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Saturday, June 26, 2010, 01:00 pm PT (04:00 pm ET)

iPhone 4 Review: 1 - Hardware Fit & Finish

The fourth generation of Apple's iPhone dynasty has appeared, generating longer lines than ever. Is it worth the wait?

In this series
iPhone 4 Review: 1 - Hardware Fit & Finish
iPhone 4 Review: 2 - the Phone & FaceTime
iPhone 4 Review: 3 - Camera Photos & Videos

Apple's chief executive Steve Jobs called iPhone 4 the biggest leap yet for the company's smartphone franchise, and he wasn't just blowing the hot air. There's a lot to like about iPhone 4. From its slim design to its precision chassis to its fantastic display, the hardware looks and feels excellent. Unlike previous iPhones, there's no cheap plastic back cover. Unlike other smartphone alternatives, there's no array of buttons to keep track of, no rubber flaps or plastic covers to break off or wear out, and no pointer device needed to make up for a haphazard and flawed touch interface.

After the impressive design of the original iPhone, 2008's iPhone 3G introduced a cheaper looking plastic case, along with support for 3G and GPS, two of the most significant features missing on the original. iPhone 3GS brought improved speed with a faster Application Processor and more RAM, but retained that same cheap looking plastic body.

iPhone 4 smokes previous models inside and out, launching a new industrial design that isn't just nicer looking than the previous two plastic generations, but feels downright luxurious, with a mirrored glass front and back sandwiching a very thin, precision stainless steel body.

This is a fierce bit of kit

The new phone demands a sense of reverence, as if you're almost unworthy to use it. We mortals will instantly grease up both sides with our oily fingerprints, and if we're clumsy enough, we might drop or lose it unless we handle iPhone 4 as The Precious on our quest to make it through the day without nicking it up somehow. Jobs said the new device feels like an old Leica camera, and that's seems pretty spot on. It's not just nice looking, but exudes extremely sharp fit and finish unlike nearly any other consumer device I've recently come across.

Part of the reason for that is that everything else in the world is marching toward being efficiently cheap. When iPhone 3G appeared, I noted that despite its vulgar cheapness, the new design would enabling Apple to reach a wider, broader audience. This time around, Apple is wooing smartphone users upscale, but without jacking up the price.

This direction goes distinctly against the grain of consumer gear in general and smartphones specifically, which have been plunging toward cheap materials with simply styled plastic battery covers, rows of clunky buttons, and tacky light up trackballs. iPhone 4 looks like a a high end Sony design taken from the 80s and evolved along into an upscale luxury brand. Apple isn't just giving the iPhone 3GS a makeover; the new model humiliates the former, making it feel and look clunky, dumpy, and frumpy.

The only time you might prefer owning an iPhone 3GS is when you catch yourself watching in horror as your new iPhone 4 escapes your grasp and hurls toward the floor, as its new glass panel back is now just as easy to shatter as its front. If you find yourself dropping your phone a lot, do yourself a favor and get a case for it.

Is that $700 in your pocket?

The fit and finish and the appearance of every detail of the phone, from its headphone jack to its camera port, and from its volume buttons to its hold switch, is simply luxurious and precise in a way I have rarely seen in a consumer device. Of course, the iPhone 4 is also roughly $700, before your carrier's subsidy kicks in and brings the entry price to around $300. If you think about the device as a $700 bit of equipment, it will impact how you handle it, who you allow to use it, and where you choose to pull it out.

Apple's new iPhone isn't unique in its price; every other comparable smartphone costs about the same thing. But the company has really raised the bar in terms of what users should expect in build quality and design savvy. HTC's Droid Incredible and EVO 4G and Motorola's Droid X really look cheap and unsophisticated compared to iPhone 4 (as does Apple's own iPhone 3GS), yet they all still cost around $700 without that subsidy. If they wore real price tags, Verizon and Sprint probably wouldn't be able to sell very many.

In the auto market, there's a broad range of vehicle choices available to serve users, from the very expensive luxury high end to the simple, but much cheaper cars on the low end. In smartphones, there's now a wide range of quality, but there's no real difference in price.

That reality also has no precedent in the PC arena, where there has always been Apple on the high end opposed to cheap PC offerings, a large chunk of which cost much less because they delivered a lot less. The problem facing Apple's iPhone competitors is that smartphones can't get dramatically cheaper, because carrier subsidies hide a great deal of any price difference, ensuring that the entry price for consumers isn't very significant.

Were Apple, HTC and others duking it out over phones ranging from $99 to $700 at retail, Apple would have a much harder time introducing such a high end device to such ecstatic crowds of buyers. Incidentally, that issue is also why Apple can't really translate its iPhone success into the TV set top box market.

In between however, Apple has also introduced iPad as a very competitive tablet with no real rival, and the iPod touch as a similarly undisputed leader in the nearly uncontested market for sophisticated media players. The success of those products has leveraged Apple's success in smartphones, as the profitability of the iPhone has created economies of scale that have enabled Apple to sell the iPod touch for as little as $200 and iPads for $500, both far less than the real cost of iPhone 4.

And then you turn it on: Retina Display

I prepared myself for a mind-blowing screen, but all I saw was the same thing, an awful lot sharper. On the Retina Display of iPhone 4, text pops. Graphics and photos sizzle. But there's nothing that feels unexpected when you look at the screen. It seems both impressive and ordinary. Then I looked back at the iPhone 3GS screen and remembered how things were before iPhone 4.

Oh yes, the magic is there: the Retina Display is phenomenal. But like a boost in CPU speed or some more RAM, once you glance at the 960x640 pixel, 326 ppi resolution of the iPhone 4 screen your eyes establish a new baseline of normal. This looks the way the screen is now supposed to look.

The new display appears to be significantly less bright than the iPhone 3GS, but in my efforts to compare the two, it seems like the perceived brightness of the previous model is in part due to its softer, blurrier appearance. The Retina Display is razor sharp. No really; I never noticed a real problem with the iPhone's resolution before, but the new screen is simply amazing when you focus on details, especially in comparison with previous models. It is exacting and precise.

It truly does look like the output of a color laser printer, albeit using glossy paper that magically glows. Twenty years ago, I was transfixed by the sharp black text spit out of Apple's original LaserWriter. Now, I have a dynamic color screen that fits in my pocket, and that screen has an even higher resolution. This is definitely some crazy futuristic stuff, but it's now, immediately, the new normal.

As for performance, while being slightly less bright, the screen is not just dramatically sharper than previous iPhones, but also sports wider viewing angles, both side to side and up and down. It performs very similar to the IPS displays in the latest MacBook Pros, although again, the ppi of the Retina Display is approaching a pixel density three times as high (Apple's 17 inch notebook is 117 ppi vs iPhone 4 at 326 ppi).

For all the pre-launch hysteria about how Apple was exaggerating and misstating its resolution in comparison to the human retina, the new screen isn't anything approaching an inflated bit of marketing noise; it's the real deal. It will ruin your retinas for ever returning to a lower resolution screen however.

So far, apart from those that have already dropped theirs, or a small number of people who have received defective units, build issues have largely been constrained to a temporary spotting issue that seems to resolve itself. There are however other issues with iPhone 4, and they relate to its most important function: calling.

Issues related to antenna signal (both actual performance and the reported signal meter), proximity sensors (for blanking the phone's screen while you have it next to your face talking), and calling features will be outlined in part 2, focusing on the Phone and FaceTime.