30
Jul
07

iPhone: Review

Preface

This is probably one of the longer reviews that I’ve written — and purposefully so. My intent is to give the reader a complete, full and fair account of my experience as a tech enthusiast who’s experimenting as the owner of a new iPhone. (This is one reason why I’ve waited almost a month after picking up the phone to complete the review. If you’re going to make an educated decision about whether or not to own this very different and very expensive piece of technology, you need to understand how it stands up under normal use.)

If you want a quick no-frills, “bottom-line” account, I don’t think you’re in the right place. We’re talking about a $600 phone that you’ll probably be using until 2009 (2-year contract) — I think it’s worth the investment to know what you’re buying.

I think one of the major challenges with a device like this is that it makes you completely rethink some of the ways that you are accustomed to using a phone — and not always in a good way. It’s like getting a next-generation stove. There are going to be some phenomenal features, but what good is it if heating up left overs turns into a chore. While writing the review, I was trying to contrast this experience with that of using a traditional Nokia or Motorola-interface mobile phone.

I hope what I’ve written makes your decision to buy (or not to buy) the phone one that is based more on fact and less on impression and speculation. (Cause there’s certainly a lot of that going on these days.)

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Overview

Unless you’ve been detained in Guantanamo Bay for the past few months, undoubtedly you’ve been subject to the phenomenon now known as “iPhone hysteria”. I’m not going to act as if I wasn’t caught up in it. Heck — in many cases, I was perpetuating it. But the question that many folks have now is, “Now that people can actually touch this thing, has it has it lived up to all of the hype? Does it meet expectations?” After having used the phone under general usage for the past thirty days, I can tell you this: the phone is not without it’s flaws. There are definitely some problems here. Some of these problems can easily be fixed via a software update. Others (mostly due to the limitations of the touch interface) probably won’t be fixed without a complete re-design of the device. However, in the words of Jermaine Jackson, “she’s the closest thing to perfect that I’ve ever seen.”

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Setting the Stage: (Where I’m Comin’ From)

First off, let me establish my perspective. I’m not buying this phone solely as a business customer or as someone who just wants the latest and greatest. I am a heavy mobile Internet user and my e-mail boxes are overflowing. My wonderful (yes, still wonderful — thank you very much) Moto Q has really carried me to the next level. I owned a Motorola Q for just over a year and it gave me a solid Internet experience and constant access to my e-mail. Having a mobile Internet browser really saved me in more than a few occasions where I needed to get directions from MapQuest or perhaps to even remember where the heck I was headed when I forgot the directions on the kitchen counter and simply pulled up Gmail and read the e-mail invitation.

However, with my Motorola Q (and more applicably the Windows Mobile 5 experience in general), there were many aspects of the user experience that were in need of a serious overhaul. The camera was incredibly poor. The interface and user experience resembled the older versions of Windows (like 95 and 98) in the worst way: when I used too many apps without closing old ones, I would need to stop what I was doing, open up task manager and find tasks that were hogging up system resources. Often (as is the case with most mobile phones) the answer to most performance-based problems would be to simply restart the device or remove the battery completely.

Another big problem with the Q was overall battery life (and I was using the extended battery.) Some of the more frustrating issues with my Q centered around constant “accidental dialing” — where my phone presses up against my leg and just dials whomever is assigned to the quick dial. I knew how to lock the phone, but it’s easy to forget to lock it on the run. I made so many mis-dialed callers that it’s a wonder that my friends still pick up the phone when they see my name.

To round out my list of major issues, as much as I appreciated the Windows Mobile 5’s Internet Explorer, experience was just so minimal and watered-down that I mostly used it to get “quick and dirty” information. You know….sports scores, CNN headlines, RSS Feeds, etc. I would do most of my real” browsing when I got to a my PC at home.

To put it succinctly, I needed more. And now that I’ve spent a few days with the iPhone, I can honestly say that it has improved in every area where I expressed concern. I would even venture to say that the phone has exceeded my expectations in virtually every way.

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The “Out of Box” Experience

After I entered the mall and stood on line for about seven hours outside the Apple Store among the geekish masses (of which, I’m undoubtedly a member) I finally entered at the 6pm launch time and was greeted by Apple employees, who applauded us as we entered — in groups of fifteen people at a time. When I finally dropped the plastic on the table, I was given this cute little bag, with an even cuter little box. Certainly no room for an iTunes CD in here — Apple is going as green as they can with less space for these boxes to take up. (Undoubtedly the influence of Al Gore and the Greenpeace folks.)

As I took the painful hour plus ride home from Short Hills, New Jersey to Queens (through Friday afternoon traffic, no less) the suspense was killing me. The object of my desire was right next to me in a small cellophane-covered box. Of course, at every pause in traffic, I carefully unwrapped the cellophane, (and shut my windows to avoid any “wind taking my instructions” accidents.)

Upon first touch, the phone is unlike most other phones that you’ve held. The glass front and heavy metal casing that comprise the iPhone make for a very sturdy feel, and one that certainly doesn’t scream ‘cheap plastic’. This, however, means that the phone is more heavy than most other phones that you’ve held. This hasn’t really been an issue with the twenty or so calls that I’ve made since first getting the phone, but I would imagine that during long periods of time with the phone that this might be an issue and a Bluetooth headset might be a welcome addition. The official weight of the phone according to the Apple site is 4.8 ounces. To compare, my Moto Q is about 4.1 ounces, but somehow it feels like a greater difference than just .7 ounces. Maybe it’s the plastic versus the metal casing?

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Setup

After finally getting to a place where I could actually sit down and “Connect to iTunes” (as the message on the display haunted me) I was prompted first to download and update iTunes to version 7.3 (this is the one that incorporates iPhone synching.) When you connect the phone to a Mac (and I would imagine a PC as well) it acts just like iTunes does when you dock an iPod. The iPhone appears under “devices”.

After connecting the phone to my PC, an activation menu takes over on one of the iTunes tabs. This is a genius idea in concept. Rather than deal with thousands of launch day customers in stores setting up phone contracts, instead you do this from the comfort of your home or home office. Now you can carefully read over the agreement and make decisions without some sales agent bothering you.

During my activation, I elected to move my Verizon number to the new phone. After putting in some information about my existing account, a screen indicated that a credit check would begin, projected to last about six minutes. After the check, I got an e-mail and the screen told me that it would send me an e-mail when the activation would begin. And this is where things started falling down…..

Activation Hell

I spent the entire evening on Friday and most of Saturday morning staring at this screen….

As much as this phone was kept in secret, apparently Apple and AT&T didn’t do enough in the way of reality testing because the experience of porting over my number was not as easy as the dude in the Apple “Activation” QuickTime movie on the website says it would be. At first I thought I was alone. But then I read dozens of other posts on the Apple message boards from people who were even more irate than I was. “Six hundred dollar paperweight!” and “I’m taking it back!!! Arrgh!!” are just a sample of some of the more family friendly comments that I read. Honestly, as mentioned in my earlier post on this blog, I blame everyone involved. I’m sure that Verizon had something to do with my number not being release quickly, but can you really blame them? Does an Apple/AT&T sales rush with a new device launch constitute a need to overstaff Verizon reps to move numbers? (I need to admit here that I don’t know the actual back-end process involved in porting a number in the mobile phone world.) Regardless, this is something that should have been revealed in beta testing and customer expectations needed to be set.

What’s really inexcusable about the situation is that after all of the waiting that I experienced, it was only after reading the Apple message boards and from folks who had the same problem I did and calling one of several support numbers that I was able finally get an agent to activate my phone. This is a constant problem in many support organizations that I’ve worked in — ensuring that when new resolutions for common problems are discovered that they are promptly disseminated to everyone. Had I not called, I probably would still have been looking at an inactive iPhone for a few days. And even after I was active and looking to share my info with other people, I saw messages from AT&T chat room sys ops stating that this wasn’t their problem and nothing could be done. Bad introduction for new customers. But hopefully this was just evident of a rush of new customers and any provider would have had difficulty handling such traffic.

Physical Design

The iPhone mirrors Apple’s consistent approach to technology — simplicity and elegance. The face of the phone is about as basic as it gets. One 3-by-5 inch glass display on the front with one button (called the “Home” button).

Along the left edge of the phone: an analog on-off switch for turning the ringer on or off and a volume up and down button. I’ve found the on-off ringer switch to be very helpful. Instead of scrambling through the interface, you simply flip the switch and all sound goes off.

Along the right side of the interface — nothing.

Along the bottom side are the speaker (for speakerphone calls, iTunes Music, audio sounds, etc.), the microphone and in the center is the standard 30-pin iPod connector.

Along the top of the iPhone is the sleep/wake button and a very strangely designed headphone jack. Which brings me to pet peeve number one….

Not sure who’s idea it was during the design phase to make the headphone jack so narrow as not to allow a standard 3.5 mm headphone to fit in, but they seriously dropped the ball. All that needed to be done to fix this problem is to widen the hole that leads to the jack. That’s it. It’s really disappointing. There are different tools that will extend the jack so that standard headphones will fit, but this just doesn’t make sense to me — and apparently to many other owners.

Rounding out the design is the back of the phone, which has a small lens for the camera.

Interface Basics

Upon having the device activated (and crying tears of joy at the sight of something other than the “Connect to iTunes to Activate” screen) I was immediately greeted with the famous collection of icons on the home screen that everyone who’s seen the phone is familiar with. You know, these things:

Operating the device is an exercise in simplicity. If the device is completely off, push the sleep/wake button to turn it on. (Booting up takes about 8-10 seconds.) From this “on” state, you’ll see this screen where you can slide the arrow button to unlock the phone.

This simple action will keep you from misdialing people accidentally (provided you remember to push the sleep/wake button when you’re done using it. The phone has a setting where you can set the “Auto-Lock” (where the phone display goes to sleep) anywhere from 1 minute incrementing by the minute all the way to 5 minutes. You can also set the phone never to sleep, although I wouldn’t recommend it.

What I’ve found to be helpful about the phone is that a simple push of either the home button or the sleep/wake button when the phone is sleep will reveal the wallpaper you’ve chosen, a large digital clock, the day and date, whether or not you have a mobile signal, and a battery life indicator. My Q displayed the same info, but despite all of the different themes that I used in the year that I owned the phone, this display is so much more elegant.

The best way that I can describe it is that you have the simplicity of a Nokia display housed in a phone as technically advanced as any Windows Mobile phone.

No Stylus Here

Navigating through the OS is done entirely with your finger. This makes for a very intuitive and simple experience. You simply put your finger on the icon that you want to open. Want to go to a link that’s in your current browser window? Just click on it. Want to zoom in on a picture or webpage? Just double tap on the screen. It’s a very different approach for those that are accustomed to navigating with a physical keyboard. Even for those who are stylus users, this will take some getting used to.

Also notable with regard to the display are the new “gestures” that you’ll use to interact with objects — mostly images. In the Photo application or when surfing the web within Safari, you can put your thumb and index finger together on-screen and drag them on the screen apart from each other to increase the size of the image. You can also do the opposite — drag your fingers together in a “pinching” motion — to widen the image. It’s really intuitive and when you begin to use it, you start to rely on it. Not only does the image zoom in, but it re-focuses to a crystal clear display (provided that the image resolution is high enough.) This also works with any webpage, although it’s not without it’s frustrations (which I’ll get to in a moment.)

Couple of issues to note here. With images, the responsiveness is pretty good. However, with web pages when you’re trying to zoom in on text, the responsiveness varies. I’ve learned that it works better to let the page load completely before attempting to either zoom in or even to scroll anywhere else on the page. But even after the page is loaded, you’ll have problems. Double-tapping zooms in on the page, but the way that I’ve been trained, I don’t trust it. I feel as if double tapping on a link should take me somewhere. It doesn’t but it just feels a bit counter-intuitive. Also, the most frustrating thing can be scrolling around a page. When you’re browsing on an iPhone, every touch matters. A stray drag of a finger will have you launching off into some other site. More than a few times, I found myself mumbling under my breath because I’d clicked on something that I didn’t mean to.

Also, it’s nice to know that you can put your finger on the screen and drag it down to scroll, but this too is often misinterpreted as tapping a link. Often I’ll find myself looking for an empty area on the screen to click and drag so that I don’t accidentally push a link. It gets a bit frustrating.

One point of disclosure — I purchased a plastic surface cover to top my phone. Therefore, this may be playing into my phone’s responsiveness here. I don’t think this is the problem, as most other parts of the OS scroll with ease, but I just need to point this out.

You might guess that a touch-based interface like this can make for a very smudgy screen. All I can say is that the added functionality more than compensates for having to look at a few smudges on the screen and occasionally use your shirt as a wipe-cloth.

The Home Screen

The Home Screen (pictured above) is where all of the signature iPhone icons exist. It’s not customizable at all right now. This is clearly bad in many ways, but good in others. The bad, obviously, is that it doesn’t allow for the level of customization that many of us have grown accustomed to. The good is that it provides a uniform experience for all users. This may seem useless, but perhaps not so much when you give some thought to the notion. Everyone knows where the settings icon is. You begin to get used to looking for the camera icon on the top right. The settings icon is on the bottom right. Basically this makes it easier to share tips and other experiences with the community. From a marketing standpoint, the screen provides an iconic view that all users will easily be able to identify with.

Along the bottom of the Home screen are easy access icons to the things that you’ll most want to do: Phone, Mail, Safari (Web) and iPod.

Don’t Close that App!

Conceptually, those coming from Windows Mobile or other similar mobile operating systems will need to adjust to one drastically different concept: resisting the urge to close applications. It’s just a natural instinct for me to want to close an app. “Okay – I’m done browsing the web now and I want to look at an image — let me close the web browser and open the image viewer.” Not here. You just click the Home button to get back to the Home screen and then do whatever it is that you want to do next. If I’m in Safari browsing the web, I just click the Home button to go to the next thing. No need to close Safari. And if I go back to Safari (or any other application), it does take me exactly to the point where I left off.

Whether or not this will bog down the system resources over time and result in me wishing I had the ability to look at a task manager to close apps, I’m not sure about. I do know that so far I’ve been opening a bunch of different apps and webpages and so far I have not seen a decrease in performance for any of the apps outside of Safari on occasion depending on how graphic-heavy the page I’m loading is.

The Display

There hasn’t been a more beautiful display on a mobile device — at least not one that these eyes have seen. It’s crystal clear. Watching a movie or zooming into a picture or a webpage reveals great detail. It’s just a pleasure to look at this screen. I was in the sun this weekend and the glare was not really noticeable. Glare has never been a big issue for me, so perhaps other experiences may vary. Like a good LCD or plasma TV screen, the viewing angle doesn’t change the quality of the image much. It’s just a pleasure.

The Accelerometer

The whaa? The Accelerometer is the internal sensor that can tell whether you are orienting the phone in landscape or portrait views. This is incredibly useful (though not available in all applications.) When taking a picture, the camera display automatically re-orients itself when you tilt it to landscape view. Also, when you view web pages or images, the photo or page automatically rotates to accommodate the orientation of the screen. What’s even more amazing is that when you set the phone down, it will remain in that orientation until you lift it and rotate it again.

I had wondered whether or not you’d be able to just keep turning iPhone around and if it still re-oriented itself. For instance, can I rotate the phone so that it’s upside down and still have it rotate the image? Does is matter if I rotate iPhone to the left or right for landscape view? Happily, the answers are, sure — it displays just as you’d expect it to upside down and no, it doesn’t matter which way you rotate it.

Proximity Sensor

The proximity sensor present in iPhone is yet another innovation. Remember the days or putting the handset to your face and hitting buttons you didn’t mean to hit and having the person on the other end freak out? And remember how when you put the phone near your face, you just waste battery life as the display is still lit? (Not to mention the heat against your cheek? Well, the iPhone automatically shuts off the display when you bring it close to your face. It also re-displays the screen when you remove the phone from your face. A small thing, but a nice thing.

The (Dreaded) Keyboard

When I heard so much negative press around the keyboard from the tech press, I was already prepping my fingers to prove them wrong. These fingers have navigated through some of the most obscure and odd touch based interfaces — how much worse could this one be.

The iPhone keyboard isn’t bad. It responds to key presses just as it should. The problem is that the size of the keys don’t match up well with the size of most hands. This keyboard is designed more for a very small child’s hands. I completely understand the fact that the keyboard is the way it is since the device has to be a certain size to be sexy. After all, the phone is only a bit more narrow than my Moto Q. It’s just the same as that, right? Only here the keys are on the screen instead of fixed on the device, right? Well, no. With the Q, the fixed keys provide tactile feedback and the relative space between keys let you know where you are. You have no relative distance between keys and there’s no chance here that you’ll ever type without looking. On my Q, I was able to do that as I got used to it.

The short answer to the problem lies in the Accelerometer: when you’re in Safari browsing the web, the screen automatically rotates — and the keyboard with it. This provides for a keyboard layout that is much easier on the hands, as the keys are spaced out over the entire width of the phone in landscape mode. Sadly, Safari is the only place where you can type in this mode. Notes, the Calendar, the SMS Text application and even Mail do not allow you to type in the Landscape mode. Perhaps this will be corrected in an upcoming software update. We can only hope.

Apple has a video online where they ask you to “trust the keyboard”. What they are eluding to is the operating system’s built in correction system for the keyboard. It tries to determine what you might have meant to type based on the keys that were around the one that you hit. So, if you were trying to type “dog” and the system picked up “doh”, it would display “dog” as a choice that you can select by pushing “space” as an option below it. This is okay, but this only mildly removes some of the frustration you’ll experience when typing.

In short, it will be interesting to see how Apple innovates here in the future. Perhaps they’ll just leave it alone. Or maybe they’ll change all of the apps to work in landscape mode. Or maybe even something we’re not considering, like the ability to dictate text? Whatever the case, the keyboard here isn’t great. Walt Mossberg (Wall St. Journal Technology Editor) says that after a few weeks of using the keyboard that the problems became a “non-issue”. We’ll see about that. And if I end up eating my words, I’ll report it back right here on this site.

Phone

What would an iPhone review be without some attention paid to the actual, uh, ‘phone part’. I’ve made about 40 or so calls on the phone and I have to say that the phone-related aspects of the phone speak to the excellence in design and well thought out planning that has gone into the phone.

The thing that is most incredible about the phone is the fact that it so easily and gently removes you from whatever task you are in when the phone rings. So many times, I’ve unjustifiably cursed the person who called my mobile phone when I was in the middle of downloading something — or perhaps entering text in an e-mail — and now I’ve lost all of my work….arghh!!!!! Hopefully, I won’t experience that again. When you’re in an e-mail….the phone very gracefully brings up a screen that gives you the opportunity to push the large green button to “Answer” or the large red button to “Decline”. And after you’re done with the call….and I mean the second that you hit the “End Call” button, you’re greeted with the same app you were taken from. So you’re back at your song or your webpage or your e-mail, and the cursor is even in the same place as when you left it. I’m beginning to like this.

Another note: if the phone is sleeping when the call comes through, you have to slide the icon to answer the phone. Basically this prevents you from mistakenly answering incoming calls before you know who they are. Ingenious.

Switching between calls or making conference calls reminds me of the Nokia-like user-friendly interface that makes tasks easy even for someone like my Mom to do. When you tap on a contact and then their number to make a call (or just dial the old fashioned way), you are brought to a screen that very simply displays the following options: Mute, Keypad (to go to the standard keypad), Speaker (speakerphone), Add call (to create a conference call), Hold call, and Contacts. Typically when I made calls on my Q, I was pretty much locked into one view — the contacts name, number and the timer for our call. If I wanted to take a note based on some information that the caller was giving me, or go look up some info that they needed, (“Hey, do you have Lucy’s number?) I was going to go through a bit of a headache doing it. Not to mention the user getting a headache from hearing me enter in keys to try and navigate to the proper area. No more. You can just push the Home button and at any time during the call you’ll be able to do all the stuff that you do normally. Great stuff.

As technical as I’m inclined to think that I am, I have always shyed away from conference calling. It’s just one of those things that seems too complicated to be bothered with unless you have one of the office spider phones. Well, my conference call-phobia is gone. I recently created a conference call on this phone and it was ridiculous how simple it was and how in control I felt. I dialed the first person, pushed the icon on the screen to put them on hold. The “hold” icon turned blue and the screen clearly displayed, “Jack Tompkins – HOLD”. I then hit the “contacts” button, but then realizing that I hadn’t yet added the person I was joining to my contacts, I hit “cancel” and then went to the “keypad” and dialed. When the number went to a recording saying the phone number was out of service, I knew I made a mistake. I simply hit “end call” and went back to my held call. Jack didn’t hear any tones or anything — just silence until I returned. I then asked him if he had the number of the guy I wanted to conference in. When he gave it to me, I put him back on hold and then went to “add call” and dialed the number. When the caller picked up and I told him I was going to bring him in, I simply hit “merge calls” and we were all on. What’s even better, I was able to put either caller on hold and drop the other. I could also see very clearly who was conferenced in. So often when you’re on a conference call your inclination is to just hang up and dial the original caller back because you’re never quite sure if the other party is still connected. That worry doesn’t exist when you manage the call with this phone.

Another nice feature of the Phone app is the fact that you can put people into a favorites list. Similar to the T-Mobile “My Favs”, you can add people to an area where you can quickly gain access to the people you need to call most.

Also helpful in the Phone app is the thing we’re all used to using — recents. This will show you visually recent calls that you’ve missed, calls that you’ve made, etc.

So what’s not great about the Phone app? Well, one glaring omission is the inability to do voice dialing (and I haven’t hooked up a Bluetooth headset yet, but it seems from early reports that there’s no voice dialing. Also, more importantly there is no way to begin to type in someone’s name to get their number. You have to either go to the contacts and click on it, pull them up from your favorites or your recently made calls or dial the old fashioned way. No chance here that you can go to a keypad and begin to type in the area code and get four numbers of people who’s numbers start with, say, 713. (Bummer, because I used to rely pretty heavily upon that.) Also the sensitive keypad (more on that later) could lead to misdialing, which is almost as bad as mistaken dialing. When my finger goes to hit James Burns and accidentally swipes Julia Bernhard, it can get on your nerves (as you quickly slam on “End Call”).

But weighing the negatives against the positives, I’ll still take this phone experience over any other. The phone app is definitely something that is going to “change the game.” Bottom line — the best thing about this phone is the way that visually you are able to manage the experience of making phone calls, instead of having the calls manage you.

iPod

Apple has advertised this phone as “the best iPod that we’ve ever released.” As big of a fan of Apple’s as I am (I did buy the first iPod, and paid slightly less than I paid for this phone), I would venture to say that this is indeed the flashiest iPod that has been created, but not the best. “Best” means a lot of things to me. Mostly, it means “performs the task better than any others”. I don’t think that’s the case here.

Don’t get me wrong — there’s nothing nicer than pulling out your iPhone, clicking on the slider to get to the home screen and then pushing the iPod button to get to your tunes. Browsing in Coverflow (where you drag to look through the album covers) is a beautiful thing. And provided you use the headphones that come with the iPhone, listening to songs is a pleasure. Again, keep in mind what I mentioned about the iPhone gracefully returning you to your song after you were interrupted by a phone call.

I have been an iPod user since 2001. I’ve owned five different iPods (including three full sized devices and two iPod Shuffles). I have gotten so good at navigating my clickwheel that I can get to certain playlists from my pocket without looking at the screen. I can skip ahead a few seconds, pause a song, restart a track, skip ahead a track or two and even get to a playlist — all without looking. That dream is over when I have my iPhone as my primary music player. Yeah, it’s nice to be able to play music without having to carry a phone and an MP3 player, but there are some sacrifices. For one, even the 8GB model isn’t enough to hold a 10th of my library. Not that I’d want to carry around all that music. But the 60 gig gives me a healthy variety. Also, keep in mind that 8GB of space that you have is shared with your camera, contacts and other apps as well.

They call this an iPod, but to me the clickwheel defines the iPod experience. I know that Apple would want to silence me for saying this, but to me the phone is more of an iPhone that plays music than an iPhone with a built in iPod. None of the screens even slightly resemble the iPod screens. It works well — don’t get me wrong. It’s just that I’m not sure it’s appropriate to call this a substitute for your iPod.

Honestly, I think this might work for moderate music listeners. However, I stay glued to my headphones when I’m not working. I listen to podcasts, new albums, moody playlists — I’m a pretty heavy iPod user. I have a hard time keeping my dedicated iPod powered up. Not sure how this would hold up with me taking phone calls and browsing the web while listening to music? Honestly, I’m in this thing for more of the phone and the web browsing. I have no intent of kicking my 60 GB to the curb. I’m too glued to the clickwheel and I don’t want to draw from the power required to play music.

One note is that the internal speaker (normally used for speakerphones) works pretty well in lieu of a set of headphones. This is naturally only for the situations when you absolutely don’t have a pair of headphones handy. However, if you find yourself in a bind, the speaker works nicely. I was on the way home from work when I realized that a new MacBreak Weekly podcast went up. I was able to download it in a few minutes and listen to it through the speakers.

What’s also nice (or not so nice, depending on how you think about it) is that the iPhone keeps playing music when you put it to sleep using the sleep/wake button. In order to stop the track, you’ll need to wake the device, slide the arrow to activate it and then push the pause button on the screen. You can also pause the track using a button on the earbuds. Speaking of the earbuds….

The iPhone Earbuds

The earbuds that come with the iPhone have some special features. In addition to playing music, they have a microphone on a small white bar attached to the earbuds. This makes for some added convenience. If a call comes in, the music fades away gently and your ringer plays. You simply squeeze the bar when you want to take the call and the call will answer. If you squeeze the bar again, it will hang up the call and the music (or movie or whatever else) will resume. When you squeeze the bar while no call comes through, you will pause the track. Push it again to resume the track. Push it twice to advance to the next track.

They work quite nicely, but I have very small ears and I really don’t like the feel of earbuds in my ears. Not to mention the added danger of not knowing what’s going on around me. Perhaps other headphones or complimentary devices will be developed that have these same features built-in.

Web Browsing (Safari)

I had very high expectations for browsing on the iPhone. In fact, I think this is the single biggest feature that drew me to the phone. The other features are quite nice to have, but the Moto Q has really spoiled me. Browsing my favorite sites and checking my e-mail is almost a necessity at this point. The Q did a fine job initially, but I was tired of sacrificing. The layouts would be horribly different from the real site. Images wouldn’t display. It was pretty awkward.

I must say that I’m about 80% satisfied with the browsing experience on Safari on my iPhone. Pages render just as they do on Safari on my MacBook Pro. I can zoom in on text and it becomes almost easier to read here than on my Mac. Overall it’s a wonderful experience and just about everything I expected.

The one major drawback is the lack of Macromedia Flash support. I realize that technically it may have been a challenge to incorporate Flash into a mobile browser and I don’t know if any other phones have supported Flash in the past, but there are a few things that I’d like to be able to do that you just can’t — even with the browser being as robust as it is.

The other drawback I’ve found is with regard to stability. I’ve had no less than six times when I was on certain pages and Safari would quit and take me to the Home screen. When I would relaunch Safari, it would take me back to the page I visited last, but I’m certain that it crashed. This will hopefully be addressed in future software updates.

These drawbacks aside, the browsing experience has been so good that a few nights I didn’t even check out my MacBook Pro because I felt that I had already read my e-mail and all the latest news on the sites I visit.

SMS Text Messaging

I hated texting in the Verizon-Moto Q world. First off, I didn’t have a text plan, so I’d get charged for each one. The plan with AT&T is $60 and comes with 200 text messages. (Better than my plan that was way more expensive with Verizon, that had no included text messages). But better than the cost is the usability. SMS text trading feels more like instant messaging — literally. The SMS client looks exactly like the OS X app iChat and has the same sounds as well. Text messages are kept together under the name of the person sending the text. It gives the conversation — even if it takes place over days — a sense of continuity that I hadn’t felt, even when I had a period of time when I was texting a friend pretty heavily.

One wish here is that there would be some sort of IM client. SMS texting is the most abused aspect of our relationship with mobile phone providers. In other countries, texts are a cheaper alternative to voice dialing. Here, texting is a premium-priced extra that costs more than an actual voice call that uses considerably more bandwidth. On a personal note, I urge people to just use the built in e-mail features that the data plan already allows to send data to your contacts. However, I’ll say here that the text application is a really nice one and I haven’t seen anything else like it on a mobile device (at least not as part of the standard suite of apps, anyhow.)

Calendar

The Calendar app, again, mirrors the OS X iCal application. There are wonderful views for “day” and “month” that give you a visually pleasant look at your events. A “week” view is definitely missing here. Other than that, you have the ability to add one time or recurring events, delete events, set alarms, etc. I do wish that there was the ability to customize when you wanted the phone to notify you about an event. If someone’s birthday is coming up, I’d like to set the alarm for greater than 2 days (which seems to be the limit). I guess the answer is creating another event, but that’s annoying.

Overall the calendar is great, and the month view is probably where I’ll spend a lot of time.

Photos

Ahh…the Photo application. What a breath of fresh air compared to what I’m used to. In Windows Mobile 5, Windows Media Player did everything. It played movies, audio files and images — a jack of all trades and a master of none. With the iPhone interface, each task is given to an app that handles it well, and nowhere is that better illustrated than in the Photo application. You can decide in iPhoto (if you use OS X) which albums you want to sync with iPhoto. Then, when you go into the Photo app on iPhone, you just click on the album that you want to view and then you just use the finger gestures to slide through your images. People, with this phone there’s no need to carry around those images in your wallet anymore — this is the best photo album you never had. Usually when I’m demoing the phone, all I have to do is show off a few photos and use my finger to slide through them (and then prepare a tissue to clean the drool from my screen.)

Clicking on the icon in the bottom left of the image brings up the options to “E-mail the photo”, “Use as wallpaper”, or even to assign it to a contact. If you choose to do either of those things, right there in the interface, you can use the gestures to zoom info the part of the image that you want to have be your wallpaper or that you want to show up as your contact’s image.

The Camera

I’ve owned several phones with cameras. They’ve all been pretty poor excuses for cameras. Grainy images. Poor quality unless I was in direct sunlight and even then I’d get washed out images. So far I’ve heard people speak lightly of this camera, but I have to say that this is one of the most incredible cameras that I’ve ever seen on a phone. This camera is infinitely better than the one on my Q. It’s so good that I’m actually considering a Flickr account now that I don’t have to lug my Canon PowerShot around anymore.

The Small Apps (Widgets, if you will)

I’ll spend just a bit of time talking about the other icons on the Home screen.

Weather – Weather shows the current weather and the six day outlook for any major city. Like the Photo App, you just add cities and then flick through them to see their weather outlooks.

YouTube – As guessed, YouTube works best when connected directly to a Wi-Fi connection. Over Edge, it will work, but it will be painfully slow. Also, it’s worth noting that only a subset of the YouTube universe is available — generally only the most popular movies. So, it’s not like this is the real YouTube yet. Half of the fun is being able to see the obscure stuff.

Stocks – Stocks looks just like the OS X dashboard widget and displays that current price and percentage change for any security you enter. It can display up to six comfortably.

Clock – Clock serves as both an international clock and a very good alarm clock. I’ve used this quite a bit, as it allows me to set an alarm where I can determine which days it goes off. Naturally I have an alarm for Mon-Fri, but it’s flexibility would be great for students or folks that have irregular schedules. (e.g. I’ll set the alarm for Mon-Wed-Fri at 7am, but 10am on Tues-Thurs for my late morning Chemistry class.

Calculator – Not much to say here. It’s a calculator. Although it would have been nice had they included a scientific calculator or at least some sort of tip calculator. Surprised that Apple didn’t make this more functional — even for a launch app.

Notes – Notes is a pretty minimal notepad application. It’s about as barebones as they come. And sadly it doesn’t even look that nice. The yellow legal pad and the weird font irk me. But it works for now if I need to jot some quick info.

Maps – Maps is basically Google maps. This is a very nice and handy app if you’re looking to understand the layout of an area that you happen to find yourself in. But please don’t mistake this for a good GPS app. I’m sure that’s coming down the line, but as for now, all turn by turn navigation has to be done by the user. Regardless, this is a nice addition. (Even nicer that you can go to Satellite layout view. Pretty slick.)

Settings

The Settings icon provides the ability to make a number of changes to the options and behavior of certain apps, but nothing as to drastically change the interface. These are options that determine things like, ‘whether the Wi-Fi connects to another network automatically’, or ‘how often the e-mail application goes to check for new mail.’ One notable option is the ability to turn on the Airplane mode. Very nice addition, for more reasons than just flying. When the phone (or any mobile phone, for that matter) is in a place where it can’t get a signal, it turns on it’s antennas full bore to try and get you at least a weak signal. All of this work results in wearing your battery down. (Not to mention the effects of a radio signal kicked up at full power in a confined area while it’s in your pocket.) So think about using that Airplane mode.

Connectivity

I was quite worried when I heard claims of how slow AT&T’s EDGE broadband network was. Some quoted it as being as fast as a 56K connection. And with me being used to Verizon’s EVDO network, I wasn’t sure how this was going to work out. What good is a terrific browsing experience if there’s no network over which to browse?

Well, I’m very happy to report that EDGE has been really good for me. I would venture to say that it’s about the same speed as the EVDO speed that I was getting. I live in the NYC metro area — perhaps that has to do with why EDGE might be a bit faster for me. But I certainly have driven within a 30 mile radius throughout different parts of the city and the experience has been pretty awesome. It’s certainly nothing to write home about. But for a wireless device where most of the time I just need to get blog updates, news feeds and check e-mail, this is perfect. And when I do need to visit certain image heavy sites, they render in a reasonable amount of time — never more than a minute plus.

This isn’t San Francisco or anyplace else where there are tons of available Wi-Fi connections. But I have noticed that when the iPhone gets into a location that has a faster open connection, it will ask if you’d like to join that connection and then use it. When I’m on the road, it’s mostly EDGE, but the minute I hit home, I’ll see it switch over and start using my Wi-Fi. It adapts very easily. And joining networks is a breeze. If you know the password, you’ll be on the network in no time.

Conclusion

Well, if you’ve gotten this far, then I’m pretty sure you’ve already made a decision. Let me reiterate: this is not the perfect phone. Business people who are heavy keyboard users coming from a Blackberry may want to steer clear until the keyboard gets worked out. And folks with 60 and 80 GB iPods who think this will be a chance to carry one device may want to consider how easily they’ll adapt to the new interface. There’s very little that can be truly customized here and with no mechanism (save browsing to a site that supports Safari) there’s not a bit chance that you’ll be getting any new apps to affect that lack of customization. However, given all of it’s initial imperfections, there’s so much to like about this phone. I have only begun to scratch the surface of the cool things that you can do here. Apple really has revolutionized the mobile phone. The features present here I’m sure we’ll be seeing in other devices — and that’s a good thing.

If you want a simple phone and don’t need the Internet connectivity, the e-mail or the iPod, then this probably isn’t for you. But if you’re like me — a heavy e-mail user, Internet browser and music listener, then this phone may be just the sweet spot that you’re looking for.

If you’re still interested, check out the Apple store and play around with the devices they have on display. It should help you make the right choice.

If there’s any question that I might be able to answer to aid in your purchase, feel free to drop me a line via the comments section and I’ll do my best to answer.

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7 Responses to “iPhone: Review”


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