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Your iPhone 4 Questions Answered

When an Apple engineer left a prototype next-generation iPhone behind at a Silicon-Valley beer garden back in April, he gave tech-blog Gizmodo the scoop of the decade -- and robbed Steve Jobs' keynote at this week's WWDC conference of much of its suspense. But not all of it. The iPhone 4, which Jobs unveiled on Monday, has features that Gizmodo didn't uncover, and seeing it in action is far more informative than staring at Gizmodo's photos of a busted test unit.

Jobs, as usual, didn't underplay the news: He called the iPhone 4 the most significant upgrade to Apple's phone since the first iPhone debuted in 2007. That seems fair enough, even though it's not everything that every gadget fan hoped for, and faces fierce competition from smartphone competitors such as models that run Google's Android operating systems.

Here, answers to some of the biggest questions about Apple's fourth-generation smartphone, which hits stores on June 24th.

Is the new screen a big deal?

Yes, because the resolution is now 960 by 400 pixels, up from 480 by 320 in all previous iPhones. That more than doubles the screen's pixel density, taking it from 160 dots per inch to 326. (By contrast, the iPad's screen is 132dpi, and Verizon's Droid Incredible is 252dpi.

More pixels means more detail and less blockiness: Apple calls the new screen a "Retina Display" and says the resolution is so high that the human eye can't distinguish the individual pixels. In demos at WWDC, it did look spectacular -- especially for typography, which boasts magazine-like crispness. That should make reading long passages on Web pages and in the new iBooks e-reader easier on the eyeballs.

Is the iPhone 4 any faster than current iPhones?

This is the first iPhone built around a chip of Apple's own design, a version of the industrial-strength A4 processor that's also inside the iPad. But when I tried an iPhone 4 out, it felt uncannily similar in speed to the iPhone 3GS. Rather than tweaking the A4 for maximum performance, though, Apple seems to have optimized it for battery life: According to the company, the phone offers seven hours of talk time or 300 hours on standby, six hours of Internet use on 3G, ten hours of movie-watching, and 40 hours of music playback.

Will it work better on AT&T than previous models?

Jobs made no such explicit claim during his keynote. But he did explain how Apple cleverly wrapped the iPhone 4 in a stainless-steel band that doubles as an antenna. Better reception might make for a better experience on AT&T's network -- fewer dropped calls, for instance.

Will it download data faster than previous iPhones?

Eventually -- Apple upgraded it to support a zippier version of the 3G standard that AT&T hasn't yet rolled out. Despite the "4" in its name, however, it's a 3G phone, not one that's ready for 4G access -- which means it won't be able to take advantage of the even quicker new network that AT&T plans to start deploying next year.

What's the camera like?

Unlike the aging model on the iPhone 3GS, it's competitive with some of the better ones on other companies' smartphones. Apple bumped the resolution up to 5 megapixels, which will deliver more detail, and this is the first iPhone with an LED flash, permitting you to shoot in murky environments. For video, the camera is now capable of 720P resolution -- true high-definition -- and Apple is offering a slick-looking $4.99 version of its iMovie app that lets you edit movies right on the phone.

The 4 is also the first iPhone with a camera on front as well as on the back; it's there for the new FaceTime video chat program.

Apple says that its FaceTime is revolutionary. Is it?

Video calling on phones is nothing new. There are countries where folks have been doing it for years, and it's also one of the signature features on Sprint's new EVO 4G phone. But FaceTime looks like the sort of uncommonly well-designed application that you'd expect from Apple. There are some catches, though. For one thing, it only works over Wi-Fi, not AT&T's 3G network. For another, You'll only be able to use it to communicate with other folks who have sprung for iPhone 4 handsets.

iPhone 4-only, huh? Will that ever change?

Possibly. For instance, you'd think that Apple would also want to release FaceTime software for Macs -- most of them have built-in Webcams. And the company says it's proposing that the FaceTime technologies become industry standards, which would let other companies write video-calling applications that could interoperate with FaceTime.

What's with the gyroscope?

Combined with the existing accelerometer and compass, it gives the iPhone 4 six-axis motion detection, which should make for some pretty entertaining games you control by wiggling the whole phone around.

What do I need to know about AT&T data plans? I hear they're changing. 

Until now, iPhone owners have paid $30 -- on top of their voice plan -- for unlimited data. But AT&T is doing away with unlimited data in favor of cheaper, capped options: a $15 plan that gives you up to 200MB of data a month, and a $25 one with up to 2GB. (Current iPhone owners can choose between keeping their current plans and switching.)

Unless you plan to gorge on streaming video, one or the other of the new plans will likely be sufficient to get you through the month. And the lowest total monthly rate you'll pay for an iPhone is now $55.00, for 450 voice minutes and 200MB of data. That's a significant reduction over the $70 minimum that iPhone owners have paid until now.

I do plan to gorge on streaming video. Am I in trouble?

If you're doing it over AT&T's 3G wireless, you'll pay extra once you've exceeded your monthly allotment of data. With the 200MB plan, additional 200MB "buckets" are $15 apiece; with the 2GB plan, 1GB buckets are $10. Or you can do your watching on one of AT&T's Wi-Fi hotspots -- it has 20,000 of them -- at no additional charge.

I already have an iPhone and can't resist this one. What's it going to cost me?

Well, if you've already fulfilled your two-year contract by June 26th, you'll be able to buy an iPhone 4 for the same price as an AT&T newbie: $199 for the version with 16GB of storage and $299 for one with 32GB. But you might be in luck even if your contract is nowhere near complete: AT&T's upgrade policy will let many customers get the new phone with a full discount, as long as they're willing to re-up for another two years. The AT&T Wireless site can tell you whether you're eligible.

I already have an iPhone and don't want to get a new one. Any advice?

Yes: Upgrade your phone to iOS 4, the latest version of the software that Apple has called iPhone OS until now. It'll be available as a free download on June 21st, and brings many of the best iPhone 4 features to any iPhone 3GS, including multitasking of multiple programs at once, folders for organizing your apps, and a better e-mail program. (It also works on the older iPhone 3G model, but without multitasking.)

The iPhone 4 looks great, but I don't need a new phone. Will there be an iPod Touch version?

Probably. Apple traditionally announces new iPods in September, so check back then. For now, the current iPod Touch feels a bit stale -- for instance, it doesn't have a camera.

I love Verizon Wireless. Should I wait for a Verizon iPhone?

You could, although the never-ending onslaught of rumors that Apple is about to team up with Verizon -- none of which have amounted to anything to date -- might drive you crazy. The fact of the matter is that nobody outside of Apple and Verizon know for sure what conversations they've had and where they'll lead. It's conceivable that an announcement is imminent; it's just as possible that there will never be an iPhone 4 that's Verizon-friendly.

Okay, you convinced me not to get my hopes up. What's the most compelling iPhone alternative that's available on Verizon right now?

Take a look at the $199 Droid Incredible. It's got potent hardware -- a fast processor, an 8-megapixel camera, and one of the highest-resolution displays other than the one on the new iPhone. The Google Android operating system it packs still doesn't match Apple's iOS in terms of elegant efficiency, but overall this is another cool, cutting-edge phone. Call it the Droid Really Impressive.

What's your bottom line on the iPhone 4?

It's like earlier iPhones only more so: even sleeker and well-crafted physically, and even more clever from a software standpoint. And it benefits hugely from the biggest and best collection of third-party apps on the planet. It's also the first iPhone that multitasks out of the box, resolving one long-standing gripe about Apple's phones. 

Other strikes against the iPhone remain: It's still available only on AT&T, and Apple's requirement that software go through its App Store and somewhat capricious approval process still deny users some worthwhile programs. (I'd kill for Google Voice.) Overall, though, this looks like a phone that'll both please existing iPhone devotees and tempt newcomers to jump on the bandwagon.

Harry McCracken blogs at Technologizer, his site about personal technology. He's also the former editor in chief of PC World. Follow him on Twitter as @harrymccracken.