iPhone 4 and iOS 4: my point of view

I have been an Apple user since Summer 2001: after having successfully used Linux as my primary system for a while, one day I decided that there was something wrong with having to manually do many things that a “desktop” system should do on its own. Computers, I thought, were supposed to simplify tasks. While I still think that Linux is great for a server — something I have experience with —, it wasn’t and still isn’t the best choice for everyday computing. Unless you do mostly office work, in which case a distro such as Ubuntu with OpenOffice will work fine, and be entirely free.

For the sake of completeness, here are the machines by Apple I have owned over the better part of the last decade: iMac G3 “Blue Dalmatian”, iBook G3, Airport “Snow” Base Station, PowerMac Dual G4, iBook G4, iMac Intel, MacBook, MacBook Pro, iPhone 3G. What can I say, I am very satisfied with their products, even though I have nothing against alternatives: my current wireless network is provided by a Netgear router and a D-Link access point, for instance.

I didn’t get the original iPhone because it was never officially available in Italy, and I didn’t want to play the cat and mouse game of jailbreaking to make it work. I got the unlocked 3G in September 2008, and have been quite happy with it. Sure, it did have a few strange limitations (tethering, just to name one; something that any Nokia phone has been able to do for years when it was simply called “using your phone as a modem”), but I was quite happy.

Things changed slightly with the introduction of the iPhone 3GS. It was essentially the same phone, other than better hardware specs, the ability to shoot video and a digital compass. Not a big deal for me, and I never felt the need to upgrade, as I knew it was just an incremental upgrade and that the next one would be big. I was however disappointed when I noticed that iPhone OS 3.0 made my iPhone 3G a bit slower. Ah well.

Fast forward about a year, and the iPhone 4 is introduced, together with iOS 4. (Incidentally, I personally find the name iOS hideous; why not call it Apple Mobile OS or something like that?) It was clear that people with an iPhone 3G were considered pretty much an afterthought. Our hardware is, apparently, not powerful enough for multitasking, for background pictures (?!) and for the screen orientation lock (?!?), so why update? Folders, unified inbox and some other minor things. Oh, and iAds. There is enough power for that, isn’t there?

I do realize that iPhones are subsidized in the US, and that people with a 3G have a contract that’s about to expire; that they can therefore jump to the iPhone 4 bandwagon for a very low entry price. However, testing iOS 4 on iPhone 3G units would have been very much appreciated by those of us who cannot, or do not want to, upgrade.

See, iOS 4 made my iPhone 3G so slow that I am considering going to a random store a get one of those extra-basic €19.90 black and white phones. Ok, maybe it’s not that radical, but it’s frustrating. While swiping across the menu is faster (caching, maybe?), everything else is slow. Sometimes it takes up to 15 seconds for the phone to wake up from sleep and start responding to my touch. I get an SMS, I tap ‘view’, and it takes at least 5-6 seconds to show it. Forget about snapping a quick picture, for the Camera app has gotten very, very lazy. Mind you, my 16 GB iPhone 3G has 5 GB free and I only have 48 apps on it, so I’m not sure what’s the culprit here. I tried restoring rather than upgrading, and then did a double hard reset; that seems to help, but after 12 hours, it feels like it’s reverting to being slow as hell.

It seems that nobody cared to see how older units perform. Which leads me to the iPhone 4 itself. It is a fact that Apple appears to favor appearance over functionality at times: take the Mighty Mouse, or the Magic Mouse. The iPhone 4 is gorgeous, elegant, sleek and sexy. But it’s amazing messy.

The front and the back are entirely made of glass. The same glass used for helicopters’ windows, it seems; however, the latter is as thick as a whole iPhone. The result? Units cracking and crashing from falling from a couple of feet, or even as low as one foot.

Then you get the amazing signal loss if you happen to short-circuit the two antennas on the lower-left corner. This would be quite a mess for me, because even though I’m right-handed, I’m left-eared. I just can’t use a phone on my right ear, it feels extremely unnatural to me. Then again, I also unscrew bottles’ caps with my left hand and I would fail miserably if I were to use my right hand. In any case, if you bridge the two antennas with your fingers, you’re doomed: signal goes to zero and calls drop. There are many videos demonstrating the problem. Considering that I also hold my iPhone 3G with my left hand and use my right index finger as a “stylus” of sorts, I’d be unable to use the thing.

Who’s forcing me to buy one, you ask? Nobody, and in any case it won’t be available in Europe until late Summer. Yet it’s amazing that such a big issue was not discovered. While it is true that all cell phones — or any radio device, actually — will have a harder time staying connected if something interferes with its antenna, it just should not be this bad in every day use. Steve Jobs’ alleged own response is that people are just holding it wrong. Might be, but it’s just the way people hold it in commercials, and how even he himself used it during the keynote last month. Perhaps it’s a plot to sell the infamous $30 rubber bumpers, which sound like a good idea anyway, considering the glass issue.

There is speculation of a software fix coming as soon as tomorrow, but many are skeptical about it. It feels like a hardware problem indeed, but it seems that the same behavior is appearing on iPhone 3G and 3GS units as well, so there might indeed be some software component. Perhaps the system fails to increase the transmission power when the signal is attenuated? Or maybe it just shuts down the radio subsystem whenever a shortcircuit is detected on the iPhone 4?

It would also be very interesting to understand why this happens when the gap itself is bridged. If the two antennas are made of metal, they are conductive all along. The bug should therefore be reproducible by touching them even on distant points.

In any case, we will see. I just hope that they make the performance on the iPhone 3G somewhat better, or I may just have to go back to 3.1.3.