by Tom Kaneshige

iPhone 4: Three Big Cons Beneath Sleek Design

Jun 08, 2010
iPhoneMobileSmall and Medium Business

Look beneath the super-thin case of the newest iPhone and you'll find a durability risk, reception improvements that may fall flat, and a videoconferencing feature that works only for a very limited set of people, says's Tom Kaneshige. We go beyond the hype to look at the pros and cons of iPhone 4.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs heralded the new iPhone 4 as, “beyond a doubt, the most precise thing and one of the most beautiful things we’ve ever made.” To be sure, die-hard Apple fans will rush out and get one when the iPhone 4 becomes available on June 24. iPhone 4 will cost $199 for a 16GB model and $299 for 32GB model, which requires a two-year contract with AT&T. The deal extends to existing customers with contracts that finish up this year. But are the hardware upgrades enough to move the masses to an Apple Store? Apple stock actually fell on the iPhone 4 unveiling Monday, dropping $5.02 per share to $250.94.


Here are the key hardware upgrades: a slimmer design, front and back glass panels, a metal rim, a new screen technology called retina that boasts four times as many pixels as the iPhone 3GS, a gyroscope, an improved camera, a front-facing camera for video chat, a bigger battery, and an Apple A4 chip.All sounds pretty impressive, right? Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons.

(I’m not including software features in iOS 4, formerly known as iPhone OS 4.0, or coming apps such as iMovie and iBookstore since they’ll be available for the current iPhone 3GS.)

Con: Sleek Design Poses Risks

Apple has a history of choosing design over practicality. Want proof? Look no further than Apple’s Magic Mouse that will turn your hand into a fixed claw. The iPhone 4’s design won’t do that, but has Apple gone overboard? The smartphone is 9.3mm thick, or 24 percent thinner than the iPhone 3GS, and has two glass panels that make up the casing.

Sure, the glass is pretty scratch resistant. But one of the ways iPhones find their way to a repair shop is because the glass breaks or scratches, says Aaron Vronko, CEO of Rapid Repair, which provides iPod and iPhone repair services. (The main reason an iPhone breaks is from water damage.) Logic says a thinner iPhone with two glass surfaces make it more breakable. Apple counters that the glass is 30 times harder than plastic and comparable to sapphire crystal.

Really, though, how much thinner does an iPhone need to be?

At least one company that has invested in iPhones for employees is concerned about breakage. “If you give people a free phone, they tend not to treat them well,” says Shane Allen, former information systems manager at Special Devices, a manufacturer of air-bag initiators for the automotive industry. “Drop it, and we have to buy another one at full price. But you can drop kick a BlackBerry or candy bar phone or flip phone.”

Recent Apple rumors point to AT&T offering an iPhone insurance plan called MobileProtect that costs $14 a month. The program, which insures damaged iPhones, was supposed to start June 6. But there is no mention of it on AT&T’s website yet; AT&T could not be reached for comment by press time.

Con: Better Reception? Don’t Count on It

One design change, however, is supposed to improve functionality. A stainless steel rim on the iPhone 4 connects to the iPhone’s antennas (Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and GPS, UMTS and GSM). Will this boost connectivity?

Critics have accused previous iPhones of having inferior GSM properties compared to other mobile phones, says Vronko. After some testing, he says, those accusations proved to be false. That is, the iPhone was just as good as other phones. Now Vronko anticipates the same will be true for the iPhone 4 even with its new antenna design.

“I suspect that a number of users in unique usage situations whose signal problems involve their local environmental conditions may see a big boost from a design change,” he says, “but for the majority of people, the iPhone 4 will still be the same distance from the same towers and use the same limits on broadcast power.”

Con: Mobile Video Chat, Nobody Home

Jobs’s now-famous “one more thing” part of his presentation was a demonstration of mobile video chat using the iPhone 4’s front-facing camera and an app called FaceTime. Indeed, mobile video chat could have been the hardware killer feature for the iPhone 4.

But who are you going to call? The only kind of mobile video chat FaceTime supports is between two iPhone 4s over Wi-Fi — not even over AT&T’s 3G network — this year. You’ll have to make a phone call so voice goes over the cellular network and then hit the FaceTime app button to bring in video.”We need to work a little bit with the cellular providers in the future,” Jobs says.

Even worse, it’s uncertain whether iPhone 4 users will be able to chat with non-iPhone 4 users down the road. Apple wants FaceTime to be an open industry standard and is working with a number of standards bodies. But anybody in tech has heard the standards-in-progress song before.

“The open piece is under debate,” says Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney. “I’m sure people will have to subscribe to [Apple’s] standard if they want to talk to it. It may be like the instant messaging wars.”

Pro: Hot Camera Features

Apple clearly spent a lot of its hardware focus sprucing up video on the iPhone. The iPhone 4 will have five-times digital zoom, an LED flash and 720p at 30 frames per second HD video capture. Although I said earlier that I wouldn’t mention software, the coming iMovie app ($5) for light editing goes hand-in-hand with this hardware upgrade.

Simply put, iPhone 4 will likely be a solid video and camera performer. “The photo samples are impressive,” wrote Editorial Director Jason Snell of Macworld, a sister publication of, while blogging at the event. “The iPhone 3GS camera was already good; in fact, better than many other phone cameras with more megapixels.” I would imagine this will put Apple way ahead on that score.

However, given all the camera enhancements, particularly the ability to shoot high-definition video, Dulaney was somewhat disappointed that Apple didn’t increase storage capacity with the iPhone 4. Like the iPhone 3GS, the iPhone 4 caps out at 32GB.

Then again, Dulaney understands why. “They had to give up something to keep the cost at the same level as before,” he says.

Pro: An Impressive Display

The iPhone changed the smartphone world with a big, beautiful, innovative display. Since then, the Droid now boasts a better one. With iPhone 4, Apple went back to its roots.

iPhone 4’s display employs a technology called retina, which increases pixel density to 326 pixels per inch — that’s four times as many pixels in the same amount of space in an iPhone 3GS. This results in really sharp text, images and video, as well as better color and a wider viewing angle. “The retina display looks impressive,” Dulaney says. “It’s probably one of the best pieces of hardware they put on there.”

Pro: A4 and Bigger Battery

One of the leaked prototypes showed an Apple A4 chip, and Jobs confirmed it. The iPhone 4 will have a more powerful A4 chip (the same chip powering the new iPad) that should “make things a little snappier,” says Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, a Website that provides free repair manuals and advice forums mostly aimed at Apple products.

Wiens expressed concern that a faster processor, while power efficient, might still drain battery faster compared to the iPhone 3GS given the increase in clock speed.

But Apple countered that the iPhone 4 will have a bigger battery and a net 40 percent more talk time, from five hours on the iPhone 3GS to seven hours on the iPhone 4. Moreover, the iPhone 4’s battery will provide six hours of 3G browsing, 10 hours of Wi-Fi browsing, 10 hours of video, 40 hours of music, and 300 hours of standby, says Apple.

Hardware: Only Part of the Picture

Other cool (albeit less important) hardware upgrades include the gyroscope. The iPhone 4 will have four sensors: accelerometer, compass, proximity, ambient light, and gyroscope.

Will these hardware upgrades be enough to compel people to buy the iPhone 4? Probably not the hardware itself, says Dulaney, although adding that you can’t look at just the hardware anymore.

“Last year, Apple was clearly better in hardware than everybody else, but vendors have caught up,” Dulaney says. “But if you look at the four elements — hardware, software, services and advertising — [Apple] is still unbeatable.”

Tom Kaneshige is a senior writer for in Silicon Valley. Send him an email at Or follow him on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline.