Among those who queued up on June 29 to buy an iPhone were several of our editors; we have been putting it to the test ever since.
Our verdict: There’s plenty to love, and plenty to lament. The iPhone offers a solid design and a beautiful, touch-sensitive 480-by-320-pixel screen you can control with multiple taps or pinches of your fingers. Its browser, while not as versatile as the one on your notebook, is impressive. And of course, it works fine as a cell phone.
But activation requires signing up for a two-year service plan, which may outlast the sealed-in battery. The iPhone doesn’t work with AT&T’s fastest (HSDPA) data network, and it doesn’t work with any third-party apps except Web-based ones–and even those may not run properly, since the iPhone doesn’t support several Web formats like Flash.
Easy Sign-Up and Use
Overall, the iPhone ranked fifth in our recent PDA phones chart; despite a Superior design score, its specs score and high price weighed it down. Unlike the T-Mobile Wing and Dash, for example, the iPhone lacks productivity apps for editing documents.
You can sign up for phone service yourself via Apple’s iTunes 7.3. In the first days after its launch, we heard many reports of problems with activation; our staffers didn’t experience such glitches, however.
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 autorotate 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 cell phone keypad.
As a phone, the iPhone works well. Touch-screen dialing 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–and we wouldn’t try to do that while driving. The iPhone lacks voice dialing, and we’re not convinced we could successfully dial blind, as we can on a hardware keypad.
Most calls sounded good, albeit with an occasional hiss that was audible to the caller but not to the person on the other end. The speakerphone was faint.The device can get 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 voice-mail feature, as 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 text messaging, of course).
Tons of Talk Time
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. The phone lasted only 4 hours, 21 minutes, however, when we viewed a 320-by-128-pixel version of Serenity at a 647-kbps bit rate–almost 2.5 hours less than Apple’s stated video playback time. You can’t remove the battery, so you’ll have to ship the unit back to Apple if it needs to be replaced.
Apple says that the battery is designed to keep up to 80 percent of its charge after 400 full charge cycles, and that the company will replace the battery if the capacity falls below 50 percent during the one-year warranty period. To get the battery replaced out of warranty, you will have to send it to Apple and pay $86 (including shipping). You should be prepared to relinquish your phone for three days. A $69 extended warranty covers the battery and the rest of the iPhone’s hardware for a second year.
Better Mobile E-Mail
The iPhone’s touch-screen text input is not ideal for people who need to compose a lot of e-mail, 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).
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). Of course, it syncs to equivalent Mac apps too.
Some editors 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 e-mail accounts in the same window, but moving between accounts is easy. Another nice touch: Deleted messages swoosh into the trash can at the bottom of the mail screen.
The Safari Web browser delivers shrunken versions of desktop-style pages that you scroll and zoom in on to read. 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 AT&T’s EDGE cellular data network wasn’t as snappy as with Wi-Fi, but EDGE can certainly be usable for Web browsing if you are not in any particular hurry.
The iPhone comes preloaded with a YouTube player that currently plays about 10,000 videos that have been reformatted for the iPhone’s screen. The device has a 2-megapixel camera, but it lacks a zoom and other adjustments, and the photos we took didn’t seem very sharp; it won’t capture video, either. It’ll play video, which can look great, but you’ll battle resolution issues. The video of Serenity, which appeared fine on an iPod, showed its warts on the iPhone. A higher-resolution (640-by-272-pixel) copy of Lord of War looked great but took up 1.35GB–or more than one-fourth of our test phone’s 4GB of space.
As a music player, the iPhone sounds like a current-generation iPod Nano. The 4GB model turned in a particularly strong performance on our crosstalk test (of sound leaking between the left and right channels), tying Creative’s Zen V Plus for the best score we’ve seen. 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 $10 adapter to plug music headphones (other than the ones that come in the box) into the iPhone’s recessed port.
So should you buy an iPhone? Sure, if you want to own a beautifully designed phone/Internet device/music player and are willing to put up with some occasionally exasperating problems. Everyone else, especially those who already rely on a PDA phone for messaging, should probably wait.
PC World Staff