By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, July 5, 2007
The iPhone doesn't look, sound or feel like other cellphones. With its smooth, almost button-free contours, it could be the product of an advanced, alien civilization.
That sleek appearance makes the iPhone an instant conversation piece. But it's the ingenious software inside this crafty but costly device -- $499 for a 4-gigabyte model, $599 for an 8-gigabyte unit-- that ought to worry competing smartphone makers.
Other gadgets in this category function as extensions of business products: office e-mail servers for the BlackBerry, Microsoft's Outlook personal-information manager for Windows Mobile devices. But the iPhone's ancestry stretches back to Apple's iTunes software and iPod music player -- things people use for fun.
The result is a gadget notably simpler and more entertaining than what's come before.
The iPhone experience starts with using iTunes to sign up for a two-year wireless plan from AT&T, the exclusive carrier in the United States. Service starts at $59.99 a month for 450 anytime minutes, unlimited data and 200 text messages -- equal to or cheaper than deals from other carriers.
I set up a review iPhone lent by Apple within minutes, though some readers have reported far longer waits for AT&T to activate iPhones. After that, iTunes copied my songs, podcasts, movies, contacts, calendars, photos, e-mail settings and Web bookmarks.
Access to all these things on the iPhone comes through its 3 1/2 -inch, touch-sensitive screen. But instead of jabbing at icons with a plastic stylus, you use fingertips and intuitive gestures.
For example, a flick of a finger sends you scrolling through your contacts list or your music library. You can zoom in on a photo or Web page by spreading two fingers apart, then zoom out by pinching them together. It's almost frictionless.
Those gestures also help the iPhone serve up regular Web pages, not shrunken, phone-friendly editions. Its Safari browser first displays the entire page in miniature (though without Flash graphics), and you can enlarge and pan as needed.
If a page is too wide to fit on the iPhone's screen, hold the iPhone horizontally instead of vertically. Its screen will automatically rotate from portrait to landscape mode.
That clever feature also works in iTunes, but not in most other iPhone programs, such as the otherwise appealing e-mail software.
Spending time online will, however, expose the sluggishness of AT&T's barely-faster-than-dialup Edge data service. WiFi -- which the iPhone will use when a network is available -- speeds up Web browsing considerably.
Typing a Web address or an e-mail message reveals another awkwardness: text entry. Without a real keyboard, you have to tap on an onscreen substitute that offers no tactile feedback and puts punctuation and letters on separate screens.
The iPhone's software fixes typos for you, and readers report success in letting it clean up their copy. But in my tests, numbers and names eluded its grasp.
When used as an iPod, the iPhone works better for video than for music. Its sharp screen dwarfs any iPod's and stood up to midday sunlight, but its onscreen controls aren't as snappy to use as an iPod's click-wheel dial.
As a phone, the iPhone's standout feature is "visual voice mail" -- a simple list of who left messages, which you can play or delete with taps of the screen. It also has a 2-megapixel camera, speaker phone and support for Bluetooth headsets and car kits but leaves out picture messaging, a camcorder mode and Bluetooth file transfer.
Switching between iPhone programs happens almost instantly, but moving data between them is just about impossible without copy or paste commands. The review iPhone also mysteriously froze up once.
The iPhone battery seems sturdier than most. It powered the test unit through just over seven hours of Web browsing over WiFi (compared with Apple's prediction of six hours) and 10 hours of talk time (two hours over Apple's estimate).
But you can't replace the battery yourself when it wears out. The company suggests that will take years; after 400 recharges, an iPhone battery should retain 80 percent of its original capacity. But whenever that happens, you'd better hope that Apple's $85.95 battery-replacement service doesn't still require mailing in your iPhone.
Two other restrictions built into the iPhone may have a more direct impact. Apple won't let you install other developers' software on the phone unless it runs inside the Web browser. That will seriously constrict the iPhone's utility.
The iPhone also comes locked to prevent use with other wireless services. If you travel overseas, you can't duck AT&T's roaming fees -- 59 cents to $4.99 a minute -- by replacing the iPhone's removable subscriber identity module card with another carrier's card.
With the iPhone, Apple has crafted an extraordinary piece of wireless art. But phones aren't art alone; they're also tools that we customize and use as we see fit. The combination of elegance and open-ended utility makes Apple's computers a pleasure to use; the iPhone needs more of the latter.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro firstname.lastname@example.org.