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Apple’s iPhone 4 Review: A Roller Coaster First Week

June 30th, 2010 · 3 Comments · Technology

Wow. What a first week! For all the people that were waiting for my review of Apple’s new iPhone 4, here it is – get ready for a roller coaster ride.

Before we start this journey, let me give the option to step out of line now. It has not been an enjoyable journey. Actually, it’s been very ugly in several places, with more twists and turns than I expected. And for an Apple diehard like me that’s experienced just about every Apple product since the Apple ][+, I didn’t see this ride coming. So if you’re still up for it, sit back and relax while we climb the first hill.

(Just to give you a sense of the tome I could have written, I was 2,000 words into the first half of the initial ordering experience when I decided to reboot.)

Ordering Experience

To keep this short, I’ll just say that the pre-ordering experience started out great, then quickly descended into hell. My first stop was the AT&T web site, but it was extremely unresponsive. So I decided to call 611 from my phone and order the three iPhone 4 upgrades directly from AT&T on the morning of June 17. The first AT&T rep was wonderful. If only that call had been the end of the AT&T experience.

Unfortunately, I needed to call back and make a minor modification to the order. What should have been a simple process evolved into 4+ hours of phone calls; several blatant lies from AT&T; an incorrectly canceled order; an AT&T manager that never called me back; a mysteriously re-instated order after I was told it wasn’t possible to get a new order; then the miraculous “early” delivery of my iPhone 4.

Yes. For some reason, I was one of the few that received my iPhone 4 via FedEx the day BEFORE it was released to the public. This later turned out to be a blessing and a curse.

Installation & Activation

After going from being told I wouldn’t get my iPhone 4 for several weeks, to receiving it a day early, I thought this was a sign from above that I need to pop open the box and accept the responsibility of being one the first to enjoy an iPhone 4. I even had hopes of writing an early review of the iPhone 4 before it was officially released. But my hopes were quickly dashed…

During the pre-order fiasco, one of the not-so-nice AT&T reps made a mistake that caused two of the three phones to be assigned to the wrong phone number. It would take another 2,000 words to explain the details of what happened, but let me assure that it took four lengthy calls to AT&T, a few more blatant lies and hours of frustration before we had the phones working. And because of another lie told to me by AT&T, we actually had to buy a fourth iPhone 4 because the numbers were incorrectly assigned. (Seriously, I’d lose all my readers if I tried to explain the details.)

In the end, I think part of the problem was that I received the iPhone 4’s early. I’m using the word “lie” pretty loosely here. I realized when I was talking with AT&T that they weren’t completely prepared with all the necessary steps and procedures to make simple changes, like moving a phone number from a pre-assigned SIM. I finally talked to one knowledgeable rep that recommended I just take everything to the Apple store and let it fix the problem. Nice service AT&T.

First Impressions

Enough about the ordering and activation hassles; it’s time to talk about the phone itself. Here is a collection of my first impressions during week one with the iPhone 4:

EXTERIOR

  • It’s sexy. Flat out gorgeous product design. Later a friend countered my enthusiasm that it didn’t really matter if the “new” design was the iPhone 4 or the iPhone 3, we are always going to say the “new” design is the coolest. Apple just does that to consumers.
  • Surprisingly, it doesn’t feel quite as nice in your hand. I think the softer curves on the old iPhone are a little more comfortable. Especially if you put it in your pocket.
  • The now infamous antenna band going around the phone looks really nice. I like the metal buttons for the volume and the mute. It just feels more substantial.
  • The new glass front and back panels are much more impressive than the plastic on the old iPhones. It’ll be interesting to see how they hold up against scratches. I easily scratched my old iPhone 3 case before I bought a protective cover.
  • For some reason I was expecting it to be noticeably thinner. It’s not. It looks and feels about the same.
  • The weight is almost identical to the old phone.

SCREEN

  • The quality of the screen is absolutely amazing. This is probably the highlight of all the new iPhone 4 features. I was skeptical when I heard Steve Jobs claim that your eye couldn’t distinguish individual pixels. Damn! He was right.
  • Reading text on the new iPhone is enjoyable. I can’t believe how much more polished the entire interface is at 326 pixels per inch. I remember that the first laser printers imaged on paper at 300 pixels per inch, so this screen is like reading paper.
  • One of my favorite stories from the first week was showing a proof of a business card to a client on my iPhone 4 – it was incredibly sharp and readable. Coincidentally, it was almost actual size. Very cool.
  • Photos and video are significantly better with the new resolution. Anyone that uses their phone to show off pictures of their kids, pets or latest vacation, will enjoy the new screen.
  • The screen is noticeably brighter, too.

SPEED

  • The iPhone 4 seems significantly more responsive. It’s hard to do a time test, but just bouncing around apps and the web, it feels a lot faster.

BATTERY LIFE

  • It definitely has more battery life. But I haven’t been able to determine in the first week how significant is the improvement. My usage varies dramatically from day-to-day, so it’s hard to give a definitive answer. But I’m NOT getting the 20% and 10% battery warnings as often as I did with my 3G.

GPS

  • I use the map and location-based apps frequently on my iPhone. The new version feels much more responsive. I remember my first iPhone 3 was a dog with GPS. So it’s nice to see that GPS is now functional and responsive.

IOS 4 – SOFTWARE

  • To the everyday user, I’m not sure the new IOS 4 operating system is noticeable.
  • The FaceTime feature (video conferencing) is useful addition to the phone. I think it will be heavily used once non-iPhone devices can connect to FaceTime, and Apple/AT&T remove the restriction to WiFi only delivery. It’s nice that you can switch between the forward and rear facing cameras. This video conferencing feature has a tremendous amount of potential. And like most products from Apple, it’s easy to use.
  • I’m glad to see the ability to multitask applications, but I’m not really sure how to use it, or if applications are really taking advantage of the feature. In fact, I had to do a Google search just to figure out how to access the multitasking features on my iPhone – basically you double-click the home button to access all currently running applications. You can close the apps by click-and-holding for a few seconds, until you have the delete (negative) icon. I think we’ll learn more about the power of multitasking as applications start to take advantage of it.

GYROSCOPE

  • I’m not really sure what to do with a six-axis, real-time gyroscope in my phone, but it sounds cool.
  • Make sure you purchase the Gyroblox app so you can play with the gyroscope.
  • Similar to the multitasking feature, I think game developers will eventually blow us away with the gyroscope. But for now, it’s just there.

CAMERA & FLASH

  • I was really looking forward to having a usable camera on my iPhone, especially with a flash. But so far, I’ve been very disappointed. Maybe I just know too much about photography, but the lens is very slow. So unless your subject is perfectly lit and not moving, the camera will deliver blurry images. Overall, it delivers very mediocre photo results. It’s more for “documentation” than artistic capture.
  • I’m probably more impressed with the video capture. The 720p HD video capture is remarkably usable. Again, good lighting conditions are required, but the video is nice.
  • The flash is very weak. It doesn’t have much of a range and tends to cause some serious color distortion. It also has a serious lag time from when you cue up your subject and the shot is taken. I’ve had numerous “missed shots” because of the delay in the iPhone 4 taking the picture.
  • In the end, the camera and flash are a major improvement, but I don’t expect it will replace your digital point-and-shoot camera.

The Disappointments

At this point in the roller coaster ride you realize that having a chili cheese dog and fries for lunch was a bad idea – I was close “losing it” a few times based on these turns. In one week, I’ve experienced all three of the major “known” issues with the iPhone 4. I’ve already placed several calls to Apple and AT&T support; plus one visit to the AT&T phone center. And I’m not done yet…as you’ll soon read, I have to make another call/visit to Apple. So here are the three major issues and one “bonus” disappointment:

PROXIMITY SENSOR

  • I’m glad I read online about other iPhone 4 users having this issue; otherwise I would have thought I was crazy. The issue is that when you place a call and you put your phone up to your face, the proximity sensor is supposed to disable the touch screen so your cheek doesn’t start pushing buttons. Unfortunately, I’ve experienced several phone calls where I pull the phone away from my cheek to see that I’ve accidentally initiated another call (!), or changed “settings” on my current call. It’s very frustrating. Luckily, it doesn’t seem to happen all the time. I haven’t had time to deal with this issue (because of other concerns, keep reading.)

ANTENNA & RECEPTION

  • I have experienced the freaky Vulcan phone grip that causes the reception bars to plummet to nothing. If you’re not familiar with the problem, basically the metal band surrounding the phone is three antennas. And some combination of grip, sweat and location can cause the phone to lose reception.
  • It’s very inconsistent. It seems like whenever I try to demonstrate the issue, I can’t force it to happen. If I’m just randomly holding my phone and not paying attention, the reception bars will occasionally start to drop.
  • Considering the amount of negative coverage this problem is receiving, I imagine it will get resolved soon. I hope so. I actually haven’t noticed an improvement or decrease in the quality of phone calls. So far the quality of the calls are fine, as long as I’m not disconnected…

iPhone4 No SIM Card InstalledNO SIM CARD INSTALLED

  • This issue is the deal killer. Randomly, my iPhone 4 will display an image that says “No SIM Card Installed.” And the SIM card is what provides the phone with call service. To make matters worse, it seems to happen in the middle of phone calls!? On Monday, eight of my twelve phone calls were disconnected mid-conversation due to this problem.
  • The temporary fix is to turn on Airplane mode, wait a few seconds and turn Airplane mode off. This occasionally resolves the problem.
  • The next possible fix is to turn your phone off, wait a few minutes and turn it back on. This “almost” always fixes the problem, at least for a short period.
  • The next fix is to remove the SIM card, inspect it for damage, and carefully re-seat the card. This also will occasionally solve the problem, but it makes you consider carrying a paper clip to quickly eject the card.
  • The next fix is to drive in a massive downpour to the AT&T store and get a new SIM card. (Okay, the massive rainstorm is optional, but it adds to the excitement.) This fix worked for less than 24 hours for me before I started getting the error message again.
  • The final fix is to replace the iPhone 4, which I haven’t done yet. Ugh!
  • The biggest issue with the above sequence of events, is it usually happens in the middle of a really important phone call. At one point, I was so desperate to call back the associate that was so rudely dropped by my SIM card, that I downloaded, installed and purchased credit on Skype so I could make a call from my laptop. A few choice words were lobbed at Apple during that process.
  • I’ll post another entry with the finale of the iPhone 4 replacement saga.

BONUS ISSUE: IPHONE ACCESSORIES

  • It didn’t occur to me until I placed my new iPhone 4 into my TomTom car cradle that the new dimensions and shape of the iPhone 4 could be detrimental to many existing iPhone accessories. I had purchased the TomTom cradle (a GPS booster) and related application for traveling. I really like the software and hardware. As a bonus, it provides charging and a Bluetooth hands free device while driving. But the shape of the new iPhone 4 doesn’t work with this expensive accessory. So I’m SOL. I’ve seen a few hacks to fix this problem, but I’m hoping TomTom will come out with a reasonable “upgrade.”

Missing Items

In addition to the serious issues mentioned above, the iPhone 4 is still lacking a few features that I think are important, including:

MiFi

  • It would be an incredibly practical tool to be able to use the iPhone’s 3G data network and WiFi abilities to setup a mini MiFi network. It would be the perfect compliment for a WiFi iPad. For a variety of business reasons, I’m sure it will never happen. I was jealous when a friend recently used her Palm Pre device to setup a MiFi network for her iPad.
  • My alternate solution for this situation is the Sprint Overdrive device. You can read my review about it here.

DATA TETHERING

  • The next best option to a MiFi network is Data Tethering – the ability to use your iPhone 4 connected via USB to your laptop to connect to the Internet. While it’s been announced, it hasn’t arrived yet. And that still doesn’t solve the problem for iPad owners. Not to mention, the price from AT&T looks expensive.

VERIZON

  • Considering my experience with AT&T customer service, I’m all for an expand base of carriers to choose from. It’s been rumored that Verizon will start offering the iPhone 4 as soon as January 2011. The only hitch is that you’ll need to buy a new iPhone 4 that has the correct hardware to connect to Verizon’s network.

Overall

The iPhone 4 has to be one of my biggest disappointments from Apple in their long history of exciting product announcement. My conclusion is based on a combination of really poor customer service (primarily from AT&T) combined with some serious, nagging technical problems. When 60% of my calls in one day are dropped because of the SIM issue, it’s just not a useable device. Hopefully I just got a lemon iPhone 4. But I’d hate to recommend the phone today to anyone until I knew that these issues are an isolated incident, or that they have been resolved. So the end of the ride is actually another call to Apple support. For some reason, I have a bad feeling in my stomach about climbing this next hill.

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3 Comments so far ↓

  • Doug Timberlake

    I jailbroke my 3GS and it seems that my multitasking works better. I am able to hold the home key to background ANY app then doubleclick to view all backgrounded apps. I also have an app that lets my iPhone perform as a MiFi. I didn’t know that the phone had the capability (I thought it would require a hardware upgrade) but it works wonderfully. Also through the MiFi app I can tether through USB or Bluetooth if I prefer, but it’s just as easy to use the wireless. Also unless I change my service plan I am still getting unlimited data for $30 a month instead of the tiered plan that is even more expensive if you pay to tether. Thanks for reconfirming my decision to stay with my jailbroken 3GS!

  • Chase

    I haven’t had any of the proximity sensor, antenna, reception or sim card issues (I probably just jinxed myself). And coming from an old 3G model, I’ve enjoyed the camera’s improvements. But, then again, I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of iPhone photography as a sort of creative pastime. I think the cool thing about iPhone photography as a medium is that it levels the playing field from an equipment standpoint, allowing photographic talent, skill and creative perspective to shine through. Now, as for the AT&T customer service issues, it’s quite safe to say I share that frustration ;) Good review, overall.

  • Kathy

    I am a brand new iPhone convert… just got the iPhone 4 almost a month ago. I have had the SIM card problem too, intermittently at first and then increasing to several times a day. Eventually none of the “quick fixes” solved the problem, so I went to the “genius”(ha!) bar. They acted as if they were seeing this problem a lot, but weren’t very forthcoming with information. They just replaced the phone. Three days later, and I just got the “no SIM” message again. I am frustrated. And it sounds like having AT&T replace the SIM card may not be the solution either. Have you had any luck getting it fixed??

Leave a Reply to Kathy