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.
Step back a moment and consider where we are today, at the beginning of July, 2007. Apple Inc. has sold over 100 million iPods, and around 3 billion songs through its iTunes Store. It is finally regaining market share in the personal computer industry it helped to create. And it has now accomplished what fans have been dreaming about for years: it has released a mobile phone that it developed itself, from top to bottom.
Even before its June 29 release, Apple’s iPhone ($399/8GB, $499/16GB)
succeeded in capturing America’s national consciousness to a staggering extent: the company had never released a cell phone, its most notable pocket-sized product, iPod, struggled to sell 100,000 units over its first months on the market, and its collaboration with Motorola for ROKR, SLVR, and RAZR “iTunes phones” was widely received as disappointing. Yet somehow, the very premise of iPhone—a mobile phone with museum-quality design, unusually straightforward telephone calling, and advanced Internet and iPod-style multimedia features—managed to draw hundreds of thousands of customers to attend launches at stores run by Apple and its U.S. partner, AT&T. They lined up by the hundreds despite factors such as a relatively high price, certain hardware limitations, and the fact that only four independent people were allowed to fully test and write about it before its release. [Editor’s Notes: On September 5, 2007, Apple dropped the price of the 8GB iPhone to $399, and discontinued the 4GB iPhone. On February 5, 2008, Apple added a 16GB iPhone at a $499 price point, without otherwise changing the device’s features or dimensions. Our review was updated solely to reflect the price and capacity changes.]
The “somehow” is now obvious: when it works, iPhone is a nearly miraculous product. Running a stripped-down version of Apple’s OS X operating system, iPhone feels more like using a next-generation Apple tablet computer than an upgraded iPod, offering web, e-mail, widget, and communication features that have been made “cool” through simplicity, a colorful high-resolution LCD screen, and a brave new multi-point touch interface. Plus, whether it’s playing back music, movies, or photos on that display—a 3.5” widescreen—only bug-obsessed users will find anything to complain about. iPhone takes the best recent features from iTunes, including Cover Flow, simple video controls, and simple photo optimization, and creates an outstanding update to the familiar iPod interface. It is also an almost superb cell phone, better than we’d thought likely, with only small caveats.
Unfortunately, iPhone also suffers from several issues that we consider to be relatively serious: first-generation hardware problems, some snags in customer service, and its lack of a user-replaceable battery are major reasons that some users will want to wait for the second-generation iPhone, whenever Apple releases it. Comparatively minor issues—such as several less than fully streamlined applications, missing features, and small software glitches—won’t turn users away, but will leave them expecting more. For these reasons, while iPhone is a considerably more impressive achievement for Apple than was the original iPod in 2001, and a strong starting point for a transformation of the mobile phone industry, it’s not right for everyone quite yet. Our full review looks at iPhone’s good and bad points, continuing with the page links above and below. We’ve also added individual editors’ takes to page 9 of the review.
[Editor’s Notes: For additional details on iPhone’s myriad functions, its AT&T calling plans, storage capacities, and accessories, please check out our Complete Guide to All Things iPhone.]
The Basics: iPhone and its Box
If you’re familiar with full-sized iPods, you’ll generally understand the design of iPhone: at 4.5” tall, it’s only a little taller than the 5G (video) iPod, with a .46” thickness similar to the 30GB model, and a 2.4” width that’s actually a hint narrower. Besides the 3.5” screen and a single physical button on the front, the back half is still substantially metal, the top has a headphone port and Hold-like switch, and the bottom has an iPod-styled Dock Connector. Because of its Apple family design similarities, and despite its many new features, there’s nothing intimidating about its looks. You’d have to be profoundly fearful of technology, or Meredith Vieira, to have a problem figuring it out after two minutes of use.
In fact, iPhone oozes class. Rather than a scratchable all-plastic front like the iPod, it features anti-scratch glass ringed by chrome-polished metal, and the mostly metal back matches Apple’s aluminum Cinema Displays, MacBook Pros, and components in Mac minis, Apple TVs, and iPod nanos. There’s a chromed Apple logo and a black plastic bottom piece that holds its wireless antennas; similar black parts are used on the left side for a ringer/silent switch and two volume buttons, and on the top for the Hold switch-like Sleep/Wake button. A chrome-ringed camera’s on the top left of the back, and a metal and plastic SIM card tray is on the top between the now recessed headphone port and the Sleep/Wake button.
By contemporary standards, Apple could not have done better with iPhone’s cosmetic design. Thanks to the screen, which boasts a 480×320 resolution that’s twice as detailed as the current iPod’s, and Apple’s choices of materials, even those who think iPhone is too expensive will concede that it’s gorgeously equipped. Like most phones, it includes two built-in speakers, one for the ear and one for speakerphone and iPod modes, and one microphone, which is solely for use with the phone. Apple didn’t skimp; for what they are, the speakers and mic sound great for calls, and add a great new feature for music and movie playback, besides.
Like Apple’s previous premium-priced color iPods -— the way they used to be packaged before price drops and smaller packages prevailed —- the iPhone comes in a sharp-looking black box with more than the necessary pack-ins: you get a charging, audio, and synchronization Dock and a USB Power Adapter in addition to a Stereo Headset (earphones with microphone), a Dock Connector to USB Cable, and printed documentation. New to the package is a cleaning cloth, provided to help keep the screen shining, and still absent is iTunes, which you must download from the Apple.com web site, rather than installing off a CD in the box.
The Basics: Activation, Cell Phone Services, and Syncing
To their credit, Apple and AT&T—the only cellular provider in America allowed to provide wireless service for iPhone—have tried to make it simple, though not cheap, to activate the device and use its telephone and wireless Internet features. Every phone comes with a pre-installed SIM card, and instructions to install iTunes 7.3 (or later) to activate the device.
New customers are given a choice of three standard iPhone plans—$60 gets you 450 talk minutes and unlimited data, with more minutes at $20 additional increments—and existing customers can add iPhone data services to their prior talk minutes for $20 per iPhone. Under ideal circumstances, the phone can be activated and working in 10 minutes—the experience we had with 5 of the 7 phones we tested.
Two of our phones required significant additional time and effort to activate, however: one of our editors had to wait for 18 hours before his iPhone was activated, and another’s took roughly 40 hours, as well as 5 escalating phone calls to AT&T. Both situations involved porting numbers from other carriers—the first, Verizon, and the second, T-Mobile. When the experience goes smoothly, it is as impressively simple as anything Apple has ever done. But when it doesn’t, the experience is beyond frustrating. iTunes initially provides AT&T estimates of several hours, which stretch through follow-up e-mails into more extended ordeals. Some of those hours are spent waiting on hold for assistance, while others just watching the iPhone’s activation screen sparkling. Until the cell phone features are activated by AT&T, the phone cannot be used as an iPod or Internet device, an issue Apple should surely remedy in the future.
Once iPhone is activated, iTunes can synchronize it with data, a process that is straightforward but not entirely iPod-like. With very little effort, it imports your computer’s contact lists, calendars, web browser bookmarks, and e-mail accounts for immediate viewing on iPhone. This process is stunningly fast and efficient if you’re using Apple’s Mac contact, calendar, and e-mail applications, or Microsoft’s PC applications, but not as simple if you’re using non-Apple Mac applications. Most users will see iPhone become a mirror of their computers within 1 minute; others will have to export and import contacts, change e-mail programs, and possibly shift browsers, or otherwise just program information directly into iPhone. Put simply, iPhone does so well when it uses synced computer information that users should never consider manual input: it’s comparatively time-consuming and challenging. Photos synchronize just as with iPods, requiring conversion and then transferring over to the iPhone.
iTunes doesn’t do as well with iPod-style synchronization of music or videos. Besides the fact that the transfer process is time-consuming—it took over 27 minutes to fill the 7.24GB (8GB) iPhone, and 6 minutes in a separate test of a 1GB playlist, versus around 3.5 minutes per 1GB on current iPod nanos—there’s no simple dragging and dropping of content from your iTunes library onto the iPhone. You need to use Music, Podcasts, and Video tabs like the Apple TV’s to transfer over playlists of music, episodes of podcasts, or criteria-based videos. In our view, an iPod isn’t an iPod without drag-and-drop access to music, and iPhone feels more like Apple TV in this regard than an iPod; again, we hope Apple fixes this in a future software update.
Another synchronization issue is an oddity unique to iPhone: the device puts out a lot of radio noise during its constant communications back and forth with cell phone towers, an issue that impacts many iPod docking speakers, speakers in your car, and those connected to your computer. We’ve actually found ourselves turning off our computer speakers when iPhone’s docked for synchronization, and we’ve opted to find other places to recharge it rather than keeping it close to the computer. Many cell phones, especially smartphones, make noise when they’re near computers, but iPhone’s need to be tethered for synchronization doesn’t help; wireless Wi-Fi or Bluetooth syncing of iPhone at a greater distance might take longer, but it would eliminate the noise.
The Features: Phone, Mail, Safari, iPod
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.
The Features: Text, Calendar, Photos, Camera
Text (SMS Messaging)
Our biggest disappointment with iPhone is its Text application, which we can describe only as a poor man’s substitute for Mac OS X’s iChat, and one that will make you poorer the more you use it. While Text does a nice job of presenting and organizing multiple SMS chat sessions, AT&T’s decision to fleece users for $10 or $20 per month in additional messaging charges makes the application all but worthless in our minds.
As the success of AOL Instant Messenger, iChat, and competing services has demonstrated, no one wants to pay per message to send stupid acronym-laden text strings to their friends with a data-ready device. Since AT&T’s already charging $20 per month more than competitors like T-Mobile for iPhone voice and minute plans, unlimited messaging wouldn’t have been a real stretch to just include in the plan; the lack of multimedia messaging is similarly sort of odd. It’s really a damned shame that iPhone doesn’t just include the iChat client everyone wants, as competing devices like Danger’s Sidekick 3 literally include multiple chat clients; this feature’s omission may well be a dealbreaker for serious instant messaging fans.
Little needs to be said about Calendar save that it cleanly presents iCal- or Outlook-synchronized calendar data in your choice of list, day, or month views, and unlike the iPod enables you to edit data on the road.
A nice touch is the main menu icon, which shows the current day of the week and month at all times.
Photos and Camera
These two parts of iPhone mostly work better than we expected. By cell phone standards, iPhone takes excellent photographs, though it provides almost no user control over the camera, and doesn’t include a flash. A fast lens and smart software enabled us to grab surprisingly detailed 2-Megapixel shots in morning, mid-day, and nighttime conditions, indoors and outdoors, with better than typical color rendition by phone standards. We like iPhone’s pictures better than ones taken with Apple’s iSight cameras, and the full-screen nearly realtime preview feature is very close to great, too. You can export photos from the iPhone to your PC or Mac, but can’t send full-resolution versions of the shots via e-mail; they’re reduced to 640×480.
The Photos component works exactly as Apple has shown, displaying lists of photo rolls synchronized from iTunes and taken by the camera, then 20 thumbnails at a time. Because the photos are typically better than the iPhone’s screen resolution, they can be zoomed into and out of to reveal additional detail, turned into great wallpaper for the iPhone’s initial screen, and displayed in a decent slideshow mode. Apple dropped the ball on including iPod-style transitions, however; despite iPhone’s incredible video power, you can choose only from Cube, Dissolve, Ripple, Wipe Across, and Wipe Down, without randomization. We get bored watching the same transitions again and again; adding the full iPhoto suite, and slideshow music, would make Photos even better.
The Features: YouTube, Stocks, Weather, Calculator, Maps, Clock
Apple’s surprise 15th application for iPhone turns out to be one of the device’s best features. The web-based streaming video service actually works—via caching—when you’re on some EDGE networks, displaying an error message when it’s on too-slow cell towers, and always flows smoothly when you’re using iPhone’s Wi-Fi features. This guarantees that you’ll almost always have access to free video content to watch while you’re on the road—a major advantage over cell phones that try to charge you for junky clips. As with the iPod video functionality, YouTube playback looks as good as the material it’s fed, and benefits from a streamlined search interface, as well as bookmarking and “share” with friends features.
We weren’t blown away by YouTube on Apple TV, but on iPhone, it’s impressive, and limited only by the small collection of videos that are iPhone compatible. Videos uploaded only days ago still haven’t become available for viewing on iPhone, which surprised us given Apple comments to the contrary; it remains to be seen whether YouTube is able to get its full library transcoded for iPhone viewing by the previously announced Fall 2007 deadline.
Stocks, Weather, and Calculator
Derived from OS X widgets of the same names, these three applications work exactly as they’ve been demonstrated to work on both Macs and iPhones. They still look gorgeous, impress Mac neophytes, and offer very quick access to several types of information that people want to know about during the day. Stocks lets you add new stocks by company name rather than ticker ID if you prefer, which is great, and even tracks international stocks.
You can add multiple stocks and scroll through the list easily without displacing the on-screen performance chart; you can also search for information on the stocks from Yahoo with a single button press. Weather tracks multiple cities in individual windows, which are impressive when scrolled through.
iPhone’s Maps application, powered by data from Google Maps, is pretty nice. As normal, Apple has created a great looking interface that’s fun to use thanks to pinch zooming controls, and simplified one-click access to drawn maps, satellite imagery, lists of searched locations, and realtime traffic data.
The biggest omissions from Maps are obvious—GPS isn’t here, so you need to enter all locations on your own, and voice-style turn by turn data isn’t here, so you’ll need to have a friend read you the step-by-step route guidance it provides for driving directions in small on-screen text.
But what Maps does do, it generally does well. You can access address information from your contacts list, and use it rather than typing addresses in with the on-screen keyboard. Searched locations provide contact information that can be clicked upon for instant phone calls. And the satellite imagery is cool to see on the small display, if not exactly unfamiliar to people who, say, have had computers for the last several years. Our only problem using Maps is that maps sometimes pan off to one side after we’ve finished zooming in, putting us off-center relative to the target, so pulling your fingers off the screen at the same time is critical.
It’s somewhat surprising that Apple went hog wild in designing its Clock Application: the subtle, clean graphical treatment of its “add as many world clocks as you want” World Clock application, alarms, stopwatch and timer make these even more pleasant to look at than they were on the iPod. But functionally, we had a few issues. Unlike the weather application, which lets you truly select the city you’re in, World Clock is still limited to the major city presets that the iPod and other prior-generation clocks are saddled with. Being able to name your favorite city, say, once in the settings or the Phone application’s contacts list, then automatically getting weather and clock data for that city, would just make sense given iPhone’s Internet access and multifunctional design.
We found that the clock, timer, and stopwatch features worked as expected, but we experienced a very serious lockup in the alarm feature that may have wrecked one of our iPhones. The alarm combines a musical wake-up call with vibration, and locked up when it wasn’t silenced immediately. After a minute of vibration, our iPhone’s touch screen literally stopped working entirely, and could not be fixed. We were able to return it for a replacement, but we’ve never seen anything quite like that happen on a phone before, and to the extent that it could damage your phone, we wouldn’t advise you try the feature yourself.
The Features: Notes, Settings, Keyboard
iPhone’s Notes application, used to let you type out text notes rather than displaying Notes data from iPod software, is only OK. Its biggest sin, like Mail, is in forcing you to use the portrait mode’s thinner keyboard when you could be typing on the landscape orientation instead. Oh, and the use of that awful felt marker font, which was never cool, now looks like 1993 or so whenever it’s on screen.
iPhone’s Settings menu is unremarkable, which is generally a good thing, given that most cell phones make setting adjustments confusing beyond belief with multiple tabs and features that don’t appear where you’d expect to find them. That’s not the case here. Need settings? They’re all here, organized in some semblance of a logical order.
It’s easy to flip the device into Airplane Mode, which turns off the wireless antennas so the device’s iPod features can be used without interfering with speakers or the in-flight systems of airplanes. And it’s similarly easy to add a wireless network to join whenever iPhone finds it. Bluetooth should be right next to these features at the top of the Settings list.
The myriad other features of the phone are generally—with the exception of Bluetooth—easy to find in the places you’d expect to find them. It would be nice to have a way to cut directly to the individual applications’ settings from within those applications, but in the absence of such a feature, this collected menu works well, and would benefit only from further settings to enable greater iPhone customization.
iPhone’s single most controversial feature is its on-screen keyboard, which has been designed to eliminate the need for a slide-out or fixed-position physical keyboard. Without rehashing all that we’ve said on the subject before, the on-screen keyboard does in fact have a multi-day learning curve, is more easily used initially by users with thinner finger tips, and is in need of further Apple tweaking.
The keyboard appears in various forms throughout iPhone’s interface. In Mail, Text (SMS), Maps, and YouTube, it is strictly vertical. It always has a QWERTY-style keyboard with space, return, and shift keys. Sometimes—when you’re entering an e-mail address—the space bar becomes smaller to provide instant access to @ and period keys. Other times, you need to click on a symbols key to access one or two screens worth of punctuation; you always need to do this for numbers. In vertical form, the keyboard will require days of user adjustment, but there’s no doubt that you get better every day you use it, and eventually progress from hunt-and-peck typing to two-thumb typing.
In Safari, the keyboard can switch into a larger, widescreen orientation for entry of URLs and other information. Though this bigger keyboard mightn’t be ideal for simultaneous reading and writing on other applications, it’s much easier for big-fingered users to type on instantly, and an unfortunate omission from the other applications. We’d hope to see this keyboard, or a slightly modified version, make a wider appearance in iPhone’s interface with a future software update.
Battery, Durability, and Wi-Fi/EDGE Performance
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.
Conclusions and Multi-Editor Reviews
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.
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.”
Archived: iLounge’s Earlier January 2007 to June 2007 First Looks Coverage
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).