Skip navigation

Apple iPhone Review, Part 8: But Wait, There's More

As I noted in my epic iPhone review, one of the problems in reviewing such a product is that Apple is going to continually update the iPhone and make it better over time. Yes, this is true of most products, of course. But the iPhone is important because it's one of the most viable new computing platforms to come around in quite some time--think Macintosh, Windows, Internet, and iPhone, in that order--and it's going to affect millions and millions of people. No, the iPhone as released in June 2007 may not be the perfect smart phone for most Windows users. But the iPhone of 2008? 2009? Who can say?

Since Apple will continually update the original iPhone, I thought I could tack on this page to my review and provide a place where I can explain what Apple has fixed and changed, as the updates appear. If Apple does enough to improve the original iPhone, I may adjust my rating at that time. It's equally likely, of course, that Apple will simply ship new iPhone hardware in the future in lieu of providing major updates to the first iPhone. If and when that happens, I'll move on and review that new device separately. But in the meantime, it will be fun to track the changes to iPhone 1.0 and see how things progress.

So here we go: I'll update this page in reverse chronological order as Apple issues new iPhone updates and see whether any of these improvements warrants a change in my review.

iPhone 1.1.3

January 15, 2008

New!   On January 15, 2008, Apple announced a long-rumored and long-awaited iPhone 1.1.3 firmware update, adding a number of interesting new features to the device. While this update doesn't address many of the longstanding issues I've had with the iPhone (see my recent article, How Apple Can Fix the iPhone, for details), it does dramatically improve the iPhone user experience and, I feel, qualify for a re-evaluation of the score I've given the device in this review.

This new update, sometimes referred to as the January '08 iPhone Update, is a major reworking of the iPhone's built-in software, despite its diminutive version number change. And it's delivered in a whopping 162 MB download, further emphasizing its scope and importance. Here's what's new in iPhone 1.1.3.

Customizable home screen

While Apple still doesn't give you the ability to completely delete unnecessary built-in icons (like You Tube) from the iPhone Home screen, 1.1.3 does at least allow you to move them to sub-screens and arrange them as you like. Now, you can have up to 9 iPhone Home screens. You can even change which icons appear in the iPhone Home screen's Dock, that area at the bottom of the Home screen that contains links to Phone, Mail, Safari, and iPod by default.

The customizable home screen is actually advertised the first time you turn on the iPhone after installing the 1.1.3 update. You'll see a dialog with the following text:

Edit Home Screen. To rearrange icons, touch and hold any icon until it starts to wiggle, then drag icons to desired locations. Drag an icon to the far right to create additional Home screens. Press the Home button when done.

It works as advertised. (The wiggle effect is ridiculous, but whatever.) You can drag icons around the current screen, off of either edge to other screens, or into the Dock (which is consistent across all screens). While there are a number of iPhone apps I'd love to just remove, this is better than nothing: I've moved You Tube, Text, Stocks, Calculator, and Notes off the main page as I never use them. I've also added Calendar to the Dock and moved iPod into the regular Home screen area. And I've added some much-used Web applications (see below) to the primary Home screen as well. Now the iPhone works the way I want it to. Nice.

Apple has also provided a way to add special Web shortcuts, called Web Clips, to the newly customizable Home screen. Web Clips aren't just bookmarks, however: They also save whatever zoom and page location data that exists when you create the Clip. So if you're zoomed into, say, the forecast section of the page for your location, you can save a Web Clip of that. Or just save the whole page like a regular bookmark.

Web Clips are created via a new plus sign ("+") button on the bottom toolbar in Safari, the iPhone's Web browser. This button opens a pop-up menu with Add Bookmark, Add to Home Screen, and Mail Link to this Page buttons; the middle option creates a Web Clip. Tap Add to Home Screen, and you can name the Clip (don't use too many characters as it gets truncated) and click Add to add it to the Home Screen. Web Clips appear as small thumbnails of the selected page, which is kind of nice.

To create a more specialized Web Clip--one that includes the page location and zoom--navigate to the page you want to save, navigate and zoom in on the page as needed, and then follow the same steps: Each Web Clip remembers the page location and zoom level that was used when the "+" button was pressed.

Unlike built-in apps, you can actually delete Web Clips from the Home screen: Just touch and hold the icon and once it stars wiggling you'll see a little "x" box above it and to the left. Click that box and the icon will be deleted.

Web Clips are a neat idea. Obviously, had Apple not decided to open up the iPhone with a real SDK, they'd be an even bigger deal. But in these months before legitimate iPhone applications appear, saving links to Web apps in this fashion will be highly desirable. And if you spend a lot of time in particular Web apps as I do, this will be a nice option going forward regardless.

Maps improvements

While the iPhone does not include dedicated GPS hardware or even offer a way (at least yet) to add that capability via a plug-in device, Apple has improved the (Google) Maps application in the iPhone to add a GPS-like location capability. This feature uses cell phone tower triangulation to locate you. The result is not as precise as GPS, of course, but it's much better than nothing. (The iPhone can also use a connected wireless access point to locate you via Wi-Fi, though this is even less reliable in my experience so far, often resulting in a "your location could not be determined" error.)

The new location feature is exposed by a small round button in the lower left of the Maps application, in the toolbar to the left of the Search and Directions buttons. When you click it, Maps will try to triangulate your location. It's not accurate enough for a military bombing campaign, but it's OK for casual consumer use. At my home, Maps tells me I'm about one exit down the nearby highway, but it's in the ballpark. Assuming a pretty big ballpark, that is.

There's another new icon in the Maps toolbar, which looks like an eye and is found to the right of Search and Directions: This button visually curls up the current map view to expose options such as Drop Pin, Hide/Show Traffic, and Map, Satellite, Hybrid, and List. Hybrid view is new: As with its Web-based cousin, you can now overlay the Map and Satellite views on top of each other. The Drop Pin is also new to Maps, though again you are likely familiar with it from the Web-based Google Maps: You can drop a pin at your current location (or at least nearby, based on the accuracy of the location triangulation), save pins like bookmarks, and use pins as the start and end points of directions. Again, all very familiar to anyone that's used a Web-based mapping service before.

Multi-recipient SMS

Being an adult and an iPhone user, I don't have much use for SMS, but I know a lot of other people do, so I won't completely ridicule this feature, at least not while you're watching anyway. With iPhone 1.1.3, you can now send the same SMS message to multiple recipients. Just add more recipients via the handy new plus ("+") button that now appears in the To field in the New Message portion of the Text application.

Sadly, Text still uses horrible iChat-style text balloons and sound effects. You can edit the sounds in the Sounds Settings, but hopefully, we'll be able to customize the balloon silliness in a future iPhone update. (As, incidentally, you can do in iChat.)

iTunes movie rentals

In tandem with the release of iTunes 7.6, Apple now supports the same kind of movie rentals that Windows Media-based services have employed for about a decade now, with similar functionality and pricing. But there's one huge and important difference with Apple's system: Because it works with all modern iPods and the iPhone, movie rentals from the iTunes Store are far more interesting.

Of course, you can't download rented or purchased movies from the iPhone itself. Instead, you must rent movies from your PC-based version of iTunes and transfer them to the iPhone as you would with any other iTunes-based content. Rented movies are reasonably priced ($3 to $4 for standard definition movies and $4 to $5 for HD movies) and come with industry-standard usage terms: Once you rent a movie, you have 30 days to begin watching it. And once you begin watching that movie, you have 24 hours to finish watching it; you can watch the rented movie as often as you'd like during that 24 hour period.

As of this writing, rented movies have yet to appear in the iTunes Store, but if Apple's promotional materials are accurate, this service should work as well or better than similar services from Unbox, CinemaNow and Movielink. (Yeah, we have it good on the PC side.) On the iPhone, rented movies show up in the Videos section of the iPod application, under a new heading, "Rented Movies." Because rented movies expire, information about the time out period appears on this screen as well.

Other iPhone 1.1.3 changes

In addition to these big changes, iPhone 1.1.3 adds a number of smaller new features.

Gmail IMAP support added to Mail
While Google added IMAP support to its popular Gmail Web-based email service back in early December, iPhone users (like myself) who wished to access Gmail in this fashion from the iPhone were forced to manually configure the server information. Now, the iPhone's Mail application automatically configures Gmail as IMAP, removing this time consuming and error-prone process. Bravo: Gmail support on the iPhone is now truly a first class experience.

Movie chapters support
While rented, purchased, and even ripped movies can support DVD-like chapters that make navigating through a movie easy, this support was never been formally supported on the iPhone. Now it is. Supported movies will feature a new Chapters button on the iPod playback overlay, to the right of Back, Play/Pause, and Forward, that brings up a DVD Player-like list of the available movie chapters, similar to the display you see in iTunes. Just tap a chapter to navigate to that part of the movie.

Song lyric support
If you add lyrics to music files via iTunes (found in the Lyrics tab of the Get Info window in iTunes), the iPhone will now display them. Song lyrics appear over album art during song playback.

Use Gift Cards in the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store
Apple now lets you redeem iTunes Gift Cards in the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store, so you won't have to use your PC to take advantage of such a gift. Gift Card redemption occurs via a handy Redeem button, found in the top toolbar of the Downloads section of the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store application.

Final thoughts on 1.1.3

Apple deserves some credit for improving the iPhone experience over time, though I have to admit, I had expected more changes by this point in time. That said, I feel that Apple has done enough to warrant a reexamination of the 3 out of 5 star rating that I handed the iPhone back in August 2007. At that time, I had provided what I still feel is the most accurate overview of the iPhone's pros and cons, a review that was unswayed by Apple's marketing, unlike the heady rush-to-market reviews that appeared months earlier in mainstream publications like "The New York Times," "The Wall Street Journal," and "USA Today." Too, my review focused on the iPhone experience from the standpoint of the Windows user, obviously the largest percentage of iPhone users there are. It should come as no surprise to anyone that Apple's smart phone works better with Apple's operating system and applications, even if much fewer users are utilizing such an arrangement.

Now, five months later, Apple has improved the iPhone enough for me to recommend it to typical users. Yes, there is still so much to fix with the iPhone. And some of it, like Outlook calendar sync, is pretty basic stuff that should never have been so thoroughly screwed up in the first place. But the iPhone is hard to ignore and I, like many others, love it despite its flaws. I feel that it's important to communicate what those flaws are, accurately. But it's also equally important that you understand that the iPhone is something special despite those flaws.

I wasn't sure if we'd ever get here, but what the heck. Highly recommended.

Google iPhone Web application updated

December 5, 2007

This is the second time that Google, and not Apple, has released a significant update that dramatically improves the iPhone value equation. The update is to Google's mobile Web application (Figure), basically a series of Web sites that are now optimized for the iPhone and its unique capabilities. The only drawback to this update is that it can only be accessed via the iPhone's Safari Web browser application: Apple still doesn't offer a way to create your own shortcuts on the iPhone home screen.

In any event, the attractive new Google Web application features a pleasant and simple UI with quick access to Google search (naturally), Gmail email, Google Calendar, Google Reader (news feeds), and, via a More link, Google Docs, GOOG-411, Google SMS, Google News, PicasaWeb Photos, Blogger, and Google Notebook. The big three--search, Gmail, and Calendar--are particularly impressive, though most iPhone users are arguably using the built-in mail (with IMAP) and calendar applications to access that functionality. (This fact has led, logically, to rumors that Google's iPhone Web apps are prototypes for future mobile apps on other platforms, including Android.)

iPhone 1.1.2

November 12, 2007

In anticipation of the release of the iPhone in Europe, Apple has released iPhone 1.1.2, which adds supports for international languages such as French, German, Italian, and UK English. Apple has also added a battery life indicator in the iPod application, made minor changes to the unit's ringtones feature, and fixed some bugs.

Overall, iPhone 1.1.2 is an extremely minor update for existing iPhone users.

Google adds IMAP support to Gmail

October 24, 2007

Why does a Google update to its Web-based Gmail email service warrant a mention in my iPhone review, you ask? Well, as I noted in Part 6 of this review, the iPhone ships only with native support for POP3 access to Gmail, rendering the feature almost completely worthless. Now, thanks true IMAP support, including folder-like access to Gmail's Label-based views, the iPhone offers a first-class email experience for millions of Gmail users, though you'll have to configure the iPhone's mail application manually. (The instructions for doing so can be found on Google's Web site.)

This change is a major improvement for anyone who uses both Gmail and the iPhone (as I do). In fact, it's a bigger improvement than anything Apple has added to the iPhone thus far.

iPhone 1.1.1

September 27, 2007

This week, Apple shipped a major iPhone firmware update, iPhone 1.1.1, providing a number of changes to the device. The biggest change, of course, is the addition of the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store, a new service that lets you browse and purchase songs from the iTunes Store via Wi-Fi on the device. Note that the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store, which is accessed from a new purple button on the iPhone home screen, is extremely limited: You can only browse and download songs with the service, so you can't access things like audiobooks, podcasts, video podcasts, music videos, iPod games, TV shows, movies, or other iTunes-based content. Also, it only works via Wi-Fi: If you attempt to browse the store via EDGE, you'll get an error message on the iPhone. I will be reviewing the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store soon.

The second biggest change, and this will come as little solace to those iPhone users who racked up multi-thousand-dollar bills while traveling internationally with the device this summer, is that you can now turn off EDGE-based Internet functionality via a pretty well hidden "Data Roaming" option in Settings -> General -> Network. Why this feature isn't as prominent as "Airplane Mode" as I suggested in this review is a bit unclear, but at least they added it: Thanks for listening, Apple. (Now fix calendar sync on the PC, please.)

The iPhone 1.1.1 update also modifies Apple's innovative consumer phone in other small ways. Many of these changes are quite desirable. For example, you can now double-tap the Home button to go directly to the iPhone's Phone application. (It's too bad this wasn't very configurable, however, as some users might prefer to reassign this shortcut. Apple offers only one other option: You can configure it to go to the iPod application instead.) You can also now double-tap the space bar in the iPhone's balky virtual keyboard to create a period, so you don't have to manually navigate to a sub-keyboard to access that character.

I complained throughout my iPhone review that the iPhone's much-heralded screen rotation feature was nice but worked only intermittently and not in the same way in various applications. Apple fixed this issue in only one place: When you rotate the device while viewing an email attachment, the view now rotates. There's a lot more work that needs to be done here: You can't use the keyboard in landscape mode anywhere in the iPhone except in Safari, and it doesn't behave consistently between applications.

Apple also fixed a ton of security bugs--most related to the Safari browser, naturally--increased the volume of the device's speakers and earphone-based sound output, and added video out which, like the iPod touch, annoyingly doesn't work with any of the existing Apple docks and cables or third party accessories that have been on the market for years. Instead, you have to purchase a special $50 Apple Component AV Cable kit (shipping in late October) that only works with the iPhone and late 2007 iPods. (Good thing these devices all have "standard" iPod connectors, eh?)

In a bit of bad news for anyone hoping that Apple would slowly warm to opening up the iPhone to third party developers and thus create a huge and healthy ecosystem of native iPhone applications, the company instead continues its assault on this notion by adding code to iPhone 1.1.1 that thwarts add-ons. Specifically, there is a new encryption system that neatly destroys any unlocking hacks, non-sanctioned (i.e. non-Apple) ringtones and ringtone generators, and any other unofficial applications you may have been arrogant enough to try and load on that $2500 money siphon you thought you owned. (Yeah, there's math to support this figure: $400-$600 for the device plus $60-$100 a month for two years averages to just about $2500.)

While iPhone 1.1.1 is certainly a major update, and thus something all iPhone should install as soon as possible, it doesn't really change the value proposition of the device too much. The iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store is nice but not essentially (and where's wireless sync?) and while the data roaming feature is useful and necessary, it should have been in there to begin with and is no doubt a reaction to all the bad press Apple got when people started taking their US iPhones overseas. A worthy update, but this is the type of thing we should get getting every month. There's just so much to fix on the iPhone right now.

Ringtone editing and purchasing added

September 11, 2007

Now that Apple has actually added the ringtone feature it announced last week, it's possible to see how it stacks up. Being 40 years old and all, I'm not a huge buyer of custom ringtones. But I have purchased a few in the past, and while I've always found the price of ringtones to be exorbitant, I at least understand their attraction. (And the theme from "Halloween" might just be the ultimate ringtone, if you're curious.)

Sadly, Apple's ringtone implementation is poor. As noted in the September 5, 2007 update to this review, iPhone users cannot simply take any song in their iTunes-based music library and turn it into a ringtone, nor can they simply purchase pre-made ringtones, as is possible with just about every other cell phone in the US. Instead, Apple has created a system that manages to be an unholy combination of restrictive, onerous to the user, and expensive. Here's what I mean.

Restrictive. In addition to not being able to make ringtones out of your own legally-obtained music, Apple forces you to buy music from its iTunes Store, twice, once to acquire a copy of the song and once for the ringtone. It gets worse: Not only do you need to buy a full version of the song you'll use for a ringtone, even if you already own it or don't otherwise want the full song, you can't just use any iTunes Store-based song. Instead, you must choose from a selection of 500,000 songs, a small subset of the 6 million that Apple currently sells online.

Onerous to the user. Yes, 500,000 is a huge number, but iTunes doesn't sort these songs for you into a handy Ringtones section of the store. Nor can you search for ringtones: Ringtone is not one of the content types that is returned when you search the iTunes Store. To find a song you can turn into a ringtone, you must instead browse around mindlessly, hoping to come across the little bell icon that indicates a song can be used to buy a ringtone. Groan.

Once you do find a song you want, you will have to edit it yourself (!), using a waveform editor that pops up in the bottom of the iTunes window when you click on a song's bell icon (Figure). This happens "live," while you're online, and you only get one chance: If you choose to buy a ringtone, download it, sync it to your iPhone, navigate through the iPhone's interface to figure out where the custom ringtone is applied to a contact, and then test it by having that person call you, only to discover that the new ringtone isn't quite right, well tough. You can't go back and edit the ringtone later. (You can, of course, rebuy the ringtone and undergo another online editing session.)

Expensive. After forcing you to browse around looking in vain to see whether your favorite songs can be turned into ringtones, and then forcing you to actually edit the ringtone yourself, Apple performs the final insult: It charges you twice for the ringtone, once for the song (again, even if you already own it, unless of course you purchased it previously from the iTunes Store) and once for the actual ringtone. The total cost is $1.98, since each of these purchases is 99 cents. It's like being forced to dig your own grave.

Now, I don't mean to be totally critical here. Ringtones are a very basic feature of most cell phones and are clearly a very popular feature. In my original review of the iPhone, I criticized Apple for not offering ringtone support in its "Jesus Phone," since users would expect such a thing. The problem is, now that it's available, it's hardly an advantage. Indeed, it's so poorly implemented I have to wonder what Apple was thinking. This functional addition does not change my original rating in the slightest.

My Ringtone rating:

Ringtone support, iTunes WiFi, massive price cut announced

September 5, 2007

Apple announced a major iPhone update, due sometime later this month, that will add a number of new features to the device. More important, perhaps, Apple has significantly cut the price of the iPhone. Whereas the company previously sold two iPhone models, a 4 GB version for $499 and a 8 GB version for $599, Apple has cancelled the 4 GB version and has dropped the price of the 8 GB version a whopping $200 (!) to $399. This is major news, folks.

The new features can be broken down as follows:

Ringtone support. One of the more bizarre omissions from the original iPhone, given its otherwise solid multimedia chops, was that you could not purchase or make your own ringtones. Apple is addressing both of these needs in the new iPhone update. These capabilities will be made available in a number of different ways. First, Apple will soon ship a new iTunes version (likely 7.4) that adds a ringtones editor you can use with your existing (non-protected) music library. Second, Apple will begin selling ringtones via its iTunes Store for 99 cents each and ringtones based on a 500,000 song music library for $1.98 each (99 cents for the ringtone and 99 cents for the song).

iTunes Wi-Fi support. Also coming soon is an over-the-air version of the iTunes Music Store that Apple is calling iTunes Wi-Fi. This online service will allow iPhone (and iPod touch) users to access the entire iTunes Store catalog wirelessly using their device, browse content, and make purchases. When the device is synched with a PC, the purchased songs are synched back to the PC, as you'd expect. This is a major if obvious improvement to the iPhone, and one that dramatically improves its already excellent multimedia capabilities.

Starbucks service support. Over the next two years, iPhone (and iPod touch) users will be able to integrate with the wireless Internet access and currently playing music at Starbucks coffee houses around the US. On the wireless front, iPhone users will be able to browse the iTunes Store for free using Starbucks' generally expensive wireless access (provided by T-Mobile). And if you like the song that's currently playing in the coffee house at the time, a new iPhone application will let you discover what it is and purchase it via iTunes Wi-Fi. This service isn't really all that exciting, frankly.

iPhone 1.02

August 22, 2007

According to the release notes, the iPhone 1.02 update "includes bug fixes and supersedes all previous versions." No other information was ever provided, and it didn't appear to change the iPhone experience in any way.

iPhone 1.01

August 2, 2007

Apple's first iPhone update didn't ship until over a month after the device was first released, which is sort of astonishing when you consider the number of problems it had and a set of security vulnerabilities that quickly came to light. As you might expect, then, iPhone 1.01 added both bug fixes and security fixes, the latter of which all related to the subpar Safari Web browser. In my own experience, the iPhone became far more stable in the wake of the 1.01 update, especially the buggy iPod application.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.