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The iPhone: Complete review

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The iPhone also lacks a quick-dial feature that you’ll find on many other phones, in which you hold down a particular button to call your most frequently-called contacts. Obviously the iPhone can’t map contacts to buttons it doesn’t have, but top contacts are probably a few too may taps away.

When you’re on a call, tapping the screen brings up six commands—Mute, Keypad, Speaker, Hold, Contacts, and Add call. That last command is particularly noteworthy, as it’s an example of the kind of task that can be confounding on other smart phones while being drop-dead simple on Apple’s handset. Whether you’ve initiated or received a call it’s an easy matter to put one caller on hold while you contact another and then bring the three (or more) of you together in a conference call. If only our phones here in the office worked as intuitively.

One of the iPhone’s most unique phone-related features is Visual Voicemail, which displays messages by showing you the name of the caller and the time of the call; messages that you have not listened to yet are marked with a blue dot. Tap on any message and that message will be played back, regardless of its position in the message queue. While listening to a message, a progress bar shows the length of the message and current playback position, letting you jump back and forth with the drag of a finger—no more listening to entire messages over again just to hear that phone number you missed the first time. There’s also a large green Call Back button to return the person’s call (assuming the caller didn’t have Caller ID blocked) and a large red Delete button. It’s a fresh approach to voicemail, and a welcome change from the kludgy menu-driven Voicemail systems with which most mobile-phone users are all too familiar.

One of the most useful interface touches on the iPhone is the method you use to scroll through a massive list of information: a strip with every letter from A to Z which runs vertically down the right side of your contacts list (as well as most lists in the phone’s iPod functions). Touch the strip with your finger in the general direction of the first letter of the contact name, song, or artist that you’re looking for, and the list will jump to that letter.

If you want to use a Bluetooth wireless headset with the iPhone, you should be able to do so without much trouble. I easily paired the iPhone with a Plantronics headset, and my colleagues have had success with headsets from Apple and Aliph. However, the iPhone doesn’t currently support stereo headphones, nor can it pair with your Mac for such tasks as passing files, using the iPhone as a modem, or passing call information to your Mac.

One-handed email

The explosion of interest in smartphones is because they’re a mixture of two great tastes that taste great together—cell phones and email. And the iPhone’s Mail program is excellent, capable of displaying formatted email messages, including many common attachment file types.

The Mail interface is a simple hierarchical list that lets you tap through to different accounts (if you’ve got more than one account, as I do). If you’re using IMAP, you’ll see a list of all the mailboxes that are a part of your account. Once you’re in a mailbox, you can see a list of messages, complete with the name of the person who sent it, the message’s subject, and, optionally, the first few lines of the message.

Using Mail on the iPhone couldn’t be much easier: tap the New Message icon to create a new message, and then choose a recipient from your Contacts list (or type in an address yourself). If you’re reading a message, pressing the reply button will give you the option of replying to or forwarding the message.

It’s no fun entering in email settings on a computer with a full keyboard, let alone on an iPhone’s virtual keyboard. So Apple has tried to make email set-up on the iPhone easy, and it has largely succeeded, albeit with a few caveats. When you first set up your iPhone, iTunes transfers all your mail account preferences from your Mac’s copy of Apple Mail. If those accounts are the only ones you want, you’re set.

But if you need to enter in account info yourself, Apple has created several account presets that work for some major account types: Yahoo, Google’s Gmail, AOL, and Apple’s own .Mac. Setting up those services was very easy and required a minimum of data entry.

If you’re not using any of those services, however, you’ll have to enter in a bit more data. And you’ll probably discover one of the iPhone’s major interface mistakes: there’s no option to display the text of the passwords you’re entering. That’s a fine security measure, but when you’re typing on the iPhone’s teensy virtual keys, and most likely not typing any sort of character string that the iPhone is good at auto-correcting—at least not if you’ve got a decently secure password—it’s very difficult to carefully enter in your password and make sure you’ve done it properly. I managed it by pressing my finger down on the keyboard and, if the letter that popped up wasn’t the one I wanted, deliberately sliding my finger until the proper key registered, then picked up my finger. But for long or numerous passwords it’s a big pain, and something Apple should fix.

If you’ve never used a mobile device for email before, you’ll also discover that you may need to change some of your mail settings (or change servers) to get the best email experience on the iPhone. After entering all the data for my office’s mail server, I was confounded by an error when sending mail. At first I thought that I had entered my password incorrectly (hence the repeated visits to the password entry screen), but it turned out that my mail server wasn’t listening for outgoing mail messages at the same location (SMTP port, for you mail geeks out there) as the iPhone wanted to use by default. After some research I discovered what SMTP port we were using, and appended it (preceded by a colon, of course) to the name of my mail server in my mail settings. It worked, but it was the kind of difficulty that will drive most people to tech support.

Moreover, the iPhone doesn’t filter mail, nor does it have any built-in spam catcher. That means if you’re relying on a client-side filtering program such as C-Command Software’s SpamSieve, you’ll be stunned at the amount of spam you’ll see on your iPhone. The solution: Use a mail server with server-side spam filtering, if you can. If your server also offers other server-side filters, it might be an opportunity to redirect some mail you don’t want to get on your phone, such as messages from mailing lists, elsewhere.

iPhone Mail has a few other idiosyncrasies that I hope will be addressed in the future. By default every reply you send quotes the entire message you’re replying to, with your response at the top. This didn’t bother me, but that style of mail drives some people crazy. And since there’s no way to select a mass of text and delete it, there’s really no way to get around the default reply style. There’s also no way to select all of your mail at once and delete those messages or mark them as read. It’s not a show-stopper, but it is annoying.

Another, much more minor, missing feature is the ability to assign signatures for each of your email accounts. You can have a signature (by default it’s “Sent from my iPhone”), but that signature is applied to every message you send, regardless of account.

Big Web, little window

At numerous public appearances, Steve Jobs has promoted the Web-browsing experience on the iPhone as one that brings you the “real Internet”—in other words, the experience of viewing the Web via a full-fledged computer browser, not dumbed-down pages simplified for mobile phones (or, what’s worse, complicated Web pages that a puny cell phone browser can’t properly render). By embedding a version of Safari on the phone, Apple has brought the iPhone most of the way toward that goal, but it still falls a few notable steps short.

When you’re using Safari on the iPhone, you feel as if you’re using Safari on your Mac. Web pages load in full, scaled-down to fit on the iPhone’s screen. Tap twice on any part of the page and Safari automatically zooms in, making text readable and enlarging photos to fill the screen. The experience is as close an approximation to the Web you experience on your Mac as you could possibly get on a screen the size of the iPhone’s. Web-page text is a pleasure to read on the iPhone’s high-resolution display.

Your bookmarks even come along for the ride, because iTunes syncs bookmarks between your Mac copy of Safari and your iPhone. (It’s a two-way sync, so don’t delete bookmarks on the iPhone unless you’re willing to lose them on your Mac too.)

If the iPhone is a success, the iPhone Web story will improve, too: Web developers can custom-build style sheets to work with the iPhone, as well as make some basic additions to their pages to improve the iPhone browsing experience.

Loading Web pages on a Wi-Fi network felt about as snappy as it did on my Mac, but when I switched over to AT&T’s EDGE digital cellular network, things bogged down. I found browsing the Web on the EDGE network less pleasurable, but still quite usable (though it’s worth noting speed of the network can vary widely).

Safari on the iPhone even has a clever way to support multiple open Web pages at once: tap the Window button and the current page pulls back to reveal that it’s one in a chain of up to eight different pages. If you click a link that’s set to open in a new window, Safari handles the process itself, zooming you out of your current page and sliding you over to the new page.

However, there are a few limitations that prevent Safari on iPhone from truly showing the real Internet. The biggest is the fact that perhaps the most common browser plug-in in existence, Adobe’s Flash, is nowhere to be found. Over the past few years, the melange of different browser plug-ins for features such as embedded Web videos have largely been replaced by a single video player format: Flash. Although the iPhone’s included YouTube player solves the problem for that popular video-sharing Web site, it doesn’t address the larger fact that numerous Web sites use Flash to play video or display other interactive content.

The iPhone also won’t play back Web audio or video being streamed in the Real or Windows Media formats, although Mac users can play such media on their Macs.

Less major though still annoying, is the lack of support for file upload via Web pages. It would be nice if Safari allowed users to upload certain kinds of content in order to, for example, post pictures taken with the iPhone’s built-in camera to the Flickr photo-sharing site. (An alternative would be for Apple to add support for photo-sharing-site uploads right into the iPhone’s Photos program.)

iPod reborn

The iPhone’s iPod functions are like no iPod we’ve seen before—but I’d hazard a guess that they closely resemble the look of iPods to come. Without a scroll wheel to use in navigation, the iPhone’s iPod features take some getting used to. It took me quite a while to figure out how to toggle into and out of Shuffle mode. (The controls appear when you do a single tap on the screen.)

When held in a vertical, or portrait, orientation, the iPhone’s iPod menus are reminiscent of the old iPod, but with much more detail. Instead of a main menu, there’s a row of five buttons along the bottom of the screen. You can customize four of them with elements you might remember from the iPod’s main menu (including Artists, Genres, Videos, and Podcasts). The fifth, called More, is the home for all the options that didn’t make it onto the row of buttons.

When you’re in a list—of artists, for example—you can scroll through it by flicking your finger, or use the same vertical A-to-Z quick index feature that’s present in the Phone’s Contacts list (assuming you’ve got a long enough list of artists or songs). Tapping on an Artist brings up a list of albums or, if they have only one album, a list of songs from that album. Conveniently, you can now choose to begin shuffling at almost any point: all songs, all songs by a particular artist, or all songs in a particular album.

When the iPhone’s in a landscape orientation, the iPod interface switches into Cover Flow mode, in which you flick through a row of album covers. Find a cover that looks intriguing, and tap on it to see its contents. It looks great, but I’m still not convinced about how useful Cover Flow is as a feature—on the iPhone or anywhere else.

Due to its large, high-resolution screen, the iPhone excels as a video player. It’s the largest canvas a video iPod has ever had, at 480-by-320 pixels. (The current video iPod’s display resolution is 320 by 240.) And the widescreen aspect ratio, while not quite a Hollywood-standard 16:9, is still better for watching widescreen movies and TV shows than the 4:3 ratio of the video iPod.

Of course, the iPhone doesn’t have a large hard drive on which to store a massive video library. That means you have to be judicious with the amount of content you load on the iPhone. And if you convert your own videos (from DVDs or other sources), you’ll want to spend the extra time compressing and resizing them to fit on the iPhone. But I was able to load up my 8GB iPhone with 350 songs and eight hours of video, and still have 3GB left over. So while loading an entire season of a TV show onto an iPhone is basically impossible, there’s certainly enough room (especially in the larger model) for a nice selection of viewing options. And in a nice touch, the iPhone offers to delete videos off its flash drive after you’ve viewed them, to free up more space.

At a Glance
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