Tech Lab

Apple still on top?

Sleek iPhone 4 impresses, but be leery of early glitches

By Hiawatha Bray
June 25, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

Was yesterday’s introduction of the new iPhone Apple Inc.’s biggest triumph yet, or was it a major embarrassment?

In the morning, thousands lined up at stores across America and the world to buy the new phones. By afternoon, many buyers were dismayed by faulty video screens and a possible antenna defect that caused some iPhones to lose the cellular signals when the phones were picked up. The technology news blog Engadget displayed about two dozen videos from users around the world, showing glitchy iPhones in action.

There were no problems with the iPhone 4 I tested yesterday. It was an impressive gadget, and quite good enough to keep Apple in front of the cellphone sweepstakes. But this isn’t 2007, when the original iPhone was vastly superior to anything else. Today, there are dozens of other fine smartphones, many running Google Inc.’s excellent Android operating system. Some boast features the iPhone can’t match. If there is a spate of serious defects in the new iPhone, it could give Apple’s enemies the opening they’ve been waiting for.

Still, a flawless iPhone 4 is a formidable device. It’s certainly the best-looking iPhone yet. The rounded underbelly of the older models is gone. The back is perfectly flat, the edges wrapped in stainless steel. It’s much thinner than earlier iPhones, yet somehow more solid. To me it felt slightly heftier than its predecessor, the iPhone 3GS, though Apple says they weigh the same.

Technically, the iPhone 4 isn’t as radical an upgrade as the 3G, which added GPS tracking and 3G wireless data access to create a pocket Internet computer. Several key hardware improvements on the iPhone 4 are old hat on other phones. There are two cameras now: a five-megapixel, high-definition one with an LED flash on the back, and a lower-resolution, front-facing camera so you can see the screen when you take pictures of yourself. It’s not unlike the front and rear cameras on the HTC EVO 4G phone available from Sprint, but the EVO boasts eight-megapixel resolution.

Yet even that has nothing like Apple’s new FaceTime feature, which enables painless videoconferencing. I tried it out by calling Andrew Shaffer, a Web developer in Buffalo. I simply dialed his iPhone. On the screen, an icon lit up to indicate that he also had FaceTime. I tapped it, and there he was, the image reasonably sharp and the voice quite clear, apart from a few minor stutters.

FaceTime only works through Wi-Fi hotspots, which can handle the data traffic better than the 3G data network of Apple’s cellular partner, AT&T Inc. But for video calling at home or at work, it’s a brilliant innovation. Profitable for Apple, too; People will buy millions more iPhones just so they can video-call their kinfolk.

Some of the best new features are embedded in the upgraded operating system, iOS 4. You can finally run multiple apps simultaneously, something that users of other smartphones take for granted. At last, iPhone users will be able to play music while they surf websites, or track their GPS location while they’re chatting. IOS 4 offers a very good tool for managing multiple apps. A double tap on the iPhone’s control button brings up a simple sub-menu for easy access. There’s also the option of creating folders for grouping favorite apps, a good way to clear on-screen clutter.

But iOS 4 is available at no charge to users of the iPhone 3GS. And with so many reports of defective iPhone 4s, those with the older model might want to hang onto it a little longer. At $200 for the version with 16 gigabytes of memory, and $300 for the 32-gig edition, plus a two-year AT&T service contract, the iPhone 4 is a significant investment. You might as well wait to learn whether the defect reports are fluke or fiasco.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at