Not available in Europe until the final quarter of the year, we recently got our hands on an Apple iPhone. Here's an in-depth look – focusing on the device's capabilities as a phone, internet-enabled device, and iPod.
This article appears as part of the April 07 issue of PC Advisor, available now in all good newsagents
Like most smartphones, the iPhone has a touch-sensitive screen. But that's where the similarities end.
So how is the iPhone different? The iPhone has no keyboard. Instead of a bevy of buttons to navigate and control features, there's a single Home button on the front and just a few others on the sides – everything else is controlled via changeable, onscreen buttons and icons. Instead of a stylus, the iPhone uses your finger. And instead of a scaled-down operating system to power it, the iPhone runs a version of Mac OS X.
Will the screen scratch? Indications from Apple are that the iPhone's display is more scratch-resistant than the iPod's. It's a 3.5in, touch-sensitive display, with a resolution of 320-by-480 pixels at 160 pixels-per-inch.
How do I make calls? A click on the Home button takes you to the main window, at the bottom-left corner of which is the Phone app. A tap on that activates the calling features. All this is possible thanks to Apple's Multi-Touch technology, which in addition to letting you tap on icons lets you use your finger for accurate typing that ignores unintended touches. You can type a number on the virtual keypad, or choose a number from a list of contacts, favourites or recent calls. With one touch you can put a party on hold, and merge two calls into a conference call.
What other calling features will the iPhone have?
Voicemail: instead of dialling in to a voicemail system, the iPhone's Visual Voicemail feature displays a list of voicemail messages, including who sent them and when. You can choose to listen to, save or delete them, one at a time.
Sensors: a proximity sensor turns off the display and the touch sensor when you bring the phone to your ear. There's a light sensor that adjusts the screen's brightness depending on the surroundings, and an accelerometer that senses when you re-orientate the iPhone from landscape to portrait.
What are the iPhone's tech specs? It's a quad-band GSM phone. For wireless data, it can work with email and connect to the web using AT&T/Cingular's Edge network or with the phone's built-in 802.11b/g Wi-Fi.
The iPhone includes Bluetooth 2.0/EDR capabilities – although it's not clear what for. Apple told us that you won't be able to use the iPhone as a wireless Bluetooth modem for a laptop on the road, for example. Jobs said that Apple will eventually release models with 3G wireless data capabilities.
Will I have to use one particular mobile-network operator as my iPhone service provider? Yes. In the US both iPhone models will require a two-year contract with Cingular. Apple has no plans to release a version of the iPhone without a service contract or one that's unlocked.
What other switches and features does the phone's case have? Just above the screen is a small slit for a speaker. The back of the iPhone sports a lens for its 2Mp camera. On one side is a pair of volume control buttons and a switch that lets you toggle between an audible ring and silent operation.
The top has a 3.5mm headset and audio jack, a card for the phone's SIM card, and a sleep-wake toggle button. On the bottom, there's a loudspeaker, a microphone, and a 30-pin iPod dock connector. And there's a selection in the iPhone's settings called Airplane Mode. Activating it makes the phone safe to use while in flight.
What about accessories? Jobs mentioned two accessories: stereo headphones with a microphone, and a Bluetooth headset that pairs automatically with the iPhone. Without a doubt, we'll see other iPhone add-ons – not just from Apple, but other third-party developers as well.
The internet-enabled device
Email. The iPhone has an email client supporting rich HTML and inline images, resembling OS X's Mail app. It works with POP3 or Imap email accounts, lets you choose a split-view approach, includes standard email folders, and parses phone numbers in email messages for quick dialling. And Apple has joined with Yahoo to provide free BlackBerry-style 'push' Imap email to iPhone customers.
SMS Messaging. An SMS text-messaging client that looks identical to the Mac's iChat is included. The version Apple showed didn't let you connect to the AIM network, however, it worked only with SMS messages.
PDA. Apple's iPhone is capable of storing and displaying contacts, phone numbers, appointments and more. There's a Calendar app and a Contacts section. You can sync data using the iPod-synching interface within iTunes, with a Mac or PC just like an iPod. This should mean the iPhone can sync with OS X's Address Book and iCal apps, and contacts with Outlook Express or Outlook.
Web browser. With Safari included, Apple says the iPhone has "the first fully usable HTML browser on a phone". It can load web pages complete with images and formatting. You can scroll around a page using your finger. 'Pinching' (drawing two fingers together or apart on the screen), or double-tapping will zoom in or out. You can even open and move between multiple websites at once. Rotating the iPhone automatically switches its screen to landscape mode.
Google Maps. The browser includes a Google search bar, and you get Google Maps. With it, you can map out destinations, search for local businesses, save favourites and view superb satellite imagery of mapped locations.
How do I type? Use the onscreen keyboard. Both email and chat use this feature for text input. Although the keyboard doesn't offer tactile feedback, the iPhone features automatic error detection and text prediction. We found that single-finger typing actually worked quite well.
What about the camera? What can I do with that? The iPhone camera's 2Mp sensor is small by digital-camera standards, but impressive for a phone. The camera uses the screen for image framing, and the phone's software includes a photo-management application that lets you browse your photo library or view photos in full-screen mode. This app takes advantage of the touchscreen by letting you 'swipe' images left or right to cycle through them, or pinch images to zoom in or out. There's no word on whether the iPhone will also be able to capture video.
How about third-party apps? It's unclear. Although the iPhone runs a version of OS X, developers won't necessarily be able to modify their apps for the iPhone. In an interview with the New York Times after his keynote, Jobs said Apple will "define everything that is on the phone". Other companies will be able to create software for the iPhone, but Apple will be the gatekeeper.
We envision a model similar to those you see on gaming platforms, in which third-party developers can create software, but it must be approved and controlled by the hardware manufacturer (in this case, Apple). In the end, we think the iTunes Store will most likely be the only place where you'll be allowed to buy iPhone software.
As an iPod, the iPhone's functionality is similar to that of a 5G (fifth-generation) model. In addition to playing back the standard array of music-file formats, the iPhone can display photos and video. There are several key differences, such as navigation. Notably absent is the iPod's famous Click Wheel. To navigate through your media and control playback, you use the iPhone's touch-sensitive screen. To find a song, for example, you tap on the Music item, tap on the Songs item, then move your finger up or down the screen to scroll the song list up or down. A flick of your finger gives the move momentum to scroll more quickly.
If you don't want to scroll through all your music to get to a section, you can tap your finger on any letter of the alphabet from the list displayed on the side of the screen to jump to items beginning with that letter.
(Because of the small size of the letters, however, accurate jumps are somewhat difficult to achieve.) Once you've found the song you're looking for, tap the track's name to play it. Even with the different method of control, the menu and media-browsing systems are recognisably iPod.
Tell me about the screen. When turned horizontally, the iPhone is the first iPod to offer wide-screen viewing. The built-in accelerometer recognises when you've turned the iPhone and adjusts accordingly.
The screen measures 3.5in diagonally, (it's 2.9x1.9in). That's not a cinematic widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio (it's more like 3:2), but it's wider than the iPod. A double-tap on the iPhone's screen will toggle between a zoomed-in view, in which the video fills the screen, and a letterboxed view, with black bars at the top and the bottom.
Apple has taken advantage of the iPhone's screen to add media capabilities. Album art is larger than on current iPods. And, when browsing music with the handset oriented horizontally, the iPhone provides an optional CoverFlow mode, like in iTunes 7.0 – drag your finger across the screen to flip through album covers to find music.
Will other iPods add that widescreen capability? Apple may have unveiled the iPhone six months in advance of its release, but that doesn't signal a shift in the company's policy about future plans for products – it doesn't reveal them. We hope this design becomes part of the next iPod, but Apple isn't talking right now.
I thought the iPhone had a hard drive. No. Like the iPod nano, the iPhone includes 4GB or 8GB of flash-based memory, which is much more compact than the considerably more spacious 1.8in hard drives found in 5G iPods. Using flash memory prolongs battery life, but the iPhone's capacity is limited for a device with video-viewing capabilities. There's also no slot for expanding internal memory with extra flash cards.
Are there any other similarities between the iPod and the iPhone? The iPhone retains the 30-pin dock-connector port present since the third-generation iPod, which means that many existing iPod accessories may work with the new handset right away. One big issue with the iPhone is that, as a mobile phone, it's broadcasting wireless signals that the iPod never did. That means some accessories will need to be redesigned with shielding, so that they don't pick up radio interference. We'd guess that you'll be able to charge it from a PC's USB port or an AC adaptor.
What kind of battery performance can I expect?
One of the problems with converged devices such as smartphones is battery life. With so many great functions, it'll be easy to run down the battery without even noticing. Apple told us the iPhone will contain a single battery (which, like the iPod's, you can't remove or swap) to power all aspects of its operation.
The company says the battery will last up to five hours for talk, video playback or internet browsing, and up to 16 hours for audio playback. (The iPod nano, for comparison, is rated for up to 24 hours of audio playback, and the 80GB iPod can play up to six-and-a-half hours of video.) You'll need to exercise good judgment if you want to ensure you have enough juice left for your phone once you're done listening to music, browsing the web or watching video.
The iPhone breaks new ground for Apple, but it also takes its cue from the lessons the company learned from the iPod. In the coming months, Apple will probably parcel out additional bits of information about is new creation. But one thing is already clear: Apple has again done what it seems to do best – take a product that exists and give it the polish and attention to detail it deserves.