The iPhone: Lots to Love, but Flaws Too
We waited (and waited), we bought--and now no fewer than half a dozen PC World editors have put a gaggle of iPhones through their paces.
Our conclusion: If you want to love this much-hyped gadget, you'll find plenty to go ga-ga over. The revolutionary multi-touch navigation system really is intuitive and fun. The endless expanse of display alone is nothing short of mesmerizing, with beautiful bright colors and crisp resolution. It's a great handheld video player, a decent music player and camera; its browser, while not as versatile as the one on your notebook, is still impressive. Plus, it works just fine as a cell phone.
But there are disappointments, too. Some we knew about ahead of time, including lack of support for AT&T's fastest (HSDPA) data network and the absence of instant messaging and office suite applications. Others are only apparent once you start using the handset (it can get warm with constant use, and you'll need to wipe off smudges frequently with the included cloth).
We're still iffy about the software keyboard and predictive text entry: They work reasonably well, but overall text entry is still easier with a hardware keyboard, and the iPhone may not be the best choice for people who need to compose a lot of e-mail.
We were impressed with the iPhone's durability. We tried scratching it and dropping it on everything from carpet to concrete. It survived all the abuse, with only some scratches from the concrete. (To see the abuse first-hand, check out PC World's report and video iPhone Stress Tests.)
And then there are the undeniably fun aspects of this super-hot gadget du jour, from the cute icons on the home screen to the way deleted e-mail swooshes into a trashcan.
An iPhone is expensive and comes with some major drawbacks. And the most prudent course would be to wait for the next version, one that'll work out some of the kinks, and we hope, be tied to a faster wireless network. But it's hard to be patient once you've seen one--the future of mobile devices is here and it's called an iPhone.
Setup: Using an iPhone
Setting up the iPhone was a smooth process. The first step, if you haven't already done so, is to install iTunes 7.3. I plugged in the included USB 2.0 dock, and iTunes immediately greeted me with a screen to walk me through the activation and set-up of the iPhone.
The whole process took 15 screens. Once complete, the iPhone is recognized as a device, and you're given a tabbed row of options for managing specific aspects of your iPhone--the same as you'd see when your iPod was connected to iTunes.
In fact, the entire process of setting up the iPhone--choosing what folders to sync, for example, for your music, photos, podcasts, and video--will be familiar to current iPod users. And, perhaps more importantly, the process won't be intimidating to newcomers to the iPod universe.
What's dramatically different about the iPhone is how it operates. There just aren't many pesky buttons. The phone's navigation is almost entirely accomplished via its multi-touch screen. The sole button on the face of the phone conveniently returns you to the friendly, fun home screen. A power button up top, and a ringer button and volume controls at left round out the buttons.
I fully expect terms like "slide" and "pinch" to quickly become part of the popular lexicon: These handy maneuvers let you navigate the iPhone's multi-touch screen with ease. You'll slide your finger to the right to unlock the phone; and slide again to scroll through menus. I was surprised by the often dizzying speed with which I could scroll--scanning through an album of several hundred photos was effortless.
The touch screen is one of the iPhone's huge assets--suddenly, navigating in a tight space is not only viable, but also fun and enjoyable. Aside from scrolling, there's pinching and tapping--the former for resizing screens (ie, in the Safari Web browser), the latter for selecting options and zooming in on content, such as photos.
That navigational ease applied to other elements of the phone as well. The screen has an internal sensor, and will auto-rotate content depending upon how you're holding the iPhone--and what application you're in.
The main menu, with its dozen bright, colorful icons for features and applications, and four primary icons for phone, mail, Safari, and iPod below, is both visually engaging and brilliant in its simplicity.
Adding contacts is visual as well; plus, I appreciated the high level of customization the contacts application offered me via its "add a field" option (for example, add a nickname, department, date reminders, or note). When entering contacts, make sure to hit Save, though, way at the top of the screen--the contacts app lets you exit without prompting you to save your record, which can be very annoying to discover after you've spent time entering details.
There are other flaws, too. For example, while you see a battery gauge, the iPhone doesn't give you a way to see the actual percentage (or, better yet, time) remaining in your battery's life.
Another annoyance: Tap the phone icon and the iPhone shows you the Contacts screen, not the keypad. Getting to the keypad requires another tap--definitely annoying if you're not calling someone already in your Contacts list.
-- Melissa J. Perenson
Phone Call Quality
Dialing on the touch screen was easy enough for my small hand, though I'm not convinced I'd be able to successfully dial one-handed, without looking at the screen, as I can when I press tactile keys on an ordinary cell phone.
I found call quality mixed in my initial sample of calls. Most calls sounded good, with just an occasional hiss to remind me that I was on a cell (the recipients didn't hear the hiss, though, and reported I sounded clear).
I loved how the screen darkens while on a call, and the internal sensors reactivate it when I moved it from my head (no more accidentally activating hold with my cheek, as I routinely do with my Treo 680). I also loved the visual voicemail feature--what a pleasure to pick and choose which voicemails to listen to first (you either see the number, or the contact's name if he or she is entered in your address book) or to switch among voicemails with a click of the finger.
The speakerphone seemed inadequate, though. Even on maximum volume, my caller sounded faint, and she had difficulty hearing me clearly.
The 2-megapixel camera, for example, lacks any adjustments and has no zoom. Shutter lag is longer than with a dedicated digital camera--or even the better camera phones I've seen. Syncing nearly 258MB of images--that translates into 392 JPEG photos--took a little over five minutes.
Photos looked eye-popping on the bright, brilliant screen. Colors closely matched the originals, and I saw no issues with images being cropped to fit the screen. Most of the time, I felt the images were sharp and faithfully reproduced; occasionally, I felt my high-resolution image lost some clarity in the conversion to the iPhone's format.
-- Melissa J. Perenson
Software Keyboard and Predictive Text Entry
When I got a brief hands-on look at the iPhone prototype at MacWorld in January, the software keyboard was its most disappointing feature. It repeatedly got my input efforts wrong, and during my brief session the predictive text entry feature wasn't able to compensate.
Seven months later, and with more time to practice, I found the keyboard and predictive text entry improved (or at least better than I remembered). It's still no match for the type of good hardware keyboard you get on a BlackBerry or Treo, but it's not unbearable to use, and certainly beats any standard phone keypad. (Now if only Apple had bundled the big instant messaging services.)
Predictive Text: One Word at a Time?
The predictive text entry works differently than it does on a BlackBerry, where you see a list of words that might be the one you're trying to type. The iPhone shows one option at a time, which changes as you enter different characters.
Sometimes the software was amazingly good at figuring out my intentions, even with a couple of mistyped characters: For example, it correctly ascertained that I was trying to type the word "predictive" even though a couple of letters came up wrong as I entered them. Other times, it just couldn't figure out what I wanted (when I tried to type the word "company," it proposed "Compaq"). If you do see the word you want, just hit the space key and the iPhone will use it and move on.
When I first started typing on the iPhone, I thought there was no good way to move the cursor around. I was wrong: With the software keyboard active, pressing down on the text entry area produces a bubble-like circle that magnifies the text around the cursor; moving it with your fingertip repositions the cursor precisely where you want it. It's a very cool feature.
-- Yardena Arar
The iPhone comes with preloaded settings for Yahoo Mail, Gmail, Mac Mail and AOL mail, and support for POP3, IMAP and Exchange mail. I was easily able to setup access to my Gmail account and (to my surprise) a Lotus Notes account at PC World (mail only, however--no calendar or contacts).
During setup you're given the option to sync your address book (Mac OS X, Outlook, Outlook Express, Windows Mail or Yahoo), calendar (iCal, Outlook or Outlook Express), mail settings (Mac Mail, Outlook or Outlook Express) and your IE or Safari bookmarks. Syncing went quite smoothly for me, although we had no calendar to test.
You've Got Mail
Mail, like almost everything on the iPhone's lovely screen, displays beautifully. The inbox is as handsome and functional as any we've seen, taking full advantage of the iPhone's relatively abundant screen real estate; the same goes for the messages themselves, whether they're plain text or image-rich HTML. Some may quibble with Apple's decision to segregate all accounts, so that you have to navigate to a different inbox for each one, but moving between accounts is easy and intuitive.
The iPhone automatically and easily displayed images sent as e-mail attachments--up to a point. When a colleague sent a couple of large photos, the iPhone spent quite a few minutes with a "Loading..." notification in the body of the received message; eventually, instead of rendering two 3.5MB images, the mail client provided links that downloaded each image separately.
On a minor note: I like the way deleted messages swoosh into the trashcan at the bottom of the mail screen. It's one of the many small touches that make you feel like the iPhone works hard to justify its high-end price tag.
Wi-Fi and EDGE
Wi-Fi setup on the iPhone went relatively quickly, although here you have to get the keyboard taps just right; If the predictive text entry can help you with your WEP or WPA security codes, your codes aren't secure enough. I had to make several tries to nail a longish WPA password--but once you get it, you'll never have to input it again as the iPhone will store it.
I ran DSL Reports' speed test and got a download speed of about 2 mbps using Wi-Fi. Using AT&T's EDGE network, however, speeds were more like 80 or 90 kbps. (Obviously, your results may vary.) The difference is perceptible when loading large Web pages, but EDGE is certainly usable for Web browsing if you're not in a huge hurry.
I still wish Apple would have supported AT&T's 3G HSDPA service, though; you can't count on being in range of a Wi-Fi network when you're downloading big image files or Web pages, and Wi-Fi will drain battery life very quickly.
-- Yardena Arar
Steve Jobs has boasted that the iPhone delivers "the real Internet" rather than a dumbed-down version. If that means the phone's Safari browser should be capable of anything a desktop browser can do, the iPhone fails to meet that standard. But it's still a sizable leap forward for mobile browsing.
Most phone browsers deal with their tiny screens by heavily reformatting pages. With Safari, pages look pretty much as they would in a desktop browser--Safari simply shrinks them down to fit the iPhone's screen. The shrunken versions have text that's too tiny to read, so you zoom in and out on the page by pinching and pulling. Overall, this works much better in practice than it sounds like it should--the shrunken versions are legible enough to give you a sense of where to zoom, and once you've magnified the page, you can use your thumb to scroll down. (Tip: Safari works best in landscape mode, not the skinnier portrait orientation.)
As a tool for reading Web content--news sites, for instance--Safari is terrific. And while downloading pages over EDGE wasn't as snappy as with Wi-Fi, it also wasn't as sluggish as we'd feared it might be. I happily browsed my way through sites I wouldn't even try to load in most phone browsers.
Web 2.0--Hit and Miss
But today's real Internet includes plenty of sophisticated Web applications, and here the browser disappointed me. A few of the Web 2.0 sites we tried, such as iGoogle and Flickr, worked well. But most were either a little wobbly or altogether inoperable. Google Docs and Spreadsheets worked well enough to let me view some word-processing documents and spreadsheets, but I couldn't see all our documents, or edit any of them. The Meebo Web-based instant-messenger client loaded, but I couldn't send IMs. NetVibes wouldn't let me log in; Remember the Milk sort of worked, but not as well as its mobile version. And so on.
Of course, even if an application like Google Docs worked perfectly, there'd be a limit to how much typing you'd want to do on the iPhone's tiny on-screen keyboard. Even typing URLs is a little tricky, and we struggled with passwords--it would be nice if you could opt for them to be displayed rather than asterisked out, since it can be hard to tell if you've made a typo. (Safari syncs your bookmarks from IE and desktop Safari when you connect to a computer; too bad it doesn't do the same for Firefox.)
The real Internet circa 2007 also packs a lot of multimedia and interactivity in an array of formats--Flash, Java, Windows Media, Real, and more. The iPhone's Safari doesn't support any of these; the only Web media that's likely to work in this browser is stuff in Apple's own QuickTime format.
-- Harry McCracken
Music and Video
Right off the bat with the iPhone, it's clear that this isn't your father's iPod. Apple built a completely new interface for the iPhone's music player, adding touch and tilt sensitivity to elements of its iTunes and iPod interfaces.
Syncing seemed relatively slow compared to other iPods I've tried--transferring 2.2GB of music and video to the device took just over 11 minutes, for a rate of just over 3MB/second.
For the most part, browsing a music library is a joy. Tilt the iPhone on its side with the iPod app going, and it flips into Cover Flow mode to let you flick through your albums with a quick gesture of your finger. (Be sure to have iTunes update your cover art before you sync your library, as any holes in your cover art will make for some ugly blank spots in the Cover Flow progression.)
I didn't see any of the load-time issues with Cover Flow that I experience regularly in the Windows version of iTunes, though they may still exist in libraries larger than the 4GB on my test unit. Tap an album cover, and it flips around to display a list of tracks. Tap any one of those to start it playing.
Tilt back to vertical, and your volume and play controls overlay the bottom of the screen. Tap the screen to bring up a progress indicator that lets you scrub through to any point in the song. That's actually one area where the iPhone falls behind the iPod: With its acceleration-sensitive scroll wheel, you can easily pinpoint the right section of a track without any microscopic finger movements. Finding the right area on the iPhone's progress bar is much trickier, which can be a bit of a pain on longer tracks such as podcasts or full-length concerts.
While I quickly learned where the different controls reside, it still bugs me a bit that functions like the volume slider are locked to a single orientation of the player. Still, if Apple's planning to move all of its MP3 players to this type of interface, as the continuing rumors of a touchscreen video iPod would seem to indicate, the iPod's future is in good hands.
-- Eric Dahl
Sounds Like a Nano to Me
I never expect much out of the internal speakers or the earbuds that come with a phone or MP3 player, so let's just get those out of the way: The iPhone's internal speakers aren't too bad. While I wouldn't want to listen to music on them--they distort fairly quickly on any high-register sounds--they're fine for dialog-heavy video playback. The earbuds are fine, too. If you've heard Apple's classic white iPod earbuds, you'll know what you're in for here.
So what's the iPhone really sound like? If you want a quick demo, borrow an iPod Nano. I couldn't hear much to distinguish it from a current-generation Nano on either Shure's E500 PTH in-ear phones or Sony's MDR-V900 over-the-ear headphones. In my listening tests, the iPhone held up well compared to most flash-based players. I'd rate its overall sound quality just behind that of Creative's excellent Zen V Plus and almost exactly even with the current generation of iPod Nano players.
Our objective audio tests bear that out, with the iPhone generating scores nearly identical to the iPod Nano. The 4GB iPhone we tested turned in a particularly strong performance on our crosstalk test, tying Creative's Zen V Plus for the best score we've seen. It also tied the Nano's impressive score on our test of maximum useable output level.
Those results aren't bad, but when I compare the iPhone to my 80GB iPod, there's a noticeable lack of bass with EQ turned off. Cymbals, guitar, and any hiss in the recording sound just a touch brighter and more prominent than I'd like, which makes for a slightly more fatiguing listening experience. Female voices in particular, such as the "Live from Austin Texas" recording of Neko Case that I used for some of my testing, sound a bit harsh compared with the better hard drive players.
I'm picking nits here just a bit, though. Overall, the iPhone sounds quite nice for a flash-based MP3 player. One significant drawback: Though Apple built in a standard-size jack instead of the mini-headphone connector you find on most cell phones, you can't just plug in the great set of headphones you bought for your iPod. The iPhone uses a three-segment headset connector that normal headphones can't plug into, which means lots of us will be springing for an annoying adapter as our first iPhone accessory. Yuck.
-- Eric Dahl
My Video Compression's That Bad, Huh?
Here's how nice the iPhone's screen is for video: For the first time, I'm looking at the videos I encoded for my iPod and thinking "Boy, I really compressed the heck out of that, didn't I?" Next time I encode video, I'll have to go with some higher-quality settings.
And that's where video on the iPhone gets a little tricky. Back on my 80GB iPod, the 530MB, 320-by-128 pixel version of Serenity I used as a demo looks just fine. Transfer it to the iPhone's beautiful 480-by-320-pixel display, and the low resolution really starts to show its warts. A 640-by-72-pixel copy of "Lord of War" I downloaded from the iTunes Store looked great, but at that resolution takes up 1.35GB, or one-third of the 4GB model's capacity. Even with an 8GB iPhone, TV shows are a better bet.
Once you get the video quality dialed in, though, the iPhone makes a great video player. We'll have to follow up a little later with battery tests during video playback, but every other aspect of iPhone video was top notch.
Tap the screen during playback to activate its on-screen play controls. There's an icon in the top-right corner that lets you automatically zoom in on widescreen movies if you can't stand the letterbox effect. The same progress indicator from the music side of the player lets you scrub through to your favorite parts of a video, and the iPhone showed very little lag when jumping from one point of a clip to another.
-- Eric Dahl
The iPhone has a select handful of extra apps. Some are more noteworthy--for reasons good and bad--than others.
SMS messages look like emails do on the primary screen; then in conversation, they appear in fun balloon form. Unfortunately, you can't send picture messages, though; instead, you have to send images via e-mail.
The note application is fashioned after a yellow legal pad. Tap out your notes on the keyboard, and then save them to the device--or send them via e-mail. When you do send a note via e-mail, everyone will know where it came from: the bottom of the note I sent to myself had a "Sent from my iPhone" tag-line tacked on.
The clock is full-featured, with a world clock, stopwatch, timer, and multiple alarm settings (useful if you need reminders during the day, or to set up different wake-up calls for different days of the week).
Google Maps is conveniently integrated into the iPhone, as is Yahoo's six-day weather outlook and stock data. You also get a dedicated YouTube application (separate from the iPod video playback capabilities). Right now, only about 10,000 YouTube videos have been reformatted to accommodate the iPhone's screen; the company plans to have the entire library converted by end of year, though. YouTube videos loaded quickly, and I found the image quality as good as (or even better than) the source material as viewed on my PC.
When I left the device paused on a YouTube video, first the screen intelligently dimmed, then the phone shut off entirely. When I came back and powered up again, the YouTube video was right where I left it. I experienced the same level of resume when I was using other phone features, as well.
-- Melissa J. Perenson