It's better than you think. The near-seamless slab of glass and metal that is Apple's iPhone has more preconceived-notion-shattering surprises than any piece of technology since, well, the iPod. A mind-blowing touchscreen experience, the best browser on any smart phone, blazing performance that puts Windows Mobile devices to shame. It's all here. So why are we left wanting more?
Designed to Delight
First things first: The iPhone is flat-out fun to use. True, several convergence devices have similar functions--phone, browser, email mapping, and media player. And at 4.8 ounces, the iPhone is noticeably heavier than the Samsung BlackJack (3.5 ounces) and BlackBerry Curve
(3.9 ounces). But the appeal doesn't come from what the iPhone does as much as how Apple put it all together. Even the most pedantic functions are performed with verve and flair that's not superfluous or showy. And we guarantee you've never used such a responsive touchscreen. After a minute, the flicking, tapping, sliding, and pinching control movements you've seen on TV feel perfectly natural. Icons move and respond under your fingertips as though you're actually touching them.
Of course, the 3.5-inch screen smudges. But it wipes clear with a shirt sleeve or the included cloth, without activating any functions--just one example of the screen's intelligence. At times the iPhone seems psychic. When you swing it up to your ear, for instance, sensors inside turn off the touch sensitivity. When you turn it horizontally, pictures, video, and Web pages also turn and automatically fill the now-wide screen--although we noted an annoying delay at times.
Minimalist, unlabeled buttons grace the rounded edges: a ringer-off switch and a voice toggle on the left, up top an on/off button, the SIM card tray, and the 3.5mm earphone jack, which is slightly recessed, prohibiting earphone jacks from sliding in all the way. You're forced to use either the included stick earphones with a built-in in-line mic or spring for an iPhone-compatible 3.5mm adapter for your own headphones. You can use a Bluetooth headset for calls, but the iPhone doesn't support stereo Bluetooth, a disappointing and head-scratching omission for a media-centric device.
Apple has tried to compensate for the inherently flawed onscreen keypad with the best predictive typing software we've used, but it's still not as fast or accurate as typing on a physical thumb pad. Plus, numbers and commonly used symbols are on a second screen, which is annoying. We suggest typing in landscape mode, which means a larger layout and (slightly) fewer typos.
MVP Media Player
For video clips and movies, the iPhone is the best iPod yet. Video on the 3.5-inch screen is crystalline and quite an improvement over the 2.5-inch video iPod experience. An episode of 30 Rock looked sharp and clear, and we could watch The Italian Job downloaded from iTunes, in full frame mode or further letterboxed in its original aspect ratio. The iPhone had no problem handling the frenetic boat chase scene.
Flick navigating through the music choices and functions is even more fun and intuitive than using iPod's scroll wheel, thanks to features like Cover Flow. This approximates flipping through a stack of CDs or using album art. Click on a cover and you'll immediately see a song list ready to launch with a single tap. The internal speakers aren't impressive, but they're loud and clear enough for private listening.
YouTube integration is pretty much flawless on the iPhone, with easy access to Featured and Most Viewed Videos and near-instant playback (at least over Wi-Fi). Playing videos over Cingular's slower EDGE network results in blurry footage that you can barely follow. Google Maps is the other highlight, complete with photo-realistic satellite views and turn-by-turn directions (though not spoken).
Pictures taken with the pedestrian and unadorned two-megapixel camera looked good and automatically zoomed to wide frame when we turned the iPhone horizontally. There's no zoom and no flash, and you won't find any settings for exposure or anything else. Viewing pictures is a pleasure on the high-res display, made sweeter by the ability to swipe through a slideshow, complete with music. Unfortunately, you can't start playing tunes from within the Photo application; you have to fire up a track or playlist in the iPod app first. (We'd like to see music playback begin automatically when you start a slideshow, à la Apple TV.)
Sharing pictures is a snap. Touch the button on the left corner of the display, and you'll be presented with three options: Use as Wallpaper, E-mail Photo, and Assign to Contact. We're not sure why you can't send picture messages to other phones, but we hope MMS support is coming soon.
The iPhone's main advantage over other mobile devices is that it runs full Mac OS X and Safari. The Web and full HTML e-mail are just like you get on your desktop, only smaller, although the Safari browser lacks Flash support. You can manually access your POP3 and IMAP e-mail as well as AOL, Gmail, and Yahoo push e-mail. The iPhone lets you view Word, Excel, and PDF attachments, as well as images, but not PowerPoints.
AT&T souped up its sluggish EDGE network just prior to the iPhone's release, but you're still going to need patience when you're not surfing in a hotspot. For instance, NYTimes.com took only 12 seconds to fill completely but was readable in about five. On EDGE, the same page was readable in about 20 seconds and took nearly a minute to load completely. Then we tried CNN.com. Over Wi-Fi, the homepage was readable in 7 seconds but took 30 seconds to download everything. Our wait increased to 23 and 57 seconds, respectively, over EDGE.
In most respects, this browser is so good compared to what you'll find on other smart phones--especially in terms of resolution and formatting--that the EDGE latency is almost worth it. But in general we prefer the BlackBerry Curve's browser because you can grab the information you need and move onto the next site in the time it takes the mobile version of Safari to get in gear.
If you work and play mostly in areas with Wi-Fi coverage, you'll have no complaints. We found the 802.11b/g connection very quick for Web browsing and trolling YouTube. We especially like that the phone automatically switches between Wi-Fi and EDGE for data. On our tests, this worked seamlessly when moving from Wi-Fi to EDGE and back with our home network.
Because iTunes can sync with Outlook, it's a cinch to keep track of your contacts and calendar on the iPhone. However, we'd like to see the ability to search for contacts by typing a few letters of the person's name. The flicking can get tiresome if you have a huge address book. The Calendar app is intuitive, with your choice of Day and Month views. Note to Apple: Add a little icon to tell users whether there's a note attached to a given appointment.
Phoning It In?
As a phone, the iPhone is adequate. We found the earpiece a bit weak (although the bundled earphones provide plenty of volume), and calls were a bit fuzzy on our end of the line. During one call from New Jersey to Boston, the other caller said we sounded clear but artificial and asked us to repeat ourselves twice. Ringers are loud, but you can't use songs as ringtones. The iPhone's most innovative communications feature is Visual Voicemail. Instead of slogging through all your messages before you get to the most important ones, you can simply tap on the message you want to hear.
Another plus is the large touch-sensitive dialpad; unlike the QWERTY keyboard, it fills the whole screen and is easy to use. Too bad there aren't dedicated Send and End keys for making calls. On most smart phones you can just start dialing by pressing physical number keys; on the iPhone you have to press the Main Menu button, then the Phone button, and then launch the keypad. Battery life is a solid eight hours for talk time and more than ten days for standby.
The iPhone has a few other flaws. First, you'll fill that 8GB of storage quickly, and there's no external memory card slot. Second, because the GSM radio interferes with speakers, the iPhone cell radio shuts off when you plug it into a dock. You have to unplug the iPhone to answer a call. Rumor has it that future iPhone-compatible auxiliary speakers will be shielded. Finally, the iPhone's unswappable battery is designed to retain up to 80 percent of its original capacity after 400 full charge and discharge cycles, after which time you'll likely want to replace your battery. With shipping this will cost you $85.95, and the repair process takes about three business days.
Of course, no smart phone is perfect, but the iPhone does a lot of things better than the competition, especially multimedia and Web browsing (at least over Wi-Fi). In general, the iPhone's interface is what makes it unique, much like the Click Wheel that sets iPods apart. Well, the interface and iTunes integration, which has advanced to the point where it handles everything including AT&T activation.
As to whether this device is worth $600 ($500 for the 4GB model)? Let's put it this way: It's the best portable multimedia player we've ever used. Safari is awesome. YouTube lovers will be in heaven. And you'll certainly look cool carrying it. If responding to e-mail and fielding calls is your number-one priority, with music and entertainment second, you'd be better off with a device like the BlackBerry Curve. But if your priorities are reversed, you’ll be more than happy with the iPhone.
BlackBerry Curve Review
A sleek smart phone for much more than e-mail, the Curve sports a sharp 2-MP camera and some serious multimedia muscle.