Noah's Apple iPhone review

Noah Kravitz
 from  Oakland, CA
| October 7, 2007

iPhone Maybe it's because I've only ever owned Apple computers, and because I've been following and writing about the company for over a decade now, that I judged them so harshly when they first entered the mobile phone market. I might have held them up to a higher standard, given my longtime fondness and admiration for their products and the resultant sky-high expectations I had for the first Apple mobile phone.

Or I might just have been reacting to the spec sheet and price points - $499/599 plus a two-year contract for a phone that lacked 3G data, GPS, stereo Bluetooth, 3rd party application support, and a camera flash and video recording capabilities sounded awful steep. Still does. In the many months between iPhone's public debut at MacWorld in January 2007 and it's overhyped hit the streets date that June, iPhone was scrutinized by every angle except the one that matters most: we were all writing about the device, but nobody had gotten their hands on the thing.

So when iPhone finally went on sale, I waited. I tried to get one from Apple's PR department but all I got was strung along via email. I wasn't about to plunk down $500 and also sign up for two years of AT&T service since I was still under contract with T-Mobile. So I waited. And then two events occurring within a short time of one another changed everything: Apple cut iPhone's price by a third, and; clever programmers figured out how to unlock the handset for use on other GSM networks.

And so here I am writing my review of Apple's iPhone - a sort of hybrid review combining the "as Apple sells it" iPhone with the "unlocked, running on T-Mobile, chock full of third party apps" iPhone. However you slice it, Apple's maiden cell phone is a game changer that lives up to the hype. Apple has made a fortune combining hardware design, software design, and firmly controlled vision into some of the best top-to-bottom user experiences to be found anywhere in the consumer electronics industry. iPhone is no different. Yes, it lacks certain features folks have come to expect on high-end cell phones. No, it's not for everyone. Yes, the game of cat and mouse between Apple and "the hackers" that rages on as I write this threatens to hang a black cloud over the company for some time to come.

Doesn't matter. Apple's iPhone is a brilliant piece of consumer electronics with perhaps the most useable interface to ever grace the screen of a device that can do so much. Using the word "brilliant" to describe a phone that, as a phone, is average at best takes some doing. But given the state of cell phones today and where the industry is heading, Apple has really launched a landmark product with the iPhone.

Too bad they haven't found a way to let the hacker/developer community continue to make the thing even better.

iPhone is thin, sleek, and dominated by a large 3.5" touchscreen display bracketed by a cut-out speaker and hidden light sensors (top) and a single physical button (bottom) on the front of the device. At 115 x 61 x 11.6 mm and weighing 135 grams, the device is small enough to tuck away in a pants pocket, large enough to make for easy use of the display, and rather heavy but still pleasant in hand. When the display is darkened in sleep mode, the entire front of the handset is black, flanked by a chromed border and rounded edges all around, and looks like a Star Trek Communicator passed through a minimalist design lab.

Most of the side and back panels of the phone are finished in a textured silver metal designed to be comfortable to grip. The lower portion of the panels is done up in black, as are the phone's controls. Along with that lone front-panel button, iPhone houses a rocker switch for volume control and silent/ringer button on its left side, while the right side is completely button-free. The top panel is home to a power/sleep/wake button, the SIM card tray, and a recessed 3.5mm headphone jack (the source of much head-scratching for me ... more on that in a bit). The bottom panel houses a dock connector similar to those found on iPods, and it's flanked by speaker and microphone grills. The back of the phone features a sensor for the camera set in the upper left corner, and while the black part of the back panel is in fact a battery cover, the battery is not user removable.

WIthout delving into the pros and cons of a phone that lacks buttons but compensates with the best touchscreen display on any handset ever, Apple's near-buttonless design is nothing short of stunning. While the black and silver look that screams "Look at me, I'm an Apple!" is honestly a bit ostentatious for my tastes, it's ostentatious in a really cool, mysterious sort of way. iPhone is a good looking gadget that looks like it came from the future, especially when lined up next to something like a Treo.

After a few weeks of using one, I can definitely say Apple did a (typically) fantastic job on iPhone's industrial design. The phone feels good in use during voice calls and screen-intensive tasks, and its size and shape is a great balance between large enough for Web and media player use but small enough to tuck away in a pocket. The phone's 11.6mm profile and extremely durable optical glass front have a lot to do with the whole "easy to tuck away" thing. After several weeks living mainly in my pants pockets without any sort of case to protect it, iPhone's screen is scratch free and the chrome trim is just a little scuffed up.


iPhone's most immediately recognizable feature is its multi-touch display. The giant front-mounted display is a touchscreen with a twist - the screen can recognize more than one touch at a time, and is also programmed to process gestures. You can place two fingers on the screen and pinch them open and shut to zoom in and out on a photo or Web page. Or you can flick a fingertip up and down to scroll through a contact list, or left and right to flip through a photo album. Apple has earned their legendary status in the field of user interface design, and they've taken what they've learned from all of those years of making Macs and iPods and applied it to iPhone with great success. The bright, colorful, intuitive user interface is perhaps iPhone's most noteworthy feature. But it's far from the only one.

Much as a handset like Nokia's N95 packs nearly every feature a phone geek could hope for in a single handset, iPhone packs a ton of features that the average consumer will be dazzled by, and many of the more geeky types will appreciate at the least. The phone runs on a version of Apple's OS X operating system - the one that current Macs use - and so is theoretically capable of supporting a wide variety of applications. Apple shipped iPhone with a bunch of apps including a YouTube viewer, Weather and Stocks widgets, a Google-powered Maps app with search and traffic updates, and, to quote Apple CEO Steve Jobs, "the best iPod we've ever made," complete with 8GB of built-in memory (the original 4GB model has been discontinued). The iPod functionality is really great, though it's notably lacking any sort of external controls for controlling media playback; the included stereo headset does have a single-button remote control that can play/pause (single press) and skip to the next track (double press) during music playback, and pick up and hang up on incoming calls.

The company isn't supporting third party software development for iPhone (yet), but a group of self-supported hackers and developers have pieced together the keys to the system and developed software for everything from unlocking the handset to run on non-AT&T networks to a virtual-GPS application that uses cell phone towers to triangulate a user's location. I've tried both of these apps (and a bunch of others) and they work. The "Navizon" GPS app isn't perfect, but it put me within a few hundred yards of the runway when I tried it while waiting to deplane at the Salt Lake City airport a few weeks ago.

Speculation fueled by various comments made by Jobs and other Apple execs points towards an official iPod software ecosystem emerging from under Apple's watchful eye sooner or later. In the meantime, the company has thwarted third-party development by way of at least one official software update that adds new iPhone functionality - including Wi-Fi based access to the enormously popular iTunes Music Store for over the air purchase and downloads - while also disabling all third party applications installed on your handset. Additionally the first software update from Apple rendered unlocked iPhones more or less useless, locking them back to AT&T and requiring reactivation.

As such it's hard to really call iPhone a "smartphone," as it doesn't support user-installable software to extend its functionality. Still, iPhone does a ton all on its own. Visual Voicemail is an AT&T/iPhone exclusive that lets you pick and choose what voicemails to listen to in much the same way that you manage an email Inbox. Calendar and contact apps are simple but effective, very user-friendly, and easy to read on the giant display. The iPod features are second to none, and flicking through album covers via the "Cover Flow" feature, or viewing photos and videos on the widescreen display is really a treat for the eyes.

iPhone also makes use of an accelerometer that automatically rotates the display in certain applications (Web browsing, photo viewing, and music selection) when the handset is physically rotated. It's pretty slick, and while Windows Mobile devices can accomplish the same basic feat via a menu selection, iPhone's sensor-driven magic is just more fun. Similarly, the phone features a front mounted sensor that tells the phone display to deactivate when it's near your face (during a call), and re-activate when you've taken it away from your cheek (after a call). This feature both eliminates unwanted "face dialing" and helps preserve battery life. If there's one thing Apple's designers know, it's that genius lies in the details.

However, iPhone is lacking certain features that power users might not be able to do without. There's no GPS, no voice dialing, no support for stereo Bluetooth and ... this is typical Apple and entirely absurd ... the battery is not user replaceable. That last point is definitely a sore spot - not only will you have to ship the phone back to Apple when your battery needs a replacement, but heavy users who rely on extra or extended life batteries while traveling are entirely out of luck.

The two megapixel camera built into the iPhone is about as simple an affair as possible, and somewhat overwhelming given the state-of-the-art device that it's built into. There's literally one control in the camera software - capture. That's it. You point and you shoot, period. There's no flash, no image or resolution settings, and the focus is fixed. To take a photo you line it up on the display (which makes for about the best viewfinder anywhere) and tap the button on the touchscreen - a stylized animation then imitates a shutter closing and that's that. Again, phone geeks may hate it but Mom and Dad sure won't be confused by all the bells and whistles.

Image quality was somewhere around average for a two megapixel shooter. Photos tended to suffer from some color inaccuracies, and shutter lag time was a little longer than many phones (though the camera boots up faster than that on almost any other phone I've tried), but most shots taken in good lighting came out pretty decent - certainly well enough to view onscreen or send off in an email. Forget about taking photos at night or in dark bars, though. And there's no video capture.

iPhone excels at after the photo activities like organizing and viewing pictures and using them in emails, contacts entries, and as wallpapers. If your photo came out well, it'll look great on iPhone's display, and zooming in and out of snapshots on the high-res display is really fun. It's like carrying around a high-tech photo album - you can sideload photos from your computer to iPhone, and then view them by album as thumbnails, full-size shots, and slideshows. Tapping an icon while looking at a photo brings up a clear, easy to read menu of options for use. Want to use a photo in an email? Tap a button and an animation shows the shot being resized and dropped into a new Email message. MMS messaging is not supported, however, and you cannot do anything with your photos via Bluetooth - no sending to other phones or computers, no printing, no nothing.

Display & Audio

iPhone displayiPhone's display is a giant 3.5" in size and features a somewhat non-standard widescreen resolution of 320 x 480 pixels. The display also packs a whopping 160 dpi (dots per inch), making it one of the overall highest resolution displays you're going to find on a mobile device. It's a winner, plain and simple. Text is big and bold and smooth on the display, graphics are crisp and colorful, and images are rich with detail. The multi-touch functionality is sensitive and accurate, and my only complaint with it is that I sometimes hit the wrong link when viewing a page in the Safari Web browser without zooming in before clicking.

Watching videos in widescreen mode is terrific, too - I rarely use my full-size iPod for video playback, but for the review's sake I loaded the iPhone up with a full length movie and a few TV shows for a recent flight from Oakland to Washington, DC. On the way to DC I watched three half-hour tv shows and on the way back I watched a feature length film and another TV show, and the overall experience was fabulous. While watching a movie on a three-and-a-half inch screen can't compare to watching it on a full-sized HD display, in the close confines of coach class it's more than serviceable. And then there's the undeniable cool factor of turning the video off, tucking the phone in your pocket, and pulling it back out once the plane has landed to check your messages. iPhone is certainly not the first device to feature such "convergence" of a phone and media player, but when it comes to the media player part of the equation it's entirely in a class by itself. Sony Ericsson and Nokia, in particular, make some music phones that sound very good and are pretty easy to use. Apple now makes one that adds "really, really fun" and "stellar display" to the mix.

The display also serves as your primary form of interfacing with iPhone, and generally speaking it works very well. Apple built a ton of eye candy into the various interfaces and menus, and while a few things here and there irk me - like the analog-style scrolling wheels used to set calendar reminders - in general the animations are either enjoyable or at least don't get in the way. The biggest point of concern for many users centers around iPhone's virtual QWERTY board.

I was very skeptical of iPhone's touchscreen keyboard, particularly after having less than stellar experiences with touchscreen keyboards on other handsets like the Motorola E6. My first day or two trying to tap out emails and SMSs on iPhone were pretty frustrating. I dove right in with two thumbs and tried typing with the same speed and "technique" I use on BlackBerrys and other smartphones with physical QWERTY keyboards. It didn't work so well. But after a few more days I'd started to get the hang of it. As Apple says, it helps to trust their text correction software - it's quite sophisticated and quite good, and while it lacks the multiple choices and on-screen user dictionaries of other handsets, it's accurate enough to support Apple's "simple is better" design mantra. The one area I keep running into trouble with, though, is "made up words." For instance, I seem to use "Ha ha ha" a lot in messages. iPhone always things I mean "Us us us." Grrr.

Don't get me wrong - iPhone's touchscreen keyboard is still nowhere near as reliable as its physical counterparts on handsets like the Nokia e61i or almost any of the BlackBerry devices. If you're a heavy, heavy email user you may simply find iPhone unacceptable. But I've found the keyboard to be surprisingly useful for moderate daily use (Email, SMS, Web, and Calendar management), and with a little patience I can get through the occasional longer message just fine. The press-and-hold activated magnifying glass is handy for correcting errors, and Apple's first iPhone software update adds a BlackBerry style shortcut for "double tap space bar" equals "space plus period," which is super handy for transitioning between sentences.

I tested the quad-band GSM iPhone on T-Mobile's network in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, and also during trips to Washington, DC and San Diego, CA (and in a few airports along the way). Note that I had unlocked my handset for use on T-Mobile, but this is not supported in any way by Apple - iPhone is officially meat for use on AT&T in the United States.

Audio quality during phone calls was generally okay, with voices coming through clearly on both ends but not always loudly on my end. Complaints regarding too-low volume of the phone's earpiece and speaker abounded during the first few months after the handset's release, and the first Apple software update addresses this issue (I did not install the update prior to writing this review). The phone's integrated speakerphone, headphone jack and Bluetooth connectivity allow for several hands-free calling options, all of which worked quite well though, again, earpiece/speakerphone volume needed to be set near it's loudest setting for normal use. I was able to pair the handset with mono headsets, and also used both the included earbuds - with inline mic and single-button control for handling calls and music - and standard stereo earphones (in conjunction with the phone's built-in mic) for calling.

Without getting back on my soapbox about it, I have to wonder what Apple was thinking when they designed iPhone's recessed headphone jack. On the one hand it accepts standard 3.5mm connectors, but on the other hand it's recessed and so the plastic shielding on most plugs is simply too thick to fit into the port. The cynic in me says Apple wanted to force a "Made for iPhone" ecosystem similar to the one they created for iPod accessories - they get a cut every time a third party stamps "Made for iPod" on their packaging. In any case, my Etymotic er-6i earphones fit perfectly into the jack but virtually every other earphone or audio cable I've tried does not (save, of course, for the included earbuds - but they don't do iPhone's music player sonic justice). So there are three options: 1)Shell out for some Made for iPhone earphones; 2)Shell out for an unsightly adapter that basically extends the audio jack to allow for use with any standard cable; 3)Trim the plastic shielding around the connector on your favorite earphones' cable so it fits. Option three is the cheapest, and it generally works quite easily if you've got a sharp knife and a relatively steady hand. Still, it's a solution to a problem that simply should not exist.

Music stored on iPhone may be played back via a built-in mono speakers or through the headphone jack, but not via Bluetooth. Music may also be routed through the line out jack on the dock included in iPhone's box - the setup is basically the same as using an iPod with a line-out capable dock. The lack of stereo Bluetooth support doesn't bother me personally, but as a reviewer I again wonder what Apple was thinking leaving it out. With my Etymotics phones wired up, music sounds great on iPhone - it really is the best iPod ever made, save for the fact that 4 or 8 GB isn't nearly enough storage space to let me give up my iPod just yet. iPhone supports AAC, mp3, and a few other audio formats - but not the Windows-standard WMA (which is no surprise). Stereo soundtracks for video content are also supported - the audio portion of the movie and TV shows I watched on the handset also sounded terrific.

Music played over the internal speaker is clear, if not terribly loud, but ringtones tended to be on the quiet side. Apple now offers customizable ringtones for sale via their iTunes Music Store - two dollars gets you a song and the legal right to make a custom ringtone using a snippet of that song via iTunes software on your Mac or PC. Third party applications allowed me to load my own ringtones onto the handset for free, though again, those apps aren't supported by Apple and don't work with the latest iPhone software update.

Messaging, Internet & Connectivity

Apple's Email and SMS software for iPhone is excellent so long as you don't mind the touchscreen QWERTY board. IM and MMS messages, however, are not supported (another head-scratcher), though a "hacked" iPhone can run one of several available IM apps written specifically for the handset. Email includes support for POP and IMAP accounts, including Gmail, Yahoo!, and Apple's own .Mac service, and both HTML email and attachment viewing worked very well. It'd be nice to see attachment editing on a future software release.

Text messages are displayed in as threaded conversations via an interface resembling Apple's iChat program for Mac OS X. I really liked viewing and responding to SMS messages this way - it's easy to review and/or clear conversations, and save multiple conversations with different people. Integration between Email/SMS and the Contacts application is excellent, as well.

The flip side is that while basic Email and SMS functionality is robust and easy to use, iPhone lacks the more powerful messaging features smartphone users are used to. There's no means for searching through Emails and no support for Exchange servers - iPhone is a consumer device, not a corporate solution.

iPhone features perhaps the best Web browser currently available for any mobile phone, Apple's Safari. My previous favorite browser, the Nokia Series 60 browser, is based on the same technologies as Safari, but iPhone's large, high-res display and intuitive, touch-based navigation makes it the new champ. There's one catch, though - Web browsing on iPhone is a joy when you're connected to a Wi-Fi network, but it can be a little frustrating on an EDGE network. Safari renders full HTML with support for many "Web 2.0" technologies (except, sadly, Flash), and sometimes that means downloading enough data to make EDGE feel poky. That being said, Apple is encouraging the development of Web 2.0 sites as psuedo-applications for iPhone, and a number of notables - from Facebook to SeeqPod, a search engine for music that can be played directly over the Web on iPhone - have already taken up the challenge.

Web pages can be viewed in landscape or portrait mode, and that handy accelerometer auto-rotates the display when you pivot the handset. You can also "pinch" the display with two fingers - or double-tap a target area of the screen - to zoom in and out. The quality of iPhone's screen makes zooming really, really nice - close-ups of text are smoothly rendered and high-quality photos and graphics look stunning. The browser also allows for multiple windows to be "open" at once - tapping an icon takes you to a scrollable thumbnail menu of all open pages, any of which can be activated or deleted.

Safari for iPhone also features a mobile version of the RSS reader built into the full desktop version of the browser. I've really come to appreciate RSS feeds formatted for mobile phones, as RSS is a great way to get a quick informational update on the go without having to navigate full Web pages. RSS on the iPhone is particularly good for times when there's no WiFi network to be found, as they load much quicker than the complex, Full-HTML sites they're often associated with.

The Internet category is where another mention of the renegade iPhone development community is warranted. Third party apps make it possible to FTP in and out of iPhone, upload photos from it to your Flickr account, email songs stored on iPhone, and even configure the thing as an Apache webserver. Again, iPhone fans have really rallied around the device, working on extending its capabilities as a labor of love at no cost at all to Apple. I really hope - as an iPhone owner and a fan of mobile technology - that Apple finds a way to support this newfound ecosystem while still maintaining their own business interest. Too many good things have already come from independent iPhone software development for anyone to really justify squashing the community.

iPhone The Apple iPhone is a quad-band GSM phone locked to AT&T in the United States. Apple has also recently introduced a European version that will be available this November on the O2 network. iPhone can connect to AT&T's EDGE data networks in the US, and 802.11b/g (WiFi) connections are also supported for WLAN networking. Configuring and connecting to WiFi networks is very easy on iPhone, and the handset does a great job of switching from EDGE to WiFi when a known or open network is detected.

I should note that I was also able to configure my unlocked iPhone for EDGE data access via my T-Mobile account. Though it depends on the specifics of your carrier and data plan, as of my writing this widespread success has been reported connecting unlocked iPhones to various GSM networks for EDGE data services. In my case, configuring the device went beyond merely changing settings - I had to do some minor-ly technical editing of some system files, a process which was figured out and documented by some friendly folks on various forums around the Web.

Apple built Bluetooth v2.0 into the N95, though the only connections with mono handsfree devices are supported. iPhone does not support stereo audio over Bluetooth, file exchange, laptop tethering, wireless printing, or anything else having to do with Bluetooth. The interface for pairing with Bluetooth devices is probably the best and easiest to use I've ever seen on a mobile phone - Apple has simplified the process so it's nearly fool-proof. Too bad I can't listen to music or transfer photos to/from iPhone without wires.

Apple includes a USB sync/dock cable, a USB-based AC adapter, and a docking station in the iPhone packaging; again, the setup is quite similar to what iPod owners are used to. This mini-modular system can be used in a few different ways - connecting the cable from iPhone directly to a computer allows for syncing and charging, as does docking the handset and connecting the dock to your computer. Me, I've got an extra cable lying around from an old iPod, so I keep one cable with my laptop for synching contacts and media, and I've got the dock, AC adapter, and other cable set up on my bedside table. This allows me to charge the iPhone overnight and also run an audio cable from the dock to the stereo in my bedroom - perfect for listening to music in bed, though it also makes it dangerously easy to check Email and surf the Web at all hours of the night.

All syncing between iPhone and my Mac or PC is handled via iTunes software (though iPhoto is used for downloading photos snapped on the handset). An iPhone tab added to the iTunes interface provides settings for syncing music, movies, photos, calendars, and contacts with my computer. I'm used to using iTunes to manage my music collection, and so find it pretty convenient to finally be able to use it to keep tabs on what media I'm moving on and off of my mobile phone as well. The one complaint I have with this system is that iTunes only allows for music playlists to be synced with iPhone - I can't move individual tracks or albums on and off of the handset; instead, they have to be added to or removed from a playlist I've set up solely for "iPhone music." It's a minor inconvenience, but also another head-scratcher.


I could write for days about iPhone only to find that both Apple and independent developers had extended the handset's functionality significantly while I was locked away with my word processor. Suffice it to say that iPhone is as much a mobile entertainment, communications, and personal data device as it is a cell phone. In fact, it's the basic cell phone functions that iPhone is worst at. Calls and ringtones are too quiet, there's no voice dialing, and making a call is often a multiple click process that involves pressing the Home button, touching the Phone icon, touching the Keypad icon, and then dialing the number on the touch screen.

Beyond that, iPhone's advanced functionality is hampered by EDGE-only access to data networks, a lack of stereo Bluetooth or any kind of Bluetooth profiles for exchanging files, no flash for the camera, no external media controls, a bizarrely designed audio jack that's forced many an iPhone user to take an X-Acto knife to his favorite earphones, and a sealed-up back panel that means if you drain your battery before you can make it back home or to the hotel, you're out of luck. A non-user replaceable battery means carrying a spare on your next business trip will do you no good at all.

That being said, iPhone is the closest thing to a perfect mobile device I've ever tried. I hesitated before writing that sentence, and I'm grimacing now that I'm tapping it out, but I'm pretty certain it's true bearing in mind that my wants for a mobile device may be quite different from your own. iPhone's industrial design, amazingly useable display, and intuitive user interface puts it ahead of SuperPhone competitors like the Helio Ocean, Nokia N95, and BlackBerry Curve when it comes my particular preferences. Ocean's got a physical QWERTY board and 3G data, N95's got a 5 MP camera, GPS and 3G data, and Curve's got a QWERTY board and BlackBerry email - those are features I wish iPhone had, and they're on fantastic devices that many people will choose over iPhone for those (and other) specific reasons. But in terms of combining a foward-looking feature set with innovative extras, a great form factor, and menus that make sense, nothing can top iPhone right now.

iPhone is frustrating because it so clearly could be so much more. And it's extra frustrating because as I'm writing this, Apple just mounted a counter-offensive against an open source community that came together specifically to make iPhone as "much more" as possible. Still, Apple has made an outstanding product. If you need a phone that makes phone calls and not much else, iPhone is not for you. If you're interested in a phone that can access Web and email, and maybe play music or videos, manage your calendar, and let you carry some photos around (and really, most mid-to-high end handsets these days do these things), iPhone is well worth a look. At $599 I thought it was over-priced. At $399 (or the $299 I paid for the now defuct 4GB model), it's right on par with other high-end models, and it simply blows them away when it comes to Web browsing and playing music, videos, and photos.

iPhone has the potential to be the beginning of a full-on "mobile communicator" platform that could cause Apple to literally revolutionize the ways in which we compute and communicate - and to inspire Apple's competitors to up their own level of innovation. Here's hoping that this first release - which is already a pretty amazing product - in fact proves to be only the beginning of something really, really good.

Products mentioned