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.
Battery (Updated July, 2007)
Much has been said by Apple about iPhone’s battery life: the company claims that iPhone, under certain semi-real world conditions, can achieve music playback times of 24 hours, video play of up to 7 hours, Internet use of up to 6 hours, and talk time of up to 8 hours, with standby time of up to 250 hours. Our tests thus far have found Apple’s numbers to be modestly optimistic given the way that most users will operate iPhone, and not representative of the way the phone could be pushed by hard-core users—those who use Bluetooth during talk time, the speaker rather than headphones for audio and video playback, or multiple applications (such as Safari + Phone or Safari + iPod) at once.
Realistically, iPhone’s Lithium-Ion battery will last most users a day to a day and a half before requiring a full recharge; this is acceptable, and as with many but not all phones, you’ll be able to extend this time considerably if you don’t actually use most of its features or talk a lot. The recharge process takes around three and a half hours, and it looks beautiful thanks to a large, new battery icon that sits in the center of the iPhone’s unlock screen. After more extended testing of iPhone across various usage scenarios, however, we’ve found that we’re looking at that charging icon more than we’d prefer: as active users, we find that we often run the battery down to the 25-30% point after a day of web, video, telephone, and music, and sometimes fall below the 10% mark. Better battery life would only help iPhone become more indispensible.
Still, our biggest concern about the battery isn’t its performance today, but rather how it will be replaced down the line. Apple’s iPhone battery page claims that the battery will retain “up to 80%” of its original capacity after 400 full charges and discharges, the same claim made about current iPod batteries, which means that active users should expect to have to swap out the battery at some point in the two-year contract period required by AT&T for iPhone activation. Shortly after iPhone’s release, dissections of the iPhone revealed that its battery is physically soldered in place, and in no way replaceable by typical users. Around the same time, Apple announced an Out-of-Warranty Battery Replacement Program for iPhone, which will cost $86 and take three days. Unlike an iPod, since users cannot be without their phones for several days while batteries are being changed, Apple also offers to rent users a second iPhone during the battery swap process for an additional fee of $29—$115, all told, when most cell phone batteries can be replaced by users for only $30.
From our perspective, Apple could have taken any number of actions to make battery replacement less difficult for users than it did: user-replaceable battery packs, a replacement that could be handled in person by an authorized Apple Store technician within a couple of hours, or a low-cost replacement with no charge for a loaner iPhone during the process. Instead, the company went in completely the opposite direction, making the process unusually difficult, expensive, and time-consuming. There is no doubt that Apple should just have offered a user-replaceable battery for iPhone, and having not done so, has thumbed its nose at users and critics alike with a solution that ultimately benefits no one. Consequently, a better battery strategy is near the top of our list of fixes for next-generation iPhone models.
Build Quality and Durability
Having started with seven iPhones—three of which arrived with or quickly developed physical issues—our impressions of iPhone’s build quality and durability are mixed. On one hand, four of our seven iPhones look and work just as they’re expected to, and two of the three problem units have been replaced at Apple Stores. Apple also went steps beyond the iPod by choosing to use both a scratch-resistant glass front rather than plastic for iPhone’s screen, and rear metal and plastic materials that do not show scratches anywhere near as easily as the chrome-backed full-sized iPods and first-generation iPod nanos. We’ve tossed one of our iPhones into a pocket without a case over several days, and it looks nearly, but not entirely perfect. Though we absolutely do not believe that iPhone should be tossed without protection into a purse or pocket with keys, coins, or other scratch-inducing materials—it will show scuffs and marks, albeit more minor ones than past iPods—you could do so if you want, with a caveat below.
On the other hand, the issues in three of our seven initial units were disappointing, and since one of our problem units is owned by an editor who drove two hours to the nearest Apple Store, replacement is neither an easy or convenient option. In the other cases, driving back to the store for a replacement hasn’t been painful, but it also hasn’t been fun.
Thus far, we have seen the following problems with iPhone hardware:
One iPhone’s touch controls and side volume buttons failed less than two days after initial turn-on of the device. The display continued to function properly, as did the top and face buttons, ringer switch, and Dock Connector, but the iPhone was rendered completely useless since its on-screen controls could not be used to do anything. This problem occurred while we were testing the alarm clock, and after the ringer with vibration had gone off for roughly one minute continuously. We do not know the exact cause of the problem, and have returned the phone to Apple for diagnosis.
One iPhone arrived with two dime-sized “crop circles” on its screen, apparently areas that had not been properly coated at the factory. These circles on the screen are unaffected by thumbprints or fingerprints, whereas the rest of the screen does show mild smudges and marks. They’re only occasionally noticeable, when the screen is dark, such as on the home screen, but they don’t hugely impact use of the device.
Finally, one iPhone arrived with a broken volume up side button and a slight depression in the metal casing between that button and the ringer switch. When returned to an Apple Store less than a day after purchase, the store’s “Genius” accused our editor of dropping the phone, which two editors can attest was never done, and virtually impossible given the location of the depression. This Apple Genius practice of blaming consumers for hardware problems, even under improbable circumstances, is becoming increasingly offensive over time; past experience with Geniuses suggests that any hint of imperfection in a returned iPhone’s casing will lead you to be blamed for the damage, so inspect your iPhone immediately after purchase to avoid later controversy.
To put all of this in proper perspective, it must be said that brand new cell phones routinely have issues similar to these: we have tested Sidekicks, RAZRs, and Treos that have had to be returned for replacement soon after purchase because of similar issues, and eventually the manufacturers work the kinks out of their manufacturing lines to produce trouble-free handsets. That having been said, iPhone is most clearly a classic Apple “revision A” product, and as with its computers, it remains to be seen both whether touch control failures or other issues will materialize during the two years of the AT&T service contract, and whether Apple will take responsibility for the issues or blame users for causing them.
Wireless Performance: EDGE and Wi-Fi
In short, iPhone’s wireless data performance is better than expected during EDGE use, and less impressive than a laptop computer during Wi-Fi use. In Wi-Fi mode, iPhone can take 2-3 times as long to load an uncached web page as a laptop on the same network, and additional seconds to rescale the page’s components for easy on-iPhone viewing. However, in some Wi-Fi tests, it was as fast at loading certain types of pages, and overall we’d describe it as very good by handheld device standards, especially given the complexity of the pages it’s rendering.
We were most pleasantly surprised by iPhone’s performance on AT&T’s EDGE network. Though it is our belief that EDGE speeds vary from city to city, and based on other factors, our own performance tests found the device to be a more capable on-the-road browsing and e-mailing device than other EDGE devices we’ve tested, such as Danger’s Sidekick 3. Our favorable impressions were based on iPhone’s raw speed of loading pages, its comparative lack of “cannot load this page” error messages, and the quality of pages it produces. AT&T has clearly upgraded at least portions of its data network to accommodate iPhone’s hunger for high-speed data, and the results are impressive.
iPhone’s EDGE data performance shines most when used with optimized applications such as Maps, YouTube, Stocks, and Weather. Though these applications vary in data hungriness, their content loads faster than you’d imagine given the complexity of what’s appearing on iPhone’s screen, and looks better on this device than on competing smartphones. As many people, including us, expected EDGE to be a weak technology for a phone this powerful, this is a testament to the value of both Apple development work and the improvements to AT&T’s network.
It’s also worth noting that iPhone takes an extremely proactive approach to shifting users from the EDGE network onto Wi-Fi whenever it’s available. Unless you’ve turned off automatic Wi-Fi searching to conserve battery life, a dialog box will appear on screen at virtually any point when you’re on EDGE and near a Wi-Fi network, offering you the chance to enter an open or locked network, assuming you have the password for the latter. iPhone makes this so easy that anyone can do it, and though it’s not strictly necessary, it makes extra attempts to go Wi-Fi when you’re using YouTube and other bandwidth-intensive applications.