By Ryan Block and Chris Ziegler
Phone and contacts
While finding contacts might have been improved, calling contacts is as far from a chore as we've seen on a mobile. What the iPhone contact app most needs is use of the keyboard to hone in on names, like Windows Mobile's excellent Smartdial feature -- even the device's own SMS app has a keyboard-based contact finder. Instead, you're given just two options for finding your pals' contact cards: flicking up and down the list, or using the alphabet column on the right side, which makes short work of scrolling through hundreds of names.
However, the pleasure of the elastic scroll-drag motion isn't to be underestimated. Despite the fact that the iPhone has no haptic feedback, traversing lists of emails, text, and songs has a nearly tactile feel due to the interface's "rubber band" effect. You can swing through about 60 contacts with a quick swipe -- traversing long lists without a scroll wheel is feasible, but if you've got a few hundred people in your address book, you'll probably soon be jonesing for keyboard-based contact search.
Call functions are organized into five categories
Recents - Shows a list of all or missed calls, and the call time / date. Incoming and outgoing calls are not differentiated, annoyingly. Missed calls are highlighted in red. Like some phones, unknown numbers have the region of call origin displayed (i.e. if you missed a call from a 415 area code number, beneath the digits it says "San Francisco, California" -- very handy!).
Contacts - Your contact list, with your phone number listed at the top. (Having your number listed at the top is deceptively clever -- how many times have you needed to show someone your phone number in a loud area? For us, often.) Users can select to show all their synced contacts, or just select groups. (Creating contacts on the iPhone easily syncs back to the desktop.) Pushing against the final contact does not return the user to the top of the list, as is the typical expected behavior.
Dialpad - The usual 12-key. You aren't presented with contact list-assisted dialing, but if you punch in a known number the device will give you a small prompt confirming who it is you're dialing (i.e. "Ryan Block, mobile"). From this pane users can add a dialed-in number to a new or existing contact -- users can also add numbers from the contacts pane, with the added option of plus and pause dialing. Note: numbers dialed in during calls are lost -- so prepare to take down proper notes in your phone, you can't just dial them in and save them for later, like some phones.
Voicemail - Visual voicemail pane. Visual voicemail allows for email-like voicemail interaction, using caller ID and small voicemail files (transmitted to the phone automagically in the background). Visual voicemail quality leaves a lot to be desired, but we'd argue the functionality itself supersedes the audio fidelity, poor though it may be. Also in the VV pane: a speakerphone toggle and voicemail greeting option pane where you can select and locally record a new VM greeting (and transmit it back to AT&T for playback). Sorry, you can only set a single outgoing message; you can't record multiple and swap them out for various occasions (i.e. on vacation, or whatever).
As GSM handsets go, the iPhone's voice quality can only be described as "unremarkable." Not bad, but not particularly stellar, either. Anyone stepping down from a UMTS handset will likely notice a slightly more "compressed" sound than they're used to, but the call clarity is good -- we noticed virtually no static hiss in the background. We were able to get decent volume out of the speakerphone's bottom-facing grill (particularly when set on a hard surface) but even at full volume the earpiece was a little soft for our liking. Realistically, we could've used a couple more notches -- the ability to turn it up to 11, if you will -- for use in loud environments.
Likewise, folks on the other end of the call reported decent, if not good, sound quality from us. Background noise was within acceptable limits -- something that's more often a problem for candybar devices than for clamshells -- and we were coming through with plenty of volume. If anything, the most chintzy aspect of the iPhone's voice is its inability to use data while talking, and vice versa (no Class A EDGE or 3G, hint hint), but we digress.
Ringtones and vibration
We're still kind of bummed you can't (yet) add custom ringtones or even use MP3 ringtones with the massive library of tracks your iPhone is walking around with, but the default sounds are all pretty good. In fact, as far as ringtones go, they're definitely above average. (We have a feeling we're going to be hearing a LOT of "Marimba" in the coming years.) When you turn the ringer off with the side switch, the device enters vibration mode (duh); we found the iPhone's vibration totally suitable for pocket use -- both standing up, moving, and sitting down. But in-bag use is a whole 'nother game, and few phones (including this one) could rattle enough to catch our attention from inside a sack.
For starters, if you've ever been out for an hour or two and checked your mail from your phone only to find a good 50 messages waiting for you, your iPhone nightmare has just begun. Scrolling through messages is just as easy as in other lists, but opening even a small, simple message has a noticeable delay -- the same kind of delay you get moving from one message to the next (with the up / down arrows), or deleting each message with the trash can button (which only appears with the message open).
We suspect even a moderate email user won't be able to delete 20 emails on their phone without fantasizing about throwing their iPhone across the room. If you can delete 50 emails in one sitting, you deserve to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Oh, and you have to manually delete all these messages again from the trash, there's no empty trash button (only an auto-delete option buried deep within settings, which removes deleted emails never, or after a day, a week, or a month). We kid you not.
Which brings us to our next serious email matter: the iPhone's complete lack of integration with Mail.app, OS X's powerful-enough mail client. We expected that if you're an email user, when you plug in your iPhone and iTunes says it's "syncing your mail accounts," that means it's actually comparing and moving messages between the device and Mail.app. Not so. In fact, the iPhone does not interact in any meaningful way with Mail.app, other than to simplify the setup on the iPhone by copying account settings over from the desktop client's settings. Specifically:
- The POP mail you read on your iPhone does not show up as read in Mail.app after sync.
- Sent messages on your iPhone are not synced to Mail.app's sent folder (you can automatically CC, but not BCC, yourself on every outgoing iPhone message, though).
- Filters in Mail.app are not applied to incoming mail on the iPhone.
- The iPhone keeps its own set of non-contact addresses you manually enter -- these are not copied over from Mail.app.
- There is no BCC.
- Messages on IMAP cannot even be marked as read.
- No ability "mark all / selected" as read.
- No empty trash option.
- There is a save to draft, but there is no spellcheck. (We suppose that's because Apple thinks spellcheck should be inline with auto-correction as you type.)
- Users can only download and view the latest 200 messages from their server -- there is no "retrieve all" messages option. This is a very bad thing when you just got off a trans-continental flight and it's time to triage some serious email.
To us, a productivity device is anything that helps us Get Things Done while we're out and about, and email, web, and SMS are the holy trinity on a smartphone device. If any part of that trifecta is crap, the whole device may as well be crap. And unfortunately for us, even if you can put up with the keyboard, the Mail client is so awful it actually makes us wish Apple made a Foleo for the iPhone. An iFoleo, if you will. Anyway, if you're anything like us, this is a major, major dealbreaker.
On the iPhone, Safari is boiled down to the very most basic set of features necessary to do its thing, but the rendering engine is true to the original, for better or for worse. Take Gmail, for example; just like Safari on the desktop, there's a screwy looking little box immediately to the left of the subject line of each email in the inbox if you have personal level indicators enabled. It works, but it's a very Safari-esque experience -- Safari users will feel right at home, but folks coming from other browsers might run into the occasional surprise when hitting up sites optimized for Internet Explorer or Firefox.
On the subject of Gmail, Ajax-enabled sites are hit or miss. One gotcha is that there's no gesture to simulate a double-click, so it's impossible to open up a new IM window in Meebo by double-tapping a contact, for example (though we were able to initiate one using the IM Buddy button on the buddy list). Google Documents worked okay for reading text and spreadsheets, but we weren't able to edit anything. A good rule of thumb here: if it's not designed specifically for the iPhone, keep your expectations to a minimum until you try it out yourself.
iPod / media functionality
Historically, we haven't been huge fans of the iPod. We've found its interface generally simple, but irritating to navigate; its lack of numerous basic features other devices have long since had, like the ability to create multiple playlists on the go, has persisted as the iPod has undergone very conservative functionality additions through the years. Whereas our biggest complaint about the iPod -- its dire lack of codec support -- hasn't been addressed in the iPhone, its user interface definitely has.
Playing relatively high bitrate VGA H.264 videos, our iPhone lasted almost exactly 9 freaking hours of continuous playback with cell and WiFi on (but Bluetooth off). Yeah, we had to pick our jaws up off the floor, too. So by our tests, you could watch a two hour movie and drain off a little more than 22% of the battery -- totally acceptable for trip-taking and the like.
Our music testing showed similarly outstanding results. Playing back 160-192Kbps MP3s, our iPhone pushed about 29 hours and 30 minutes music playback. To put that in perspective, the Apple claims the iPod nano gets about 24 hours playback on a full charge, and the iPod a scant 14 - 20 hours.
To do a little simple math, you could watch two hours of video, listen to 8 straight hours of music, and still have only drained off less than half your device's capacity -- that is, if your iPhone's battery works as well as ours. (Read: your battery life may differ.) Still, if that's a good estimate of what users can expect from their device's power drain, you should have little issue making the iPhone your music and video player, in addition to your cellphone.