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.
It’s June 30, the day after Apple released iPhone. And four iLounge editors now have a total of 7 iPhones: Dennis and Charles each have one phone, Larry has two, and Jeremy has three (two 8GB, one 4GB). We’ve been up all night testing and compiling first impressions to share with you today; expect more details as the days progress, and look at our Complete Guide to All Things iPhone for the specifics of how iPhone’s varied features work.
First, there’s absolutely no doubt in our minds that iPhone is a huge winner from the standpoints of technology, design, and features—at least, in the abstract. While it has issues that will limit its appeal to certain users, it’s an extremely strong product for the pricing and feature niche it’s built to serve.
Technology: From the phone’s apparently resilient exterior casing to its touchscreen, buttons, switch, sensors, and camera, iPhone isn’t just a technology showcase, but a successful “second-generation” implementation of each of its concepts. You’ve found almost all of these features in other devices before, but they’ve never worked as well as they work in iPhone. The camera consistently takes better pictures than you’d expect from the lighting conditions, despite offering basically no user settings. The touchscreen takes a little getting used to, but 95% of its features work so quickly and intuitively that it’s hard to criticize. Every time you use it as a phone against your face, or pull it away, or turn it to change orientation, or let it adjust brightness automatically, it just does what it’s supposed to.
Design: It’s sexier in person than in the photos. When you first see shots of it, or even have a quick look at it relative to a Danger Sidekick 3, which uses similar colored materials, you’d think they were from the same family. But when you actually put the two devices next to each other, there’s no comparison. iPhone’s made from metal and glass. The Sidekick looks and feels like cheaper plastic, and is substantially taller, thicker, and clumsier. Turning on iPhone’s screen next to Danger’s is almost a joke: the Sidekick 3 looks like an outdated toy, and its displays are harder to read and stripped of color by a significant factor. iPhone’s screen, large and with its incredible 160 ppi detail, colors, and backlighting, looks like no cell phone you’ve ever seen—better than last year’s best iPods.
Features: You know that iPhone combines a phone, iPod, and Internet functionality. But these features become even more impressive as you learn to multitask with them, and understand what some of the synergies are between those features. Because it’s a phone, iPhone has built-in speakers, and because one of those speakers is loud enough to play back music, you don’t need to plug in headphones any more. When a phone call comes in or goes out, iPhone softly dims the music and lets you talk, then resumes playback when you’re done.
Want to talk on the phone and surf the web at the same time? We’ve been doing that effortlessly using a Wi-Fi network. And we even played back videos through the web browser while talking on the phone—our caller could hear some of the audio, too. The web’s not available when you’re on AT&T’s EDGE network, but you can still check your email, recent stock quotes and weather, or do whatever else you want—including playing iPod content—while making calls. It’s crazy how impressive this is.
YouTube fares better on iPhone than on Apple TV. Though we’ve had mixed experiences getting it to work over AT&T’s EDGE network—Larry has been getting error messages, Jeremy has succeeded numerous times—it generally works properly on both EDGE and Wi-Fi, caching heavily to stream properly on EDGE, and includes both an easy to use search feature and a way to share videos with friends. Unlike the more capacious, hi-res ready Apple TV, the limited-capacity iPhone benefits tremendously from having YouTube videos as a “watch them anywhere” option when you can’t squeeze tons of content into the 4GB or 8GB of flash memory. The only problems: there aren’t enough videos, and the newest videos we uploaded before iPhone’s launch are nowhere to be found.
Call Quality: We’d generally describe it as “excellent.” While one of our editors in the Midwest has had a few dropped calls, our West Coast handsets are doing near-perfectly. Callers are consistently describing our calls as “land line” in quality, whether on speaker or the handset, and praising the fact that speaker and handset sound so similar. We’ve made calls from indoors, outdoors, and inside cars, and callers can hear us without issues—at least as well as the best cell phones we’ve previously tested, and sometimes better.
Bluetooth headsets seem to work flawlessly with iPhone. We’ve tried four different headsets at this point, and they’re all relatively easy to pair. Aliph’s Jawbone is receiving rave reviews from our callers because of its incredible ambient noise filtering technology, which makes it possible to stand next to a washing machine and still have the other side hear everything you’re saying with incredible clarity. Despite its $120 price tag, it’s the one we plan to use going forward.
Problems: There are some issues. First, there’s AT&T. If you’ve ever had doubts about the company, they’re not going to go away with iPhone: we’ve experienced very significant problems activating two of our iPhones, attributable not to iTunes but rather to AT&T, and its customer service has been atrocious. To say that they are making a bad first (or tenth) impression would be an understatement, and the shocking part is that in each of our situations (and others we’ve been following), the company can’t seem to do the right thing by people who are all but waving $1,500+ in fees in their faces. One wonders how bad the experiences need to be before Apple can hold them in breach of contract and work with other carriers instead.
Those faring best are certain of AT&T’s current customers. If you’re just converting an old AT&T line to an iPhone line, the process is fast and easy. And if you’re a brand new AT&T customer without a prior cell phone number to transfer (is there anyone in this situation?), you’re set.
Second, iPhone’s iPod accessory compatibility is pretty awful; we’ve tried everything from iTrips and other FM transmitters to voice recorders, the Nike + iPod Sport Kit, the iPod Camera Connector, and Apple’s iPod Radio Remote, and very few of them work. Certain FM transmitters will work, we’re sure, but basically if your old device used the iPod’s screen for on-screen tuning, or stored anything on the iPod, or even just drew power from the iPod, there’s an amazing likelihood that it the iPhone will reject it out of hand.
Other accessories, such as speakers and docks, generally work with iPhone but display a screen that they want to turn on Airplane Mode, which disables the unit’s wireless and phone features. iPhone puts out a huge amount of TDMA noise (beeps in your speakers) while its wireless features are on. This is also true with car add-ons, but there’s an additional issue: with most current iPod accessories, iPhone won’t put out audio from its bottom port while it’s charging. Read that one again. It also doesn’t appear to put out any video from its top or bottom ports; the iPhone docks have no video-out, if that’s any indication. So this really isn’t a “widescreen video iPod” as much as a “widescreen video iPhone.”
Apple really should have come clean about these compatibility issues months ago so that users would know what to expect. It’s disappointing that this was all cloaked in secrecy for so long, and that developers weren’t given the chance to test their electronic products to ready new versions or fixes prior to yesterday.
Third, there’s the keyboard. It’s not as great as you’d hope or as bad as you’d fear. Larry’s slim fingers are finding it easy to use, but the bigger your fingers are and the less used you are to using it, the worse you do. Auto-correction has some serious issues, such as making it a pain to search YouTube for “SNL” until you figure out how to cancel the correction in time, but it also proves handy in fixing errors that are just a little too common. Having the period key on a second screen doesn’t strike us as too bright, either. That said, we’re getting used to it, and it’s not a deal-breaker—yet.
Syncing takes a lot longer than we’d expected, and we’re not as yet able to properly just drag and drop individual files onto iPhone. Everything needs to be synced via Apple TV-style menus and playlists, which we really, really do not like.
Web issues are a mix. iPhone’s lack of support for Flash is pretty ridiculous, and renders many web sites odd-looking or entirely unviewable. This isn’t really a full-fledged version of Safari if pages aren’t rendered just like they are on Safari for the PC or Mac. There are a number of little interface issues we’ve been dealing with, but we’ll have to see whether they persist after a few days of acclimation.
We’ve seen only a couple of interface glitches so far, but nothing fatal. For first-generation software—particularly cell phone software—Apple has done so much right here that we’d consider glitches trivial. Long-term reliability and issues are impossible to predict right now, though, and it’s hard to conclude that Apple is building iPhones to last for 2 or more years without any problems. We’ll have to see.
The other issues, such as the non-user-replaceable battery and the $499 or $599 costs of the phone, are what they are. If Apple doesn’t get an acceptable battery repair plan in place and take steps to fix this problem for future iPhones, its most loyal customers are going to be extremely upset a year from now. And the pricing is obviously not for everyone. Right now, this is a phone for Apple fans—and one that may inspire new people to become Apple fans, if they’re extremely well-off financially.
But if you can get past the price and battery concerns, the lack of iPod accessory support, and the AT&T issues, you’re going to love this phone. We’ll have much more to say in our full review, coming soon. Our previous coverage of iPhone continues below.
See our Video: We’ve just posted a new video of the phone’s interface and body, direct from Macworld Expo. Enjoy!
Physical Features: As is apparent from photos, the design is inspired as much by Danger’s Sidekick 3 on its front - a black slate with polished and anodized metal accents - as by a Motorola Q in back (metal). Despite the fact that it packs an incredible amount of cutting edge technology, it felt cool to the touch, comfortable in hand, and weighs the same as a 30GB fifth-generation iPod. It’s ever so slightly thicker and taller than the 30GB iPod - around a half-inch taller, and .03 inches deeper. It’s obviously a product developed to appeal to the smartphone user niche, rather than the cell phone mass-market, which traditionally has demanded candybar-sized or flip-phones.
Customization: While the background can be set at any time from any picture on the unit - a really nice feature - ringtones cannot be set based on your iTunes Music, according to Apple, a limitation based on “rights issues” (read: the music industry). This is pretty surprising.
User Interface: Scrolling feels very good, but not perfect. It will take a tiny amount of user training, comparable to your first time with an iPod, before it feels perfectly comfortable. That’s mostly because icons are now in unfamiliar places on the screen, and you need to make sure you touch the right place on the screen in order to activate them. Updated: During our hands-on session, pinch and other gestures appeared to need to be done on correct angles, else iPhone didn’t fully recognize them, but Apple has said that pinch isn’t angle-dependent; our initial impression may just be attributable to the brief user learning curve, and your need to place enough pressure on the screen to have the pinching motion properly recognized.
Phone Calling: Sounded very clean on the receiving end, but we didn’t have the abiity to test this anywhere near as much as we’d wanted. The phone appears to have no voice dialing feature; you need to use the keypad or preferably your contacts list, pressing buttons.
Screen and Proximity Sensor: Overall, the screen quality was very, very impressive. The screen doesn’t seem to show smudges, contrary to what people have feared would happen with a touchscreen iPod, and the surface feels very rigid, rather than soft like a typical LCD. Lighting is very even across the screen’s entire surface except the top, where you can see the lights, and the pixels become less than perfectly clear - perhaps the demonstration unit’s only visual flaw. You can see that graphics are very detailed - 320 x 480, which is great by portable standards for a screen of this size, and steps above the iPod 5G. Everything looks very, very crisp. iPhone’s Proximity Sensor is not used for on-screen touch controls - it’s solely there to turn unit’s screen off when it’s up to your face.
Sound Features: As you may know, the phone is the first iPod-like product from Apple to have an integrated speaker, which sounds really quite good and doesn’t appear to distort objectionably at regular to above-average levels. The speaker can play iPod/iTunes music in addition to acting as a speakerphone. And the iPod-like photo slideshows have music, too, though they lack for any transition effects save the default.
Speed of Access: The iPhone was being demonstrated in Wi-fi mode as opposed to live cellular/EDGE mode, which is why the Google Maps and web content loaded so fast.
Is it Really OS X? When asked whether the iPhone was really running truly OS X under the hood, Apple’s Greg Joswiak flat out said yes. However, as we’d expect, it runs a customized version of OS X, so developers couldn’t write a Mac app and have it run straight without modification. Joswiak said that this was because of the user interface and needs to match the iPhone’s unique screen features.
Google Maps, Web, Widgets: Looked just like the demos; there’s a nice feature in Google Maps that will bring up all sorts of details on pinpointed search results you’ve come up with. Double tapping zoomed, pinching zoomed in and out, etcetera. On Wi-Fi, this all looked great, but will high-resolution graphics work on a 2.5G mobile connection?
Videos: All video types are now collapsed onto a single menu, which has all categories - TV shows, movies, etc. - all placed on one scrollable screen with icons for each video item. This is most likely because you won’t be able to fit enough video on it to need multiple screens for this. Video playback - totally smooth, higher res than iPod 5G
Mail, Voicemail, SMS: On the e-mail front, which looks nice, you can receive and most likely forward rich HTML messages, but you apparently can’t compose them on the device. Visual Voicemail not only provides access to all of your voicemails at once, so that you can select which one to play, but there’s also a scrubber on the screen to let you scrub through your voicemail just like an audio file. Contacts have the same on-screen icons we’ve seen in iChat AV and Apple’s Address Book, but those icons don’t appear on screen when you’re in SMS mode, despite the fact that it looks otherwise just like iChat. This is most likely to fit more text on screen.
Third-Party Applications: It appears that Apple is going to aggressively update the firmware itself to add features whenever it feels they’re merited, but third-party applications - other than ones developed by specific partners that have been asked by Apple, rather than have asked Apple themselves - will not likely be part of the phone. For instance, we were told that Google Maps was co-developed by Apple and Google, with Apple providing the UI, and Google providing the back end.
Cingular Plan: We wanted to know what it would cost to actually operate the data services on these phones every month, but Apple didn’t have an answer. This will be answered closer to launch, said Joswiak, and we consider it - along with the fact that Cingular is the only provider - to be a fairly major potential sticking point.
Battery: It’s not user-replaceable. Queue the inevitable iPhone battery accessory cascade.
Apple has announced at least two self-developed accessories for iPhone. One is the iPhone Stereo Headphones (tentative title), a pair of customized Apple iPod Earphones with a thin in-line microphone box at neck level in the cabling. The box also has a button or switch to let you accept or disconnect phone calls. Pricing has not been announced, but will likely be $29 based on past Apple pricing trends.
Second is a Bluetooth earpiece, possibly called the iPhone Bluetooth Headset, and presumably to be compatible with the phone’s newer Bluetooth 2.0+EDR standard rather than the older and more widespread Bluetooth 1.2 standard. The clean black design features only a single, top-mounted button, capable of connecting and disconnecting phone calls in progress, and according to Apple both pairs with iPhone and turns on and off automatically. Four pins on the bottom are likely used for recharging. Pricing is presently unknown, but assumed to be in the $70-100 range; neither battery life nor its ability to be used as a wireless listening device for iPhone audio are known, either.
Additionally, Apple has shown a photograph of iPhone in a white Dock similar to the ones previously sold for iPods, minis, and nanos. Past iPods sold at the $499 and $599 price points have always included Apple’s Docks; it’s unclear as to whether iPhone will come with the Dock or require a separate purchase, but past iPod docks have always been available as spares for $29-39, depending on their features.
Overall Early Impressions: At first blush, it’s the gadget-lover’s “genie in a bottle” fantasy: get three wishes fulfilled in only one wish. But like a mischievous genie, Apple has left us wanting more: a wicked video iPod with trifling storage capacity, a super smartphone that will need to be shipped back for battery replacement, and an highly visual web device that may choke on data when used on Cingular’s current cell phone network. And then there are the prices, known and unknown. Perhaps by design, it will cause envy, yet immediately require successors.