Critics' Choice Review: Despite 'Consumer Reports' Dis, iPhone 4 Still Best Smartphone?

Apple's latest iPhone has received an enthusiastic reception from fanboys and critics alike. The headline to PC World's iPhone 4 smartphone review is one example of the high-fives Apple earned: "Apple's iPhone 4 Lives Up to All Expectations."

But let's talk about another kind of reception. Along with the accolades, Apple's iPhone 4 has earned some raspberries. Turns out if you hold the iPhone 4 a certain way (aka the infamous 'iPhone death grip'), reception dips significantly or drops altogether.

Apple has promised a software fix, but many feel it's really a hardware issue (specifically, the iPhone 4's antenna, which wraps around the phone's frame). Meanwhile, the reception challenges continue to garner headlines. For instance, influential Consumer Reports recently confirmed the iPhone 4 reception snafu on its Electronics blog.

"Due to this problem," Consumer Reports says, "we can't recommend the iPhone 4."

The net effect: the iPhone 4 has been one of Apple's most successful, and yet most controversial, product introductions of late.

Here's a sampling of what reviewers at CNET, LAPTOP magazine, PC Magazine, and PC World have to say about the iPhone 4. For comparison, check out our similar Critics' Choice review roundups of the HTC EVO 4G and the HTC Incredible, two Android competitors to the iPhone.

Overall Comments on the iPhone 4: Solid & Stylish


In general, reviewers believe the iPhone 4 is a solid, stylish contender in the ever-escalating best smartphone race and a significant upgrade from previous iPhones.


PC World, which gave the iPhone 4 a rating of 4.5 stars (out of 5), summed up their opinion this way: "The Apple iPhone 4 is everything that a new piece of technology should be: It's innovative, attractive, and ahead of its competition. In comparison, previous iPhone upgrades seem inconsequential--that's how much iPhone 4 brings to the table." The only thing preventing a rave, however, is the antenna issue.

PC Magazine gave Apple's new mobile device a rating of 4.5 out of 5 stars, too, but acknowledged no one smartphone beats all the others.

"The iPhone 4 is far and away the best smartphone on AT&T, but that's in part because AT&T doesn't yet offer any of the Google Android-powered 'super phones' you see on other carriers," says PC Magazine. "If you're faithful to Verizon, for instance, the HTC Incredible and Motorola Droid X are perfectly good enough to prevent you from jumping over to AT&T for this iPhone; if you're a happy Sprint customer, the HTC EVO 4G is an excellent device. None of these phones are far and away better than the others--they're all tough competitors."

Similarly, LAPTOP magazine (giving the iPhone 4 a rating of 4 out of 5 stars) writes that "despite some flaws, the iPhone 4 does enough to stay slightly ahead of the superphone pack…When you consider that the iPhone 4 is also the thinnest smart phone on the market and it offers a considerably beefier battery than the iPhone 3GS, it's hard to find fault with this sequel. Or is it? Monster-size competitors like the Evo 4G and Droid X are breathing down Apple's neck, and one can't ignore AT&T's overtaxed network."

"The iPhone 4 is fast, the new hardware is a looker, and some of the new features blew us away," reports CNET, which gave the iPhone 4 out of 5 stars. "On other points, however, we have some concerns. Call reception still is problematic, and we're concerned about the new antennas. On the features side, we welcome multitasking with open arms [a feature of iOS 4], but it has its drawbacks. Also, though the FaceTime video calling is more than noteworthy, we wonder if our interest will last longer than a week."

iPhone 4 Design 'Screams Luxury'

The new iPhone's square frame, with glass front and back, is a departure from the earlier, slightly curvaceous models. The iPhone 4 has a more expensive look and feel than previous Apple smartphones, reviewers note.

"While devices like the HTC Evo 4G and Motorola Droid X have sturdy and functional industrial designs, we wouldn't call them sexy," writes LAPTOP. "The iPhone 4, by contrast, screams luxury; between the chemically hardened glass and little touches like how the light reflects off the ridges of the stainless steel band, this device looks and feels more expensive than its price tag intimates."

CNET noted, however, that the iPhone 4's glass front and back "attracts smudges by the ton."

The iPhone 4 Screen: Like Going from Standard to High Def


Reviewers love the iPhone 4's 940 x 640 'Retina' display, which offers 4 times the resolution of previous iPhones. Example: Watching video on other iPhones and then on an iPhone 4 screen is "like switching from a standard-def to a high-def TV," says PC Magazine.

"Everything about this display is fantastic, from the bold colors and graphics to the vividly clear text," notes CNET. "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."

Is the iPhone 4 a Better Phone? Depends on the Reviewer

Reviewers were mixed about whether the iPhone 4 improves upon earlier models in terms of reducing dropped calls and improving call quality.

Says PC Magazine: "If you're looking for salvation from dropped calls, the iPhone 4 isn't it. In extremely weak signal conditions in our lab and our basement, the iPhone 3GS actually connected slightly more calls successfully than the iPhone 4 did--about one in ten additional calls went through."

But CNET, LAPTOP, and PC World reviewers had a different experience.

LAPTOP magazine says that "the iPhone 4 delivered better performance than the 3GS, and at least during our brief time with the device we didn't experience a dropped call."

"The iPhone 4's new antenna seemed to improve the experience considerably," adds PC World. "In almost all the test calls we placed around the city, calls on the iPhone 4 sounded better than calls on the new Motorola Droid X. Calls sounded more natural, and were more pleasing to listen to on the other end of the line. We recorded no dropped calls on AT&T."

CNET in particular took issue with the iPhone 4's 'death grip' and Apple's suggestion that users buy an Apple 'bumper' case as a workaround.

"The iPhone 4…is the first phone to the place the antenna in a natural gripping point." CNET's reviewer writes. "We don't accept the case solution, either. We shouldn't have to buy one of the rubber and plastic bumpers that Apple is pushing just to get good reception, particularly when that bumper is an outrageous $29."

Cameras, Video Chat, and Video Recording on the iPhone 4: From Gimmicky to Great


The addition of a front-facing camera for video chat is big news for the iPhone. The camera works with Apple's FaceTime video chat feature, though for now, it only supports video chat over Wi-Fi networks and on iPhone 4 handsets. (The iPhone 4 isn't the first smartphone to offer video chat.)

Reviewers were not entirely convinced of the iPhone 4's video chatting usefulness.

Because of its current limitations, "FaceTime…is a gimmick for now," writes PC Magazine, "a special-occasion parlor trick rather than a general purpose solution."

CNET says of FaceTime video chat: "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 iPhone 4 has an improved back-facing camera with 5 megapixel resolution, a new LED flash, and 5x digital zoom.

"The iPhone 4's lightning-fast camera is the best I've seen on a cameraphone so far," writes PC Magazine. The phone "shows less fringing, sharper edges, and better balance of wide dynamic range. Low-light shots still fall below point-and-shoot digital camera standards, and you get some softness, but they're very good for a cameraphone."

The iPhone 4 can now capture video at 720p, which earns kudos from reviewers.

"We won't mince words: the Flip is pretty much toast," writes LAPTOP. "While the 720p footage both (the iPhone 4) and the Droid X captured…was pretty evenly matched, the iPhone 4 leaped ahead of Motorola's phone when we shot the same scene in our conference room. Both the conference table and our talking subject looked clearer and brighter, with much less digital noise. Sound quality was also superior. Too bad you can't output that video to a TV easily via HDMI (like the Evo 4G or Droid X) or DLNA (Droid X)."

Performance & Battery: the iPhone 4 Flies

The iPhone 4 uses the iPad's 1GHz ARM Cortex A8 chip, which reviewers agreed helped make the smartphone super fast.

"In our informal performance testing in San Francisco, the AT&T-connected iPhone 4 registered an average download speed of 1958 kbps (almost 2 mbps) across our five testing locations in the city," writes PC World. "In our head-to-head tests with the Motorola Droid X on Verizon, the iPhone 4 was the clear winner in speed. The two new devices posted similar average upload speeds; the iPhone 4 registered 434 kbps and the Droid X averaged 564 kbps."

'This handset flies," notes LAPTOP. "For example, the camera on the iPhone 4 opened and was ready to fire almost two seconds faster than the 3GS. And unlike the Droid X, the iPhone 4 never stuttered when switching between home screens (although the former has more data on them)."

Most reviewers hadn't yet performed exhaustive battery testing on the iPhone 4. But CNET's preliminary verdict is worth noting: "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…Whereas previous iPhones died after a full day, the iPhone 4 lasted into the next."

Summing Up

LAPTOP neatly summed up the iPhone 4's pros and cons and how it compares to competitive Android phones:

"Apple's device easily has the best industrial design, and we would argue it has the best camera and camcorder of any cell phone we've tested. It's also more reliable than its predecessor, and its Retina display and FaceTime app really push the envelope. The iPhone also beats the competition when it comes to app selection and quality, as well as accessories.

"On the other hand, we'd like the iPhone 4 a lot more if it had a mobile hotspot feature and an HDMI dock or cable, features the Evo 4G and Droid X share. And even though we like how pocket-friendly the iPhone 4 is, some may prefer a larger display. In the final analysis, the Android camp has nearly closed the gap, but the iPhone 4 is still a superior smart phone."

James A. Martin has written about mobile technology since the mid 1990s and is the author of the Traveler 2.0 blog.


mobile, Apple, iPhone 4, Consumer Reports, iPhone 4 review