Opinion - One week ago, Apple released its iPhone. In the past seven days I took the phone through the pace of the average phone user - without taking the device apart and without trying to figure out quickly I could drain the battery. The conclusion of the first week : The phone has serious flaws, but it is good enough to have changed the way I am using my cellphone and notebook.
As a journalist reviewing a product, you are hoping for those extreme moments, these flaws or great features you discover while you are dissecting a device. In the past few days, you have learned everything and more you ever wanted to know about Apple’s iPhone on sites across the Internet, ranging from the manufacturer of the Wi-Fi chip to the progress of people trying to free the phone from the grip of AT&T.
Despite the fact that Apple has apparently sold already more 500,000 phones, it is still a people magnet and wherever you go, at least here in the Chicago suburbs, people will stop you and ask questions about the iPhone. And these questions really don’t circle around what is found behind the touchscreen, but almost exclusively what the user experience is like - and whether I’d buy it again, given what I now know about the device.
I personally bought the iPhone with the expectation of "it is just a phone" and had the luxury that I did not really have to care whether it was a great or a bad phone.
The fact that Apple and AT&T will charge you nearly $700 for the 8 GB phone ($599 + tax + activation) as well as at least $1400 over the next two years in service charges means that you can and should be very picky about the features and characteristics of the phone. The way a certain feature is integrated could be something others do not care about, but may be a dealbreaker for you.
So let’s be picky. Here’s my purely subjective top 10 list of iPhone discoveries over the past week.
#1 Yes, the phone has design flaws
Love or hate Apple, the iPhone isn’t perfect and there are hardware design flaws Apple needs to fix in generation 2. It is as simple as that. There are two problems that I found particularly annoying.
First, the screen may look nice, but it is a pain to live with. This screen attracts grease from your fingers quickly and - at least in bright daylight - becomes unusable within a few minutes of tapping : Since it is the concept of the iPhone to interact with your fingers on the screen, you have fingerprints on the screen everywhere in no time. And it is a difficult surface to keep clean : A fancy cleaning cloth comes with the phone, but it doesn’t serve its purpose. A decent supply of Windex is really what should be included with the iPhone.
Second, who designed that iPhone dock ? Was that a leftover from the iPod basement ? The white stand neither complements the shape nor the color of the iPhone. There always seems to be at least one screw-up in the design department with such a product and this is a rather unnecessary one. Guys, a $600 phone deserves a nicer dock. Period.
#2 The battery is not that bad, but how expensive did you say it is ?
Yes, the battery has been one of the major concerns of the iPhone and yes, I have read those scary articles where batteries have been drained within four hours or less.
But, if you think about it, how often do you really stay on the phone for four hours or more ? In mixed use here (iPod, phone, camera) the phone easily hits 12 hours of battery time, and in low usage times I got up to 36 hours out of one charge. Compared to my (hard drive based) video iPod, the battery holds up well, so I have nothing to complain about. One small exception : Heavy use of the camera of course sucks the battery dry quickly - I got about 250 pictures out of one battery charge.
Replacing the battery is another story : We will see how many charge cycles the battery will really take, but $85 for a replacement battery is outrageous. I still hope that this is a joke and we really will be talking about a free replacement. If not, then I am sure Apple is already preparing itself for lawsuits from angry users and hungry lawyers.
If it is true that the battery will only last for 300 charges, then Apple better comes up with something more durable soon.
#3 The interface is fantastic, but the phone needs work
I am not going to elaborate on the GUI and the way how to use it ; a lot of other publications have written about that in every imaginable detail. But I will note that it is a problem that the phone is "a" function of the iPhone and not "the" function. The phone capability is integrated with the same priority level as is the iPod, the camera, the calculator, the browser and all other applications.
Before making a call you typically have to turn on the phone, unlock the phone through a slider, close an application you may not have closed before, open the phone application and then dial your number or open your contacts and call someone from there. Apple clearly needs to find a way to make the phone more accessible, as it can be very frustrating to have to go through that clicking process every time you want to make a quick call.
#4 Was AT&T really the only choice ?
If you are still wondering, yes the service offered with the iPhone is - no matter how you slice it - bad. Most likely, it will be the single most important reason why iPhone sales could remain somewhat limited. I still believe that Apple shot itself in the foot with this one. Not that call quality would be terrible, but the iPhone data service falls short on value.
Some say that the bandwidth offered by AT&Ts EDGE network is inappropriate these days, especially for a device like the iPhone. I found that AT&Ts network is rather unpredictable, which may be even worse than just being inappropriate. On some days, EDGE is pleasant to deal with, as it loads webpages in 10 seconds or less. On other days it is a real pain in the you know what and takes 2 minutes to load Yahoo’s homepage. Initially I liked the speed of the service, but when I relied on it (for example to check my mail while on the road), it tended to be very slow and therefore became nearly useless.
And then there is the price. I agree, iPhone service is not more expensive or even cheaper than what you would pay for a Blackberry service. But this is a consumer product designed for the mass market and $60 for an entry level plan is ridiculous. Considering what EDGE really offers, this quickly needs to come down below $40, no question about it.
However, AT&T has little incentive to bring that price down at this time. A healthy dose of competition could change that and it is about time that lawmakers should begin thinking whether locking a specific device to only one provider should be continue to be legal in the future. In a country where every company and every politician doesn’t hesitate to talk about the benefits for the consumer, answering that question should be easy.
#5 The missing keyboard is a non-issue
Who would have thought that ? Apple’s virtual iPhone keyboard isn’t really what I would call comfortable, but it is easier to use than the strange thing RIM calls a keypad on my Blackberry Pearl. In fact, it is convenient enough to type in web addresses, fill out forms and take short notes. There are even some minor tasks in website administration I can easily do with the Apple phone.
That, of course doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t encourage Apple to integrate an alternative physical keyboard (which could resolve the phone integration issue) or a fancy infrared keyboard.
#6 The camera is actually quite good
Now let’s put this into perspective first : A cellphone camera with a tiny CMOS chip, no matter what resolution it offers, will never be able to match the picture quality you can get from your regular digital camera with a CCD or a larger CMOS chip. But the iPhone delivers decent enough pictures for 4x6 prints, which came somewhat as a surprise - given the quality that I have seen in previous phones such as the Blackberry Pearl and several Palm Treo models.
Manufacturers of cellphone camera chips always pitched their devices as tools that would allow camera phone to compete with the quality delivered by traditional disposable cameras and the iPhone unit comes quite close to that claim. I wouldn’t use the iPhone as a primary camera or the camera I would rely on for my vacation pictures, but it is a solid backup for snapshots here and there.
Of course, as any cellphone camera and most other digital cameras, the iPhone camera has trouble in extreme light (low light and bright light) conditions and does some upgrades that improve the shutter speed : Even in ideal light situations, it is impossible to take pictures of fast moving objects.
One question to Apple : Why is it that this $600 phone isn’t capable of recording videos ?
#7 Safari needs Flash, video support
I’ve really never noticed before how many website I visit on a regular basis integrate flash and other animation/video formats. The iPhone is a fantastic device to show moving content in a decent size and it can be quite frustrating when you just can’t run play those videos from CNN or other websites. Youtube videos are converted as we speak, but I wonder if my iPhone will ever be able to play those Youtube videos that are integrated into websites or whether I will be able to launch MSNBC videos right from the browser.
The limitations of the browser are currently significant and extend to other desirable Internet entertainment content such as Yahoo’s game section. Extensions for Safari need to be an A priority for Apple in the weeks and months to come. In the end, the iPhone is a communication and entertainment device and it would be rather strange if the browser couldn’t handle regular multimedia content that has become a standard on the web.
#8 3.5" is the ideal screen size
Among the many things Apple got right with the iPhone is the screen size. A higher resolution down the road wouldn’t hurt, but I found the plain size of the display (in combination with Apple’s admittedly ingenious way to zoom into content) as perfect for reading email, scanning through websites, watching Youtube videos, looking at pictures and carrying the device around in your pocket.
There is absolutely no question : The iPhone’s form factor and screen size is nearly ideal for the smartphone and mobile communication segment.
#9 Google Maps is the killer application for the iPhone
Let’s leave the phone as the killer app of the iPhone and iPod out of consideration for a moment (the integration of the two features is why many reportedly have bought the iPhone anyway.) What else is it that really goes to the heart of a communication device ? The surprise here is Google Maps, which is a fantastic tool when you are on the road.
Admitted, I am still scratching my head why there is no GPS chip in the iPhone, but having a usable map on your smartphone is a really good idea - not only for those live traffic reports in metropolitan areas. But especially if you want to find places like a movie theater or a restaurant : Search for "pizza" and you’ll get related restaurants in the vicinity as well as phone numbers to make a reservation.
#10 The iPhone is not a phone, it’s a MID
No, I do not think that you can describe the iPhone as a phone. Yes, you can use it as a phone, but it isn’t primarily a phone. I wouldn’t go as far as describing the iPhone as a pocket computer, but it comes darn close to what Intel recently described as a Mobile Internet Device (MID) - a product category that we once knew as "UMPC" (future UMPCs are likely to take the place of today’s tablet PCs and end up in a market niche).
The iPhone has a stripped down OS (like the MID), hardware that is somewhat power-saving and achieves 8 hours of battery life (like the MID), Internet connectivity (like the MID) and matches about the form factor that was recently presented by Intel. What the iPhone lacks is wireless broadband and Wimax (through which an MID may be able to make VoIP phone calls).
For a debut product, the iPhone is an impressive device. The cellphone market could get very interesting soon : Apple has opened up the market to the high-end and made the smartphone much more attractive than the business-focused devices we had before. I am not sure, if one can consider the iPhone a wake-up call for other vendors, but there is no doubt that the cellphone market won’t be as boring in 2008 as it was in 2006.