Apple iPhone Review, Part 2: Core Technologies

As a long-time PDA and smart phone user, I have certain expectations of any mobile device. These expectations revolve around such mundane tasks as synchronizing with my PIM data and allowing me to acc...

Paul Thurrott

October 6, 2010

21 Min Read
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As a long-time PDA and smart phone user, I have certain expectations of any mobile device. These expectations revolve around such mundane tasks as synchronizing with my PIM data and allowing me to access the Internet, through the phone's Internet connection, with my notebook computers. As it turns out, my current smart phone, a Motorola Q used via Verizon's high-speed EV-DO network, is much more capable than the iPhone in this regard.

But before I get critical, understand this: The technology in the iPhone is of a completely different caliber than anything found in any smart phone currently being sold in the US. Indeed, the iPhone is a technological crossroads joining traditional smart phones (i.e. pre-iPhone smart phones) with the Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC), Microsoft's ultra-mobile computing platform. So we're talking about a device that is head and shoulders, technologically, above most other portable devices of this size. With technology, of course, comes some complexity. But Apple is good at making things simple, even if it often does so at the expense of functionality.

So let's take a look at the core technology Apple put in the iPhone, not just to revel in what it is, but rather to discover how it impacts users in the real world.

Design and aesthetics

Make no mistake, the iPhone is one gorgeous device. I'm not exactly a social butterfly, but people have approached me to discuss the iPhone I'm holding in numbers that I've never experienced. (The only thing that ever came close was my 12-inch PowerBook G3, also an Apple device, which used to garner unsolicited comments from people on a fairly regular basis years ago.) As is customary now with Apple mobile devices, the iPhone is much thinner and lighter in person than you assume it will be after viewing photos of it online. Its screen is sleeker and more photo-realistic than seems possible. It looks, almost, like a device from the future, and as one reviewer accurately put it (in a rare example where mainstream press hyperbole is actually true), the iPhone makes all other smart phones look like Soviet-era machinery by comparison. No doubt about it, there's the iPhone and then there's everything else.

Every component on the iPhone feels solid. The glass screen is of obvious high-quality and, so far, it has resisted scratching admirably. This is particularly amazing when you consider that the original iPod nano would scratch horribly if you looked at it funny. As I noted in my review of that device's successor, my nano scratched almost the minute I got it out of the packaging, and I was particularly careful with it. This isn't an issue with the iPhone, though you'll naturally want to protect the elegant little device as if it were a baby. I've been fairly rough with it, and aside from regularly needing to de-smudge the screen (as expected on a touch screen-based device), I've seen no real scratches on the screen after weeks of regular use. This is true of most other exterior parts of the device, including its back (another particularly scratch-tastic part of every iPod ever made) and its plastic bottom.

Sadly, the curved metal strip that rings the screen and front of the device is the weak point here. Weeks into my tests, this strip is marred, scratched, and otherwise stained with marks that look like they'll rub right off but don't. Unlike the screen, which has proven surprisingly resilient, this strip looks like it's ready to start rusting and falling apart. I won't be surprised to discover that future iPhone models use a different material. Otherwise, the hardware has held up wonderfully.

Compared to a new iPod, the iPhone is taller but thinner and features more curved corners, which lend the device an elegant, almost feminine look. (This is no phone for manly-men.) It is taller than you might think, though the screen is not technically widescreen at 480 x 320. Like many modern cars, the black plastic at the sides of the screen give the visual effect of a larger area of glass than is really present.

The iPhone comes with a silly little iPhone-specific dock. Why Apple didn't just ship the standard iPod dock with the device, along with accompanying iPhone-compatible cutouts, is unclear. The iPhone dock includes a Line Out port but not an IR port for the Apple Remote, as does the iPod dock. The iPhone's USB cable, used for charging and syncing, is shorter than I'd like and can't cover the distance to the back of my PC as the iPod's USB cable can. You can charge and sync the iPhone via the Dock or just with the cable, which also plugs directly into the iPod docking port on the bottom of the device. Apple also supplies a nice USB-based charging block, which is small and cute and plugs into a wall socket. Combined with the USB cable, you can use this plug to charge the iPhone directly from the wall, which will be appreciated by those who travel with the device. That said, the iPhone gets tremendous battery life for a smart phone. I'll be interested to see how this holds up over time.

As is always the case with Apple's hardware, the company has made some bad decisions with the iPhone that favor form over function. (Remember, this the company that wouldn't put arrow keys on the first Mac. Same idea.) Apple seems so concerned with design these days that they sacrifice basic functionality that competing devices (be they computers, MP3 players, living room media hubs, or, now, smart phones) have had for years. There are two glaring examples on the iPhone. The first is its non-standard headphone jack, which has been designed to fit within the curved area of the corner of the device in which it sits, instead of conforming to the standard headphone jack spec that is used by every single other device out there. As a result, most headphones will not work with the iPhone--certainly none of mine did--so you'll need to buy an adapter (I picked up a handy $10 adapter from Belkin) or just deal with it and use Apple's sub-standard iPhone headphones. (Which, admittedly, do include a cool additional nubbin on the cord that works as a microphone and an iPod Play/Pause and Fast Forward control.) What a terrible and unnecessary decision.

The second big design mistake was not including a dedicated Back button. Let's say you're reading your email and you tap on a Web hyperlink in the email. This causes Safari to start up, open a new page, and navigate to the link you tapped. When you're done reading that page, you can't just go back to the email application, because there's no Back button. So you have to take the additional steps of remembering what you were just doing, tapping Home (the only dedicated hardware button on the face of the device), and then finding and selecting Mail from the Home menu. Doesn't sound like much? Every extra step counts when you're on the go and navigating a UI on a tiny screen. And this is only one example: Every time you move from application to application, you need to deal with this. A simple Back button--again, a common feature on virtually every phone sold today--would solve the problem nicely. After all, we're supposed to be enjoying the multitasking nature of OS X (see below), right?

There are other design gaffs. The iPhone feature a volume rocker on its left side, which lets you move the volume up and down. But when you lay the device on its side, to watch a TV show, movie, or other video, these buttons are on the bottom of the device and thus hard to reach. (And no, curiously, you can't turn it the other way: Video watching only works horizontally in one direction.) So when I'm at the gym on the elliptical trainer watching the copy of "No Direction Home: Bob Dylan" I purchased from the iTunes Store, I can't easily change the volume, because the buttons are under the device. (There is an onscreen volume slider, but that's even harder to use when you're moving.)

In keeping with my comments about the lack of a Back button, the iPhone is also lacking a dedicated camera button. So in order to use the device's camera, you have to turn it on, slide unlock it, type in your four-digit passcode if you've configured it for security (which you should do if all your personal info is on there), tap the Camera icon, aim, and then tap the Camera button. That's a lot of steps, and the camera--which admittedly takes gorgeous 2 mega-pixel photos in daylight but is a complete waste of time otherwise, is lacking any kind of zoom (optical or digital) and a flash. Talk about a compromise. (More about this in a future part of the review.)

These quibbles aside, the iPhone is elegant, beautiful, and trendsetting. And as noted, it makes every other mobile device on the planet look sick by comparison. Literally, there is the iPhone and then there is everything else. But I caution against getting too caught up in the look of the device. Oftentimes, functionality is far more important than good looks. This is an area where Apple might reconsider its priorities at least somewhat.

Multi-touch screen

The iPhone's multi-touch screen is the device's crown jewel, in my opinion, and the one thing that makes true Steve Jobs' belief that the iPhone will do for computer UIs for the next 20 years as the first Mac did for the previous 20. Navigating around the device is a delight--unless it's freezing up, which does happen with painful regularity--thanks to its finger-based navigational system. Want to launch an application? Tap it's icon with your finger. Need to write an email? Tap it out on the system's virtual keyboard. Want to change the aspect ratio of a playing movie? Double-tap the screen.

OK, so touch screens have been around for a long time. Big deal, right? Well, the iPhone sports multi-touch screen technology that is quite a bit more advanced. You can perform flick-like actions to navigate through lists of text, your music collection in Cover Flow mode, or a group of photos. You can squeeze your fingers together to zoom in applications like Maps and Photos, or do the reverse movement ("de-squeeze"?) to zoom out. The effect is delightful and it never gets old. (Of courses, it's debatable whether these apps have staying power for a typical phone user. I mean, how often do you sit there and flick through photos on such a small screen?)

It also shows up in the start screen when you turn on the iPhone and you get a "Slide to unlock" control that lets you access the device. A simple and natural flick of the finger and you're in. (Well, assuming you didn't lock it down with a four digit passcode.)

The simplest multi-touch capability, flick, shows up the most often. In every iPhone application where the display extends below the edge of the physical screen, you can flick the screen in gentle motions to scroll. In fact, just about every application supports this, including Weather, where you can flick left and right to move from city to city. (The only application that doesn't support flick at all is Calculator.)

The squeezing stuff is perhaps even more amazing. If you're ever looking to show off the iPhone, simply jump into your photo collection, flick between photos, and then zoom in on one by squeezing the screen with your fingers. Amazing. This also works in Maps to great effect. As Steve Jobs demonstrated when he announced the iPhone in January, this is a full-featured version (if simplified compared to the PC version) of Google Maps, and you can zoom in on famous landmarks like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Washington Monument in Washington D.C.

The touch screen interface in the iPhone works well in ways that other touch screens never do, and I have to say that this device has completely revitalized my interest in this form of interaction. It's just so seamless and natural. No, you can't use all the actions in every application, but why would you be able to? There's no reason to squeeze zoom in Weather or Clock, for example. This is one area where Apple just nailed it. Multi-touch works wonderfully.

Automatic rotation

The iPhone uses a hardware accelerometer to detect how you are viewing the screen and it will sometimes rotate the screen automatically to match the degree of rotation. I say sometimes because, quite frankly, it doesn't always work, depending on what you're doing, and some applications don't support rotating in both directions. In fact, the iPhone can only be used in standard portrait mode most of the time. When this rotation feature is supported, it works great for the most part. One gotcha is the virtual keyboard (see below). When this keyboard is displayed, you can't switch between portrait and landscape modes, inexplicably, even in those few applications that support the keyboard in both modes.

So where does the screen rotation work, not work, and kind of work? On the Home screen, and on the pre-Home screen, which I think of as the Intro screen--where you see the wallpaper and the "Slide to unlock" control when you turn on the device, and where you enter your passcode (if you do)--you can't rotate the screen all. It's stuck in portrait mode, sorry. But how about the apps? Here's how they break down from a rotation standpoint:

Phone: Portrait only.

Mail: Portrait only.

Safari: Portrait and landscape.

iPod: Portrait and landscape (but only partially; lists are always portrait; video is always horizontal, and only in one direction).

SMS: Portrait only.

Calendar: Portrait only.

Photos: Both, but only portrait when viewing lists.

Camera: Both.

You Tube: Portrait only for lists; landscape only for viewing videos.

Stocks: Portrait only.

Maps: Portrait only, which is inexplicable. This app cries out for landscape mode.

Weather: Portrait only.

Clock: Portrait only.

Calculator: Portrait only.

Notes: Portrait only.

Settings: Portrait only.

See the trend? Despite its amazing automatic rotation capabilities, the iPhone only allows you to use this feature in very few places. It's great when it happens but frustrating when it doesn't. And sometimes it just gets messed up, displaying the wrong orientation or not changing when you rotate the screen. I'm sure they'll get it fixed.

There is one truly wonderful use of this technology, however: When you're done with a phone call and take the phone down from away from your face, the accelerometer kicks in and the phone automatically displays the call options screen. It's just a nice touch, thoughtfully implemented.

Virtual keyboard

It is the iPhone's most controversial and hotly-debated feature, and rightfully so. When Apple announced that the device would use a software-based virtual onscreen keyboard instead of the "inferior" small hardware keyboards found on all other smart phones, I had my doubts. Now that I've actually used the thing, I have even more doubts. It just doesn't work as well as a real keyboard, sorry.

That said, it's excellent for a virtual keyboard though my humongous fingers often mistype letters, and it seems to track horribly and obviously to the right. It works best by tapping it with your pointer finger rather than grasping the device with two hands and going nuts like a Blackberry user would. And that's the problem: If you can master the two-thumb typing style, you can get some real typing speed going, and the world of mobile email and SMS messages is yours. With a single finger, however, you have to move slowly and methodically and really watch the screen to make sure you're hitting the right keys. The device needs a slide-out hardware keyboard badly, and now. Even a clip-on would be appreciated.

Of course, even if you do master the two-thumb style on the iPhone, chances are you're only going to be able to do that using the device in landscape mode, where it fits more easily into your hands. The problem there is that the keyboard isn't available in this mode in many applications, or at least not consistently. For example, you can't use Notes, SMS, or Email in landscape mode at all, sorry, and those are the three most obvious places where you'd need to do a lot of typing. Haven't the iPhone engineers ever actually used a mobile device?

But back to the actual keyboard. It pops up where you'd expect and works fairly logically with some additional caveats. You can't, for example, switch between portrait and landscape mode while the keyboard is being displayed. So in those rare cases where an iPhone application actually supports the keyboard in both modes (Safari, mostly), you have to choose your orientation before you enable the keyboard. That's dumb, because you might be browsing in portrait, need to type in a Web address, tap the Address Bar, realize you'd rather type in landscape mode, and then rotate the device around. Nothing happens: The screen, with the onscreen keyboard, is stuck in portrait mode and is now sideways.

The virtual keyboard supports auto-completion, sometimes, but it's not particularly well implemented. Let's look at a few examples:

You want to type "This is an email," so you start with "This i" and the iPhone recommends "I" for the word "is". It's the only choice.

You want to type "This can work" and start with "This ca". The iPhone recommends "da" in place of "ca" (yes, seriously).

You want to type "This phone is really nice," and start with "This phone is rea". The iPhone recommends replacing "rea" with "tea."

OK, so the autocorrect library needs work, whatever. I don't see that as a huge issue. But the way Apple implemented autocorrect acceptance and rejection is suspect too. Let's say you do want to accept the word that autocorrect is offering. This happens every once in a while. To accept the word, you tap Space. Makes sense. But to reject it, you actually tap the suggested word, on the screen, with your finger. Huh?

Overall, I find autocorrect to be unnecessary. In fact, I'd like to just turn it off.

Ambient light sensor

The iPhone features an ambient light sensor that detects how much light is available around you and then sets the device's screen brightness accordingly. Normally, I don't like this kind of feature, but it seems to work fine in the iPhone and I've never once looked at the thing and wished the display could be brighter.

Wireless features

As a mobile communications device, the iPhone is outfitted with a mostly first-class selection of wireless technologies, including 802.11b/g Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 2.0 with EDR. There is, however, one major problem: AT&T's EDGE network. Sometimes referred to as a "2.5G" network, compared to the true 3G networks with which it competes, EDGE is a handy reminder about how bad dial-up networking used to be. It is slow, unreliable, and gets terrible reception. It is the one iPhone feature that will turn off any true gadget freak. Fortunately, the iPhone defaults to Wi-Fi if it's available. Increasingly, that will be a great option, but until every city around the world offers free Wi-Fi, iPhone users are going to be stuck with EDGE. It's an embarrassment.

Further problematic, the iPhone can't be used as a high-speed modem for your notebook computer, as you can do with Sprint and Verizon phones. I use Verizon's high-speed EV-DO network with my Motorola Q to get my notebooks online while on the road and it works like a champ. (EV-DO is much, much faster than EDGE.) So not only is EDGE slower and less reliable than EV-DO, it's also less useful even when it does work. Internet access on a phone is nice, but less interesting if you can't get real work done on the device. Internet access on a computer is therefore still crucial.

Built-in Memory

The iPhone comes with either 4 or 8 GB of internal RAM, which is unbelievable in a day and age in which most smart phones ship with about 64 MB of memory. That said, the iPhone's RAM is not expandable in any way because you can't plug in an external memory card. And that's a shame: My Motorola Q is readily expandable, and flash memory is inexpensive. That's the way it should be. Still, within the black box confines of Apple's platforms, you gotta love the heaping amounts of memory. 4-8 GB of RAM is enough for anything but the largest music collections or more than a handful of feature-length films.

Based on Mac OS X

Apple makes a big deal out of the fact that the iPhone runs a version of Mac OS X, though the company does nothing to highlight what the differences are between the traditional desktop version of Mac OS X and the version that's on the iPhone. More to the point, so what? To the average iPhone user, the inclusion of OS X means absolutely nothing, and the device actually falls short in two key areas where OS X itself is generally well-regarded. First, it is incredibly buggy, and the bundled iPhone applications crash fairly regularly. Second, while the bundled software is high quality, the system isn't extensible in any meaningful way for third party developers. You can't download additional applications at all, from Apple, AT&T or any other source. You're just stuck with the bundled applications, which again, are generally high quality. But that's it. Every other smart phone on the planet allows users to install third party applications, and with those OS X underpinnings, developers would already have a leg up on iPhone development. What a wasted opportunity to establish an ecosystem.

And what's up with the lack of cut/copy and paste? This is a basic OS feature that Apple included in the first Mac OS almost 25 years ago. It's inexplicably missing from the iPhone, unavailable in any application or the wider system itself. Unreal.

Further problematic, the iPhone's OS X foundation might actually be a weakness, not a strength. Within weeks of the device's release, security researchers found glaring security holes in the iPhone, which they reported immediately to Apple. (As of this writing, they've not yet been fixed.) These flaws come about only because the iPhone is based on a complicated, comparatively easily-compromised PC operating system and not simpler technology that was made specifically for the smart phone market. Microsoft's smart phone OS, Windows Mobile, by comparison, is based on a smaller codebase than its desktop products and is thus less complex. (It's also highly componentized.) That's not to say that Windows Mobile is "more secure" than the iPhone. But because the iPhone is generating so much excitement, hackers will naturally turn their attention to this device, just as they do with Windows in the PC market. Hackers, like terrorists, typically strike at soft, high profile targets.

In short, there's a lot of promise to OS X in the iPhone, but there are also some troubling questions. OS X is a great operating system for computers. But the reality is that this feature is absolutely meaningless to the iPhone user, given the stability issues and lack of extensibility that mar the iPhone experience today. And the security questions remain. It will be interesting to see how Apple responds: Despite their assertions to the contrary, their security response time on the computer side has been slower than that of competitors like Microsoft. This is somewhat more acceptable when the product, OS X, is not very popular and is thus not attacked. But the iPhone is popular and will become even more so over time. Apple needs to adjust its strategy for dealing with these issues, as Microsoft did years ago.

Where we go from here

So I've raised a bunch of issues here. Sure enough, in this 1.0 implementation, the iPhone has a lot of problems. But take a step back and remember that we're talking about a product that has completely rewritten the rules for what handheld mobile devices can do. From a technological standpoint, the iPhone has no peer. And while it's easy to point out gaffs and bone-headed design decisions, the truth is that the iPhone is technologically impressive. Yes, I would have preferred that Apple had done some things differently, and as a user I can certainly point to features I'd like to see improved. But for the most part, Apple got the core technology right, and smart phone makers around the world are no doubt scrambling to copy its key features. Hopefully, future iPhone revisions will address the Back and camera button issues, allow for memory expansion, and fix all the niggling software issues I've addressed here. I doubt it, but you never know. For now, we're stuck with the hardware Apple has provided. I don't feel too bad about that.

In the next part of this review, I examine the iPhone's phone capabilities. The device is, after all, primarily a phone.

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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