updated 03:20 pm EDT, Tue July 3, 2007
Second iPhone impressions
For the past few years, smartphone users around the world have been waiting for advancement in functionality and quality. So when Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced the iPhone, millions of people were enticed by the potential of this product. While some believed the iPhone would become the greatest piece of technology the world has ever seen, others viewed the new cell phone as a guaranteed flop with typing and battery issues. Both groups were wrong.
Installation and Syncing
Upon opening the iPhone packaging, it immediately becomes apparent that Apple makes your new device. With a stylish box and a great presentation, you are introduced to the phone that will carry you through the next two years.
Included in the box is a manual called "Finger Tips" that gives you some quick facts on how to get around your iPhone. Whether it's how to access email or simply turn the iPhone off, the manual is a great reference while you get to know your new phone. Aside from the manual, the iPhone comes with the typical Apple earbuds that offer similar sound as the earbuds you would find with an iPod, and the same old uncomfortable feeling after prolonged use. Besides the dock and USB cord, it was nice to see that Apple included a USB power adapter so you don't need to plug the iPhone into your computer when you want to charge it. Even better, the iPhone comes with a soft cloth that's specifically designed to get all of those unsightly smudges off the screen.
Upon removing all of the materials from the box, you need to plug your iPhone into your computer and get ready for activation. The iPhone will only be able to sync with your computer if it's running iTunes 7.3. Downloading the update is quick and easy, and installation proved to be just as simple.
Once I had downloaded the iTunes update, I was ready to connect my iPhone to my Mac with the help of the aforementioned USB cord. Upon plugging the iPhone in, iTunes immediately recognized the device and I was on my way to activating the phone. Because my credit check was already performed at the AT&T store, I had a pre-approved number to input into a field on the iPhone set-up menu. Within a few minutes, my I was told my new number and the iPhone was ready to go. Setting up the iPhone couldn't be easier. With a few clicks of the mouse and a little bit of typing, you are signed up for AT&T service and free to do what you want with your new cell phone.
The first thing that will strike you about the iPhone is its sleek design. About the length of a Treo and the depth of an iPod with Video, the iPhone is one of the most stylish looking devices you will ever come across. Its glass screen shields a vivid display that is second to none, and the nice chrome finish that slides around its curved corners add even more elegance to a phone that is lacking none. The back of the iPhone features a reflective Apple logo and a small circle where the 2-megapixel camera snaps away. There are no buttons on the face of the iPhone and the only functional button on the face of the device is the home button. On the left side, the iPhone sports a volume control similar to the Treo and a switch that allows you to switch the sound on or off. On the top, the iPhone features a headphone port and a black button that allows you to turn the screen off at any time.
All in all, the iPhone is simply gorgeous. With a unique design that is simply second to none, the iPhone fits easily into your pocket and its rugged screen, although susceptible to smudging, is resistant to scratching and is easily visible in even the most direct sunlight. It would have been nice if Apple could have lengthened the screen a bit to give it a more full-sized feeling, but the screen is so large compared to the iPod with Video that you seem to forget just how small the screen really is.
Working Our Way Around the Menu: SMS
With a design that is very similar to iChat, Apple has created a fine SMS client that, although no substitute for an actual chat application, still does a fine job delivering on the basics of SMS.
Upon choosing the SMS application, you are immediately brought to an empty screen featuring the virtual keyboard. In order to choose whom you would like to text, the iPhone requires you to either choose someone from your contacts list or input the cell phone number of the desired recipient. The SMS client requires about the same amount of taps you would find on any other phone, and its inclusion of an iChat interface adds significant convenience to an already convenient design. Simply type in your message and click send. Within a few seconds, the recipient will be sent your text and an alert will tell you when they have replied. On other phones, the recipient of a text message are only given the latest message, and if they want to see previous sent messages, they need to click their way around an interface. The iPhone changes all of that, and allows you to see every message in a format that is very similar to iChat. The inclusion of this feature is not only a much-needed addition to any cell phone, but it becomes quite useful when the person you are text messaging goes entirely off topic.
The SMS feature on the iPhone is simply second to none. With an intuitive design and a simple interface, the menu is easy to maneuver and except for some virtual keyboard issues that we will get into later, it is a great solution for any SMS'er.
Working Our Way Around the Menu: Calendar
The iPhone Calendar is pretty much a mobile version of iCal. While the date displayed on the menu icon is a welcome addition, Calendar is nothing too special and is similar to any other Calendar feature you would find on a Treo or other Smartphone. The Calendar menu gives you the option to search your way around with the help of tabs (Today, List, Day, Month) and with a simple press of the + button, you can add an event and customize its start and end time, reminder actions and whether or not it should repeat itself on a regular basis. I found this feature to be especially handy as a reminder tool, but as mentioned above, there is no significant evolution that would make this application any better than a calendar application on any other smartphone.
Working Our Way Around the Menu: Photos and Camera
Like many others, I wish the iPhone featured a 5-megapixel camera like the Nokia N95, or maybe even a camcorder like my Treo, but it doesn't, and so we are forced to live with what we are given.
The iPhone camera, much like the Calendar application is nothing special. While it captures pictures quickly and adeptly, the low-quality pictures can only be sent in 640x480 and if you try to blow it up in Photo Booth, the pictures look simply horrible. Capturing a picture is as simple as pointing it at your target and clicking a small camera icon on the bottom of the picture, and the ease with which a picture can be taken is gratifying to say the least. I found myself taking far less shaky pictures than I normally do on my Treo where I'm forced to press an awkward button down. Perhaps my favorite feature on the iPhone is the ability to "pinch" pictures to zoom in or out. In other words, when you take a picture with your iPhone, you can zoom in on different areas by taking your thumb and index finger and bringing them together on the area you would like to zoom in on. When you're finished, simply separate your fingers and the photo will zoom out. Another great use of your fingers is the ease with which you can maneuver your way around the photos. With a simple flick of your finger, you can go forward to the next picture or backward to the previous photo. These features not only made rummaging through my photo library a far more pleasing experience, its intuitive functionality rendered the manual practically useless.
Apple's exclusion of a camcorder is a mystery and frankly, its absence is a mistake on the company's part. Including a camcorder into a cell phone is not only a necessity, it is simple to include and is a major selling point for many consumers. I understand the iPhone features a number of options that would entice consumers enough, but it's lack of a camcorder (and other exclusions) still keeps it from living up to its hype.
Working Our Way Around the Menu: YouTube
Apple's decision to include YouTube support on its device is probably one of the most unique (and intelligent) features on the iPhone. Although I wouldn't suggest playing YouTube videos while using the EDGE network, viewing the videos on a wireless connection were as enjoyable as watching them on a desktop monitor.
Upon clicking the YouTube icon, you are immediately presented with five options: Featured, Most Viewed, Bookmarks, Search and More. Each of these features are exactly the same as you would find on YouTube and their integration into the iPhone interface is seamless. Once connected to a high-speed access point, videos download in a flash and quality is simply superb. In fact, the iPhone features a screen quality that is second to none. Whether you are enjoying an HD show on a 1080p set or working your way around YouTube on an Apple Cinema Display, the iPhone screen will easily offer a better picture. Even better, after an hour straight of watching Best of Family Guy, the iPhone battery barely dropped to half, and although it got quite hot, I was still able to work my way around the menu with ease. And just for a word of caution: the iPhone gets quite hot after prolonged use. With such a stylish design, I'm sure Apple found it hard to fit adequate cooling provisions into the phone, so please be aware that it may get hot to touch after a while.
YouTube on the EDGE network is not just miserable, it's inoperable. After almost ten minutes hoping for a YouTube video to work on the EDGE network, my iPhone seemed to give up just when I did. The videos play, but buffering is so unbearable, I consider the YouTube menu only practical when connected to a wireless network.
Working Our Way Around the Menu: Stocks, Weather, Clock, Calculator, Notes
Because these five menus are roughly the same, as you would find on your Mac, I decided none warranted its own section.
Interestingly enough, the Stocks and Weather menus on the iPhone are not on the Apple Dashboard. Instead, each menu is an exact replica of the Yahoo! widgets. The Stocks application is simple and easy to use. By default, you are given information on the Dow Jones, Apple, Google, Yahoo, and (of course) AT&T. Adding your own portfolio is a cinch, and once you get it all setup, you become addicted to the constant updates and access to your companies.
The Weather application, once again a Yahoo! widget, is powered by The Weather Channel. By default, the Weather application shows the Cupertino weather (gee, what a surprise), but adding your own city is as simple hitting the 'i' icon towards the bottom and inputting your zip code. There's not a whole lot to say about the weather application other than it is simple to use and quite handy when those boring weather conversations come up.
The Clock application is an all-in one menu option that includes a moving second hand for any major city in the world, as well as a handy alarm, simple stop watch and stylish timer that chimes when time is up. Each of these options make the time management much easier than it should be, and quickly dictate the way you live your life. I found the world clock to be useful when I needed to contact people on the other coast and the alarm clock especially helpful when I didn't want to wake up from my nap. All in all, the Clock application is heads and shoulders above any other smartphone's clock application for the simple reason that it's easier to use. There are no hidden alarm clock menus on the iPhone like you would find on the Treo, and the inclusion of such a simple setup is a much-needed addition that had been lacking.
The calculator function is hands-down the best calculator on a cell phone in history. Why you ask? Because for the first time, you can actually press the buttons on the screen. For the first time, you don't have to wonder which button to press, you simply need to pick your number and you're all set.
The iPhone Notes application is a nice option that is ideal for capturing your important thoughts or your plans for later. Through the use of the virtual keyboard, you can quickly and seamlessly remember anything you ever wanted to and then some. The Notes application is a useful tool at times, but I would have rather seen Apple include a camcorder instead.
Working Our Way Around the Menu: Google Maps
Google Maps is probably the most useful application on the iPhone menu. With the same functionality you get on the Google homepage, Google Maps easily allows you to input business names and locations while giving you the option to get directions to and fro. Although the iPhone doesn't have GPS support (another exclusion that would have been nice), Google Maps offers turn-by-turn instructions as long as you tell it when you're turning, and more importantly, traffic information so you can see which way to go when you're in a hurry. Another great feature of Google Maps is its inclusion of a satellite view that helps you become the spy you always wanted to be.
Using Google Maps on the iPhone is simply a pleasure. Unlike any other experience, the Google Maps feature makes using the iPhone all the more unique. With the ability to use the pinch feature to zoom in and the flick feature to move your way across your plotted route, the iPhone takes Google's mapping software to a whole new level.
The iPhone's Phone
With all of this talk about extras, it's easy to lose sight that the iPhone is, first and foremost, a cell phone. But unlike its menu options, the built-in phone does not offer any significant benefits over the competition and its quality is average at best.
When making a call, too many steps need to be taken. Consider this: From standby mode, you first need to hit the home button to turn the screen on. Once the screen is lit up, you need to scroll your finger across a slider to get to the menu. From there, choose the phone icon and click Contacts. Next, scroll your way through the Contacts listing and choose the person you want to call. Once you are in their menu, choose their number and the iPhone will call. Now, while it is possible to simply leave the iPhone in a menu when you put it on standby, thus lessening the number of steps to make a call, too many taps are always present.
Another issue I have with the iPhone is its network. Although AT&T has vaulted itself to the top of the food chain with iPhone exclusivity, its performance is still spotty at best, and offers poor coverage in some areas. On a few occasions, my service just dropped out in an urban location while my Verizon Treo had a sound connection to a tower.
One of the biggest problems with the iPhone phone is the speaker phone. Not only is it too quiet while driving, it tends to sound a bit tinny and people on the other end have trouble understanding you unless you are close enough to the speaker.
Generally speaking, the iPhone phone is average at best. With a poor sounding speaker phone and spotty service, the iPhone would be much better served if it was on another carrier. But, because Apple has inked an exclusive deal with AT&T for the next five years, hopefully the wireless company will come around and enhance its coverage. Only time will tell.
My email experience was probably one of the most rewarding ordeals of my life. Unlike my Treo email setup that took days, my iPhone was setup and ready to go in a matter of minutes after activation.
Upon activating your iPhone, it syncs your Address Book, email and other applications with ease. Fully expecting to input my POP and SMTP servers into the iPhone's settings, I was looking up my password and other important information. As soon as I started working my around the iPhone, I immediately discovered that I had received mail on the device and it was sending emails without a hitch. Leave it to Apple to include something that may seem so simple, but is one of the most rewarding experiences I can remember. Instead of spending countless minutes trying to sync everything up, my email just worked -- it just worked.
Besides its setup, Mail works much like Mail on a Mac. It features a handy viewing mode where you don't need to actually open the message to see what is being said, and features the same red circle with white numbers that you find on a Mac to tell you how many messages are waiting for you. Although the email system is faster on a wireless connection, the EDGE network was still quite zippy for email, and the slight slowdown is quickly forgotten.
Mail gives you all of the same functionality you would expect from a desktop mail application and works seamlessly with POP, IMAP and Microsoft Outlook. I use a POP email account on my iPhone, so the device does not automatically scan for emails and alert me when they are available. With that said, it does alert you to new messages when you open the program and check for new emails, but at that point, you already know they are there.
Adding alternate mailboxes is simple, but deleting messages is much more difficult than it should be, for good reason. As the iPhone doesn't have a right-click or a drop-down menu, Apple was forced to include an 'edit' option that places a red minus icon next to each message. Once you click that icon, you have unlocked the message and you're free to delete it as you see fit. For those who prefer not to delete messages, you can also go into it and click the garbage can icon and the message will immediately be sent to the trash.
The iPhone's Mail application is simply heads and shoulders above its competition. With a seamless integration experience that still impresses me three days later. The interface allows easy viewing of messages, and email has never been so useful on a cell phone.
One of the most frustrating aspects of mobile Web browsing is poor Website scaling. On most mobile devices, Web pages are stacked and menus are at the bottom of the page instead of to the left or right. The iPhone does away with this issue and creates one of the most rewarding browsing experiences I have ever used on a cell phone.
The Safari browser takes a standard Web page and shrinks it down to fir the portrait or landscape view (you choose by flipping the phone) on the iPhone. When you want to see something a bit clearer, simply double tap on that area and you will be zoomed in to see everything you would have missed. The Safari browser basically takes advantage of the widescreen and creates a mobile Web browsing experience that is similar, but not exact, to a desktop experience.
If you are an avid tabbed browser, Safari also includes this feature, but in order to switch between tabs, you need to click a small box in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen, which is a bit of a bummer. In order to clear out the address bar, simply click on it and tap the 'x' to do what you need to do.
The biggest drawback to using Safari on the iPhone is the EDGE network. Regardless of upgraded speeds, EDGE is still awfully slow and hearkens back to the days of dial-up. While I experienced speeds in excess of 200kbps at times, the average was much lower, and EV-DO is still my format of choice. With that said, a wireless connection makes Safari zip right along. Even better, I think Apple knew EDGE was unbearable, so they included a feature where the iPhone automatically switches to a wireless network so you can have the faster Internet experience. Unfortunately, Web browsing on the iPhone still doesn't make sense when you are out of range of a wireless network. For users who carry a Treo and iPhone around like me, I would suggest the EV-DO if you are looking for information quickly. For those who don't care about the slower speed, go for the iPhone -- the experience is much better.
The iPhone is, hands down, the best iPod ever released. Not only does it offer 4GB or 8GB of storage, the iPod easily syncs with your iTunes library and sports a cover flow view where you can flick your way around your album art in a fashion that is quite similar to Front Row and the Apple TV interface.
One of the most overlooked features on the iPhone's iPod is the speaker. For the first time in history, you no longer need to connect earbuds to listen to your iPod. Even better, the iPhone's speaker isn't all that bad, and is adequate enough to justify some tune listening when you don't feel like using the uncomfortable Apple earbuds that come in the box.
A menu at the bottom of the iPod interface helps you quickly and easily maneuver your way around the player, and the scroll wheel has officially ceased to exist. In order to choose your song, you need to tap the tune, and to turn the sound up or down, you need to slide your finger to the right or left. A handy alphabet to the right of your songs, artists and albums helps you get through the menu quicker by taking your thumb and gliding it over the letters, but I found the menu system to be a bit unwieldy as the number of options increased.
The iPod's sound quality is about what you would expect from the device, and all in all it works quite well. Videos look great on the player as well. For added functionality, I would suggest creating a set of playlists so you can quickly get your way around the iPod menu in a manner that is more conducive to listening and less conducive to searching. With that said, the iPhone's iPod is second to none. With a wealth of features and an intuitive design, this iPod would have easily taken the place of my 30GB iPod if it offered more storage capacity.
As I wrap-up this 4000+ word review of the iPhone, I think I should run down some other features that may go without notice, but prove to be quite helpful.
When making a call, the iPhone is (obviously) lit up. Once you activate the call and raise the phone to your ear, the light goes off until you take the phone back down and end the call. Not only is this helpful at night for those states where holding a cell phone is illegal, but because the iPhone creates so much heat, it helps keep the iPhone cooler on your ear.
The virtual keyboard is difficult to get used to at first, and even after three days I have had some trouble being accurate. Apple's decision to include an intelligent word guesser that tells you what you probably meant to type sometimes screws up and chooses the wrong word. Another issue I had with the keyboard is that it is only in landscape view while in Safari. When you use the landscape keyboard in Safari, there is more room for your fingers to move their way around the keyboard and subsequent errors are minimized. Let's hope support for a landscape keyboard in all menus comes about when Apple releases some firmware updates.
Last but not least, the iPhone dims the screen brightness based on the light of the environment it's in. While it is sometimes confusing to go from a bright screen to a dull-looking display in a matter of seconds, you quickly realize that it's a necessity that helps your eyes and keeps battery life higher.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, battery life isn't an issue, so don't even worry about it. I have had my iPhone for three days running all kinds of stuff, and have only needed to charge it once.
The Apple iPhone is a fantastic entrant into a crowded market. With a host of unrivaled features and a slew of improvements over already-available options, the iPhone is one of the most significant advances I have ever seen. But for as great as the iPhone is, it is far from perfect and features such as the EDGE network and the lack of a proven virtual keyboard keep it from living up the lofty hype it enjoyed over the past few months. That said, with all of the iPhone is still a great phone that not only sets it apart from the competition but makes it the best cell phone on the market today.
Contributed by Don Reisinger (contact: iphone [at] macnn [dot] com)