The iPhone 4: a design and technological triumph that developers have yet to live up to

Although I wasn’t the first person in the world to activate my new iPhone 4, like I was last year with the iPhone 3GS, since several people who had ordered online received their new phones by post yesterday, Orange had very kindly invited me to their launch party at their flagshop Champs-Elysées store last night, where they upgraded me to a 32GB black iPhone 4, which I’ve been testing all day. This is of course in no way intended as a fully-fledged review and is just a summary of my initial impressions.

The iPhone 4 unpacked
The iPhone 4 makes its elder brother the iPhone 3GS look dated the moment you open the box.

The iPhone 4 is a design triumph and worth owning on its aesthetic merits alone

Although the naked phone in its brushed steel glory is just as amazingly elegant as expected, the glass back will prove significantly more scratch-prone than its plastic predecessor, so the first thing I did was to get a pleasant-looking rubber plastic case to protect the device. I’d recommend any new users do the same right after purchase. Of course using a case will conceal the brushed steel edge, making a black iPhone 4 look almost identical to an 3GS model. Annoyingly, the white version, which will look more distinctive, though not necessarily more elegant, was nowhere to be seen last night. The new phone is significantly thinner than its predecessor and takes virtually no place in my jacket or jeans pocket. Battery life, despite a morning of intensive use, seems better than on the 3GS.

The iPhone 4 pack includes the new smaller battery charger, saving considerable space for travellers
The iPhone 4 pack includes the new smaller battery charger, saving considerable space for travellers.

The new screen is, as expected, quite magnificent. I was also able to reduce the number of pages on my phone from seven to four by taking advantage of the very convenient new folder feature. I did this, in particular, with the six or seven default Apple apps that I never use and that you aren’t allowed to delete. The phone is distinctly faster, with absolutely no noticeable lag in applications that previously had it. The signal is better, with the phone receiving calls in locations where previously my iPhone 3GS would miss them.

The iPhone 3GS looks distinctly dated in comparison to the new iPhone 4
The iPhone 3GS looks distinctly dated compared with the new iPhone 4 and its distinctive brushed-steel and glass case. To avoid scratching, however, you'd be well advised to buy a protective cover for it right away.

The 32GB disk is more than a disappointment: it’s a major nuisance

The unavailability of anything over 32GB, as expected, is a major nuisance: like I feared, the new iOS 4 gobbles up slightly more disk space than its predecessor; I had to delete several applications, all my photographs and part of my music just to fit everything in. I can’t understand why Apple wasn’t able to offer a 64GB version, but I suspect I won’t be the only one complaining.

It took me three hours just to get the device up and running, from a backup of my old iPhone 3GS. I also had to update over fifty applications on just one day, as developers had been rushing to make their applications compatible with the new version. On the whole, though, the upgrade was smoother than last year from 3G to 3GS: Apple have addressed a massive number of bugs in the install process and although it was time-consuming, it wasn’t really a headache at all.

A lot of the apps that would most benefit from it have turned out not to be ready for multitasking

I haven’t so far detected any issues with the apps I use, but a lot of those that would most benefit from it have turned out not to be ready for multitasking: Reeder, Evernote, Dropbox, Omnifocus, SimplyTweet and FlickrStackr have all either been updated or were already compatible with the new version. Toktumi have just announced that an iOS 4-compatible version Line2, my preferred VoIP application for the iPhone, has been submitted to Apple for approval. It’s a little unfortunate that neither Line2 nor Spotify were ready on time for the launch of the iPhone 4, since multitasking was always going to be most useful with voice and music applications. Spotify can already run in the background on Android so it’s rather disappointing that they don’t on the iPhone 4.

Email now runs much more smoothly, but those running Gmail or Google Apps need to reinstall it using the new customised settings

The iPhone now handles Gmail and Google Apps accounts far more gracefully than it used to, so instead of configuring my Google Apps mail account using IMAP (which actually didn’t work when I tried using the same settings I had stored on my iPhone 3GS), I switched to the default Gmail setting, which I found worked out of the box and synced without issues with my Google server. The native Gmail support on the iPhone now displays threaded conversations: I personally find these confusing, but they will probably be popular with a lot of people. I find I still need to resort to the Exchange hack, however, for my appointments, because that’s the only way I can get the iPhone to handle invitations and acceptances in both directions (i.e., issued as well as received).

The new five-megapixel camera is almost a disappointment for serious photographers: it won’t be much use unless processing apps are updated to make use of the new high resolution, which may take longer than people are expecting

The other improvement I was especially looking forward to was the new, front-and-back-facing five megapixel camera and flash: this produces a 2592 × 1936 resolution, up from the iPhone 3GS’s 1536 × 2048 (3,1 MP). Apple also chose to give the new camera a wider angle of 2.4, against its predecessor’s 2.8. Photos taken with the iPhone 3GS were already pretty decent for a cameraphone, and I’m not yet convinced the new ones will look significantly better. Of course, I’m looking forward to taking more pictures with my new phone, although I’ve recently switched partly to using my very compact and powerful Canon Powershot S90.

So, to an extent, the jury is still out on this one, especially since to the best of my knowledge, not a single one of the iPhone photo processing apps I use has been upgraded to manage the new higher resolution. The same issue had plagued the resolution upgrade that came with the iPhone 3GS. In recent months, I haven’t heard of a single new, good photo application, and the beauty of iPhone photography is largely contingent on that device’s capability of acting as an entirely self-contained photograph taking,processing and publishing device. The resolution improvement is palpable, however, and the quality of a raw, unprocessed iPhone 4 photo taken at maximum resolution is close to that of the Canon Powershot S90:

A photograph taken with the Canon Powershot S90
An unprocessed photograph taken with the Canon Powershot S90 using the camera's auto setting: this still produces a crisper-quality image than the iPhone 4 (below).
A photo taken from the same spot using the iPhone 4
A photo taken from the same spot using the iPhone 4: though an improvement on the previous model, it still doesn't hold the comparison even with a decent compact camera. The lack of processing applications compatible with the new camera's maximum resolution will further reduce its attraction for serious photographers.

All in all, the new iPhone is well worth upgrading to. In fact, it’s so much in advance of any other information technology device that I expect it to steal the limelight from its big brother the iPad, which despite launching just two months ago, still runs on OS 3.2. The latter now seems rather prehistoric in comparison to iOS 4. The porting of many applications to the iPad, which is already running well behind expectations, could well slow yet further until users are able to upgrade to the same operating system as the iPhone’s.