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

Apple iPhone 4 AT&T

Kent German Former senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Kent German
30 min read


Apple iPhone 4 AT&T

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.

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.

Worker bees will get options like enhanced data protection, mobile device management, wireless app distribution, support for Exchange 2010, and SSL VPN from Juniper and Cisco.

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. Download.com'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 (Giantbomb.com) 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 Airliners.net and Wow.com 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.


Apple iPhone 4 AT&T

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 8