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Review: Apple iPhone leaves users wanting more

  • Story Highlights
  • Stunning display, sleek design and an innovative multitouch user interface
  • Variable call quality and lacks some basic features found in many cell phones
  • Sets a new benchmark for an integrated cell phone and MP3 player
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By Kent German and Donald Bell
CNET.com
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(CNET.com) -- From the moment Apple announced its iPhone at Macworld 2007, the tech world hasn't stopped asking questions. Because Apple has kept many iPhone details under wraps until very recently, we've been forced to speculate. Until now. Is the iPhone pretty? Absolutely. Is it easy to use? Certainly. Does it live up to the stratospheric hype? Not so much.

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Don't get us wrong, the iPhone is a lovely device with a sleek interface, top-notch music and video features, and innovative design touches. The touch screen is easier to use than we expected, and the multimedia performs well. But a host of missing features, a dependency on a sluggish EDGE network, and variable call quality -- it is a phone after all -- left us wanting more.

For those reasons, the iPhone is noteworthy not for what it does, but how it does it. If you want an iPhone badly, you probably already have one. But because you'll have to sign an iPhone-specific two-year contract with AT&T to get an iPhone and shell out $499 (4GB) or $599 (8GB), we suggest you wait until the phone comes down in price and the network improves. Hopefully, both will happen soon.

On with the review: the iPhone boasts a brilliant display, trim profile, and clean lines (no external antenna of course), and its lack of buttons puts it in a design class that even the LG Prada and the HTC Touch can't match. You'll win envious looks on the street toting the iPhone, and we're sure that would be true even if the phone hadn't received as much media attention as it has.

We knew that it measures 4.5 inches tall by 2.4 inches wide by 0.46 inch deep, but it still felt smaller than we expected when we finally held it. In comparison, it's about as tall and as wide as a Palm Treo 755p, but it manages to be thinner than even the trend-setting Motorola Razr. It fits comfortably in the hand and when held to the ear, and its 4.8 ounces give it a solid, if perhaps weighty, feel. We also like that the display is glass rather than plastic.

The iPhone's display is the handset's design showpiece and is noteworthy for not only what it shows, but also how you use it. We'll start off with its design. At a generous 3.5 inches, the display takes full advantage of the phone's size, while its 480x320 pixel resolution (160 dots per inch) translates into brilliant colors, sharp graphics, and fluid movements.

In true Apple style, the iPhone's menu interface is attractive, intuitive, and easy to use. In the main menu, a series of colored icons call out the main functions. Icons for the phone menu, the mail folder, the Safari Web browser, and the iPod player sit at the bottom of the screen, while other features such as the camera, the calendar, and the settings are displayed above.

It's easy to find all features, and we like that essential features aren't buried under random menus. Fluid animation takes you between different functions, and you can zip around rather quickly.

Much has been made of the iPhone's touch screen, and rightfully so. Though the Apple handset is not the first cell phone to rely solely on a touch screen, it is the first phone to get so much attention and come with so many expectations. Depending on what you're doing, the touch screen serves as your dialpad, your keyboard, your Safari browser, and your music and video player. Like many others, we were skeptical of how effectively the touch screen would handle all those functions.

Fortunately, we can report that on the whole, the touch screen and software interface are easier to use than expected. What's more, we didn't miss a stylus in the least. Despite a lack of tactile feedback on the keypad, we had no trouble tapping our fingers to activate functions and interact with the main menu.

As with any touch screen, the display attracts its share of smudges, but they never distracted us from what we were viewing. The onscreen dialpad took little acclimation, and even the onscreen keyboard fared rather well. Tapping out messages was relatively quick, and we could tap the correct letter, even with big fingers. The integrated correction software helped minimize errors by suggesting words ahead of time. It was accurate for the most part.

Still, the interface and keyboard have a long way to go to achieve greatness. For starters, when typing an e-mail or text message the keyboard is displayed only when you hold the iPhone vertically. As a result, we could only type comfortably with one finger, which cut down on our typing speed. Using two hands is possible, but we found it pretty crowded to type with both thumbs while holding the iPhone at the same time. What's more, basic punctuation such as periods or commas lives in a secondary keyboard -- annoying. If you're a frequent texter or an e-mail maven, we suggest a test-drive first.

We also found it somewhat tedious to scroll through long lists, such as the phone book or music playlists. Flicking your finger in an up or down motion will move you partway through a list, but you can't move directly to the bottom or top by swiping and holding your finger. On the other hand, the letters of the alphabet are displayed on the right side of the screen. By pressing a letter you can go directly to any songs or contacts beginning with that letter. But the lack of buttons requires a lot of tapping to move about the interface.

For example, the Talk and End buttons are only displayed when the phone is in call mode. And since there are no dedicated Talk and End buttons, you must use a few taps to find these features. That also means you cannot just start dialing a number; you must open the dialpad first, which adds clicks to the process. The same goes for the music player: since there are no external buttons, you must call up the player interface to control your tunes. For some people, the switching back and forth may be a nonissue. But for mutlitaskers, it can grow wearisome.

Criticisms aside, the iPhone display is remarkable for its multitouch technology, which allows you to move your finger in a variety of ways to manipulate what's on the screen. When in a message, you can magnify the text by pressing and holding over a selected area. And as long as you don't lift your finger, you can move your "magnifying glass" around the text. You can zoom in by pinching your fingers apart; to zoom out you just do the opposite.

In the Web browser, you can move around the Web page by sliding your finger, or you can zoom in by a double tap. And when looking at your message list, you can delete items by swiping your finger from left to right across the message. At that point, a Delete button will appear.

Thanks to the handset's accelerometer (a fancy word for motion sensor), the iPhone's display orientation will adjust automatically when you flip the iPhone on its side while using the music and video players and the Internet browser. Also, a proximity sensor turns off the display automatically when you lift the iPhone to your ear for a conversation. All three are very cool.

The iPhone's only hardware menu button is set directly below the display. It takes you instantly back to the home screen no matter what application you're using. The single button is nice to have, since it saves you a series of menu taps if you're buried in a secondary menu. On the top of the iPhone is a multifunction button for controlling calls and the phone's power.

If a call comes in at an inopportune time, just press the button once to silence the ringer, or press it twice to send the call to voice mail. Otherwise, you can use this top control to put the phone asleep and wake it up again. You can turn the iPhone off by pressing and holding the button.

Located on the left spine are a volume rocker and a nifty ringer mute switch, something all cell phones should have and which is a popular feature of Palm Treos. On the bottom end, you'll find a pair of speakers and the jack for the syncing dock and the charger cord. Unfortunately, the headset jack on the top end is deeply recessed, which means you will need an adapter for any headphones with a chubby plug. Is this customer-friendly? No.

Unfortunately, the Phone does not have a battery that a user can replace. That means you have to send the iPhone to Apple to replace the battery after it's spent (Apple is estimating one battery will last for 400 charges -- probably about two years' worth of use). No, you don't really need a removable battery in a cell phone, but like many things missing on the iPhone, it would be nice to have, especially for such an expensive phone. Contrary to earlier reports, the SIM card is removable via a small drawer on the top of the iPhone, but the iPhone's SIM card will not work in other AT&T phones.

That's especially troubling, as it completely defeats the biggest advantage of using a GSM phone with a SIM card. Some people have multiple phones and like to change the SIM card between their different handsets. Also, you can't use the SIM card to import contact information from another handset.

The iPhone's phone book is limited only by the phone's available memory. Each contact holds eight phone numbers; e-mail, Web site, and street addresses; a job title and department; a nickname; a birthday; and notes. You can't save callers to groups, but you can store your preferred friends to a favorites menu for easy access. You can assign contacts a photo for caller ID and assign them one of 25 polyphonic ringtones. We should note, however, that there's no voice dialing and you can't use MP3 files as ringtones. Other basic features include an alarm clock, a calculator, a world clock, a stopwatch, a timer and a notepad. There's a vibrate mode but it's a tad light.

The calendar offers day and month views, and you can use the calendar as an event reminder or a to-do list as well. The interface is clean and simple, though inputting new appointments involves a lot of tapping. There's no Week view, however. We were able to sync our Outlook contacts and calendar and our Yahoo! e-mail address book with no problems.

Bluetooth and wireless The iPhone offers a full range of wireless functionality with support for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity. The Wi-Fi compatibility is especially welcome, and a feature that's absent on far too many smart phones. When you're browsing the Web, the iPhone automatically searches for the nearest Internet hot spot. Bluetooth 2.0 is also on board, which delivers faster transmission and a longer range than Bluetooth 1.2. You can use Bluetooth for voice calls, but you don't get an A2dP stereo Bluetooth profile -- another item that's not necessary but would be nice to have.

Though Apple CEO Steve Jobs has explained the iPhone's lack of 3G support by saying the chipsets take up too much room and drain too much battery, we'd like the option anyway. Yes, the Wi-Fi network is great when you can get it, but AT&T's EDGE network just doesn't cut it for all other surfing. EDGE Web browsing is so slow, it almost ruins the pretty Web interface. More on this in the Performance section.

For your messaging needs, the iPhone offers text messaging and e-mail. As on many smart phones, a text message thread is displayed as one long conversation--a useful arrangement that allows you to pick which messages you'd like to answer. If you use another function while messaging, you can return to pick up that message where you left off. We just don't understand, however, why Apple doesn't include multimedia messaging. Sure, you can use e-mail to send photos, but without multimedia messaging you can't send photos to other cell phones--pretty much the entire point of a camera phone.

The iPhone's e-mail menu includes integrated support for Yahoo, Gmail, AOL, and Mac accounts. You can set up the phone to receive messages from other IMAP4 and POP3 systems, but you'll need to sweet-talk your IT department into syncing with your corporate exchange server. It's rumored that Apple will update the iPhone to support ActiveSync but Apple hasn't confirmed that as of this writing. You can read -- but not edit -- PDF, JPEG, Word, and Excel documents. Worse: you can't cut and paste text when composing messages.

Sandwiched between all the iPhone's features lives Apple's most amazing iPod yet. The display, interface, video quality, audio quality -- all of it is meticulously refined and beautiful. Unfortunately, it's trapped within a device that will cost you more than $1,000 a year just to own.

CNET recently reviewed a Rolls-Royce that had a top-notch umbrella hidden inside its passenger door. Buying the iPhone for its iPod feature is a lot like buying that Rolls-Royce for its umbrella. Regardless, the iPhone is an exciting glimpse into what Apple hopefully has planned for its sixth-generation iPod. Apple has redeemed itself following the Motorola Rokr E1 debacle.

On paper, the iPhone's iPod doesn't offer any features not already on a fifth-generation iPod: podcasts, videos, music, and playlists are all here, and content management with iTunes is identical. The difference rests entirely in the iPhone's interface. We've used other MP3 players that use touch interfaces, such as the Archos 704, iRiver Clix and Cowon D2, but the iPhone's unique integration of multitouch technology and a graphic user interface put it in a category all its own.

From an iPod perspective, Apple's biggest triumph with the iPhone is the fact that it has returned album artwork back into the music experience in a way that goes beyond a token thumbnail graphic. Physically flipping through your music collection in the iPhone's Cover Flow mode really brings back the visceral feel of digging through a CD or record bin. It's a tough feeling to quantify, but the real music lovers out there will appreciate how well the iPhone reconnects their digital music to a form that is both visually and physically more vivid. Even iTunes users who may already be jaded about using the Cover Flow mode on their personal computer will be surprised at how the experience is changed by using the iPhone's intuitive touch screen.

Truth be told, there is one feature that is new to the iPhone's iPod -- the integrated speaker. While the iPhone's speaker sounds thin and is prone to distortion, it works in a pinch for sharing a song with a friend. Apple was also smart enough to manage its speaker volume independent of the headphone volume, so if you're listening to the speaker full-blast and then decide to plug in your headphones, you won't be deafened.

The bad news is that the iPhone's iPod leaves out the ability to manually manage the transfer of music and video content. Unlike any previous iPod, the iPhone does not allow an option for manually dragging and dropping content from an iTunes library directly to the iPhone device icon. Instead, the iPhone strictly uses defined library syncing options for collecting and syncing content from your iTunes library to the device.

This should work out fine for most people, but for a device with limited memory the inability to manually manage content seems like a misstep. Our 8GB iPhone was already a quarter full after only a few hours of testing, giving us the impression that users will need to be vigilant at grooming their iPhone library. An external memory card slot is another one of those "nice to have" features.

The iPhone's music sound quality seems right in line with our experience using the 5G iPod. All the same EQ presets are available, only now they are found on the iPhone's main Settings tab. The included iPhone earbuds did a passable job for casual listening in a quiet environment. Unfortunately, the iPhone's recessed headphone jack prevented us from using many of the test headphones we're familiar with. We were just barely able to squeeze the plug of our Etymotic ER6i earphones into the jack to do the comparison.

Watching video on the iPhone is not quite as luxurious as a Creative Zen Vision: W or Archos 504, but its wide screen and bright contrast beat the fifth-generation iPod by a mile. As with previous iPods, video playback is automatically bookmarked so that playback resumes where you left off. And because the iPhone is a phone, it includes an airplane mode that will keep the music player activated while turning off the call transmitter.

The Safari browser really sets the iPhone apart from the cell phone crowd. Rather than trudging through stripped-down WAP pages with limited text and graphics, the browser displays Web pages in their true form. It's a completely and surprisingly satisfying experience to see real Web pages on a screen of this size. Our only regret is that the browser does not support Flash or Java. To pan around a page, just swipe your finger across the display, and the page moves accordingly. Tap your finger on a link to open a new page and double-tap your finger to zoom in and zoom back out. You can use the arrows on the bottom of the display to move back and forth, while a multifunction button at the bottom of the display lets you open new pages and flick among them.

Google search is the iPhone's default search tool, but you can use Yahoo search as well. When searching for information or typing URLs, you use the onscreen keyboard. It's just like typing an e-mail except that the spacebar is replaced with Web-appropriate language like ".com" and a slash. That's a nice touch.

Thanks to the accelerometer, you can tip the phone on its side for a more comfortable landscape view. It doesn't matter which direction you rotate the phone, as it will work either way. It's also nice that the onscreen keyboard appears in landscape mode when using the browser. Most Web pages looked great on the screen, but visually busy pages like CNN.com can be too crowded. And because you can zoom in only a set amount, some text can still be too small to read clearly. You can store bookmarks and sync your favorite pages from your PC, but it works only for Internet Explorer and not Firefox.

You can activate the iPhone's integrated YouTube player straight from the main menu via a colored icon. Videos are organized using many of the same criteria as on the YouTube site, including Featured Clips, Most Viewed, Top Rated, and Most Recent. You can read the information attached to a video, such as the date posted and the poster's name, but you can't read comments. It doesn't appear, however, that the YouTube connection updates in real time. We uploaded a video of our own, and it didn't show up until a few hours later.

The iPhone doesn't have integrated GPS, but it does have a widget for accessing Google Maps. You can get turn-by-turn directions between two points, with traffic information. We tried mapping routes from CNET's offices to various places. The directions were accurate. But with no GPS, the iPhone can't tell you where you are, so you'll have to figure out that yourself. Also, the lack of audio instructions will limit its usability while driving. The map interacts well with the calling functions; you can find a point of interest and ring it in just a few taps. We also like that you can get the Google satellite view.

Additional widgets point to stock information and weather reports. You can program your own tickers and get information like a share gain or loss and see the chart of a share price over time. The weather function gives you a six-day forecast for your choice of cities. For more options, there is already a selection of third-party iPhone apps. No games are included on the handset.

One of the most intriguing features on the iPhone is the much-touted visual voice mail. iPhone's voice mail works much like a text-message folder in that it displays the caller's name or phone number and the time. What's even more fantastic, however, is that you can listen to the message instantly by pressing the individual message -- you don't have to call your voice mail first.

The iPhone's 2-megapixel camera offers a spiffy interface with a graphic that resembles a camera shutter. You're offered no camera editing options, which we didn't expect. That means you can't change the resolution, choose a color or quality setting, or select a night mode. There's no flash either, and with no self-portrait mirror, those vanity shots are going to be tricky. The camera performed well in our tests, however. Photo quality was excellent with rich, bright colors and distinct object outlines. White looked a bit too soft, but we approve overall. On the downside, you can't shoot your own video, which is disappointing on a phone at this price.

As we said earlier, the photo menu is attractive and easy to use, particularly due to the pinching motion. You can also flip between photos by swiping your finger across the display. When selecting a photo, you're given the option of assigning it to a contact, using it as wallpaper, or e-mailing it to a friend.

We tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) Apple iPhone in San Francisco using AT&T service. Call quality was good for the most part, but it wasn't dependable. Though voices sounded natural, the volume was often too low, and the microphone has a sensitive sweet spot. When we moved the phone away from our ears ever so slightly, the volume diminished noticeably and we had to move the phone back to just the right place to hear clearly. The volume wasn't so bad that we weren't able to hear a friend who was in a crowded bar, but it just could be better. The speakerphone was also too quiet though conversations weren't too muffled.

CNET users have also reported volume problems, and a few people we called said they heard a slight background hiss. We didn't hear the hiss on our end, but more than one of our friends said they noticed it. Automated calling systems were able to understand us, but only if we were in a quiet room. On the whole, the call quality stayed the same in most environments.

Our first test with the Safari browser was over CNET's internal Wi-Fi network. Web pages loaded in 5 to 10 seconds, though sites with heavy graphics took longer. It was a smooth experience overall, though it not quite as zippy as we had hoped. We thought that could be due to CNET's network, but it seemed to be more or less the standard.

Pages took about the same time to load on a home network and just a couple seconds longer in a cafe. When not using Wi-Fi, you're stuck with AT&T's EDGE network, which is just too slow to render the lovely Safari interface enjoyably. With speeds in the 50-to-90Kbps range, it reminded us of a dial-up browser. In other words, it's pretty intolerable. We can only hope Apple adds 3G soon, especially since AT&T has a robust UMTS/HSDPA network.

Activation was easy using iTunes 7.3. Our computer recognized the iPhone right away, and the activation system started automatically. After a few prompts, it asked us if we wanted to automatically sync contacts from Yahoo and Windows mail and contacts from Outlook. It also asked us to if we wanted to sync Internet bookmarks but, as we said earlier, it won't import Firefox bookmarks. The integration with AT&T's account service is also seamless. We were able to select a plan and indicate whether we were a current AT&T customer. It even asked us if we wanted to port a current cell phone number. In all, it's much better experience than dealing with AT&T.

It's important to note that the iPhone is little more than an expensive paperweight until it's activated. You can make emergency calls, but you can't use any other functions, including the iPod music player. What's worse, if you cancel your AT&T contract, the iPhone becomes a paperweight again.

The Apple iPhone has a rated battery life of 8 hours talk time, 24 hours of music playback, 7 hours of video playback, and 6 hours on Internet use. The promised standby time is 10.4 days. When we tested the iPhone with the Wi-Fi function turned off, we got about 7 hours, 20 minutes of talk time. When we tested it with the Wi-Fi activated, we came away with 4 hours less. We'll report additional test results as we get them. Just keep in mind that it's rare you'll be using just one feature for hours on end. As such, your battery life will vary widely as you switch between functions.

Large color screens like the one on the iPhone tend to be battery drainers so you'll most likely need to charge your handset every couple days. According to the FCC, the iPhone has a digital SAR rating of 0.974 watts per kilogram. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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