Opinion: Eight reasons to think before buying an iPhone

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Apple made a big splash when it announced the iPhone last month. Many who watched Steve Jobs demonstrate the device thought, “That is so cool — I want it now!” But with its hefty price tag, restriction to a single carrier and departure from many traditional smart-phone features, buying the iPhone requires careful forethought.

Here are eight questions to ask yourself before walking into a Cingular Wireless or Apple store later this year to shell out US$499 for a 4GB model or $599 for an 8GB model.

1. Is the cost of switching mobile carriers worth it?

For anyone who isn’t a Cingular customer, this is a big question, particularly if you aren’t near the end of your subscriber agreement. The cost of breaking a subscriber agreement varies among carriers, but it’s always pricey. Most carriers charge in the range of $150 to $200. That’s a lot of money to tack onto an already expensive device.

But that may not be the only cost. You may find that Cingular’s rate plans, which have not yet been announced for the iPhone, are more expensive than what your current carrier offers for the usage and services that you need.

2. Does Cingular provide coverage where you need it?

Cingular has impressive coverage across the U.S., particularly in the eastern half. That doesn’t mean that it has complete coverage or that it offers the best coverage in some areas. As with any choice of a mobile carrier, you need to be sure that you’ll have coverage where you live, work and regularly travel.

This may not be an issue for people who live in large cities, but for many, the extent and quality of Cingular’s coverage in outlying (and even some urban) areas could be a major consideration. If you’re thinking of switching to Cingular for the iPhone, maker sure that you will have coverage where you need it. You don’t want to switch carriers and spend the money on an iPhone only to discover that your back yard or part of your route to work is a dead zone or has spotty reception.

3. Is 2G data coverage enough?

One of the big criticisms of the iPhone is that it will only support 2G data service. Apple has said this is to provide the broadest level of coverage until 3G service is more available throughout the country. While that is laudable, consider whether the 2G/EDGE service provides speeds fast enough for your Internet and data needs. (Most users equate 2G data access as similar to or slightly better than dial-up, which is fine for limited Web browsing and e-mail, but not for anything more intensive.) The iPhone’s Wi-Fi access may mitigate this, but only if there is an available Wi-Fi network or hot spot.

Also, keep in mind that you will probably be using your iPhone for some time, even if a newer, 3G model is released. So remember to think both about your current needs and your needs over the next couple of years. If you’re looking for better coverage, you might want to consider waiting to buy an iPhone until 3G data is included.

4. Do you want more storage space?

Although the iPhone will support video, it has the storage capacity of the iPod Nano. That amount of space is limiting for many people in terms of the amount of songs that it can hold. Consider how cramped that space will be if you want to store and watch video on your iPhone. Most iTunes Store movies are more than 1GB each, and TV episodes can range from 100MB to 300MB. One season of a TV show could come close to filling a 4GB iPhone by itself. If you want video (or a large number of songs or photos) on the go, you’re likely to find a video iPod to be a much better choice.

5. Are you an entry-level phone user?

The iPhone has many slick features, including its multitouch interface, orientation sensors that switch the display based on how you hold it, and a complement of visually stunning applications. However, if you typically opt for an entry-level or more basic phone, you may find that you won’t use all of those features. Even if you typically use a slightly more expensive phone, consider how much you’ll use the advanced features of the iPhone. If you honestly think you won’t use them that often, you may want to consider whether they’re worth the cost.

6. Do you need more features or applications on your phone?

Apple has stated that the iPhone will remain a closed platform. This means you won’t be able to download third-party browsers, RSS readers, productivity applications or even games for the iPhone. You will be limited to the tools that Apple provides.

Apple is providing some powerful tools with innovative features, such as a full-featured version of its Safari Web browser, an e-mail client with support for server-push technology similar to RIM’s BlackBerry service, heavy integration with Google’s search and map technologies, and widgets for managing information like stock tracking and weather forecasts. But these features may not meet your needs, and the iPhone doesn’t include all of the features that are common in other smart phones.

This is an important consideration, because even some entry-level mobile phones allow you to download and install additional tools, to say nothing of most smart-phone platforms, for which there are many third-party applications. In particular, the iPhone does not include support for reading and editing Microsoft Office documents — a feature available in most smart phones. If the iPhone’s feature set seems lacking in any way, think hard about whether it’s broad enough, because chances are very good that you won’t be able to expand on it.

7. Do you need support for Exchange?

Many corporate environments use Exchange as an e-mail/messaging, calendaring, contact and collaborative management solution. While many smart phones can interact with Exchange servers, the iPhone cannot. If you need to have access to an Exchange server beyond basic POP/IMAP mail access, the iPhone is probably not a good choice. Of course, in a corporate environment, you may also need to adhere to the dictates of your IT department, which may preclude the iPhone from being an option.

8. Do you use voice dialing or dial by touch?

The iPhone’s all-virtual button interface is great for looks and functionality. No doubt, it will also make it possible for Apple to improve the interface on iPhones in a way that no mobile phone maker has yet been able to. However, if you’re someone who tends to dial phone numbers by touch or using voice dialing, you’re pretty much out of luck with the iPhone.

One last thing …

There is one final thing to keep in mind when deciding whether to purchase an iPhone: The iPhone announced last month isn’t likely to be the only iPhone that Apple will produce. It seems almost certain, based on statements from both Cingular and Apple, that future iPhone models will be released, much like the original iPod has given way to a three-model product range that offers varying features and prices. If you feel that this first iPhone is too expensive, too limited or just isn’t for you, keep in mind that over the next year or two, there may be a model that will be more appealing.

That said, given what is publicly known about the terms of Apple’s multiyear agreement with Cingular, chances are good that future iPhones will require owners to be Cingular customers.

Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and IT consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network design and troubleshooting. He is co-author of Essential Mac OS X Panther Server Administration and the author of Troubleshooting, Maintaining, and Repairing Macs. For more information, visit RyanFaas.com.

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