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Why I don’t love the iPhone 4

My iPhone 3G contract ended in February, almost six months ago, and I’ve been very much looking forward to the launch of the new iPhone 4 from Apple. There’s been a lot of hype about the reception issues in certain conditions, but I don’t want to go into that here, it’s been covered enough elsewhere. For the record though, I am right handed which means I hold the iPhone to my left ear so my right hand is free to take notes with, or operate the keypad.

What I want to share with you now is the other weaknesses of the new design.

First of all, I think the packaging is pretty impressive – and I don’t mean the carton, even though Apple cartons are always works of art in themselves. The way they have crammed so much into the iPhone 4 is indeed impressive, there are tiny bits everywhere. Two cameras, two hardly noticeable volume buttons and the usual ports and on and off switches are barely noticeable, and the screen is indeed bright. The camera focusses well, and the HD video is good too. There is practically zero delay when writing to the memory after you press the shutter, a mark of the faster processor. It feels very small in the hand, and light too. But.

The design also has some problems. Glass on both sides seems rather risky, I’ve only dropped my 3G iPhone once, but that really scratched the plastic case quite badly. I was half in a taxi so it only dropped about a foot in total onto its polycarbonate plastic protection, but I worry how it would fare if that plastic (the same sort as used in motorcycle crash helmets because of its shock absorbing qualities) had been glass: I’ve seen a photo of an iPhone with a completely smashed glass screen which it got from a simple fall not much different to mine. Glass on both sides worries me.

There is another problem with the glass both sides design: it’s totally flat. I know many people complained about the previous models not being flat, but I can’t help thinking everyone listens to the squeaky wheel, not the other three that have no problems at all. When you put the new iPhone flat on the table, how do you pick it up? With the previous models’ curved backs, all you had to do was push lightly on one side and the curve lifted the other side up enough to easily slip your finger underneath and lift the iPhone without any delay or sliding around.

Then there’s the buttons. Granted I only handled a demo model tethered with anti-theft wires and a charger too, but I really didn’t like the little round + and – volume buttons. For me, a rocker switch works so much better and is more intuitive in use. I found pressing the buttons was quite difficult without moving my fingers to press down exactly perpendicularly to the case. This is exacerbated by the closeness with which the buttons hug the case. In ergonomic terms, I’d say this is a fail. In design terms, it’s part of the overall package and if you like it fine. For me, it’s just another drawback.

This next one was a total surprise for me. I expected a phone made of metal and glass to feel smooth in the hand. That’s one of the reasons I think the iPhone has been such a good seller in the past, it not only looked and sounded good, it also felt good. So I was really surprised when my hand told me I was holding something thin, light, and (really!) plasticky! The edges were sharp, not smooth, there were no reassuring curves, and to be honest the whole thing felt, err, too small. I was worried it would feel too hard and glassy.

Then there’s the screen wallpaper: whoever thought that a background showing raindrops would do anything other than depress people? Well, it probably works in places like Mali or Chad, but I’m British and I prefer blue skies and cotton-wool white clouds. OK, on iOS 4.0 you can change the backgrounds, but in the shops all the demo models have this miserable, grey, raindrops picture. It isn’t helping to excite the punters, that’s for sure.

According to the principles of Neuro Linguistic Programming, people take in information in three main ways: visual, aural, and kinesthetic (feel). The previous iPhones have all scored top marks in all three. Unfortunately, with the iPhone 4 Apple seems to have forgotten feel in pursuit of miniaturisation and looks.

On launch Saturday for all the previous iPhones the shops selling them were totally packed out and they ran out of stock very quickly. Today, there were few people, but lots of iPhones. This time, of course some people would be affected by the iPhone aerial issue, but probably only to the extent of waiting until they had the iPhone in their hands and making their own minds up. Just because there were more people buying the phone online, sight unseen, than ever before does not mean that this is due to the current phone; no, it’s due to the success of previous models. The “Apple can’t ever do wrong” brigade will no doubt disagree, and the Applephobes may jump on any perception of negative criticism and blow it out of all proportion – but sensible people will go to the shops and give the iPhone a try for themselves.

And if you decide iPhone 4 isn’t for you, don’t walk out of the shop without buying the incredible iPad! You’re disappointment will be blown away by this other rather incredible device from Apple. But that’s another story…

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