How much work can you do on an iPhone?

The laptop-free promise of today’s next-gen mobile devices is put to the test. Can the iPhone 3G deliver?

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After a couple weeks, I was comfortably proficient tapping with one finger, making no more mistakes than I would on a regular keyboard (admittedly a low bar). Sending and replying to messages soon became easy; I could even type multiple paragraphs on a bus.

With e-mail, I quickly was delighted by the iPhone’s ability to list addresses I had responded to previously so that I didn’t have to type them again -- even though they weren’t in my address book. (It’s also easy to add someone’s e-mail to your address book but no other information at that time if you don’t want to.)

The iPhone makes deleting messages a piece of cake. There’s a Trash icon at the bottom of the screen when you’re reading messages, plus you can flick your finger over any e-mail in a message list to get a Delete button. And you can multiple-delete messages very quickly by clicking a radio button to the left of each unwanted message, then tapping the Delete button. The spam is gone in seconds.

The iPhone can display formatted Office and PDF documents in e-mail attachments -- as long as they’re not zipped. This limitation tripped me up repeatedly, as one of my clients’ e-mail system automatically zips attachments, so I could not even review them on the iPhone. That slowed down my response time. I also could not save e-mail attachments themselves to a folder on the iPhone, and Apple doesn’t allow any third-party apps to do so. That became a real issue on the road, essentially preventing me from working on any files that came in.

As someone who extensively uses folders to manage e-mail, I love how easy it is to navigate among your e-mail folders on the iPhone. When you open a folder, the iPhone syncs to your mail server and pulls in the latest stored messages, up to a limit you specify in your device preferences. You can move messages among folders, which is great for keeping your inbox tidy, and doing so updates Exchange -- the inability to set up mail filtering rules and to block spam are the only omissions keeping the iPhone from being your main e-mail management tool.

I also set up my personal e-mail account on the iPhone, which creates a separate folder structure for each account automatically and allows easy navigation back to the list of accounts. Setting up an e-mail account is very easy. Select the type of account, enter the e-mail address and password, and the iPhone tries to detect the rest of the settings for you. If it cannot, you get a single pane in which to enter them all.

All in all, the iPhone is a surprisingly good e-mail client. It’s not quite able to be your primary e-mail device, but it can do the job for many consecutive days if need be. But the inability to deal with file attachments other than to view the supported formats is a major limitation that really keeps the iPhone from working as a surrogate computer.

Calendars and contacts: Adequate, but with notable holes
If you use Exchange, the iPhone keeps synced to your contacts and calendar in real time. You can choose to sync any combination of your e-mail, calendar, and contacts -- a nice manageability touch.

Things get a little tricky when syncing contacts and calendar items outside of Exchange. The iPhone forces you to use iTunes for that, and it regularly screws up your contacts and address book if you sync to multiple computers. (Exchange syncing does not have that flaw.) iTunes does support multiple calendars, so you can separate your work and home appointments, for example, and choose which calendars to synchronize to the iPhone.

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