Sporting a bubbly, iChat-like interface, the SMS app mercifully threads messages, an idea Palm hatched for its Treo devices many moons ago. Users of the threaded setup became immediately addicted to it, making it difficult to move back to plain old flat SMS (darn you, Palm!) and leaving us wondering why other manufacturers didn't follow suit. Granted, the inherent 160-character limit and sometimes exorbitant per-text rates have always left traditional SMS with a paper disadvantage against data-based instant messaging, but ultimately the Short Message Service's worldwide ubiquity has crowned it the "killer app" for mobile textual communication anyway. So why not make it all purty?
When a message is received, you get a popup with the contact name (or number) and the message text, regardless of whether you're on a call. If you're anywhere but the standby screen, you also get ignore and view buttons; ignore will return you to your previously scheduled programming, while view sends you straight to the conversation. Like Mail, SMS shows a red circle near its icon when there are unread texts.
The cutesy, drop dead simple interface doesn't come without a price, though. First of all, the SMS app is about as configurable as a DynaTAC 8000 (yep, that's pre-Zack Morris for you young'uns in the audience). Don't like your messages threaded? Sorry. Want red bubbles instead of green? Tough luck! We guess SMS alerts from our bank warning us that our checking account balance is under $50 are somehow less bothersome when presented in a shiny, rounded bubble, but we'd at least like the option of going old-school if we're so inclined.
Secondly, there's no rhyme or reason to when timestamps appear. That's fine -- we get the idea, they appear when there's been a significant lapse in communication -- but we want to be able to hold down on a specific bubble to get that level of detail then. And finally, SMS offers no character counter or multi-message warning, features available on virtually every other handset on the market. The phone seems pretty smart about reassembling multiple messages into a single bubble, but that's still no reason to lull us into the false sense that this is a true IM service, especially when AT&T's default package for the iPhone only has 200 messages. And believe it or not, some of us still don't have devices that can reassemble multi-text messages anyway.
Too bad we still had major problems syncing appointments made on the iPhone back to our our desktop iCal calendar. It just wouldn't happen. Appointments we created on the iPhone refused to show up on the desktop, and about half the time during sync our iPhone-created appointments would actually get deleted entirely from the device. (This may be something screwy with our phone, so we'll assume it's not expected behavior.) Appointments created on the desktop sync over fine, however, and we had no issues there -- so just be sure that you never need to make an appointment in your iPhone calendar when you're on the go. Kidding!
Another issue we had with the calendar is its refusal to inherit color coding from desktop calendars, or in any way display in which calendar an appointment was made. If you're anything like us, you have a few calendars, like one for personal, work, birthdays, spouse, etc. Well, if that's the case then it sucks to be you, because all those calendars' appointments look exactly the same in the iPhone (and unlike desktop iCal, you can't set a time zone for an appointment). The iPhone calendar also lacks a week-view mode, but supplants a pretty useful appointment list instead. We wish we could take a short appointment list summary and drop it in our unlock screen -- the day's appointments is some incredibly valuable information that you shouldn't have to start, unlock, and then hit calendar to retrieve.
Photos and camera
When the Camera app is opened, you get a giant viewfinder and two buttons along the bottom. The large button in the middle snaps the picture and the smaller button to the left moves you to the camera roll, which is simply a special photo album within the Photos app. We understand that packing a larger sensor or a decent flash would've sacrificed more thickness and battery life than Apple was willing, but that's still no excuse to leave us without even a single configurable parameter for the camera. No scene selection, no digital zoom, no destination album, nothing.
Pressing the shutter button causes a shutter animation to collapse momentarily over the viewfinder; a moment later, the just-taken picture becomes translucent and collapses down into the camera roll icon. Both animations are kinda cool but totally unnecessary. The viewfinder's refresh rate is decent -- but not even close to real realtime -- and it's far from the best we've seen. We'd estimate it's humming along at 7 or 10fps.
Enough grousing, though; on to picture quality. For two megapixels, no autofocus, and no flash, we're about as impressed as we can be. Compared to the Nokia N76 -- another 2 megapixel cameraphone we've recently spent some time with -- the iPhone's pictures consistently came out clearer and with far less pixel noise. That said, it's still a lousy sensor by even ultra low-end dedicated camera standards, so we'd recommend this not be used in the field for anything but the occasional candid shot.
As we mentioned, snapped photos hightail themselves over to the Photos app. The iPhone appears as a digital camera to the computer, so it'll bust open iPhoto on the Mac while PCs can configure it to import to a folder. Photo albums already on your computer (in iPhoto, Aperture, or a particular folder) can be configured to be automatically synced to Photos as well.
When Photos first opens, the user is asked which album to browse; the name of the album is shown along with the number of pictures in the album. Tapping an album brings up a flickable thumbnail view of all photos within it. Here you can either tap a particular picture to bring it full screen or tap the play button at the bottom of the display to kick off a slide show. Slide show options are configured in the iPhone's settings: duration to show each photo, transition effect, repeat, and shuffle. The transitions are, for lack of better verbiage, freaking awesome ("Ripple" is our favorite).
Photos also offers a couple extra goodies here that Notes does not. First, the iPhone can be rotated here as it can in Safari -- but interestingly, it can be rotated in all four orientations versus Safari's three. Second, swiping left and right moves from photo to photo. If you tap and hold, the movement will stop even if you're halfway between two photos (think of it like a roll of film), but flicking fast will not spin through multiple photos like with textual lists (iPod, Contacts, etc.). Why the left and right swipes weren't implemented in Notes, we don't know, but we're pretty bummed about it.
Having rolled out YouTube support for Apple TV recently and given the service its very own icon on the iPhone's home screen, it seems Apple has suddenly decided that the mother of all video sites is a key part of its entertainment portfolio. Though it's a fairly impressive and particularly feature-rich component of the handset, it's not a perfect reproduction of the desktop YouTube experience (not to suggest we won't still be capable of wasting hundreds of hours on it, of course).
Opening YouTube presents an interface whose flexibility and searchability is really rivaled by nothing else on the iPhone -- not even the iPod app. Along the bottom is a toolbar with five buttons: Featured, Most Viewed, Bookmarks, Search, and More. More is really a catch-all for three other buttons that wouldn't fit on the toolbar: Most Recent, Top Rated, and History (though the toolbar can be reconfigured using the edit button, like the iPod). Lets walk through these one at a time.
The grid view used in both of these views is fabulous, featuring a thumbnail of the video, the name, rating, number of views, length, and the uploading user's name. Tapping the blue arrow to the right of the video brings up yet more information in a new screen, including the full description, date added, category, tags, and a list of related videos. You also have Bookmark and Share buttons here; the former adds this video to your Bookmarks view, while the latter creates a template email with the video's URL embedded.
Bookmarks contains a list of all videos that have been bookmarked on the device. Note that this is not the same favorites list found in your YouTube login -- in fact, it's not even possible to log in to one's YouTube account on the iPhone (unlike the Apple TV). The grid view here is the same one found in Featured and Most Viewed with the addition of an edit button at the top right; tapping it allows videos to be removed from the list. Inexplicably, the wipe gesture used in SMS and email isn't used here either, but rather the red circle that makes a few appearances throughout the phone.
Search is, well, a search function. Tapping on the field at the top calls up the keyboard and search results appear in the grid underneath. It appears to use essentially the same logic as that on YouTube's website, though just like Featured and Most Viewed, you'll get fewer videos here since not everything has been re-encoded to the iPhone's liking just yet. History simply shows a chronological list of the most recently played videos on the device -- and rest easy, it can be cleared with a Clear button in the upper right.
Over WiFi, though, it's a different story altogether. Videos load quickly and the resolution seems perfectly suited for the iPhone's glorious display. During playback, controls include a scrubber, done button for returning to the video list, and a toggle switch for moving between a letterbox and stretched view (this bearing in mind that the iPhone's aspect ratio is wider than YouTube's) all along the top. At the bottom you get a volume control, bookmark button, previous and next buttons for moving to different videos in the grid, play / pause, and an envelope icon that fires up a template email the same as the share button found when viewing a video's details. For some reason, the YouTube app forces video lists to be shown in portrait and playback to be landscape -- the rotation sensor has no bearing here whatsoever, same as in iPod playing video.
We wish the maps app recognized a search for "home" so we could return to a default location at or near our residence (without typing it in), but users can set map bookmarks for repeat use. The traffic alerts system is also pretty impressive, but it doesn't work for all roads and freeways, so your mileage may vary (har) on that. Pulling up the satellite view on the iPhone is a thing to behold -- the crisp display shows an extraordinary amount of detail for such a small device.
Our biggest complaint about the maps app, though, is something we mentioned earlier: inconsistent gesture input. Gmaps is the only app in the iPhone where two-finger single tap zooms out. This is something one can get used to, but it's still pretty disorienting, and we've found ourselves inadvertently trying the Gmaps two-finger zoom out in other apps, obviously with little result.
Anyone familiar with Mac OS X's preinstalled weather widget will feel right at home here (right down to the static Sunny / 73° icon, which we would've much preferred be updated regularly for our home city). Naturally, the layout is more vertical on the iPhone to accommodate the taller screen (and coincidentally, it seems you can't hold the phone sideways to get a landscape version of the widget). While the Dashboard widget uses AccuWeather as its data provider, the iPhone has made the jump to Yahoo! with a new "Y!" logo appearing in the lower left -- an homage to Apple's newfound relationship with the company to launch that push-IMAP email, perhaps. Pressing the logo pulls up Safari and directs you to a Yahoo! Mobile page with weather, news, events, and Flickr photos for the selected city.
Configuration for the widget is about as basic as it could possibly get: hit the ubiquitous "i" icon in the lower right, select your cities and your preferred unit of temperature, and you're done. In light of the simplicity and overall lack of configurability of the phone, we're a little surprised they even bothered to offer a unit selection since the device is currently only offered in the US, but we know not everyone grew up here, and we're certainly not complaining. After you've selected your cities and hit done, you're returned to the widget's primary display. Multiple cities are indicated as small dots at the bottom of the screen, while flicking left and right changes cities. Notably, the order you enter cities is the order they'll appear -- there's no way to change that without deleting and reentering, like stocks.
At the bottom of Clock there are four buttons: World Clock, Alarm, Stopwatch, and Timer. All four function pretty much the way you'd expect. The World Clock function is great in that each selected city shows its name and an analog clock followed by a digital clock and an indication of whether the locale is yesterday, today, or tomorrow (crazy International Date Line antics!). Unlike Weather and Stocks, cities can be reordered here by dragging on the "ribbed" area at the right while in Edit mode.
Stopwatch and Timer are both extraordinarily simple goodies, but even so, it's still possible to make them extraordinarily unintuitive. Thankfully, the iPhone's aren't. Stopwatch simply gives the time broken down in minutes, seconds, and tenths (plus hours on the far left when you get that far) with a start and reset button; when the time is all zeroes, Reset is grayed out. Hitting start turns the left button to stop and the right button to lap. Pressing lap will add the split time to the grid directly below the buttons along with an indicator of the lap number. Hit stop, and the start and reset buttons return. Hitting Rreset will clear split times as well. The sleep behavior of the phone seems a little indeterminate while the stopwatch is running -- sometimes the screen dims, sometimes it sleeps, sometimes it stays wide awake. We couldn't nail down what (if anything) determined the phone's behavior here. Happily, you can leave the Clock app and go about your business and the stopwatch will continue running -- you can even use other parts of the Clock app itself.
Missing from the iPhone, though, are dedicated scientific / graphing calculators, or, perhaps more usefully, a tip calculator. We think any would be nice to have, and this device definitely has the necessary screen real estate to make them functional and visually appealing. In fact, the iPhone's screen is so big that a simple four-function calculator looks just a little too sparse, although it certainly makes the buttons easy to press.
In the read-only view, four icons appear at the bottom of the screen in the same casual, fun style as the font. The far left and right icons move from note to note (seems like there should be a swipe gesture here that'll accomplish the same function), the envelope creates an email with the note as the body and the first line as the subject, and the trash can predictably deletes the note. Strangely, there is no other way we can find to delete a note -- you must be looking at it to trash it. Also, we found ourselves instinctively rotating the phone from time to time in Notes, but sadly, you won't find any landscape mode here. And why no drawing capability? We're not asking for handwriting recognition or anything fancy like that, just the ability to doodle would've been a fabulous feature.
Airplane mode - Super easy toggle, works instantaneously.
Usage - Doesn't show percentage of battery remaining (lame), but does show all of your current usage stats, like standby time since last charge, etc.
Sound - Comprehensive yet simple sound behavior settings, lots of toggles.
Date & Time - Has a setting for time zone support on / off in calendar, convenient if you do / don't travel a lot.
Network - VPN settings (supports L2TP and PPTP); WiFi settings allow you to select DHCP, BootP, or static IP address, as well as no, manual, or auto HTTP proxy.
Keyboard - Allows you to enable / disable auto-capitalization and caps lock.
Mail - Add, delete accounts (types include POP3, IMAP, Gmail, AOL, Yahoo, .mac, and Exchange IMAP, but not Exchange EAS), auto-check messages (manual, 15, 30, or 60 minutes), message preview (0 - 5 lines), CC myself on / off, signature, etc.
Phone - Contact sort / display order, call fwding, call waiting, caller ID (no option to only show ID to known contacts), and way at the bottom, the awesome AT&T services menu that remembers the codes for things like checking bill balance, viewing minutes, etc.
iPod - Audiobook speed, EQ, volume limiter, etc.
iTunes, activation, and sync
As with the iPod, setting up and syncing the iPhone in iTunes is meant to be an incredibly easy experience, and for the most part it is. You're (obviously) required to have iTunes 7.3 to get it going, bet starting the guided activation setup is as easy as plugging in your phone. Although a huge number of people had understandably maddening issues during launch that caused them to be unable to use their new phones for up to a couple of days, we were able to burn through a number of different types of activations (new AT&T customer, existing AT&T customer, non-ported number, ported number, etc.) on about a half dozen phones, each in under 10 minutes -- none had any issues. It stands to reason that as the initial sales glut for the iPhone fades, this process will only become more stable.
Once your device is recognized by iTunes, you can select which contacts groups, calendars, music, movies, podcasts, etc. you want to drop onto the iPhone. It took us under a minute to sync a couple hundred contacts, and not much more to do a few hundred calendar appointments. We moved about 1.5GB of music and movies over to the device in about 10 minutes -- that's a little more than 2.5MB per second. Not unbelievably fast, but if you wanted to completely refresh the entire capacity of your iPhone, that process would take under 50 minutes, which is reasonable enough. Syncing photos with your desktop is less automated than we would have liked. On a Mac, users are expected to pop open iPhoto and import manually. iTunes also backs up your iPhone's non-synced settings, such as SMS conversations, notes, call history, contact faves, sound settings, and so on. We tried it out, and sure enough, it worked well enough -- even saved our browser history. WiFi passwords? Naw, not so much.
Not surprisingly, syncing to a PC is a different experience than syncing to a Mac. PC users shouldn't expect to have the iPhone take advantage of all of Vista's new iLife-like lifestyle software suite (Windows Mail, Calendar, Address Book, etc.), users can only use Outlook (not Outlook Express) to sync content. On a PC sync worked perfectly, strangely enough (considering it worked less than perfectly on a Mac). Outlook was kind enough to copy contacts and calendar appointments back and forth with ease. It was almost eerie watching an iPhone interact better with a PC and Microsoft software than with a Mac and Apple software, but kudos to Cupertino for not leaving Windows users out in the cold on this one.
Apple and AT&T are banking that a two-line attack of WiFi plus a recently-enhanced EDGE network is going to quell the call for 3G in the iPhone -- in its first iteration, anyway. We see at least three problems with that approach. First, UMTS employs a more advanced vocoder than 2G does, so we're losing out on the opportunity for moderately improved voice quality. Second, on its best day, EDGE is sill an order of magnitude slower than HSDPA on its worst day (we're talking about both throughput and latency here, with the latter often being a better indicator of perceived speed). Third -- and perhaps most importantly -- AT&T's EDGE network can't support simultaneous voice and data. Read: if you're moving data to or from your iPhone, calls will go straight to voicemail. Big time bummer. The thought of browsing with Safari on the iPhone's magnificent display while chatting on Bluetooth is a seductive one, but it ain't gonna happen.
That being said, is EDGE bearable for the iPhone's core services? We'd sorta expected that Apple would've fine-tuned all of the iPhone's first-party apps to behave reasonably well regardless of what kind of data network you were feeding on, but we found that wasn't necessarily the case. Browsing in Safari was a generally satisfying experience (thanks partly to the fact that typically-large embedded Flash objects don't load), ditto for Mail, Weather, and Stocks, but YouTube really tried our patience.
For a couple hours after activating the phone, we couldn't play videos period -- possibly because YouTube's and Apple's servers were being hit so hard by new owners putting their handsets through their paces -- but once we could finally get things going, we were left disappointed by load times, buffering issues, and errors. To put things in perspective, videos consistently started playing within four seconds on WiFi, whereas YouTube frequently ran over fifteen seconds. Our high was a staggering 58.1 seconds!
On that note, WiFi is a breath of fresh air that turns the iPhone into a data-munching powerhouse. Annoyances like slow load times in YouTube and Maps melt away, generally giving the device a very different feel. The iPhone's WiFi implementation is seamless but moderately annoying out of the box; by default, the phone regularly prompts you if you want to connect to the strongest available network, which gets old really fast, especially when walking down the street. This can be turned off from the WiFi settings, which is prominently placed near the top of the settings app -- second item, in fact, right after the Airplane Mode toggle.
Other WiFi settings include a switch for the WiFi radio (not to be confused with Airplane Mode, which'll also disable the cell radio and Bluetooth) and a list of nearby SSIDs which is automatically populated when you enter the screen and refreshed about every eight seconds. Next to each network's SSID is an icon indicating whether encryption is being used, a three-bar signal strength indicator, and a blue arrow that you tap for advanced configuration (more on that in a moment). Simply tapping the SSID will connect you to the network, or if a WEP key or WPA password is necessary, you'll be prompted.
After the connection is successful, the "E" icon in the status bar is replaced with a signal strength indicator -- not the most obvious way of showing that you're connected to WiFi, but sure, we get the point. If a particular network requires advanced configuration, you can tap the blue arrow at the far right which displays the IP address, subnet mask, gateway, and so on (if you're already connected), allows you to choose a method of IP address acquisition (DHCP, BootIP, or static), and set an HTTP proxy if necessary. If the network is already "remembered" for the phone, a "Forget this Network" button appears at the top to kill it from your preferred list.
We're not huge fans of "conclusions" in reviews -- or number systems, or one liner pros / cons / bottom-lines for that matter. Devices have become so feature-rich over the years that potential buyers' decisions can be made or broken on the support, quality, or integration of just one or two features. For us that's exactly the case with the iPhone -- although the list of things it doesn't do is as long as the list of things it does, it's only a few small, but severe, issues about the device that truly galvanizes our opinion of it.
It's easy to see the device is extraordinarily simple to use for such a full-featured phone and media player. Apple makes creating the spartan, simplified UI look oh so easy -- but we know it's not, and the devil's always in the details when it comes to portables. To date no one's made a phone that does so much with so little, and despite the numerous foibles of the iPhone's gesture-based touchscreen interface, the learning curve is surprisingly low. It's totally clear that with the iPhone, Apple raised the bar not only for the cellphone, but for portable media players and multifunction convergence devices in general.
But getting things done with the iPhone isn't easy, and anyone looking for a productivity device will probably need to look on. Its browser falls pretty short of the "internet in your pocket" claims Apple's made, and even though it's still easily the most advanced mobile browser on the market, its constant crashing doesn't exactly seal the deal. The iPhone's Mail app -- from its myriad missing features to its un-integrated POP mail experience to its obsolete method of accessing your Gmail -- makes email on the iPhone a huge chore at best.
For us, the most interesting thing about the iPhone is its genesis and position in the market. Apple somehow managed to convince one of the most conservative wireless carriers in the world, AT&T (then Cingular), not only to buy into its device sight-unseen, but to readjust its whole philosophy of how a device and carrier should work together (as evidenced by the radically modernized and personalized activation process). Only a few days after launch it's easy to see June 29th as a watershed moment that crystalized the fact that consumers will pay more for a device that does more -- and treats them like a human being, not a cellphone engineer. Imagine that.
But is the iPhone worth the two year contract with the oft-maligned AT&T and its steep price of admission? Hopefully we gave you enough information about the iPhone's every detail to make an informed decision -- despite the iPhone's many shortcomings, we suspect the answer for countless consumers will be a resounding yes.