack’ required.

So all in all this is a great product and at a pretty reasonable price given the user experience I’ve had. I cannot reliably compare this to competing products because I’ve not used any of them. All i know is that it does all I ever wanted to much more smoothly than before, but with a much better quality screen and with more useful features than I had imagined when I first tested the new iPhone in the store alongside my old one.

Meanwhile, Sarah has my old 3G restored with everything she knew from her original iPhone and she couldn’t be happier.

Perhaps I’ll do another ‘long term’ review in a few months to let you know how well the device stands up over the longer term.

’til next time,


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