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.
We’ve run through iPhone’s 15 applications and settings menu in our All Things iPhone Guide, so rather than repeating the facts about how all these features work, this section provides opinions on their performance. The rest of the details, if you need them, are in the Guide.
iPhone is, in a phrase, an almost superb cell phone. Editors spread across the United States have spent the last several days calling friends, family, and each other, and the results have been extremely impressive: callers routinely believe that iPhone users are using land lines whether they’re on speakerphone or handset mode, and with the right Bluetooth headsets, sound quality is only modestly diminished. More sophisticated contacts commented on the phone’s faithful reproduction of the audio spectrum, and were impressed by iPhone’s ability to sound the same to them regardless of how we were calling. Like most cell phones, its only weakness is sheer volume; its built-in speaker cannot compete with loud adjacent sounds such as washing machines or window-unit air conditioners. Earphones are a better option for you, and a noise-cancelling Bluetooth headset like Aliph’s Jawbone is a better option for your callers.
The nearly stellar calling experience is enhanced by an excellent interface for managing lists of people and places you might want to call. Not only does iPhone import your computer’s contacts and let you edit them, but it also lets you create short lists of favorite numbers, dial numbers directly from its e-mail, text messaging, map and web applications, and call with a traditional dialing pad. The only thing wrong with the phone application is that it takes a few button presses to access under most circumstances.
Apple’s most touted iPhone calling feature is Visual Voicemail, which transforms all voicemails you receive into playable audio files iPhone can organize, play, and interrupt at your convenience. It works just as expected, making iPhone’s voicemail considerably superior to other phones in the process. If you use the default voicemail message, setting this up is extremely simple, but we experienced numerous glitches when first recording voicemail greetings of our own. They later disappeared, so it’s hard to know what the issue was, and how pervasive it will be.
If there is anything vaguely inconvenient about iPhone’s phone feature, it’s the location of the Bluetooth settings. iPhone supports Bluetooth 2.0+EDR for wireless connection to headsets, but makes little of the feature’s stereo audio or data synchronization possibilities. Instead, it solely outputs audio to Bluetooth headsets for phone calling, yet the option to turn it on or off is buried in the settings menu under General, rather than Phone. The good news is that the feature’s wireless detection of devices is essentially flawless, and as simple as can be: put your headset in pairing mode and iPhone will find it, ask you for a password, and connect to it. By default, it will transfer your calls to the wireless headset, letting you switch to speakerphone or the iPhone. We’ve successfully paired iPhone with all the headsets we’ve tested; it just works.
Our only serious gripes about the Phone functionality are two in number: except for Marimba, the iPhone ringtone you know, the others do nothing for us and deserve to be replaced with iTunes music. At no charge, because those songs are ours already, and forcing people to pay anything for ringtones is even more criminal than the prospect that the songs were pirated in the first place. An iPhone without free iTunes music ringtones will never, in our view, be what it should be. On a somewhat separate note, AT&T’s service remains spotty in some areas. While we’d describe call quality as generally very good to excellent, dropped calls are most certainly more frequent that we’ve been accustomed to with T-Mobile in California, and our first few calls in Ohio were dropped, as well. AT&T may have improved its network recently for data services, but additional towers to guarantee consistent voice from coast-to-coast would be helpful, too.
iPhone’s mail application is good, but could use some additional work. It pulls e-mail wirelessly on the road or at home during set but not especially fast intervals, and works with multiple POP and IMAP e-mail accounts at once. While we love the unit’s Inbox, with its simple, customizable multi-line message previews, and the messages themselves, which can arrive in text format with small pictures, or in HTML format with styled text and graphics, Apple hasn’t streamlined mail as much as it could and should.
There are a few issues: first, each mailbox is presented separately for preview purposes, so you need to check accounts individually rather than seeing them all in one big pool of incoming mail. This takes too much time, and is annoying when hunting for new messages. Second, the only free e-mail you can have “pushed” from the server to you near-instantaneously is Yahoo! mail; other accounts are checked manually, or in 15-minute-minimum automatic increments. And iPhone’s on-screen keyboard, which pivots in Safari mode from narrow keys to wider, easier to use ones, doesn’t do that here, and typing is more challenging than it needs to be as a result.
Your period key, critical to messaging, is most often on a second screen along with numbers and other punctuation. Widescreen typing would be a lot better for mail, and a tweaked portrait mode keyboard would help a lot, too. Mail also doesn’t do well when someone’s sending you big pictures or other large documents (Word, Excel, or PDF files) it could conceivably read; it just doesn’t have enough memory, apparently, to display big files properly. It also doesn’t let you add photos to your library, or wallpapers, from e-mail you’ve received.
An additional issue, and one we’re sure Apple will soon resolve, is that read messages tend to re-download again and again even when iPhone’s been told that they’re not wanted. With G-mail accounts, this can be a serious issue; it’s not great even with non G-mail accounts. And while Mail now partially supports Exchange servers favored by business users, the feature needs additional refinement and security before many companies will consider officially supporting iPhones on their lists of approved devices. Of all of iPhone’s programs, Mail needs the most additional work to be all that it should be.
Apple calls iPhone’s Safari web browser “the real Internet,” and the company deserves a lot of credit for what it has accomplished: even on AT&T’s EDGE connections, Safari blows away browsers in competing devices such as Danger’s Sidekick 3: despite loading higher-resolution graphics and nearly full-fledged web pages, it runs faster than a Sidekick under all but the best Sidekick circumstances. That said, the Sidekick lets you turn off graphics entirely to make web pages load faster, a feature Apple should consider adding to iPhone for users in areas with less impressive data connections. Pages look better on iPhone than on Treos and Blackberries, too.
That said, browsing web pages with iPhone Safari isn’t exactly like browsing with Windows or Mac versions of Safari: pages aren’t always properly formatted, and they’re lacking both Flash and JAVA embedded code. Embedded movies, music files, and even YouTube videos don’t play within web pages, but in some cases, small linked music or video files can be clicked on and viewed on their own dedicated screens. Safari’s best features are its bookmarks and multi-page browsing; with synced data from your computer and the ability to skip between multiple pages at once, your web experience here is far beyond most cell phones, and enhanced by iPhone’s pinch zooming and widescreen rotation capabilities. Apple has also included a few neat touches, like automatically zoomed-in data field entry and one-click access to telephone numbers and e-mail addresses for use in iPhone’s other applications.
Our only consistent issue with Safari is in navigation. Scrolling with finger flicks can be a challenge on pages with lots of embedded text and graphic links, especially when a page is zoomed out with dozens or hundreds of active links on screen. iPhone tries to figure out whether you’re selecting a link or just scrolling, but doesn’t always succeed, so you may find yourself having to cancel a new loading page or hitting the back button. It’s a minor annoyance given the overall quality of the browsing experience.
Except for its previously noted synchronization issues, our feelings about iPhone’s iPod functionality are generally extremely positive, easy to sum up, and only slightly caveated. For music playback, iPhone sounds great. For video playback, iPhone looks great. From an interface standpoint, it’s cooler than any iPod on the market right now, and though its settings are threadbare, it most certainly represents the future of the iPod family.
But it’s not really an iPod. As noted in our accessory compatibility article, it doesn’t play nearly as well with iPod accessories—headphones, speakers, car accessories or video add-ons—as one would have guessed from Apple’s previous comments. You can’t view iPhone videos on a TV or other connected screen, and right now, it’s hard to find car accessories that both charge and output audio from iPhone’s bottom port. For various reasons, some legitimately related to Apple concerns over sound and charging quality, and others most likely related to Apple interest in establishing further control over developers, iPhone all but demands all-new, “Works with iPhone” accessories. They’ll eventually arrive, but at additional cost to past iPod owners, and most likely will shrink the pool of developers rather than growing them.
If you can get past the fact that it’s not truly an iPod, there’s a ton to like about iPhone’s presentation of media content. Music has never looked as cool as it does on iPhone’s Now Playing screen, complete with beautiful, large artwork, crisp text, and easy to use iconography. Scrolling through music via finger flicks and touch-sensitive alphabetical lists is more fun than on the iPod, and easier besides, despite our admiration for the Click Wheel. Cover Flow mode is actually useful, unlike its implementation in iTunes, thanks to album covers that flip around to reveal their full contents for one-click selection. We’ve seen bugs in iPod music mode, including some weird ones in Cover Flow, but all in all, it works well.
Videos look as good up close on the 3.5” widescreen display as DVDs do on a 30” television set 15 or so feet away from your head. Though screen quality may well improve in the future, iPhone’s display is as good as it needs to be to rival Sony’s PlayStation Portable and other video-savvy portable devices.
Playback is as smooth as the content iPhone’s fed, and we experienced no problems with videos whatsoever, unlike our tests of Apple TV. The device’s biggest video problem is its meager storage capacity, which is ill-suited to video content; you will have to adapt your viewing habits to its limitations, rather than loading it up like a true video iPod.