Ten years ago this summer, I wrote what can only be described as the most accurate, honest, and, yes, epic review of Apple’s first iPhone. Here it is.
What can be written about the iPhone that hasn’t been discussed ad nauseam already? Plenty, as it turns out. Contrary to the happy-happy-joy-joy reviews that appeared in major Apple-promoting publications like Newsweek, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal during the week of the device’s initial public release, the iPhone doesn’t immediately eclipse all of the existing smart phones currently on the market. Indeed, the iPhone is a paradox: It is as innovative and gorgeous as any Apple device, yes, but it also under-delivers on some really basic smart phone and cell phones features. It is therefore fairly frustrating, especially for Windows users. And that’s a problem, because as with the iPod, the majority of iPhone customers will be running Windows as well.
The iPhone’s reliance on Windows is an important thing to keep in mind because, unlike almost every other smart phone on the market, you can’t use an iPhone without connecting it to a personal computer. That’s because Apple somehow convinced the iPhone’s sole service carrier, the lackluster AT&T, to let it handle all of the registration, activation, and synchronization functionality of the device through its iTunes software. Now, iTunes is generally excellent—I use it to manage my digital music collection, for example, instead of various Microsoft solutions—but the iPhone synchronization stuff is painfully bad. Indeed, you can add the cost of Outlook ($110) to the $500 to $600 you’ll spend on the iPhone itself and the $60 to $100 a month you’ll spend over two years on the iPhone service contract ($1440 to 2400). That’s right: An iPhone could cost you up to $3200 over the two years you’ll use the device, and that doesn’t include the cost of leaving your current phone service contract so you can switch to AT&T. Best case scenario, you’re looking at $1700. We’ll discuss pricing more later in the review, but long story short, the biggest innovation in the iPhone might just be that Apple has convinced millions of people to skip the free phones they can get with any service recommitment and instead pay a $500 to $1000 premium to get their device instead. Nice trick, that.
For that money you’ll get an amazing, drool-worthy device with solid (albeit buggy in 1.0) technology, a decent set of built-in applications, excellent phone functionality, a decent mobile mail experience (with some major caveats), the best-ever mobile phone Web experience, and solid (though, again, very buggy) iPod-like features. The iPhone is all over the map. Compared to traditional smart phones, which very much target business users, the iPhone is, perhaps, the first true consumer-oriented smart phone. It’s all about fun stuff, like You Tube, TV shows, and movies, pretty Google Maps, and photo sharing. Want Exchange compatibility? Sorry. Looking for true integration with Outlook, complete with To-do tasks? Not going to happen. Do you need to edit Office documents? How about download new applications to the phone? Looking for GPS? None of that is available, sorry. The iPhone is as limiting as it is liberating.
And that, really, is why I’ve waited so long to write this review, and why I will publish it over a long period of time. As important as the iPhone is—and I truly do buy into the notion that the iPhone is ushering in a new generation of computerized user interface, I really do—this first rendition is ultimately all about frustration. (Again, especially if you’re a Windows user. Which, again, most iPhone users are.) I’ve read and re-read the first batch of iPhone reviews out there, and I just have to shake my head. Did these guys actually use the iPhone with Windows, and without an Apple technician at their beck and call? Clearly they did not. Because the iPhone crashes a lot. It is missing a lot of obvious functionality. And a lot of the gee-whiz stuff that Apple and those first reviewers like to harp on about constantly actually doesn’t work all the time, or work consistently across applications. Yeah, I know. I sound like a sour, sour man. I mean, what kind of jerk would even bother criticizing Apple? They only make good stuff, right?
Sorry, but I call ’em as I see ’em, and I’m more concerned about the people using the iPhone than I am about Apple or any other company. But if you doubt that I can give Apple products their due, you need to scroll through my Apple-oriented reviews (click here to see a list) from the past few years and notice all the four and five star ratings. I am perfectly willing to applaud the company when they get it right. The iPod, iPod nano, and iPod shuffle are all excellent. I love iTunes, despite some performance issues on Vista. But Apple doesn’t always get it right. The Apple TV is a great example. And the iPhone, in its current form, is another one. I have no doubt that Apple will eventually get it right, ship a bunch of updates, and over time release new and improved iPhone versions. But right now, you might think a bit more clearly about spending $500 to $600 on this device (not to mention the service contract, possible Outlook purchase, and, lest we forget, the potential cost of changing carriers). Because, chances are, after the initial wave of euphoria wears off, which it will, you might just discover that that iPhone is the tech equivalent of a blond bimbo: All looks and no substance. Yeah, I did just compare the iPhone to Jessica Simpson. Deal with it.
On the other hand, I love good technology. And the iPhone is chock full of good technology. Some of what this device does is so amazing, and so revolutionary, that you will literally find yourself mouth agape as you realize that everything you used before is now as passé as black and white TV or VHS tapes. The iPhone, or more correctly, the technology the iPhone delivers in compact, mobile form, is clearly the future of mobile computing. All it needs is some refinement, some functional improvements, and a lower price. It’s coming, people. The history of the iPod shows us how it will happen.
In the meantime, we have iPhone 1.0. Let’s take a look.
Purchasing and activation
As with other high profile consumer electronics devices of the recent past—the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Nintendo Wii come immediately to mind—eager iPhone users lined up in front of Apple and AT&T retail stores on the day the iPhone was first released. That day was Friday, June 29, 2007, and by the time the 6:00 pm selling time arrived, most of these retail locations had dozens of people waiting for the chance to spend $500 or $600. If there’s a better example of event marketing than this, I haven’t seen it: Apple announced the iPhone in January and then managed the build-up to launch with a casual touch that Microsoft would do well to study. As the date got closer and closer, Apple released more and more information, feeding desire and anticipation. Brilliant.
That said, iPhone buyers, on day one or otherwise, face their first frustration with the device the moment they make the purchase. That’s because the iPhone, unlike every other smart phone on the market, cannot be used right way. That’s right: Out of the box, the iPhone is almost useless, though you can call 911 in the event of an emergency. To turn it into a phone, you must first bring it home, plug it into a Mac or Windows XP/Vista-based PC running the latest version of iTunes, and run through a wizard-like process that registers your device, lets you pick a two-year service plan, and then activates it and assigns you a phone number. After all that is done, you need to synchronize the iPhone with your computer-based content. Only then can you actually use it.
The iPhone packaging is, in typical Apple fashion, excellent. The box is a scant 2 x 3 x 5 inches or so, but it doesn’t open out accordion style like the old iPods, but rather like a more conventional (though quite substantial) box. (I’m not sure if they’re still doing this, but on opening day, those purchasing the iPhone at an Apple retail store also got a cute iPhone bag.)
When you slide open the box, you’ll see the iPhone itself, wrapped in protective plastic and mounted on top of an interior container that includes silly little documentation (“Finger tips” and so on), some Apple stickers (natch), and the included hardware: A pair of Apple’s patently bad ear bud headphones (this time with an integrated microphone that doubles as a clicker control for certain iPod functions), a weird iPhone mini-dock, a USB charge/sync cable, and a smallish power adapter, which can be used in conjunction with the USB cable to use wall power to charge the device. (It also charges when connected to the PC.) Each of these hardware nuggets are wrapped in Apple’s standard protective plastic cocoons.
Once you’re done staring at it, you can plug the iPhone into your PC via the USB cable. This will cause iTunes to fire up, if it’s installed, and then you can begin the process of activating, registering, and syncing.
Stepping through the iTunes-based wizard, the first step involves deciding what type of AT&T customer you are: An existing customer replacing your existing phone, an existing customer adding a new phone, or a new customer. New customers can optionally transfer their old mobile phone to the new device. Since I was just testing the iPhone, I decided to keep my old number and service on Verizon, which proved to be a smart move. But most people will likely want to transfer their old number to the new phone, regardless of where they previously received cell phone service.
Next, you have to pick your monthly AT&T service plan. AT&T offers three plans to iPhone users and, unlike with other smart phones, they’re all expensive because you have to get unlimited data plan as part of the package: Apparently, the iPhone experience would be second rate if you couldn’t access the Internet at all times. The plans range in cost from $59.99 for 450 minutes to $79.99 for 900 minutes, and to $99.99 for 1350 minutes. Each plan includes unlimited data (email and Web), visual voicemail, 200 SMS text messages, rollover minutes, and unlimited mobile to mobile calls within the AT&T network. The low-end plan caps out at 5000 night and weekend minutes, but the other two offer unlimited off-peak usage. Heavy SMS users can upgrade to 150 SMS messages or unlimited SMS messages for $10 or $20 a month, respectively. All of these plans require a two year service contract with AT&T, which is standard practice for all phone service plans these days in the US.
Next, you logon or create your Apple ID, which is used as your iTunes account. Then, Apple asks you to enter your birth date and optionally sign up for some email newsletters, and provide your full billing address (including, curiously, your social security number, which has rankled some privacy advocates). After that, you must accept the iPhone terms and conditions and AT&T service agreement, review your information, and wait while AT&T processes your iPhone’s activation. Note that while many people experienced problems activating the iPhone on June 29 (including me), this problem seems to have settled down since then.
When activation is complete, AT&T will assign you a phone number based on the area code of the address you supplied. You cannot ask for a new number or choose from a list of numbers, though presumably you could visit an AT&T store and request a change. I happened to luck out with my number, which is quite easy to remember. From there, you set up your phone for initial synchronization.
Sync it, sync it bad
In its initial shipping form, PC synchronization is the weak link, especially on Windows, which I’ll focus on here. Windows-based iPhone users will be presented with a list of personal information management (PIM) sync points, including contacts, calendars, email accounts, and bookmarks. But most are limited in horrible ways. Most glaringly, there are no Mozilla options at all. If you use Thunderbird for mail, Firefox for Web browsing, or the admittedly less popular Sunbird for calendaring, you’re completely out of luck.
For contacts, you can sync with the Yahoo! address book (part of the free Yahoo! Mail Webmail service), Windows Contacts, or Outlook. That’s it. No Hotmail, Gmail, AOL, Eudora, or Thunderbird. Sadly, contacts is the full-featured sync item.
To sync with a calendar, you need Outlook, and after extensive testing, I can tell you that Outlook calendar sync only actually works with the default local calendar, despite UI that suggests that the iPhone, like the iPod, go figure, can sync with multiple Outlook calendars. It cannot. Furthermore, the iPhone doesn’t support Outlook’s Tasks list at all. So keep your To-do items on a piece of paper like it’s 1978. But I’m most confused why the iPhone doesn’t support popular Web calendars like Google Calendar. This is a huge lapse, though it could be partially filled if Outlook support actually worked: Then, in Outlook 2007 at least, you could at least subscribe to a Web-based calendar and sync that way.
For email, you can sync with Windows Mail (or, in XP, Outlook Express) or Outlook. But the iPhone’s email sync is so limited and arbitrarily different between each type of account it supports that I ended up just turning this off. If you’re into POP email support, or happen to use one of the email services that actually works pretty well with the iPhone (read: Yahoo! Mail and .Mac mail only), then this might be of interest to you. But here, again, the iPhone simply ignores some of the most popular email solutions on earth, notably Hotmail.
Bookmarks might be the most laughable item on the list. You can sync with Internet Explorer or, seriously, Apple’s Safari. But since no one in their right mind would ever use Safari, IE is pretty much the only real option here. Seriously, this is useless without Firefox support.
Once you’ve configured synchronization, iTunes syncs up with the device. But there’s more to do. Via the now familiar multi-tab interface that it introduced in iTunes 7 last year, you can configure how the iPhone synchronizes with various items, including the aforementioned PIM options, which are configured via the Info page. On the Music page, you configure which playlists, music, audio books, and music videos sync with the device. (Podcasts, curiously, get their own tab.) Because the iPhone includes just 4 or 8 GB of storage space, however, you may need to whittle down which items to sync. For this reason, the creation of good playlists is a must.
On the Photos page, you determine which photos will be synced with the device. On the PC, you can choose between Photoshop Elements, the Pictures folder (My Pictures in XP), or a folder. Sadly, iTunes is tragically inept when it comes to folder selection, so you can only choose between the folders that are found directly under Pictures. If you have folders elsewhere on you hard drive, or at a deeper hierarchical level, you’re out of luck. For this reason, I manually created a folder called iPhone photos and copied into it a handful of photos for viewing on the phone. As with the iPod, photo sync is very slow at first because iPhone actually creates smaller versions of each photo before copying them to the device.
On the Podcasts page, you choose which podcasts to sync to the iPhone. You can sync all podcasts, the most recent 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 10 recent podcasts or recent unplayed podcasts, and select exactly which podcasts you’d like to sync.
The Video page lets you sync with TV shows and movies you’ve purchased from the iTunes Store. Again, the iPhone’s limited storage space becomes an issue when a typical movie weighs in at over 1 GB.
Overall, the sync experience on the iPhone is frustrating. The iPod-like stuff works as you’d expect, but the PIM options are very limited. This is especially disturbing when you realize, as I did after multiple reinstalls of various Windows and Outlook versions, that the iPhone doesn’t even handle multiple Outlook calendars as does the iPod. That just doesn’t make sense.
I have no doubt that Apple will improve the number and quality of the sync points for the iPhone over time. But as it now stands, you’re going to be out of luck unless you’re an Outlook user who only uses the default local calendar. That doesn’t seem like a big group of people to me.
Here’s how I sync my PIM information with the iPhone. My master contacts list is still in Outlook, even though I’ve switched to Web-based Gmail for email. (While the details are complex, I will just point out that Gmail is useless for contacts management because it adds a contact every time you reply to an email, and I don’t want that.) My calendar is on Google Calendar. Displaying Google Calendar is easy in Outlook 2007, because you can subscribe to Internet-based calendars, but when you do so, it creates a new calendar, and the iPhone won’t see it. To work around this limitation, I use a product called SyncMyCal to sync Google Calendar into the default local calendar in Outlook. That way, my schedule actually makes it into the iPhone. I don’t sync email with the iPhone because I don’t use either Outlook or Windows Mail for email; however, I did set up access to various email services from the device itself, which I’ll look at in a future part of this review. And I don’t use IE for the Web, so I configured Safari for syncing out of the hope that I could simply create a small list of mobile-friendly bookmarks that work well on the iPhone. I’ll look at this, too, in the future. However, if Apple offered Firefox sync, I’d probably switch to that.
As a long-time PDA and smart phone user, I have certain expectations of any mobile device. These expectations revolve around such mundane tasks as synchronizing with my PIM data and allowing me to access the Internet, through the phone’s Internet connection, with my notebook computers. As it turns out, my current smart phone, a Motorola Q used via Verizon’s high-speed EV-DO network, is much more capable than the iPhone in this regard.
But before I get critical, understand this: The technology in the iPhone is of a completely different caliber than anything found in any smart phone currently being sold in the US. Indeed, the iPhone is a technological crossroads joining traditional smart phones (i.e. pre-iPhone smart phones) with the Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC), Microsoft’s ultra-mobile computing platform. So we’re talking about a device that is head and shoulders, technologically, above most other portable devices of this size. With technology, of course, comes some complexity. But Apple is good at making things simple, even if it often does so at the expense of functionality.
So let’s take a look at the core technology Apple put in the iPhone, not just to revel in what it is, but rather to discover how it impacts users in the real world.
Design and aesthetics
Make no mistake, the iPhone is one gorgeous device. I’m not exactly a social butterfly, but people have approached me to discuss the iPhone I’m holding in numbers that I’ve never experienced. (The only thing that ever came close was my 12-inch PowerBook G3, also an Apple device, which used to garner unsolicited comments from people on a fairly regular basis years ago.) As is customary now with Apple mobile devices, the iPhone is much thinner and lighter in person than you assume it will be after viewing photos of it online. Its screen is sleeker and more photo-realistic than seems possible. It looks, almost, like a device from the future, and as one reviewer accurately put it (in a rare example where mainstream press hyperbole is actually true), the iPhone makes all other smart phones look like Soviet-era machinery by comparison. No doubt about it, there’s the iPhone and then there’s everything else.
Every component on the iPhone feels solid. The glass screen is of obvious high-quality and, so far, it has resisted scratching admirably. This is particularly amazing when you consider that the original iPod nano would scratch horribly if you looked at it funny. As I noted in my review of that device, my nano scratched almost the minute I got it out of the packaging, and I was particularly careful with it. This isn’t an issue with the iPhone, though you’ll naturally want to protect the elegant little device as if it were a baby. I’ve been fairly rough with it, and aside from regularly needing to de-smudge the screen (as expected on a touch screen-based device), I’ve seen no real scratches on the screen after weeks of regular use. This is true of most other exterior parts of the device, including its back (another particularly scratch-tastic part of every iPod ever made) and its plastic bottom.
Sadly, the curved metal strip that rings the screen and front of the device is the weak point here. Weeks into my tests, this strip is marred, scratched, and otherwise stained with marks that look like they’ll rub right off but don’t. Unlike the screen, which has proven surprisingly resilient, this strip looks like it’s ready to start rusting and falling apart. I won’t be surprised to discover that future iPhone models use a different material. Otherwise, the hardware has held up wonderfully.
Compared to a new iPod, the iPhone is taller but thinner and features more curved corners, which lend the device an elegant, almost feminine look. (This is no phone for manly-men.) It is taller than you might think, though the screen is not technically widescreen at 480 x 320. Like many modern cars, the black plastic at the sides of the screen give the visual effect of a larger area of glass than is really present.
The iPhone comes with a silly little iPhone-specific dock. Why Apple didn’t just ship the standard iPod dock with the device, along with accompanying iPhone-compatible cutouts, is unclear. The iPhone dock includes a Line Out port but not an IR port for the Apple Remote, as does the iPod dock. The iPhone’s USB cable, used for charging and syncing, is shorter than I’d like and can’t cover the distance to the back of my PC as the iPod’s USB cable can. You can charge and sync the iPhone via the Dock or just with the cable, which also plugs directly into the iPod docking port on the bottom of the device. Apple also supplies a nice USB-based charging block, which is small and cute and plugs into a wall socket. Combined with the USB cable, you can use this plug to charge the iPhone directly from the wall, which will be appreciated by those who travel with the device. That said, the iPhone gets tremendous battery life for a smart phone. I’ll be interested to see how this holds up over time.
As is always the case with Apple’s hardware, the company has made some bad decisions with the iPhone that favor form over function. (Remember, this the company that wouldn’t put a numerical keyboard on the first Mac. Same idea.) Apple seems so concerned with design these days that they sacrifice basic functionality that competing devices (be they computers, MP3 players, living room media hubs, or, now, smart phones) have had for years. There are two glaring examples on the iPhone. The first is its non-standard headphone jack, which has been designed to fit within the curved area of the corner of the device in which it sits, instead of conforming to the standard headphone jack spec that is used by every single other device out there. As a result, most headphones will not work with the iPhone—certainly, none of mine did—so you’ll need to buy an adapter (I picked up a handy $10 adapter from Belkin) or just deal with it and use Apple’s sub-standard iPhone headphones. (Which, admittedly, do include a cool additional nubbin on the cord that works as a microphone and an iPod Play/Pause and Fast Forward control.) What a terrible and unnecessary decision.
The second big design mistake was not including a dedicated Back button. Let’s say you’re reading your email and you tap on a Web hyperlink in the email. This causes Safari to start up, open a new page, and navigate to the link you tapped. When you’re done reading that page, you can’t just go back to the email application, because there’s no Back button. So you have to take the additional steps of remembering what you were just doing, tapping Home (the only dedicated hardware button on the face of the device), and then finding and selecting Mail from the Home menu. Doesn’t sound like much? Every extra step counts when you’re on the go and navigating a UI on a tiny screen. And this is only one example: Every time you move from application to application, you need to deal with this. A simple Back button—again, a common feature on virtually every phone sold today—would solve the problem nicely. After all, we’re supposed to be enjoying the multitasking nature of OS X (see below), right?
There are other design gaffs. The iPhone feature a volume rocker on its left side, which lets you move the volume up and down. But when you lay the device on its side, to watch a TV show, movie, or other video, these buttons are on the bottom of the device and thus hard to reach. (And no, curiously, you can’t turn it the other way: Video watching only works horizontally in one direction.) So when I’m at the gym on the elliptical trainer watching the copy of “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan” I purchased from the iTunes Store, I can’t easily change the volume, because the buttons are under the device. (There is an onscreen volume slider, but that’s even harder to use when you’re moving.)
In keeping with my comments about the lack of a Back button, the iPhone is also lacking a dedicated camera button. So in order to use the device’s camera, you have to turn it on, slide unlock it, type in your four-digit passcode if you’ve configured it for security (which you should do if all your personal info is on there), tap the Camera icon, aim, and then tap the Camera button. That’s a lot of steps, and the camera—which admittedly takes gorgeous 2 mega-pixel photos in daylight but is a complete waste of time otherwise—is lacking any kind of zoom (optical or digital) and a flash. Talk about a compromise. (More about this in a bit.)
These quibbles aside, the iPhone is elegant, beautiful, and trendsetting. And as noted, it makes every other mobile device on the planet look sick by comparison. Literally, there is the iPhone and then there is everything else. But I caution against getting too caught up in the look of the device. Oftentimes, functionality is far more important than good looks. This is an area where Apple might reconsider its priorities at least somewhat.
The iPhone’s multi-touch screen is the device’s crown jewel, in my opinion, and the one thing that makes true Steve Jobs’ belief that the iPhone will do for computer UIs for the next 20 years as the first Mac did for the previous 20. Navigating around the device is a delight—unless it’s freezing up, which does happen with painful regularity—thanks to its finger-based navigational system. Want to launch an application? Tap it’s icon with your finger. Need to write an email? Tap it out on the system’s virtual keyboard. Want to change the aspect ratio of a playing movie? Double-tap the screen.
OK, so touch screens have been around for a long time. Big deal, right? Well, the iPhone sports multi-touch screen technology that is quite a bit more advanced. You can perform flick-like actions to navigate through lists of text, your music collection in Cover Flow mode, or a group of photos. You can squeeze your fingers together to zoom in applications like Maps and Photos, or do the reverse movement (“de-squeeze”?) to zoom out. The effect is delightful and it never gets old. (Of courses, it’s debatable whether these apps have staying power for a typical phone user. I mean, how often do you sit there and flick through photos on such a small screen?)
It also shows up in the lock screen when you turn on the iPhone and you get a “Slide to unlock” control that lets you access the device. A simple and natural flick of the finger and you’re in. (Well, assuming you didn’t lock it down with a four digit passcode.)
The simplest multi-touch capability, flick, shows up the most often. In every iPhone application where the display extends below the edge of the physical screen, you can flick the screen in gentle motions to scroll. In fact, just about every application supports this, including Weather, where you can flick left and right to move from city to city. (The only application that doesn’t support flick at all is Calculator.)
The squeezing stuff is perhaps even more amazing. If you’re ever looking to show off the iPhone, simply jump into your photo collection, flick between photos, and then zoom in on one by squeezing the screen with your fingers. Amazing. This also works in Maps to great effect. As Steve Jobs demonstrated when he announced the iPhone in January, this is a full-featured version (if simplified compared to the PC version) of Google Maps, and you can zoom in on famous landmarks like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Washington Monument in Washington D.C.
The touch screen interface in the iPhone works well in ways that other touch screens never do, and I have to say that this device has completely revitalized my interest in this form of interaction. It’s just so seamless and natural. No, you can’t use all the actions in every application, but why would you be able to? There’s no reason to squeeze zoom in Weather or Clock, for example. This is one area where Apple just nailed it. Multi-touch works wonderfully.
The iPhone uses a hardware accelerometer to detect how you are viewing the screen and it will sometimes rotate the screen automatically to match the degree of rotation. I say sometimes because, quite frankly, it doesn’t always work, depending on what you’re doing, and some applications don’t support rotating in both directions. In fact, the iPhone can only be used in standard portrait mode most of the time. When this rotation feature is supported, it works great for the most part. One gotcha is the virtual keyboard (see below). When this keyboard is displayed, you can’t switch between portrait and landscape modes, inexplicably, even in those few applications that support the keyboard in both modes.
So where does the screen rotation work, not work, and kind of work? On the Home screen, and on the lock screen—where you see the wallpaper and the “Slide to unlock” control when you turn on the device, and where you enter your passcode (if you do)—you can’t rotate the screen all. It’s stuck in portrait mode, sorry. But how about the apps? Here’s how they break down from a rotation standpoint:
Phone: Portrait only.
Mail: Portrait only.
Safari: Portrait and landscape.
iPod: Portrait and landscape (but only partially; lists are always portrait; video is not)
SMS: Portrait only.
Calendar: Portrait only.
Photos: Both, but only portrait when viewing lists.
YouTube: Portrait only for lists; landscape only for viewing videos.
Stocks: Portrait only.
Maps: Portrait only, which is inexplicable. This app cries out for landscape mode.
Weather: Portrait only.
Clock: Portrait only.
Calculator: Portrait only.
Notes: Portrait only.
Settings: Portrait only.
See the trend? Despite its amazing automatic rotation capabilities, the iPhone only allows you to use this feature in very few places. It’s great when it happens but frustrating when it doesn’t. And sometimes it just gets messed up, displaying the wrong orientation or not changing when you rotate the screen. I’m sure they’ll get it fixed.
There is one truly wonderful use of this technology, however: When you’re done with a phone call and take the phone down from away from your face, the accelerometer kicks in and the phone automatically displays the call options screen. It’s just a nice touch, thoughtfully implemented.
It is the iPhone’s most controversial and hotly-debated feature. When Apple announced that the device would use a software-based virtual onscreen keyboard instead of the “inferior” small hardware keyboards found on all other smart phones, I had my doubts. Now that I’ve actually used the thing, I have even more doubts. It just doesn’t work as well as a real keyboard, sorry.
That said, it’s excellent for a virtual keyboard though my humongous fingers often mistype letters, and it seems to track horribly and obviously to the right. It works best by tapping it with your pointer finger rather than grasping the device with two hands and going nuts like a Blackberry user would. And that’s the problem: If you can master the two-thumb typing style, you can get some real typing speed going, and the world of mobile email and SMS messages is yours. With a single finger, however, you have to move slowly and methodically and really watch the screen to make sure you’re hitting the right keys. The device needs a slide-out hardware keyboard badly, and now. Even a clip-on would be appreciated.
Of course, even if you do master the two-thumb style on the iPhone, chances are you’re only going to be able to do that using the device in landscape mode, where it fits more easily into your hands. The problem there is that the keyboard isn’t available in this mode in many applications, or at least not consistently. For example, you can’t use Notes, SMS, or Email in landscape mode at all, sorry, and those are the three most obvious places where you’d need to do a lot of typing. Haven’t the iPhone engineers ever actually used a mobile device?
But back to the actual keyboard. It pops up where you’d expect and works fairly logically with some additional caveats. You can’t, for example, switch between portrait and landscape mode while the keyboard is being displayed. So in those rare cases where an iPhone application actually supports the keyboard in both modes (Safari, mostly), you have to choose your orientation before you enable the keyboard. That’s dumb, because you might be browsing in portrait, need to type in a Web address, tap the Address Bar, realize you’d rather type in landscape mode, and then rotate the device around. Nothing happens: The screen, with the onscreen keyboard, is stuck in portrait mode and is now sideways.
The virtual keyboard supports auto-completion, sometimes, but it’s not particularly well implemented. Let’s look at a few examples:
You want to type “This is an email,” so you start with “This i” and the iPhone recommends “I” for the word “is”. It’s the only choice.
You want to type “This can work” and start with “This ca”. The iPhone recommends “da” in place of “ca” (yes, seriously).
You want to type “This phone is really nice,” and start with “This phone is rea”. The iPhone recommends replacing “rea” with “tea.”
OK, so the autocorrect library needs work, whatever. I don’t see that as a huge issue. But the way Apple implemented autocorrect acceptance and rejection is suspect too. Let’s say you do want to accept the word that autocorrect is offering. This happens every once in a while. To accept the word, you tap Space. Makes sense. But to reject it, you actually tap the suggested word, on the screen, with your finger. Huh?
Overall, I find autocorrect to be unnecessary. In fact, I’d like to just turn it off.
Ambient light sensor
The iPhone features an ambient light sensor that detects how much light is available around you and then sets the device’s screen brightness accordingly. Normally, I don’t like this kind of feature, but it seems to work fine in the iPhone and I’ve never once looked at the thing and wished the display could be brighter.
As a mobile communications device, the iPhone is outfitted with a mostly first-class selection of wireless technologies, including 802.11b/g Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 2.0 with EDR. There is, however, one major problem: AT&T’s EDGE network. Sometimes referred to as a “2.5G” network, compared to the true 3G networks with which it competes, EDGE is a handy reminder about how bad dial-up networking used to be. It is slow, unreliable, and gets terrible reception. It is the one iPhone feature that will turn off any true gadget freak. Fortunately, the iPhone defaults to Wi-Fi if it’s available. Increasingly, that will be a great option, but until every city around the world offers free Wi-Fi, iPhone users are going to be stuck with EDGE. It’s an embarrassment.
Further problematic, the iPhone can’t be used as a high-speed modem for your notebook computer, as you can do with Sprint and Verizon phones. I use Verizon’s high-speed EV-DO network with my Motorola Q to get my notebooks online while on the road and it works like a champ. (EV-DO is much, much faster than EDGE.) So not only is EDGE slower and less reliable than EV-DO, it’s also less useful even when it does work. Internet access on a phone is nice, but less interesting if you can’t get real work done on the device. Internet access on a computer is therefore still crucial.
The iPhone comes with either 4 or 8 GB of internal [storage], which is unbelievable in a day and age in which most smart phones ship with about 64 MB of [storage]. That said, the iPhone’s [storage] is not expandable in any way because you can’t plug in an external memory card. And that’s a shame: My Motorola Q is readily expandable, and flash memory is inexpensive. That’s the way it should be. Still, within the black box confines of Apple’s platforms, you gotta love the heaping amounts of [storage]. 4 to 8 GB of [storage] is enough for anything but the largest music collections or more than a handful of feature-length films.
Based on Mac OS X
Apple makes a big deal out of the fact that the iPhone runs a version of Mac OS X, though the company does nothing to highlight what the differences are between the traditional desktop version of Mac OS X and the version that’s on the iPhone. More to the point, so what? To the average iPhone user, the inclusion of OS X means absolutely nothing, and the device actually falls short in two key areas where OS X itself is generally well-regarded. First, it is incredibly buggy, and the bundled iPhone applications crash fairly regularly. Second, while the bundled software is high quality, the system isn’t extensible in any meaningful way for third party developers. You can’t download additional applications at all, from Apple, AT&T or any other source. You’re just stuck with the bundled applications, which again, are generally high quality. But that’s it. Every other smart phone on the planet allows users to install third party applications, and with those OS X underpinnings, developers would already have a leg up on iPhone development. What a wasted opportunity to establish an ecosystem.
And what’s up with the lack of cut/copy and paste? This is a basic OS feature that Apple included in the first Mac OS almost 25 years ago. It’s inexplicably missing from the iPhone, unavailable in any application or the wider system itself. Unreal.
Further problematic, the iPhone’s OS X foundation might actually be a weakness, not a strength. Within weeks of the device’s release, security researchers found glaring security holes in the iPhone, which they reported immediately to Apple. (As of this writing, they’ve not yet been fixed.) These flaws come about only because the iPhone is based on a complicated, comparatively easily-compromised PC operating system and not simpler technology that was made specifically for the smart phone market. Microsoft’s smart phone OS, Windows Mobile, by comparison, is based on a smaller codebase than its desktop products and is thus less complex. (It’s also highly componentized.) That’s not to say that Windows Mobile is “more secure” than the iPhone. But because the iPhone is generating so much excitement, hackers will naturally turn their attention to this device, just as they do with Windows in the PC market. Hackers, like terrorists, typically strike at soft, high profile targets.
In short, there’s a lot of promise to OS X in the iPhone, but there are also some troubling questions. OS X is a great operating system for computers. But the reality is that this feature is absolutely meaningless to the iPhone user, given the stability issues and lack of extensibility that mar the iPhone experience today. And the security questions remain. It will be interesting to see how Apple responds: Despite their assertions to the contrary, their security response time on the computer side has been slower than that of competitors like Microsoft. This is somewhat more acceptable when the product, OS X, is not very popular and is thus not attacked. But the iPhone is popular and will become even more so over time. Apple needs to adjust its strategy for dealing with these issues, as Microsoft did years ago.
Where we go from here
So I’ve raised a bunch of issues here. Sure enough, in this 1.0 implementation, the iPhone has a lot of problems. But take a step back and remember that we’re talking about a product that has completely rewritten the rules for what handheld mobile devices can do. From a technological standpoint, the iPhone has no peer. And while it’s easy to point out gaffs and bone-headed design decisions, the truth is that the iPhone is technologically impressive. Yes, I would have preferred that Apple had done some things differently, and as a user I can certainly point to features I’d like to see improved. But for the most part, Apple got the core technology right, and smart phone makers around the world are no doubt scrambling to copy its key features. Hopefully, future iPhone revisions will address the Back and camera button issues, allow for memory expansion, and fix all the niggling software issues I’ve addressed here. I doubt it, but you never know. For now, we’re stuck with the hardware Apple has provided. I don’t feel too bad about that.
It slices, it dices, and it will even work as a dessert spread, but when you strip away all the hype, the amazing whiz-bang features, and the other hullabaloo that surrounds the iPhone, the device is, at heart, simply a wireless phone. So while you may delight in flicking through photos and music collections, zooming in on the Eiffel Tower in Google Maps, or watching ridiculous videos on You Tube, most people will eventually settle down and use the iPhone’s telephone features most frequently. For these consumers, I’ve got some good news: The iPhone is a tremendous, world-class phone.
Most of the time that you’re using the iPhone as a phone, you’ll be using a built-in application that’s called, logically enough, Phone. I’ll focus on this Phone application in this part of the review, but also touch on related functionality such as contacts synching, international calling, and various phone-related Settings, all of which directly impact the overall phone experience on the device.
Everything but the kitchen sync
Earlier, I discussed how terrible iPhone synchronization is, and I stand by that assertion: Today, over a month after Apple first started selling the iPhone, synchronization between this trendy and trendsetting device and your PC-based data is appallingly bad, especially for the Windows users who constitute the vast majority of the iPhone user base. Refer back to that part of the review if you’re not familiar with the issues I raised. They’re very real and very problematic.
For phone usage, of course, the big sync concern is synchronization. On Windows Vista, Apple only supports a very small selection of contacts sources for this synchronization.
These sources include:
Yahoo! Address Book. Users of Yahoo! Mail, which for some strange reason is the only first-class email experience offered on the iPhone, can sync indirectly between their Yahoo!-based contacts list and the iPhone. (I say “indirectly” because you cannot do this wirelessly from the device; Yahoo! Address Book sync occurs via the iTunes-based PC on which you sync with the iPhone.) There is one limitation to Yahoo!-based contacts synchronization, however: Though the iPhone supports a photo associated with each contact, this information is not transmitted to Yahoo! Address Book as it is to the following two options because Yahoo! does not support this functionality.
Windows Contacts. In Windows Vista, Windows Contacts is the new version of what used to be called Windows Address Book (WAB). Windows Contacts has been thoroughly updated over its predecessor, is based on new Windows shell functionality, and uses a new data format, the .contact file, for storing individual contacts. (In WAB, all contacts were stored in a single file, yup, called a .wab file; if you’re using XP instead of Vista, iPhone does support WAB as well.) Windows Contacts is, well, part of Vista, and it’s not very interesting, though third party applications are welcome to use its contacts database if they’d like. To date, none have, to my knowledge. But if you do use Windows Mail (and really, God help you if that’s the case), then this is where your contacts are managed.
Outlook. As with the iPod, the iPhone supports syncing contacts with Outlook, Microsoft’s premier personal information management (PIM) and email solution. As I documented earlier, the iPhone’s support for Outlook is lackluster, though my problems in that regard mostly involve issues with Outlook’s calendaring support. If you’re just syncing between Outlook’s Contacts module and iPhone, all should be well.
Notice any limitations here? First and most obviously, Yahoo! is the only Web-based email/contacts store supported: If you use Hotmail, Gmail, AOL, or any other Web-based email service, you cannot sync between contacts stored there and the iPhone. This is a glaring functional lapse that the early Mac-using iPhone reviewers neatly skipped over as they stumbled all over themselves trying to think of new superlatives. Heck, Apple doesn’t even offer a way to export contacts from these locations in order to get them into the iPhone.
But it doesn’t end there. The iPhone also doesn’t sync contacts with a number of other popular applications and services, including Mozilla Thunderbird, Eudora, Facebook, and so on. If you happen to use one of the few supported sync partners, you’re in luck. If you don’t, you’re screwed, and even more so when you realize that because Apple won’t allow third party developers to extend the iPhone’s capabilities in any way, there’s no way that anyone outside Apple can ever add this support. So you’re left simply praying that Apple will eventually choose to provide synchronization capabilities for the contacts manager you use. Or, you could be pragmatic and just switch services. Hey, simplicity is the Apple way, right?
If you are using one of the three officially supported sync points for contacts under Windows, you’re all set: I’ve tested all three, and all appear to work nearly identically (with the caveat that Yahoo! Address Book will not sync contact photos). You can even assign photos to contacts from within iPhone, and they’ll sync back to your PC-based contacts application, which is a nice touch. And once you’ve gotten your contacts onto your iPhone, you might actually want to start calling people and receiving calls. This, again, is where iPhone truly shines.
While I can point to many iPhone features and wonder aloud whether the Apple engineers responsible for this feature have ever even used a smart phone—they seemed to have thrown out as many good ideas as they have invented innovative new ones—the device’s phone functionality does not suffer similarly. Instead, with Phone, the iPhone’s telephone application, it appears that Apple has completely rethought the way that cell phones can operate, and instead of throwing out good ideas, it has only added brilliant, almost strikingly obvious improvements. The iPhone is a first-class telephone, and is easily the nicest cellular phone I’ve ever used.
As noted previously, you generally access the iPhone’s phone functionality via the Phone application, which is represented by a green Phone button in the home row of icons along the bottom of the Home screen, to the left of Mail, Safari, and iPod. Naturally, you don’t always have to go there manually, as this is a phone, after all. If you receive a call, for example, the iPhone jumps immediately into phone mode via the Call Screen, so you can answer the call even if the device was sleeping and is locked. Or you’ll be prompted to interrupt whatever else you may be doing, whether it’s listening to music, viewing the Weather applet, or browsing the Web. On the iPhone, telephone calls are job one. That’s exactly the way it should be.
When you do manually navigate into the Phone application, you’ll see a number of selections, most of which are list-based, which let you navigate through most-often-used contacts (Favorites), most-recently-accessed contacts and phone numbers (whether sent or received, or even missed; this is called Recents), your full contacts list (Contacts), a virtual phone keypad for making manual phone calls (Keypad), and visual voicemail, Apple’s innovative approach to answering machine software (Voicemail). Let’s take a quick look at each of these modules:
Favorites. Initially empty by default, this is a list of your “favorite” contact phone numbers, or more likely, a list of the phone numbers you call most often. This is handy because it lets you bypass less efficient (i.e. longer) contacts list (like Contacts or the oddly named Recents) and access an artificially shortened list of exact phone numbers you want. On my Favorites list, I’ve added a number of friends (often two each, one for home or work and mobile) and my wife (two; one for home, one for work). When you click an entry in the list, the phone dials the associated number immediately.
To add a phone number to your Favorites list, navigate through the Contacts list (described below), open an individual contact, and scroll to the bottom. There, you’ll see an option titled “Add to Favorites.” When you click that, a sub-screen will slide up with a list of the possible phone numbers to add (work, home, mobile, etc.). Click one of those to add the number to the list. Nice!
Recents. This option displays one of two lists, either a list of all the most recent calls you’ve made, received, and missed (sorted in chronological order from recent to past), or a list of just the missed calls (sorted identically). Missed calls are always colored red (in both lists) so they stand out. If you click on an entry in either list, you’ll dial the associated number. Or, you can click on the small chevron to the right side of each entry to see more information. If the number is in your Contacts list, you’ll see the contact associated with that number. Some numbers in these lists won’t be in your Contacts, of course. In such cases, clicking that chevron will just display a contact card with the number, the date and time of the call, and buttons for Call, Text Message, Create New Contact, and Add to Existing Contact. These are all very logical and thoughtful.
Contacts. Here, you will see your full list of synchronized contacts, sorted alphabetically. Because the list can be quite long and extend well below the logical bottom of the iPhone screen, Apple has provided an elegant and obvious solution for moving down the list quickly: Along the right side of the screen is a list of characters from A to Z and then #, which you tap to move in large chunks. The characters are absolutely tiny, but it works fine, even with my large fingers. And of course you can always scroll through the list manually if you’d prefer.
To add a new contact manually, click the “+” button at the top right of the Contacts list. There is room for first and last names, a photo, various phone numbers and ring tones, email address, a URL, addresses, and even a custom field for other information. While I feel that most iPhone users will typically start off with a big list of PC-based contacts, many will likely start adding contacts directly through the device itself thanks to its relatively friendly ability to do so.
You can also edit existing contacts by opening them on the iPhone and then tapping the Edit button, found in the upper right of the screen. This provides you with a screen very similar to that in the New Contacts screen, except that each existing item has a red “-” icon next to it for deletion and each potential new item (Add new Phone, Assign Ringtone, etc.) has a green “+”. You can also delete contacts via this page, using the large and prominent red “Delete” button down at the bottom.
Most everything in Contacts works as you’d expect. You can tap any phone number on a contacts screen to dial that number, for example, or tap any email address to send a new email. Tap an address and Google Maps jumps to life. (You can’t, however, tap a hyperlink in the Note field to launch the Safari browser. Inconsistencies like this are mind-boggling.)
Keypad. While most smart phone users will typically almost never dial a phone manually, sometimes you just don’t have a choice. In this instance, the iPhone offers a dramatically better solution than the tiny alpha-numeric keyboards found on many smart phones: Rather force you to tap out the number on the tiny subset of the full keyboard that includes numbers, as I must do on my Motorola Q, the iPhone offers a Keypad module in the Phone application that presents a full-screen virtual number pad with all ten numbers, * and # keys, a prominent green Call button, and buttons for adding a contact and deleting the previous key press. This screen is so disarmingly simple and so obviously better than what’s offered on smart phones with full keypads that it’s almost hilarious, especially when you hear the faux phone sounds it makes as you tap away. This is a great example of where the iPhone’s virtual keyboard functionality just works.
Fun tip: If you type in a number that already exists in your Contacts list, the iPhone will note that by displaying the contact name and location (home, work, mobile, and so on) under the number. That way, you won’t inadvertently re-add existing numbers to your contacts list. Nice!
Voicemail. The iPhone’s “visual voicemail” is often heralded as one of the device’s truly innovative features, and I have to agree with that one, though like most of what’s great about the iPhone, it’s so silly obvious you have to wonder why no one else thought of it first. Rather than force iPhone users to navigate through the same stupid voice-based mailboxes that other phones must use (was “9” delete or archive?), Apple has instead provided a truly visual view of available voicemails. Each voicemail is displayed on its own line, in chronological order, and each provides the name of the caller when available and the date called. At the bottom of the screen is a playback slider, a Call Back button, and a Delete button. At the top, a handy Speaker button lets you toggle between speakerphone and normal playback.
To play a voice mail, simply tap it in the list. Here, you see the first voicemail innovation: You aren’t forced to listen to voicemail in order but can instead skip through the list and choose to listen to the voicemails in the order you choose. As the message plays, the playback slider updates to note your progress through the message, and you can jump ahead or back by clicking the slider at any point. This is the second innovation: Arbitrary message playback.
The Call Back and Delete buttons represent the third innovation: Rather than forcing you to remember arbitrary menu commands, you simply click the choice you want. It’s obvious, simple, and intuitive. Oh, and its visual, just as its name suggests.
Finally, you can also record your voicemail greeting with the iPhone, directly from this UI, without again having to navigate some lame phone company voice menu. Halleluiah.
The Call screen
It gets better. When you’re actually in a phone call, the iPhone display switches to a special screen, which I think of as the Call screen. It’s a thing of beauty: Along the top, you’ll see the name of the person to whom you’re talking and, if available, the photo you’ve associated with their contacts entry. Below that is a timer providing you with an up-to-date view of the length of the call. Below that, in the center of the display, is a small six-button virtual keypad with large buttons, one each for Mute, Keypad, Speaker, Add Call, Hold, and Contacts; below that is a large red End Call button. Here’s what the six buttons do:
Mute. This mutes the current call.
Keypad. This changes the display to the iPhone’s virtual keypad, as described in the previous section.
Speaker. This places the iPhone into speakerphone mode, so you can communicate without holding the device against your face or with the bundled headset.
Add Call. This lets you add another caller to the current call, providing you with instant conference call capabilities. Has it ever been this easy?
Hold. Place the current call on hold, minus the elevator music. Which, frankly, would be hilarious.
Contacts. Allows you to access your full Contacts list.
In use, the iPhone is a wonderful phone not just because of the aforementioned functionality, but because you can mix and match what you’re doing. For example, let’s say you’re in a call and you want to look something up. Simply take the phone down from your ear (if you’re using it without the bundled headset) and tap the Speaker button to put the device into speakerphone mode. Then, tap the Home key and navigate into the iPhone application you want. All the while, your phone call continues and you’re able to get other things done. If you receive a new call while on a call, you can add them into the current conversation, put the current call on hold and answer it, or choose to ignore it. And I particularly like the way the iPhone senses that you’re moving the phone down from your face, thanks to its built-in accelerometer, and lights up the Call screen so you can see what options are available. It’s just a nice touch.
Using the iPhone outside the United States
Currently, the iPhone is only available in the United States, but that will eventually change. If you are a US-based iPhone user and are traveling internationally, note that you will need to call AT&T customer support hot-line and enable international dialing support. If you don’t do so before you leave for your trip, you won’t be able to use the phone overseas.
As it turns out, I’m in France as I write this and I’ve been using the iPhone here pretty regularly, and so far so good, though I’ve read some horror stories about the charges AT&T has levied on some unexpected travelers. Here’s what I’ve found out.
Setting up international roaming involves calling a toll-free number, wading through AT&T’s annoying but typical automated phone system and, if you called on a weekend like I did, waiting to do it all again on Monday. When I did get on the line with a human being, I was impressed with her professionalism and thoroughness. She described the three possible options, once the phone was configured for international roaming (note that if you don’t make this call before you leave, you can’t make it work until after that trip):
- Roam internationally. Calls made overseas will cost $1.29 a minute, and you’ll be charged 2 cents per KB for data usage. (Add that up: It can get ugly very quickly.) Text messages are 50 cents per message sent. Received text messages are free.
- Join the AT&T World Traveler plan for $5.99 a month. The nice thing about this plan is that you can enable it and disable it whenever you want, so I enabled it for August and will turn it off when I get back. Calls made internationally cost 99 cents a minute, but you’ll still be charged 2 cents per KB for data usage. Text message prices are the same as above as well.
- AT&T also offers a plan for $29 a month that essentially gives you unlimited international voice calls and a decent amount of data usage per month. The problem is that you can’t opt out of it for under a year, so if you sign up, you have to pay for 12 months worth, or a total of about $360.
Side note: What I wasn’t impressed by, at least not in a positive way, was how AT&T verified that it was me calling. They asked me four (very) personal questions, many of which I found quite shocking. For example, the first question was, “Which one of the following three companies were you previously employed by?” She then read off a list of banks, one of which I worked at over 15 years ago. The second question regarded addresses I’d lived at (from the Phoenix area, about 15 years ago). Then another one about previous jobs (from about 12 years ago). The last one was, “Which of the following mortgage companies have you done business with?” Yikes. Privacy advocates should have a field day with this one.
As far as the roaming options went, I ended up going with the second one for what I assume are obvious reasons. I’ve been trying to stay off of EDGE while in France (via Bouygues Telecom in the Paris area) because of the expense, and I’ve disabled a few things that might trigger network access repeatedly, like email. But I’m guessing we’re going to have a healthy bill when we return. I wish there was some way to accurately measure the cost of this along the way. (See the section on Settings below to understand why this is not the case.)
I will say this: For a few years now, we’ve had a cell phone that we use specifically for Europe, and it’s got an unlocked SIM card. That phone has worked much more poorly than has the iPhone this first week overseas, and since the phone call costs are basically identical, we’ve pretty much just switched to using the iPhone for calls here. Actually, it’s nice having two phones, since there are days when my wife and kids will stay in the city when I return to the home we’re staying at to work.
In addition to the various user interfaces that pop-up when you’re making a phone call, managing contacts, or performing other phone-related tasks, the iPhone provides a number of configurable options inside the Settings application. Unfortunately, these options are in a number of different places.
Usage. From this screen, you can access information about the amount of active usage and standby time the phone has recorded since the last full charge, the call time you’ve spent in the “current period” and “lifetime” of the device since the last full charge, and the amount of EDGE network data you’ve sent and received since the last full charge. In case it’s not obvious, this information is reset every single time you completely charge the device and is thus almost completely useless. What it should really do is measure this information during an entire billing period so you can see how your usage is mapping to the voice and data plans you’ve subscribed to. Obviously.
Carrier. The Carrier option displays information about the wireless carrier to which you’re connected. In the US, this will typically be AT&T EDGE, but there are other compatible possibilities (with associated roaming charges), especially outside the US. (See the previous section for more information about international roaming.) Typically, you will set this to Automatic and let the iPhone pick the best choice.
Phone. Here, you’ll see a number of options related to the Phone application. (It’s also a good place to see your own phone number, though this is also provided at the top of the full Contacts list.) The International Assist option determines whether the iPhone automatically adds the correct prefix (001) to US numbers dialed from other countries. You can determine how contacts are sorted. There are call related options like Call Forwarding, Call Waiting, Show My Caller ID, and TTY. You can change your voicemail password here, set up a PIN (personal information number) for your SIM, and access a list of phone number shortcuts for such things as checking your bill balance, getting directory assistance, and so on. In the latter list, AT&T will often SMS you the answer, which is kind of funny.
Sounds. Here, you configure whether the vibrate function is on as well as which sounds are used for such phone-related global options as ringtone and new voicemail. You can’t easily configure these sounds on a contact-by-contact basis, though it is possible. To do so, open up the contact for which you’d like to make a custom ringtone, tap the Edit button, tap Assign Ringtone, and pick a ringtone. Note that these ringtone assignments are per-contact, not per-ringtone. And while Apple’s built-in sound effects are excellent, there aren’t many of them, and you can’t download, purchase, or import others. You also can’t take sound clips from songs in your music library and use them as ringtones, which is particularly surprising.
Overall, the iPhone is a tremendous phone. I guess it should be for $500 to $600 plus the monthly fees, but so many of today’s smart phones seem to screw up the most basic phone functionality, so there’s an argument to be made here about getting what you paid for. While frilly, demo-friendly iPhone features like screen squeezing and scrolling will continue to get the most attention, I think it makes more sense to focus more on what you’ll actually do with the thing. And since this is basically just a phone—albeit a gorgeous full-featured smart phone—it makes sense to weight its phone functionality a bit higher than some of the less important stuff. If the iPhone were only a phone, it would be a slam dunk. (Unlike, say, the war in Iraq.) In this area, Apple has really done a commendable job. The ramifications of its work here will be felt throughout the smart phone industry for years to come. So even if you don’t get an iPhone, you may eventually benefit from these advances.
When the term “What You See Is What You Get” was first coined, I suspect its originator wasn’t thinking ahead to Apple’s iPhone, but never has such a trite phrase been so concise and accurate. When you turn on the iPhone and navigate to its simple home screen, full of friendly, finger-sized buttons, what you see is truly what you get: There, you will find three rows of four buttons, for a total of 12 buttons, 11 of which are the iPhone’s built-in applications. (The 12th button is Settings.) There are no more, and no fewer, and you can’t remove any of these applications let alone add new ones. (Well, OK, there are the iPhone’s four core applications as well, Phone, Mail, Safari, and iPod, which I discuss elsewhere in this review.)
As has proven so often to be the case with the iPhone, the device’s collection of built-in applications is a mixed bag. None are truly top-notch, many are passingly useful, and some are simply stupefying dumb. I’d love to be able to customize this home screen and remove the apps I’ll never use. Apple, praise be to its infinite wisdom, has decided otherwise, alas. So we are stuck with what you see. And what you get is the following…
If you’re over 40 as I am, it may be a news flash to discover that people of all ages are spending enormous amounts of time each day sending what’s known as SMS text messages, an act which is generally referred to as “texting.” (If you will forgive the verbification of that word.) Now, texting is not an activity I engage in all that frequently, both because of the pre-noted age issue and because I have huge gorilla fingers that have a hard enough time typing on small laptop keyboards, let alone the miniscule thumb keyboards you see on most smart phones these days. (Until fairly recently, my sole text message consisted of the single letter, “K,” sent in reply to a text message I had received about meeting someone in a particular place at a particular time.)
On the iPhone, texting involves using the Text application, which features a handy green “SMS” logo on its home screen button, as well as the oft-discussed iPhone virtual keyboard, which works pretty well after you’ve gotten the hang of it. Sadly, Apple’s implementation of texting is lacking in a few areas, one serious.
Graphically, Text resembles Apple’s iChat application for Mac OS X, a comparison that will mean little to most readers [of this site] and, as it turns out, most people in general. iChat is Apple’s instant messaging (IM) solution. As it’s available for OS X only, both its appeal and its usage are quite limited. By default, iChat conversations are depicted as alternating word balloons, like you’d see in a comic strip. I find this annoying, but at least you can change it, in iChat. (Better still, you can simply choose not to use iChat.) However, in the Text app on iPhone, you can’t change the display, and you can’t even customize the word balloon colors in any way. That’s right: Your text conversations are now colorful balloons. Welcome to Apple land.
A bigger problem, however, is that Text only works in portrait mode. So if, like me, you’re more comfortable typing on the iPhone virtual keyboard while holding the device in horizontal, or landscape, mode, well, sorry, you’re out of luck: You can twist and turn the device all day long, but Text isn’t going to reorient itself for you. Neither is the virtual keyboard. You simply have to use this thing in portrait mode. Ah well. I was never going to be a huge texter (?) anyway.
My rating: 2 Stars
Assuming you were able to actually get your iPhone to synchronize with your PC-based calendar (a task which is not as simple as it should be, as per this review, you’ll find the device’s built-in calendar, the logically named Calendar, to be a wonderful mobile version of your schedule. Indeed, it’s absolutely the nicest cell phone calendar I’ve ever seen, with large, clear type and obvious graphics. This is calendaring done right. (Though it should be noted that you can only sync calendar items and not tasks.)
Calendar offers the following three views:
List. My favorite, largely because the iPhone renders text so wonderfully. In this view, your schedule is arrayed in a scrollable, chronological list, by day, from top to bottom. You can click on individual events, as you’d expect, and scroll both forward and back through time.
Day. An iCal-like view of the current day. (iCal being Apple’s OS X-based calendar application, a predecessor to Windows Vista’s Windows Calendar.) Here, you see a split view with all-day events on top and then a schedule sorted by hour below. You can scroll both up and down through the current day and left and right (back and forward) to go from day to day.
Month. A surprisingly useful view, due to the large size of the iPhone display. Here, you get a graphical month view as well as a list on the bottom of the screen depicting events from the currently selected day. Each day with events has a small dot under the number on the calendar, and you can tap the Today button to select today on the calendar. You can also navigate forward and backward one month at a time using the forward and back buttons.
Calendar works wonderfully and I have no major criticisms. Apple really nailed this one.
My rating: 5 stars
The Photos application provides you with access to the photos you’ve synced from the PC as well as those you’ve taken with the internal camera (see the next entry). While the iPhone’s photo-sync capabilities are quite limited, thanks to iTunes’ simple-minded way of handling sub-folders on the PC, the actual Photos application on the iPhone is quite nice. Typically, you’ll see at least three entries when you switch to this app: Camera Roll, which displays the photos you took with the iPhone; Photo Library, a complete listing of all the photos stored on the device; and then one or more entries for each synchronized photo folder. I’m only syncing a single folder, called iPhone photos (imaginative, I know), so that’s the third entry on my phone.
When you select one of these entries, you navigate to a screen full of thumbnails of each photo it contains. Here, you scroll around, click on an individual photo to view it full screen, or click the Play button at the bottom of the screen to initiate a slideshow.
While viewing an individual photo, you will see a toolbar appear on the bottom of the screen briefly, allowing you to access a few handy options. The first, confusing, icon in this toolbar (which resembles a Windows shortcut icon overlay) provides a pop-up menu with four options: Use As Wallpaper, Email Photo, Assign to Contact, and Cancel. These options are all fairly obvious and quite welcome. The other toolbar icons include Previous, Play (slideshow), Next and Trash. If you don’t touch the screen for a few seconds, the toolbar fades away so you can fully view the photo.
You can also double-tap the photo to zoom in and out, rotate the screen to view the photo in the proper format, or use the iPhone’s unique squeezing and pinching operations to zoom in and out with more control. While a photo is zoomed in you can also scroll around the image using your finger. And you can flick left and right to move to the previous and next photos in the current view. This is easily one of the best iPhone demos you can give: It always wows the crowd.
In slideshow view, the toolbars fade away and the device moves from image to image automatically. This slideshow is configured via the Photos option in Settings. There, you will see options for slide duration, transition type (Cube, Dissolve, Ripple, Wipe Across, and Wipe Down, but not Random), repeat, and shuffle. There’s no way to automatically trigger a soundtrack from here, but if you start music playing in the iPod application and then view a slideshow, the music will play in the background. (Assuming it doesn’t crash; the iPod app is notoriously buggy.)
Overall, Photos is a wonderful way to enjoy favorite photos on the go, assuming you can find a way to sync the photos you want onto the device. But that’s an iTunes problem: The Photos application is excellent.
My rating: 5 stars
The iPhone features a 2 megapixel digital camera, which is pretty impressive for a cell phone. Sadly, that’s where the camera-related accolades end. Despite the relatively high end hardware, the iPhone’s camera is marred in two ways. First, it offers no zoom at all, neither optical nor digital. Second, it doesn’t include a flash. Yes, seriously.
Interfacing with the iPhone camera, however, is relatively simple, once you get over the fact that there’s no dedicated camera button on the device either. (I guess that’s a third issue.) Instead, you must navigate to the home screen and tap the Camera button. What you’ll see almost defies description, as there’s so little to it: Most of the screen is taken up with the view out the camera lens, and it works in either portrait or landscape mode. On the bottom (or side, depending on how you hold it) is a toolbar with just two buttons. The one in the middle, with a camera icon, takes the picture. The one on the side, which looks like a stack of paper, brings you to the Camera Roll, the collection of photos you’ve already taken with the device.
When you do take a picture, or switch into picture-taking mode, you’ll be greeted with a semi-pointless animated shutter effect which reminds me of the “down the gun barrel” view you see in the beginning of most James Bond movies. There’s also a satisfying (if pretend) shutter sound, so you feel like you’re using a real camera. (You know, a real camera with no zoom or flash.)
Overall, the Camera app gets props for being so simple, but the lack of obvious camera features makes this application less compelling than it should be. Come on, Apple: This is a $600 device. How about throwing in at least digital zoom and a flash?
My rating: 3 stars
I mentioned my age in the discussion about Text above, and my lack of interest in YouTube, a Google-owned Web site that seems to consist of only two kinds of videos—those made by amateur videographers, and those stolen from legitimate copyright holders—can perhaps be explained along similar lines. So while there’s no denying YouTube’s popularity, I have no idea why it’s on my iPhone.
But I’m not above taking one for the team, so I’ve navigated a sea of lip-synching teenagers and cats that fall asleep and roll off the backs of couches so I can tell you what the YouTube application is like on the iPhone. It’s actually not horrible, from a technical perspective, and works quite similarly to parts of the iPod application we’ll discuss in a future part of this review. Basically, there are four primary views, and then a fifth item for accessing a few more:
Featured. Here, you’ll see a list of list of videos that Google is featuring for some reason.
Most Viewed. These are YouTube’s most viewed videos
Bookmarks. Videos you’ve bookmarked so you can view them again and again.
Search. A text input box so you can search for specific videos. Note that this works in portrait mode only.
More. Other YouTube views, including Most Recent, Top Rated, and History. Note that you can tap the Edit button to use any of these views on the YouTube toolbar (replacing one of the first four entries), as you can do in the iPod app.
While the video lists are always shown in portrait mode, videos always play in landscape mode, and no amount of twisting and turning of the device will change anything. Performance varies depending on where you are and how you’re accessing the service. Obviously, a strong Wi-Fi connection is best, and I’ve seen a lot of “Cannot activate the EDGE network” error pop-ups occur while testing this feature. I can’t say that this bothered me too much.
OK, I get it, I’m old. But if I could, I would simply delete the YouTube button and never wonder about it again. I wish I could do that.
My rating: 3 stars
For all you budding insider traders out there, the Stocks application (which looks suspiciously like a similar Dashboard widget for Mac OS X) provides an at-a-glance look at your favorite stocks, showing both the day’s results and, for the selected stock, a multi-month trend view. I couldn’t care less about this kind of thing, frankly, but I’m sure many people will find it useful.
My rating: 4 stars
The iPhone’s much-vaunted Google Maps application is notable only because it works with the device’s unique pinching and scrolling actions. Otherwise, it’s just a subset of what you can get on the Web (and thus on other smart phones), and since the iPhone doesn’t have built-in GPS, or offer compatibility with any GPS devices, it’s even more limited: You have to know where you are in order to actually use it.
Like Google Maps on the Web, Maps offers both map and satellite views, and you can toggle traffic conditions–depicted as red, yellow, and green lines on maps–to see why you’re sitting in bumper to bumper traffic. You can also click a Directions button to get directions from one location to another (where, again, the virtual keyboard works only in portrait mode), and a list view provides handy text-based directions.
Maps doesn’t make particularly good use of the iPhone screen: Each view works only in portrait mode. Doy.
My rating: 3 stars
As with Stocks, the Weather app looks just like OS X’s Weather widget for Dashboard, though this version uses Yahoo! for its weather data. You can configure one or more locations for weather and jump from location to location using the iPhone’s fun finger flicking. For each location you’ve configured, you can see today’s current temperature, conditions, and high and low temperatures, as well as the conditions and high and low temperatures for the next 6 days. Sadly, there’s no way to get more information, like hour-by-hour weather, though you can tap a tiny Yahoo! icon to visit Yahoo!’s Web site in Safari and learn more information about the current location.
My rating: 4 stars
The iPhone displays the current time near the top of the screen almost all the time, so you might wonder what the Clock application is all about. Actually, it’s a pretty neat tool and I’ve been using its alarm clock functionality a lot this month since we’ve been away from home. There are four modes, or clocks, that you can switch between in this app:
World Clock. A set of one or more clocks that you can configure independently from the system time. I have three configured, Boston, Paris, and Seattle. They’re not interactive, but they do provide you with at-a-glance views of the current time in whatever locations you choose. This is particularly handy if you travel a lot or need to communicate frequently with people in multiple time zones, as I do.
Alarm. A nicely-implemented alarm clock with multiple alarms, fun alarm sounds, and snoozing capabilities. Sadly, you can’t configure the alarm to wake you to music from the iPod application, however.
Stopwatch. A digital stopwatch that I’m sure someone will use for something.
Timer. Ditto, but as a timer. Actually, this can be useful in a variety of situations, though I’ve never had the opportunity to try it.
Overall, the Clock feature in the iPhone is nicely done. I especially like the alarm.
My rating: 4 stars
No, it’s not the opening exercise in “iPhone Programming for Dummies,” it’s your basic calculator, with weird, non-standard round buttons and stuff. Since the iPhone doesn’t support cut/copy and paste, you can’t paste the results of calculations into other applications, and there’s no way to save calculations that I’ve seen.
My rating: 3 stars
Perhaps the most poorly implemented iPhone application, Notes is a shining example of everything that can go wrong with this device. Graphically, it resembles a yellow notepad, which is arguably the only thing about this application that makes any sense, though I’m wondering why there aren’t at least multiple styles to choose from. Surely someone at Apple prefers plain white paper too. Or graph paper. Something.
Notes, as you no doubt suspect, is used to store notes. That you write. With the iPhone’s virtual keyboard. These notes are written in a bizarre and tiny font that looks something like Comic Sans; this font appears nowhere else in the iPhone and is nowhere near as readable as the wonderful fonts that do appear through the device’s various UIs. You cannot change the font. You cannot even change the point size of the font.
These notes are also written only in portrait mode. That’s right: You cannot take notes horizontally.
These notes are not synchronized with your desktop PC. Instead, you can email notes to yourself to access them elsewhere. This assumes, of course, that you’ve configured the iPhone with at least one email account. If you haven’t, the notes are stuck on the iPhone forever.
What I’d like to know is this: Why isn’t there a voice recorder application too? I mean, aside from the obvious deficiencies in Notes, it seems like we could bypass the iPhone’s biggest problem–text input on the virtual keyboard–all together and just create voice notes. Surely, this is something the iPhone could handle with aplomb.
My rating: 1 star
Well, that was a roller coaster ride. Contrary to Apple’s hype-happy marketing, the built-in iPhone applications are truly a mishmash, and I wish there were a way to configure the home screen so that I could more easily avoid some of the stink bombs. The bigger issue, of course, is that Apple has completely sealed off iPhone development so that enterprising third parties, who might otherwise have quickly risen to the challenge and corrected the device’s deficiencies, have been unable to do anything other than design iPhone-friendly Web sites. This is a huge and alarming problem and may very well represent the iPhone’s biggest issue. Until Apple opens up the iPhone, we’re stuck with what the company gives us. And much of that is pretty unimpressive.
I’ve owned at least one of every kind of iPod ever made and as I’ve watched Apple steadily improve the product line and drop prices, the iPod has become the gotta-have-it gadget of the early 21st century. These days, it seems, everyone has an iPod, sometimes more than one, and Apple has responded to the maturing market by expanding the product line with new models that meet different needs and by lowering prices. After plying consumers with three evolutionary models of the original iPod, Apple expanded the line first with the lackluster (and initially impossible to find) iPod mini and then later with the stellar iPod nano and iPod shuffle. Though the iPhone does so much more than any iPod, one might consider this device the next generation iPod, thanks to its new form factor, gorgeous new graphical views, compatibility with the hardware’s finger-based scrolling, and more. No, it’s not perfect–the iPhone also drops some key iPod functionality too–but wow. It sure is an awesome iPod.
As a fan of portable video, I’ve been waiting for Apple to make a “true” video iPod for years and have resorted to using an Archos 604 for this purpose. An iPhone without phone capabilities would make a fine video iPod: It garners fantastic battery life—almost 5 hours of video playback with normal volume—and because it actually displays video in landscape mode, it better takes advantage of the device form factor than does the current generation iPod with video, which sports a tiny and semi-useless (for video) screen.
The iPhone’s iPod functionality isn’t just about video, of course. But it’s hard to look at this device and not imagine the possibilities. Most of Apple’s iPod line is overdue for a refresh as I write this: Though the iPod shuffle was significantly and successfully updated in late 2006, the designs of the iPod with video and iPod nano are now two years old and getting a bit tired. Presumably, these two iPods will be updated this year, and if we’re lucky, the iPod with video will look and act very much like an iPhone. Here’s why.
The iPhone’s iPod functionality is handled through a software application named, get this, iPod. The iPod application is important enough to warrant one of just four available spots at the bottom of the iPhone home screen, alongside Phone, Mail, and Safari, and Apple lists iPod as one of the four core areas of iPhone functionality. This makes sense: Apple’s sold a gajillion iPods, and its experience designing, improving, and marketing the iPod is all over the iPhone. Spiritually, if not technologically, the iPhone really is an iPod.
Of course, the fact that iPod functionality is now handled via an OS X-based application, and not some simpler embedded application, as it is on all real iPods, means that the iPod application is both more sophisticated and buggier than traditional iPods. The good news is that a recent iPhone update appears to have fixed the rampant iPod-related crashes that occurred with annoying frequency in the device’s first month and a half of existence. The iPod app was particularly problematic when you switched to other iPhone applications. For example, if you left a music playlist running while trying to browse the Web or answer email, the iPod application would inevitably crash, again and again, requiring you to manually navigate back to the application to restart it and then restart the playlist. It still happens, but less frequently than before.
Like other core iPhone applications, the iPod application is presented as a set of lists, though in this case, you have far more customization possibilities than with other similarly constructed iPhone apps. By default, you’ll see four main options, along with a fifth option, More, which gives you access to other views. In total, there are ten views, and you are free to use whichever four of the following you wish on the iPod’s initial screen. Here’s what’s available:
Albums. An alphabetical list of the musical albums you’ve synced to the iPhone.
Artists. An alphabetical list of the artists whose music you’ve synced to the iPhone.
Audiobooks. An alphabetical list of the audio books you’ve synced to the iPhone.
Compilations. An alphabetical list of the greatest hits albums, soundtracks, and other musical compilations you’ve synced to the iPhone.
Composers. An alphabetical list of the composers whose music you’ve synced to the iPhone. (This is most accurately used with classical music, but composer information can and should of course appear in any song.)
Genres. An alphabetical list of the genres you’ve synced to the iPhone.
Playlists. An alphabetical list of the playlists you’ve synced to the iPhone. This includes both the manual playlists you’ve created yourself and the automatically generated smart playlists that are managed by iTunes (see my review of iTunes 7). Because of the iPhone’s somewhat limited storage capacity (4 or 8 GB, depending on the model you purchase), you will find that proper playlist creation is key to using the device, as it is with the iPod nano and shuffle.
Podcasts. An alphabetical list of the podcasts you’ve synced to the iPhone. Might I humbly recommend the Windows Weekly podcast? My voice has been known to cause people to slip immediately into deep sleep, which can be helpful if you’re an insomniac.
Songs. An alphabetical list of the songs you’ve synced to the iPhone.
Videos. An alphabetical list of the videos you’ve synced to the iPhone. (This includes movies, music videos, video podcasts, and TV shows.)
Finding content: Lists and CoverFlow
These lists can be viewed in portrait (vertical) or landscape (horizontal) mode. In portrait mode, they are presented as text lists, which makes sense, and some–like Albums and Compilations–display small album art as well. The Songs and Playlist lists (and other sub-lists) include a “Shuffle” option right at the top, so if you want to simply shuffle the contents of a particular list of songs, it’s easy to do so. (Indeed, it’s even easier on the iPhone than it is on a traditional iPod, where shuffle–and repeat–are set globally.) Many of the long lists here include a right-mounted alphabet, in tiny letters, that runs from the top of the screen to the bottom, letting you quickly move down the list–say, to songs or albums that start with “T” or some other letter far down the alphabet–quite quickly. This is necessitated by the iPhone’s lack of a scroll wheel, but I really like the way this works: You can finger flick the list to scroll up and down normally, or just jump to a point in the list by tapping one of the small letters. It’s intuitive and effective, and less prone to over-scrolling than the iPod’s Click Wheel.
In landscape mode, things get more interesting. You can’t actually view lists in landscape mode, but the iPhone switches into a cool CoverFlow mode you may be familiar with from the PC version of iTunes. In this mode, the iPhone presents all of your albums, complete with album art, in a horizontally-scrolling view where you flick the screen to flip from album to album. The effect is absolutely wonderful and, like the somewhat similar picture navigation feature in Photos, is one of the iPhone’s show-off features. It’s a real crowd pleaser.
Well, it can be. To truly take enjoy this feature, you will need to have album art for all of your albums configured in iTunes and synced to the iPhone. (Videos automatically provide an album art-like still frame). This can be done in two ways, either by manually managing album art, as I’ve done for years (not recommended) or by allowing iTunes to automatically provide your album art. (This latter option requires you to create a free iTunes account and tie your PC to that account.) If you’ve done this, CoverFlow is awesome. It’s a neat way to browse your collection.
The other problem with CoverFlow is that it only works with all albums (including non-music content types like podcasts and videos). So if you’re browsing a list of, say, podcasts, and you rotate the screen, you’re going to see a CoverFlow view of your albums, not just your podcasts. That’s most likely not what you were looking for. It’s a small disappointment, but hopefully Apple will fix this in the future.
When you actually choose some content to play, the iPhone switches into Now Playing mode, which is quite a bit more attractive than it is on normal iPods. With music and other audio content, you see a large album art view that’s more than a bit similar to that of the Microsoft Zune, though to be fair, there are only so many ways to display this kind of content. At the top of the screen, there is a Back button, three lines of text displaying the artist, song title, and album title, and a List button that switches to a list view from where you can see where you are in the now playing list and rate the current song. The bottom of the screen includes simplified playback controls, with large, finger-friendly Previous, Play/Pause, and Next buttons, and a volume slider.
What’s missing is the iPod’s excellent scrubbing control, which lets you quickly move through media by scrolling the Click Wheel. This omission can be hugely problematic on the iPhone, maybe more than you may immediately realize. Consider this real world example: I was listening to the hilarious and highly recommended “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” audio book the other day on the Paris Metro (subway) and inadvertently tapped the onscreen Next button, causing it to jump from whatever point I was midway through the second of three files that constitute the audio book to the beginning of the third. I had no idea where I was in the second file and no way to navigate there any way, since you can’t scrub with the iPhone. That’s stupid, and it’s even worse when you realize that the iPhone has built-in hardware buttons, right there on the side of the device. So there’s no need for an onscreen volume slider. That should be an on-screen time scrubber. Obviously.
If your needs are simple, or you don’t run into this need for a scrubber—perhaps because you only play song files—you’ll find that the iPhone is a wonderful iPod. But what about video? Video playback is predictably excellent, too, though again with a few minor issues. Though you can only navigate video lists, like Videos, in portrait mode, the videos themselves only play in landscape mode, and only in one direction, with the hardware volume buttons on the bottom. (That is, if you flip the device into portrait mode, or upside down, with the volume buttons on the top, the video continues playing as it was originally.) That’s OK, I guess, but I’ve run into an issue at the gym when I’m on an elliptical trainer with the iPhone sitting on the stand in front of me; when I need to change the volume, I have to physically pick up the device to access the volume buttons. That’s silly, and you should be able to use it “upside down” so that the volume buttons are accessible on the top.
That said, there are some unique niceties to iPhone video playback. By default, the playing video fills the screen completely, but you can double-tap the screen to change it to the video’s actual aspect ratio. A single tap will reveal the playback controls. On the bottom is a floating control with large Previous, Play/Pause, and Next buttons, along with a volume slider. (And no, that control is no good for the gym either, if you’re wondering; it’s too hard to manipulate when you’re moving.) On the top is a Done button, a time scrubber (woo!), and an Aspect Ratio button, which toggles the video aspect ratio just like a double-tap.
I have two issues to raise here. First, why isn’t video played in the proper aspect ratio by default? At the very least, this should be an option. And second, if video can have a time scrubber, why can’t audio? Geesh.
Another problem is that video podcasts won’t play properly if launched from the Podcasts list. If you start a video podcast from there, you’ll just hear the audio, played over some automatically generated album art (typically a still frame). To actually watch a video podcast, you actually have to go into Videos, and then scroll down to the Podcasts section and find the video podcast you want that way. Whether that’s by design or just a simple mistake, it’s wrong. And before you Apple fanatics get your panties in a bunch, yeah, I know the iPod works this way too. It’s wrong. And at the very least, there should be an option, so that those who occasionally need audio-only access to video podcasts can get it. My feeling is that the majority of iPod/iPhone users will expect video to play when they launch a video podcast. Call me crazy.
When you do complete a video, the iPhone pops up a screen asking if you’d like to delete the video you just enjoyed “to conserve space.” This is a great idea, given the iPhone’s somewhat limited storage capacity and sync options. We’ll examine this issue in a bit more detail below.
Other iPod notes
Apple recently provided an iPhone firmware upgrade that fixes some reliability issues when listening to iPod-based content while performing other tasks (i.e. using other applications) on the iPhone. This is good news, because you’ll often want to start a playlist and then go off and view a photo slideshow, browse the Internet, or crunch some numbers with that bizarre Calculator application. (Hey, you never know.) This works as expected, except that you may find yourself needing to quickly pause the music or change the volume, which you can’t do unless you use the headset Apple bundles with the iPhone: This headset includes a handy toggle switch that sits near your mouth when you’re wearing it. The switch does double duty as a decent microphone, for phone calls, and as a mini iPod controller: Squeeze it once, and any playing music (or other content) pauses. Double-squeeze it and the iPod application navigates to the next track.
This works quite nicely, but since it’s hard-wired into the headset, you can’t perform these tasks with other (read: better) headphones, requiring you to manually navigate back to the iPod application to make even the smallest change (well, except for volume up or down, thanks to the volume buttons on the device). And this isn’t just a problem when you’re using other applications: If you’ve been listening to music for a while, say while commuting, and something comes up, you will have to take the iPhone out of your pocket, tap the Home button to activate the screen, unlock it by sliding your finger across the right part of the screen, punch in your four-digit passcode if you’ve configured security as you should, and then potentially have to navigate to the iPod application (by tapping Home again and then tapping the iPod icon) if you had since navigated to a different app. If that sounds like a lot of work, all of it requiring your attention and eyes on the screen, you’re correct. It’s much faster to simply rip off the headphones and deal with the iPhone’s monotonous UI constraints later. You can kiss the iPod’s “no looking” capabilities goodbye.
On the other hand, the iPhone handles electronic interruptions much more seamlessly. If you receive a phone call while the iPod application is playing back content, whether it’s onscreen or not, the currently playing content will fade out as the phone ring sounds. After you complete your call by tapping the End Call button, your selection fades back in and begins playing again. Sweet.
The iPod application has a few other limitations. It doesn’t support iPod games, mostly likely because the iPhone doesn’t include the iPod Click Wheel. I don’t consider this a huge limitation frankly, as the market for iPod games hasn’t exactly taken the world by storm. A bigger limitation, at least for those with huge media collections, or those who wish to enjoy video content on the iPhone’s gorgeous screen, is physical: The iPhone comes with just 4 GB or 8 GB of storage space, and Apple deliberately hobbled the device by not providing any form of memory card expansion support, a feature that’s available on just about any other smart phone on earth.
This is a problem because full-length Hollywood movies, as purchased at Apple’s iTunes Store, typically consume between 1.2 GB and 2 GB of storage space, depending on their length. TV shows, meanwhile, weigh in at about 520 MB for a one-hour show, or about 256 MB for a 30-minute episode. Add it up, and you can store only a handful of videos on an iPhone, rendering its gorgeous screen somewhat less useful.
To alleviate this problem as much as possible, iPhone owners will need to be careful about which video content they sync with the device. Fortunately, iTunes does a good job of giving you logical video sync options related to unwatched or recent TV shows, movies, and other content, and when you complete a video, as mentioned above, the iPhone will prompt you to delete it. If you are using the iPhone to watch video regularly, you’ll want to take advantage of these features, and sync the device frequently with your PC, to keep the on-iPhone video list refreshed with new content.
Somewhat surprisingly, given the number of ways in which you can configure a traditional iPod, Apple supplies only a very short list of iPod settings in the iPhone. You can toggle the Sound Check feature, which attempts to volume level your songs so that they all have the same basic volume profile, choose between three audio book speeds, choose an EQ setting, and toggle and configure the volume limiter. And that’s it. Looking over the list of settings on a real iPod, however, you’ll discover that most of the “missing” settings aren’t missing at all, they’re just related to other aspects of the iPod, like screen dimming and so forth, that are handled elsewhere in the iPhone’s settings. However, I’ve outlined a few features in this section of the review that should be configurable through Settings.
While you’d be foolhardy to spend $500 or $600 (plus AT&T monthly service fees) just to get the best iPod on earth, make no mistake: That’s exactly what the iPhone is. Sure, there are problems, though Apple could easily fix most of them with a software update and, hopefully, will do so soon. But the iPhone gets most of it right: Scrolling through simple text lists with finger flicks is a joy, and the CoverFlow navigational mode makes even more sense on the iPhone than it does in iTunes on the PC. Video playback is particularly nice, thanks to its horizontal layout and the iPhone’s gorgeous screen and ample battery life. Please, Apple, stick a hard drive in this thing, drop the phone functionality, and sell it as the next video iPod. I’ll be first in line.
The iPhone is billed as the ultimate portable Internet device, featuring “the most advanced Web browser ever” and rich HTML email. The reality, as is often the case with over-hyped technologies, is a bit less exciting. Dogged as it is by the horrific AT&T EDGE network, the iPhone will never achieve meaningful Internet transfer speeds, regardless of the quality of its browser, and I’ve suffered through constant and annoying service disconnections, making the features even less useful. But if you look at the iPhone’s Web browser and Mail applications, a more disturbing trend emerges. This isn’t a first class Internet experience at all. In fact, it’s decidedly second rate.
Oftentimes, it’s not the underlying technology’s fault. The iPhone, as ever, features amazing hardware and software features that put traditional smart phones to shame. Browsing the Web, you can double-tap and squeeze the screen to zoom into Web pages, a handy feature when you consider that the iPhone’s diminutive screen resolution is incapable of displaying traditional Web pages in a readable format. Obviously, other smart phones are even worse: My Motorola Q has a tiny screen compared to that of the iPhone. But as you’ll see in a moment, the iPhone’s hardware and software strengths amount to nothing when it comes to Web browsing: It’s still painful browsing the traditional Web, and you’ll find yourself gravitating to the mobile Web sites ghetto.
Email is similarly constrained, but since the iPhone supports a few different email services natively, and many others via generic POP3 and IMAP3 compatibility, your email experience will vary wildly depending on which service you use. Indeed, diehard iPhone fanatics may wish to switch to a particular email service (hint: It’s not Apple’s) in order to get the best experience.
Yup, it’s a mess. But that’s what makes this so much fun. Let’s dive right in and see how the iPhone handles the Internet.
Making the connection
I’ve covered this elsewhere in the review, but your overall iPhone experience, and your iPhone Internet experience specifically, will be horrible or decent depending on how you’re making the connection. The iPhone will intelligently default to a preferred Wi-Fi connection (802.11b or 802.11g) if one is available. So if you’re browsing at home (for some reason) or in a trusted hot spot that you frequent, the connection speeds will be decent.
For the other 99 percent of the time you’ll be out and about, however, the iPhone will utilize AT&T’s subpar EDGE network. This is a “2.5G” network that’s less than one-third as fast as, and quite a bit less reliable than, Verizon’s high-speed 3G offering, EV-DO, according to my unscientific testing. Put simply, EDGE is both slow and dodgy, and the constant disconnections I suffer from are exasperating. It makes using the iPhone’s Internet features aggravating.
Unfortunately, you’re going to need to keep an eye on the little status bar at the top of the screen to see how you’re connecting. A small Wi-Fi graphic indicates you’re connecting via the wireless connection. A small square “E” means you’re using EDGE. Since most iPhone data plans restrict the amount of data you can use per month, you have yet another reason to avoid EDGE as much as possible. But should you travel internationally, as I did in August, you’ll have an even better reason to watch this area of the screen carefully: Even if you sign up for one of AT&T’s Draconian international plans, you will pay through the nose for non-Wi-Fi data use overseas. People have come up with bills of several thousand dollars for just two weeks of international uses. Yes, I’m serious.
What Apple really needs is a software switch that will disable all non-phone traffic over EDGE. The problem is that in addition to the standard browser and email applications, there are other iPhone applications, like YouTube, Maps, and Weather, that will query the Internet the second they’re tapped. That can make for some expensive mistakes.
Anyone who’s browsed the Web on a smart phone knows how lousy it can be trying to access even well-written sites using the small screens and hokey browsers typically used on such devices. And that’s why the iPhone promises to be such a breath of fresh air: It features a huge high resolution screen, given the size of the device, and promises a desktop-like Web experienced with a “full-featured” browser that’s based on the Safari browser Apple has been providing to OS X users for years. (This year, the company shipped a lackluster version for Windows as well.)
This is, sadly, a fantasy. First of all, even the desktop version of Safari can hardly be called first class. Despite making an excellent stab at standards compliance, Safari suffers in the most important measure of quality for Web browsers: Usage. Today, most people use Internet Explorer to browse the Web, and those that don’t largely use Firefox. The iPhone would have been much more useful had Apple bundled a copy of either browser on the phone instead of Safari. As it is, iPhone users will have to suffer from the same compatibility issues that dog desktop users of the browser.
It’s also worth noting that Safari is one of the only iPhone applications in which the screen rotation feature actually works reasonably well. You can browse the Web in both portrait and landscape modes (I find landscape more readable), and switch on the fly. The only times that isn’t true is when you’re in the Bookmarks list (always portrait) or when you’re working in the Address Bar and have the virtual keyboard displayed. Once that keyboard is up, you can’t rotate the screen. But you can use the keyboard in portrait or landscape mode, unlike most apps.
The iPhone’s version of Safari handles Web forms in a unique and generally usable way. Clicking a text form brings up an edit box, but if you click a drop-down list box, you’ll get a unique scroller control with all of the available options. Nice.
OK, fine. But what about Safari’s ability to display and then zoom into areas of full-fledged Web sites? This actually does work fine, though I find this way navigating the Web to be highly frustrating. Yes, you can view sites that will never look right on, say, the Pocket IE version that comes with Windows Mobile. But the screen size issue isn’t going away on the iPhone, and sometimes being able to see how something should look is even more frustrating than not getting it at all. Long story short: The Web experience on the iPhone is nothing to get excited about, and as is the case with the Q and other traditional smart phones, sites designed specifically for mobile devices still work best.
In fact, this situation is so similar to that on the Q that I’ve spent a great deal of time finding and saving bookmarks for good mobile Web sites. I use a lot of Google services, and that company offers nice mobile-friendly versions of Google search, Gmail, Google Calendar, and even Picasa, and they work just fine on the iPhone.
While the iPhone’s email application, Mail, benefits greatly from the large screen of the device, the actual email support it delivers is sub-par, even by smart phone standards. (Look to Windows Mobile’s Pocket Outlook Email for an obvious comparison.) Most of the email support is POP-based, though those lucky enough to have IMAP support can at least take advantage of that system’s work-on-the-server approach. I happen to use Gmail, and was hoping the iPhone would offer something sophisticated, given all the rumors about Apple and Google working so closely together. That isn’t the case.
Obviously, the best mobile email is text-based, and here the iPhone does a great job of displaying messages with its gorgeous screen and crisp fonts. Now if we could only do things like download and edit Word documents and not just view them. And why can’t I save JPEG attachments to the device and use them for wallpaper? Too obvious?
One of the problems with Mail is the result of a simple design flaw in the iPhone: If you click on a hyperlink in Mail, the link opens in Safari. But if you want to get back to email, there’s no Back button messing up the device design. So you have to click the Home button and then manually tap the on-screen Mail icon to go back to your mail, and the message you were reading. Another problem with Mail relates to one of the iPhone’s many inconsistencies: If you’re viewing a list of messages in your Inbox and rotate the screen to landscape mode, the display doesn’t swivel with you. The view doesn’t swivel when you’re viewing email messages or attached Word documents either. (You can view but not edit or save Word documents sent via email.) Both would benefit from this possibility, and because the iPhone does this in other places, it’s bewildering when it doesn’t work. Apple makes a big deal out of the screen rotation stuff: It should work consistently everywhere.
The iPhone supports a few email services, if not natively, then at least specially. These are, in order of sophistication, from best to worst:
Yahoo! Mail. Unique to the iPhone, Yahoo! Mail is a special form of “push” email that is described as being IMAP-like, which is excellent if you happen to be a user of this service. Yahoo! will literally push server-based changes–like new folders, new email, and so on–to the device automatically every fifteen minutes. This is the preferred email service for use on the iPhone.
.Mac. Users of Apple’s .Mac email—all 16 of them—can take advantage of IMAP technology, which is a first-rate experience, but not as sophisticated as push email: Basically, the iPhone has to manually sync with the server on a set schedule (every fifteen minutes by default). That means that the iPhone won’t be updated with new messages until in manually pings the server. With Yahoo!, it’s almost instantaneous. In case it’s not obvious, no Windows user would ever sign up for .Mac email, and thus .Mac support is useless to most iPhone users.
AOL. AOL uses IMAP on the iPhone. The big advantage of the iPhone’s “native” AOL support is that the device only requires your name, user name, and password, and then configures the server settings automatically.
Any IMAP email service. If you are using a third party email service that supports IMAP, and have access to the server information you need to configure it, iPhone is good to go. This includes, by the way, the supposed “Exchange support” that’s advertised in the Mail Settings on the device: Exchange only works if it’s configured for IMAP, a setting any credible mail administrator would never allow, since it opens up the server to a wider variety of electronic attacks. Put simply, the iPhone does not support Exchange in any meaningful way.
Gmail. Though Google’s email service is listed as one of the top-tier choices in the Add Account section of Mail Settings, it’s just POP access. The only advantage is that you don’t have to look up the server settings; the iPhone will do that automatically when you enter your name, email address, and password. This is really unsophisticated and doesn’t meet my needs, as I use Gmail’s server-side filters and labels extensively, and these don’t translate to client-side access technologies like POP3 at all.
Any POP email service. If you are using a third party email service that supports POP, and have access to the server information you need to configure it, iPhone is good to go. Note that POP email is unsophisticated but better than nothing.
Web mail. As a failover, you could also access any Web-based email service, like Gmail, Windows Live Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, or whatever, through Safari, which ranges from OK to completely unacceptable depending on the service and various browser compatibility issues. I’ve found Gmail access to be decent (but not “good”) via Gmail Mobile in Safari, and I’ll certainly use that before I ever configure Gmail for POP.
Basically, if you use Yahoo!, you’re all set: Yahoo! Mail on the iPhone is a first class experience. I’d describe .Mac mail, AOL Mail, and any other IMAP-based email as a second class experience. Everything else is a joke, or at best better than nothing if you have simple email needs. In my particular case, I’m stuck using Gmail Mobile via the Web, which is what I was doing on the Windows Mobile-based Motorola Q, though Google does offer a (lousy) Java-based Gmail client on some smart phones too. So it’s basically the same experience, with some pros and cons. On the iPhone, the screen is bigger and nicer looking than that of the Q, which is good. But you can’t download attachments or edit documents, which is terrible.
Ultimately, I was hoping that the iPhone would offer a killer native Gmail application, but really all it has is a POP-based Gmail client. That’s useless to me because I organize my email up on the server using Gmail’s amazing labels-based technology, which treats email like a database table which you can access using different filtered views. This stuff doesn’t get pulled down to any client, POP or otherwise, so Google and/or Apple would need to actually do some work to make the iPhone a first-class Gmail citizen. I desperately want a smart phone that can do this. The iPhone isn’t it.
A word about desktop sync
I’ve highlighted throughout this review that Apple’s lackadaisical approach to PC/iPhone synchronization is a weak link for the product, especially for those hoping to access their calendar on the device. As far as the iPhone’s Internet features are concerned, there are two primary synchronization points: Web browser and email.
On the Web browser front, you can synchronize with Internet Explorer or, get this, Safari. There’s no Firefox or Opera option, despite the fact that Firefox, especially, has garnered some serious market share in recent years. Safari, meanwhile, is something of a joke. However, it’s Apple’s product, so no one should be surprised that it’s supported.
If you’re familiar with Windows Mobile devices, you’ve probably seen the Mobile Favorites option that crops up in IE after you’ve installed ActiveSync (XP or older) or Windows Mobile Device Manager (Vista). Browser sync with the iPhone is similar: As you save bookmarks on the iPhone, and sync with the PC, they’re synced to the desktop browser you’ve selected in iTunes. This works the same in Safari as it does on IE, where your iPhone-based bookmarks and desktop Safari-based bookmarks are comingled in the same list. It’s inelegant, but it gets the job done. Assuming you use IE or Safari. (On the iPhone, synced bookmarks can be found in folders called Bookmarks Menu and Bookmarks Bar, if you’re using Safari to sync. This makes them a bit more ponderous to use.)
On the email front, you can choose to sync mail accounts between Windows Mail or Outlook and the device. Because of the lackluster nature of the iPhone’s support for Gmail, the fact that I’m accessing Gmail from Google’s Web-based interface anyway, I’ve pretty much opted out of this system for day-to-day use. But I did test this feature early on, and here’s how it works: Email sync isn’t really “email sync,” it’s “email account settings sync.” And it’s one way only, from PC to iPhone. So if you set up an email account on the iPhone and set up iTunes to sync with Windows Mail, that account won’t be created on the desktop, sorry. (Contacts are synced both ways, so that changes you make on the phone are copied back to your desktop application, or to Yahoo! if you’ve selected that service.)
This means, in short, that you will need to download your email messages to the device using the device in order to read them on the device; they won’t sync over from the desktop.
As with most of the iPhone experience, accessing the Internet is ultimately frustrating. Yes, it works: The iPhone offers a best-ever mobile Web experience in some ways, but is limited in serious ways as well, thanks to the use of Safari technology and a lack of popular plugins. The email support, in my mind, is horribly broken unless you have very simple needs. (And if you do, why would you spend $600 to access your email on a phone?) There’s no easy fix for these issues. Apple will never replace the iPhone’s Safari browser with a more appropriate and Windows-friendly choice, obviously. And the device’s email support would need to be redone from the ground up to natively support the email services Windows users really use, like Gmail and Hotmail. (Perhaps Google will eventually write a first-rate iPhone Gmail application. I can dream.) And then there’s EDGE, the iPhone’s Achilles Heel. I could go on and on about this wireless disaster.
Until these issues are addressed, the iPhone is a less-than-ideal Internet companion for most Windows users, despite the obvious technical advantages of the device itself. Hopefully, we’ll see some upgrades in this area in the near future.
So how does one rate a product that’s as complicated as the iPhone? The problem here is complex. On the one hand, the iPhone is absolutely revolutionary, like a device from the future that has arrived on earth unexpectedly. On the other, more pragmatic hand, the iPhone simply doesn’t deliver some obvious and common functionality that’s offered by today’s supposedly inferior smart phones. Yep, the iPhone is a paradox. And while I have indeed provided a rating, or score, for the device, I do so only with the understanding that this rating is inherently flawed for two reasons. First, like any review, this iPhone review is a slice in time, an opinion about a product that is in flux and will no doubt change and improve in the months and years ahead. Second, everyone’s needs are different, and while I believe that the iPhone is utterly useless as a traditional smart phone, it is incredibly compelling in that it has created a new product category: The iPhone is a portable multimedia, Internet, and communications style statement, not a smart phone. They’re not the same thing at all, and each satisfies different needs and wants.
Complications aside, I feel better about this review than I do about the quickie iPhone reviews that appeared in major US publications in the last week of June 2007. To read those reviews, you’d never discover that the iPhone had serious flaws, that it didn’t provide some very basic features, or that it was anything short of brilliant. Those reviewers should be ashamed of themselves. The truth of the iPhone, I wrote two months ago, will be revealed only when real people have had real experiences with the device. And while a truth like that evolves over time, I’m comfortable with the knowledge that I’ve given the iPhone a much fairer and realistic review than anything you may have read in “The New York Times,” “The Wall Street Journal,” “USA Today,” or “Newsweek.” So much has happened since the end of June. We’ve seen how buggy the iPhone’s iPod application is, and the steps Apple has taken to solve those problems via a number of software updates. We’ve watched as users returned from Europe with $1000 to $4000 AT&T bills, courtesy of the iPhone’s less-than-transparent international roaming disabilities. And we’ve discovered that some of the iPhone’s most publicized features don’t work consistently or at all in certain iPhone applications. I’m curious that those early iPhone reviewers never tackled these and other serious iPhone issues. It’s funny what you can find out about a product when you actually spend time with it.
Why is this important? Normally, I wouldn’t care what an Apple-loving fanboy at a major US newspaper writes. But the iPhone is an important product, regardless of its usefulness today, and it will touch millions and millions of people. This is a computing platform for the future, a peek at the way things will be done years down the road. It’s important to me that I get this one right, so that there’s a record—an accurate record—of how things evolved when Apple inevitably improves the iPhone. And though this is a Windows-centric Web site, the iPhone is important to us all because it will impact the Windows-using world (i.e. “the world”) in two ways. Windows users are the mainstream and majority market for this device; we are the ones who use the iPhone. And as with the original Mac, it’s highly likely that the computing innovations seen first in the iPhone will popularize themselves further as Microsoft and other companies adapt them to their own products. Whatever happens, we’ll be able to trace a major form of computing in the future back to the iPhone just as we can now trace the modern PC back in time to the Mac.
So back to the rating. I’ve written at length about the functional and usability aspects of the iPhone. Looking back at the first six parts of this review, we might consider rating these functional areas separately and then combine and average them to arrive at a final score. This approach has some value, but is by definition flawed because some will prefer to weight certain features higher than others. But with this limitation in mind, let’s see what happens.
Core technology. In this review, I examined the iPhone’s design and usability, as well as its core features, like the multi-touch screen with rotational capabilities, the virtual keyboard, the ambient light sensor, the device’s wireless capabilities, its built-in memory (and lack of expansion capabilities), and its Mac OS X underpinnings. This isn’t a huge win for the iPhone, overall: the hardware is excellent, even leading edge, but it is lacking numerous features and some core technologies–like rotation–are sparingly or only partially implemented throughout the device. It’s unclear whether the OS X base is a boon or curse at this point; the number of iPhone vulnerabilities that quickly popped up the wake of its release suggests it’s not much of a strength right now. And using a full desktop OS obviously adds needless complexity.
Score: Three stars
Phone. In this review, I looked at the iPhone’s phone capabilities and found them to be excellent and truly praiseworthy. There are always quibbles, but this one is a win for Apple. The iPhone is a tremendous phone.
Score: Five stars
Applications. I looked at the iPhone’s 11 built-in (non-core) applications in this review. Here, things are decidedly mixed: While a few of the built-in apps (Calendar, Photos) are first rate, most are middling, and one, Notes, is abysmal. Overall, I’d give the built-in applications an overall score of three stars, but for one thing: Apple doesn’t allow you to modify the application list at all, so you can’t even remove applications you don’t want. Worse yet, Apple has closed down the iPhone so that third party developers can’t write native applications for the device. That’s a huge mistake and makes this device dramatically less useful and desirable than it should be.
Score: Two stars
iPod. If you’re looking for the ultimate iPod, look no further than the iPhone. Sure, the 4 GB and 8 GB memory constraints of the current iPhone limit its usefulness as a movie player, but the CoverFlow interface and other leading-edge features more than make up for a few issues. The iPhone is a superb portable media player.
Score : Five stars
Internet. It’s hard to exaggerate how problematic the iPhone’s email and Web browsing features are. Email is particularly bad: The iPhone supports four proprietary email services natively (well, three if you exclude the Mac-specific .Mac service) but does so differently for each It also supports POP3 and IMAP email services, but offers no compatibility at all with the Exchange corporate standard. Email is a mixed bag for obvious reasons: While Apple promises a “full Web” experience on the iPhone, and not the thumbnail-sized view you get with most smart phones, it delivers that experience through a second-rate version of a third-rate browser, Safari. Compatibility is horrible, and while squeezing to zoom makes for a cool demo, it’s painful in real world usage. The iPhone delivers more of the Web than other cell phones, yes, but the experience simply reinforces the notion that mobile devices work best with sites designed specifically for mobile browsers. And you don’t need Safari for that. Ultimately, the iPhone’s Internet functionality is just frustrating, a hint of what it can be like in the future.
Score: Three stars
Average these scores and you’ll come away with a 3.6 out of 5, somewhere between three and four stars. That’s not horrible, I guess, and Apple fans might argue that I should round that up to four stars. I can’t do that. There are just too many tradeoffs in the iPhone to warrant a four star rating, too many issues in these functional areas that don’t reflect so kindly on Apple’s first phone offering.
The first, obviously, is price. At $500 to $600 for the iPhone, plus two years of monthly service fees and innumerable other fees, the iPhone is expensive. It doesn’t do a lot of what other smart phones do, either. You can’t connect to Exchange as mentioned above, but you also can’t use the phone with a decent 3G service. It can’t be used as a high-speed modem for your PC, as my Verizon-based Motorola Q can. You can’t replace the battery or add memory. You can’t type on a real keyboard or use GPS. God help you if you bring it overseas; AT&T international roaming fees are already legendary, and for all the wrong reasons. You can’t download new ringtones, applications, songs, and other items over the air. The list of what you can’t do is actually surprisingly long. The iPhone is a closed box. If you want that exact box, just the way it is, and can afford it, go nuts. But most people don’t make decisions like that.
Here’s one way to think about it. If you’re in the market for a smart phone, forget the iPhone. It’s a lot more expensive than the Windows Mobile and Blackberry competition, is tied to AT&T’s lousy EDGE network, doesn’t integrate or synchronize well with the Windows-based applications you actually use, and can’t be expanded or extended in any meaningful way. Apple has proven painfully slow in updating the device’s functionality, which is all the more important since they’re the only source of new features. To date, there have been none, just a few bug fixes.
On the other hand, if you’re a leading edge kind of user, the type of person that simply must have the latest and greatest, regardless of cost, and aren’t particularly beholden to a corporate email system or the Windows-oriented computing paradigm, the iPhone will be almost painfully compelling. It is gorgeous to look at and use, sleek and pretty, and desirable. I’ve compared it to Tolkien’s One Ring in that it’s a jealous thing, one that will seek to betray you constantly by slipping out of your pocket on the subway. Regardless, you will love the device more than you should. More than is normal.
The truth is, no one needs an iPhone. But if you do need a cell phone, and you sort of like the idea of an integrated device that offers portable Internet functionality, excellent iPod features, and some other marginally interesting, if not fully realized, capabilities, all served up inside what might just be the nicest cell phone ever made, Apple has something they’d really like to sell you. The price is exorbitant, not just in real dollar terms, but also in the sense that you’re really locking yourself into this Apple closed box. You might have to change email services to get the best experience. You might need to purchase Microsoft Outlook if you just want to access your calendar on the phone. In some ways, you’ll never stop paying for the iPhone, with your time, money, and soul. It just goes on and on and on.
True gadget geeks won’t care. But I didn’t write this review for those who waited in line on June 25 so they could be the first on earth to have a device that, soon, millions will own. I wrote this review for you, the fence sitter. The normal person. The guy who’s seen the constant iPhone ads on TV and in subway stations and has wondered if this thing, this expensive hunk of plastic, will actually solve some problems. The guy who, quite frankly, shouldn’t be wasting his hard earned cash on an expensive toy that, ultimately, doesn’t really solve any problems at all.
The iPhone is awesome. There’s just one problem: You don’t need it.
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