The Last 5 iPhone Questions (and Yours)

With nearly two weeks remaining until the launch of the iPhone, five major questions still remain unanswered by AT&T and Apple. Here they are, with our “best guess” answers while we wait for official details from the companies. Please add your “most important” questions using the Comments box at the bottom of this article.

(5) Contract Pricing: Everyone knows Apple’s announced iPhone hardware prices—$499 for the 4GB model, $599 for the 8GB model. But no one knows what AT&T will be charging for monthly service fees, and therefore what the total cost of iPhone ownership will be over a 2-year period.

Today, AT&T’s web site lists the company’s current voice and data plans for iPhone-like devices. Its voice plans start at $40 per month, giving you 450 monthly minutes of talk time during weekdays, and 5000 nights and weekend minutes. An unlimited data plan for PDAs costs an additional $40 per month, while BlackBerry Unlimited costs $45 per month. That brings you to a minimum price of $80 per month for voice plus unlimited data, or $1,920 in total service fees over the two-year life of AT&T’s contract.

By comparison, Verizon’s pricing is a little better, offering an $80 package for 450 minutes of weekday talk time, unlimited night and weekend calling, and unlimited BlackBerry use. Both AT&T and Verizon charge $60 per month for 900 monthly minutes of weekday talk time. T-Mobile does a lot better. The same $40 per month gives you 1000 monthly minutes of weekday talk time, with unlimited night and weekend minutes. BlackBerry Unlimited can be added for only $20 per month, the same price T-Mobile charges for Sidekick Unlimited. That brings you to $60 per month for 1000 minutes and unlimited data, or $1,440 over a two-year contract. Notably, however, T-Mobile has a less expensive starter plan with 300 weekday minutes and unlimited night and weekend minutes, which costs only $20 per month plus the $20 data fee, for a total of $40 per month, or $960 over a two-year contract.

Our Best Guesses: In a nearly ideal world, AT&T’s iPhone pricing would be closer to T-Mobile’s, and in that case, your lowest cost to buy and operate an iPhone over the first two years would be $1,459, with 1000 minutes per month at $1,939. Based on its existing pricing, however, $2,419 would be the lifetime operating cost we would expect for a 4GB iPhone plus two years of AT&T’s most basic 450 minute voice plan with unlimited data access. That goes up to $2,519 for the 8GB model at 450 minutes. Step up to 900 minutes of talk time and you’ll pay $2,899 over two years for the 4GB model, or $2,999 for the 8GB model. A new activation fee will also apply for new customers. We really hope that Apple can convince AT&T to offer superior iPhone-specific prices, given the huge number of new customers that would be acquired with more T-Mobile-like monthly service packages.

(4) Phone Service Quality: Over the past week, an iLounge editor drove from the West Coast to the East Coast carrying two cell phones, one on AT&T’s network, and the other on Verizon’s, with the goal of determining how the devices actually compared in coverage. For voice service, the Verizon phone was more consistently able to access networks, benefitting from Verizon’s mixed analog and digital towers. By comparison, the AT&T phone experienced a number of major dead zones, particularly from the Midwestern U.S. to the East Coast, including a 100 mile patch in Illinois, another in Indiana, and another in a rural part of New York. At points, the AT&T phone inexplicably fell to “Emergency Calls Only” mode in areas with full AT&T coverage. Our editor called AT&T once problems started in Illinois, and was met with a generic promise that AT&T had “great coverage,” but no attempt at all to fix the phone’s issue.

Our Best Guesses: It’s unclear whether iPhone will be better than, equivalent to, or less impressive than the average AT&T phone in reception and broadcasting ability, but our best guess would be that it’ll be at least above-average. At that point, it will all come down to whether AT&T’s towers work well by where you live. Check AT&T’s Coverage Viewer to determine what promises it makes for your immediate area, and places you often travel to and from.

(3) The Battery: From a hardware standpoint, the single biggest unanswered question about iPhone is its battery. At the moment, it is apparently not user-replaceable, and it is also unclear how many charge cycles the battery can go through before requiring replacement by Apple or AT&T. Neither company has publicly explained how long iPhone’s battery will last under typical phone, music, and Internet usage conditions, how battery repairs will be handled, or how much (if anything) battery replacements will cost.

Our Best Guesses: Apple does provide general and iPod-specific guides to its batteries, noting that “a properly maintained iPod battery is designed to retain up to 80% of its original capacity after 400 full charge and discharge cycles,” and that its notebook batteries should retain 80% of original capacity after 300 cycles. If your iPhone is discharged and recharged daily, it’s probably fair to expect that you’ll need to replace the battery after a year or a year and a half.

We’ll have to see whether Apple provides more details on expected battery life, and how replacements will be handled. Will you need to give up your phone for several days for a repair?

(2) Rev. A Glitches: As noted in our article Ten Rules for Buying Apple Products, Apple’s first-generation, “Revision A” models of products often come with unexpected issues that develop shortly into normal use, or within the first year of ownership. Recent examples include first-generation MacBook fan noise and wrist area discoloration, first-generation iPod nano body scratching, and collections of small but annoying software and technical glitches. Generally, Apple learns about the issues and works to fix them, but it’s never a certainty that the fixes will be made available to past customers; sometimes free repairs are offered, sometimes they’re not.

Our Best Guesses: We’re hoping that Apple’s past six months of unusually public iPhone testing have eliminated all the hardware glitches; we’d guess that it has figured out most of them, and that the only question marks will be the long-term functionality of the new multi-touch screen and the device’s other sensors. We’ve had long-term orientation sensor issues with digital cameras, and would hate to see iPhone stuck in one position or the other over time. Like past iPods, we’d expect iPhone may have limited software issues at launch, but they will thankfully be remediable through iPhone software updates, and new features will be added through software as time goes on.

(1) The Keyboard: Reliability aside, will typing on iPhone’s on-screen keyboard be an acceptable way to input e-mail and text messages, web addresses, phone numbers, and other data into the device? Or will an old-fashioned keyboard accessory be in demand by the end of week one?

Our Best Guesses: In all honesty, we’re not as worried about iPhone’s on-screen keyboard as some people, and we’re inclined to believe Apple’s suggestion that it’ll take a few days to get used to and then prove both trustworthy and efficient for typing. No matter how bad it might be, we tend to think that it has to be better for typing text messages than the keypads of most cell phones, so average (not smartphone) users might consider it an upgrade no matter what. But it remains to be seen how typing will compare with the keyboards on Sidekicks, BlackBerry devices, and other mobile-ready PDAs. We’re not sure yet whether serious users feel compelled to steer clear of iPhone because of this alone, or whether they give it a chance and adapt to the multi-touch virtual keys.

Readers, what do you think? Are the five issues above the ones that are most important to you? If not, what should reviewers be focusing upon in upcoming coverage of iPhone? We look forward to hearing what you think.

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