Thoughts on the iPhone 4

After standing in line for a couple hours very early Thursday morning, I came home with a shiny new iPhone 4. The actual purchase and activation process itself took about five minutes and then I walked out of the mall with my shiny new phone and bumper case. Now that I’ve had some time to play with it, I’ve got a few observations.

Screen

The screen on this thing must be seen to be believed. I showed this to a friend Friday night and he thought the text looked pretty good, but when he got to the home screen and saw how clear the tiny, teensy icons inside folders were, his jaw literally dropped.

I’ve always been a typography snob, and this is the screen I’ve always wanted but never thought I’d see. It’s not just the pixel density (which according to an actual retinal scientist, actually does live up to the hype, even under a microscope), but what that pixel density does in a user interface that doesn’t necessarily assume everything is 72 dpi. Buttons, icons, widgets, everything is sharp and natural. Photos look better, too.

And oddly, I’ve seen apps that can sense when they’re on a retina display and react accordingly. On my 3G, iBooks won’t let me select a font smaller than 12 points or so. On my iPhone 4, iBooks has two more smaller font settings below what was the minimum on my 3G, because iBooks knows the device can handle it. It would have been worth the upgrade for this alone, but there’s more.

Moreover, a display this smooth challenges conventional wisdom about best practices for reading on a screen. For years, we’ve been told not to use fonts designed for print (Helvetica, Times New Roman) in favor of “web fonts” like Verdana and Georgia. On the iPhone 4, this is again reversed. The pixels are so dense, the curves so smooth, that the advantages of print-optimized fonts reassert and I find I much prefer Helvetica (which looks “cleaner” than Tahoma/Verdana) for most text and Times New Roman (which is denser, allowing more words per line, than Georgia) for iBooks.

Speed

The iPhone 4 is built on Apple’s A4, the same chip that powers the iPad. Speculation is that the iPhone 4’s A4 isn’t running at the full 1GHz that the iPad uses, probably closer to 800MHz. It benchmarks just about halfway between the 3GS and the iPad. But what this means is that it is most definitely faster than the 3GS. Compared to my old 3G, it’s a different experience entirely. Multitasking is quick and smooth (more on this later) and apps open just about instantly. I’ve yet to see any of the lag I was used to on my 3G when, say, tapping on the search bar in applications.

Build Quality

The iPhone 4 feels really solid in the hand. Given what we saw of the phone’s innards first from Gizmodo and then more fully in iFixIt’s teardown, this shouldn’t be a surprise. There’s not a cubic millimeter of empty space in this thing. The glass, which has been chemically treated to be as tough as sapphire, is clear and solid. The solid steel antenna band (more on this and the “iPhone Death Grip” later) is adds even more rigidity and all the buttons are firm and click with a decisive tactile feedback. And of course, the industrial design is stunning. This is the phone Jony Ives always wanted to build, I’m sure.

Battery Life

Part of the overall density of the phone is that the battery is so much bigger than on previous models, and you can tell. With my 3G, I carried a Kensington external battery pack with me everywhere I went, just in case. With the iPhone 4, I don’t. Even streaming Pandora in the background, it sips power and I can type for hours without dropping more than 10%.

Bluetooth Keyboard Support

Typing? Yes, typing. Like the 3GS when updated to iOS 4, the iPhone 4 fully supports Bluetooth keyboards like my iGo Stowaway. In fact, it does so better than than the Bluetooth keyboard driver I’d used under jailbreak. Once paired, all you have to do is start typing on the keyboard in any editable field, and the text starts to flow. Conversely, I had to re-pair my keyboard every time with the jailbreak driver. There is absolutely no lag no matter how fast I type, and most of the keyboard shortcuts you’re used to on Windows or the Mac work just fine. I can move the cursor with the arrow keys, select text with shift-arrow, and use Control-X/C/V to cut, copy and paste. This was the final nail in the coffin for my netbook. I now can do virtually anything I need to do on my iPhone when I’m out and about. For the few things I can’t do (notably, save documents from my critique group from Yahoo Groups to my Dropbox), I can use LogMeIn Ignition to remote into my desktop and take care of it that way, then go back to what I was doing.

Spellcheck

And of course, for you writers out there, iOS 4 now supports spellcheck system wide. You’ll see a red dotted line under words the system doesn’t recognize, and just tap them to correct.

Multitasking

There seems to be a lot of disinformation and fundamental misunderstanding out there about multitasking on the iPhone. Most of this seems to come from either jailbreak users who were used to the way Backgrounder worked or people that came to the iPhone from other multitasking platforms like Windows Embedded Handheld (formerly known as Windows Mobile), webOS and Android. So let’s set some things straight.

You do NOT have to “close” your “running” background apps. I see a ton of confusion on this. Seriously, you don’t. I know on other systems, even on the iPhone under Backgrounder you had to be really diligent about closing things when you were done with them, but that’s the beauty of the Apple multitasking implementation. Those apps you see when you double click the Home button aren’t really running. All that is, really, is a Most Recently Used list of shortcuts, the same as you have on your Windows Start menu. They are taking up no resources unless they have a good reason to be doing something in the background, and even then, they’re doing just that and no more, not taking up even as much memory as the whole application would when running in the foreground. I’m not sure how I can make this any clearer. Compulsively removing apps from the multitasking tray is a total and complete waste of time. Yes, you can kill apps by tapping and holding on them in the switching tray and tapping the red minus sign, but I only do that when I need to force quit an individual app, that is deliberately restart it from zero without saved state information. This is exceedingly rare.

Another multitasking complaint I hear a lot is that this only works if developers update their apps to support it. First, any app you run will show up in the recently used app list, whether it’s been updated or not. So it’s just as easy to switch to an old app as a new one, the only difference being what happens when you get there. Old apps will launch as though you just launched them fresh, new will pick up exactly where you left off. Also, you don’t have to launch them from the multitasking area to get this benefit. If you launch an app you’ve used recently from the homescreen, you’ll pick up where you left off the same way. Now what do developers have to do to support this magic new feature?

They have to recompile their app under the iOS 4 SDK. That’s it. They don’t have to change a single line of code. All they have to do is recompile, submit the “update” to the App Store and their app will support fast app switching. Doesn’t seem like much to ask, and it’s actually pretty much unavoidable if they update their app ever again for anything. So you’re going to see apps updated a lot sooner than later. Eventually, every app that isn’t just abandoned will be updated to support multitasking in some way or another.

I’ve seen some people claim that they feel like they have to remove “running” apps because they’re crowding out the apps they use frequently. I can only assume these people haven’t actually used said apps frequently, because that’s exactly how they’re sorted. The app to the far left is the last one you used. The one to the right of it is the next to last app you used, and so on. All you have to do if you want to bring an app back to the first screen of recently used apps is run it. So again, people accustomed to higher-maintenance systems are bringing old habits over and wasting time and energy (and getting frustrated) doing things they simply don’t have to do on the iPhone. “Doc, it hurts when I do this.” “So don’t do that.”

iPhone Death Grip

Speaking of which, let’s talk about the iPhone Death Grip. This may be a moot point by the time I post this article, as Apple is rumored to be fast-tracking iOS 4.01 to address this issue, but it was such a huge controversy at launch that even my mom knew about it, so again, let’s dispel some of the hoopla.

There is a problem with degrading signal quality if you meet a very specific set of requirements. In order to see this issue, you must:

  1. Have a sweaty hand or be in a high-humidity area
  2. Have a weak cellular signal
  3. Hold the phone in such a way as to bridge the gap between the Bluetooth/WiFi/GPS antenna (which runs up the left side of the phone through the volume and mute buttons) and the cellular network antenna (which wraps around the bottom and up the other side of the phone)

So, if you hold the phone left-handed in a moist palm where you have marginal signal, you can watch the signal strength bars drop down to virtually nothing. Oddly, in most cases this doesn’t seem to affect call quality and may be more a display bug than an actual signal problem, but it can happen. To some people. In specific situations. Sometimes.

When asked about this via email, Steve Jobs replied, “Don’t hold the phone that way.” Apple followed up with a more detailed public statement acknowledging the problem and suggesting people who experience this frequently might want to invest in Apple’s Bumper case, which covers the problem area with plastic and rubber and prevents the issue entirely. They’re also working on an update to iOS 4 to address the issue.

So, there’s a minor issue that the company has already committed to fixing and which can easily be worked around by using pretty much any case or merely holding the phone differently. Clearly, this was grounds for the world at large to go crazy. Coverage of this horrible design flaw even made local news across the country, to the point where my mom, not a techie by any means, asked me if I had the problem.

Personally, I don’t. And I’m left handed. But I live in Denver, where the air is thin and dry. So most of the time, all the criteria to see this problem aren’t met. I do have a Bumper, which I bought at the same time as the phone because I’d already seen, at 7am here in Denver, reports on the Twitter machine of the issue and wanted to be safe rather than sorry. While I almost never see the iPhone Death Grip issue when not using the Bumper, I’ve started using the Bumper more often anyway, mostly because it prevents the phone from sliding around on a table while I’m typing.

Conclusion

The iPhone 4 is the finest mobile computer I’ve ever owned. Coupled with my Bluetooth Stowaway, it’s everything I need in a mobile device and good enough to convince me to hold off to see if the next generation iPad has a retina display as well. Yes, there are a few things here and there I’d like to see tweaked (like how in many apps, the area where the on screen keyboard would be is just blank while using the Bluetooth keyboard rather than displaying more text), but overall this is everything I wanted. If you have an older iPhone, upgrade as soon as you can. You won’t regret it.