Review: Apple iPhone (4GB/8GB/16GB) | iLounge

Review

Review: Apple iPhone (4GB/8GB/16GB)

B+
Recommended


Company: Apple Computer

Website: www.Apple.com

Model: iPhone

Price: $399/8GB, $499/16GB with 2-Year Contract

($499/4GB, $599/8GB)

Compatible: PC/Mac

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Jeremy Horwitz

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.

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Having used and tested many popular cell phones, including Nokia’s and Motorola’s best-known current consumer phones, Palm’s and Danger’s best smartphones, and other models that have been released over the past 5 years, iLounge’s editors have learned that the “latest and greatest” phones don’t always live up to their promise. Many in fact leave you disappointed within days of purchase, and locked into using something with poor voice quality or confusing features.

Yet with iPhone, Apple—a company with considerable consumer electronics and computer experience but no track record in cell phones—has come out of the gate with a product that is all but stunning cosmetically and functionally. It is a truly great phone, mixed with highly impressive iPod and web browsing features, and lacks mostly in its mail and instant messaging capabilities. By all conventional measures, Apple should never have done this well with its first-ever cell phone, but then, this is not a phone that could have been designed by any of the legacy-laden “just good enough” companies that have been producing disappointing cell phones for years.

That said, iPhone’s B+ rating reflects several legitimate concerns we and other users have had about this first-generation product. Several—battery replacement, phone activation, and “the customer is often wrong” support issues—can easily be remedied by changes in Apple and AT&T policies. Training AT&T employees to actually solve issues rather than cheerfully offering delays, and instructing Apple Geniuses to act in better faith towards customers who braved weather and long lines to purchase their products, could be accomplished in a matter of hours or days. But then, these types of issues could have been addressed months ago, when many people raised concerns prior to iPhone’s release.

Other issues, including limitations in iPhone’s software and battery life, may well be improved through Apple software updates during the product’s lifetime. And still others, such as durability, remain to be sorted out over more extended periods of use and testing. Given iPhone’s utter dependence on its touch-sensitive interface, we can only hope that our one unit’s touch sensor failure isn’t indicative of wider-spread problems.

Given its size, $499 and $599 pricing, limited storage capability, and demands for new “Works with iPhone” accessories, there is no doubt that iPhone isn’t going to win over every type of cell phone user: it is a classic example of a product so successfully made to appeal to a specific market niche that it will expand that niche, just as the iPod did for premium MP3 players. But as with iPod, iPhone’s shadow will only grow as Apple finds ways to improve its software, and make its sequels more affordable, smaller, and capacious.

Multi-Editor Commentary

Dennis Lloyd, Publisher, United States: “It took me about 18 hours to get my iPhone activated. I was frustrated, but can understand how AT&T became overwhelmed with requests. After all, they have never experienced demand like this for one of their products before.

Now that it’s working, I’m a happy iPhoner. I’ve been constantly touching my iPhone, and protected it with Contour Design’s iSee for iPhone case. The screen quality is outstanding; crystal clear and I can only see the finger smudges at extreme angles. The camera takes great pictures outside in the sun, but it’s not ideal for low light situations.

The interface is stunning and simple to use—maybe too simple for the first generation OS. I wish there were copy/paste, undos and the ability to create your own ringtones; I can’t believe Apple left out the latter.

The physical device is sexy and fits perfectly in my hand. The phone calls come in clear and unlike my Treo 700p, the speakerphone sounds good. I do wish I could type better with my thumbs instead of just my one index finger. Time will tell.

Overall, I’m impressed with the phone and its performance. There have been hiccups here and there; I did manage to freeze up the OS and had to perform a reset (hold the Home button + power button for 7 or 8 seconds). I also couldn’t use the EDGE network today; it keeps telling me it can not activate EDGE and I can not use any features requiring the Internet (Google Maps, YouTube, Weather, Safari, etc.) unless I’m on my home Wi-Fi network.

Charles Starrett, Contributing Editor, United States: “The interface is the best I’ve ever used on any device. Although it’s not as fast as my BlackJack, I haven’t found EDGE to be slow to the point of irritation, and the iPhone is a joy to use over Wi-Fi. The camera is pretty much what I expected from a upscale camera/phone. Not great, certainly nothing to compare with Sony Ericsson’s Cyber-Shot series, but better than the camera I had on the KRZR. Call quality has been great for me, better than that of my BlackJack and in general iPhone is one of the best sounding mobile phones I’ve ever used.

Jobs was absolutely correct in saying it’s the best iPod ever. The first iPod, and MP3 players in general, in many ways led to users discovering individual songs as opposed to albums. Due to the rich attachment people of my age and older have with the cover art of our CD (or LP) collections, and because of the enjoyment I get using the iPhone’s coverflow interface—which, by the way, is far superior to that of iTunes—I’m already considering making my iPhone an album-only device, something I never would have considered when I created the playlists currently on my iPhone. It actually makes using the iPod portion of the device FUN.

That said, it is definitely 1.0 software. I’ve experienced application crashes several times using Safari, YouTube, and Google Maps, and certain things that I would expect to work flawlessly in Safari—logging in to different online accounts, etc.—haven’t worked exactly as expected. That said, none of these problems have led to a iPhone-wide lockup or crash, which strikes me as impressive. It is a very advanced device, rolled-out en masse, on a cellular network with a less-than-enviable reputation, and MAJOR glitches and problems have been basically none, at least thus far. Bravo to Apple and AT&T for getting things more or less right the first time around.

I’d like to see how screen protectors do on the device before giving final judgment on the screen, but it seems to be quite scratch-resistant, and what smudges end up on the device don’t really affect normal use. I’m currently carrying mine in an Incase Protective Sleeve—I ended up with it instead of the iSee—and it is pretty nice in terms of fit & quality. On a humorous note, to protect the screen, I’m carrying the phone, inside the sleeve, and then placing it in a Zune bag I had lying around, in order to protect the screen. Ironically, the Zune bag is an almost perfect fit. As I said above, I’m definitely impressed, and I do think that it lives up to the hype. I find myself wanting to pick it up constantly. It will only get better as software updates add functionality and fix bugs, so in a way, it’s just getting started.”

Christina Easton, Contributing Editor, United States: “I have been an Apple customer since I fell in love with my Apple II computer over twenty years ago. I have also been a customer of AT&T for almost two years. Does any of this matter? Maybe not.

I recently upgraded from a RAZR to the 4GB iPhone. This is my first experience using a phone with data services, and although it is not a replacement for my MacBook, it functions like a mini computer, which I love. I have all my favorite photos, music, TV shows and movies conveniently stored on my phone, but not as many as I would like, due to size limitations. The speaker on the phone is surprisingly good, and because it is convenient, I have found myself listening to the iPhone instead of my iPod while I am driving.

I am still not used to the iPhone’s keyboard, and I find it rather difficult to use, especially with my longer fingernails that get in the way. Additionally, I am disappointed that there is no AOL Instant Messenger service, which I was able to use even on past low-tech Motorola phones.

There were a couple of things about my iPhone purchasing and setup experience that were below my expectations. We bought two iPhones, and only discovered a few hours after unpackaging mine that the volume button was broken. When I went to get a replacement, the Apple Store “genius” actually accused me of dropping my phone, which was completely untrue. After giving me a hard time, he exchanged my phone, and it has been trouble-free since.

AT&T customer service wasn’t much better. When I wanted to add both iPhones to my individual service plan, AT&T tried to make me give up the rollover minutes I’d accrued as their past customer. It took management-level involvement to fix the problem. Then one of the phones took nearly two days to activate, and couldn’t be used while we were waiting. The customer service people I dealt with were not interested in doing what was right or even just decent. At this point, my feeling is that AT&T is to telecommunications what Microsoft is to computers. It’s a shame that Apple had to partner with them rather than offering users a choice of carriers.

Overall, I look forward to seeing how the iPhone evolves over the next year. I’d give Apple a B+ or A- right now, and AT&T a C-, because they just don’t care.”

LC Angell, Senior Editor, United States: “While showing off the iPhone shortly after buying it Friday, a friend called it ‘the Cadillac of cell phones.’ But it’s not the Cadillac of cell phones. Or even the Bentley of cell phones. It’s the flying car our parents were promised in the ‘50s.

The touch-sensitive screen is awesome. It’s bright and unbelievably hi-res. The interface is extremely responsive. Jumping between apps, to videos, to contacts, to maps—all insanely fast.

Without going too much into details, I’ll say that all of the included apps are top notch. The SMS app makes texting cool again. The calendar has an awesome new List view. Flipping through photos has never been so fun. The camera, thanks to iPhoto integration, is great. YouTube on your phone? Yes, please. Stocks for the AAPL watcher. The hands-down best Google maps implementation yet. Weather for multiple cities with the flick of a finger. World clock, alarm, stop watch, and, for the GTD crowd, a timer. A no-fuss calculator. A whimsical notes app that will surely get Mac OS X Leopard syncing come October. And, of course, perfectly organized settings for everything on the phone.

Sound quality is absolutely superb. With the iPhone replacing a very pricey Nokia N95, and having used a Motorola RAZR, KRZR and PEBL over the last year, I’m in a unique position to judge sound quality. It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that a company with such high quality standards as Apple would create the best sounding mobile phone available.

I’m not sure what the big fuss about the keyboard was for. With just minimal texting and emailing over the weekend, I’m typing twice as fast as I ever did on my old Treo 650. Comparing typing on the iPhone to the tap-tap-tap numeric keyboard typing is laughable. I can’t stress this enough—in my usage, thumb typing is super easy and fast.

You won’t find a better way to jump on the Internet from the palm of your hand. None. From the double-tap zooming to dragging to bookmarks to multiple pages (think tabs), the mobile version of Safari is really, really good. It makes the Blackberry, Treo and Nokia browsers look like 1994 artifacts.

Sending and receiving email couldn’t be easier. If this is your first time using email on a cell phone, you don’t know how good you’ve got it. I used an HTC smartphone with Windows Mobile 5.0 once and never did—after 4 weeks—figure out how to get one email account working on the thing. On the iPhone, it’s got presets for all major providers and great support for displaying pics inline and for opening Word and PDF files. Though, there is a crazy Gmail problem right now (temporary workaround).

Oh, and then there’s the iPod part of the iPhone. Wow. Cover Flow on your iPod—there’s really nothing more to say. However, I did have some major audio playback problems when listening to music in the car. It was easily fixed by going to the iPhone settings and turning off Sound Check. But what really upset me was the lack of manual music management. No dragging-and-dropping of tracks onto the iPhone—you can only sync all of your content or selected playlists.

Suffice it to say that, without sounding too much like an iFanboy, the iPhone is the greatest gadget—possibly the greatest product in general—that I’ve ever purchased. Sure, it’s only been three days—but they’ve been three wonderful days.”

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Editors' Note: iLounge only reviews products in "final" form, but many companies now change their offerings - sometimes several times - after our reviews have been published. This iLounge article provides more information on this practice, known as revving.

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