First Look: The iPhone: What you need to know

Steve Jobs prefaced his introduction of the iPhone to the world by saying, “This is a day I’ve been looking forward to for two-and-a-half years.” And it’s safe to say that Mac users have been pining after such a product for at least as long.

Apple touts the iPhone as an iPod, a mobile phone, and an Internet communications device all wrapped up in one. Perhaps it’s not a huge surprise from a company that’s taken a large consumer electronics focus with the iPod (and even dropped “computer” from its name ) but the iPhone is clearly big news.

Although it won’t be available until June, and Apple plans to share more details about the iPhone in the coming months, we got our hands on one for a short while, and here’s an in-depth look at what we know so far—focusing on the new device’s capabilities as a phone, Internet-enabled device, and widescreen iPod.

The phone

Like most of the Palm OS-, Windows Mobile-, and Symbian OS-based smart phones on the market, the iPhone has a touch-sensitive screen. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

Apple’s iPhone

So how is the iPhone different?

Instead of a small keyboard that’s a standard part of the bottom of most smart phones, the iPhone has no keyboard at all. Instead of a bevy of buttons on the front to navigate and control features, the iPhone has a single Home button on its front and just a few others on the sides—everything else is controlled via changeable, onscreen buttons and icons. Instead of a stylus, the iPhone uses your finger. And instead of a scaled-down operating system to power it, the iPhone runs a version of OS X.

OS X? Which version?

Apple isn’t saying, although when we asked a company executive if it was a weird, not-really-OS-X version of OS X, he replied: “This is OS X.” To be more specific, it’s a version of OS X that’s been optimized for the iPhone hardware. But Apple’s statements lead us to believe that the iPhone runs a mostly recognizable version of OS X under the hood.

Tell me more about the iPhone’s screen. Won’t it scratch easily?

Indications from Apple are that the iPhone’s display is more scratch-resistant than that of the iPods. The screen itself is a 3.5-inch, touch-sensitive display, which has a resolution of 320-by-480 pixels at 160 pixels-per-inch.

So if there are no buttons, how do I make calls on the iPhone?

Well, that’s where the rubber meets the road, isn’t it? As Jobs said during his keynote, “What’s the killer app [for the iPhone]? The killer app is making calls. It’s amazing how hard it is to make calls on phones.” Having used various smart phones in the past, we can attest to that frustration.

So here’s how the iPhone tackles phone-calling: A click on the Home button takes you to the main window, at the bottom left corner of which is the Phone app. A tap on that with your finger activates the iPhone’s calling features. All this—and more—is possible thanks to Apple’s patented Multi-Touch technology, which in addition to letting you tap on icons also lets you use your finger for fairly accurate typing that ignores unintended touches as well as certain multi-finger gestures (more on that later).

To make a call, you can type a number on the virtual keypad that appears at the bottom on the screen, or chose a number from your list of contacts, favorites, or recent calls. The iPhone lets you put a party on hold, and merge two calls together into a conference call, with one touch of the screen.

What about ringtones?

Jobs demonstrated one ring tone during his presentation— and the iPhone will ship with several of them. But we don’t yet know whether you can assign different rings to different people (as many other phones allow) or use your iTunes music as ring tones.

What other calling features will the iPhone sport?

There are two we saw on display during the keynote.

Voice mail. The iPhone takes a modern approach to voice mail. Instead of dialing in to a voice mail system and listening to all your queued up messages one by one, the iPhone's Visual Voicemail feature displays a list of current voice mails, including the name of who sent them and when they were sent. When you tap on any one of them, that message plays. You can also choose to save or delete them, one at a time. The entire effect is not unlike an e-mail client for voice mail.

Sensors. A proximity sensor turns off the iPhone’s display and the touch sensor when you bring the phone to your ear to prevent accidental button activations. There’s also an ambient light sensor that adjusts the screen’s brightness depending on the surroundings (think of the MacBook Pro), and an accelerometer that senses when you turn the iPhone from one orientation (landscape or portrait) to the other—more on that later as well.

What are the iPhone’s tech specs?

The 4.5-by-2.4-by-0.46-inch (115-by-61-by-11.6-millimeter) iPhone has no external antenna and weighs 4.8 ounces (135 grams). It will come in two versions: a 4GB, $499 model and an 8GB, $599 model. Those capacities are the iPhone’s total storage for all applications, photos, music, and videos.

The iPhone a quad-band GSM phone, which means it’ll work in the U.S. as well as many other parts of the world. (GSM—Global System for Mobile Communications—is the dominant standard in most of the world, but in the U.S. only Cingular and T-Mobile use it.) For wireless data, it can work with e-mail and connect to the Internet using AT&T/Cingular’s EDGE network or with the phone’s built-in 802.11b/g Wi-Fi. The iPhone also includes Bluetooth 2.0/EDR capabilities. But it isn’t clear yet if Bluetooth will be just for headsets or if you’ll be able to use it for syncing data with your computer, or whether you’ll be able to sync via Wi-Fi. One thing Apple did tell us is that you won’t be able to use the iPhone as a wireless Bluetooth modem for a laptop on the road, for example (at least that’s the current plan). Jobs also noted that Apple will release models with third-generation (3G) wireless data capabilities in the future—3G networks are faster than AT&T/Cingular’s EDGE network.

Wait—AT&T/Cingular? Does that mean I have to use Cingular as my iPhone service provider?

Yes. Both iPhone models will require a two-year contract with AT&T (formerly known as Cingular), the exclusive U.S. carrier. Apple has no plans to release a version of the iPhone without a service contract or one that is unlocked. Both models will be available beginning in June from Apple Stores and from AT&T/Cingular.

So there’s just the one Home button on the iPhone’s front. What other switches and features does the phone’s case have?

On the front of the iPhone, just above the screen, is a small slit for a speaker -- the one you'll hold to your ear when you're talking. The back of the iPhone sports a camera lens for its two-megapixel digital camera. On one side are a pair of volume control buttons and a switch that lets you toggle between an audible ring and silent operation (no word on if the iPhone will vibrate). The top has a 3.5-millimeter headset and audio jack, a card for the phone's SIM card (which identifies you to the cellular network), and a sleep-wake toggle button. On the bottom, there’s a loudspeaker (for audio playback and speakerphone), a microphone, and a 30-pin iPod dock connector (just like the one on dockable iPods).

And for travelers, there’s a selection in the iPhone’s settings called Airplane Mode. Activating it turns off all the radios inside the iPhone (cellular, Bluetooth, and WiFi), making it safe to use the iPod and PDA features while in flight.

What about accessories? Will they be as numerous as the iPods’?

Not at first, but give it time. Near the end of his Macworld Expo presentation, Jobs mentioned just two accessories: stereo headphones with integrated microphone, and a Bluetooth headset that pairs automatically with the iPhone and goes to sleep to preserve battery life. Without a doubt, we’ll see other innovative iPhone add-ons—not just from Apple, but other third-party developers as well.

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