The iPhone was back in the limelight yesterday when Apple announced a stunning $599 to $399 reduction for the 8GB model, effective immediately. The 4GB version will be phased out. Also unveiled, iPod Touch, an iPhone with complete browser and WiFi, stripped of its other communication abilities. Both will incorporate a highly sought after feature, the ability to purchase and download music directly on the device via the new iTunes Wi-Fi Music store.
Thanks to an unwavering attention to design, the iPhone manages a rare feat. It lives up to its hype.
Early adopters suffering activation issues during iPhone’s debut weekend, were quick to verbalize their frustration, denouncing their iPhone’s as bricks. While it certainly resembles a brick, subtle flourishes and materialistic choices coalesce to form an aesthetically appealing device, whose build far surpasses Apple’s iPod models, primarily due to an avoidance of cheap plastics. A nicely balanced metallic build and optical quality glass melded with an abnormally centered battery, create an ideal heft and comfortable form factor. Its sheer minimalism and flush surfaces also serve to reduce visible wear and tear.
As with Apple’s iPod’s, the rechargeable battery is inaccessible and irremovable. Eventual battery replacement requires the phone be returned to Apple for an $79 fee. iPhone rental during this period costs another $29. Given its usage as a phone, many will find this unacceptable. Luckily this is a good battery that should last the average user two to four years. I’ve had to recharge the unit only once or twice a week and Apple anticipates a minimum of two hundred full recharge cycles before a replacement is required. Usage indicates extensive video play and wireless drain power the fastest.
While Apple does note battery life on the package, they fail to do so adequately and at release time neglected to mention that iPhone + iTunes are not supported on 64-bit operating systems. iTunes is required for syncing and account registration with AT&T, so Windows XP & Vista 64-bit users need to downgrade.
The iPhone’s truly remarkable qualities reside in its interactive capabilities. This starts with a virtual keyboard that heralds the future of interactivity. It’s surprisingly functional & Apple fully capitalizes on its virtual state, providing customizations based on usage scenarios. When typing in a web address field, a .com button is conveniently included. Enter an email address into the To: or Cc: field and the @ key is prioritized, while unusable characters vanish. Characters not even provided on standard QWERTY keyboards, from the English Pound to the Euro, are easily accessible. Navigation between text fields is seamless with the inclusion of next and previous buttons. Even drop-down navigation menu options, increasingly common on websites, are displayed via an enlarged rolodex style visualization.
Key presses are responsive and enlarge when pressed, accompanied by a mutable click sound. This implementation offers a suitablly sufficient counterpoint to tactile feedback. Granted it doesn’t rival the speed of thumb typing on a Blackberry or Palm, though one gains greater flexibility with less wear and tear.
Typing mistakes are compensated by decent auto-correction and an ingenious magnifying glass for re-positioning the cursor in text fields. This is accomplished by briefly holding the finger in position until the magnifying glass appears and then sliding the cursor to the desired position. It’s effective, though repeated attempts to achieve the desired outcome can become overly frequent.
A common concern of virtual keyboards is their tendency to obstruct content. This is pleasantly a rarity and usually not an issue, as page contents can be scrolled while the virtual keyboard remains active.
The days of viewing bastardized websites through mobile phones are over. iPhone succeeds beyond expectations in displaying web pages as intended. Not only is ArTect.net highly readable on an iPhone, SIGGRAPH event coverage was written entirely on the iPhone via ArTect.net’s wordpress backend.
Ultra Mobile PC’s, notably the OQO or Sony Vaio UX, offer equally brilliant screens and conventional browsers in a similar handheld form factor. However they’re nowhere near as usable since browser interactivity is not tailored to such a small device. This is where Apple’s customization delivers.
Load a website, the browser automatically zooms the content to fit horizontally on screen, removing the common slack space prevalant on many sites. Rotate the device when faced laterally and a built-in gyro spins the view from portrait to landscape automatically. It’s a prime example of Apple’s underlying design philosophy. Physical buttons only exist when truly required.
Webpage navigation is fluid and at times easier than conventional browser use. Slide your finger on the display to pan. A pinch motion or double tap effectively controls zooming.
The most distinctive feature of iPhone’s Safari browser is how it handles multiple webpages. A framed pullback view of each webpage is shown and quickly browsed with a horizontal flick of a finger. It’s a wonderfully intuitive system, replicated for weather reports. Tapping in the web address field reveals a convenient google search field and a Share button to send links via email.
The power to display webpages as intended and Apple’s decision to back the more common, albeit slower EDGE technology over the 3G, raises speed concerns. Overall the EDGE technology is satisfactory when you’re not in the proximity of an accessible Wi-Fi access point and it’s noticeably faster than dial-up. One side effect, long pages that require significant scrolling can suffer a two or three second delay rate in displaying loaded segments, blogs are a particular culprit. The argument that filtered websites on competitor’s smartphones remain faster to load is obvious, but ultimately it’s bullshit. Many popular websites are already available in stripped down versions, here is Amazon’s for example. With the iPhone, the choice is yours…
Email functionality is a strong facet of the iPhone. When a workstation’s power supply began exhibiting problems, I ultimately emailed more on the iPhone versus webmail on my functioning PC. Multiple email accounts are supported with their own inbox, and after the 1.1 update, the iPhone checks all accounts automatically from any email menu.
Ironically in reviewing the iPhone, I have yet to comment on its use as a phone. The verdict, respectable. Reception has been surprisingly decent, given AT&T’s notorious reputation. One exception, a peculiar lack of reception when talking with fellow iPhone users. Coincidental? I’d only be surmising.
Maximum speaking volume is merely adequate though and could use a boost [Editor’s note: Apparently added with the 1.1 update]. Some phone features are flawless, notably address book transfer from Windows and the virtual dialing pad. However after making a call, the lack of immediate keypad accessibility is disconcerting. Instead alternative options, from hold to speaker and a keypad access button, present themselves. It’s an anti-habitual action given the physical state of keypads on other phones. The real crowd pleaser is Visual Voicemail, it’s listed on screen. The concept is so elegantly simple, one easily forgets that this is an innovative feature.
Apple’s implementation of Google Maps on the iPhone deserves special mention. It successfully interprets highly generic terms that may stump other search engines. “Books Wall Street NY” or “Pizza” followed by a zip code will bring up all applicable listings with actionable phone numbers and webpages. Beware, it isn’t infallible. While in San Diego I entered an address for a theater and found myself in a parking lot thinking I must have drunk too much the night before. Google Maps mainstay features, Car Directions and Satellite overlay make an appearance.
All this plus a built-in iPod. Even the soon to be defunct 4GB model can contain five feature length films with stunning quality. Be forewarned that the OS & reserved space consume half a gigabyte.
The iPhone is not for everyone. Apple has specifically targeted individuals and rejected corporate accounts. It’s not enterprise ready, though capable of being so. I have heard directly from educators on college campuses and employees of large corporations experiencing the iPhone email connectivity doldrums. At launch the iPhone was limited to direct IMAP/SMTP connections. Any email problems can be circumvented but may require a degree of technical savvy. The sole synchronization error between my workstation and the phone occurred with the outgoing email server settings from Outlook.
Hard core smart phone users may not be able to reconcile the lack of certain features or its offering of flexibility at the cost of speed. It’s difficult to leverage software related criticisms though, as the underlying architecture is so well developed. The lack of a mobile version of iTunes was sorely missed and Apple answered. No instant messaging, yet its arrival is inevitable. Till then iPhone can utilize web based instant messaging solutions. Individuals have already started releasing web based games specifically designed for the iPhone. Battleship anyone?
Those hesitant to become early adopters shouldn’t hold back due to a misguided belief that the technology & design is not sufficiently mature. I personally did not intend to purchase one until my grinning friend from Prague stuck an iPhone in my hands. It sold itself.
[Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in three parts between the 6th and 11th of September.]