iPhone (first generation) full review

The iPhone has been three years in the making. Apple’s designers have been working on it for eons, and the web has been buzzing about Apple’s entry into the phone market for just as long – or maybe even longer. But now, six months of intense speculation has ended, and the iPhone is out (in the US at least). Since its introduction at Macworld Expo, we feel like we’ve talked about nothing else. So is it up to scratch? (No touchscreen-related pun intended). Well, it’s got its quirks, but we’re otherwise happy to report that the iPhone largely makes good on the hype that surrounded it.

Hefting the hardware
Steve Jobs proudly described the iPod as a beautiful piece of hardware that had amazing software inside it. And with the iPhone, Apple’s hardware designers have once again wrapped the output of the company’s in-house developers into a remarkable piece of hardware. Pictures of the iPhone don’t do it justice: it’s smaller than it looks. Roughly the width (2.4in) and height (4.5in) of a full-size iPod, depth is the dimension that makes the iPhone feel tiny: it measures less than half an inch.

However, the iPhone doesn’t feel fragile. It’s got enough weight to it to feel substantial when it’s in the palm of your hand. And the iPhone appears to be built to last, with a screen that proved quite resistant to scratches and drops. The iPhone’s back side is a textured silver, rather than the polished stainless steel of the full-sized iPod models, so our guess is that both the front and back of the iPhone will be more resistant to scratches than either the full-sized iPod or the original iPod nano.

This is not to say that the iPhone is impervious to being marked up. Perhaps we were unwise to order pizza at Macworld on the day of the iPhone’s arrival, but the grease from that pizza helped make a point: the iPhone’s screen collects fingerprints. The good news is, the screen’s so bright that in most situations you don’t notice the fingerprints. But it’s enough of an issue that Apple includes a small black chamois cloth in the iPhone box, and the image-conscious iPhone owner will want to give their screen a good wipe-down often.

The iPhone’s display is excellent. Yes, it’s big and bright, but its most impressive trait is the high resolution: It’s 160dpi, more than twice the traditional Mac screen resolution. Jamming that many pixels together in such a small space means that everything on screen looks smooth, not pixelated. Digital photos and videos look gorgeous, and even the colourful icons on the iPhone’s home screen are so bright and clear that sometimes it’s hard to believe that you’re looking at a computer screen and not something physical, like a sticker. On-screen text looks sharp, more like printed text in a book or magazine than drawn with pixels on the screen.

Bright, clear display
Of course, the iPhone’s screen isn’t just for looking at – it’s the key driver in the device’s interface. Using the iPhone is a tactile experience – it’s all about touching your fingers on that screen. Instead of dragging a scroll bar or clicking a mouse, you move through screens on the iPhone by a combination of taps, flicks, and other finger gestures.

The original Macintosh changed the world by providing a physical control to move a cursor around on a computer interface. But the iPhone does it one better – instead of pushing around a mouse in order to make a disembodied arrow or hand move up on the computer screen, it’s your finger doing all the moving. When you touch a photo, web page, or email message on the iPhone and slide with your finger, it moves along with your touch, as if you were moving a real, physical object. There’s no cursor on the iPhone because your finger is your pointer – which, despite what your mother might have told you, is just what fingers are designed to do.

Fingertips on virtual keys
An accomplished Blackberry thumb typist who has spent a year honing his or her skills may find it difficult to move onto the virtual keyboard. But we believe that most users – even thumb typists, given an open mind and some training time – will find the iPhone’s keyboard to be excellent.

It does take some getting used to, however. That’s because the iPhone’s keyboard is a failure if taken literally. If you slowly tap every single letter and painstakingly backspace if you press the wrong one, you will never be satisfied. The iPhone’s keyboard excels when you ignore your mistakes and keep on typing, because it senses your finger presses, compares all the nearby keys to its built-in dictionary, and intuits what you’re actually trying to type. Over time, as it learns the kinds of words you type, it improves its auto-correcting accuracy.

iPhone calling
It’s easy to get lost in the hype about touchscreens and web browsers and forget that the iPhone is, like its name says, a phone. And it works pretty well as one: When an incoming call arrives, the iPhone gently interrupts what you’re doing to display Caller ID information about who’s calling. You can set any of 25 built-in ringtones as your ring and assign custom ringtones to individual callers. Unfortunately, you can’t use your own music or sounds as ringtones.

The iPhone uses iTunes to sync the contents of your Mac’s address book (or a set of groups within the address book) with its internal contacts list. Fortunately, the iPhone remembers which contact group you were looking at most recently. So even though our iPhone contains all 207 of the contact records we had on our Mac, when we tap Contacts we see only the contents of a ‘Phone’ group that we created within the Mac’s Address Book. If the person you need to call isn’t in there, you can tap on a back arrow and browse the entire contacts list or a different contact group.

In fact, the stickiness of your current contact group is just one example of an effect you’ll find throughout the iPhone’s interface: When you return to a task you were previously using, things will generally be just as you left it. For example, if you’re looking at a Mail message and then press the Home button to check stock quotes, when you tap on Mail again you’ll be back to that same message.

The iPhone lacks a quick-dial feature that you’ll find on many other phones, in which you hold down a particular button to call your most frequently-called contacts. Obviously the iPhone can’t map contacts to buttons it doesn’t have, but top contacts are probably a few too many taps away.

One of the iPhone’s most unique phone-related features is Visual Voicemail, which displays messages by showing you the name of the caller and the time of the call; messages that you have not listened to yet are marked with a blue dot. Tap on any message and that message will be played back, regardless of its position in the message queue. While listening to a message, a progress bar shows the length of the message and current playback position, letting you jump back and forth with the drag of a finger – no more listening to entire messages over again just to hear that phone number you missed the first time.

If you want to use a Bluetooth wireless headset with the iPhone, you should be able to do so without much trouble. We easily paired the iPhone with a Plantronics headset, and colleagues have had success with headsets from Apple and Aliph. However, the iPhone doesn’t currently support stereo headphones, nor can it pair with your Mac for such tasks as passing files, using the iPhone as a modem, or passing call information to your Mac.

One-handed email
The explosion of interest in smartphones is because they mix two important business and personal funtions – a mobile phone and email. And the iPhone’s Mail program is excellent, capable of displaying formatted email messages, including many common attachment file types.

The Mail interface is a simple hierarchical list that lets you tap through to different accounts (if you’ve got more than one account, as we do). If you’re using IMAP, you’ll see a list of all the mailboxes that are a part of your account. Once you’re in a mailbox, you can see a list of messages, complete with the name of the person who sent it, the message’s subject, and, optionally, the first few lines of the message.

Using Mail on the iPhone couldn’t be much easier: tap the New Message icon to create a new message, and then choose a recipient from your Contacts list (or type in an address yourself). If you’re reading a message, pressing the reply button will give you the option of replying to or forwarding the message.

It’s no fun entering in email settings on a computer with a full keyboard, let alone on an iPhone’s virtual keyboard. So Apple has tried to make email setup on the iPhone easy, and it has largely succeeded, albeit with a few caveats. When you first set up your iPhone, iTunes transfers all your mail account preferences from your Mac’s copy of Apple Mail. If those accounts are the only ones you want, you’re set.

But if you need to enter in account info yourself, Apple has created several account presets that work for some major account types: Yahoo, Google’s Gmail, AOL, and Apple’s own .Mac. Setting up those services was very easy and required a minimum of data entry.

If you’re not using any of those services, however, you’ll have to enter in a bit more data. And you’ll probably discover one of the iPhone’s major interface mistakes: there’s no option to display the text of the passwords you’re entering. That’s a fine security measure, but when you’re typing on the iPhone’s teensy virtual keys, and most likely not typing any sort of character string that the iPhone is good at auto-correcting – at least not if you’ve got a decently secure password – it’s very difficult to carefully enter in your password and make sure you’ve done it properly.

We managed it by pressing a finger down on the keyboard and, if the letter that popped up wasn’t the one we wanted, deliberately sliding the finger until the proper key registered. But for long or numerous passwords it’s a big pain, and something Apple should fix.

Big web, little window
At numerous public appearances, Steve Jobs has promoted the web-browsing experience on the iPhone as one that brings you the ‘real internet’ – in other words, the experience of viewing the web via a full-fledged computer browser, not dumbed-down pages simplified for mobile phones (or, worse, complicated web pages that a puny cell phone browser can’t properly render). By embedding a version of Safari on the phone, Apple has brought the iPhone most of the way toward that goal, but it still falls a few notable steps short.

When you’re using Safari on the iPhone, you feel as if you’re using Safari on your Mac. Web pages load in full, scaled-down to fit on the iPhone’s screen. Tap twice on any part of the page and Safari automatically zooms in, making text readable and enlarging photos to fill the screen. The experience is as close an approximation to the web you experience on your Mac as you could possibly get on a screen the size of the iPhone’s. Web-page text is a pleasure to read on the iPhone’s high-resolution display.

Your bookmarks even come along for the ride, because iTunes syncs bookmarks between your Mac copy of Safari and your iPhone. It’s a two-way sync though, so don’t delete bookmarks on the iPhone unless you’re willing to lose them on your Mac too.

If the iPhone is a success, the iPhone web story will improve, too: web developers can custom-build style sheets to work with the iPhone, as well as make some basic additions to their pages to improve the iPhone browsing experience.

Loading Web pages on a WiFi network feels about as snappy as it does on your Mac, but when we switched over to AT&T’s EDGE digital cellular network, things bogged down. We found browsing the web on the EDGE network less pleasurable, but still quite usable (though it’s worth noting speed of the network can vary widely).

However, there are a few limitations that prevent Safari on iPhone from truly showing the real internet. The biggest is the fact that perhaps the most common browser plug-in in existence, Adobe’s Flash, is nowhere to be found. Over the past few years, the melange of different browser plug-ins for features such as embedded web videos have largely been replaced by a single video player format: Flash. Although the iPhone’s included YouTube player solves the problem for that popular video-sharing website, it doesn’t address the larger fact that numerous web sites use Flash to play video or display other interactive content.

The iPhone also won’t play back web audio or video being streamed in the Real or Windows Media formats, although Mac users can play such media on their Macs.

Less major though still annoying, is the lack of support for file upload via web pages. It would be nice if Safari allowed users to upload certain kinds of content in order to, for example, post pictures taken with the iPhone’s built-in camera to the Flickr photo-sharing site. An alternative would be for Apple to add support for photo-sharing-site uploads right into the iPhone’s Photos program.

iPod reborn
The iPhone’s iPod functions are like no iPod we’ve seen before – but we’d hazard a guess that they closely resemble the look of iPods to come. Without a scroll wheel to use in navigation, the iPhone’s iPod features take some getting used to. It took us quite a while to figure out how to toggle into and out of Shuffle mode.

When held in a vertical, or portrait, orientation, the iPhone’s iPod menus are reminiscent of the old iPod, but with much more detail. Instead of a main menu, there’s a row of five buttons along the bottom of the screen. You can customize four of them with elements you might remember from the iPod’s main menu (including Artists, Genres, Videos, and Podcasts). The fifth, called More, is the home for all the options that didn’t make it onto the row of buttons.

When you’re in a list – of artists, for example – you can scroll through it by flicking your finger, or use the same vertical A-to-Z quick index feature that’s present in the Phone’s Contacts list (assuming you’ve got a long enough list of artists or songs). Tapping on an Artist brings up a list of albums or, if they have only one album, a list of songs from that album. Conveniently, you can now choose to begin shuffling at almost any point: all songs, all songs by a particular artist, or all songs in a particular album.

Of course, the iPhone doesn’t have a large hard drive on which to store a massive video library. That means you have to be judicious with the amount of content you load on the iPhone. And if you convert your own videos (from DVDs or other sources), you’ll want to spend the extra time compressing and resizing them to fit on the iPhone. We were able to load up an 8GB iPhone with 350 songs and eight hours of video, and still have 3GB left over. So while loading an entire season of a TV show onto an iPhone is basically impossible, there’s certainly enough room (especially in the larger model) for a decent selection of viewing options. Handily, the iPhone offers to delete videos off its flash drive after you’ve viewed them, to free up more space.

There are also several things the iPhone doesn’t do that the iPod does. It won’t output video to a TV, for one, and its iTunes synchronization process is much more like Apple TV than an iPod. We often drag-and-drop music and video onto our iPod when we attach it to our Mac, but the iPhone will only sync with a library or playlist on a specific Mac or PC. If you want to drag-and-drop, you’ll need to do it into a playlist that you’ve set to sync with the iPhone.

There’s also no support for embedded lyrics in music files, and no voice-recorder support, either with the iPhone’s internal microphone or with various iPod voice-recorder add-ons.

And there’s more
It’s easy to focus on the iPhone’s four core programs, but there are 12 other icons on that Home screen. A few of them are full-blown applications, while others are nothing more than simple Dashboard-style widgets.

The Text program, which has been built to resemble iChat, works quite well as a messaging tool for the cellular network’s SMS text-message protocol.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that Text can’t send MMS messages, which are similar to SMS messages but can contain multimedia. Because of this limitation, you can’t send a picture you snap with the iPhone’s camera to another phone via text.

The iPhone is also dying for a full-blown instant messaging program, and Text doesn’t fit the bill. Although we don’t have any inside information, we assume the choice of SMS support over instant-messaging support has something to do with the fact that AT&T makes money on SMS message plans. But SMS simply isn’t a replacement for instant messaging, and Apple should make the addition of a chat program a priority for a future iPhone software update.

The Calendar and Notes programs help the iPhone fulfill its role as a personal information manager, but they’re like night and day when it comes to their utility. Calendar is implemented beautifully, with a useful Day view and a mega-useful List view of all upcoming events. You can add and edit events and sync them back to iCal on your Mac.

Calendar’s big limitation is that it doesn’t colour-code differences between different synced calendars, and new events can’t be assigned to particular synced calendars—they all automatically get assigned to a single, default calendar. And neither Calendar nor any other iPhone program will let you display or edit your iCal to-do lists.

The Notes program is fairly useless. It’s cute, with its brow header and yellow legal-style ruled background. But notes don’t sync back to your Mac, so you have to email them from your phone if you ever want to free them from the iPhone. If there’s ever been an example of Apple’s software-design prowess, it’s the Maps program on the iPhone.

Maps is powered by the same data you get when you visit Google Maps with your web browser, but its interface is so slick – from the ease of finding addresses in your contacts list to the whizzy turn-by-turn direction animations – that it not only puts the Google Maps implementations on other mobile phones to shame, it makes the Google Maps website itself look dowdy.

The only thing missing from the Maps equation is that the iPhone doesn’t know where it is. Not via built-in GPS (it has none), nor by triangulating signal strengths from nearby cellular phone towers. It’s too bad, because with some knowledge of where it’s currently located, the iPhone’s Maps program would be perfect.

A trio of iPhone icons: Calculator, Stocks, and Weather will be familiar to anyone who has used their Mac OS X Dashboard Widget equivalents. They’re harmless, attractive, and functional. They also point out how, before too long, the iPhone’s Home screen will need some sort of management tool. Not just because Apple will no doubt add to the 16 icons currently on the screen, but because some people will want to hide icons that they don’t use.

The Clock program, on the other hand, is more than just a pretty face. Yes, it lets you see what time it is in major metropolises such as London, Moscow, and Cupertino. But it also lets you add multiple alarms (unfortunately only using ringtones, not the contents of your iTunes library), set a stopwatch, or initiate a countdown timer.

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