iPhone 4 – Specs and Thoughts

So the new iPhone was announced today at WWDC 2010 by Steve Jobs (amongst other announcements), my thoughts are listed below. I will be assessing the information in as impartial a light as possible, based purely on the software and hardware only. The main improvements from what I gather are:

* All new physical design including glass front/back and steel sidings which act as antennas

Sleek design, the glass back addresses the bane of many iPhone users, that have scratched plastic backs. How resistant to breakages it is, as opposed to Gorilla Glass used on various Motorola and Dell devices, time will tell. The integrated antennas are a positive move to alleviating the reception issues of the previous iPhones and the overall design is definitely a step forward, to look less garish and toy-like like the 3G and more like a serious device. It’s thin and the buttons are metallic, definitely quite stylish.

* Front and rear facing (5MP with LED, 720p) cameras. iMovie and one-click export.

Market standard these days, the 5MP is possibly lacking in MP, however the optics are more important than outright MP. The iMovie editing seems to be fairly consistent (a $4.99 app), but whether it will be popular for people to edit movies on their phones or even edit them much at all will remain to be seen. One click export has been the standard on many phones for a while.

* 3.5″ 960×640 IPS panel which they refer to as ‘Retina Display’, with 800:1 contrast ratio

This one is quite subjective, as some will argue whether that amount of pixel density is required. Note that in the presentation, all his comparisons are done against the 3GS, which has a sub-standard screen by today’s standards of resolution, size, brightness and contrast. I think the extra resolution will come in handy, especially for media consumption and games which the phone is aimed squarely at. The aliasing comparison shown is quite dramatic, however remember that the iPhone 3GS has a resolution of 480×320, vs most smartphones at 800×480. The new iPhone has a resolution of 960×640. So in comparison, it has 1.6x the amount of pixels than a Desire/Nexus One, however the screen is actually 6% smaller. Compared to an Evo or HD2, it’s 19% smaller. Designed to be easily pocketable I would assume. The contrast ratio looks quite good using the IPS panel. Their claim that ‘nobody else is going to come close’ is a big call, because it assumes you’re not comparing on resolution only (as the contrast ratio and size has already been trumped), but I think they will be proven wrong in the nearer rather than future.

* 2nd Noise Cancelling microphone, compass, ambient light sensor, proximity sensor.

Required for clearer phone calls in noisy environments. Nexus One and various phones have it for a while, see article here. The compass has also been on Android devices for a while (allowing for time-wasting ‘metal detector’ apps). Same goes for the ambient light sensor and proximity sensor. iPhone 3G/3GS has had light and proximity sensor as well.

* Gyroscope

Accelerometers handle only the actual physical movement of the entire phone in any axis, but not the rotation of the device. Magnetometers also cannot fill this gap since they are generally fairly slow to update, and only work well when the phone is facing a ‘compass-like’ direction. Enter the Gyroscope, which senses rotation of the device (much like a Nintendo Wii controller). I can see where this is important when playing motion-sensitive games for that extra precision. If you don’t play games, then uses will be limited.

* 300 hours of Standby

This is a mixed bag, because on paper the Desire and Legend have a better Standby time. However Apple have historically been very accurate and true about their battery standbys, which then indicates this unit will have a slightly better overall battery life than the above mentioned phones. Will this mean it can stretch to two days? It will basically come down to usage and how well the OS manages power draw.

* Apple A4 Processor

As seen in the iPad. This is an ARM architecture processor, based on Cortex-A8 design (ala Snapdragon), it’s fast and working alongside a powerful GPU (for a mobile device). However I haven’t really seen the GPU used outside of gaming functions. Perhaps CPU intensive functions such as movie playback/conversion and computations can be done. Or maybe use it to accelerate Flash (that was a joke). Comparable to Qualcomm’s QSD8250 Snapdragon as seen in the N1, Desire, X10 and many other smartphones of today. Based on Apple’s product cycle, this processor will be overtaken by the Qualcomm MSM8260 1.2ghz Dual-Core Snapdragon which will be shipping in 2H 2010 (which interestingly supports even higher resolution displays, at 1280×800, read more in the link).

* Wireless-N

Standard on phones these days. However, the previous 3 year old design lacked Wireless-N so this is seen as an upgrade.

* FaceTime – Video Chat

Using the front facing camera. Cool yes, revolutionary not really. Being limited to wifi use only is a big issue, because it limits the convenience of using video chat on the road. There is a conundrum, because Apple wants the video chat to be as high quality as possible, yet their hardware does not have the radio technology to support it using mobile data, nor the carrier support. I think many people who have existing webcams on their PCs barely use them, so I don’t see a huge take up in this. Mac users already have iChat as well. Note that the HTC Evo 4G has video chat using mobile networks using the front/rear camera, but it has this annoying trait where the call receiver needs to hold a button down to talk, CB radio one-way style. The call initiator does not have to do this. Once the video chat technology reaches Australia, I suspect that it could be 3’s video chat all over again, but perhaps slightly more successful.

* iPhone OS 4 – iOS4 (which will be coming to all iPhone/iPod Touch devices bar the 2G)

Multitasking – As seen on Android phones since the beginning, however Apple’s implementation allows task switching from the dock at the bottom. Primary tasks can be switched, such as music and mail, presumably without using the clunky Apple-server push notifications of the 3GS. However, not all apps can be multi-tasked and this can be a big drawback. Since iOS4 beta has been available for a while now, developers have had a chance to play around with it, read here for more on how iOS4 handles multi-tasking. Note that Android’s implementation does not actually require tasks to be killed or closed, because of the way it’s designed, read more here.
Unified inbox and e-mail threading – As seen on Android phones for a while.

Arranging apps into folders – As seen on Android phones for a while. I think iPhone users got sick of scrolling through 5+ pages of apps just to find one thing.

My thoughts:

So overall, it seems like an advancement, mainly in the hardware side of things. I think alot of the wow factor had been stolen with the product leaks and the extremely rapid advancement in the competitive space. There was a quick mention of Wireless App installation, but not in detail and for a developer’s conference, there was a surprising lack of technical detail. The reliance on plugging into a computer of some kind running iTunes to initialise the unit as well as receive updates appears to be remain. I believe they had a chance to really push forward with cloud integration and untethered phone access, but there was no mention of it. Instead, there were a number of mediocre advancements despite all the ‘magical’ and ‘awesome’ descriptions that Steve Jobs used. However, you can’t blame them for not appealing to the main use of the phone: Media consumption and Games, everything else is just a bonus.

Is developing for iOS4 now free like Android? No, developers still need to pay a fee to Apple. Compared to the previous iPhone, yes it’s a big step forward, but compared to the market competition at the moment (let alone the future), it’s arguable. The fact that this phone needs to stay ahead of the pack for an entire year till their next product cycle is also a huge challenge, I’d be surprised if this iPhone isn’t superceded in every way in the next 6 months, and I think Apple is slipping ($4.99 for iMovie really?). Their strength lies in exploring and developing new markets, but not in competing with everybody else once the market has been saturated. Back when the 2G was released, alot of people didn’t know what a smartphone was, but times are different now. They still need to address issues such as: Desktop previews, customisable launchers and keyboards, removable batteries, contact integration with social networks, the list goes on.

In the end, the REAL free and open market will triumph.

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