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The iPhone 4 Report: Chipping Away Problems

All right, so we know the forthcoming iPhone 4 has a squared-off but thinner case, using glass for the front and rear. The buttons also look nicer, and Apple has been busy trying to fix the things that might have irritated you before. But let me backtrack a little.

I was one of the early adopters of the once-famous Motorola RAZR. Forgetting the interface glitches forced upon Motorola by the carriers they used, it was actually a pretty decent product. Audio quality was first-rate, but the little rocker control placed at the left side of the unit to adjust ringer and talk volume was poorly designed. When you placed the handset into a case, you’d frequently change volume levels by mistake. I cannot tell you how many times I missed a call simply because the volume was mistakenly set to zero.

Unfortunately, when Apple developed the iPhone, they installed a rocker switch, so many of you encountered the same problems I experienced with the RAZR way back when. I know I’m constantly adjusting volume levels after a few days of slipping my iPhone in and out of its case. Not good.

Now previous iPhones were mostly cut from the same mold, so it’s understandable that the poorly-designed controls would persist. With iPhone 4.0, Apple made some serious changes in the case, even though it probably doesn’t look all that different from a distance. The basic smartphone form factor pioneered by Apple has been imitated by loads of competitors. This means a large rectangular screen, a few tiny controls and a relatively thin case. Some of those other phones will even sport superior hardware specs until Apple, with its annual updates, catches up and advances the state of the art. But the OS is everything when it comes to usability beyond making simple phone calls. And clearly not using side-mounted rocker switches for volume settings.

When it comes to the relabeled iOS, Apple has clearly listened to customers and added the features that you and the media critics have long complained about. But it didn’t happen overnight. Indeed, it took Apple three years to devise a workable multitasking scheme beyond their own apps. Yes, I suppose they lost some sales in the interim, from people who believed that they couldn’t use a smartphone if it didn’t have unfettered multitasking and other features that you were led to believe were essential to your well being.

Now I have to tell you that I haven’t had a moment’s grief with my current iPhone, a basic 3GS, without enhanced multitasking, perhaps because I don’t use apps that benefit most, such as the Pandora music service. The device is fast enough to allow me to switch from app to app without feeling that I’m somehow losing convenience in the process.

Aside from the software enhancements in iOS 4, Apple also did something that competing smartphone makers seldom think about, which is to find a way to boost audio quality beyond the basic digital haze offered by the typical wireless carrier. Among its enhancements is a second microphone for noise canceling. This may not mean much to you in a normal environment, but if you’re in a busy restaurant or auditorium, it can make a world of a difference.

The retina display is also a smart invention, if expensive. By reducing screen pixels to 326 pixels per inch, higher than the limit of the human eye, which is 300 pixels per inch, onscreen text for once appears as sharp as printing. The illustrations you’ve seen posted by Apple and the tech media demonstrate the clear differences, though in a limited way. It may be the real solution to the e-book dilemma, and I wonder how long before this feature is translated to the iPad’s 9.7 inch screen, which is no slouch when it comes its book reading function.

Of course the main problem is that packing more and more pixels onto a sophisticated LCD display is not cheap. The price difference may not be so significant on an iPhone, but as soon as you expand screen size, the cost of raw materials might become too high to maintain an affordable price. So it may be a few years before ultra-high pixel rates are available on an iPad or an iMac, but Apple clearly continues to explore cutting edge display technology.

It’s also nice to see that Apple is thinking about the customers as much as the bottom line, and it will be interesting to see how reviewers justify the clearly inferior Android OS products when they begin to do honest comparisons.

The problem is, unfortunately, that too much emphasis is placed on raw specs rather than a direct user experience. All the comparisons published so far consist of bullet points for the iPhone 4 against the latest and greatest Android OS smartphone, and iOS 4 against Android 2.2. How well those features actually work in the real world isn’t being addressed, and it should be.

Meantime, I’m encouraged by the promise of iPhone 4, and I look forward to actually working with a real one once review units are available to the media.