Apple iPhone: our in-depth, hands-off impressions

It won't arrive for another six months, yet the iPhone is the talk of the wireless town. Check out our initial -- albeit hands-off -- impressions of this EDGE-enabled, 8GB touch-screen beauty.

It's only been a week since Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone to an adoring keynote crowd in San Francisco, but the backlash has begun in earnest. While most of us swooned when we saw demos of Steve tapping and flicking his way through album covers, videos of "The Office" and typical three-way conference calls, it didn't take long for the nagging questions to begin. Why no corporate e-mail? You can't open Office files? Only 8GB of memory? What -- no over-the-air music downloads?

Although we haven't seen a review unit yet (indeed, even The New York Times only got an hour to play with the handset), we decided to give the iPhone a closer look, based on the printed specs, the Apple keynote and the observations of those lucky enough to have seen the phone in person. We'd like to stress that this isn't a review, since the iPhone's features may (and hopefully will) change before its release in June.


We haven't been lucky enough to actually hold the iPhone prototype in our hands, but we like what we've seen. The 3.5-inch, 320 x 480 display looks gorgeous, and the much-touted "multi-touch" capability -- which lets you use two-finger moves, such as "pinching" for zooming in photos and e-mail messages -- is a great addition, reminiscent of the two-finger scrolling trackpads installed on Mac laptops. That said, we're pretty concerned about smudging on the screen; even on the streaming Apple keynote video, we saw plenty of fingerprints during Steve Jobs' demo. We're also worried about scratches, especially for those of us who carry our phones in our pockets along with loose change. The first generation Apple iPod nanos were notorious for their easily scratched shells, and while word has it that the iPhone screen will boast a protective coating, we'd like to see it in person.

Measuring 4.5 by 2.4 by 0.46 inches, the iPhone is certainly the thinnest of the slim-smartphone bunch, but by no means is it the lightest; at 4.8 ounces, it's more than an ounce heavier than the Samsung BlackJack (3.5 ounces), and it easily outweighs the Motorola Q (4.1 ounces) and the T-Mobile Dash (4.2 ounces). Still, it's relatively light compared to the hefty Palm Treo 700p (6.4 ounces).


The demo of the iPhone's calling abilities elicited plenty of "oooohs" and "aaaaahs" from the Apple keynote audience, and we can see why -- the phone's calling interface is breathtakingly beautiful, with smooth, intuitive menus and animations that beat just about every other handset out there. Dig a little deeper, however, and there are only a handful of new features, along with some surprising omissions. The quad-band phone's most notable addition is "visual voicemail," which lets you see a list of voice-mail messages that you can tap and play in any order -- nice, considering the archaic, audio-only voice-mail systems offered by the big carriers. The iPhone's conference calling abilities roused a thundering applause from keynote attendees, but honestly, joining, muting and cutting loose callers is nothing new to anyone with a GSM phone. You can access a list of favorite callers by tapping the Favorites button, but there's no evidence of standard, one-touch speed-dialing -- a feature we've come to take for granted. Even worse, Jobs didn't mention voice recognition or voice dialing at all, although we imagine (and hope) that it will be added in some form before the June launch. Finally, it's unclear whether you'll be able to use your MP3s or iTunes Music Store songs as ringtones. Back on the plus side, the phone supports Bluetooth calling (no word on stereo Bluetooth).


The iPhone's messaging abilities are robust for a standard calling phone, but they're actually a bit weak compared to your average smartphone. Again, we love the look of the iPhone mail app, which displays rich HTML messages with aplomb, and you can pull down your messages from IMAP and POP servers. In a nice bonus, Yahoo has agreed to allow free push IMAP e-mail to all Yahoo Mail users (sorry Gmail fans, no push for you). But for now at least, the iPhone doesn't appear to support Exchange, BlackBerry or any other kind of corporate message server -- a major drawback compared to smartphones such as the Moto Q or the Treo 700p. And while you get threaded SMS in an iChat-looking interface (similar to threaded messaging on the 700p or the new Treo 750), there's no instant messaging at all, not even Apple's AIM-compatible iChat service. Of course, there's no reason Apple couldn't offer software upgrades for corporate e-mail or IM, but remember that Steve Jobs told The New York Times that the iPhone is a closed-platform device -- no third-party applications, period. That means any upgrades would have to come from Apple itself, which makes the outlook for an AIM/ICQ/MSN/Yahoo IM client look cloudy, at best. Finally, those who have tried the iPhone's virtual keypad reported that it's tougher to use than a physical smartphone thumbboard, although we like the idea of pressing a virtual "symbols" button rather than fumbling with soft or "alt" keys.

Music and video

We had high expectations for the music and video apps on the iPhone, and we weren't disappointed. Perhaps the biggest "wow" feature for music is Apple's Cover Flow, with lets you flip through a virtual shelf of album covers; once you play a song, you get the album art and a series of music controls, and clicking the album cover flips the art around to reveal a track list. You can also flick track and album lists up or down with your fingertip -- pretty cool -- and you can play music in the background while you perform other tasks. Meanwhile, you can turn the iPhone sideways to watch full-screen video, complete with translucent playback controls. As our friends at pointed out, the iPhone screen has an odd 1.5:1 aspect ratio in landscape view, which is a little narrower than the typical wide-screen 1:71:1 (or 16x9) aspect ratio; however, using the "pinch" motion, you can shrink the screen image to watch your videos with letterboxing. Now for the bad news: you can't download music or video over-the-air via iTunes (not a big shock, considering the iPhone's EDGE-only data abilities), and you can't sync your PC- or Mac-based content over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth (at least, that's the word for now). We're also disappointed by the 8GB upper-limit for flash memory -- not bad for tunes, but considering that an hour-long TV episode takes up close to 500MB, that 8GB suddenly starts looking a bit restrictive. Then again, given the variety of iPods on the market, we wouldn't be surprised to see new, future iPhones with even bigger storage capacities.

Web browsing

Web browsing has been the Achilles' heel for many a smartphone (indeed, the Nokia E62 is the only U.S. smartphone we've seen with a halfway decent browser), so we were delighted by the mobile Safari demo. The New York Times home page looked well-nigh perfect during the demonstration (although the fast-loading pages came over the phone's Wi-Fi connection rather than EDGE), and zooming in on pages was a simple matter of double-clicking. We also loved that you can switch to landscape mode just by turning the iPhone sideways. All well and good, but what about Flash, Java and JavaScript? David Pogue of the New York Times revealed that JavaScript is in, Java is out (Pogue quoted Steve Jobs as saying that "nobody uses Java anymore"), and Flash is...a maybe.


So, where's Microsoft Office for Mac Mobile, you ask? Or maybe Apple has its own mobile office suite up its sleeves? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be "no" -- you can't edit or even open Word, Excel or PowerPoint files as you can on a Treo 700p or any number of Windows Mobile devices. Word is that the iPhone e-mail client will let you view PDFs, but other than that, the lack of productivity apps is a serious disappointment. Still, as with corporate messaging, there's no reason Apple couldn't release a mobile office suite sometime in the future -- at least, that's what we're hoping.

Google Maps, Widgets and third-party apps

The crowd at Macworld was agog during the demo of Google Maps on the iPhone -- look, it's the Washington Monument! And you can see people down there! -- so much so, in fact, that we're thinking most of them haven't seen Google Maps on a Treo, which has all the same features as the iPhone version, right down to the ability to direct-dial the nearest Starbucks and order 4,000 lattes.

Widgets look promising; for now, there are two of the little mini-apps, one for weather and another for stocks. We're concerned, however, by Steve Jobs' no-third-party-apps rule, not only from a Widgets standpoint (the lion's share of Widgets for Mac OS X come from third-party developers), but also from a mobile-app viewpoint in general. Jobs says he's worried about having alien applications on a device as delicate as a phone: "The last thing you want is to have loaded three apps on your phone and then you go to make a call and it doesn't work anymore," Jobs told the New York Times. Interesting point, except we haven't heard too many reports of Treos or Windows Mobile phones crashing because of a rogue third-party program. Hopefully, our man Steve will have a change of heart as time moves on.

Laptop sidekick

Much has been made about the iPhone's lack of 3G UMTS/HSDPA capabilities, so we won't belabor the obvious, except to say that we hope Jobs follows up on his promise for a 3G iPhone sometime in the future (preferably with laptop tethering). We're also curious to see seamless Wi-Fi switching in action, although it seems clear that there's no voice-over-Wi-Fi in the picture.


Yes, 600 big ones (or 500 for the 4GB model) is a pretty high price to pay for a phone that doesn't include everything and the kitchen sink, but then again, Apple has never been shy about hefty price tags. Rather, it's the mandatory two-year contract with Cingular that gets under our collective skin. How Apple and Cingular could have the nerve to foist a two-year service agreement on us without any subsidies is beyond us.

Final thoughts (for now, at least)

Sure, we have our complaints, but we're still on pins and needles to see the iPhone in action. While we're bummed by the lack of 3G, limited memory and dearth of productivity apps, we think the iPhone's revolutionary interface will deliver a much-needed kick in the pants to a wireless industry that's been content with clunky, hard-to-use interfaces for all too long. Also, keep in mind that the very first iPod -- the clunky, monochrome 5GB model that we all loved -- has come a long ways since 2001.


Quad-band GSM/EDGE
8GB or 4GB of flash memory
E-mail; IMAP, POP3, Yahoo Mail
Safari Web brower
Google Maps
Touch screen
2-megapixel camera
Slimmed-down version of OS X
Music and full-screen video
Measures 4.5 by 2.4 by 0.46 inches

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