Apple iPhone 4 AT&T review: Apple iPhone 4 AT&T

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The Good The iPhone 4 offers enhanced performance, a lovely new display, and an improved design. It also adds a ton of sorely needed features, both by itself and through the iOS 4 update.

The Bad Multitasking entails some trade-offs, and home screen folders are limited to 12 apps. AT&T reception continues to be spotty, and you'll need a case for the best calling reception. Also, we'd prefer a 64GB model.

The Bottom Line With the iPhone 4, Apple again shows that it is a powerful player in the smartphone wars. It won't be for everyone, the call quality and reception vary if you don't use a case, and AT&T's network remains a sticking point, but the handset's striking design, loaded feature set, and generally agreeable performance make it the best iPhone yet.

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8.3 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8

Editors' note: In light of Apple's decision to offer free cases for the iPhone 4's antenna, we are not changing our original iPhone's 4 rating. We are, however, withholding the Editors' Choice rating because of the attenuation issues that we experienced.

We updated this review November 22, 2010, to reflect the new features from iOS 4.1 and 4.2. We made additional updates on March 10, 2011, to reflect the addition of the hot spot from iOS 4.3. On October 4, 2010, Apple added an 8GB version of the iPhone 4.

On October 25, 2011, we lowered the rating of the iPhone 4 following the release of the iPhone 4S.

With a revamped design, a sparkling new display, a speedy processor, and additional features, the iPhone 4 is the biggest upgrade to Apple's smartphone since the iPhone 3G. It's also the showcase handset for Apple's newest operating system, iOS 4, which adds a selection of long-overdue features, plus some smaller tweaks that we weren't expecting.

If they existed independently, iPhone 4 and iOS 4 wouldn't be much more than blips on the smartphone radar screen. When combined into one handset, however, the result is a sleek, satisfying, and compelling device that keeps Apple strongly competitive in an increasingly crowded marketplace. Indeed, the iPhone 4 is fast, the new hardware is a looker, and some of the new features blew us away. On other points, however, we have some concerns. Call reception still is problematic, and you'll need to use a case or bumper to avoid any issues with touching the new antenna. On the features side, we welcome multitasking with open arms, but it has its drawbacks. Also, though the FaceTime video calling feature is more than noteworthy, we wonder if our interest will last longer than a week.

So, should you buy it? If you're an iPhone fan, you've probably already ordered your new baby. But if you're on the fence, think carefully. We won't say that the iPhone 4 is the best smartphone on the market today. To do so would ignore so many great competing handsets, not to mention the fierce rate of change in the technology world. If you prefer Apple's vision of a polished, highly organized, and slightly closed user experience, then by all means you'll be pleased. Just remember to get that free case. But if you prefer a smartphone that offers more personalization, that isn't shackled to AT&T, or that is equal parts phone and mobile computer, then there are plenty of smartphones in the sea.

The iPhone 4 is available exclusively with AT&T in the U.S., and with other carriers around the world. With a new two-year contract, AT&T customers will pay $299 for the 32GB model or $199 for the 16GB version. Without a contract, you'll pay $699 or $599, respectively, but the phone will still come locked to AT&T. And hey, Apple, how about a 64GB version?

Though the iPhone 3G and the 3GS models simply tweaked the original handset's design, iPhone 4 marks a sharp departure from those previous models. Admittedly, we never had a problem with the look of the previous handsets, but we approve of the iPhone 4's changes. The front and back sides are glass, both surfaces are flat, and a stainless steel border circles the entire phone. Though it's a tad boxy, it also has a clean, svelte, and unmistakably Apple look. What's more, we love that the flat back means that the phone no longer wobbles when resting on a table. You can get the iPhone 4 in both black and white, but here again we prefer the former.

The iPhone 4's rear face is made of glass.

So much glass is shiny and beautiful, but we have a couple of concerns. Despite the oleophobic coating on both the front and back sides, the glass attracts smudges by the ton. Also, even though Apple CEO Steve Jobs promises that glass better resists scratches and cracks than plastic, we'll be watching long-term durability. The iPhone 4 has a solid, sturdy feel, though we didn't love its sharp corners. It survived a few drops to a carpeted floor, but we wonder how it will withstand traveling in a pocket with keys and coins. Luckily, the Apple-supplied bumper will offer needed protection, even if it takes away from the handset's sleek profile. Time will tell how it holds up to heavy use.

The iPhone 4 (left) compared with the iPhone 3G.

At 4.5 inches tall by 2.3 inches wide by 0.37 inch deep, the iPhone 4 is as tall as the iPhone 3GS, but slightly thinner--25 percent, to be exact--and narrow when measured across its front face. It does feel smaller when compared with its predecessors, but we don't think that's a bad thing. Jobs called it the thinnest smartphone around, but since that race changes daily, it may not hold the title for long. When put on the scales it comes in at 4.8 ounces, which is back to what we had with the first iPhone (both the 3G and 3GS models were slightly lighter). We attribute the extra girth to the bigger battery, so we're not going to complain. And more to the point, the difference is barely noticeable.

User controls
Other new design elements include a new front-facing VGA camera, a new LED flash with the main camera lens, and a new noise-cancellation microphone on the phone's top side. Needless to say, we welcome the additions since they represent new functionality (See the Features section for more details). We also don't mind the new split volume buttons, since they're a bit easier to grasp than the previous volume rocker.

The handset has a sturdy feel in the hand.

Above the volume controls is the usual mute switch, which Apple also gave a small makeover. In bigger changes, Apple moved the SIM card slot to the right spine and switched to a Micro-SIM format, just like the iPad. According to Jobs, the Micro-SIM format allows more space for the larger battery. Just keep in mind that you won't be able to use a standard SIM in the phone.

The remaining exterior elements are largely unchanged. The Home button is in its normal place below the display; the 3.5mm headset jack and power key sit up top next to the aforementioned noise-cancellation microphone; and the 30-pin connector, microphone, and speaker are where they belong on the iPhone 4's bottom end. Unfortunately, and to no one's surprise, you still can't remove the battery.

In the box come the usual accessories, like the small wall plug, a USB/30-pin connector cable, and the standard Apple earbuds. Oddly, you do not get the SIM removal tool that came with the previous models. True, you can use a small paper clip, but we're miffed that we didn't get it. Apple didn't have an explanation for the omission.

The iPhone 4's antennas wrap around its thin profile.

The stainless steel border is more than just decorative; it doubles as two new antennas that circle the entire phone, minus three small notches. Seriously, leave it to Apple's industrial design team to make an antenna pretty. The first antenna, which runs from the notch on the top of the phone to the notch on the left side, is for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. That leaves the second antenna, which spans from the top notch down the right side and around to the bottom of the phone, for EDGE and 3G.

Though Apple did not specifically promise that the new antennas would improve call quality or Wi-Fi reception, their very existence is an indirect admission (and the first that we've seen by the company) that data and voice reception have been troublesome and need to be addressed. Though current iPhone users largely blame AT&T for connectivity problems, remember that both a carrier's network and a phone's antenna play a part in reception. Yet, as we mention below in the Performance section, the antenna didn't magically cure all reception issues. In fact, it even caused new problems.

Display and interface
Sometimes the best gift is something that you didn't know you wanted, and that's definitely the case with the iPhone 4's display. It features a 940x640-pixel (326 pixels per square inch) "Retina Display," which is four times the resolution of previous iPhone models. What's more, it uses the same IPS screen that's found on the iPad, with an 800:1 contrast ratio. Though we've always thought highly of the current iPhone displays, the company needs to compete with the gorgeous AMOLED screens and TFT displays we've seen on many Android phones like the HTC Evo 4G. And that's exactly what it's done.

The iPhone's display is beautiful. Just above is the VGA camera lens.

Though "stunning," "gorgeous," and "dazzling" are words we usually use to describe high-quality smartphone displays, we're not sure if they do the iPhone 4 justice. Believe us that everything about this display is fantastic, from the bold colors and graphics to the vividly clear text. You can see it reasonably well in direct light and the details on Web pages, photos, videos, and applications are as sharp as they come. But the best thing is that you can't see any pixels on the display. It's quite remarkable and especially apparent when you hold it up next to the 3GS. No, we're not inclined to completely believe Apple's claim that the display exceeds what's perceivable by the human eye, but there's no denying that it looks good. We haven't seen the yellow areas that users have complained about. For more on the display, see the full testing results from CNET Labs.

Of course, the iPhone 4 has the same ambient light sensor, proximity sensor, and accelerometer as the previous iPhones. We saw no change in their functionality. We would have liked to see how Flash videos tested on the display, but you know how that goes.

With a heavy load of new goodies, the iPhone 4 runs circles around its 3GS predecessor in bringing new features. Some are unique to the device, and others come with the iOS 4 update. We'll cover the latter group first.

Multitasking: Though you've always been able to multitask with native iPhone features like the music player, the option is now available for third-party apps. Your primary access point is a multitasking menu that's accessible by double-tapping the Home button. Once there, you'll see a list of currently running applications along the bottom of the display that you can scroll through using a sideways finger swipe. The pop-up menu shows only four apps at a time, but you can keep many more in the tray.

The new multitasking feature is accessible by double-tapping the Home button.

Managing the multitasking menu couldn't be easier. To open a running app, scroll though the menu and tap its icon once. When you're ready to end an app, first use a long press on the related icon and then click the tiny delete icon in the top left corner. Switching among apps is a simple process as well: as you move back and forth, you'll return to the exact point you left. There's also a clear sense of organization, with the most recently used app on the left side. All things considered, it's a very Apple experience.

But is it real?: As you'd expect, Apple's multitasking works a little differently than on other smartphones. Instead of having all device resources available to every running app, iOS 4 lets only seven app services run in the background. According to Apple, this arrangement will have less of a drain on resources like battery life and memory than if it gave developers free rein. Also, since background apps essentially pause, it will free the system from having to juggle resources and kill stalled applications.

So what can you do in the background? Apple's seven approved processes include audio (you'll be able to play Pandora radio, for example), VoIP services like Skype, GPS/location for apps like TomTom, push notifications, and local notifications (those that don't to have to go through a server), task completion, and fast app switching (apps essentially hibernate not to use the CPU). The latter two are most notable. With task completion, an app will finish something it's already started even if you send it to the background; it will send you an alert when it's through. Fast app switching, on the other hand, is the app hibernation process that allows you to toggle back and forth quickly and return to the same place you left.

Though some have complained that the built-in limitations mean that iOS 4 doesn't have "real" multitasking, we think "incomplete" is a better description. Granted, you can't run everything in the background--your Twitter feed, for example, won't update while paused--but iOS 4 does allow you to run certain features from multiple apps simultaneously. If that isn't multitasking, then we don't know what is. What's more, it wouldn't be the first time Apple limited features or took longer with development in order to produce a desired customer experience. You may not agree with such a philosophy, but Apple has always been honest about pursuing it. Like so many things in technology, it just comes down to what works best for you.

You can close apps in the multitasking menu.

Nice, but not miles ahead: Even after the long wait, we're quite pleased with the multitasking experience. As it has a talent for doing, Apple has presented the feature in a slick, easy-to-use manner. It performed beautifully, without ever crashing or freezing the phone; it didn't appear to negatively affect battery life; and it accomplishes what it sets out do. But even with strong points, we wouldn't agree that it's the "the best" way to multitask (a common Apple claim). It may be slick and save you a few clicks, but other approaches--such as the "deck of cards" interface on WebOS--continue to impress. Similarly, though limited multitasking may result in more-efficient power management, we'll have to run comparison testing with other smartphones before we can agree.

We also don't share Jobs' view that Apple's solution isn't a task manager. When he unveiled iOS 4 last April, Jobs took a dig at Android and other operating systems that require you to close background applications that might be slowing down the phone. "In multitasking, if you see a task manager...they blew it," he said. "Users shouldn't ever have to think about it." Fair enough, but we think it's a matter of semantics. As with most task managers, the iOS 4 multitasking menu allows you to scan through running applications and close any that you're no longer using.

Granted, you may not have to kill frozen applications as often as you would on, say, a Windows Mobile phone, but you still have that option. We also found usability quirks that are common with task manager apps. Pressing the Home button once, for example, simply sends an app to the background; it does not end it completely. To do so, you'll need to open the multitasking menu, find the related icon, and end it there. And we couldn't overlook another point: now that a double-tap of the Home button opens the multitasking menu, you can no longer use the control as a shortcut for a designated feature. As such, the option is gone from the Setting menu. A small price to pay for a new feature, we suppose.

Apps will come: We know that some CNET users are concerned that many existing apps are not functioning in the background. Keep in mind that it will take time for developers to update their apps for multitasking capability. Apple plays no rule in making those updates, so contact the individual developers for a time frame.

Home screen folders: Though we love apps as much as the next person, we've become tired of scrolling through several pages of iPhone home screens. Thankfully, that has changed with the addition of home screen folders. This is another common feature that competing devices have long offered, so it's nice to see Apple stepping up.

Folders clear up space on your home screen.

To get started, use a long press on the home screen so the icons "jiggle." When your icons are dancing (they'll also have a tiny delete icon in the corner), you can take an app and drop it on top of another to create a folder. The folder will then appear as a square with tiny icons of the included app inside. Tap the folder to access the included apps and get an expanded view of the folder's contents. Alternatively, if you want to remove an app, just drag it back to the home screen. It would be nice to able to designate one app icon as the "cover" of the folder, but we realize we're nitpicking.

Thankfully, you're awarded a fair amount of flexibility for folder organization. You can add as many folders as you like, change the default folder name, and add both related and unrelated apps. Surprisingly, we could even group legacy features like the Weather and Stock applications into a single folder. The process is easy, but we wouldn't say it offers a huge change from the equivalent experience on Android. And really, Apple, we're limited to just 12 apps in one folder?

E-mail and enterprise: The iPhone always has been a functional e-mail machine, but we've never enjoyed switching back and forth among multiple accounts to read new messages. Fortunately, iOS 4 has a new unified in-box that is accessible under the "Mail" option on your home screen. Listed above your individual in-boxes is a new option for "All inboxes," which contains messages from multiple accounts. You can't access individual folders from the universal in-box, but you can delete and move messages. Here again, it works well, but it's not vastly superior to how competing OSes handle the same process. Also, the universal in-box doesn't always sync immediately with the inboxes for individual accounts.

Other e-mail changes include the capability to add multiple Exchange accounts, organize e-mails by thread, jump directly to individual in-boxes, resize photos before you send, and open attachments with a preferred app. All are nice, but we'll delve into a couple of our favorites for more detail. E-mails in a thread will now be designated by a small number on the left side of the message header. Clicking the number will take you to a separate screen that lists all relevant messages. It's a nice touch, and we like that you can move or delete messages in the thread. We also like the new option to delete e-mails directly from search results.

The iPhone 4's virtual keyboard is unchanged.

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