First Look: My weekend with the iPhone

Now that it’s been out for a weekend, the heavy-hyped iPhone has been in the hands of early adopters for a few days now—including my own. After some show-stopping activation problems that were later resolved, I’ve been using my iPhone for 48 hours now. While my colleagues and I will be weighing in over the rest of this week with feature-by-feature reports on the iPhone—check out what Christopher Breen had to say about the iPhone’s music and video features —here are some early impressions—what I like and what could be improved.

The iPhone as a phone

Sure, it has iPod and Web-surfing capabilities, but at its heart, the iPhone is a phone—that capability is right there in the product name. These days, phones are everywhere. Still, it’s not a given that a company is going to produce a good phone; believe me, I’ve had my share of clunkers, and I’m guessing you have, too.

Problems with phones arise when phone makers become so concerned with putting features into a device, they forget that we actually want to make phone calls with it, first and foremost. I’m glad to say that Apple seems to have avoided that pitfall by getting the phone part right.

I’ve talked to several people on the phone using my Jawbone Bluetooth heaadset, the iPhone speakerphone and the handset itself. All worked fine for me— I could hear them well and they could hear me just fine.

The Bluetooth connection was superb. I was able to walk farther away from my iPhone using a Bluetooth headset than I could with any other phone before it. Syncing Bluetooth devices was very easy, too—just make a device discoverable and the iPhone immediately finds it.

Making a call using the iPhone’s onscreen dialpad

Mail

Having a smart phone means to me that e-mail should be easy to set-up, receive and interact with. Apple did a good job with the built-in Mail app in many respects, but there is some room for improvement here.

First the good: Apple made setting up e-mail accounts as easy as can be—if an account is on your Mac’s Mail application, you can sync everything to the iPhone. That includes all of the settings—passwords, smtp servers, and e-mail addresses.

If you have an account that isn’t in your Mail application, you can set it up on the iPhone manually. If you are setting up Gmail, Yahoo, AOL or .Mac, it’s even easier to set up. You type in your username, password and the name you want mail to come from, and the iPhone has everything else it needs.

The look of individual e-mails is unmatched on any device I’ve seen. They look crisp and clear, and most messages are very quick to load, even if they have small attachments or pictures, which show up inline.

So where does Mail fall down? From my weekend of use, in a couple of ways. First, larger messages take a really long time to load. It would be nice to have an option to restrict how big messages get downloaded from the server so you can put a limit on it.

The thing that really got me about Mail is that every account is setup with a separate Inbox. There doesn’t appear to be a way to view all incoming messages in one large mailbox. This is actually very important, especially if you are going to add several e-mail accounts. Right now, to see if you’ve got mail, you go to the accounts page; see which accounts have mail and tap on one; tap on the Inbox; and there you will see your unread messages.

Now if you have unread messages in another account, you have to back all the way out to the accounts page and repeat the process with every account that has messages. That’s just a waste of time.

It would be nice to have one main Inbox that could be used to view all new messages. You should still have access to the individual boxes, but having the main Inbox would save a lot of time and effort. It would make reading messages a one-tap process.

Another thing missing from Mail is the ability to mark all messages as read. In order to get rid of the read designation on the iPhone, you actually have to look at each message—again, a time waster if you have already read the messages on your computer. Why should you have to go through the messages on the phone and mark them read individually?

Wi-Fi networks and EDGE

I heard a lot about how the EDGE network wasn’t good enough and how this could be a major downfall for the iPhone. I just don’t agree with that at all.

I’ve been using EDGE on my BlackBerry for the last couple of years and I have no problem with it at all. Would it be nice to have faster speed? Sure, it always is.

When I’m not near a Wi-Fi network, I’ll gladly use EDGE to grab my e-mail and surf to whatever Web site I need to go to. Many people that pick up the iPhone wouldn’t have used EDGE before because the phones they had either didn't support it, or it was so difficult to setup, they didn’t bother. Being able to get your e-mail anytime you want is something you get used to really fast.

One thing about entering a password to join a Wi-Fi network: You can’t actually see what you’re typing on the iPhone’s onscreen keyboard. Instead, the password you type in is rendered in asterisks (*) for security purposes. I’d like there to be an option that lets you see the password you’re typing to join a network. With long passwords—particularly those that are a jumble of numbers and symbols—it’s easy to lose track of just what you typed.

One day, we shall all type with two thumbs, as Jim Dalrymple can

The keyboard and predictive typing

I’ll be honest: The prospect of a buttonless, keyboardless phone terrified me. As a BlackBerry user, I’m used to typing very fast—believe me I can type fast on those little keyboards.

So I had my worries about an onscreen keyboard, namely that it would kill my experience on the iPhone. Turns out I was wrong—the keyboard is great and the predictive typing is even better.

Apple recommends in its i Phone instructional videos that you start off typing with one finger, and then, when you get used to it, start using two thumbs. I usually don’t listen to instructions very well at all. ( Editor’s Note: You don’t say. )

I picked up the iPhone and started typing with two thumbs right away. Honestly, I made quite a few mistakes, but it’s all in what you get used to. I’m getting the feel of the keyboard and how my thumbs have to tilt and where they need to hit the screen to tap the correct letters.

When I do make mistakes, I just keep typing—99 percent of the time the predictive typing feature comes up with the right word. (And when it does, hit the space bar, and it will magically appear in your text.)

More to come

That’s just some quick thoughts on a few features. There’s plenty more for me and my Macworld colleagues to talk about. But at this early stage, for me, the iPhone is definitely living up to its early hype.

[ Jim Dalyrmple is Macworld.com’s news director. ]

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