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Tuesday, July 24, 2007, 07:00 am PT (10:00 am ET)

iPhone Review Series: iPhone vs. BlackBerry 8700

Conceived as the the one phone to rule them all, Apple's iPhone represents one of the most valiant first-time efforts in the history of the mobile handset market. And while it may not trump all existing handsets with utmost precision, the iPhone presents itself as a serious contender to nearly all traditional handsets and some high-end smartphones. In this first installment of our iPhone Review Series, we compare the new Apple handset to the BlackBerry 8703e, weighing whether it is compelling enough to sway prospective buyers and fence sitters.

Phone Specifications

A BlackBerry user, I stood in line to purchase an 8 GB iPhone for over 2 hours on June 29 — frequently referred to as "iDay." I came home and activated the device flawlessly through iTunes, with the exception that I was given a different area code by AT&T's automated activation system. This problem was quickly corrected with a call to the AT&T store where I purchased the phone. With the iPhone up and running and fully functional, I had some playing – ahem…testing - to do.

My mobile phone background is fairly simple. I've owned and operated one since the mid-90's, when gray Motorola flip phones with retractable antennas were commonplace. I'm now a third generation BlackBerry owner, using the 8703e on Verizon's wireless network for both work and leisure purposes. I travel frequently, where I rely on my cell phone for staying in contact with my office, contacting customers, and talking/texting/emailing friends. What are my must-have qualities for a good cell phone? My phone is required to stay functional 24/7, stand up to drops on concrete floors, have enough battery capability to prevent me from worrying, and it must come with email support.

Physical design and usability

The BlackBerry 8703e has a time tested proven design, distinct look, and familiar software. After all, why else would I be on my third generation BlackBerry? I knew what to expect out of my phone before even seeing it in the store. I knew that my BlackBerry would perform, and I could be up and running with email support before I left the store. These are the little things that users start taking for granted after years of use.

Home screen customization on the BlackBerry is a really nice feature and helps boost efficiency. Rearranging icons, making the ones I don’t use disappear, and applying the latest and coolest themes are all pluses in my book. Beyond these slight customization features, however, is where the BlackBerry stops short. It's very corporate in design and use, and it lacks many of the popular features of mainstream smartphones.

The BlackBerry has sustained many drops in rock, concrete, and small water puddles with just a few scratches for such abuse. In fact, I just dropped the BlackBerry 8703e in a parking lot the other day while in a full sprint. The face has a small nick where it hit the rocks, but it held up better than you would expect. I can say that I would take my 8703e and push it off my desk onto the floor and not even worry about whether it would work when I pick it up. It will be hard to beat the ruggedness of the 8703e.

Will the iPhone hold up to the test of time and severe drops like my BlackBerry? There is no doubt that the iPhone screen face is more scratch resistant than the BlackBerry screen. To date, I have had a few small drops and bangs with no scratches or problems with the iPhone. Only time will tell if it will be as tough as the BlackBerry.

iPhone/BlackBerry


The old saying goes, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” When I first picked up my iPhone I was surprised with the solid feel and physical presence the phone had in my hand. The first few days I owned the iPhone, I carried it around as if dropping it would be flushing $600 down the toilet. I got over this fear after having the phone for a few days and not seeing the credit card statement. Eventually, you'll start handling it like a phone and less like a video iPod.

With iPhone, you must slide your finger across the screen to unlock the phone for use. This feature is for those times the phone is in your pocket, and you don’t want it dialing your mom while you are having a good time out with your friends. The BlackBerry offers a similar lock, like most phones, but offers this functionality to the user as a choice. I like the choice on the BlackBerry because I don’t necessarily want to slide my finger across the display every time I wake the iPhone for use.

Unlike the 8703e, the iPhone had a better feel and offered more control when using one hand. The 8703e is also both thick and wide, which makes it difficult for people with average to small-sized hands to secure a good grip for one-handed use.

With the iPhone, thumb functionality is vastly improved over the 8703e during one-handed use. This surprised me after just one week of use — I can easily reach the entire face of the phone with my thumb. On the BlackBerry, this is not possible for me without readjusting my grip. I can do more with my thumb on the iPhone than on the BlackBerry, and with less buttons to push. This speaks volumes about the thought put behind the design of the iPhone, in my opinion.

The iPhone’s touch screen interface eliminates long scrolls and multiple clicks, which are often required to save preferences or open file attachments. I am able to access all the features of the iPhone much easier than the BlackBerry. For me, the iPhone's touch screen and elegant user interface hold a significant advantage over the BlackBerry's side-mounted click wheel, especially its ability to access frequently used applications without multiple clicks and scrolls. For example, surfing the web on the iPhone is a breeze using just your fingers (i.e., navigating up and down the page and accessing the link you need is no problem). However, on the BlackBerry you have to use the click wheel to scroll down through every image, link, and line on a webpage before arriving at the precise link location you'd like to activate.

Perhaps the biggest advantage Apple has given the iPhone is its hand “agnostic” design. By default, the iPhone does not favor a right or left-handed user. The iPhone relies on a touch screen interface and centered home button on the face of the phone, compared to the fixed click wheel on only one side of the BlackBerry. Even though I have become proficient with my right hand on the BlackBerry, by nature I'm a left-handed phone user. The iPhone’s touch screen interface increased my productivity almost immediately.

Phone and Contact Management
Making phone calls on the 8703e is, I would consider, fairly typical. You dial the number and talk to the person on the other end of the line. You can set individual ring tones for each contact and even download custom audio recodings of you or your friends for that perfect alert.

I rarely direct dial numbers on my phone. The BlackBerry has an ingenious program called Address Book. The program is easily accessible and available from the home screen. You have type-search ability, and it searches through two fields - the name and company name. This is great for finding contacts quickly and easily. You then scroll down to the number you want to dial, and the phone dials for you. The other nice feature on the BlackBerry 8703e is that you can download your own ring tones in the form of .mp3 or .midi. I love using clips from my favorite television shows as ring tones.

There are two negative features about the BlackBerry in the phone and contact management area. Sometimes the phone interface experiences lag when you try to dial a number. For instance, I just checked my voicemail and want to make a call. I may dial the first four numbers of the person I am calling; however, only the last digit appears on the screen to be dialed. This happens often on the BlackBerry and really shows how slow the phone can be.

The second negative feature is that the BlackBerry limits the number of fields you can have per contact. There is a maximum number of phone numbers that can be entered and any extras must go in the contact notes. This starts to present problems for those people who have a phone number for home, work, fax, mobile, and second mobile. I am forced to put the contact numbers that don’t make the address book fields in the notes section, which leads to a small bit of aggravation because that number does not show up on caller ID as the name of the caller.

A faster responding interface and visual voicemail separate the iPhone from the BlackBerry. However, the iPhone’s wired headset and contact management need improvement to ensure a high quality experience for true smartphone users in the future.

The iPhone definitely has a faster responding interface when switching between programs and dialing numbers. The feeling of “lag” is not apparent at all when dialing numbers or contacts — It's just "snappy."

Visual voicemail is an incredible invention and I love Apple for it. This option alone is worth the paid admission fee for the iPhone, in my opinion. Being able to view your voicemails, choose the one you want to listen to, and then tap it and hear it instantly is simply unbelievable. When checking your voicemail on the BlackBerry, like most other phones I imagine, you have to dial into the voicemail system. Then, you have to listen to the lady go through all the options. The bad thing about dialing for voicemail is that it takes time — valuable time — away from work and life. There are no words to describe the feeling you get with iPhone when you can delete, ignore at will, or listen to any voicemail you have on your phone, instantly.

The wired headset that accompanies the iPhone is also somewhat handy. You can listen to music and answer and talk without removing the headset. The person on the other end of the call may have problems hearing you in malls or loud places, and you may be required to hold the headset wire closer to your mouth to get better voice projection when talking to people in those situations. However, those are the only nice things I can say about the wired headsets. While being a feature that is very convenient, Apple really messed up when they supplied the same tired ear bud design that physically hurts my ears and delivers a sub-par listening performance when compared to other solutions. (This is discussed in the iPod section below in more detail.)

To access your contacts on the iPhone, you must tap the Phone icon and then the Contacts icon at the bottom of the screen. There is no type-search feature available when finding your desired contact in the list. This sometimes creates an impossible task of finding certain contacts in your list, and there is no acceptable excuse Apple can make for omitting a type-search feature.

Not having access to your contact list from the iPhone's home screen also creates two major problems. It takes too long to get to your contact list and it's confusing to find specific contacts inside the Phone program. I have over 500 contacts entered into my phone and scrolling through this sort of list with your finger is not optimal. A type-search enhancement and easier access to the Phone program are two improvements in which the iPhone is in desperate need.

The odd part about the missing type-search feature on the iPhone is that the phone offers this feature in Mail and Text (text messaging). If you decide to compose an email or text message, you can type-search to find your contact. The iPhone does not search two fields like the BlackBerry. It searches only one of two - the name or the company name. If the contact is designated as a company, the search checks the company name and not the name field. The missing type-search feature uncovers an inconsistency in the iPhone’s user interface that is annoying and conjures up good memories of the 8703e in my head when I'm trying to find a contact in my exhaustive rolodex.

On page 2: Internet, Maps, and Widgets; Email; Calendar; and Mac Friendly.