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Monday, July 02, 2007, 06:00 am PT (09:00 am ET)

Apple's iPhone: an initial (but in-depth) review


Thankfully, it Uses the Same iPod Dock Connector

One of the most puzzling and stupid mistakes made by Palm was its habit of changing the sync connector on nearly every new generation of Palm devices. This rapidly made every new wave of Palm accessories obsolete, frustrating users and making it more attractive to switch to something else rather than remaining a Palm customer. 

Apple wisely designed a future proof dock connector for the 3G iPod which married USB, Firewire, video, and audio all into the same plug. Apple continued using the same connector on every new generation of iPods, including the Mini and Nano lines. The iPhone uses the same plug, making it physically compatible with all of the power charging adapters, audio devices, and other cables that are already widely available.

The iPhone can charge using a Firewire cable, just like the 5G video iPods, so external battery packs using Firewire still work. Being able to recharge from a Firewire or USB external battery pack deflects a common criticism about the iPhone lacking an easy to replace battery, as described in "David Sessions Tries to Milk iPhone Battery Panic in Slate." Apple says the iPhone's battery should last through 300-400 charging cycles before its performance starts to degrade. The third party industry offering replacement iPod batteries for $5-15 will no doubt start servicing the iPhone when its batteries begin to retire.

In preliminary testing, it appears that the iPhone easily breezes through 6-8 hours of heavy use, even when playing back music and using WiFi to browse the web. By default, the iPhone actively searches for available WiFi networks, but this battery intensive search can be turned off under Settings. Settings also presents an airplane mode, which makes it easy to turn off all of its radios in one step to comply with inflight regulations while still using its other features.

The iPhone Display and Video iPod Features

Video playback controls are intuitive and easy to use. They work the same everywhere; even videos in web pages open into the full screen player rather than playing inline, adapting to make full use of the iPhone's screen. Playback of both local and even streamed video was excellent. After watching a local video copied over from iTunes, the iPhone even offers to delete it to free up space. 

iPhone


Having a much larger screen with a much higher resolution (480x320 at a very sharp 160 dpi) means the iPhone is actually very good at playing videos. Its touchscreen sensitivity feels perfect; it does not require applying any pressure. It does require using a naked finger, as the screen senses electrical capacitance. A gloved finger or a plastic or metal stylus won't do anything. That means the iPhone's wake slider won't accidentally unlock when its bouncing around in a pocket unless there are fingers involved. It's even tricky to activate the slider with an elbow or another body part, because the screen ignores anything that isn't finger sized.

The glass screen is not easy to scratch, although there's no reason to avoid using a protective plastic film on it. The screen is bright even when viewed outside in direct sunlight, and the image appears impossibly crisp with a very wide viewing angle, making it easy for a number of people to watch video clips at the same time.

That makes its YouTube viewer far more handy that I imagined it would be. The iPhone really unleashes the potential of YouTube to mobile users, although it greatly prefers speedy WiFi to the minimal bandwidth provided by EDGE. The iPhone's highly responsive YouTube browser is much better than the Apple TV's version.

iPhone


Google only recently began its conversion from Flash video to the vendor-agnostic MPEG H.264 format, so there is still a limited selection of videos available. It appears that move was prompted by Apple, in order to make YouTube compatible with Apple TV and the iPhone. By migrating YouTube videos to H.264, both devices can decode YouTube videos using their dedicated hardware, rather than being forced to decode Flash videos using a software codec running on their general purpose processors. This move also means that Apple could avoid putting Flash on the iPhone entirely, potentially crippling Adobe's attempts to push Flash Lite on competing mobiles and more Flash/Flex/Apollo/AIR on the web.

Unlike the video iPods, it appears there is currently no way to use the iPhone to play back video to a TV. This may be possible in hardware and could be delivered in a future software update, but it is also possible that the iPhone lacks the appropriate hardware to support video output, or that Apple could choose not to provide access to it in a misguided attempt to differentiate it from the fifth-generation iPod. In demonstrations, Apple frequently linked the iPhone's display to an external monitor, suggesting that it does have video output hardware. Currently, plugging the iPhone into a video iPod dock brings up a message that says "this accessory is not made to work with iPhone." 

The Web, In Your Pocket

In addition to being a great leap forward as a music and video player, the iPhone is also an excellent web client. Unlike Nokia's N800 Linux-based web tablet, the iPhone isn't just a shrunken PC acting as a web browser toy, but instead adds an excellent mobile web browser to an already great phone and a brilliant iPod. 

The iPhone's Safari browser is fast and fun when using WiFi, rapidly loading pages and providing an easy to use, finger-driven zoom mechanism that is highly intuitive. Safari on the iPhone demonstrates the power of a resolution independent display. While zooming in and out using a finger pinch, web pages are rapidly rendered with razor sharp text at any desired scale. This feature isn't scheduled to fully arrive on the Mac desktop until 2009, largely because existing third party applications need time to declare their resolution independence.

The iPhone imports bookmarks from Safari on the computer it syncs with, as well as storing an easy to reference history of visited locations. Don't worry, it's also very easy to remove an embarrassing history of visited sites. Imported bookmarks are organized just like the desktop version of Safari, making them easy and familiar to reference. Bookmark matches are rapidly suggested as a URL is being typed in. Once you visit a site, it's therefore very easy to return later without typing it out again.

It does not import autofill data or security logins, nor does it offer to save any logins entered on the iPhone itself. That makes visiting any site that requires a login a lot more painful than it would be from a desktop, but also makes it harder for thieves to assume your identity if they were to come across your unlocked phone.

If you follow an RSS feed URL in the Safari brower, the iPhone will hand off the XML to Apple's servers to parse at reader.mac.com, which then present a familiar Safari RSS style web page for browsing the stories linked in the RSS feed itself.

While the iPhone's Safari is very good, there are a variety of web features that do not work, some due to assumptions made by web developers that all their viewers are all on desktop PCs equipped with a mouse. The iPhone may help make the web more accessible by challenging that assumption. Anything outside of JavaScript and QuickTime that requires a browser plugin will likely not work. That includes Adobe Flash and Shockwave, Windows Media and Real embedded and streaming audio and video, any client side Java web applets, and SVG. "The iPhone Threat to Adobe, Microsoft, Sun, Real, BREW, and Symbian" offers a look at why Apple appears disinterested in ever suppling support for Flash, Java, and proprietary audio and video formats.

It might be a bit of a surprise that the iPhone does not support Apple's own QuickTime VR, as well as any QuickTime videos that do not use the H.264 codec, or any audio files apart from MP3, AAC, WAV, raw CD AIFF, Audible books, or Apple Lossless. Even though the iPhone's software architecture appears to have more in common with the Mac than the iPod, it is designed to act more like an iPod than a Mac.

Among the web sites that do not yet fully support the iPhone are Google's Docs and Sheets web apps for using and editing spreadsheets and word processor documents. After being warned that the applications "do not yet support Safari," I was able to view documents using Google's apps on the iPhone, but not edit them. Google has announced intentions to extend its support for the iPhone's browser, describing it as an ideal platform for Ajax development, as noted in the article "Apple's Secret iPhone Application Business Model."

In addition to Safari, the iPhone also provides simple web powered widgets for Stocks, a Clock with multiple time zones, location based Weather updated by Yahoo!, Google Maps with satellite images and step by step driving directions, and YouTube videos. All are responsive, beautiful, and surprisingly quick to update over WiFi, even on the edge of a hotspot with only a single bar of signal. Outside of WiFi hotspots however, the iPhone is limited to EDGE mobile data service, which ranges from a tenth to a quarter the speed of a broadband connection, or about 3-4 times faster than dialup speeds. Browsing the web or looking up maps on EDGE is frustratingly slow, but it does work. 

With my Sprint Palm Treo, I gave up on trying to use the web with its "Blazer" browser, because when pages did get around to loading, they were frequently unusable anyway. On the iPhone, EDGE is slow, but most pages do load properly, making it far more useful than phones with faster 3G service but saddled with a far less capable mini-browser.

On page 3: "Email, Messaging, and Networks," "The New PDA: Contacts, and Calendar, and Data Sync Features," and "The iPhone Phone."