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Apple iPhone Review, Part 4: Applications

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When the term "What You See Is What You Get" was first coined, I suspect its originator wasn't thinking ahead to Apple's iPhone, but never has such a trite phrase been so concise and accurate. When you turn on the iPhone and navigate to its simple home screen, full of friendly, finger-sized buttons, what you see is truly what you get: There, you will find three rows of four buttons, for a total of 12 buttons, 11 of which are the iPhone's built-in applications. (The 12th button is Settings.) There are no more, and no fewer, and you can't remove any of these applications let alone add new ones. (Well, OK, there are the iPhone's four core applications as well, Phone, Mail, Safari, and iPod, which I discuss elsewhere in this review.)

As has proven so often to be the case with the iPhone, the device's collection of built-in applications is a mixed bag. None are truly top-notch, many are passingly useful, and some are simply stupefying dumb. I'd love to be able to customize this home screen and remove the apps I'll never use. Apple, praise be to its infinite wisdom, has decided otherwise, alas. So we are stuck with what you see. And what you get is the following...


If you're over 40 as I am, it may be a news flash to discover that people of all ages are spending enormous amounts of time each day sending what's known as SMS text messages, an act which is generally referred to as "texting." (If you will forgive the bizarre verbification of that word.) Now, texting is not an activity I engage in all that frequently, both because of the pre-noted age issue and because I have huge gorilla fingers that have a hard enough time typing on small laptop keyboards, let alone the miniscule thumb keyboards you see on most smart phones these days. (Until fairly recently, my sole text message consisted of the single letter, "K," sent in reply to a text message I had received about meeting someone in a particular place at a particular time.)

On the iPhone, texting involves using the Text application, which features a handy green "SMS" logo on its home screen button, as well as the oft-discussed iPhone virtual keyboard, which works pretty well after you've gotten the hang of it. Sadly, Apple's implementation of texting is lacking in a few areas, one serious.

Graphically, Text resembles Apple's iChat application for Mac OS X, a comparison that will mean little to most SuperSite readers and, as it turns out, most people in general. iChat is Apple's instant messaging (IM) solution. As it's available for OS X only, both its appeal and its usage are quite limited. By default, iChat conversations are depicted as alternating word balloons, like you'd see in a comic strip. I find this annoying, but at least you can change it, in iChat. (Better still, you can simply choose not to use iChat.) However, in the Text app on iPhone, you can't change the display, and you can't even customize the word balloon colors in any way. That's right: Your text conversations are now colorful balloons. Welcome to Apple land.

A bigger problem, however, is that Text only works in portrait mode. So if, like me, you're more comfortable typing on the iPhone virtual keyboard while holding the device in horizontal, or landscape, mode, well, sorry, you're out of luck: You can twist and turn the device all day long, but Text isn't going to reorient itself for you. Neither is the virtual keyboard. You simply have to use this thing in portrait mode. Ah well. I was never going to be a huge texter (?) anyway.

My rating:


Assuming you were able to actually get your iPhone to synchronize with your PC-based calendar (a task which is not as simple as it should be, as per Part 1 of this review), you'll find the device's built-in calendar, the logically named Calendar, to be a wonderful mobile version of your schedule. Indeed, it's absolutely the nicest cell phone calendar I've ever seen, with large, clear type and obvious graphics. This is calendaring done right. (Though it should be noted that you can only sync calendar items and not tasks.)

Calendar offers the following three views:

List. My favorite, largely because the iPhone renders text so wonderfully. In this view, your schedule is arrayed in a scrollable, chronological list, by day, from top to bottom. You can click on individual events, as you'd expect, and scroll both forward and back through time.

Day. An iCal-like view of the current day. (iCal being Apple's OS X-based calendar application, or the predecessor to Windows Vista's Windows Calendar.) Here, you see a split view with all-day events on top and then a schedule sorted by hour below. You can scroll both up and down through the current day and left and right (back and forward) to go from day to day.

Month. A surprisingly useful view, due to the large size of the iPhone display. Here, you get a graphical month view as well as a list on the bottom of the screen depicting events from the currently selected day. Each day with events has a small dot under the number on the calendar, and you can tap the Today button to select today on the calendar. You can also navigate forward and backward one month at a time using the forward and back buttons.

Calendar works wonderfully and I have no major criticisms. Apple really nailed this one.

My rating:


The Photos application provides you with access to the photos you've synched from the PC as well as those you've taken with the internal camera (see the next entry). While the iPhone's photo-sync capabilities are quite limited, thanks to iTunes' simple-minded way of handling sub-folders on the PC, the actual Photos application on the iPhone is quite nice. Typically, you'll see at least three entries when you switch to this app: Camera Roll, which displays the photos you took with the iPhone; Photo Library, a complete listing of all the photos stored on the device; and then one or more entries for each synchronized photo folder. I'm only syncing a single folder, called iPhone photos (imaginative, I know), so that's the third entry on my phone.

When you select one of these entries, you navigate to a screen full of thumbnails of each photo it contains. Here, you scroll around, click on an individual photo to view it full screen, or click the Play button at the bottom of the screen to initiate a slideshow.

While viewing an individual photo, you will see a toolbar appear on the bottom of the screen briefly, allowing you to access a few handy options. The first, confusing, icon in this toolbar (which resembles a Windows shortcut icon overlay) provides a pop-up menu with four options: Use As Wallpaper, Email Photo, Assign to Contact, and Cancel. These options are all fairly obvious and quite welcome. The other toolbar icons include Previous, Play (slideshow), Next and Trash. If you don't touch the screen for a few seconds, the toolbar fades away so you can fully view the photo.

You can also double-tap the photo to zoom in and out, rotate the screen to view the photo in the proper format, or use the iPhone's unique squeezing and pinching operations to zoom in and out with more control. While a photo is zoomed in you can also scroll around the image using your finger. And you can flick left and right to move to the previous and next photos in the current view. This is easily one of the best iPhone demos you can give: It always wows the crowd.

In slideshow view, the toolbars fade away and the device moves from image to image automatically. This slideshow is configured via the Photos option in Settings. There, you will see options for slide duration, transition type (Cube, Dissolve, Ripple, Wipe Across, and Wipe Down, but not Random), repeat, and shuffle. There's no way to automatically trigger a soundtrack from here, but if you start music playing in the iPod application and then view a slideshow, the music will play in the background. (Assuming it doesn't crash; the iPod app is notoriously buggy.)

Overall, Photos is a wonderful way to enjoy favorite photos on the go, assuming you can find a way to sync the photos you want onto the device. But that's an iTunes problem: The Photos application is excellent.

My rating:


The iPhone features a 2 megapixel digital camera, which is pretty impressive for a cell phone. Sadly, that's where the camera-related accolades end. Despite the relatively high end hardware, the iPhone's camera is marred in two ways. First, it offers no zoom at all, neither optical nor digital. Second, it doesn't include a flash. Yes, seriously.

Interfacing with the iPhone camera, however, is relatively simple, once you get over the fact that there's no dedicated camera button on the device either. (I guess that's a third issue.) Instead, you must navigate to the home screen and tap the Camera button. What you'll see almost defies description, as there's so little to it: Most of the screen is taken up with the view out the camera lens, and it works in either portrait or landscape mode. On the bottom (or side, depending on how you hold it) is a toolbar with just two buttons. The one in the middle, with a camera icon, takes the picture. The one on the side, which looks like a stack of paper, brings you to the Camera Roll, the collection of photos you've already taken with the device.

When you do take a picture, or switch into picture-taking mode, you'll be greeted with a semi-pointless animated shutter effect which reminds me of the "down the gun barrel" view you see in the beginning of most James Bond movies. There's also a satisfying (if pretend) shutter sound, so you feel like you're using a real camera. (You know, a real camera with no zoom or flash.)

Overall, the Camera app gets props for being so simple, but the lack of obvious camera features makes this application less compelling than it should be. Come on, Apple: This is a $600 device. How about throwing in at least digital zoom and a flash?

My rating:


I mentioned my age in the discussion about Text above, and my lack of interest in YouTube, a Google-owned Web site that seems to consist of only two kinds of videos--those made by amateur videographers, and those stolen from legitimate copyright holders--can perhaps be explained along similar lines. So while there's no denying YouTube's popularity, I have no idea why it's on my iPhone.

But I'm not above taking one for the team, so I've navigated a sea of lip-synching teenagers and cats that fall asleep and roll off the backs of couches so I can tell you what the YouTube application is like on the iPhone. It's actually not horrible, from a technical perspective, and works quite similarly to parts of the iPod application we'll discuss in a future part of this review. Basically, there are four primary views, and then a fifth item for accessing a few more:

Featured. Here, you'll see a list of list of videos that Google is featuring for some reason.

Most Viewed. These are YouTube's most viewed videos

Bookmarks. Videos you've bookmarked so you can view them again and again.

Search. A text input box so you can search for specific videos. Note that this works in portrait mode only.

More. Other YouTube views, including Most Recent, Top Rated, and History. Note that you can tap the Edit button to use any of these views on the YouTube toolbar (replacing one of the first four entries), as you can do in the iPod app.

While the video lists are always shown in portrait mode, videos always play in landscape mode, and no amount of twisting and turning of the device will change anything. Performance varies depending on where you are and how you're accessing the service. Obviously, a strong Wi-Fi connection is best, and I've seen a lot of "Cannot activate the EDGE network" error pop-ups occur while testing this feature. I can't say that this bothered me too much.

OK, I get it, I'm old. But if I could, I would simply delete the YouTube button and never wonder about it again. I wish I could do that.

My rating:


For all you budding insider traders out there, the Stocks application (which looks suspiciously like a similar Dashboard widget for Mac OS X) provides an at-a-glance look at your favorite stocks, showing both the day's results and, for the selected stock, a multi-month trend view. I couldn't care less about this kind of thing, frankly, but I'm sure many people will find it useful.

My rating:


The iPhone's much-vaunted Google Maps application is notable only because it works with the device's unique pinching and scrolling actions. Otherwise, it's just a subset of what you can get on the Web (and thus on other smart phones), and since the iPhone doesn't have built-in GPS, or offer compatibility with any GPS devices, it's even more limited: You have to know where you are in order to actually use it.

Like Google Maps on the Web, Maps offers both map and satellite views, and you can toggle traffic conditions--depicted as red, yellow, and green lines on maps--to see why you're sitting in bumper to bumper traffic. You can also click a Directions button to get directions from one location to another (where, again, the virtual keyboard works only in portrait mode), and a list view provides handy text-based directions.

Maps doesn't make particularly good use of the iPhone screen: Each view works only in portrait mode. Doy.

My rating:


As with Stocks, the Weather app looks just like OS X's Weather widget for Dashboard, though this version uses Yahoo! for its weather data. You can configure one or more locations for weather and jump from location to location using the iPhone's fun finger flicking. For each location you've configured, you can see today's current temperature, conditions, and high and low temperatures, as well as the conditions and high and low temperatures for the next 6 days. Sadly, there's no way to get more information, like hour-by-hour weather, though you can tap a tiny Yahoo! icon to visit Yahoo!'s Web site in Safari and learn more information about the current location.

My rating:


The iPhone displays the current time near the top of the screen almost all the time, so you might wonder what the Clock application is all about. Actually, it's a pretty neat tool and I've been using its alarm clock functionality a lot this month since we've been away from home. There are four modes, or clocks, that you can switch between in this app:

World Clock. A set of one or more clocks that you can configure independently from the system time. I have three configured, Boston, Paris, and Seattle. They're not interactive, but they do provide you with at-a-glance views of the current time in whatever locations you choose. This is particularly handy if you travel a lot or need to communicate frequently with people in multiple time zones, as I do.

Alarm. A nicely-implemented alarm clock with multiple alarms, fun alarm sounds, and snoozing capabilities. Sadly, you can't configure the alarm to wake you to music from the iPod application, however.

Stopwatch. A digital stopwatch that I'm sure someone will use for something.

Timer. Ditto, but as a timer. Actually, this can be useful in a variety of situations, though I've never had the opportunity to try it.

Overall, the Clock feature in the iPhone is nicely done. I especially like the alarm.

My rating:


No, it's not the opening exercise in "iPhone Programming for Dummies," it's your basic calculator, with weird, non-standard round buttons and stuff. Since the iPhone doesn't support cut/copy and paste, you can't paste the results of calculations into other applications, and there's no way to save calculations that I've seen.

My rating:


Perhaps the most poorly implemented iPhone application, Notes is a shining example of everything that can go wrong with this device. Graphically, it resembles a yellow notepad, which is arguably the only thing about this application that makes any sense, though I'm wondering why there aren't at least multiple styles to choose from. Surely someone at Apple prefers plain white paper too. Or graph paper. Something.

Notes, as you no doubt suspect, is used to store notes. That you write. With the iPhone's virtual keyboard. These notes are written in a bizarre and tiny font that looks something like Comic Sans; this font appears nowhere else in the iPhone and is nowhere near as readable as the wonderful fonts that do appear through the device's various UIs. You cannot change the font. You cannot even change the point size of the font.

These notes are also written only in portrait mode. That's right: You cannot take notes horizontally.

These notes are not synchronized with your desktop PC. Instead, you can email notes to yourself to access them elsewhere. This assumes, of course, that you've configured the iPhone with at least one email account. If you haven't, the notes are stuck on the iPhone forever.

What I'd like to know is this: Why isn't there a voice recorder application too? I mean, aside from the obvious deficiencies in Notes, it seems like we could bypass the iPhone's biggest problem--text input on the virtual keyboard--all together and just create voice notes. Surely, this is something the iPhone could handle with aplomb.

My rating:

Final thoughts

Well, that was a roller coaster ride. Contrary to Apple's hype-happy marketing, the built-in iPhone applications are truly a mishmash, and I wish there were a way to configure the home screen so that I could more easily avoid some of the stink bombs. The bigger issue, of course, is that Apple has completely sealed off iPhone development so that enterprising third parties, who might otherwise have quickly risen to the challenge and corrected the device's deficiencies, have been unable to do anything other than design iPhone-friendly Web sites. This is a huge and alarming problem and may very well represent the iPhone's biggest issue. Until Apple opens up the iPhone, we're stuck with what the company gives us.

Next up, we take a look at the iPhone's iPod application.

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