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SAN FRANCISCO: Apple CEO Steve Jobs has once again pulled a new iPhone model out of his proverbial magician's hat, leading hordes of gadget-happy consumers to wait in line for hours to snag one.
It may seem like a lot of hullabaloo for a smart phone upgrade that is practically routine in the phone's fourth iteration. This time is different, though.
Apple's iPhone 4, which went on sale last Thursday, isn't simply an upgrade over the previous 3GS model.
It has been significantly redesigned as a skinnier, classier and more covetous smart phone with a slew of new features.
And while owners of the older model can get the new iOS4 software for free without emptying their wallets, a new iPhone 4 will also give you a higher-resolution screen, speedier processor and a second, front-facing camera for video calls.
It costs $199 for a 16-gigabyte model or $299 for 32 gigabytes; both require a two-year contract with AT&T Inc., the phone's exclusive wireless provider in the U.S.
Out of the box, the iPhone 4 practically shrieks "swanky."
The previous iPhone had a rounded, plastic back that eliminated most corners; the iPhone 4 sports a flat, glass-covered back, and its sides are rimmed with a stainless steel band that serves as part of its antenna.
While the 3GS' design seemed friendly approachable, the iPhone 4 appears more serious and businesslike.
If you find the display on the iPhone 3GS awesome, you'll find the iPhone 4's display doubly awesome - literally, because twice as many pixels are packed onto each inch of its shiny 3.5-inch (8.7-centimeter) screen.
Websites, images and videos look crisper and brighter on the iPhone 4. I queued up an episode of "Glee" on both models and was impressed to see sharper images and more radiant colors on the new phone.
The display is also a good canvas for Apple's new video-calling function, FaceTime, which takes advantage of the iPhone 4's front-facing camera.
With FaceTime, you can make video calls to other iPhone 4 users over Wi-Fi.
Once you've connected with the other caller, you can switch between the front and back cameras - the latter if you want to show your surroundings or other people who want to say hello.
I can imagine using FaceTime to keep in touch with distant friends and family, since it's built right in to the phone and is super simple to use.
You'll need to make sure both of you have a great Wi-Fi connection, though, or it will look more like PixelTime.
When introducing the function, Jobs indicated that it will eventually work over cellular networks (He said Apple needs to "work a little bit" with wireless providers to make it "ready for the future."). I really hope this happens - and works well - soon.
Besides adding a lens on the front, Apple has really beefed up the iPhone's main camera.
I was a fan of the relatively no-frills 3-megapixel camera on the iPhone 3GS; it was easy to use and focus shots, and what you saw on the screen was generally what you got in photos.
The iPhone 4 bumps things up several notches.
The camera now has five megapixels, which means you'll get sharper photos.
It has a pretty bright flash and the ability to record high-definition videos, too.
One anticipated feature of the new iOS4 operating system is the ability to multitask. In the past, you could use the iPhone's built-in iPod music player while browsing websites, but you couldn't, say, listen to music through Pandora and switch to doing something else without having the music stop.
Now, you can rock out with music apps and surf the Web, which makes the iPhone much more capable.
The feature is also super convenient: The iPhone 4 can run a bevy of applications in the background without sucking up battery life, and if you want to check what is open you can just tap twice on the home button.
That pulls up a small dock at the bottom of the screen with tiny icons for each open application; holding your finger down on one of the icons allows you to dismiss one or several of them by tapping on them.
It's also easier to switch between apps without going back to the home screen first.
The battery life on the iPhone 4 is rated as slightly better than the 3GS, and I was able to eke out a little more than five hours of serious multitasking on it.
I made plenty of voice and video calls, surfed the Web, took photos, watched videos, checked Facebook and more.
Even more battery life would be better, but you should get a day of more normal use on a full charge.