Thu, 22 Nov 2007 iPhone UK (first-generation) review
Does Apple's iPhone live up to the hype? We test it to find out...
- Manufacturer: Apple
- Pros: Fantastic multi-touch interface, superb screen, great applications, best mobile web browser in existence, easy mobile email, is sure to make your friends jealous
- Cons: Unrealistically priced for the mass market, tight-fisted O2 text and call allowance, dreadful camera, lack of 3G support, lack of GPS, lack of Flash support in web browser, small 8GB storage space, recessed earphone socket is annoying, no games, can’t make your own ringtones without paying for them
- Price: £269 + contract (£35, £45, £55)
- Star rating:
Among those who queued up on 9 November to buy an iPhone were several members of the Macworld team; and we have been putting it to the test ever since.
So what do we think? There’s plenty to love, and plenty to lament about Apple’s new mobile. With its solid design and a beautiful, touch-sensitive 480 x 320-pixel screen the iPhone is beautiful to look at and a joy to use. Its browser, while not as versatile as the one on a desktop or laptop, is impressive and - at a stroke - has made all other mobile internet devices look antiquated and woeful. And of course, it works fine for making phone calls.
But there is a dark side to the iPhone: activation requires signing up for an expensive 18-month service plan with O2, the UK’s largest mobile service provider. Unlike most mobile phone deals you need to pay £269 for the phone as well as a top-tier monthly contract, and there is no mention of an upgrade offer when the contract finishes. To add insult to injury the 18-month contract may well outlast the usefulness of the sealed-in battery.
The contract starts at £35 per month, so the overall cost of the iPhone will be a minimum £899. For this you get a piffling 200 minutes and 200 texts per month. Although unlimited data access for the internet with no usage restriction is included in this price. To put this in comparison, Vodafone offers ‘unlimited’ internet for £7.50 on top of your regular contract (but with a 120MB cap).
Considering the market rate for full internet is £7.50 per month, the remaining £27.50 for 200 texts and 200 mins is a remarkably poor deal. Part of Apple’s problem may well be that there is so much competition in the UK market. Customers are used to being offered superb deals: free phones, unlimited calls to friends and family, ludicrously high text allowances, first three months half-price deals; even cashback deals where companies pay you to take out a contract on a phone. One of our friends curtly pointed out that the only way he’d spend £269 on a mobile phone was if it had £300 in cash taped to it.
When pricing up the competition in Carphone Warehouse we certainly didn’t have to look too far to find a better investment. Frankly, you could walk into any store in the UK, point randomly at any phone and get a better deal than the one Apple and O2 are offering.
As well as laying down the £269 in the store, you may be asked to pay £100 to O2 as a deposit. Plus you must pay two months of the contract, so you may well end up paying £439 in the first month of owning this phone. Compared to the usual deal of paying, well,‘nothing’, this may be asking too much of the UK public.
Living on the EDGE
Money aside, the iPhone also faces several technical hurdles in the UK. It doesn’t work with O2’s UMTS 3G data network, let alone anything forward-looking such as HSDPA or - God forbid - a pre 4G UMTS Revision 8 standard. Instead it uses a little-known standard called EDGE. This offers performance well below that of 3G.
The iPhone does, however, enable you to access WiFi so when you’re at home, or in the office, or near an open WiFi connection it produces speeds close to those of a laptop computer. This, however, is of little comfort when you’re stood at the railway station in the morning waiting over a minute for the BBC News home page to load.
We decided to time the results from three popular websites. We tested the iPhone using The EDGE connection found in the Macworld office, a home WiFi connection and a GPRS connection in south-east London. The speeds were as follows ('min:sec:milli')
Apple’s reasoning behind the lack of 3G is that it is a power-hungry resource, whereas EDGE is energy-efficient, and Apple didn’t want a phone that lost power constantly - a statement that has some merit. However, EDGE is ubiquitous in the US while 3G is a relatively scarce resource; the situation is reversed in the UK with 3G being commonplace and EDGE coverage limited to 30 per cent of the country.
When you’re outside an EDGE coverage area the phone resorts to using GPRS for internet access. In speed tests GPRS proved to be glacial compared to EDGE, although in everyday usage we found little discernible difference. Both are gratingly slow.
We can’t help feeling that the lack of 3G is more to do with Apple deciding to make one phone for the world market and waiting for the US network to beef up. We would bet good money that a 3G phone will be out in the US, and therefore the UK, at some point in 2008. Perhaps with some power-saving technology, or a simple 3G on/off switch.
In the meantime O2 is looking to expand the EDGE network in the UK. One interesting note is that we have found EDGE to be scattered throughout most major cities and towns, rather than having blanket coverage in certain metropolitan areas. So you’ll find it switching seamlessly between EDGE, GPRS and WiFi while maintaining a constant connection. The only problem we found is that it finds it hard to maintain a connection when the device is moving, and connecting to EDGE proved difficult when on a train.
One other aspect that shouldn’t go unmentioned is the access to The Cloud WiFi data network. This comprises some 7,500 areas throughout Europe, including whole districts such as The City and Canary Wharf in London. We found access easy enough, simply click on The Cloud network in Settings and enter your telephone number on the homepage. It then connects and starts counting how many minutes you’ve used. As with the EDGE network, O2 has confirmed that there is no longer any usage restriction other than a Fair usage policy, which merely refers to using it for ‘personal use’. If you’re lucky enough to work in a Cloud enabled area this goes a long way towards making up for the slow EDGE speed, and we expect workers in London’s The City and Canary Wharf areas to take full advantage of this deal. Lets hope that O2’s The Cloud network is expanded over time to more areas in the country.
One area where EDGE functions perfectly well though is with the built-in applications. The Stocks, Weather, Google Maps and - most importantly - Mail, all work without a glitch under EDGE, and perform adequately under GPRS. Even YouTube videos play back reasonably well under EDGE (although the iPhone doesn’t allow you to load YouTube videos under GPRS).
Of course, the presence of Google Maps throws up another missing feature of the iPhone, the lack of built-in GPS (Global Positioning System). Unlike 3G this feature is hardly ubiquitous in mobile phones, however, it’s very much a consumer technology of the moment and is a big selling point of the iPhone’s main rival, the Nokia N95 (which we notice now comes with 8GB of built-in memory to directly match the iPhone.)
The style matters
But for all these failings, the iPhone has met with almost universal acclaim in the Macworld office. While it may be sorely missing some features, the large screen, multi-touch input, effective email, fantastic web browser and the wonderful animated interface (Core Animation and the stripped-down OS X system at work) make up for a lot of shortcomings. While the iPhone lacks the many features found on other phones, it offers something in abundance that no other phone on the market possesses - style.
Of course, this opens up the handset to accusations of style over substance; that the large screen and animated menu gloss over what is a fairly standard device. But we’re not convinced the style of the iPhone interface is a bad, or even insignificant thing. While the fantastic menu design gives the iPhone a visual flair we’d associate with Apple, it also provides a level of interaction sorely missing in other mobile phones.
Your finger does almost all the navigation, because the iPhone has only four hardware buttons. Once you power it up, sliding your finger across the screen unlocks the phone. Pinching, a two-finger movement, zooms the part of the screen framed by the pinch. Flick or drag your finger to scroll through menus or web pages. The screen will auto-rotate content between landscape and portrait mode, depending on which application you’re using.
For any feature that requires text input, the iPhone displays an on-screen keyboard that you can toggle between QWERTY text keys and numbers/symbols. It’s still no match for the hardware keyboard you get on a BlackBerry or Treo, but it certainly beats any standard mobile phone keypad.
Most importantly, perhaps, the iPhone works well as a phone. Touch-screen dialling is easy enough, although getting to a numeric keypad requires two taps of the phone icon (the first tap just brings up your contacts). We found this two-step process annoying when attempting to dial a number directly. The iPhone lacks voice dialling, and we’re not convinced we could successfully dial blind, as we can on a hardware keypad.
Most calls sounded good, although the speakerphone is faint (as are the headphones when used for audio calling, oddly). The device also gets overly warm with constant use, and you’ll need to wipe smudges from the glass screen frequently with the included cloth. The screen is smart enough to darken and deactivate some controls while you’re on a call, so you don’t accidentally press something with your cheek. We also loved the visual voicemail feature, because it lets you choose which voice messages (identified by number or address-book name) to listen to first. However, we wish that the phone also had multimedia messaging and instant messaging capabilities (it allows SMS text messaging, of course).
The SMS text messaging uses an iChat style interface, which comes as a revelation. Never before has SMS chat been so great to look at, and so easy to perform. The only problem is that - like the free iChat - it encourages you to text away, which stands at odds with the measly 200 free text messages included in the basic £35 per month contract. After they’re used up you will be paying 12p a text - or be forced to upgrade to the £45 a month contract to get 500 free texts.
Visual Voicemail is another impressive feature, albeit in a less immediately dynamic way than mobile internet or email. After setting up the system it records missed calls and messages in an email style interface. It enables you to quickly skim through messages to home in on the one you want, which is a much faster and more impressive system than phoning up your voicemail and pressing the delete button endlessly.
The iPhone’s rechargeable lithium ion battery lasted the maximum 10 hours in our talk-time tests, running 2 hours longer than Apple’s own stated call time. Video playback is a battery killer though. The phone lasted only 4 hours, 21 minutes, however, when we viewed a 320 x 128-pixel version of Serenity at a 647kbps bit rate - almost 2.5 hours less than Apple’s stated video playback time.
Apple says that the battery is designed to keep up to 80 per cent of its charge after 400 full charge cycles, and that the company will replace the battery if the capacity falls below 50 per cent during the one-year warranty period.
To get the battery replaced out of warranty, you will have to send it to Apple and pay £55 (including shipping). You should be prepared to relinquish your phone for three days.
Better by mail
The iPhone’s touch-screen text input is not ideal for people that compose a lot of email, but the device comes preloaded with settings for AOL Mail, Gmail, .Mac Mail, and Yahoo Mail, and it supports Exchange, IMAP, and POP3 mail. We easily set up access to a Gmail account and, to our surprise, a Lotus Notes IMAP account (mail only, however - we couldn’t see our calendar or contacts).
Syncing the iPhone on a Mac really couldn’t be easier. Through iTunes it pulls all of your Address Book contacts, iCal information, Safari Bookmarks and Mail accounts - As well as your Music, Podcasts and Videos.
On the PC, the iPhone syncs to your address book (Outlook, Outlook Express, Windows Live Mail, or Yahoo), calendar (Outlook or Outlook Express), mail settings (Outlook or Outlook Express), and bookmarks (IE or Safari).
Some of the team thought that messages displayed beautifully; others thought that some HTML messages were too small, and they didn’t like being unable to rotate the screen for more width. Some people may quibble with Apple’s decision not to let users see messages from multiple email accounts in the same window, but moving between accounts is easy.
However, it is the Safari web browser rather than email that is the iPhone’s killer app. It delivers shrunken versions of desktop-style pages that you scroll and zoom in on to read. Double tapping zooms in and out automatically to fit content. Scrolling is intelligent enough to notice that your finger is moving up and down but you don’t want to scroll slightly sideways; and pinching moves in and out.
As a tool for reading web content - news sites, say - Safari looks terrific. But there are problems. The touch screen makes typing URLs and, especially, asterisked-out passwords tricky, and Safari’s lack of support for Flash, Java, Real, Windows Media, and other non-QuickTime multimedia formats made some sites function incorrectly, so they wouldn’t load visual elements, or didn’t let us listen to audio or even log in. Downloading web pages over the EDGE data network wasn’t as snappy as with WiFi, but EDGE and even GPRS certainly work for web browsing, as long as you’re not in a hurry.
There are, however, some fantastic web sites and web applications being created specifically for the iPhone. These lightweight sites load quickly no matter what connection you are using. Of particular note is the Facebook website (iphone.facebook.com), the Digg site (http://digg.com/iphone/) and the stunning BBC podcast site (www.bbc.co.uk/radio/podcasts) which enables you to stream radio shows directly over EDGE.
The iPhone also comes preloaded with a YouTube player that now has YouTube’s entire video collection reformatted for the H-264 technology used by the iPhone, iPod touch and Apple TV. In some websites that embed YouTube video the iPhone backs out of Safari and into the built-in YouTube application to play the video.
Sounds the business
As with the iPod touch, the music interface of the iPhone is a big improvement over the click wheel. You can flick through artists, songs and playlists, and turn the iPhone on its side to enter Cover Flow - and the widescreen display makes album art look fantastic.
Like the iPod touch, the large screen is also a revelation for video playback. Unlike the iPod classic or nano, watching videos is both practical and comfortable. Again, as we mentioned in our review of the iPod touch, the only problem is a lack of decent content on the iTunes Video store and the lack of DivX playback. Neither of these problems appear to be going anywhere in the near future, so investment in a device such as the Elgato EyeTV for video recording and Turbo 264 for speedy video conversion may well be in order.
The video of Serenity, which appeared fine on an iPod, showed its warts on the iPhone. A higher-resolution (640 x 272-pixel) copy of Lord of War looked great but took up 1.35GB, which is a substantial chunk of a device’s memory when it only sports 8GB in total.
The iPhone also throws up a couple of unexpected improvements over the iPod touch. The two side buttons on the phone can be used to adjust the volume, while a single click of the earpiece acts as a play / pause remote control. A quick double-click skips to the next track.
As such, the iPhone answers one of our complaints with the iPod touch: the lack of a remote control. It also sports a built-in speaker that can be used for audio and video playback as well as for general phone use. Although speakers on phones have a bad reputation for being annoying on public transport, it does come in useful. You can use the iPhone as a portable stereo in a hotel room (for example); and showing off YouTube clips is much easier when you don’t have to share headphones.
As a music player, the iPhone sounds like a current-generation iPod nano. It also matched the iPod nano’s impressive score on our test of maximum usable output level.
One significant drawback: you’ll likely need to use an awkward adapter to plug music headphones (other than the ones that come in the box) into the iPhone’s recessed port. We are assuming that Apple did this to enforce usage of the supplied iPhone headset, presumably because these earphones contain a microphone used during phone calls, a feature that Apple doesn’t want people to overlook by switching Apple’s standard earphones for their own.
One aspect where Apple clearly has its work cut out is the camera. The device has a 2-megapixel CCD (small, but not unreasonably so for a phone) and it lacks both a zoom and flash. Even worse, the positioning of the lens at the corner of the device (rather than the traditional centre) makes it susceptible to taking close-ups of your fingers. Finally, by relying on an on-screen button rather than using one of the external buttons, it really is awkward to use.
If all this wasn’t bad enough, the lens appears to be of very poor quality and the photos we took weren’t very sharp (even in good light). In a darkened room or at night, it’s simply hopeless. You can’t record video either, which seems something of an oversight.
This would have been acceptable two years ago, when the cameras on other mobile phones were also poor, but lately the cameraphone market has come along in leaps and bounds. The Nokia N95, for example, sports a five-megapixel CCD and a Carl Zeiss lens, plus a flash and camera dedicated buttons. It’s as good, if not better, than the compact digital cameras most people own. We can’t help feeling that the lack of a decent camera function will drag the iPhone down in many people’s estimations.
The lack of 3G and, to a lesser extent, GPS combined with the sub-par camera all weigh heavily against the iPhone. But it does make up for this with a wonderful interface, and an ability to make the full web experience and email work effectively: something that no other mobile phone seems able to manage.
A tough call
Scoring the iPhone is one of the most difficult tasks the Macworld team has had to perform. It is clearly a first-generation product and is off to a promising start, but there are too many ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ for it to gain five stars with a clear Editors’ Choice award. As the second and third generation models roll out, with 3G, GPS and enhanced camera functions it may start to live up to the title ‘JesusPhone’ that it’s been tagged by many in the US.
In truth, we could comfortably mark the iPhone down to three, or even, two stars. Largely because the deal that Apple is offering through O2 is so manifestly poor that any recommendation whatsoever on our part seems like a disservice to our readers. It feels like infringement on our journalistic integrity to advise our readers to spend their money on this phone, when they could pick up an Nokia N95 for so much less - we expect the iPhone to get much lower scores elsewhere than it is getting here.
However, we also believe that it would be wrong of us to score the iPhone down when so many of us have bought the product and feel that it is the best phone on the market; we have personally decided that it is worth the considerable amount of money that Apple and O2 are charging.
When faced with the prospect of owning any mobile in the world, we would go for the iPhone without question - and in that case it would be hypocritical of us to advise our readers to do otherwise. As it stands we are ranking the iPhone at a four-star product, perhaps turning a blind eye to the cost.
Apple should feel proud of the iPhone. It is a marvel of design and a wonderful product to touch and hold. In 10 years this may well be what all portable computers look like.
However, if Apple is serious about the UK market (and it should be, considering how serious we are about mobile phones) then this device needs to be given away for free on contract (or sold unlocked) and O2 needs to at least double the amount of texts and call time that it is offering. Otherwise nobody other than die-hard Apple fans will buy it. And that, we feel, would be a shame.