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Sharp and smart iPhone 4 offers even more -- along with the same old flaws

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, June 27, 2010; G03

There's no mistaking Apple's new iPhone 4 for any of its three predecessors. This angular, precisely machined device -- only three-eighths of an inch thick -- looks and feels little like the smooth, streamlined iPhone, iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS.

The innards of the iPhone 4 -- $199 for a model with 16 gigabytes of storage, $299 for a 32 GB version, with AT&T the only service option in the United States -- offer other departures from the past.

Begin with its 3.5-inch "Retina Display" -- named because, Apple says, the human eye cannot discern all of its 960-by-640-pixel resolution from a foot away. When you view a picture, zoom in on a map or read a book in an application such as Apple's iBooks or Amazon's Kindle, the complete absence of the usual jagged, bitmapped edges is arresting.

The iPhone 4's cameras also represent a major advance. One on the back offers 5 megapixels of resolution and (finally) a flash, plus high-definition video recording. It exhibited almost no shutter lag and took beautiful shots outdoors. But photos in low-light situations showed too much noise, and without optical image stabilization some shots come out blurry.

As a video device, the iPhone 4 constitutes a serious threat to Cisco's Flip cameras. Its footage looks as good as a Flip's, but it can easily share a video on the go. And with Apple's $4.99 iMovie application, you can even edit the clip and add such effects as titles and transitions.

The iPhone 4's other camera sits above its screen on the front. Its weak 640-by-480 pixel resolution will suffice for self-portraits posted online and little else. But it also supports FaceTime, Apple's video-chatting system. Call somebody with another iPhone 4, and if both devices have a WiFi connection to the Internet, you can switch to a blurry video chat after tapping an onscreen button and waiting a few seconds.

FaceTime failed in The Post's newsroom, where the network firewall blocks some types of Internet data it requires -- and by not coughing up an error message, FaceTime left both of us guessing. It worked from my wife's office and through two connections at home.

Apple claims better battery life on this model: seven hours of talk time or six hours of 3G Internet use. In a worst-case test -- with the screen set to stay on and Web radio playing nonstop-- an iPhone 4 loaned by the Cupertino, Calif., company lasted about 6 hours and 40 minutes.

That loaner device did not exhibit one weird problem some users have cited: holding the phone with a finger over a joint in its metal rim can degrade its reception. Other Post writers have seen this on their own iPhones, and one found a cheap fix -- taping over that gap.

(Vimeo: 'He's upset about the iPhone 4 antenna')

The iPhone 4 runs updated "iOS 4" system software -- also available, with some limits, for older iPhones -- that brings some overdue, valuable additions. Chief among them is a good simulation of multitasking: Updated applications can hand off tasks like music playback or location tracking to the operating system before suspending their activity. That let me track a run using a GPS-guided program and listen to a Pandora Web-radio station while keeping the iPhone's stopwatch app on the screen.

Switching between applications -- tap the home button twice, then pick another program from the drawer that opens at the bottom of the screen -- happens so seamlessly that they might as well all be active. But that drawer doesn't let background programs besides music applications tell you what they're doing, unlike Google's Android operating system. Nor does it remove programs you're no longer using, although it automatically shifts the last-used ones over to the left.

Apple's iOS 4 brings many smaller improvements, such as a universal inbox showing new messages from all your e-mail accounts, the ability to file applications in folders, and the option of adding your own screen wallpaper. But it doesn't fix such old problems as a search function that ignores many fields in the address book, and with no social-network integration and limited voice input, iOS 4 remains behind Android in some aspects.

The iPhone 4 preserves such core advantages as a brilliantly efficient onscreen keyboard and simple syncing of your music, pictures, video, contacts and calendars through Apple's iTunes program. But it also suffers from the same two fundamental problems as its ancestors.

One is Apple's sometimes illogical and unfair control over what applications it will stock in its App Store -- a control-freakish regime that has not banished mediocrity from that catalog's 225,000-title inventory.

The other is AT&T, which since 2007 has exhibited numerous coverage and capacity problems -- including Friday morning, when the review iPhone reported a solid signal but wouldn't go online-- been late to support such new iPhone features as picture messaging, and continues to lock iPhones to stop them from being used with compatible wireless carriers. Its new, tiered data plans will save infrequent Internet users money but cost Web addicts money. Add $5 for a basic texting bundle, and you'll pay at least $59.99 a month, with $69.99 more likely.

Those flaws foul the iPhone 4's otherwise outstanding craftsmanship, but Apple shows no sign of amending them. They appear as fixed as the Apple logo on the iPhone 4's back.

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