Thursday, November 29, 2007

iphone in review

The Apple iPhone is the hardest phone we've had to review, and not just because of the insurmountable hype leading up to its release. The iPhone presents the user with a completely different, engaging and delightful experience, but does a great user experience make a phone great? Over the past month, we've put the phone through our extensive battery of tests, from mountain climbs to drops on city concrete to navigating highways. We even made some phone calls.

Design - Excellent

On the outside, the iPhone looks like no other phone we've seen, not even the LG KE850 Prada phone. The screen is smooth, glassy and completely scratch-proof. We accidentally dropped it onto a concrete sidewalk, and though the metal rim was dented and scratched slightly, the touch screen surface showed not even a hint of scratching. The phone has a menu button, a volume rocker, vibrate switch and a "wake / sleep" button, but every other function is performed on the touch screen. The device is not small. It is thinner, and about an ounce lighter than our Palm Treo 700p, but feels heavy in the hand.

The interface design is stunning. Most have seen it demonstrated in commercials, and we can attest that it looks as smooth, colorful and fast as you could imagine. Overall, it has a very polished feel. Most interface designs are dull beyond the top level. On BlackBerry and Palm OS devices, for instance, digging beneath the Today screen gives you bland applications and long lists of options and menus. Digging on Windows Mobile gives you, well, more Windows. But on the iPhone, every menu, every option shows thought and polish. Drop shadows abound to give objects a 3D look, and every icon seems to swoop on and off the screen in a fluid motion. We have seen phones that we found effectively useful, like the Palm OS. We have seen phones whose interfaces confound us, like almost every Verizon Wireless phone. We have never, until now, been happy to use a phone's interface, or gone back to it to play around, simply to watch it perform. If there is a criticism, it is that every feature requires a few button presses to activate. Though most features get their own button on the home page, there is no dedicated key for, say, messaging or Web browsing. You have to wake the phone, unlock it, press the home key, and go from there.
i phone gadget review gadgets in movies
i phone gadget review gadgets in movies
Using the touch screen is more like dancing than pecking and pressing. On a tiny scale, we quickly found our fingers flashing and flying, flicking pictures and Web pages left and right, pinching them smaller or tossing them away completely. The screen is responsive and tuned, not too sensitive or too numb. The colors are sharp, and the resolution is obviously high, aided not just by more pixels, but by smaller pixels, packed 160 to an inch. In all, though we wouldn't exclude other phone designs, we find the design of the iPhone, including its interface and input method, to be superlative. It is a design against which all other phones will be judged, and most found wanting.
Calling - Good

Call quality on the iPhone was generally good, especially when we were getting strong reception in New York City and New Jersey. On vacation in Wyoming, where we had only a bar or two in some spots, we lost a few calls, though not as many as on our Moto RAZR V3 in the same area. Voices sounded clean, with only a slight hiss behind them, and enough distortion that callers knew we were on a cell phone, but had no trouble understanding every word. The address book on the iPhone is synchronized through iTunes, and worked very well with our Address Book, since we tested the phone on our Apple PowerBook. The contact list lacks the robust selection of fields you'll find on a Windows Mobile or BlackBerry phone, but it was certainly better than a non-smartphone.

The iPhone comes up short for many calling features we require, a sentiment which we'll echo in other areas. For instance, the speakerphone on the iPhone is very quiet, and difficult to hear even in a sealed, moving car. Bluetooth headsets paired easily, but the phone lacks any sort of voice dialing, a feature we especially like while driving. In fact, the iPhone is so difficult to use while driving, it requires far more attention than any other phone we've tested. We strongly recommend saving calls until you're parked. Ringtones may eventually come to the iPhone, but for now you're stuck using Apple's collection of sounds. These are unique and sound great, but they don't beat the gigabytes worth of songs I'd like to use instead, already stored on my iPhone.

Finally, perhaps the best and most innovative feature on the iPhone is the visual voicemail. The voicemail app allows the user to see who called before playing a single message, and to play and delete messages out of order. It is revolutionary, and once we used it, we couldn't stand going back to the standard voicemail on our other carrier. This is a feature that should be standard on every phone.
Messaging - Mediocre

It isn't just the keyboard that holds back the iPhone as a messaging device. The phone lacks MMS (which we hardly use), and instant messaging (which we rely on constantly). The iPhone does use threaded messaging for SMS, which looks good, but it gives you a tiny window in which to type your outgoing message. We like the live, while-you-type integration of the contact list with the recipient field, but were disappointed to find no easy way to send a message to more than one recipient at once. Still, between the lack of instant messaging or real exchange support, the iPhone finds itself lacking features that every respectable messaging phone and smartphone takes for granted.

We've waffled in our feelings about the keyboard, but now we can definitively say that it is a disappointment, and is perhaps unusable for power messaging fans. Typos abound, and even though the autocorrect feature does an admirable job, at top speed we still found plenty of errors left behind. Also, the thinner keyboard in portrait view, as opposed to the wider, landscape keyboard in Safari, is more difficult for typing, though the lack of any tactile feedback never really got under our skin. We wouldn't add hardware keys just yet, we'd like to try the phone with some haptic feedback first, like a quick vibration every time we press a key, just to reassure us.

Camera - Good

Under the best conditions, the camera on the iPhone took solid pictures that were very sharp with great color. However, the camera was only average in fair lighting, and pretty lousy as things grew dim. We found plenty of noise on low-light photographs, and blur when we didn't hold our hands steady. We're not a fan of the cold light of LED flash lights found on other cameraphones, but if we had any control over the lighting and exposure settings, perhaps we could have gotten better results. Instead, Apple offers a single button and an onscreen shutter release, with no other options or visual feedback. It is sad to see that after years absent from the digital camera game, Apple's first reentry seems like such an afterthought, especially with the excellent, simple options built into their consumer computer products, the MacBook and iMac.

Video - Excellent

After a solid month's use, the video iPod features of the iPhone are by far our favorite. With a larger, more crisp screen than the iPod video, movies were much easier to watch over a long period. In one stretch, we watched two feature films and two sitcoms without draining the battery or straining our eyes. The selection of movies on iTunes could be much better, but there are a few gems mixed in, and it didn't take too much digging to find an alternative way to get the DVD movies we own on the iPhone. For streaming video, of course full Flash support would have been nice. While it would have opened up more sites than just YouTube, a lack of Flash doesn't put the iPhone behind any other multimedia phone on the market. YouTube videos look great on the iPhone, and in most cases stream quickly and play smoothly. In an area with strong EDGE, YouTube videos play almost as quickly as they do over Wi-Fi, and even in a sluggish zone, the wait isn't interminable. Though the search tool is nice, but we'd love to be able to log onto our own YouTube accounts, as we miss our personal collection of puppy and cooking videos.

Audio - Excellent

Before the iPhone was released, the iPod and iTunes were our favorite musical duo, and we still haven't seen a better interface on a PMP, or better music management software for any device, phone or otherwise. The iPhone has improved this experience, keeping the best of the iPod's features but improving the interface for the touch screen. Cover Flow, which lets you flick between album covers, is a showpiece for the phone's graphical power. We also like that the iPhone can create playlists, has preset equalizer settings, and lets us scrub to any point in a track by dragging our finger. While there is no stereo Bluetooth, it isn't missed. Though we look for the feature, we've never used a stereo Bluetooth player that was able to maintain a clean connection. We always experienced static and dropouts with stereo Bluetooth, though sound quality can be quite good. Still, we don't think Apple made a mistake by omitting A2DP support. The headphone jack, on the other hand, which doesn't fit most standard 3.5mm plugs, is an egregious error. You must buy a separate, third-party adapter to use most headphones with the iPhone. We hope this is simply a design error that will be fixed before the next generation of the device.

Web browsing and Google Maps - Very good

Let's be clear, the Web browsing experience is excellent, but navigation with Google Maps is simply mediocre. Google Maps is buggy and unreliable. Though it looks better than the same app on other smartphones, the interface, in an attempt to simplify, has removed some of the search options, and search results now come back way off the mark. Often, instead of local business branches, Google Maps identified out-of-state locations hundreds of miles away. For navigating, Google Maps was okay, but is best left in the hands of a copilot to interpret.

The Web browsing experience on the iPhone is the best we've seen on a phone, and better than almost any device not running a full desktop OS. The Nokia N800 Internet Tablet and recent Archos Generation 5 devices hold their own (and are able to play Flash content, something the iPhone cannot) but the iPhone is smaller than either of these devices and is the only cellular phone of the bunch. Pages look perfect on the Safari browser, with crisp pictures and an accurate layout. Navigation is as easy as could be, with very intuitive tapping and scrolling gestures to enlarge pictures and text. Over EDGE the connection was very slow, but at its best it wasn't so much slower than a 3G phone on a laggy day. Over Wi-Fi, the browser screamed along. We like the ability to handle forms and high-security pages, and to accept terms and conditions for browsing closed Wi-Fi networks. We had trouble connecting with our office's WPA Wi-Fi network, but the network has given us trouble on other devices as well, so this may not be the iPhone's fault. Overall, the iPhone is the best Web browsing experience we have had on a phone.

Battery life - Good

We didn't run a straight talk time test of the iPhone. Instead, we used the phone as our regular device for a month, and gave it a subjective score. In our usage, we had to charge the iPhone every night, or it usually wouldn't last the second day. On our long, driving commute, we used an iPod nano for audiobook listening, and kept our iPhone awake for calls and navigating. Occasionally, the phone amazed us, as with the 5+ hours of video on a flight to Wyoming. A few times, it disappointed, like the second day in Jackson, when it died early in the evening after a day of constant mapping and Wi-Fi Web browsing. We wish the battery were replaceable, as we'd definitely carry a spare, but at least options seem to be popping up to replace the battery down the road, once it finally dies out.
Bugs

Like most first-generation devices, the iPhone is a buggy phone. Often, the phone will register full EDGE reception, but won't allow calls or data to go through. Sometimes voice works, but not data. A few times we were kicked out of an application--usually Safari or Google Maps--and back to the Home screen. To its credit, the phone never froze, although Google Maps has crashed on us. On our PowerBook laptop, iTunes often ignores the iPhone's presence, even though iPhoto is only too eager to ask us if we want to download the pictures, so we know the computer can sense its presence. And these are just the bugs we have experienced first hand, as many more have been reported on the Web. Before its release, Apple promised updates to the iPhone, including updates to its feature set. Hopefully, we'll see the resolution of some of these issues as well.

Pros:

Fantastic touch screen. Fun, intuitive interface. Best-in-class audio and video player capabilities.

Cons:

Poor messaging, hampered by a questionable touch keyboard. Lacks some key features. Myriad functions drain battery quicker.
Conclusion:
In judging the iPhone, the question we needed to answer was whether Apple has indeed made a great phone. Well, they have changed the user experience, and what we expect from an interface. But have they made a great phone? They've made the best convergence device, combining the best iPod video with a great Web browser and a full-fledged phone. But is it great? No, not yet, but it will be. The iPhone sets the bar for multimedia phones to come, but it comes up short in many respects, mostly calling and messaging. Had Apple sold the iPhone as a portable media player, it would have been a resounding success, but in many ways its phone capabilities don't live up to the standard set by the rest of the device. Apple is not a company to sit on its laurels and leave a product to stagnate, so we're curious about what the future holds for the iPhone line. In the meantime, though, we think that Apple enthusiasts and people who seem predisposed to love the iPhone will not be disappointed. If you're looking to replace a smartphone, or if you're wary of being ensnared in an unreasonable contract agreement, you might want to wait or look for alternatives. However, if you understand its flaws and aren't bothered by them, you will be delighted by the things it simply does right.

72% Good

Who is it for?

# Dads
# Internet addicts
# Moms
# Multimedia enthusiasts
# Music aficionados

2 comments:

regina said...

A 72% rating is not bad, but I expect a higher one.

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