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Apple iPhone 4 AT&T review:

Apple iPhone 4 AT&T

Home screen customization: Unlike the previous three features, this addition was low on our wish list, but Apple's done a decent job rolling it out. Sure, you always could change the standard black background using a third-party app, but iOS 4 adds the native capability to the iPhone and iPod Touch. First, find the "wallpaper" option in the Settings menu and choose either a provided wallpaper or a photo in your camera roll. After making your selection, you'll have the option to set it as the wallpaper for your home screen, the lock screen, or both.

It's all straightforward, but there are a couple troublesome trade-offs. First off, keep in mind that once you ditch the standard black background, there's no way to get it back. You can take a photo of a black wall, the night sky, or a dark room, but that's hardly the same thing. And don't be surprised to find that some of your native wallpapers have been replaced by new options. Apple giveth, and Apple hath taken away.

Spell check: The iPhone has long had an autocorrect feature that changes words as you type, but we've never considered it to be completely useful. That's why we're bigger fans of the new spell check feature that notifies you of unrecognized or misspelled words with a red underline. It works when you're composing both e-mails and text messages, and you get a list of suggested corrections. We'd like more suggestions, but that's a small point.

Search: iOS 4 offers a few new searching options across various features. First off, when typing a URL in the Safari browser, you'll see not only the URL title of sites you've visited recently, but also the full Web address. That's a nice touch, since you can find the exact Web page that you want. Over in Universal Search, you'll see Web and Wikipedia results with the content stored on the phone. It takes a couple of clicks to get them going, but it's convenient. And finally, you'll now find a search bar for your text messages. It works just like the search option for e-mails.

Game Center: Coming "later this year," Game Center will include features like a social gaming network, the ability to invite friends to games, leaderboards and achievements, and the opportunity for "matchmaking" (setting up two people to play).

Connectivity: iOS 4 adds persistent Wi-Fi, which means the iPhone 4 will stay connected to a hot spot even when it's in standby mode. This could have a negative effect on battery life so we'll be watching. With wake-on wireless, the handset promises to wake from standby when it comes in range of a cellular network. It's not something we were asking for, but we'll take it. Lastly, there's now support for using a Bluetooth keyboard. We successfully paired and used an Apple Bluetooth keyboard without any problems.

Additional changes: As with previous updates, iOS 4 also brings a selection of smaller features and interface tweaks. Among them are a redesigned calculator icon (the feature is the same), the ability to send apps as gifts, alphanumeric pass codes, bigger font sizes for accessibility, enhanced iPod-out capability, and a redesigned location icon in the Google Maps application (it's an arrow instead of a bull's eye). You also get a new Birthday Calendar that's accessible under the main calendar app. We're still looking for a specific birthday event field, however.

iPod player: With the iPhone 4, Apple continues to show that it positively shines with mobile music and video. This is one area where the company beat its competitors hands down. For the most part, the iPhone 4 iPod player is unchanged, but we were glad to see a few new offerings. There's now a convenient option for creating playlists on the go. We did so in just a couple of steps and added a selection of tunes. What's more, we're always happy when we can do something without going through iTunes. Back in the multitasking menu, you'll find new music player controls and a shortcut for locking the display rotation. To get there, just swipe to the far left.

Camera: The iPhone's camera has always been decent, but it's lacked features found on many basic phones. That's why we applaud the 5-megapixel resolution, the new LED flash, and the 5x digital zoom. The handset also has a new backside illuminated sensor, which requires a more-detailed explanation. Check out my colleague Stephen Shankland's blog for a detailed look at the technology. The biggest gain, however, is its ability to record 720p high-definition video at a constant 30 frames per second. The iPhone isn't the first handset to offer this capability, but it delivers on quality. Of course, we'd love more options like a brightness control and color tones, but we doubt that we'll ever get them.

The camera now has a digital zoom.

The primary camera interface is about the same as the 3GS', with the usual shutter control, camera/camcorder switch, and photo gallery shortcut off to one side. A new flash control activates the LED on the rear face. Thankfully, you can choose from auto or "always-on" modes. Over in the opposite corner is a control for switching between the front and rear cameras. When you're not making FaceTime calls, you can use the front-facing VGA camera for self-portraits. Image quality won't amaze, but that's not surprising considering VGA shooters are hardly the pinnacle of technological development. It is great to be able to take vanity shots, though.

We welcome the new camera flash.

The shooter also includes changes that came from iOS 4. Our favorite is a 5x zoom for the still camera. When taking a photo, just tap the screen to see the zoom bar. Use your finger to pan in and out, but remember that since this is digital zoom, picture quality will degrade as you zoom in. Also, you now can use the tap-to-focus feature in the still and video cameras.

In our tests the camera quality is noticeably improved. We'll start with still photos first. Under most conditions, and particularly when outside in daylight, the iPhone 4 takes beautiful photos. Colors are bright and natural, there was no visible image noise, and our shots were in focus. The bright flash also makes a positive change. As with most LEDs, it can make some images look a tad overblown, but we're just glad that we now can take images in a dark room. We also love that there's no shutter lag like there was with previous iPhones. The camera takes the shot the instant you press the shutter. On then downside, the camera doesn't fare quite as well when indoors under fluorescent lighting. Shots in those conditions had a green circle at the center of the image with yellow tints at the edges. The problem was worse when we photographed a white surface. We'd suggest correcting the issue by adjusting the white balance, but like previous Apple handsets, the iPhone 4 doesn't have such a setting. See our iPhone 4 camera photo gallery for a full series of shots with analysis.

The iPhone delivers great photo quality.

Video quality also impressed. You'll need to keep the phone steady, but our clips were smooth and free of any pixels or hiccups. It also handles motion quite well, and audio was in sync with the video. And of course, you can cut your videos using the nifty video-editing feature that originated on the iPhone 3GS.

Photo gallery: You can organize all images from an event or those that feature a specific friend. For both, however, you'll need to have already used the face-recognition options in iPhoto or Aperture and sync with iTunes. One expected change appears to have vanished, however: when we played with the initial beta version of iOS 4, we saw an option in the gallery for rotating photos, but we can't find it again in the final version.

FaceTime: Apple is pushing FaceTime as one of the iPhone 4's most-exciting features. It certainly looked good at the WWDC demo, so we were eager to try it. After even a short test we were pleased with the feature's quality and we like that it's an integrated option that doesn't require an app. The incoming video can be a bit pixelated and jerky, particularly when your friend is using the front camera, but it wasn't bothersome. And really, that's to be expected when using a VGA shooter. You'll see a slightly better feed if your friend uses the rear camera, but not by much. The video from your phone will show in the top left corner; it looked great from either camera. Also, you can use it in both portrait and landscape modes.

FaceTime in action.

Obviously, FaceTime only works with another iPhone 4. You activate the feature after placing a call on a Wi-Fi network (more on that in a minute). Once the call connects, you'll see an option for FaceTime instead of the normal "Hold" control (we've no clue where that option went). Both you and your friend must press the control to establish a video chat; you then can mute the call or end it directly from the FaceTime screen. And after you placed a FaceTime call for the first time, you'll see the phone number listed twice in your recent calls list. One entry will activate FaceTime directly, and the other will place a normal cellular call.

That's not to say FaceTime wasn't without its problems. On more than one occasion, we couldn't establish a connection, even though we were using two iPhone 4s on Wi-Fi. From what we can tell, you'll need a very strong Wi-Fi connection in order to use the feature. The switch between normal and FaceTime calls can take a few seconds, during which reception is faulty. Also, we dropped a couple of calls during the switch.

For 2010, FaceTime will work only on Wi-Fi. We've heard a lot of grumbling about this restriction, but we don't think that's a bad thing. Video chat uses a ton of data so we're sure the experience would be better on Wi-Fi than on AT&T's strained network, anyway. What's also great is that because you're on Wi-Fi, FaceTime calls will not deduct from your cellular minutes. Jobs said Apple is working with iPhone carriers to carry the feature (cue speculation on possible new carriers), but he didn't offer other details. As long as Apple kills the Wi-Fi limit in the next year, we'll be happy.

As fun as it is, though, it's not a feature that we were burning for, and we wonder if it will last past the novelty stage. This is not a reflection on the quality of Apple technology--so back off, fanboys--but rather on if users will really use it over the long term. After all, video chat technology has been around since 2004 when AT&T Wireless (remember that?) first debuted a very limited service on the brick-size Motorola A845. The phone didn't last long, but video chat is common around the world and in the United States. AT&T runs its Video Share on a limited number of phones, for example, and Sprint's HTC Evo 4G offers the Qik video chat application. Each has a few drawbacks, but they do exist.

Yet, Apple has a talent for repackaging existing features and attracting wide consumer interest. Outside of other VoIP services like the Skype app, carriers have been unsuccessful at making video-calling services popular and useful. FaceTime will face competition from other devices, but Apple could very well make it work.

Gyroscope: The iPhone 3Gs gave us a compass, but the iPhone 4 raises the bar by offering a three-axis gyroscope. Like on an airplane, you'll get pitch, roll, and yaw, and it's tied with the accelerometer to provide six-axis motion sensing. Though by all means it will be useful to app and game developers, it was a lot of fun when we used it to play a few games.

Tethering and hot spot: The iPhone has always been capable of tethering, but AT&T has lagged behind other carriers in offering an option for it. In its new pricing plans, however, AT&T now offers the ability to use your iPhone as a modem for your PC. You'll need to pay an extra $20 to get it, but at least it's there.

With the iOS 4.3 update, the AT&T iPhone also got the wireless hot-spot feature that debuted on the Verizon iPhone in February 2011. AT&T's hot spot also supports up to five devices, but only three can connect via Wi-Fi at one time (you'll have to use Bluetooth or a USB cable for the other two). Though the hot spot was easy to use during our tests, it didn't offer great browsing speeds. Check out this blog for the full story.

iOS 4.1 and 4.2: Apple released iOS 4.1, the first major software update following the iPhone 4's launch, on September 8. It added several new features including high dynamic range photos, support for TV show rentals on iTunes, FaceTime calling directly from Favorites menu in the phone book, and the ability to upload HD videos to YouTube and MobileMe over Wi-Fi on the iPhone 4. And at long last it also turned on Game Center. See our iOS 4.1 hands-on for more analysis with screenshots.

The next major updates, iOS 4.2, came November 22, 2010. It didn't add anything groundbreaking, either, but we welcome the additions nonetheless. Now you can search for text on a Safari page, add personalized message tones, set new parental controls, activate FaceTime through the Voice Control feature or the messaging app, print photos over the air, integrate with Apple's AirPlay feature, and choose new fonts for the Notes app. Read more about iOS 4.2 in our hands-on look with the Gold Master edition.

iMovie and iBooks: iMovie brings movie-editing capabilities to the iPhone. You'll pay $4.99 for the app, but it's a nice touch.'s Jason Parker put iMovie through its paces in a separate review. Apple's e-book reader joins Amazon's Kindle app as an option for bookworms. You will be able to access Apple's iBookstore to purchase new content, and if you have an iPhone and an iPad, you can read your book on both devices (with just one purchase) and sync your current page.

Processor: Under the hood is the same 1GHz ARM Cortex A8 chip that's found in the iPad. Also, though Apple hasn't specified the RAM, we know that it is 512MB. In early tests, the phone is quite a bit faster than the 3GS and certainly than the iPhone 3G. Menus, applications, and other features opened in a flash. And as we mentioned earlier, the app switching in the multitasking menu and the camera shutter didn't leave us waiting.

Call quality
Much has been said about problems with AT&T and the iPhone, and even on the iPhone 4 call quality remains the biggest sticking point. Indeed, when we tested the quad-band (GSM 850, 900/1,800/1,900) world phone in San Francisco and Boston, we encountered mixed results, with improvements in some areas, trouble in some areas, and no change in others. On the upside, audio clarity was sharper, our friends' voices sounded natural, and the volume was a tad louder than on previous iPhones. Also, the noise-cancellation mic does a good job of screening out background audio. Even when in a loud place we could continue with our conversations without any problem. What's more, we heard no "side noise" (the sound of our own voice coming back through the phone), static, or interference.

iPhone 4 call quality sample Listen now:

We also noticed a decrease in dead zones that we've typically encountered in San Francisco. In a couple of notoriously troublesome spots, we were able to receive calls when we had no luck with the 3G or the 3GS. Dropped calls were fewer, as well, though we had more failed connections than we'd like. We had decent results when we tested the phone on Cape Cod and rural areas of Massachusetts. In fact, AT&T was more reliable in those places than T-Mobile. Perhaps the antenna made a difference.

But then again, perhaps it didn't. Soon after we posted this review we heard from many CNET users who complained that when they held the phone in the hand--a common occurrence, no doubt--the number of bars decreased within a few seconds (see our related video for more information). The reports came mostly from people who covered the notch on the phone's left side with their palm while holding it in their left hand. Initially we had mixed results in replicating the bars problem, and our experience varied widely by location, the initial signal strength, the phone we were using, and the person using it. At times we saw no difference, but other times we noticed the signal drop from a full five bars down to two or three. When we moved our hand away, the meter jumped back to normal. Though the number of bars isn't the most accurate test of reception, it is the one that most users rely on. Unfortunately, Apple removed the more reliable iPhone Field Test feature from iOS 4. In the iOS 4.1 release, however, Apple wisely added the feature back in.

In other areas, our experience was more troubling. During call tests we found that when we touched the antenna gap, the audio quality degraded significantly. We tested three different iPhone 4s in various locations in San Francisco and experienced problems using various hand positions, including one finger on the gap, cradling the handset gently, and holding it tighter with our left hand on either side. In all instances, we made sure not to cover the microphone with our hands. At times our voice cut out completely, whereas on other occasions the audio became garbled. We did not, however, suffer any dropped calls. We also conducted data speed tests using the Speedtest app from Xtreme Labs that showed slower download and upload speeds. Other reviewers and media outlets have reported similar results.

Regrettably, Apple's initial response to the issue wasn't satisfying. On June 24, 2010, the first day of iPhone 4 sales, Apple sent the following statement to PC Magazine: "Gripping any phone will result in some attenuation of its antenna performance with certain places being worse than others depending on the placement of the antennas. This is a fact of life for every wireless phone. If you ever experience this on your Phone 4, avoid gripping it in the lower left corner in a way that covers both sides of the black strip in the metal band, or simply use one of many available cases."

Granted, keeping your fingers away from a cell phone antenna is advisable for the best reception, and Apple is hardly the first manufacturer to offer such advice. We see such warnings commonly on handsets that have a bottom-facing antenna, but users typically don't hold such a device with their palm or fingers resting in that area. The iPhone 4, however, is the first phone to the place the antenna in a natural gripping point. The iPhone 4 also differs from other handsets in that its antenna is electrically exposed. Instead of touching a rubber coating, you touch the antenna directly. And when you bridge the gap, your finger appears to interfere with the antenna's efficiency.

Honestly, we don't buy the "death grip" theory and we don't like how it unfairly blames the user. There's a difference between holding the phone and squeezing it until you're about to crush it. And more importantly, when we've touched the antenna area on other handsets, like the Motorola i1, the HTC Nexus One, and the Palm Pre, call quality diminished only a minimal amount, if it did so at all. But keep in mind that those devices don't have antennas that are completely exposed.

Finally, on July 16, 2010, Apple held an unprecedented press conference where CEO Steve Jobs characterized the issues as being "blown way out of proportion," and denied that the iPhone 4's attenuation issues are worse than any other smartphone's (we've already told you that we disagree with that point). Though Jobs maintained that only a small number of users are experiencing a problem, Apple is offering all iPhone 4 customers a free case through September 30, 2010. In our testing, an Apple-supplied "bumper" case solves any call quality issues, preventing users from touching the gap in the iPhone's antenna on the left side. You can get a refund if you've already purchased a bumper, but if you're still not satisfied, you can return your phone for a full refund within 30 days.

Certainly, we appreciate the free case. We never advocated for an iPhone 4 recall, but we maintain that the exposed antenna causes unique problems. In other words, don't be surprised if next year's iPhone 5 is slightly redesigned. Indeed, most customers should welcome the move given that the bumper solves the attenuation problem, and they no longer have to shell out a galling $29 just to get it. But that doesn't mean Apple is off the hook completely. We shouldn't have to use rubber and plastic bumpers just to get good reception. And we shouldn't have to change the aesthetics of the phone to make a reliable call.

On their end, callers said we sounded reasonably good. During calls where we used a bumper, they could hear us without any problems and they mentioned there was less background noise than when we used the 3GS. The first iPhone had a sensitive sweet spot, but we didn't notice that here. A few people heard some interference, but they said it was manageable. Automated calling systems could understand us most of the time, even if we were on a busy street. On the downside, the iPhone 4 appears to still have a problem with hand-offs between EDGE and the 3G network. The handset still tries to hang on to weak 3G signal when it should switch to EDGE. As we said with the iPhone 3GS, the reception jumped if we switched off the handset's 3G radio in the Settings menu.

Speakerphone calls were mostly satisfactory. We could hear our friends clearly, though the volume was a tad distorted at the highest levels. You don't need to be close to the phone to hear, but we had to be close to the phone for our friends to hear us. That's not unusual, though. Bluetooth headset performance was mixed. Bluetooth headset calls were fine, but we had mixed issued with stereo Bluetooth headsets. See Nicole Lee's analysis for more information.

Performance tests from CNET Labs
Test iPhone 4 HTC Evo 4G
Phone boot time test 29.4 seconds 47.1 seconds
Talk time battery life 3G 7.76 hours 5.5 hours
Audio playback time 59 hours 18.2 hours
Video playback time 6.9 hours 5.9 hours
Browser load speed on Wi-Fi ( 15 seconds 20 seconds
Camera app load time 2 seconds 2 seconds
Camera reshoot time 1 second 3 seconds

Data connectivity
The quality of the data connection varied. Given AT&T's throttled network in San Francisco, grahpics-heavy sites like and loaded in about 50 seconds, which is longer than on on the other three major carriers. T-Mobile took about 40 seconds to load the same sites, whereas Sprint and Verizon Wireless performed slightly better. What's more, AT&T's 3G doesn't reach as far into buildings or underground in transit stations.

As you'd expect, simpler sites or pages built for mobile phones loaded much quicker, often in 15 seconds or less. EDGE browsing is a bit painful, so we suggest using it rarely. In any case, use Wi-Fi whenever you can.

Signal strength meter
On July 15, 2010, Apple issued a promised software update that fixed a problem of incorrect signal bars on the display. According to the company, the iPhone 4 was incorrectly showing more bars in areas with weaker signal. See our full analysis of iOS 4.0.1 for more details. Keep in mind that the 4.0.1 update is unrelated to the antenna's reception.

Battery life
The iPhone 4's bigger battery should mean more juice to get you through the day. Apple officially promises 14 hours of EDGE talk time, 7 hours of 3G talk time, 40 hours of audio playback, 10 hours of video playback, 6 hours of 3G browsing, 10 hours of Wi-Fi browsing, and 300 hours of standby. In early testing, the battery lasted a respectable period. We used it heavily for about 5 hours and we were still going relatively strong after a full charge. In the following days we were continually pleased. Whereas previous iPhones died after a full day, the iPhone 4 lasted into the next.

In tests with CNET Labs, we recorded 14.55 hours of EDGE talk time and 7.76 hours of 3G talk time, thus beating Apple's promises. For audio playback with 3G on, our longest test was 59.02 hours, which also beat Apple's rated time. Yet, the iPhone 4 fell short of Apple's promises for video playback. In our tests, we coaxed only 6.9 hours with of video 3G turned on.

According to FCC radiation tests, the iPhone 4 has a digital SAR of 1.17 watts per kilogram.

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