iPhone 4’s Stand-out Features: Camera and Display

Apple has now revealed the details of its new iPhone, dubbed iPhone 4. Overall, the new iPhone is an impressive piece of hardware, easily upping the ante for all those contenders who want to grab the smartphone crown from Apple. Not surprisingly, I will be ordering one as soon as possible. 

Despite the iPhone 4 features leaked weeks ago (via Gizmodo’s temporary possession of a prototype unit), there were still several surprises in today’s WWDC keynote. As I mull over the new features, the key question I ask myself is: How will iPhone 4 change how I now use an iPhone?

In answering this question, I will bypass iOS 4 (formerly iPhone OS 4) altogether. Although included as part of iPhone 4, the details of the new OS were already revealed back in April. Further, if desired, I could run the new OS on my iPhone 3GS. I needn’t buy a new iPhone just for the OS. That said, it may well be that iOS 4’s multitasking is the single most game-altering new feature of the combined iOS 4 and iPhone 4 combo. It’s certainly the one I most anticipate.

As for the iPhone 4 hardware, of the nine new features Steve Jobs highlighted in the Keynote, two in particular stand out for me. These are the ones that I expect to have the most impact on my daily use. They are:

• The camera. Here, I am referring to the the back-facing camera, the one that replaces and improves on the camera already in current iPhones. How is it improved? In every possible way. With a 5-megapixel capability (bumping up the 3-megapixels on the current iPhone 3Gs), a built-in LED flash and an improved sensor (for better low light capability), a 5x digital zoom (not as good as the optical zoom on “real” cameras, but still useful), and HD-quality (720p) video — it approaches a quality level comparable to many stand-alone point-and-shoot cameras.

Given my rather casual approach to photography, the iPhone 4 may allow me to dispense with my Canon SD870 for all but the most demanding situations. Currently, if I know I will be somewhere where I want to take photos, I bring my Canon along. I use the iPhone’s camera in only three situations: when I need a photo only to record information (such as to take a picture of an item’s price tag in a store), when being able to quickly share a photo (such as via MMS) is more critical than the quality of the photo, or when I forgot to bring my Canon. In the last situation, I inevitably regret having to depend on my iPhone; its photo quality is so distinctly inferior as to be barely acceptable for any photos that I might want to print, frame or otherwise show off.

With the camera on the iPhone 4, this may all change. Common stand-alone digital cameras offer optical zoom, fine-tuning adjustments such as for white balance and exposure, and a higher megapixel capacity. These are valuable — which is why I am not yet ready to sell my Canon on eBay. But I am certain that, on those occasions where I forget to bring my Canon along, I will be far more content with the quality of the iPhone’s photos than I am now. My hope is that the iPhone’s quality will be good enough that, in most situations, I will no longer care to bother with the Canon at all.

For recording video, the iPhone 4 is an even greater standout. I have given up on using a separate camcorder, depending instead the video capability included with my Canon digital camera. This has generally been adequate for me. However, the iPhone 4 features a superior HD (720p) resolution and easier-to-navigate editing options. I expect it will become my first choice for taking video.

I doubt that I will use the more extensive editing features offered in the forthcoming iPhone version of iMovie; I will keep using my Mac for such editing. But it’s certain that there is nothing comparable to iMovie available for any digital or video camera.

For directly sharing photos or video via email, text messages or websites, the iPhone is essential. The Canon doesn’t include any form of such options.

In brief, I expect the new iPhone to change my photography habits more than any other change that results from iPhone 4.

As for the new front-facing camera and its companion FaceTime videochat software, I am not as certain of its usefulness for me. FaceTime is certainly the iPhone’s most ground-breaking new feature. I’m less sure whether it will turn out to be the most compelling one. I don’t often video chat on my Mac; I doubt that I will do so more often on the iPhone. I also wonder about the practicality of video chatting from a mobile device. How hard will it be to keep holding the iPhone (and my head) steady enough so that my face remains in view? How well will my voice transmit when I am not holding the iPhone to my mouth (I expect the new noise-canceling microphone in iPhone 4 will do the job here, but it remains to be seen)?

If I use FaceTime at all, I expect it will be more for showing things other than my face. For example, I might want to show my surroundings. In that regard, I found this quote from Apple’s Web page of interest: “iPhone 4 has two cameras: One on the front, which focuses on you. And one on the back, which focuses on everything else. FaceTime lets you switch back and forth between them at any time during a video call. All you have to do is tap a button.” Cool.

• Retina Display. The other new iPhone 4 feature that most captured my attention was Retina Display. This is Apple’s name for the iPhone’s new and much higher (326 ppi) resolution display. Although I have yet to see it “live,” the demo on the Apple web page is enough to convince me this is a knock-out. There seems virtually no pixelation apparent at any size on the screen, from the smallest to the largest. If nothing else, this should significantly improve the viability of the iPhone as a book reader — or as a reader of any text media. It should also greatly improve the crispness of details when viewing video.

While I am sure Retina Display will be spectacular right out of the box, the ultimate value of Retina Display will be realized only after apps are redesigned to take full advantage of the higher resolution. It should be jaw-dropping. And when Retina Display makes it to the next version of the iPad (which I assume it will) — even better.

Overall, considering that several of the nine iPhone 4 features highlighted during the Keynote were more iOS 4 features than hardware additions, there may be less new in the new iPhone than Steve would have you believe. But what is new is not trivial and should definitely help the iPhone continue on its upward trajectory.