Apple iPhone Review, Part 3: Phone

It slices, it dices, and it will even work as a dessert spread, but when you strip away all the hype, the amazing whizz-bang features, and the other hullabaloo that surrounds the iPhone, the device is...

Paul Thurrott

October 6, 2010

21 Min Read
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It slices, it dices, and it will even work as a dessert spread, but when you strip away all the hype, the amazing whizz-bang features, and the other hullabaloo that surrounds the iPhone, the device is, at heart, simply a wireless phone. So while you may delight in flicking through photos and music collections, zooming in on the Eiffel Tower in Google Maps, or watching ridiculous videos on You Tube, most people will eventually settle down and use the iPhone's telephone features most frequently. For these consumers, I've got some good news: The iPhone is a tremendous, world-class phone.

Most of the time that you're using the iPhone as a phone, you'll be using a built-in application that's called, logically enough, Phone. I'll focus on this Phone application in this part of the review, but also touch on related functionality such as contacts synching, international calling, and various phone-related Settings, all of which directly impact the overall phone experience on the device.

Everything but the kitchen sync

In the first part of this review, I discussed how terrible iPhone synchronization is, and I stand by that assertion: Today, over a month after Apple first started selling the iPhone, synchronization between this trendy and trendsetting device and your PC-based data is appallingly bad, especially for the Windows users who constitute the vast majority of the iPhone user base. Refer back to that part of the review if you're not familiar with the issues I raised. They're very real and very problematic.

For phone usage, of course, the big sync concern is synchronization. On Windows Vista, Apple only supports a very small selection of contacts sources for this synchronization. These sources include:

Yahoo! Address Book. Users of Yahoo! Mail, which for some strange reason is the only first-class email experience offered on the iPhone, can sync indirectly between their Yahoo!-based contacts list and the iPhone. (I say "indirectly" because you cannot do this wirelessly from the device; Yahoo! Address Book sync occurs via the iTunes-based PC on which you sync with the iPhone.) There is one limitation to Yahoo!-based contacts synchronization, however: Though the iPhone supports a photo associated with each contact, this information is not transmitted to Yahoo! Address Book as it is to the following two options because Yahoo! does not support this functionality.

Windows Contacts. In Windows Vista, Windows Contacts is the new version of what used to be called Windows Address Book (WAB). Windows Contacts has been thoroughly updated over its predecessor, is based on new Windows shell functionality, and uses a new data format, the .contact file, for storing individual contacts. (In WAB, all contacts were stored in a single file, yup, called a .wab file; if you're using XP instead of Vista, iPhone does support WAB as well.) Windows Contacts is, well, part of Vista, and it's not very interesting, though third party applications are welcome to use its contacts database if they'd like. To date, none have, to my knowledge. But if you use do Windows Mail (and really, God help you if that's the case), then this is where your contacts are managed.

Outlook. As with the iPod, the iPhone supports synching contacts with Outlook, Microsoft's premier personal information management (PIM) and email solution. As I documented in part one of this review, the iPhone's support for Outlook is lackluster, though my problems in that regard mostly involve issues with Outlook's calendaring support. If you're just synching between Outlook's Contacts module and iPhone, all should be well.

Notice any limitations here? First and most obviously, Yahoo! is the only Web-based email/contacts store supported: If you use Hotmail, Gmail, AOL, or any other Web-based email service, you cannot sync between contacts stored there and the iPhone. This is a glaring functional lapse that the early Mac-using iPhone reviewers neatly skipped over as they stumbled all over themselves trying to complement think of new superlatives. Heck, Apple doesn't even offer a way to export contacts from these locations in order to get them into the iPhone.

But it doesn't end there. The iPhone also doesn't sync contacts with a number of other popular applications and services, including Mozilla Thunderbird, Eudora, ACT, Palm Desktop, Facebook, and so on. If you happen to use one of the few supported sync partners, you're in luck. If you don't, you're screwed, and even more so when you realize that because Apple won't allow third party developers to extend the iPhone's capabilities in any way, there's no way that anyone outside Apple can ever add this support. So you're left simply praying that Apple will eventually choose to provide synchronization capabilities for the contacts manager you use. Or, you could be pragmatic and just switch services. Or, you could open a free Yahoo! account, sync whatever you use to Yahoo! with the company's free Yahoo! AutoSync (assuming they're compatible), and get your contacts on that phone. Hey, simplicity is the Apple way, right?

If you are using one of the three officially supported sync points for contacts under Windows, you're all set: I've tested all three, and all appear to work nearly identically (with the caveat that Yahoo! Address Book will not sync contact photos). You can even assign photos to contacts from within iPhone, and they'll sync back to your PC-based contacts application, which is a nice touch. And once you've gotten your contacts onto your iPhone, you might actually want to start calling people and receiving calls. This, again, is where iPhone truly shines.


While I can point to many iPhone features and wonder aloud whether the Apple engineers responsible for this feature have ever even used a smart phone--they seemed to have thrown out as many good ideas as they have invented innovative new ones--the device's phone functionality does not suffer similarly. Instead, with Phone, the iPhone's telephone application, it appears that Apple has completely rethought the way that cell phones can operate, and instead of throwing out good ideas, it has only added brilliant, almost strikingly obvious improvements. The iPhone is a first-class telephone, and is easily the nicest cellular phone I've ever used.

As noted previously, you generally access the iPhone's phone functionality via the Phone application, which is represented by a green Phone button in the home row of icons along the bottom of the Home screen, to the left of Mail, Safari, and iPod. Naturally, you don't always have to go there manually, as this is a phone, after all. If you receive a call, for example, the iPhone jumps immediately into phone mode via the Call Screen, so you can answer the call even if the device was sleeping and is locked. Or you'll be prompted to interrupt whatever else you may be doing, whether it's listening to music, viewing the Weather applet, or browsing the Web. On the iPhone, telephone calls are job one. That's exactly the way it should be.

When you do manually navigate into the Phone application, you'll see a number of selections, most of which are list-based, which let you navigate through most-often-used contacts (Favorites), most-recently-accessed contacts and phone numbers (whether sent or received, or even missed; this is called Recents), your full contacts list (Contacts), a virtual phone keypad for making manual phone calls (Keypad), and visual voicemail, Apple's innovative approach to answering machine software (Voicemail). Let's take a quick look at each of these modules:

Favorites. Initially empty by default, this is a list of your "favorite" contact phone numbers, or more likely, a list of the phone numbers you call most often. This is handy because it lets you bypass less efficient (i.e. longer) contacts list (like Contacts or the oddly named Recents) and access an artificially shortened list of exact phone numbers you want. On my Favorites list, I've added a number of friends (often two each, one for home or work and mobile) and my wife (two; one for home, one for work). When you click an entry in the list, the phone dials the associated number immediately.

To add a phone number to your Favorites list, navigate through the Contacts list (described below), open an individual contact, and scroll to the bottom. There, you'll see an option titled "Add to Favorites." When you click that, a sub-screen will slide up with a list of the possible phone numbers to add (work, home, mobile, etc.). Click one of those to add the number to the list. Nice!

Recents. This option displays one of two lists, either a list of all the most recent calls you've made, received, and missed (sorted in chronological order from recent to past), or a list of just the missed calls (sorted identically). Missed calls are always colored red (in both lists) so they stand out. If you click on an entry in either list, you'll dial the associated number. Or, you can click on the small chevron to the right side of each entry to see more information. If the number is in your Contacts list, you'll see the contact associated with that number. Some numbers in these lists won't be in your Contacts, of course. In such cases, clicking that chevron will just display a contact card with the number, the date and time of the call, and buttons for Call, Text Message, Create New Contact, and Add to Existing Contact. These are all very logical and thoughtful.

Contacts. Here, you will see your full list of synchronized contacts, sorted alphabetically. Because the list can be quite long and extend well below the logical bottom of the iPhone screen, Apple has provided an elegant and obvious solution for moving down the list quickly: Along the right side of the screen is a list of characters from A to Z and then #, which you tap to move in large chunks. The characters are absolutely tiny, but it works fine, even with my large fingers. And of course you can always scroll through the list manually if you'd prefer.

To add a new contact manually, click the "+" button at the top right of the Contacts list. There is room for first and last names, a photo, various phone numbers and ring tones, email address, a URL, addresses, and even a custom field for other information. While I feel that most iPhone users will typically start off with a big list of PC-based contacts, many will likely start adding contacts directly through the device itself thanks to its relatively friendly ability to do so.

You can also edit existing contacts by opening them on the iPhone and then tapping the Edit button, found in the upper right of the screen. This provides you with a screen very similar to that in the New Contacts screen, except that each existing item has a red "-" icon next to it for deletion and each potential new item (Add new Phone, Assign Ringtone, etc.) has a green "+". You can also delete contacts via this page, using the large and prominent red "Delete" button down at the bottom.

Most everything in Contacts works as you'd expect. You can tap any phone number on a contacts screen to dial that number, for example, or tap any email address to send a new email. Tap an address and Google Maps jumps to life. (You can't, however, tap a hyperlink in the Note field to launch the Safari browser. Inconsistencies like this are mind-boggling.)

Keypad. While most smart phone users will typically almost never dial a phone manually, sometimes you just don't have a choice. In this instance, the iPhone offers a dramatically better solution than the tiny alpha-numeric keyboards found on many smart phones: Rather force you to tap out the number on the tiny subset of the full keyboard that includes numbers, as I must do on my Motorola Q, the iPhone offers a Keypad module in the Phone application that presents a full-screen virtual number pad with all ten numbers, * and # keys, a prominent green Call button, and buttons for adding a contact and deleting the previous key press. This screen is so disarmingly simple and so obviously better than what's offered on smart phones with full keypads that it's almost hilarious, especially when you hear the faux phone sounds it makes as you tap away. This is a great example of where the iPhone's virtual keyboard functionality just works.

Fun tip: If you type in a number that already exists in your Contacts list, the iPhone will note that by displaying the contact name and location (home, work, mobile, and so on) under the number. That way, you won't inadvertently re-add existing numbers to your contacts list. Nice!

Voicemail. The iPhone's "visual voicemail" is often heralded as one of the device's truly innovative features, and I have to agree with that one, though like most of what's great about the iPhone, it's so silly obvious you have to wonder why no one else thought of it first. Rather than force iPhone users to navigate through the same stupid voice-based mailboxes that other phones must use (was "9" delete or archive?), Apple has instead provided a truly visual view of available voicemails. Each voicemail is displayed on its own line, in chronological order, and each provides the name of the caller when available and the date called. At the bottom of the screen is a playback slider, a Call Back button, and a Delete button. At the top, a handy Speaker button lets you toggle between speakerphone and normal playback.

To play a voice mail, simply tap it in the list. Here, you see the first voicemail innovation: You aren't forced to listen to voicemail in order but can instead skip through the list and choose to listen to the voicemails in the order you choose. As the message plays, the playback slider updates to note your progress through the message, and you can jump ahead or back by clicking the slider at any point. This is the second innovation: Arbitrary message playback.

The Call Back and Delete buttons represent the third innovation: Rather than forcing you to remember arbitrary menu commands, you simply click the choice you want. It's obvious, simple, and intuitive. Oh, and its visual, just as its name suggests.

Finally, you can also record your voicemail greeting with the iPhone, directly from this UI, without again having to navigate some lame phone company voice menu. Halleluiah.

The Call screen

It gets better. When you're actually in a phone call, the iPhone display switches to a special screen, which I think of as the Call screen. It's a thing of beauty: Along the top, you'll see the name of the person to whom you're talking and, if available, the photo you've associated with their contacts entry. Below that is a timer providing you with an up-to-date view of the length of the call. Below that, in the center of the display, is a small six-button virtual keypad with large buttons, one each for Mute, Keypad, Speaker, Add Call, Hold, and Contacts; below that is a large red End Call button. Here's what the six buttons do:

Mute. This mutes the current call.

Keypad. This changes the display to the iPhone's virtual keypad, as described in the previous section.

Speaker. This places the iPhone into speakerphone mode, so you can communicate without holding the device against your face or with the bundled headset.

Add Call. This lets you add another caller to the current call, providing you with instant conference call capabilities. Has it ever been this easy?

Hold. Place the current call on hold, minus the elevator music. Which, frankly, would be hilarious.

Contacts. Allows you to access your full Contacts list.

In use, the iPhone is a wonderful phone not just because of the aforementioned functionality, but because you can mix and match what you're doing. For example, let's say you're in a call and you want to look something up. Simply take the phone down from your ear (if you're using it without the bundled headset) and tap the Speaker button to put the device into speakerphone mode. Then, tap the Home key and navigate into the iPhone application you want. All the while, your phone call continues and you're able to get other things done. If you receive a new call while on a call, you can add them into the current conversation, put the current call on hold and answer it, or choose to ignore it. And I particularly like the way the iPhone senses that you're moving the phone down from your face, thanks to its built-in accelerometer, and lights up the Call screen so you can see what options are available. It's just a nice touch.

Using the iPhone outside the United States

Currently, the iPhone is only available in the United States, but that will eventually change. If you are a US-based iPhone user and are travelling internationally, note that you will need to call AT&T customer support hotline and enable international dialing support. If you don't do so before you leave for your trip, you won't be able to use the phone overseas.

As it turns out, I'm in France as I write this and I've been using the iPhone here pretty regularly, and so far so good, though I've read some horror stories about the charges AT&T has levied on some unexpected travelers. Here's what I've found out.

Setting up international roaming involves calling a toll-free number, wading through AT&T's annoying but typical automated phone system and, if you called on a weekend like I did, waiting to do it all again on Monday. When I did get on the line with a human being, I was impressed with her professionalism and thoroughness. She described the three possible options, once the phone was configured for international roaming (note that if you don't make this call before you leave, you can't make it work until after that trip):

1. Roam internationally. Calls made overseas will cost $1.29 a minute, and you'll be charged 2 cents per KB for data usage. (Add that up: It can get ugly very quickly.) Text messages are 50 cents per message sent. Received text messages are free.

2. Join the AT&T World Traveler plan for $5.99 a month. The nice thing about this plan is that you can enable it and disable it whenever you want, so I enabled it for August and will turn it off when I get back. Calls made internationally cost 99 cents a minute, but you'll still be charged 2 cents per KB for data usage. Text message prices are the same as above as well.

3. AT&T also offers a plan for $29 a month that essentially gives you unlimited international voice calls and a decent amount of data usage per month. The problem is that you can't opt out of it for under a year, so if you sign up, you have to pay for 12 months worth, or a total of about $360.

Side note: What I wasn't impressed by, at least not in a positive way, was how AT&T verified that it was me calling. They asked me four (very) personal questions, many of which I found quite shocking. For example, the first question was, "Which one of the following three companies were you previously employed by?" She then read off a list of banks, one of which I worked at over 15 years ago. The second question regarded addresses I'd lived at (from the Phoenix area, about 15 years ago). Then another one about previous jobs (from about 12 years ago). The last one was, "Which of the following mortgage companies have you done business with?" Yikes. Privacy advocates should have a field day with this one.

As far as the roaming options went, I ended up going with the second one for what I assume are obvious reasons. I've been trying to stay off of EDGE while in France (via Bouygues Telecom in the Paris area) because of the expense, and I've disabled a few things that might trigger network access repeatedly, like email. But I'm guessing we're going to have a healthy bill when we return. I wish there was some way to accurately measure the cost of this along the way. (See the section on Settings below to understand why this is not the case.)

I will say this: For a few years now, we've had a cell phone that we use specifically for Europe, and it's got an unlocked SIM card. That phone has worked much more poorly than has the iPhone this first week overseas, and since the phone call costs are basically identical, we've pretty much just switched to using the iPhone for calls here. Actually, it's nice having two phones, since there are days when my wife and kids will stay in the city when I return to the home we're staying at to work.

Phone settings

In addition to the various user interfaces that pop-up when you're making a phone call, managing contacts, or performing other phone-related tasks, the iPhone provides a number of configurable options inside the Settings application. Unfortunately, these options are in a number of different places.

Usage. From this screen, you can access information about the amount of active usage and standby time the phone has recorded since the last full charge, the call time you've spent in the "current period" and "lifetime" of the device since the last full charge, and the amount of EDGE network data you've sent and received since the last full charge. In case it's not obvious, this information is reset every single time you completely charge the device and is thus almost completely useless. What it should really do is measure this information during an entire billing period so you can see how your usage is mapping to the voice and data plans you've subscribed to. Obviously.

Carrier. The Carrier option displays information about the wireless carrier to which you're connected. In the US, this will typically be AT&T EDGE, but there are other compatible possibilities (with associated roaming charges), especially outside the US. (See the previous section for more information about international roaming.) Typically, you will set this to Automatic and let the iPhone pick the best choice.

Phone. Here, you'll see a number of options related to the Phone application. (It's also a good place to see your own phone number, though this is also provided at the top of the full Contacts list.) The International Assist option determines whether the iPhone automatically adds the correct prefix (001) to US numbers dialed from other countries. You can determine how contacts are sorted. There are call related options like Call Forwarding, Call Waiting, Show My Caller ID, and TTY. You can change your voicemail password here, set up a PIN (personal information number) for your SIM, and access a list of phone number shortcuts for such things as checking your bill balance, getting directory assistance, and so on. In the latter list, AT&T will often SMS you the answer, which is kind of funny.

Sounds. Here, you configure whether the vibrate function is on as well as which sounds are used for such phone-related global options as ringtone and new voicemail. You can't easily configure these sounds on a contact-by-contact basis, though it is possible. To do so, open up the contact for which you'd like to make a custom ringtone, tap the Edit button, tap Assign Ringtone, and pick a ringtone. Note that these ringtone assignments are per-contact, not per-ringtone. And while Apple's built-in sound effects are excellent, there aren't many of them, and you can't download, purchase, or import others. You also can't take sound clips from songs in your music library and use them as ringtones, which is particularly surprising.

Final thoughts

Overall, the iPhone is a tremendous phone. I guess it should be for $500 to $600 plus the monthly fees, but so many of today's smart phones seem to screw up the most basic phone functionality, so there's an argument to be made here about getting what you paid for. While frilly, demo-friendly iPhone features like screen squeezing and scrolling will continue to get the most attention, I think it makes more sense to focus more on what you'll actually do with the thing. And since this is basically just a phone--albeit a gorgeous full-featured smart phone--it makes sense to weight its phone functionality a bit higher than some of the less important stuff. If the iPhone were only a phone, it would be a slam dunk. (Unlike, say, the war in Iraq.) In this area, Apple has really done a commendable job. The ramifications of its work here will be felt throughout the smart phone industry for years to come. So even if you don't get an iPhone, you may eventually benefit from these advances.

Next up, we'll take a look at the iPhone's built-in applications. Some are excellent, some are simply horrible, but most are at least quite interesting.

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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