Review: Apple iPhone (4GB/8GB/16GB)
Pros: A truly next-generation mobile phone with world-class industrial design, iPod-caliber audio and video playback, and great telephone performance in handset, speakerphone, or Bluetooth modes. Novel, nice approach to “visual” voicemail. Strong web and photo browsing features are augmented by a gorgeous, high-resolution 3.5” widescreen display and novel multi-point touchscreen controls; iPod functionality benefits significantly from good built-in speaker. Acceptable full-day battery life for typical users, and good e-mail client with initial signs of enough features (some Exchange server support, Word, PDF, and Excel document display) to satisfy more demanding business users. Surprisingly strong EDGE performance for web and even YouTube video use, boosted to sub-laptop speeds when switched to Wi-Fi (802.11b/g) network.
Cons: Two-year AT&T contract required for purchase; not usable with other wireless carriers, forcing users to rely upon AT&T’s less than superb customer service and inconsistent network coverage regardless of their regional or personal needs. No true instant messaging support; overpriced SMS feature. Size, price, limited storage, and lack of user-replaceable battery restrict appeal to a smaller-than-iPod market niche—for now. Significant TDMA noise and other physical and electronic incompatibilities make use of iPod accessories, as well as docking to your computer, somewhat unpleasant. Long-term durability and warranty/out-of-warranty replacement questions remain unclear and potentially significant for all buyers.
To their credit, Apple and AT&T—the only cellular provider in America allowed to provide wireless service for iPhone—have tried to make it simple, though not cheap, to activate the device and use its telephone and wireless Internet features. Every phone comes with a pre-installed SIM card, and instructions to install iTunes 7.3 (or later) to activate the device.
New customers are given a choice of three standard iPhone plans—$60 gets you 450 talk minutes and unlimited data, with more minutes at $20 additional increments—and existing customers can add iPhone data services to their prior talk minutes for $20 per iPhone. Under ideal circumstances, the phone can be activated and working in 10 minutes—the experience we had with 5 of the 7 phones we tested.
Two of our phones required significant additional time and effort to activate, however: one of our editors had to wait for 18 hours before his iPhone was activated, and another’s took roughly 40 hours, as well as 5 escalating phone calls to AT&T. Both situations involved porting numbers from other carriers—the first, Verizon, and the second, T-Mobile. When the experience goes smoothly, it is as impressively simple as anything Apple has ever done. But when it doesn’t, the experience is beyond frustrating. iTunes initially provides AT&T estimates of several hours, which stretch through follow-up e-mails into more extended ordeals. Some of those hours are spent waiting on hold for assistance, while others just watching the iPhone’s activation screen sparkling. Until the cell phone features are activated by AT&T, the phone cannot be used as an iPod or Internet device, an issue Apple should surely remedy in the future.
Once iPhone is activated, iTunes can synchronize it with data, a process that is straightforward but not entirely iPod-like. With very little effort, it imports your computer’s contact lists, calendars, web browser bookmarks, and e-mail accounts for immediate viewing on iPhone. This process is stunningly fast and efficient if you’re using Apple’s Mac contact, calendar, and e-mail applications, or Microsoft’s PC applications, but not as simple if you’re using non-Apple Mac applications. Most users will see iPhone become a mirror of their computers within 1 minute; others will have to export and import contacts, change e-mail programs, and possibly shift browsers, or otherwise just program information directly into iPhone. Put simply, iPhone does so well when it uses synced computer information that users should never consider manual input: it’s comparatively time-consuming and challenging. Photos synchronize just as with iPods, requiring conversion and then transferring over to the iPhone.
iTunes doesn’t do as well with iPod-style synchronization of music or videos. Besides the fact that the transfer process is time-consuming—it took over 27 minutes to fill the 7.24GB (8GB) iPhone, and 6 minutes in a separate test of a 1GB playlist, versus around 3.5 minutes per 1GB on current iPod nanos—there’s no simple dragging and dropping of content from your iTunes library onto the iPhone. You need to use Music, Podcasts, and Video tabs like the Apple TV’s to transfer over playlists of music, episodes of podcasts, or criteria-based videos. In our view, an iPod isn’t an iPod without drag-and-drop access to music, and iPhone feels more like Apple TV in this regard than an iPod; again, we hope Apple fixes this in a future software update.
Another synchronization issue is an oddity unique to iPhone: the device puts out a lot of radio noise during its constant communications back and forth with cell phone towers, an issue that impacts many iPod docking speakers, speakers in your car, and those connected to your computer. We’ve actually found ourselves turning off our computer speakers when iPhone’s docked for synchronization, and we’ve opted to find other places to recharge it rather than keeping it close to the computer. Many cell phones, especially smartphones, make noise when they’re near computers, but iPhone’s need to be tethered for synchronization doesn’t help; wireless Wi-Fi or Bluetooth syncing of iPhone at a greater distance might take longer, but it would eliminate the noise.