Monday, July 02, 2007, 06:00 am PT (09:00 am ET)
Apple's iPhone: an initial (but in-depth) review
Another component that works to set the iPhone apart is its impossibly miniaturized hardware. In marketing photos, the iPhone appears to be the size of a small book, even when placed in the giant hand model Apple used. Even having seen a prototype under the glass at Macworld Expo, and in the hands of Apple executives as I've talked to them over the last six months, I was still unprepared to hold one myself. The more I use it, the more remarkable I feel it is, and its "big feel in a small form factor" seems to be a major component of why.
It disappears in nearly any pocket, but its ultra high density screen makes it appear to be larger than it really is when using it to browse the web or to watch videos. The iPhone's imposing heft of functionality tucks away inside its tiny frame in a way that feels uncanny.
Some have complained about its solid density, which makes the iPhone seem heavier than its size might suggest. Other phones seem to include large pockets of dead air, particularly if they feature removable batteries. My Palm Treo was not only full of air, but also creaks when handled, as if built from second hand plastic parts salvaged from a recycling bin. The iPhone feels like an iPod, as if carved from a single piece of titanium.
Part of its magically thin and indestructibly solid feeling design comes from Apple's decade of experience in creating increasingly smaller and more powerful devices like the iPod Nano, which still seems too impossibly thin to be something that can be mass produced at low cost. Apple certainly worked with top vendors to identify the best chip sets to source, and the iPhone demonstrates the state of the art in miniaturization at a consumer price target.
Having said that, I must break the magician's code to reveal that part of the iPhone thinness is actually a clever illusion. Like the iPod, it uses rounded and beveled edges to appear thinner that it actually is. It feels as thin as pencil, when in reality it's thicker than a CD jewel case, by almost exactly the thickness of a credit card. If you have a CD and a credit card, you can put them together to see how fat the iPhone really is. You can also put them together to see how phat the iPhone really is.
It's not only implausibly svelte, but also just impossibly small overall. Two can fit inside CD jewel case, making it exactly half as wide as a CD. Its measurements have been posted on Apple's website for six months, but its still a shock to have one in the hand. It feels like some kind of experimental technology inexplicably delivered back in time from benevolent researchers living ten years into the future.
Here's a photo of the iPhone next to a stick of gum, a pencil, and the thicker 30 GB version of the 3G iPod.
Impossibly Solid First Generation Software
One of the ideas associated with first generation products—and for some reason, particularly those from Apple—is that the first run is always plagued with irritating bugs and sloppily rough edges, so it's always better to wait around for the product to get fixed after a minor revision or two.
While logic and physics would certainly tend to support such an idea, it didn't turn out to be true in the case of the first generation Titanium PowerBook I bought in 2001, it wasn't true with the first Power Mac G5 I bought in 2003, it wasn't true with the first generation Mac Books I bought in 2006, and it doesn't seem to be the case with the iPhone.
Its software is remarkable not only in its solid feel, but in its powerful usability, its completeness, and its thoughtful attention to detail. Snappy "spring-loaded" animations make dragging through lists of contacts or songs feel as if you are directly manipulating a reel of magical cellophane spooling through the device.
Take a photo using its built-in camera and the snapshot falls downward into the photo library icon, intuitively hinting at how to jump to the collection of photos already taken. Pay even closer attention and you'll notice that the photo you take first turns translucent before shrinking and falling down into its genie bottle home inside the library icon.
Tap the trash can to delete the current photo, confirm the delete, and the trash can's lid opens, the discarded photo slurps down into the trash can, and the lid pops shut behind it. The trash even jiggles a bit, as if a particularly large photo were bouncing around inside it on the way to the bottom of the can.
This device is so full of unnecessary interface embellishments that it appears to be the work of artisan crafters working to impress the world with their witty creative wizardry rather than a corporation scheming to earn money and market share. It simply does not feel possible that the iPhone should exist, but here I am holding it in my hand.
How did Apple perfect a complete design language for its mobile handheld without anyone hearing about its details in advance? While evocative of the Mac OS X desktop—such as its Dock-like set of icons along the bottom of its screen—the iPhone diverges from the familiar windowed desktop in significant ways.
For example, there are no direct representations of files or windows. It manages multiple tabs of independent browser web pages in Safari using a Dashboard-like display of multiple panels that are dismissed by a tap on their offset "X" close icons. Despite packing the same core operating system and advanced graphics capabilities used in full size Macs, the iPhone does not aspire to be a mini desktop at all. The engineering decisions made by the iPhone designers won't please everyone however; a number of feature omissions that might annoy some users are noted below.
Impossibly Familiar and Intuitive
The iPhone introduces several new human interface conventions that one might expect to be impossibly confusing and unfamiliar, especially for those of us irritated by unnecessary complexity and pointless changes made simply for the sake of change. Instead, nearly all of these concepts seem to be impossibly intuitive.
The most obvious is the home button, which acts like Windows Start button, but without resorting to use Windows' horrible Start menu listings of deeply nestled options. The iPhone is actually completely free of any drop down menu bars at all, making it simpler and more approachable overall than Windows Mobile phones by orders of magnitude.
If you get lost, just press the home button and the familiar startup screen appears. It also acts like a task switcher, so that in the middle of a phone call, you can jump to the home screen, enter Safari to look up a web page, then jump home again to enter Mail to send a note, and then return to the call to initiate a three-way conference. There is simply nothing complicated to learn about how to accomplish all this, it just works.
Beyond the iPhone's overall interface behaviors, its individual applications also deliver a cleverly playful design language that injects nostalgic familiarity with real world devices and futuristic flourish powered by subtly animated visual cues, realistic textures, glossy finishes, and clever use of translucency effects.
The Notes application is designed to look like a common yellow memo pad, and uses a clean hand-printed font, although thankfully not the infamous Comic Sans (it's Marker Felt). The top edge of the virtual notepad even subtly suggests that the first few pages have been ripped out.
Each note is time and date stamped when it is created or edited, so recently touched notes percolate up to the top of the list of "documents" listed under Notes. Tabbing between notes rapidly flips the pad's virtual pages, using shadowing effects to subtly simulate the feeling of using a real pad of paper. Even the icons are roughly drafted to suggest they were sketched out by hand. No manual is required to figure out that the trash icon deletes a note, while an envelope copies the note text into to a new email ready to address and send.
The iPhone's Maps application has already been widely demonstrated; its slick integration of Google searching, Google street and satellite maps, and locally stored contacts is best described as breathtaking. When I searched for my zipcode and 'haircut', it not only dropped pins in the map for all of the local businesses, but also tagged my usual barber by name, because it cross referenced my contacts and found a match with Google's search results.
The more subtle details in Maps are its smart map resizing that shows an appropriately zoomed area of the neighborhood being searched, the cleverly animated pins that drop to mark search locations, the translucent tags that label the pins, and the smart selection techniques that allow you to select pin points that are very close together, even when being forced to use clumsy fat fingers.
The iPhone analyses the various targets available on screen, not just where you've touched. That makes it easy to choose between two targets that are too close together to accurately distinguish between using a big finger. Rather than trying to touch a specific magic dot itself, you only need to poke in the general direction, and the iPhone's software intelligently determines the probabilities of your intended targets for you.
That kind of smart behavior is quick to get used to, and will likely result in a new dissatisfaction for any and all systems that offer anything less. Apple just raised the bar dramatically for everything in the consumer electronics space, not just within the mobile phone market.
Similar intelligence went into text input. One of the most frustrating things about trying to browse the web using my Palm Treo was that it was impossible to select the URL and delete it. Safari on the iPhone offers a delete button that wipes the existing URL in one push. It isn't easy to edit or delete a portion of a URL however; the iPhone lacks any mechanism for copying and pasting text or selecting arbitrary sections of text for replacement.
According to Apple's website, as the user types the iPhone watches the letters entered and determines the likelihood of the next letter. If typing W or R makes no sense in the context, it will assume you are meaning to poke at E, and adjusts the keyboard target mappings appropriately. Even so, I didn't have any special troubles entering specific lettered codes that made no sense as actual words, although it did try to offer corrections as I typed them.
The iPhone also provides a magnifying glass interface concept for precise positioning of the text cursor. Simply touch and hold near the text, and a loupe pops up to allow precise cursor placement between specific letters. The loupe also does some subtle translucency effects and peripheral blurring to create a clearer impression of being a virtual optic lens, making it another example of how the iPhone wraps the familiar and futuristic together.
Image (if possible)
Impossibly Minor Flaws?
While I'll address some of the iPhone's more significant missing premium features below, it seems is that it is actually missing very little in terms of expected features, which is both odd and somewhat suspicious for a first generation product that not only blazes a trail into a previously uncharted territory of mobile devices, but which is also being delivered by a company with no prior experience in building mobile phones.
The iPhone is remarkably stable for being the 1.0 release of both the platform and all of its applications. Apple transitioned large portions of Mac OS X to the iPhone's ARM processor with the same precision and solid results as last year's move to Intel processors. That's a massive undertaking, and being able to duplicate it indicates a lot about Apple's engineering and quality control finesse. Still, its unreasonable to suggest that applications will never experience problems on the iPhone. What happens when it crashes?
In many cases, users may never notice. While furiously flipping between applications, I twice noticed that the music playing in the background had stopped. I first assumed I had reached the end of the playlist, but then realized that my browser session had crashed. The iPhone simply returned to the home screen and waited for me to relaunch Safari, which was busy reloading my webpage before I realized what had happened. The iPhone itself didn't inform me that things had crapped out, it just got back to work.
After syncing the iPhone, it asked me if I wanted to submit the crash report to Apple. The crash report itself had very little information in it, apart from referencing the hardware as "iPhone1,1" running "OS X 1.0 (1A543a)," indicating that Apple does in fact internally refer to the iPhone's ARM OS as "OS X," at version 1, rather than the internal major version 8 related to Mac OS X Tiger 10.4.
Typically, a 1.0 product strives to deliver a limited set of functionality; what's left out is missing due to finite resources and is promised for later delivery in a future model. On the iPhone, many things that appear to be missing are actually left out purposely as an engineering decision.
Engineered to be Mobile
The first thing conspicuously missing relates to text entry. Apple, the inventor of the familiar graphical user interface conventions of Command -X -C -V, purposely left out any way to select, copy, paste, or replace text. Those text entry concepts predate the Mac, and are considered integral to word processing in general. On the iPhone, it appears one can only insert the cursor and delete characters one key at a time, or simply wipe entries in one fell swoop.
Why has Apple purposely left out such an obvious thing? It appears that the answer is that the iPhone was engineered to be a mobile phone, designed to consume content, record short Notes, and enter search items. It's not a handheld version of the 1980's desktop, and purposely intends not to be.
That's a huge difference in strategy over the "Mobile Windows Everywhere" concept Microsoft unsuccessfully floated repeatedly during the early 90s with Windows for Pen Computing, during the mid 90s with the vaporware WinPad, and again in the late 90s with Windows CE. WinCE has struggled to find relevancy for its idea of cramming the Windows desktop into a small form factor for a decade now, failing to the tune of many billions of dollars in losses.
It's no surprise to find that Apple didn't embark on the same strategy. Instead of being a little Mac, the iPhone is positioned as a mobile phone that also does useful mobile-related things, not a desktop that is stripped to fit into a mobile sized box and happens to also do phone features.
Being designed for a specific purpose—rather than being stretched to fit a differently sized product category—is a major differentiating concept behind everything about the iPhone. It also makes it difficult to directly compare it against other products, simply because most devices blindly follow conventions out of convention.
That also makes it easy for blind followers of convention to dismiss the iPhone by creating lists of "features" that it conspicuously lacks, similar to the lists of "features" missing from the iPod: no built-in radio, no ability to play Windows Media files, and no ability to use disposable batteries.
Text Entry: Think Different?
Lacking any system-wide, complex text entry and copy/paste functionality greatly simplifies the iPhone. It also requires users to approach it differently. Notes is not designed to be a word processor, it's designed to take notes in the manner of a notepad. That makes Notes simple and easy to use, but makes it frustratingly difficult to compose long documents on the iPhone.
With the iPhone, Apple seems to suggest that task is perhaps not really even a good idea on a mobile. Many will disagree, but the number of people who want to write essays by thumb are certainly outnumbered by those who would prefer an uncluttered and responsive phone over one that tried to accommodate such fringe demands.
Microsoft isn't the only mobile software maker to fail to grasp the concept of less being more. Sony Ericsson is particularly notorious for loading its mobiles with complex software that seems to offer great potential, but which in reality do nothing at all for most people because it's all impractically useless.
One example is Sony's mobile ringtone composer that allows phone users to poke out notes for creating custom ringtones. In reality, composing music is not a function that a mobile phone can do well. That leaves the application as something that few can even use, but that everyone has on their phone taking up space. There are too many other examples of mobile junkware to even mention.
Engineering is the art of knowing what to include and what to leave out, based on the value it offers and the expense it incurs. Apple seems to have targeted value relentlessly, offering Spartan apps on the iPhone 1.0 which all do what they promise to do well, and none that attempt to bite off far more than it can actually deliver.
Paired with the capacity for the iPhone to upgrade its abilities via software, this creates a remarkable platform that is not only impressively complete in its first version, but which has impossibly infinite room for growth. Its purposely missing software features actually make it more powerful.
On page 5: "The Missing Features" and "The Wrap Up."
On Topic: General
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