iPhone review, part 2: Phone, Mail, Safari, iPod

Part 1: Hardware, interface, keyboard | Review index | Part 3: Apps and settings, camera, iTunes, wrap-up
By Ryan Block and Chris Ziegler

Phone and contacts

Apple broke rank during its ubiquitous iPhone advertising campaign in the last few weeks -- typically the company doesn't go out of the way to highlight the specific functionality of its devices, instead choosing to sell products with iconography and emotion. But the bottom line Apple made is that the iPhone must live up to it's name: before anything else, it's a phone. And it has to be, because if it's an awful phone, no one's going to use it as their phone, get it? Well, Apple obviously succeeded here. We found nearly everything about making and receiving calls on the iPhone to be dead simple -- scratch that, pleasurable, even. It's almost enough to make us call home every weekend. (Almost.)

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

Favorites - Apple's take on speed dial. A simple list of your favorite contacts. Adding favorites is very simple -- every non-favorite contact has a huge button allowing you to add them to the list. The list can be re-ordered by tapping edit, then using an icon on the right to drag each entry around.
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).

Dialing a number is extremely simple: in a contact card (or in an email, or anywhere else) tap the number you want to call and it dials. That's it. In-call functions are also very simple: users are presented with just a few common options: mute, keypad, speakerphone on / off, add call (which brings up the contact list), pause, and contacts (presumably for finding someone's contact info to read into phone). Incoming calls present obvious prompts: ignore, hold call & answer, and (in a huge red button) end call & answer. Users can conference up to five calls on a single line -- the sixth call gets put on hold.

Using a Bluetooth headset is also super easy. If it's paired and powered up you'll be prompted with an audio source button instead of the speakerphone button. Tap that and you can choose which audio source you'd like to use. Note: even with a Bluetooth headset active on your phone, visual voicemail will only play into the iPhone.

Call quality
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.


There's no other way than to come out and say it: we are extremely disappointed in the iPhone's email app. So much so, in fact, that despite the keyboard and the rest of the things the iPhone lacks in the features department, its mail support may be the largest factor in killing its status as a productivity device. Don't get us wrong, the application is just fine for anyone who wants to do light email, but it lacks the power and convenience that frequent-emailers require.

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).

One may take it for granted, but mobile email deletion can be a serious problem. The only other methods of message deletion is a swipe over the message to be deleted, then tapping the delete button; or tapping the edit button, then tapping the minus button, then tapping the delete button for each message to be erased. Maybe this doesn't sound too extrarodinary, but using the swipe-delete or edit-minus-button-delete on even a dozen or so messages is incredibly tedious.

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, 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 Not so. In fact, the iPhone does not interact in any meaningful way with, 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 after sync.

  • Sent messages on your iPhone are not synced to's sent folder (you can automatically CC, but not BCC, yourself on every outgoing iPhone message, though).

  • Filters in 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

What's more, the iPhone mail application has a number of other harsh shortcomings:

  • 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.

If we haven't already driven the point home, for heavy email users such as ourselves, the iPhone didn't even come close to cutting the mustard. Email is, in fact, the weakest aspect of the whole device. While the Yahoo push-IMAP worked beautifully (and we do mean flawlessly -- push mail was delivered instantaneously), the Gmail integration requires POP access, and basically has similar issues with fetching messages, magnified by the different organizational requirements the web mail service has. One Engadget editor called the Gmail integration "a crime against humanity" -- and let's be frank, it's not "years ahead of everything else," it's actually years behind even the simple Java Gmail app Google released a while ago.

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.


Ease of use aside, there's no question that the iPhone's build of Safari serves up the most true-to-PC web browsing experience available for a phone today. Opera Mini and S60's native browser (which happens to be based on the same core as Safari, coincidentally) do commendable jobs, but the iPhone has taken it to the next level. Anyone who has used the Nokia 770 or N800 internet tablets will be roughly familiar with what the iPhone is trying to do here: render a page faithfully without trying to work any fit-to-screen magic, and give the user convenient options for zooming in on text.

Of course, it could be argued that the iPhone shouldn't even be trying to present a PC-like rendering of pages because it necessitates zooming. Emphasis on "necessitates" here -- you really can't go to any mainstream site on the iPhone and expect to glean useful information from it without dragging, double tapping, pinching, and unpinching your way around. Zooming in on a page produces an interesting transient display artifact: everything looks really fuzzy for just a moment, as though you've overzoomed on a low-resolution picture. (Microsoft's new Deepfish browser has a similar effect on zoom-in.) Granted, after a while the browsing motions become a little more natural, and we'd always prefer to have the option of seeing and interacting with sites that don't have dedicated mobile versions. WAP is supported, but Safari isn't detected as a mobile browser, so you need to specifically navigate to the WAP version if the site you're trying to visit has automatic browser detection.

Bookmarks are supported and automatically synchronized with Safari on the host computer; adding a new bookmark is a simple matter of hitting the "+" button in the address bar, naming the bookmark, selecting a destination folder, and hitting Save. Mobile Safari's meager four-button toolbar along the bottom edge dedicates a button for this, along with forward, backward, and tabs. The tab implementation is pretty clever -- all you see on the tab button is a count of the number of tabs currently open (or nothing if your current page is the only tab). Tapping the button takes you to a Cover Flow-esque display that shows a small view of each tab; flicking left and right changes tabs and tapping opens a tab. A red X in the upper left and corner of each tab's display allows you to close it.

Of all the iPhone's wares, Safari most thoroughly implements rotation detection, which makes sense considering that most sites are designed with a landscape display in mind. The phone can be held vertically, 90 degrees clockwise, or 90 degrees counterclockwise, and the currently displayed page will be rotated (complete with a nifty animation, naturally) to fill up the screen. Safari is also the only iPhone app to implement the horizontal keyboard, which some will find far easier to use than its more ubiquitous vertical counterpart. One small complaint we have here is that if you have the keyboard up and rotate the phone, the page and keyboard won't reorient -- you have to manually close the keyboard with the Done button, at which point the page will do its thing and you can bring up the keyboard again in the correct orientation.

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.

Unfortunately, Safari seems to share more than just a rendering engine with its distant S60-based cousin. Specifically, we've had some problems with stability -- the browser will often unceremoniously disappear from time to time. We have no problem opening it back up (and the offending page works the second time more often than not), but it's still a pain in the ass. It seems like the number of open tabs (and hence, memory consumption) might be at least one of the culprits, but we've yet to find any reproducible scenarios. Mobile browsers aren't typically the most stable pieces of software around, so we've gotta say we're not terribly surprised. Here's hoping future firmware updates shore up the goods just a little bit.

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 back music, movies, TV shows, podcasts, etc. has never been easier on an iPod, or more more seamlessly integrated into a phone. Most of the iPod interface has been revised to take advantage of the iPhone's massive touchscreen, so navigating artists and albums in lists is simple, where before it was a tedious, thumb-joint-popping experience. Tilting the device horizontally allows you to browse your music in Cover Flow mode, a novelty of breakthrough proportions. Tapping an album in Cover Flow mode lets you select which track to play.

When browsing in list mode, you get the same alphabet column on the right as you do with contacts. Again, keyboard search would have been nice here, but it's still far more livable than the click wheel. If you put your iPhone in sleep while listening to music, when waking it up instead of your usual background on the unlock screen you'll see the cover art of the album you're listening to, and the name of the track beneath the current time -- an extremely useful bit of glanceable information, saving you from having to dig through your mobile to see what's playing.

The media integration with the rest of the device is obviously far better than on any mobile we've seen to date -- but it's not without its issues. It's wonderful seeing SMS messages pop up while watching movies, for instance, but if you load up a YouTube video while listening to music, the audio automatically fades out when the video starts, but doesn't come back when the video ends. This is counter to the phone experience, where an incoming call pauses your music and brings it back when the call is over. We also noticed that even while under heavy load multitasking, the music would never skip or falter, just crash.

We managed to continuously crash the iPod app while listening to music and doing other things, namely browsing. We wouldn't call it incredibly unstable, but we wouldn't say it's rock solid, either. Movie playback did seem very stable though, even when skipping around and playing video for long periods of time. (It may also be of note that even when playing video for hours on end the device hardly ever even got warm to the touch.) The biggest upshot we found on the media playback, though, was the iPhone's Herculean battery life. We've seen other reviews' media playback results vary, but ours seemed to jump far ahead of even Apple's lofty expectations.

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.

Part 1: Hardware, interface, keyboard | Review index | Part 3: Apps and settings, camera, iTunes, wrap-up