Apple iPhone 4
Price: 16GB $859. 32GB, $999.
With the iPhone 4 now selling fast in Australia, CHOICE has been keen to test just how much of a concern its controversial antenna issue actually is. The reception problem, caused by holding the phone in a particular way (the so-called "death grip"), has generated worldwide publicity, particularly in the US, but our initial experience indicates it may be much less of a concern here, possibly due to our more robust phone networks.
Fortunately, Australia doesn't have to cope with the restrictive situation in the US, where only one telco is offering the iPhone (AT&T). In Australia you can buy the iPhone outright or on a plan using the phone network of your choice. If you're considering buying one, you might want to check out the newly released pricing plans of Telstra, Vodafone, 3 and Optus for the iPhone 4. And read our report on some of the potential pitfalls of so-called capped mobile phone plans.
To allay concerns, Apple launched a “Case Program” in Australia similar to its US offering, allowing iPhone 4 buyers to obtain a free rubber surround (called a bumper) or a third-party case when purchasing an iPhone 4 but only for a limited period.
Like our counterparts in the US, Consumer Reports, we were able to replicate the drop in signal reception by holding the phone firmly with the user's hand covering the area on the side of the phone (identified by a small black strip), where the internal antennas almost meet. However, in our initial experiments we found this didn't appear to affect call quality or cause any dropouts. It's possible the issue may become a problem in areas of very weak reception though.
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Reception controversy aside, the iPhone 4 has a lot to recommend it. Most immediately noticeable is the new super high-resolution 3.5 inch "Retina" screen, which offers a much improved viewing experience. It has four times the resolution of the previous iPhone 3GS model. Comparing the same still image on both the iPhone 4 and the previous model 3Gs revealed richer colours, better contrast and much clearer fine detail. Likewise for video, which now offers smooth, high-definition (720p) recording. The higher screen resolution is also apparent in reading small text, which is much more legible, and is a definite improvement for web browsing, email and eBook reading in particular.
The iPhone 4 is thinner than its predecessor and totally flat, rather than having the curved back of previous models. Both the front and back of the phone are toughened glass, with a flat metal trim surrounding the whole phone, which doubles as the phone's antennas.
The iPhone 4 now has a higher resolution (5 megapixel) camera on the back, which as you would expect takes much clearer pictures than the previous (3MP) version, plus a new forward-facing camera which is intended for video chatting using Apple's new built-in FaceTime app. This only works over a Wi-Fi connection (not a 3G mobile link). Initially it only worked with other iPhone 4 users and in our testing worked very well. FaceTime has now been extended to Apple computers with the release of a FaceTime program which is free to download. Apple has made the FaceTime technology an open standard in the hope that it will be picked up by other phone makers. Along with the new rear camera is an LED flash, which can be useful in low-light circumstances.
As you would expect in a new model, the iPhone 4 is also noticeably faster than the 3GS, thanks to the inclusion of Apple's patented A4 processor which is also used in the iPad. The phone's responsiveness is noticeably snappier, particularly in screen rendering and switching between apps.
Also included in the iPhone 4 is the new operating system, iOS 4, which brings much improved multitasking, organisation of apps into folders, improved email app with a unified inbox for all accounts, custom wallpapers, support for wireless keyboards, and improvements to iPod functionality among other things. Most of these new software features are also available to previous iPhone owners in a free software update via iTunes, which is particularly recommended for 3GS users. The iOS4.0.1 update also includes a fix to display the signal strength bars more accurately.
If you’re looking to move up from the first iPhone 3G model, the iPhone 4 looks to be a worthy upgrade, with a combination of superior hardware and much more capable software. Users of 3GS model iPhones will find the new model less compelling, if only because many of the software features can be had for free via the iOS4 update.