Apple iPhone Review, Part 1: Introduction

What can be written about the iPhone that hasn't been discussed ad nauseam already? Plenty, as it turns out. Contrary to the happy-happy-joy-joy reviews that appeared in major Apple-promoting publicat...

Paul Thurrott

October 6, 2010

17 Min Read
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What can be written about the iPhone that hasn't been discussed ad nauseam already? Plenty, as it turns out. Contrary to the happy-happy-joy-joy reviews that appeared in major Apple-promoting publications like Newsweek, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal during the week of the device's initial public release, the iPhone doesn't immediately eclipse all of the existing smart phones currently on the market. Indeed, the iPhone is a paradox: It is as innovative and gorgeous as any Apple device, yes, but it also under-delivers on some really basic smart phone and cell phones features. It is therefore fairly frustrating, especially for Windows users. And that's a problem, because as with the iPod, the majority of iPhone customers will be running Windows as well.

The iPhone's reliance on Windows is an important thing to keep in mind because, unlike almost every other smart phone on the market, you can't use an iPhone without connecting it to a personal computer. That's because Apple somehow convinced the iPhone's sole service carrier, the lackluster AT&T, to let it handle all of the registration, activation, and synchronization functionality of the device through its iTunes 7 software (see my review). Now, iTunes is generally excellent--I use it to manage my digital music collection, for example, instead of various Microsoft solutions--but the iPhone synchronization stuff is painfully bad. Indeed, you can add the cost of Outlook ($110) to the $500 to $600 you'll spend on the iPhone itself and the $60 to $100 a month you'll spend over two years on the iPhone service contract ($1440 to 2400). That's right: An iPhone could cost you up to $3200 over the two years you'll use the device, and that doesn't include the cost of leaving your current phone service contract so you can switch to AT&T. Best case scenario, you're looking at $1700. We'll discuss pricing more later in the review, but long story short, the biggest innovation in the iPhone might just be that Apple has convinced millions of people to skip the free phones they can get with any service recommitment and instead pay a $500 to $1000 premium to get their device instead. Nice trick, that.

For that money you'll get an amazing, drool-worthy device with solid (albeit buggy in 1.0) technology, a decent set of built-in applications, excellent phone functionality, a decent mobile mail experience (with some major caveats), the best-ever mobile phone Web experience, and solid (though, again, very buggy) iPod-like features. The iPhone is all over the map. Compared to traditional smart phones, which very much target business users, the iPhone is, perhaps, the first true consumer-oriented smart phone. It's all about fun stuff, like You Tube, TV shows, and movies, pretty Google Maps, and photo sharing. Want Exchange compatibility? Sorry. Looking for true integration with Outlook, complete with To-do tasks? Not going to happen. Do you need to edit Office documents? How about download new applications to the phone? Looking for GPS? None of that is available, sorry. The iPhone is as limiting as it is liberating.

And that, really, is why I've waited so long to write this review, and why I will publish it in several parts over a long period of time. As important as the iPhone is--and I truly do buy into the notion that the iPhone is ushering in a new generation of computerized user interface, I really do--this first rendition is ultimately all about frustration. (Again, especially if you're a Windows user. Which, again, most iPhone users are.) I've read and re-read the first batch of iPhone reviews out there, and I just have to shake my head. Did these guys actually use the iPhone with Windows, and without an Apple technician at their beck and call? Clearly they did not. Because the iPhone crashes a lot. It is missing a lot of obvious functionality. And a lot of the gee-whiz stuff that Apple and those first reviewers like to harp on about constantly actually doesn't work all the time, or work consistently across applications. Yeah, I know. I sound like a sour, sour man. I mean, what kind of jerk would even bother criticizing Apple? They only make good stuff, right?

Sorry, but I call 'em as I see 'em, and I'm more concerned about the people using the iPhone than I am about Apple or any other company. But if you doubt that I can give Apple products their due, you need to scroll through my Apple-oriented reviews (click here to see a list) from the past few years and notice all the four and five star ratings. I am perfectly willing to applaud the company when they get it right. The iPod, iPod nano, and iPod shuffle are all excellent. I love iTunes, despite some performance issues on Vista. But Apple doesn't always get it right. The Apple TV is a great example. And the iPhone, in its current form, is another one. I have no doubt that Apple will eventually get it right, ship a bunch of updates, and over time release new and improved iPhone versions. But right now, you might think a bit more clearly about spending $500 to $600 on this device (not to mention the service contract, possible Outlook purchase, and, lest we forget, the potential cost of switching carriers). Because, chances are, after the initial wave of euphoria wears off, which it will, you might just discover that that iPhone is the tech equivalent of a blonde bimbo: All looks and no substance. Yeah, I did just compare the iPhone to Jessica Simpson. Deal with it.

On the other hand, I love good technology. And the iPhone is chock full of good technology. Some of what this device does is so amazing, and so revolutionary, that you will literally find yourself mouth agape as you realize that everything you used before is now as pass? as black and white TV or VHS tapes. The iPhone, or more correctly, the technology the iPhone delivers in compact, mobile form, is clearly the future of mobile computing. All it needs is some refinement, some functional improvements, and a lower price. It's coming people. The history of the iPod shows us how it will happen.

In the meantime, we have iPhone 1.0. Let's take a look.

Purchasing and activation

As with other high profile consumer electronics devices of the recent past--the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Nintendo Wii come immediately to mind--eager iPhone users lined up in front of Apple and AT&T retail stores on the day the iPhone was first released. That day was Friday, June 29, 2007, and by the time the 6:00 pm selling time arrived, most of these retail locations had dozens of people waiting for the chance to spend $500 or $600. If there's a better example of event marketing than this, I haven't seen it: Apple announced the iPhone in January and then managed the build-up to launch with a casual touch that Microsoft would do well to study. As the date got closer and closer, Apple released more and more information, feeding desire and anticipation. Brilliant.

That said, iPhone buyers, on day one or otherwise, face their first frustration with the device the moment they make the purchase. That's because the iPhone, unlike every other smart phone on the market, cannot be used right way. That's right: Out of the box, the iPhone is almost useless, though you can call 911 in the event of an emergency. To turn it into a phone, you must first bring it home, plug it into a Mac or Windows XP/Vista-based PC running the latest version of iTunes, and run through a wizard-like process that registers your device, lets you pick a two-year service plan, and then activates it and assigns you a phone number. After all that is done, you need to synchronize the iPhone with your computer-based content. Only then can you actually use it.

The iPhone packaging is, in typical Apple fashion, excellent. The box is a scant 2 x 3 x 5 inches or so, but it doesn't open out accordion style like the old iPods, but rather like a more conventional (though quite substantial) box. (I'm not sure if they're still doing this, but on opening day, those purchasing the iPhone at an Apple retail store also got a cute iPhone bag.)

When you slide open the box, you'll see the iPhone itself, wrapped in protective plastic and mounted on top of an interior container that includes silly little documentation ("Finger tips" and so on), some Apple stickers (natch), and the included hardware: A pair of Apple's patently bad ear bud headphones (this time with an integrated microphone that doubles as a clicker control for certain iPod functions), a weird iPhone mini-dock, a USB charge/sync cable, and a smallish power adapter, which can be used in conjunction with the USB cable to use wall power to charge the device. (It also charges when connected to the PC.) Each of these hardware nuggets are wrapped in Apple's standard protective plastic cocoons.

Once you're done staring at it, you can plug the iPhone into your PC via the USB cable. This will cause iTunes to fire up, if it's installed, and then you can begin the process of activating, registering, and syncing.

Stepping through the iTunes-based wizard, the first step involves deciding what type of AT&T customer you are: An existing customer replacing your existing phone, an existing customer adding a new phone, or a new customer. New customers can optionally transfer their old mobile phone to the new device. Since I was just testing the iPhone, I decided to keep my old number and service on Verizon, which proved to be a smart move. But most people will likely want to transfer their old number to the new phone, regardless of where they previously received cell phone service.

Next, you have to pick your monthly AT&T service plan. AT&T offers three plans to iPhone users and, unlike with other smart phones, they're all expensive because you have to get unlimited data plan as part of the package: Apparently, the iPhone experience would be second rate if you couldn't access the Internet at all times. The plans range in cost from $59.99 for 450 minutes to $79.99 for 900 minutes, and to $99.99 for 1350 minutes. Each plan includes unlimited data (email and Web), visual voicemail, 200 SMS text messages, rollover minutes, and unlimited mobile to mobile calls within the AT&T network. The low-end plan caps out at 5000 night and weekend minutes, but the other two offer unlimited off-peak usage. Heavy SMS users can upgrade to 1500 SMS messages or unlimited SMS messages for $10 or $20 a month, respectively. All of these plans require a two year service contract with AT&T, which is standard practice for all phone service plans these days in the US.

Next, you logon or create your Apple ID, which is used as your iTunes account. Then, Apple asks you to enter your birth date and optionally sign up for some email newsletters, and provide your full billing address (including, curiously, your social security number, which has rankled some privacy advocates). After that, you must accept the iPhone terms and conditions and AT&T service agreement, review your information, and wait while AT&T processes your iPhone's activation. Note that while many people experienced problems activating the iPhone on June 29 (including me), this problem seems to have settled down since then.

When activation is complete, AT&T will assign you a phone number based on the area code of the address you supplied. You cannot ask for a new number or choose from a list of numbers, though presumably you could visit an AT&T store and request a change. I happened to luck out with my number, which is quite easy to remember. From there, you set up your phone for initial synchronization.

Sync it, sync it bad

In its initial shipping form, PC synchronization is the weak link, especially on Windows, which I'll focus on here. Windows-based iPhone users will be presented with a list of personal information management (PIM) sync points, including contacts, calendars, email accounts, and bookmarks. But most are limited in horrible ways. Most glaringly, there are no Mozilla options at all. If you use Thunderbird for mail, Firefox for Web browsing, or the admittedly less popular Sunbird for calendaring, you're completely out of luck.

For contacts, you can sync with the Yahoo! address book (part of the free Yahoo! Mail Webmail service), Windows Contacts, or Outlook. That's it. No Hotmail, Gmail, AOL, Eudora, or Thunderbird. Sadly, contacts is the full-featured sync item.

To sync with a calendar, you need Outlook, and after extensive testing, I can tell you that Outlook calendar sync only actually works with the default local calendar, despite UI that suggests that the iPhone, like the iPod, go figure, can sync with multiple Outlook calendars. It cannot. Furthermore, the iPhone doesn't support Outlook's Tasks list at all. So keep your To-do items on a piece of paper like it's 1978. But I'm most confused why the iPhone doesn't support popular Web calendars like Google Calendar. This is a huge lapse, though it could be partially filled if Outlook support actually worked: Then, in Outlook 2007 at least, you could at least subscribe to a Web-based calendar and sync that way.

For email, you can sync with Windows Mail (or, in XP, Outlook Express) or Outlook. But the iPhone's email sync is so limited and arbitrarily different between each type of account it supports that I ended up just turning this off. If you're into POP email support, or happen to use one of the email services that actually works pretty well with the iPhone (read: Yahoo! Mail and .Mac mail only), then this might be of interest to you. But here, again, the iPhone simply ignores some of the most popular email solutions on earth, notably Hotmail.

Bookmarks might be the most laughable item on the list. You can sync with Internet Explorer or, seriously, Apple's Safari. But since no one in their right mind would ever use Safari, IE is pretty much the only real option here. Seriously, this is useless without Firefox support.

Once you've configured synchronization, iTunes syncs up with the device. But there's more to do. Via the now familiar multi-tab interface that it introduced in iTunes 7 last year, you can configure how the iPhone synchronizes with various items, including the aforementioned PIM options, which are configured via the Info page. On the Music page, you configure which playlists, music, audio books, and music videos sync with the device. (Podcasts, curiously, get their own tab.) Because the iPhone includes just 4 or 8 GB of storage space, however, you may need to whittle down which items to sync. For this reason, the creation of good playlists is a must.

On the Photos page, you determine which photos will be synced with the device. On the PC, you can choose between Photoshop Elements, the Pictures folder (My Pictures in XP), or choose a folder. Sadly, iTunes is tragically inept when it comes to folder selection, so you can only choose between the folders that are found directly under Pictures. If you have folders elsewhere on you hard drive, or at a deeper hierarchical level, you're out of luck. For this reason, I manually created a folder called iPhone photos and copied into it a handful of photos for viewing on the phone. As with the iPod, photo sync is very slow at first because iPhone actually creates smaller versions of each photo before copying them to the device.

On the Podcasts page, you choose which podcasts to sync to the iPhone. You can sync all podcasts, the most recent 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 10 recent podcasts or recent unplayed podcasts, and select exactly which podcasts you'd like to sync.

The Video page lets you sync with TV shows and movies you've purchased from the iTunes Store. Again, the iPhone's limited storage space becomes an issue when a typical movie weighs in at over 1 GB.

Overall, the sync experience on the iPhone is frustrating. The iPod-like stuff works as you'd expect, but the PIM options are very limited. This is especially disturbing when you realize, as I did after multiple reinstalls of various Windows and Outlook versions, that the iPhone doesn't even handle multiple Outlook calendars as does the iPod. That just doesn't make sense.

I have no doubt that Apple will improve the number and quality of the sync points for the iPhone over time. But as it now stands, you're going to be out of luck unless you're an Outlook user who only uses the default local calendar. That doesn't seem like a big group of people to me.

Here's how I sync my PIM information with the iPhone. My master contacts list is still in Outlook, even though I've switched to Web-based Gmail for email. (While the details are complex, I will just point out that Gmail is useless for contacts management because it adds a contact every time you reply to an email, and I don't want that.) My calendar is on Google Calendar. Displaying Google Calendar is easy in Outlook 2007, because you can subscribe to Internet-based calendars, but when you do so, it creates a new calendar, and the iPhone won't see it. To work around this limitation, I use a product called SyncMyCal to sync Google Calendar into the default local calendar in Outlook. That way, my schedule actually makes it into the iPhone. I don't sync email with the iPhone because I don't use either Outlook or Windows Mail for email; however, I did set up access to various email services from the device itself, which I'll look at in a future part of this review. And I don't use IE for the Web, so I configured Safari for syncing out of the hope that I could simply create a small list of mobile-friendly bookmarks that work well on the iPhone. I'll look at this, too, in the future. However, if Apple offered Firefox sync, I'd probably switch to that.

Where we go from here

In upcoming parts of this review, I'm going to very closely examine what I think are the key aspects of the iPhone. First, its core technology: The iPhone includes a multi-touch display with rotation sensing capabilities that responds to finger presses and movements in ways that make other mobile devices look sick by comparison. It runs a version of Mac OS X, which, frankly, doesn't mean much to anyone using the device, especially since Apple refuses to open it up to third party developers in any meaningful way. And it includes Wi-Fi and Bluetooth networking, in addition to compatibility with AT&T's much-worse-than-you've-heard EDGE network, the latter of which might just be the device's true Achilles Heel. It's either that or the much-debated virtual keyboard. My opinion of that feature might surprise you.

Next, I'll look at the iPhone's stellar phone functionality, including the excellent "visual voice mail" feature, which completely outpaces any smart phone on the market. The iPhone is a tremendous cell phone, though it does lack a few obvious features.

After that, I'll examine the iPhone's curiously eclectic mix of built-in applications. There are 12, including Calendar, Photos, YouTube, and Google Maps. Some, like Google Maps, are excellent. Some, like Notes, are just weird. You can't add applications, remove applications, or configure them in any way. It's pretty much a closed box, and what you see is what you get.

Next, I'll look at the iPhone's Internet features, Mail and Safari, the latter of which is Apple's Web browser. Both offer significant improvements over similar features on other smart phones, but both also fall short in several key and obvious ways.

Then, I'll explain how the iPhone is, in many ways, the best iPod yet. It includes the gorgeous Cover Flow view that Apple previously added to iTunes, making music selection more graphical and magical than ever. The iPhone is also compatible with iTunes-based TV shows and movies, podcasts, audio books, and other content, but not, alas, with iPod games. I don't think anyone will miss that last feature.

After that, I'll wrap things up with an overall score and summary. Frankly, I know where I'm leaning now, but I'll wait on that until I've completely divulged the various pros and cons of this enigmatic device. What I know now is this. The iPhone is pure innovation and will set the smart phone market on its head for months to come. What's unclear is whether it's worth the cost in its current buggy and incomplete form. I aim to find out.

Continue to Part 2...

About the Author(s)

Paul Thurrott

Paul Thurrott is senior technical analyst for Windows IT Pro. He writes the SuperSite for Windows, a weekly editorial for Windows IT Pro UPDATE, and a daily Windows news and information newsletter called WinInfo Daily UPDATE.

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