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iPhone 4 Dazzles, Disappoints

Seductive features of the iPhone 4, such as videoconferencing, may have tongues wagging now, but the smartphone's features may be a letdown for users.
Before people hand over their hard-earned cash for Apple's new iPhone 4, they should first step back and take a sober look at the eye-popping features that stir the emotions, but may ultimately disappoint.

Among the features that have put the wow in the smartphone introduced Monday is videoconferencing, which Apple has made as simple as making a phone call. Unfortunately, there will be very few occasions in which most people will find the capability useful.

For starters, with AT&T struggling to handle network traffic from the current iPhone, Apple had no choice but to offer videoconferencing over Wi-Fi only. In addition, the feature only works with other iPhone 4s. Surprisingly, Apple did not make it possible for people to make video calls to friends and family with iChat videoconferencing on a Mac.

Also, given that there are few standards for video calling between different devices, ubiquitous video calling on a smartphone is still a long ways off.

"What really needs to happen is for standards bodies to kick in and start looking at this problem," Ken Dulaney, analyst for Gartner, told InformationWeek Tuesday. "A lot of work needs to be done."

In the meantime, Apple is building a bandwidth-hungry device at a time when its exclusive U.S. carrier, AT&T, is making it more expensive for new subscribers to send and receive large amounts of data on its network.

The week before the iPhone 4 launch, the carrier stopped offering unlimited data plans for new smartphone customers and introduced tiered pricing that starts at $15 a month for 200 MB of data and $25 a month for up to 2 GB. If you go over the latter amount, AT&T will tack on $10 for an additional 1 GB of data for a single month. Higher-priced packages that offer more data usage are also available.

"The new iPhone has a lot to offer, but iPhone newcomers must decide whether it is worth the risk of a limited data plan for a data-hungry device," Michael Morgan, analyst for ABI Research, said in an emailed commentary.

While gigabytes of data on a smartphone seems like a lot, Clicker, a site that provides an Internet TV guide, points out that 2 GB of data equals 17 hours of YouTube programming or less than 14 hours of programming on Netflix, assuming nothing else is done with the iPhone. High-definition content uses considerably more data.

And high-definition is what the iPhone 4 is all about. In launching the device at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco, chief executive Steve Jobs spoke proudly of the smartphone's new 960- x 640-pixel, 3.5-inch display. With four times the number of pixels as the current generation iPhone, the latest device displays text, video and images noticeably sharper and clearer.

While the new "Retina" display will certainly have value in watching video, assuming the downloads don't exceed a person's data plan, the fact that the screen packs 326 pixels per square inch could present a problem in reading content. That's because text will look smaller as a result of the increase in pixels.

"It depends on the problem you're trying to solve," Dulaney said. "If you're an avid email reader, then you're probably OK with today's iPhone screen."

Bottomline, if a person wants to get into Apple's mobile ecosystem, which includes the iPhone along with its online stores and services, then iPhone 4 is a reasonable choice, particularly if that person wants the latest technology.

However, if a person's needs don't require such a feature-rich smartphone, then something cheaper is a better choice.

"Buy last year's model (of iPhone)," Dulaney said. "It'll work just fine for you."

Apple's older iPhone 3GS, introduced last year, now sells for $99 with a two-year AT&T data plan. The iPhone 4 is scheduled to be available June 24 for $199 for 16 GB of storage and $299 for 32 GB, with a two-year plan.