iPhone review, part 1: Hardware, interface, keyboard

Review index | Part 2: Phone, Mail, Safari, iPod
By Ryan Block and Chris Ziegler

The last six months have held a whirlwind of hype surrounding the iPhone the likes of which we've rarely seen; an unbelievable amount of mainstream consumer electronics users -- not just Engadget-reading technology enthusiasts -- instantly glommed onto the idea of a do-it-all smartphone that's as easy to use as it is powerful. The fact is, there's only a very short list of properly groundbreaking technologies in the iPhone (multi-touch input), and a very long list of things users are already upset about not having in a $600 cellphone (3G, GPS, A2DP, MMS, physical keyboard, etc.). If you're prepared to buy into the hype, and thusly, the device, it's important that purchase (and its subsequent two year commitment to AT&T) not be made for features, but for the device's paradigm-shifting interface.

The hardware

Industrial design

We're just going to come out and say it: the iPhone has the most beautiful industrial design of any cellphone we've ever seen. Yes, it's a matter of taste, and while we imagine some won't agree, we find it hard to resist the handset's thoughtful minimalism and attention to detail.

The edges of the beautiful optical-grade glass facade fit seamlessly with its stainless steel rim; the rear is an incredibly finely milled aluminum, with a hard, black plastic strip at the bottom, covering the device's antenna array, and providing small, unsightly grids of holes for speaker and mic audio. On the rear is the slightly recessed 2 megapixel camera lens, a reflective Apple logo, and some information about the device (IMEI, serial, etc.) in nearly microscopic print. (Sorry, iPhone engravings don't seem to be available yet for online customers.)

The iPhone's curves and geometry make it incredibly comfortable to hold. It fits well in the hand horizontally and vertically (completely one-handed operation is a snap in portrait mode), and its slim profile lets it slip into even a tight pocket with little effort. The device feels incredibly sturdy and well balanced -- no end seems any heavier than another. Every edge blends perfectly with the next (which will probably help fight gunk buildup over time), and holding the device to one's ear is comfortable enough, although not as comfortable as, say, the HTC Touch.

Our only real complaint with the device's design isn't one we take lightly: Apple went to the trouble of giving the iPhone a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, but the plug is far too recessed to use most headphones with -- we tested a variety, and were highly unimpressed with how many fit. What's the point of a standard port if it's implemented in a non-standard way? Apple might have at least included an extender / adapter for this, but didn't. Luckily, the iPhone earbuds sound very decent, and also include a minuscule, clicky in-line remote / mic -- but that's not going to alleviate the annoyance for the myriad users with expensive Etys or Shures who have to pay another $10 for yet another small part to lose.

The display

The iPhone features the most attractive display we've ever seen on a portable device of this size, by far and bar none. While its 160ppi resolution isn't quite photorealistic, the extremely bright 3.5-inch display does run at 480 x 320, making it one of the highest pixel-density devices around today (save the Toshiba G900's mind-popping 3-inch 800 x 480 display). But pixel density doesn't necessarily matter, it's how your device uses the screen real estate it's got. Instead of printing microscopic text, as Windows Mobile often does with high resolution displays (see: HTC's Universal and Advantage), iPhone text looks smooth and natural in every application -- everything on-screen is eminently readable.

The screen also provides an excellent outdoor viewing experience. With optical properties reminiscent of transflective displays, the iPhone remains completely readable (if a only bit washed out) even in direct sunlight. Unfortunately, the display's viewing angle left a little something to be desired, and the rumors about the glass face being an absolute fingerprint magnet are totally true: this thing picks up more smudges than almost any touchscreen device we've ever used. Honestly though, we'd attribute this to the fact that unlike most other smartphones, you are exempt from using a stylus on the iPhone's capacitive display, meaning you must touch it with your bare finger to do almost anything.

Thankfully, like the rest of the phone, the glass face feels extremely sturdy, and one should have absolutely no hesitation in wiping it off on their jeans or sleeve -- we've yet to produce a single scratch on the thing, and we understand others testing under more rigorous circumstances (like deliberately trying to key its face up) have also been unable to mar its armor.

The sensors
One of the more unique features in the iPhone is its trio of sensors (orientation, light, and proximity -- the latter two are behind the glass right above the earpiece) which help the device interact with its user and the world at large. Some of these sensors are more useful than others. The light sensor (for dimming the backlight) is great for saving power, but its use doesn't compare to the the other two sensors, which worked like champs. The proximity sensor, which prevents you from accidentally interacting with the screen while the iPhone is pressed against your ear, switches off the display at about 0.75-inches away; the screen switches back on after you pull away about an inch. This very useful automatic process took a little getting used to from us oldschool touchscreen users, who have long since grown accustomed to diligently turning off the screen while on a call, or holding our smartphones to our ear ever so gently.

The orientation sensor also worked well enough. Although you can't turn the phone on its head, when browsing in Safari you can do a 180, jumping quickly from landscape left to landscape right. The iPhone would occasionally find itself confused by the odd angles one sometimes carries and holds devices at, but in general we didn't expect the orientation sensor to work as well as it did.

Button layout

Despite the iPhone's entirely touchscreen-driven interface, all of its external buttons are mechanical and have a distinct, clicky tactility. There is, of course, the home button on the face, which takes you back to the main menu; along the left side of the unit is the volume up / down rocker (which is clearly identifiable by touch), and a ringer on / off switch -- something we wish all cellphones had, but that far too few actually do. Turning off the ringer briefly vibrates the device to let the user know rings are off; it's worth noting that turning the ringer off doesn't turn off all device audio, so if you hit play on a song in iPod mode, audio will still come out the speaker if you don't have headphones inserted.

On the top of the unit is the SIM tray (each unit comes pre-packaged with an AT&T SIM already inserted), which pops out by depressing an internal switch with a paperclip. Finally, the largest perimeter button is the sleep / wake switch, which does as you'd imagine. Press it (and swipe the screen) to wake up the device, or press it to put it to sleep; hold it (and swipe the screen) down to shut it off completely. (You can also use it turn off the ringer - -one click -- or shunt a call to voicemail -- two clicks -- if someone rings you.)

The headphones

The iPhone comes bundled with a standard set of iPod earbuds, but there are two differences from the kind that comes with your regular old iPod. First, these earbuds don't have the small plastic cable separator slide that helps keep your cables from getting tangled. Second, on the right channel cable about halfway up you'll find a very slim, discreet mic / music toggle. When listening to music, click it once to pause, or twice to skip tracks; when a call comes through, click it once to pick up, and again to hang up.

That same in-line piece also picks up your voice for the call, and it sounds pretty good -- some people on the other end of the line said it sounds even better than the iPhone's integrated mic. For those worried that there would be issues with interference, put your mind at ease. We heard absolutely no cell radio interference over the headset, even when we wrapped it four times around the iPhone antenna, and sandwiched it between a second cellphone making a call. The headphones are an essential and amazing accessory that makes the seamless media and phone experiences of the device possible. We only wish Apple managed to integrate an inline volume switch in there too, since that's really the only essential control it lacks.

Unfortunately for us, iPod headphones just don't fit our ears, so no matter how good they may sound, they're unusable since we can't seem keep them in longer than 30 seconds. (We typically prefer canalphones, they can't really go anywhere.) Since the included headphones are the only ones on the market right now that can interact with the iPod function, have an inline mic, and, of course, listen to audio, you're kind of stuck with Apple's buds if you want to get the most out of your iPhone. The same also applies to the expensive phones you invested in, which probably won't fit in the recessed jack anyway: even if you get an adapter, you still won't get the full experience.

Apple's included headphones are about 42-inches long (3.5 feet), just about the perfect length to reach from your pocket to your head with a little extra slack. You'd be surprised how many cellphone manufacturers screw this up with bundled headphones that are way too long, or way too short.

The dock, charging

The included dock is up to par for Apple's typically high standards -- it feels very solid and sturdy with no visible mold lines, and is capped on the bottom by a solid rubber base (with a nearly hidden vent for letting sound in and out of the iPhone's speaker and mic) to keep it in place. On its rear is the usual cable connector and line out. We thought the dock props the iPhone way too vertically -- about 80°, significantly more upright than the stock iPod dock we compared it to. If you're using it on a desk, you'll probably wish Apple angled it back a little so you're not leaning over to fumble with your phone like some miniature monolith.

Charging the iPhone is an easy enough affair. Pulling power from its adapter (and not a computer's USB), we were able to quick-charge it from 0% to 90% in just under two hours, but it took us almost another hour and a half to get that last ten percent. We also twice ran into this weird bug, where charging the iPhone from 0% power would deactivate the screen. The only way to recover was to soft-reset the phone. No big deal, just irritating. It's probably also worth mentioning that going from totally shut off to fully booted, the iPhone is up and running in under 30 seconds.

Other accessories
Apple also includes a microfiber polishing cloth -- a welcome addition, but the device's sturdy glass will stand up to rubs on most of your clothes, so don't bother carrying it along if you're planning to just brush off some dust or residue left by your face / ears / fingers, etc. Also included is an extremely small power brick, and USB connector cable. Worth noting: the iPhone connector cable doesn't include tensioned clips, like most iPod connectors -- just pull it out, nothing messy to get caught and broken, and fewer moving parts in general.

User interface

If there's anything revolutionary, as Apple claims, about the iPhone, it's the user interface that would be nominated. Countless phones make calls, play movies and music, have maps, web browsers, etc., but almost none seem able to fully blend the experience -- which is part of the reason people flipped out at the idea of an iPhone. The device's user interface does all this with panache, but it's not without a number of very irritating issues. Before we get into those issues, however, we should quickly rundown the functions of the iPhone's primarily gesture-based input system.

iPhone gestures
Drag - controlled scroll up / down through lists
Flick - quickly scrolls up / down through lists
Stop - while scrolling, tap and hold to stop the moving list
Swipe - flick from left to right to change panes (Safari, weather, iPod) and delete items (mail, SMS)
Single tap - select item
Double tap - zooms in and out (all apps), zooms in (maps)
Two-finger single tap - zooms out (maps only)
Pinch / unpinch - zoom in and out of photos, maps, Safari

As you can probably already tell, gestures in the iPhone are by no means consistent. By and large one can count on gestures to work the same way from app to app, but swipes, for example, will only enable the delete button in mail and SMS -- if you want to delete selected calls from your call log, a visual voicemail message, world clock, or what have you, you've got to find another way. Swiping left to right takes you back one pane only in iPod, and two-finger single tap only zooms out in Google maps -- none of the other apps that use zooming, like Safari, and photos.

These kinds of inconsistencies are worked around easily enough, but add that much more to the iPhone learning curve. And yes, there is definitely a learning curve to this device. Although many of its functions are incredibly easy to use and get used to, the iPhone takes radically new (and often extremely simplified and streamlined) approaches to common tasks for mobile devices.

Another rather vexing aspect of the iPhone's UI is its complete inability to enable user-customizable themes -- as well as having inconsistent appearances between applications. Users can set their background (which shows up only during the unlock screen and phone calls), but otherwise they're stuck with the look Apple gave the iPhone, and nothing more. This is very Apple, and plays right into Steve's reputation as a benevolent dictator; he's got better taste than most, but not much of a penchant for individuality.

Even still, Apple's chosen appearance varies from app to app. Some apps have a slate blue theme (mail, SMS, calendar, maps, Safari, settings), some have a black theme (stocks, weather), some have a combination blue / black theme (phone, iPod, YouTube, clock), some have a straight gray theme (photos, camera), and some have an app-specific theme (calculator, notes). Even the missing-data-background is inconsistent: checkerboard in Safari, line grid in Google maps. There's little rhyme or reason in how or why these three themes were chosen, but unlike OS X's legacy pinstripes and brushed metal looks, there's really no reason why the iPhone should have an inconsistent appearance between applications.


Since its announcement, the iPhone's single biggest x-factor has been its virtual keyboard -- primarily because the quality of its keyboard can make or break a mobile device, and of the numerous touchscreen keyboards released over the years, not one has proven a viable substitute for a proper physical keyboard. We've been using the keyboard as much as possible, attempting to "trust" its auto-correction and intelligent input recognition, as Apple urges its users to do in order to make the transition from physical keys. (The iPhone uses a combination of dictionary prediction and keymap prediction to help out typing.)

The whole idea of a touchscreen is a pretty counterintuitive design philosophy, if you ask us. Nothing will ever rid humans of the need to feel physical sensations when interacting with objects (and user interfaces). Having "trust" in the keyboard is a fine concept, and we believe it when people say they're up to speed and reaching the same input rates as on physical keyboards. But even assuming we get there, we know we'll always long for proper tactile feedback. That said, we're working on it, and have found ourselves slowly growing used to tapping away at the device with our stubby thumbs.

As for the actual process of typing, one hindrance we've had thus far is that despite being a multi-touch system, the keyboard won't recognize a second key press before you've lifted off the first -- it requires single, distinct key presses. But the worst thing about the keyboard is that some of the methods it plies in accelerating your typing actually sacrifice speed in some cases. For example, there is no period key on the main keyboard -- you have to access even the most commonly used symbols in a flipped over symbols keyboard. This is almost enough to drive you crazy. (We really, REALLY wish Apple would split the large return button into two buttons: one for return, one for period.)

Caps lock is also disabled in the system by default, but even if you enable it in settings (and then double-tap to turn it on), you still can't hold down shift for the same effect -- it's either caps on, or you have to hit shift between each letter. Also, whether you're in upper or lower case, the letters on the keyboard keys always look the same: capitalized. (This makes it difficult to see at a glance what case of text you're about to input, especially since when using two thumbs your left thumb always hovers over the shift key.) Oh, and don't hit space when typing out a series of numbers, otherwise you'll get dropped back into the letter keyboard again.

We also found the in-line dictionary tool to be more cumbersome than helpful. Supposedly, to add a word that's not in the dictionary, type in your word, then when you get an autocorrect value, just press on that word and the word you typed will be added to the dict file (uhh, ok). But you can also accidentally add words to your dictionary by typing out a word, dismissing the autocorrect dropdown by adding another letter, then backspacing over it. Yeah, for some reason that adds a word to the dictionary file, too. And believe it or not, this confusing little problem caused us to add a number of bum words to the dict file (which you can only keep or clear in its entirety -- and no you can't back it up, either).

On the up side, the horizontal keyboard (which is only enabled when typing into Safari while browsing horizontally) is a much more palatable experience. The keys are far larger, resulting in drastically fewer typing mistakes. (We sincerely hope Apple will enable horizontal input for all its iPhone apps that require keyboard input.) The horizontal web keyboard also has very convenient previous / next buttons for tabbing through fields. The keyboard you're given when entering URLs is one of the most brilliant bits we've seen in the device, and is an incredible time-saver. Since there are almost never spaces in URLs, instead users have shortcuts to ".", "/", and ".com". Finally, the magnification loupe is the best touchscreen cursor positioning method we've seen to date in a mobile device. Too bad you can't highlight and cut / copy / paste text with the iPhone.

So what's the long and short of the keyboard story? We're still getting used to it, but for a touchscreen keyboard it could have been a lot worse -- and a whole lot better. Some among the Engadget staff have been able to pick it up quickly, others, not so much -- your mileage may vary. We have to wonder though, what would it take to get Steve to give us a proper physical keyboard for this mother, anyway? (We already smell the cottage industry brewing.)

Review index | Part 2: Phone, Mail, Safari, iPod