iPhone: The $1,975 iPod

Apple's and AT&T's high-price gadget is a heartbreaking triumph of greed over genius

Every living thing knows about iPhone. Apple and AT&T saw to that in their unprecedented campaign to prime demand for a mobile device that has been dubbed "revolutionary" and "game changing." After nine days doing nothing but living, breathing, and dissecting a 4GB iPhone, I am captivated by it. I'd challenge any gadget hound to find a more satisfying, status-elevating way to blow half a grand.

iPhone is good enough as a phone, a PDA, a media player, and a mobile browser to hit the sweet spot of those consumers who can afford the device, along with activation and monthly service fees. So, I say it again: If it's a gadget you're after, you're looking at a $499 wide-screen iPod with oodles of extras. If that's the perspective you bring to your consideration of iPhone, you have the right one. Declare yourself an early birthday.

[See also: iPhone delivers more misses than hits | Special report: iPhone: The revolution is here ]

Now it's time for consumers and gadget freaks to tune out because the rest of this review is aimed at those who rely on mobile devices as their lifeline to customers, clients, patients, management, team members, field staff, or hosted data and services. If that's you, understand that I know you came here because you want an iPhone. Apple went to great lengths to tick the feature table boxes that make the device look like everything a professional could want in a mobile device: cell phone, PDA, e-mail, Internet client, and media player.

iPhone fulfills the media player role well — although surprisingly not as well in some regards as a less costly iPod and not leagues better than a smartphone. It fulfills its secondary role, PDA, about as well as a BlackBerry. For phone, mobile messaging, and Internet access, iPhone will get you worked up but let you down once you get to needing it.

The unhappy fact is that for all the glamorous marketing and positioning, iPhone turns out to be the worst $1,975 investment (iPhone plus two years minimum, mandatory service) you could make in mobile communications. If you put that kind of money into a BlackBerry, Treo, Windows Mobile, or Symbian device, you will be blown away by what a genuine professional mobile handset can do for you, out of the box, through incremental improvement by the manufacturer and wireless operator, and extension by downloadable third-party software.

If the iPhone circus opened your eyes to the possibilities offered by high-end mobile devices, that's a good thing. Read this review, realize that what iPhone does is done well by other devices, too, and understand that iPhone's limitations with regard to professional use aren't present in competing devices, even those sold by AT&T.

Funny business
iPhone might be the perfect mobile device if it weren't for a certain pair of CEOs. iPhone users are forced to buy into an extremely narrow range of overpriced rate plans (with no option for a data-only plan), a mandatory two-year contract term, slow EDGE wireless data service, no device discount, and no handset protection. They built the only smartphone that does not function, not even as a calculator, until the buyer pays a $36 activation fee and signs up for a two-year service commitment at a minimum cost of $59.99 per month, plus the usual small-print charges.

Paying full retail ("unsubsidized") price for any other smartphone or PDA in AT&T's catalog frees the buyer from a term commitment and opens up pay-as-you-go and data-only rate plans, as well as plans that let you use your device as an Internet gateway for a notebook computer. Not iPhone — it is truly in a class by itself.

Apple and AT&T created the world's first nonprogrammable $500 mobile handset: No Java, Flash or native applications can run on iPhone. That means that the innumerable features found in other $500 smartphones, PDAs, and Pocket PCs are absent in iPhone. Those include: voice dialing; Bluetooth stereo-headset support; VoIP over Wi-Fi; instant messaging (Web alternatives exist, but they don't signal you on incoming messages); audio recording; standards-based tethered and over-the-air sync; remote lock-down and management; Bluetooth file transfer; movie recording; rich document editing; offline document and Web content access; mail viewing with HTML images and JavaScript disabled; mail rules; MP3 ring tones; video and audio codec support beyond QuickTime media types; access to non-HTTP TCP/IP ports and protocols; and so much more that won't be added until Apple decides to do it. And since Apple never discusses its plans, there's no way of knowing which of these limitations it will attack with future software updates. But one thing is certain: If Apple doesn't do it, the company won't let anyone else do it — at least not legally.

Screen meets keyboard
You already know iPhone. It's a 3.5-inch glass LCD with just enough metal and plastic wrapped around it to hold it together. There are four tactile buttons: home, volume up, volume down, and power. Everything else, including the QWERTY keyboard, shows up on the display.

iPhone's display is touch-sensitive to the extreme. It is designed for fingertips, not for styli. Most stylus-sensitive mobile devices also respond to the touch of a finger, but the stylus comes in handy as a proxy for a mouse, which most Web 2.0 applications expect.

iPhone needs a stylus as an option: There are places where the pad at the tip of an adult finger spreads out on pressure to cover an awfully large swath of display space. The result is a human interface that responds beautifully to grand gestures such as one- and two-finger sweeps to scroll content, and two-finger pinching and spreading to zoom out and in, respectively.

But if user interface controls are packed too closely together, which applies to most Web sites with forms, it's impossible to aim for a radio button or a check box without slipping and activating an adjacent control.

It doesn't help that iPhone isn't tunable. No two people hold iPhone exactly the same way, and your angle of view makes all the difference when you're poking at a small target on iPhone's screen. This really shows when you're using the on-screen keyboard. Its keys are huge, which is both boon and bane. The large keys are easy to read, and pressing one makes a flag pop up above your finger that echoes the key you pressed. This is necessary because you can plant your finger squarely on a key and have iPhone register the key next to it. Once you get used to the technique, you learn that if you slide your finger to the proper key before lifting it, you can get the right letter. I found that keys toward the sides of the display register erroneously more often than others.

iPhone attempts to counteract this effect by presenting word-completion options that cover many "missed by one key" typing errors. It's like the correction that Microsoft built into its block-handwriting recognizer, but you shouldn't need a facility like that with a keyboard. iPhone's keyboard is very cool to watch, but despite the invitation to do so, you can't set upon it with thumbs a-blazing. You just miss too many keys.

iPhone supports BlackBerry-like contraction substitution: Type a contraction without an apostrophe and iPhone will add it. However, it lacks a modifiable shortcut dictionary. And while iPhone tries to provide correction for missed keys, it doesn't flag or correct misspelled words, and most of its normal word completion suggestions are nonsense.

Safari stumbles
As nice as iPhone's Safari browser is for reading the newspaper, iPhone is a bit oversold as the ideal mobile front end for Web 2.0 applications. The device will not upload or download files, and Safari does not allow JavaScript applications to persist data in iPhone's memory for use when the device is offline.

Safari's JavaScript interpreter proved too slow to support smooth motion in Web 2.0 applications with rich interfaces, and the animated GIFs that site builders employ for browsers that lack Flash Player support are often not rendered properly.

Safari does not allow a Web page to sense finger motion using standard events, so drag, slide, and drag/drop operations require special effort while other devices with touchscreens will mimic a mouse well enough to permit these actions in a desktop style.

iPhone offers no clear way to select, copy, or paste text in edit fields, and repositioning the text cursor in a multiline edit field requires two-finger scrolling in a tiny space above the pop-up keyboard.

While Safari works considerable magic to make some HTML controls, like combo boxes, easy to use on a small display, this does not extend to other types of controls that may be too small to hit while at a zoom level that lets you see an entire form or grid of controls. In one common annoyance, aiming for a button with an adjacent text field ended up selecting the text field, which pops up the enormous, opaque QWERTY keyboard. For Web pages, a translucent keyboard that passed finger gestures to the underlying page would be a major improvement to iPhone. However, on pages with multiple text fields, iPhone's text window presents Previous and Next buttons so that you can hop from field to field without having the keyboard pop up and down.

Safari lacks the ability to adjust a Web page's text size, relying on zoom to make text large enough to read. When Safari's auto-zoom feature — which zooms and centers on a column of text or a group of controls — works, it's marvelous. When it doesn't work, you end up pinching and spreading and scrolling this way and that to read and operate HTML form controls.

Web sites must be designed for iPhone because its browser does not restructure HTML, especially forms, for use on its display. All modern mobile browsers, including Internet Explorer and BlackBerry's standard browser, have view options that can reorganize text into a single scrollable column. iPhone will zoom a column of text to fit the screen width, but you have to scroll to the top of the next column manually.

Safari will not store or open local HTML, XML, or script files, and in fact, iPhone allows users no access to its storage at all. Even the cheapest iPod can be accessed as a USB storage device, but arbitrary file system access to iPhone is prohibited. The only path between your PC or Mac and your iPhone is a USB cable and a copy of iTunes.

iPhone hang-ups
iPhone is barely passable as a phone, with an extremely weak speaker, comparatively poor signal clarity, and radio frequency interference so powerful that when I tried to attach an iPod voice recorder, iPhone would not support it but still suggested that I shut down the wireless features (activate Airplane mode) to reduce interference.

I can't overstate the interference issue. I'm wearing a pair of noise-reducing headphones, and whenever iPhone polls for e-mail or checks in with the cell tower, I pick up the buzzing and chirping familiar to BlackBerry users who set their devices down too close to the bedside radio. But iPhone's interference can be heard through a tuned-in FM radio from a fair distance away. It is loud. Steve Jobs attributed iPhone's delay to market to FCC testing. I can understand why.

As a phone, iPhone is stunningly innovative in some very practical ways. Its dial pad is big and easily readable. Each digit you dial lights a halo around your fingertip when you make contact. That contact requires only a feather touch, and you can easily dial and scan your Contacts database with your thumb (although it's optimized for righties). For quiet times, a flip of a side-panel switch kills the speaker, not just the ringer — Apple got this right — and activates the first truly silent vibrating motor I've encountered in a phone. People won't be able to tell how you knew you had a call coming in. That's the fringe benefit of a virtually seamless case.

Answering an incoming call is supposed to be as easy as raising your iPhone to your head. That never worked for me, but your head may vary. In any case, if you add up what iPhone does, and what it's supposed to do, it appears you have a phone that you can operate one-handed and safely answer in the car. But no. iPhone lacks voice dialing or commands, so you can't use the phone truly hands-free.

While you're on the phone, even the freshest face will leave an oily smear on the display, and during every call, you're bouncing a hypersensitive touchscreen full of active buttons against your face. The side of my face matches the contour of the phone, but an assistant with more angular features was always muting his call with his cheekbone.

iPhone, being thin and slippery when wet, is a phone that you will drop, and often, and you'll have fun pinching its skinny head out of your pocket or purse before it stops ringing. Apple bundles a headset made of iPod earbuds with a cord-mounted microphone. The stereo 'buds sound good, and hitting the mic switch will kill the music and take a call, but this is not professional grade, and iPhone's 1/8-inch diameter headset jack is fitted for headphones, not an industry-standard telephone headset. Every iPhone buyer will need a Bluetooth headset and a holster or slipcover of some kind; be sure to audition both before you leave the showroom because compatibility is not assured in either case.

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