Apple iPhone Review - July 1st, 2007
I just returned from the Apple Store tonight after returning my iPhone (Yes, returning the iPhone, you read that correctly). On Friday, June 29th, the launch day of the iPhone, I walked in an Apple Store at 8PM (not expecting to buy it, just try it), tried the floor model, and said “Yeah, get me an 8 Gig one.” I never really thought I’d cave in to the hype. Honestly, a lot of the hype is warranted, but I’ll tell you in my review why I returned my iPhone. I’m going to cover each of the main buttons on the iPhone screen (in order) and positives and negatives (if any) and give a final summary of what I liked and what I didn’t. Additionally, I will give an overview of the features in general and the physical device, the screen etc.
In the interest of full disclosure, I recently bought a BlackBerry Curve 8300 and am on T-Mobile - so I had to break a contract to get this phone. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it?) I will compare a lot of features the iPhone has to the BlackBerry Curve (and other BlackBerry phones) and also the T-Mobile Sidekick 2 and 3, two devices I like a lot. This review is the result of 2 solid days of use.
- Button Overview-
I feel that the basic phone features of the iPhone are probably the features it is best at. The dialing is simple, the speakerphone is pretty good (needs to be louder!), the conference calling is great - although I’ll never use that feature. The random access voicemail is revolutionary. Not having to dial a voicemail system to listen to messages and also the ability to fast-forward and rewind voicemail as you listen to it is awesome. Everything is done from the phone itself, not a phone number you dial into. This feature by itself is truly a milestone for cell phones.
When you are on the phone for a call, the phone senses it is near your face and turns the screen off. When you pull it away and need to hit “Mute” or another button, the screen is back on in an instant.
The call quality seemed on par with other cell phones I’ve used. No surprises here. Integration with my Outlook 2007 address book/contacts was seamless and I had all my friends there in an instant to call. You can assign photos to contact cards, as you’d expect in most phones these days.
I can’t say there’s anything about the Phone area of the iPhone I don’t like.
Apple’s Mail application on the phone as it stands currently is actually pretty decent. I tested it with both POP and GMail… but since my real world email is on POP servers, I settled on that. One of the features of iPhone Mail is It has “real” html rendering of messages (the BlackBerry and Sidekick only do plain text), and supports a few document formats for viewing, there are a few flaws, though. First of all, there’s no screening of messages with large content. I had an email on my POP server that had a 10MB attachment and iPhone downloaded the entire thing without asking, with the equivalent of a beach ball while I waited. I just wanted to see what the body of the message said, not download everything attached to it. The BlackBerry devices and Sidekick filter very large emails before they make it to your device… and give you a choice of what you want to do with attachments. iPhone Mail does not allow saving of attachments of any sort that reach your inbox.
Scrolling through mail is simple, and actually works amazingly well. However, panning around in big HTML messages with images and zooming in and out is tedious. One of the nice things about having just plain text mail is there’s nothing to navigate around.
Additionally, I found sending an email to Flickr with a photo from the camera attached downsized the 2 megapixel (1600x1200) photo to 640x480, and stripped it of all of it’s EXIF data information (stuff like the camera maker, which is really a neat thing to have). It makes it impossible to send photos on the go to Flickr at any decent resolution. I believe you can do it from the computer with iPhoto on Mac, but I found this to be absolutely absurd. Why have a 2 megapixel camera if you can’t email photos at that size on the go?
Additionally, copying and pasting doesn’t exist on the iPhone. Quoting people’s messages either means you have to quote the entire thing or nothing at all.
Typing out emails was really difficult… I ended up using one pointer finger to do typing, which is not the most comfortable way to write email. I’m used to two-thumbing it with the Sidekick 2 and 3, and the BlackBerry. The keyboard is actually not as bad as some people say it is, it’s just not that good for thumb typing. More on that in a bit.
Hopefully the Mail program will have some improvements in later releases.
The ability to zoom in and out of websites so they scale to the phone is kind of hit or miss for me. I found myself constantly zooming in and out and pinching and dragging instead of just reading the website. It became extremely frustrating and I felt like I was using a 320x240 screen on a laptop and trying to view pages optimized for 1024x768 screens. Text-heavy sites like the New York Times rendered very clearly and easy to read at most text sizes - a big plus.
I did most of my web browsing over the WiFi at my house. It was pretty darn speedy, especially for a mobile phone. I’ve used one other phone that had WiFi in it (The T-Mobile MDA, which I hated), but Apple’s WiFi integration on this device is extremely well done. The positives end there for browsing, though. Navigating to non-mobile versions of websites on AT&T’s EDGE platform is painful. I’ve used EDGE a lot on T-Mobile, as the BlackBerry uses it, but there’s one difference. The BlackBerry browser isn’t trying to render every detail of the page as it is on the web, and there are mobile versions of pages that it handles a lot better. I tried to load Apple’s iPhone page (one of the default bookmarks on the browser) over EDGE with a strong signal and it took over a minute to load. Not impressed.
This is the best iPod Apple has designed. Hands down. I love the screen for watching videos as I do this a lot with my 5th-generation iPod while I commute on the bus to and from work. This will be a great addition to an iPod with more storage later this year, hopefully. I’m not a fan of the Cover Flow feature (sorting through your albums by their front covers), but that’s not a nitpick, it just isn’t how I like finding music to play.
The only thing negative about the iPod software in this is the tiny size of the storage on the device. There’s a reason I have a 30GB iPod, I have 80-90GB of music and tons of video files. Here’s to hoping there’s a 100GB 6th generation Video iPod this fall.
I wont go to much further into this feature as I don’t have much to say about it other than I liked it, for the most part… the problem is I did not pay $600 to get an 8GB iPod, it was for an internet-enabled phone.
The SMS Text application is the first icon you see on the iPhone’s application list. This application acts very similarly to Apple’s chat program on the Mac, iChat. Since there is no chat client support currently on the iPhone (more on that later), this is all there is for chatting. I found the “Conversation” view of SMS messages was easy to read — the BlackBerry devices do something similar with SMS messages as well. iPhone does not support MMS (multimedia) messaging, but as someone who usually emails pictures instead of sending them to phones, I really don’t care about this omission. With the paltry 200 text messages included with the iPhone data plan, you better upgrade your SMS to the next level if you plan on doing any significant amount of texting.
Calendar is pretty basic. Not much to talk about here. It syncs well with what’s in iCal or Microsoft Outlook, but I didn’t explore this feature much while I had the phone as it’s not something I use a lot on smart phones. I do know there is not a To-Do list to go with the iPhone’s calendar, which I may care about at my job, but as a personal phone it doesn’t bother me that it’s not here.
This application is a lot like Apple’s iPhoto program on the Mac in execution, and it would be quite useful for someone who enjoys showing their photos off to their friends with their cell phone. I am not one of those people. Photos are something I could care less about storing (and displaying) on a phone, as I never used the Photos function on my iPod Photo or iPod with Video. I just don’t find viewing photography on a cell phone screen that appealing.
Additionally, this application shows you the photos you’ve taken with your iPhone camera, but other than that I don’t really find it useful for my purposes. I’m a heavy flickr user, and love viewing photos in at least a decent resolution for detail. Call me elitist, but I really enjoy photography and detail from the higher-end cameras out there and want the photos to be shown in as much detail as possible.
This is an area of the phone I feel needs improvement. The iPhone’s camera is a 2-Megapixel (1600x1200) camera with no flash. I almost never use the flash on my cell phone (or regular camera) but the omission seems odd. The interface consists of one button on the touchscreen. There are no controls for cropping, sensitivity, digital zoom, brightness, picture size, or anything else for that matter. In my tests the photos looked very similar to the ones taken by my BlackBerry Curve’s 2 megapixel camera, but seemed a bit noisier (this is totally subjective on my part). As I said earlier, you can’t email photos from the iPhone at their native resolution, only a smaller thumbnail version (640x480). If you stick to taking photos outdoors in sunlight, this camera does quite well. There is no support for video capture via the camera.
YouTube was a late arrival on the iPhone and was announced around the same time that they added the feature to the AppleTV. This one is another one that’s really great on WiFi, but I wouldn’t even bother trying to use it over EDGE. It’s really fun to watch videos from this on the huge screen on the iPhone, though. A great addition but the time it took to implement it could have been better spent elsewhere.
Nothing to talk about here. It adds, it subtracts, it dices, it slices… where’s the “Tip” button?
A bit of a disclaimer, I have no interest at all in stocks. This is essentially the same Yahoo Widget that exists on Mac OS X for viewing stocks. I wished I could delete it from my screen, but I can’t.
Google Maps is a welcome addition to this phone and was one of the big features that Apple showed off when I saw it at MacWorld in January. I love this implementation of the program and have to say that it’s really well done. As with the other data-heavy features on the phone, it runs a LOT better over WiFi, but I really like it. It is extremely similar to Google Maps for BlackBerry.
Weather is another almost direct port of a widget for Mac OS X. I can’t complain, it works and does what it’s supposed to, and it’s pretty. Good addition.
Notes is an extremely stripped-down note-taking application. It uses a child’s handwriting font similar to MS Comic Sans (anyone ever heard of www.bancomicsans.com?) which is harder to read than the font used on other screens in the phone. Not much else to say here.
A world clock. Another widget from OS X.
This is where the small amount of configurable items for the iPhone are housed. Here you can set up your email accounts and email preferences, configure wallpapers, change ringtones (there are 25 ringtones, 3-4 of which I felt were good enough to use and the rest were annoying). You can’t use MP3s as ringers - which is surprising for an iPod phone. Within this section you can also turn on Bluetooth, turn on “Airplane Mode” to squelch your wireless signals, and other settings.
This about covers the actual soft buttons on the phone. On to the hardware and general opinions.
The keyboard. Oh the Keyboard. This has been written about in a lot of technology publications already so I won’t get too wrapped up in this one. I found the keyboard to be decent. It’s not as good as a BlackBerry’s keyboard (either the two-letter-per-key version on the Pearl/others or the QWERTY type), and the auto-correction is not entirely that bad (again, not as good as BlackBerry’s SureType), but these things seem minor to me. It does bother me that the keyboard only allows you to do landscape mode in the Web Browser, as it is much easier to thumb-type with more space between the keys. I hope they iron all these bugs out in a later update.
Overall I still prefer a hard keyboard — the Sidekick 3 keyboard is the best phone keyboard I’ve ever used, I rarely made errors on that and I didn’t need fancy text-correction. Text input is a big part of any communication device so this is a big deal for me.
The screen… is beautiful… and amazing. Video looks amazing. It’s readable even in sunlight. The touch sensitivity is (for the most part) dead on. Scrolling through lists and websites with your finger is very slick. Some tasks the iPhone does though aren’t well-suited well to a touch-screen. I found deleting emails to be extremely tedious, for instance… swipe, click Delete, swipe, click Delete… blargh! Panning and zooming in Google Maps could use the standard bars like Google Maps on the PC has, you could slide those. Panning and zooming in/out on the web browser also gets quite tedious after a while. Overall this is a revolutionary way to use a phone, and I’m sure it’ll be improved as the phone ages. For the most part it’s quite awesome.
iPhone is approximately 5oz (yes, I weighed it for this review on my postal scale… how real is that?). It feels heavy in your hand, and is extremely thin and slick. So slick that it’s easy to drop it if you aren’t careful. I didn’t drop mine, but I felt like I was handling a precious gem the entire time I had the thing. The Sidekick and BlackBerry Curve have rubberized sides for a reason, people need to grip them! I can see the lawsuits coming already.
—- Conclusions: —-
This is an amazing looking phone. Amazing, huge touchscreen with little refinements that are so cool, great sound, it has a speakerphone for video/music, it is an extremely solid phone in the classic phone sense - the phone features work seamlessly and impressively! The iPod functions are awesome. The applications it does have are for the most part pretty well done (some updates may help a few). Very easy to activate through iTunes. No high-pressure sales staff at the store.
- Criticisms and Final Opinions
My feeling as of this writing is that this device has a lot of potential. I feel like Apple oversimplified this phone in a lot of areas, and things lack configurability. You do it Apple’s way or you don’t do it at all - that’s the Apple way I guess. On OS X you have a choice, you can use Apple’s application, or you can use a better one written by someone else. Adium and Firefox on Mac OS X are both great examples of 3rd parties writing better software than Apple on it’s own platform.
I also have real questions about the legitimacy of developing every program for this as a so-called “web app”. The entire concept of this seems extremely hacky and unrefined. I sincerely hope Apple is interested in homebrew development for the iPhone and development of real, full-featured applications. This is the reason Mac OS X is great, anyone can write a real and full featured program for it. Apple should pay attention to so called “real geeks” and not just the people looking for another flashy phone to replace their dated Motorola RAZR. I want customizability and options in my phones. One nice thing about the Sidekick phones is that even though they’re locked down, for some reason everything I wanted on it was already there. Ditto for the BlackBerry and it’s open-ended design. if I didn’t have an application I wanted, someone developed it already. I kind of feel like if I hadn’t used a BlackBerry or Sidekick before maybe I wouldn’t be this disappointed.
I think for the moment, If I was someone looking at buying the iPhone, I’d say to wait a bit. Maybe even in the first few weeks (or months) of the iPhone’s release Apple will take the suggestions of the masses (and all the reviews I’ve read) and listen to them, instead of ignoring them. Then again, maybe they won’t. Or maybe my standards are just too high.
- Apple iPhone currently retails at $499 for 4GB and $599 for 8GB. A 2-year contract with AT&T is required.-
Related Link: photos on my flickr account page of the short romance I had with the iPhone, and photos of when I saw it at MacWorld in January 2007 when it was announced.