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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


The Missing Features

Having celebrated Apple's risk taking stance in pioneering the practical over the feature ridden, it feels important to point out that many people will not agree with Apple's engineering decisions. Keeping in mind that some features are subject to change with the arrival of new software updates, I made a list of various hardware and software features that range from controversial to simply being problems I think Apple needs to address.

Zero Text Editing: while keeping the iPhone's text entry simple, this does present some puzzling challenges. For example, when browsing a web page that lists a URL but does not provide a hyperlink (as many forums do), there is no way to copy and paste the URL into Safari's location bar; the user would have to manually type it out. 

This seems excessively clumsy, but the solution to this is not obvious because it relates to the differences between the iPhone and a desktop computer equipped with a mouse. 

Part of the problem is that the iPhone's input is limited to multitouch; there is no direct equivalent to "cursor hover," which on a desktop PC occurs when the user moves the mouse pointer over a target. That means there is no way to trigger web page JavaScript rollovers, where simply pointing at something triggers an action that is different than clicking on it. 

There is also no equivalent to shift-clicking, because it would be clumsy to try to click with a finger touch while also holding down a second button. Without any means to point-but-not-click, or click-and-select-more, there is no obvious or intuitive way to allow the user to select passages of text to copy, cut, or paste.

It would not be too difficult to create an independent iPhone word processor with extra functions or modes designed to select and edit text, but bolting on a system wide mechanism to do this—without also requiring a precision stylus pointer—would seem to be not just tricky, but also an excessive complication to the overall interface, making it far more difficult to do the things it now does well. 

I find myself torn between instinctively wanting to copy and paste around text, and also open to the idea of forsaking a pasteboard in exchange for a greatly simplified interface. I do think the iPhone would benefit from a Notes+ application that offered more sophisticated text input, but that wouldn't solve the problem of being unable to select that unlinked URL in a webpage.

Compare the Palm Treo: it requires a stylus to enter text and select passages to copy or paste, but it also needs a menu bar to offer the options of copy and pasting. The iPhone has no menu bar offering complex choices, only a selection of a scant few buttons on the bottom of the page. This means there's less to do, but also less to figure out and fewer ways to get lost in sprawling complexity 

There's no way to "fix" the text entry "problem" without destroying the minimal Zen of the entire device, adding a stylus, a persistent menu bar, and ending up with something that looks a lot like the Palm OS, or even worse, WinCE. To anyone who wants that, there are many unsold PDAs sitting in Best Buy already.

No Audio or Video Recording: another obvious omission is the lack of any ability to record audio or video clips. Some have suggested that this is a piracy "solution" or a performance issue. I certainly hope it is a "not yet ready" issue, because recording video clips is extremely useful on a mobile phone. If Apple were really concerned about piracy, it could limit the iPhone's capture resolution or frame rate; disabling video entirely makes no sense. 

Further, the Palm Treo and most other phones with far less power or storage space have no problem recording video. In the case of the Treo, it has a 1.3 megapixel camera which records fair 640x480 snapshots or 320x240 video. The video it records is minimally fair, but the accompanying audio recording is typically very poor. 

In comparison, the iPhone captures good quality photos in adequate light if held reasonably still, at a 2 megapixel resolution of 1600x1200. As with any digital camera, the iPhone can't capture anything at all in near darkness, although I found it captured surprising good quality photos indoors even under low light conditions.

The Camera software does beg for a significant upgrade in terms of recording video, capturing audio clips, and perhaps even offering a digital zoom. When plugged into a computer, it functions within iPhoto just like any other USB camera, but does not mount as a volume on the desktop. It does not even mount as an invisible disk volume accessible from the command line.

The iPod similarly lacks a mechanism to record audio, although its internal hardware has audio recording features built-in. While it makes sense for Apple to think that recording limited quality audio on the iPod is not practical or at least not worth of building in a microphone, the iPhone quite obviously has an integrated mic. Lacking any way to record audio is therefore a puzzling omission, and will hopefully be added in an upcoming revision to the software.

Missing Consistency: while the iPhone overall is very slick and highly polished, there are a few odd bits that seem a little out of place. First is that not all applications support landscape orientation. Safari appears to be the only app that displays a keyboard while in landscape orientation. That's significant because the wider aspect ratio results in larger keys that are easier to hit for clumsy typists. It would be nice to see all of the apps act more identically.

However, the overall look and feel of the iPhone's included apps is very good and well executed. In the interests of simplicity, there is no way to perform certain tasks that the iPhone's slick interface suggests should be possible. For example, there's no way to sort the various cities added to the Weather app. Apple enters its hometown Cupertino by default, so if you want your own location to appear first, you'll need to delete the existing entry first. Once done, there is no way to resort the cities entered, although the flick interface makes comparing a number of different cities' weather reports so easy that such a task isn't really important.

The Missing Link: 3G

The most notable hardware feature missing on the iPhone is lack of support for the near-broadband UTMS mobile data service common in Europe and Asia, commonly referred to as the third generation or 3G tier of mobile data service. 

The iPhone is a quad-band GSM phone making it suitable for international roaming, as GSM is widely used throughout the world. However, it offers no support for the third generation data service associated with GSM service providers, the clumsily named UTMS, and sometimes referred to as 3GSM to denote its connection to GSM. 

UTMS is available from AT&T in a few urban markets within the US, but the iPhone lacks any support for it. This is a hardware limitation, as 3G networks require a specific radio to use the faster technology. In order to support UTMS in the future, Apple will have to release a new version of the iPhone itself. 

The reasons given for not supporting UTMS in the iPhone are:

- the extra cost and size of the receiver hardware required
- the limited availability of GSM 3G service in the US
- the incompatibility between the 3G service offered within the US and in other markets
- the much higher battery power demanded by existing 3G radio and signal processing circuits

For Apple to add support for 3G UTMS service on the iPhone, it would either have to choose between supporting the sparse AT&T US version of UTMS, the more common European version, or include custom and therefore very expensive circuits that can support both sets of radio frequencies. 

The phones that already include worldwide 3G UTMS support are expensive, tear through batteries, and use custom chipsets that Apple can not obtain. One example is the HTC TyTN, which accommodates the three bands of 3G and 4 bands of GSM by being thick and chunky. Motorola's RAZR V3xx supports 3G service around the worlds by offering multiple versions that only work in certain markets. 

A comparably fast mobile data network commonly referred to as EVDO is offered by AT&T's US competitors, Sprint and Verizon. The iPhone does not work on those provider's networks at all, as they primarily offer CDMA service rather than GSM. 

The factor to consider is therefore whether the iPhone is competitive enough in features to make up for its slower data service based on GSM EDGE, which is commonly called 2.75 G service. With its exceptional web browser and custom apps like Maps, the iPhone makes EDGE far more attractive than it ever has been, but it aches to find WiFi hotspots that can really show off its web apps.

2G Mobile Networks
GSM-GPRS: 50 kbits/sec
CDMA2000: 70 kbits/sec

2.75G Mobile Networks
GSM EDGE: 70-200 kbits/sec

3G Mobile Networks
CDMA2000 EVDO: 180-700 kbits/sec
GSM UTMS: 300-2100 kbits/sec

IP Wireless Hot Spot Networking
WiFi 6500-20000 kbits/sec

No mobile data networks can compare to a WiFi network:

iPhone


The best case scenario for EVDO is about twice as fast at EDGE. UTMS promises broadband data service, but offers engineering challenges and limited service coverage in the US.

iPhone


Where In the World is the iPhone's GPS?

A lack of GPS has been another reason frequently cited for booing the iPhone. With its big screen and fancy graphics, it may seem like a huge mistake for Apple for forget to include GPS features, which use radios to locate signals and calculate precise coordinates. Without GPS, the iPhone will have to rely on cell towers to calculate its position, offering a less precise estimate.
 
However, the Google Maps client Apple wrote for the iPhone offers turn-by-turn driving instructions, complete with satellite maps. That means that it can provide users with an intelligent substitute for GPS that satisfies the majority of users’ needs, without including GPS. That helps the iPhone require far less power. A GPS enabled phone like the Nokia N95 looks really great on paper, but anyone actually using GPS will find the N95’s 4 hours of rated battery life turn into two hours of actual use when GPS is activated.
 
Users who are pathfinding around the Amazon River will be able to navigate through the forest for 120 minutes with their N95, but the rest of us who just want to use our mobiles for getting around on highways or in unfamiliar cities will probably be better suited to using the iPhone's street-based maps and step by step directions. We'll also save a couple hundred dollars over the ~$750 price tag of the N95, enough to buy a stand alone GPS unit.
 
Will GPS someday be more battery efficient? Most likely. Until then, GPS is best left to external devices that are big enough to carry a large battery. It would also be possible for Apple to partner with Garmin or Tom Tom in providing a Bluetooth or dock-connector tethered GPS unit for those who might need something like that.

The Wrap Up

The iPhone is an extremely well designed and executed product that pushes the envelope in handheld devices. It's an excellent phone, an exceptional new version of the iPod, and a brilliant web browser, plus a good mobile email machine and general organizer. The iPhone's unique approach to software shoots high above the usability of the software in competing smartphones.

While the iPhone has room for improvement, it is a very impressive achievement and simply embarrasses the industrial design, software, and sync features of other mobiles. Expect the value of the iPhone to continue to increase as Apple delivers software updates as promised in its April financials conference call.

Rating: 5 of 5
5 Stars


Pros:
  • Outstanding web browser and iPod features.

  • Impressively engineered hardware.

  • Excellent overall integration.

  • Easy to set up, sync and use.

  • Standard iPod dock connector.

Cons:
  • Requires a two year contract for mobile service.

  • Limited to AT&T and its EDGE mobile data service.

  • No audio or video recording features.

  • Limited Bluetooth features.