The iPhone: Apple's Latest Triumph

Apple's phenomenon does phone calls, multimedia, e-mail, and text messaging and surfs the Web amazingly well. But the AT&T Edge network is slow, text input is difficult -- and it'll

July 2, 2007

17 Min Read
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The iPhone is a triumph of engineering and design. It's a sleek little unit with a black surface and chrome edges, like a pocket-sized version of the monolith from 2001.

It works as a phone and video iPod. It displays maps and driving directions. It does e-mail and text messages. It displays photos clearly and in bright colors.

And, most remarkable of all, it's a usable pocket-sized Web appliance. You can use it to read most Web pages. Web access is painfully slow using the AT&T mobile data network, but the iPhone also supports Wi-Fi, which makes page-rendering fly.

On the downside:

Text input is difficult -- I found the software keyboard to be nowhere near as easy to use as the thumb keyboard on devices like the RIM BlackBerry. I'm not rushing to judgment on this one -- I may get used to the software keyboard over time and find I never want to go back. But for now, I'm skeptical.There are still a few slight bumps and glitches in the user interface, most notably in the synchronization process when you first activate the iPhone.

Still, the iPhone is excellent, and you should rush right out and buy one now -- assuming you have $499 or $599 lying around. That's for the phone itself; add to that a $36 activation fee, plus $1,439 to $5,279.76 for two years of fees to AT&T, payable in monthly installments of $59.99 to $219.99.

Did I mention the iPhone is expensive?

Taking It Home And Unboxing

Apple understands that presentation is important when you're selling consumer electronics, just as it is when preparing a meal. Apple believes you should enjoy buying its products and enjoy taking them out of their boxes. I certainly did. (For more photos of the unboxing process, check out our iPhone Unboxing Photo Gallery.)

Unboxing the iPhoneView the image gallery:A Visual Tour Of The iPhoneView the image gallery:Unboxing The iPhone

The iPhone and its peripherals come in a small, sturdy cardboard black box with subdued logos -- it feels almost like wood when you open it. The iPhone itself is on top, resting flat. Underneath the iPhone is a black envelope containing a couple of pamphlets -- the entirety of the paper documentation. It's all the documentation you need.Peripherals include a docking station, a cable to connect the docking station to the computer, power supply, headphones, and a black, velvety cloth to clean the iPhone surface. I'm sure I'll lose the cloth in about a day.

The headphones look like the standard iPod headphones; if you examine them closely you'll see a tiny, hard plastic bump a few inches below one earpiece. That's the microphone for making phone calls.

When you buy other electronics, you have to delay your gratification for hours after opening the box, so you can charge the battery for the first time. Not the iPhone -- it arrives charged and ready to go as soon as you get it out of the box.

Well, not quite. First you have to activate it and sync it with your desktop data.Activation And Syncing

The iPhone requires iTunes 7.3 to sync information with your desktop. It synchronizes quite a range of stuff: address book contacts, calendars, music, photos, podcasts, and videos. You can select which of your information you want to synchronize -- for example, selected photos or playlists or calendars.

It syncs on the Mac with the Address Book, iCal, Entourage, Apple Mail, iTunes, iPhoto, Adobe Photoshop, and Adobe Photoshop Elements. It syncs on Windows with Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express, iTunes, Safari, and any folders containing image files.

The iPhone startup screenView the image gallery:A Visual Tour Of The iPhoneView the image gallery:Unboxing The iPhone

I synchronized the iPhone with the Address Book and iCal on an Intel-based iMac. I encountered a few fiddly little problems involving confusing error messages, but nothing serious -- I just guessed what to do next, and I always guessed right. I expect most users will have the same experience. I also had difficulty getting the iMac to see the phone -- I had to plug it in and unplug it a couple of times before it started to sync.

Once the sync begins, the iPhone walks you through a wizard to sign up to AT&T. If you have an existing iTunes account, you can use that for payment, and if you have an existing cell phone number, you can move it over to your iPhone.

You can have any cell phone carrier you want -- so long as it's AT&T. You need to get a two-year plan.

I signed up for the lowest-price plan: $59.99 per month for 450 minutes of talk time, 200 visual voice mail messages, and 5,000 text messages (all plans support unlimited data consumption). That's plenty for me. The highest-priced standard plan is $99.99 per month for up to 1,350 minutes and unlimited SMS messages. If you go to the rate plans page on Apple.com, you'll find several plans for cell phone addicts. The highest price is $219.99 for up to 6,000 minutes, which is more than three hours a day -- more than enough for the most avid phone addicts.

I had no trouble activating the phone, although, according to reports on the Internet, others were not so lucky. The iPhone synced my data in about an hour.When you power on the iPhone you see an image of the Earth. That's the default wallpaper; you can switch it to whatever photo you like. At the bottom of the screen is the image of a slider and the text "slide to unlock." You touch the image of the slider with your fingertip and slide to the right to unlock your iPhone.

Let's go right to the Web, because I find that to be the best part of the iPhone.

The iPhone displays Web pages

View the image gallery:A Visual Tour Of The iPhoneView the image gallery:Unboxing The iPhone

The Web In Your Pocket
The iPhone does something I would not have thought possible: It makes a good chunk of the standard Web usable from a pocket-sized device.

I've used the Palm Treo 650's Web browser extensively and found that about 5% of Web pages are usable from that device. Other Web pages are too big and confusing for the Treo's tiny screen. Users of other smartphones say the same. But the Web on the iPhone just works. I've accessed a couple of dozen Web pages over the course of two days, and most of them were quite usable on the iPhone. (The iPhone syncs its bookmarks with Safari on the Mac or PC.)

The iPhone works its magic by presenting you (by default) with the entire Web page, rendered just as it would be rendered on your desktop PC, but obviously miniaturized for the iPhone display. You can see the layout of the whole page at a glance that way, but (again, obviously) the text is hard to read.

There are ways around that, however. Tap twice on a block of text on the page, and the iPhone's browser automatically zooms in until the text fills the width of the screen. Tap twice again and it zooms back out. The automatic zooming trick works on any section of a Web page, including images.

Tap twice to zoom in on a column of text -- it becomes very readable

View the image gallery:A Visual Tour Of The iPhoneView the image gallery:Unboxing The iPhone

You can also zoom in on a section of the page by making a reverse-pinching motion with two fingers: Touch two fingers to the screen, with one finger roughly on each edge of the area you want to zoom in on. Slide the fingers apart while holding them to the screen. Voila! You're zooming in. Pinch your fingers together to zoom out. (You do all the tapping and dragging using your fingertips, rather than using a stylus.)

To scroll Web pages, you slide your finger in the direction you want to scroll: Up or down, left or right, any diagonal direction. Whimsically, if you flick your finger across the keyboard fast, the document will continue to scroll a little while after you lift up your finger. This behavior works in the address book, iTunes list, and other applications.

A nice touch: The iPhone has built-in sensors that detect whether you're holding the device vertically or horizontally, and it changes the orientation of the page you're looking at accordingly. The switch from horizontal to vertical display is entirely automatic. You don't have to do anything but tilt your iPhone.

The iPhone displays Web pages either vertically or (shown here) horizontally

View the image gallery:A Visual Tour Of The iPhoneView the image gallery:Unboxing The iPhone

Slow But Sure
I think of the iPhone's Web access as being primarily for Wi-Fi, with Edge support thrown in extra. The iPhone detects Wi-Fi networks in the vicinity and prompts you whether you want to log on to them. It remembers your preference and won't ask you about the same network twice. Internet access on the iPhone using a Wi-Fi network is pretty much the same speed as it is using a laptop or desktop computer and Wi-Fi.

You may have heard that the AT&T Edge network is slow. It is. It's so bad that the only time you ever want to use it is when the only alternative is staring blankly off into space.However, you'd be surprised how often staring blankly off into space is all there is to do: Waiting for the doctor, standing in line at the motor vehicle bureau, waiting to pick up take-out meals. I've used a Palm Treo 650 with the AT&T Edge network for more than a year and frequently use Google Reader on that device in circumstances where I've got time to kill. It works fine.

The software keyboard suggests words as you type them

View the image gallery:A Visual Tour Of The iPhoneView the image gallery:Unboxing The iPhone

Trouble In Paradise: The Software-Only Keyboard
The BlackBerry made thumb keyboards standard for smartphones. The iPhone goes off in another direction, with a software-only QWERTY keyboard. That decision is taking a lot of criticism.

The keyboard pops up automatically anytime you're in an area requiring text input. You type with your fingers. I found that holding the iPhone with my left hand and typing with the index finger of my right hand worked best (I'm a righty), although you can also thumb-type -- indeed, the iPhone is very comfortable when you hold it with your hands in thumb-typing position.

The keyboard has type-ahead capability -- it'll suggest words as you type; you can accept the suggestion by tapping the space button. It also has an auto-correct function. I found the suggestions work moderately well, as does the auto-correct.

The software-only keyboard will frustrate thumb-keyboard touch-typists. As you work, you need to keep moving your eyes from the keyboard to the text output. It's hard to imagine anyone will ever be able to type on the iPhone without watching the keyboard. But I won't rule it out entirely. I absolutely hated, hated, hated that software keyboard when I started using it, but it's growing on me. You might even say I'm starting to like it. A little. Maybe. Ask me again in a month what I think of it then.

Apple claims the iPhone keyboard is faster and more accurate than the keyboard in any other handheld, especially when you trust it to correct errors rather than correcting them manually yourself. When I started using the iPhone, I would have laughed at that claim. I won't endorse it now, but I don't think it's impossible.Music, Video, Photos, And More

The iPhone handles video, music, e-mail, maps, and other applications quite well, although no better than other applications on the market.

  • Music: The iPhone is a fully functional iPod that plays music clearly through its headphones.

    The iPod application lets you flip through album covers

    View the image gallery:A Visual Tour Of The iPhoneView the image gallery:Unboxing The iPhone(click image for larger view)

  • Video: The iPhone lets you watch video via the built-in YouTube application or downloaded over iTunes. I watched a couple of YouTube videos, as well as a few minutes of the Textra video podcast and an episode of the sitcom 30 Rock, downloaded from iTunes. They were all quite comfortable to watch. Sound is quite clear through the built-in speaker. However, the headphone jack is inset, which means it will not work with many third-party headphones.

The iPhone does videoView the image gallery:A Visual Tour Of The iPhoneView the image gallery:Unboxing The iPhone(click image for larger view)

  • E-mail and SMS: The client supports Yahoo Mail, Gmail, .Mac, and any POP3 or IMAP mail. It supports HTML mail. You can e-mail photos and display attachments including PDFs, and Microsoft Word and Excel files. SMS messages are displayed as conversations, with the other person's messages in one column and your replies offset to the right.

  • Maps: Based on Google Maps, the iPhone Maps application lets you enter an address to find a location, enter a couple of addresses to find a route between them, browse around to different spots, and switch to a satellite view. As with Google Maps on the Web, you can enter a search term -- "pizza," for example -- find pizza places near your location, select one, and get the phone number, Web site, and address. You can dial the phone number just by tapping, make a reservation, and get directions from the Maps application. The map displays traffic reports.

The Map application lets you display routesView the image gallery:A Visual Tour Of The iPhoneView the image gallery:Unboxing The iPhone

(click image for larger view)

  • Weather and stocks: They're separate, standalone applications. Weather displays multiple cities, which will be handy for business travelers. Stocks shows multiple stock prices and graphs of their histories.

Find out the local weather using the iPhoneView the image gallery:A Visual Tour Of The iPhoneView the image gallery:Unboxing The iPhone

(click image for larger view)

And Oh, Yeah, It's A Phone, Too
The iPhone is great at making phone calls, but no better than many cell phones. The sound is clear and sharp on both ends of the conversation.The iPhone does add a couple of nice flourishes: You can tap on a phone number in a Web page, e-mail, SMS message, or in the Map application, and the number automatically dials. It also includes a feature called Visual Voicemail -- instead of having to dial your voice mail and listen to messages sequentially, the iPhone gives you a display of calls received, as well as who placed the call, and you can tap any message on the list and listen to it in any order you want.

The iPhone has a pleasing array of ring tones, and you can buy more at AT&T to annoy the people you're on public transit with.

Visual Voicemail lets you control your messages

View the image gallery:A Visual Tour Of The iPhoneView the image gallery:Unboxing The iPhone

It's Not A Perfect Picture
The iPhone is missing several applications and features, a few of which seem like no-brainers.

  • It doesn't have a to-do list, a simple list of items that you can check off when they're done.

  • It doesn't have native support for AIM, Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, or other chat services, although there's already a third-party program available that supports AIM.

  • Third-party developers can't add applications that improve the iPhone's capabilities, except as Safari add-ons. There's a flip side to that, of course: They can't add applications that might destabilize the iPhone or create security vulnerabilities.

  • You can't make an iTunes song into a ring tone -- Apple forces you to go out and buy ring tones from AT&T. Want to use one of your iTunes tracks as a ring tone? You have to pay for it twice. That's insulting.

  • You can't sync the iPhone wirelessly or buy music wirelessly.

  • You can't buy an unlocked version of the iPhone or use any cell phone service other than AT&T. The Edge throughput is extremely slow. On the other hand, even at Edge speeds, the Internet is useful in some circumstances. And Wi-Fi is available in many locations.

  • The iPhone needs built-in GPS. The Maps application is great, but it would be so much better if the iPhone knew your precise location without your having to tell it.

Summing Up
The iPhone certainly is expensive. But you're not just getting a phone here -- you're getting a well-designed multifunction device. For me, its main appeal is as a pocket-sized device that I can use to surf the Web, while also using it as a phone. For you, maybe it's the e-mail or video capabilities that you might find most appealing.

The iPhone is a pleasure to use. I've had it in my shirt pocket the whole time I've been writing this review. I take it out every few minutes to fact-check, and each time I've needed to exert a little bit of willpower to put it away and get back to writing. The iPhone wants me to play with it some more.

I think I'll go play with it right now.

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