Quick thoughts on the iPhone 4: the camera, VoIP, and other issues

There’s no point in dwelling in extenso on the very beautiful new iPhone 4 (I’m glad plastic has been ditched for metal and glass, which Apple has always chosen for its best-looking products), since Apple provided a remarkable if slightly embellished presentation of its new toy. This is not meant to be a comprehensive review: I’m just going to focus here on a few points I think are of particular interest in this new release.

The iPhone’s camera is now better than most of the cheaper compacts

Perhaps the least commented-on feature of the new iPhone is the 5MP camera, which is the improvement I’m most pleased about. I’ve been using my iPhone extensively, ever since the 3GS version came out last year, to take photographs on the spur of the moment because I always have it on me and can process, geotag and upload my photos to Flickr using the wide range of applications developed over the past couple of years. Unlike CNET, I don’t quite think the iPhone 4 will kill the compact camera, but the new version will clearly more than ever be the best camera that you always have on you. One concern, however, will be the pace at which existing photography applications are updated to support the new maximum resolution. For some reason, developers have been strangely reluctant to do this for the iPhone 3GS. If anything, in recent months, the number of substandard photography apps saving at very small (and thus useless) resolutions has increased.

Multitasking means making and receiving VoIP calls on the iPhone is now a realistic possibility

Another area about which I’m pleased is that multitasking will at long last enable me to make and receive calls using VoIP, since third-party applications can now be made to run in the background. The best bets at present if you want to avoid paying outrageous international call rates (or want to call the US for free when travelling abroad) are:

  • Line2 is currently, in my view, the best option; it’s the only app that allows you to port your existing phone numbers, send and receive faxes and be set to call using VoIP only, cellular minutes or callback depending on what suits you most; rates are cheap (they currently charge one cent a minute for calls from anywhere to the UK) and sound quality, while variable, is better than Skype [i];
  • Google Voice currently doesn’t allow you to port a number, meaning you have to use your Google Voice number to make outward calls; I currently use it for voicemail as it forwards all my voicemail received on my US cell phone to my email, which is is a very neat feature, but not for anything else; it’s a little bit complicated to set up at present, but worth the hassle if you’re patient;
  • Skype recently upgraded its iPhone application to make and receive VoIP calls, although I’ve found call quality leaves to be desired and you can’t currently port your existing numbers to Skype; one attractive feature of Skype is Skype to Go, a service linked to a number in a range of countries that you can use to make international calls at local rates; I use it a lot in countries I visit regularly.

The inadequate 32GB flash drive is a major disappointment

I was fully expecting the new iPhone drive to double its capacity to 64GB and was dumbfounded to find it didn’t do so. This seems to have generated some disappointment and is probably due to cost factors: drives have struggled, in recent years, to keep up with the requirements of mobile devices and this is currently a real issue with the Macbook Air and now the iPhone. I’m compelled to trim the music I store on my iPhone (I’ve had to remove all of Mahler and anything composed after 1918; but Spotify works pretty well on the iPhone and alleviates a lot of the pain; sound quality is great if you go for the premium version), effectively can’t store any photos on the phone itself and am regularly getting warnings about disk space running out. Having to stick with 32GB is going to be a major irritant.

Will AT&T cope with the higher data flow?

On a final note, I’m curious to see how AT&T and Orange will cope under the strain of the increased data flow resulting from all the new power-hungry applications and multitasking. Mr Steve Jobs claims the new antenna will result in fewer dropped calls. Business Insider is more pessimistic and expects the iPhone 4 will crush AT&T’s network. I guess we’ll find out soon enough about this one…

  1. It’s worth reading this account of an interview with Peter Sisson, founder of Line2, at the 2010 WWDC.