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Apple iPhone review part 2

Using the iPhone

Phone calls offer some helpful options on the screen during the call and make it easy to control your phone and call.

Part of a series on the Apple iPhone - please also visit the other articles listed on the right.



In the second part of this three part review, we look at issues related to using the iPhone.

While the phone has been greeted by near universal popular acclaim and delight, for 'power users' there are some limitations and disappointments, particularly in the area of its keyboard and email management.

Note - some (many) of these limitations have been addressed with subsequent releases of the phone's firmware.

Using the iPhone

Turn the iPhone on, and its beautiful bright clear screen smiles at you, inviting you to start doing things with itself.  This is not a phone to languish in your pocket, this is a phone that encourages you to play with it any time you're bored.

Using the iPhone as a Phone

You'd think that all cell phones, these days, have pretty much mastered the very simple functionality of how to make a call and receive a call.  For sure, the traditional keypad and two buttons (for starting and ending calls) is about as basic and simple as it can get, and the real points of differentiation start to appear when considering issues such as how to store and retrieve phone numbers from your phone's memory, and any other 'value add' type features also offered.

Strangely, even as a basic phone, the iPhone is not always as good or as simple as it should be.  For example, when the phone is in standby mode and a call comes in to it, the only prompt you are given is 'Slide to Answer'.  There's no apparent way to reject the call or to mute its ringing (both functions are possible, but neither is offered to you on the screen, and if you don't take the time to download Apple's manual and read it carefully, you'll never know how to do these things).

Talking about ringing, a disappointment on this phone is the lack of ringtones.  Many features that generate a sound when triggered (eg, receiving mail, or calendar alerts) have a pre-programmed sound that you can't customize at all.  You can only customize two different events - the ring sound itself, and the sound for an incoming text message.  There are only 24 sounds to choose from for ringtone, and 6 sounds to choose from for incoming text messages.

Okay - so maybe you think 24 sounds are a lot to choose from?  Not so.  Many of the offered ringtones are totally inappropriate - for example, there's a Harp tone, and while it makes a beautiful sound, you'd never hear this as a ring tone if the phone was in your pocket and you were in even a moderately noisy environment.  Remember - you can never have a ringtone that is too loud or too obtrusive, because on occasion, you'll find yourself in noisy environments where you just simply can't hear your phone ringing.

Another nice ringtone feature offered by some phones - a ringtone that starts off with medium volume, and then gets louder and louder if you don't first hear it and respond - is not offered on the iPhone.

One very nice feature of the phone part of the iPhone is its 'Visual Voicemail'.  This feature (which only works if you have AT&T phone service) presents you with a list of voicemail messages on the screen; you can then pick and choose which messages you want to listen to.  This is nicer than the traditional type of calling in to voicemail and having to listen to all messages in sequence.

If you're using your iPhone for a data type application, or if you're synchronizing it with your computer, the iPhone won't accept incoming calls, and the first you'll know of having missed a call is when (if!) the caller leaves you a voicemail message and you're notified of new voicemail waiting for you.

This can cause annoying misunderstandings - 'I called you but you never answered your phone'; 'What do you mean, you called me; my phone never rang'.

When you're adding new phone numbers into the phone's memory, there is a disappointing omission.  In other phones, I've formatted the phone numbers by adding spaces and dashes to make a number easier to read.  I find this helpful if I'm needing to read a phone number rather than just place a call - for example, if  trying to check if you have a number correct, or if giving a number to someone else, or dialling the number from a different phone.  What do you find easier to read :

               +14253832171    or     +1 425 383-2171?

This is even more apparent with international numbers that can have many more digits, for example

               +1447717486398    or     +44 7717 486-398

Unfortunately, although the iPhone correctly auto-formats US numbers, it doesn't format international numbers, and doesn't allow you to add spaces or dashes (or brackets) to format the number yourself.  This is another small detraction from what you'd hope with a well thought out user friendly interface.

Another missing feature is the ability to voice dial.  Most better phones these days will offer one of two types of voice dialing features.  The simpler method allows you to record a person's name and then you can simply say to the phone 'dial John Smith' and if the phone recognizes the name as one you've already recorded, it will then dial the call using the number stored.  The other method uses voice recognition; you don't need to record people's names, the phone is clever enough to translate from what you say to the most likely name in its directory.

This might sound like a useless gimmick, but it is very helpful if you're driving in the car.  You don't need to take your hands from the wheel or eyes from the road to dial a phone number, making it a definite safety enhancement.  Unfortunately, the iPhone doesn't support either type of voice dialing - a disappointing and surprising omission from a phone that claims to be state of the art, and which costs $500 to purchase (when did you last spend $500 on buying a new cell phone).

There is a workaround to this, if you have service with AT&T (which of course most - but not all - US subscribers do).  Sign up for their $5 a month voicedial service, which provides similar functionality, but through their system rather than from your phone.

The iPhone doesn't have a particularly sensitive receiver in it.  Several times I've found myself in a location with no signal, even though my Blackberry would reliably get a reasonable strength signal from the same cell tower.  This is frustrating, and something Apple definitely needs to enhance.

Using the iPhone as an iPod

The iPhone is functionally identical to the iPod Touch (and vice versa), with the only major difference between the two units being the iPhone has a phone capability and EDGE data service as well.  Just about everything else is the same.

So - in theory - an iPhone is a true two-in-one device, giving you all the capabilities of an iPod plus all the capabilities of a sophisticated phone, too.  Does this mean you can retire your iPod (or choose not to buy one)?

In theory, yes, it would seem to mean exactly that.  Indeed, the iPhone cleverly integrates its phone and its music playing capabilities, making it easy to pause the music to make/receive phone calls, and saving you needing to juggle between different headsets and units.  This can mean one less gadget to buy, one less gadget to carry, one less gadget to keep charged, and so on.  These are all good plus points.

But, in practice, my feeling is that you are probably still better served with both a phone and a separate music/video player, whether it be an iPod, an Archos unit, or something else completely.  In addition to a gut instinct that causes me to prefer having two different devices, there's also one practical issue I can point to, and that is battery life.

The iPhone has very limited battery life, and if you're in a situation where you're wanting to use it for playing video or music, too; the additional battery drain caused by this might be such as to put you into battery crisis mode while you're hours from an opportunity to recharge the unit.  That would mean you'd end up anxiously conserving battery life and not playing any music/video at all.  But if you have two separate devices, you don't mind running your player's battery down to zero, whereas you never want to ever let your iPhone's battery even get as low as an indicated 20% (which seems to be, in reality, much less than 20%).

So the good news is the iPhone is every bit as good as an iPod for playing music and video, but the bad news is that, until the iPhone gets a considerably improved battery life, you're probably best advised not to use it in both roles, for fear of running critically low on battery at an inconvenient crisis moment.

There's another reason for not yet using the iPhone for your entertainment needs.  If you're interested in storing and viewing video, you'll be less than fully happy with both the small screen on the iPhone (3.5" compared to 4.3" on, eg, an Archos 504) and you'll also find the maximum 16GB of storage on the iPhone restricts you to only storing a very few movies.  Apple claims that you can store up to 20 hours of video in 16GB of space, but you'll probably want to store your video in better quality, and you'll want to save some of your 16GB for music tracks, pictures, and other iPhone data needs.  If video is your thing, you need to get the largest screen and highest capacity disk possible.

Oh - one more thing.  Maybe you already have an iPod, and think 'oh good, I can copy my music onto my iPhone too, with no hassle or bother'.  If you think that, you'd - alas - be wrong.  The blindingly inconvenient copy protection built into Apple's iTunes music and video management makes it impossible to share your music on two devices, even if the files you're trying to share are music tracks that you own yourself, not just restricted files you've bought from Apple's iTunes store.

Using the iPhone for Email and Data

These days, many of us find increasing value in being able to access the internet from our cell phone - either to access regular webpages, or to use web based services.

In theory, the iPhone would seem well designed for internet access, and this is one scenario where the theory seems supported by the reality.  The phone has a couple of really clever innovative features that make web page browsing vastly better than on most other phones, and its Safari web browser does a good job of displaying most web pages correctly.

The first very clever thing is that if you turn your phone 90 in your hand, so the display is no longer in a vertical orientation, but instead in a horizontal orientation, the iPhone will automatically rotate the image on the screen to match the phone's new placement, and will then use the extra space/width to better display web pages, which otherwise are generally too wide to fit on the screen, which, when normally held, is tall and narrow rather than short and wide.

Sadly, this automatic screen rotation only works on web pages, not on any other applications.

The other very clever thing is the ability to zoom in or out on a web page.  In default setting, the browser attempts to squash the entire web page onto your screen, and with many web pages being written with a requirement for 800 - 1000 pixels of width, this makes for a very miniature version of the page when squeezed onto a screen with only 320 or 480 pixels.

To zoom in or out, you simply place two fingers on the screen and move them apart, or together, and the screen contents expands or contracts to match your finger movement.  This is a lovely and very useful feature, and works in some of the other display programs as well.

So, web browsing is a plus.  But now for email, which, alas, earns a very big minus for all but the most infrequent of email users.

There are lots of problems with Apple's implementation of an email program.  Two are particularly worthy of note.  First, the program doesn't download each message, but instead just downloads the message header and perhaps the opening few words of the message as well.

This means that when you go to read a message, it isn't already pre-loaded onto the phone and able to be instantly opened.  Instead, once you attempt to read the message, you then have to wait - perhaps 30 seconds or more - while the content of the message is then retrieved.  If you're using a Wi-Fi connection, this is usually fairly quick, but if you're somewhere with only GPRS signal, and it is a long message, this delay might be minutes in duration.  Even worse - if you're out of signal, you can't do anything at all until you get back into signal.

In contrast to this, the Blackberry downloads a large chunk of each email - usually all that you need in most cases - so reading through emails with a Blackberry is fast and convenient.  It is neither with the iPhone.

The second big disadvantage is that the phone will store a maximum of only 200 email messages per account.  If you get more than 200 emails a day, this means there's less than a day of emails on your phone - you have no email history and can't look back for earlier emails (oh, I should mention there's no 'Search' feature on the iPhone either, so whenever you're looking for anything, expect problems).

Even if you get fewer than 200 emails a day, you're still limited to only the last 200 messages (and, yes, this includes spam messages too).  It is completely inexplicable why Apple chose to limit its email program to a 200 email capacity (remember the phone has up to 16GB of storage) and makes the phone useless to any 'power' email user.

But wait - there's more.  If you choose to send an email, get ready for a terrible little virtual keyboard.  The phone displays a picture of a keyboard, and you tap keys with your fingertips.  Although some people have described my fingers as being long and slender, my finger tip typically spans three keys on one row, and seemingly randomly selects either the key I'm aiming for, or one on either side of it, and sometimes even triggers a key on the row above or below if I'm being really careless.

Although the actual size and spacing of the key pictures is bigger than on my Blackberry keyboard, because they are just pictures, you've no physical sense of which key you're pressing, and the keyboard ends up being terribly error prone.

Apple does have a clever utility that guesses what the word you mean to type should be, and usually (but not always) guesses correctly.  This allows you to speed your typing up a bit, but if you're typing an unfamiliar word (for example, a person or company name) it is useless.

This bad keyboard is all the more frustrating because Apple could have very simply made a big improvement to the keyboard's usability, but inexplicably has chosen not to.  By enabling the screen tilt function, same as already exists on the web browser, this would give the phone much more space to show the keyboard buttons, allowing them to be bigger and making it easier to type the right letters.  What lack of logic caused Apple to expand the keyboard to an almost usable size when using the web browser program, but not when using the email program.  Most of us use a keyboard very much more in email than when browsing the internet.

Another problem when sending emails is that you can't send attachments with your email.

And, still more.  Although the email reader does a good job of displaying formatted emails (and is greatly superior to Blackberry in this one respect), it doesn't intelligently re-wrap long lines, meaning that if you zoom the text size to a readable size, you'll be having to pan left and right across the screen to read each line of an email.  If you reduce text to the size that it doesn't spill off the edges of the iPhone screen, the font is too small to read.  What were the Apple designers thinking of when they allowed this disfunctionality to make it to the final unit, and why haven't they corrected it in any of the five sets of enhancements and fixes released to date?

At the very least, Apple should have enabled the same screen tilt detection that it has on the browser program to make it easier to read 'wide' emails.

There are other limitations in the email program too - for example, there's no way to delete multiple emails at once.  You have to select and delete emails one by one.

And while the iPhone bravely promised to play an attached .WAV file in an email I received, it wasn't able to do so.  What's with that?  Here's a unit that does double duty as an iPod music/audio player, and it can't play a standard .WAV audio file?  It also doesn't display .TIF files.

Email is probably the iPhone's greatest Achilles heel.  It would seem Apple has no interest in providing a usable solution for people wishing to read email on their phone.

Using the iPhone for other things

The iPhone comes with some other applications already loaded, including common things such as a Calendar program which can be synchronized with your Outlook calendar.  The Calendar program is very basic and has some problems with it - for example, a multi-day event only shows up on the first day when you're looking at the month view of your calendar.

You can also synchronize your Contacts List with Outlook.

The iPhone has a potentially useful Notes program for storing notes about all sorts of things you might wish to occasionally jot down and/or refer to.  But.  Why, oh why, did they not provide synchronization between their Notes program and the Notes feature of Outlook?  How stupid is that?  They synchronize contacts, calendar, and even to a limited extent, email from Outlook, but don't also synchronize the notes?

This is even more frustrating because it forces you to type all notes into the iPhone using the phone's despicable miniature keyboard, and means you lose any notes you had in Outlook.  There's also no way to take your iPhone notes and use them on your main computer.  This is yet another example of shoddy and incomplete thinking on Apple's part.

The phone has a 2 megapixel camera built in to it (1600 x 1200 resolution), and takes pictures of a quality common to camera phones (ie not very good).  Here's a cropped but otherwise unretouched portion of a picture I took of my daughter in the car - if you click the link, it will open in a new window.  You'll notice 'picture noise' and lack of sharpness in the image.

But - get this :  If you take a picture and then send it via email to someone, the phone 'helpfully' reduces it in size down to a very compressed and small 640 x 480 pixel image.  There's no way the phone will allow you to send the full image as an email attachment.

Why is this?  One can only guess that it was some sort of a deal insisted on by AT&T  so as to limit the amount of data bandwidth that would be taken up by sending larger pictures.  It is very unfortunate that there isn't even an option to send the larger size image.

So how can you actually do something with the full size picture you just took?  Warning - your brain will hurt if you try and read the next sentence :  You can copy photos from the iPhone to your computer via Windows Explorer, but not from your computer to the iPhone; on the other hand, you can copy pictures to your phone through iTunes but not from your phone, and you can't delete pictures that are synchronized over to the phone through iTunes.

Confused?  So you should be.  Apple's inane and unnecessary copy protection sacrifices user flexibility and simplicity.

The phone doesn't come with a built in GPS device, but it can use a clever method of cell tower triangulation and reference point Wi-Fi networks to computer approximately where you are, and to show your location on a Google Map image.

In addition to the range of programs Apple provides with the phone, there is a small but growing variety of third party applications available, most currently being offered for free.  Initially Apple refused to allow other developers to write software for the iPhone, and restricted extra software to web based programs, but it is about to open up the system (in Feb 08) to allow the full development of free-standing applications.

I've added some lovely extra applications already, ranging from games (Blackjack) to useful business functions (a wonderful HP-12C emulator that shows a true-to-life image of the calculator on the screen) to the useless but fun (a bouncing ball that uses the built in accelerometers in the iPhone for you to control its bouncing by waving the iPhone around).  There are even some free e-Books and reference libraries, plus a program that actually does allow you to email full size pictures taken by the built in camera.  Take that, Apple!

Battery Life and Charging

One of the big weaknesses of this phone is its very short battery life.  Although it has impressive official battery life ratings - up to 250 hours standby or up to 8 hours talk time, this assumes no data or internet usage.  If you're using the internet, the phone's battery life drops to a measly 6 hours.

Recognizing the phone's ability to double as an iPod audio or video player, it is also rated at up to 7 hours of playing video or up to 24 hours of playing audio.

These battery life ratings are of course invariably somewhat optimistic, and - like all rechargeable batteries - each successive charge sees the battery delivering slightly less life than the previous charge.  Apple says that the battery can be charged about 400 times before its maximum life is reduced to 80% of its original maximum.

If you use your phone a reasonable amount during the day - checking email, a bit of internet browsing, and a few phone calls - chances are that you'll find the battery is getting dangerously depleted by the end of the day, and even if the battery gets you through one day, it won't last through the end of a second day.  So, for most of us, daily charging will become an unavoidable ritual each evening.

Note also that the battery life display is a bit deceptive.  Once you get to 20% battery remaining, you can very quickly drop from 20% to 10% (in only a few minutes on one occasion) and then from 10% to 0 in way too fast a time as well.

Having to charge your phone every day is inconvenient and not 'state of the art'.

Charging the battery is slow.  With my Blackberry, my rule of thumb is 'one minute of charge buys me an hour of extra battery life', and so if I suddenly find myself low on charge, I only need to plug the phone in for a few minutes to top it up safely.  Quick charging is particularly helpful because I often just top the phone up while driving in the car with the car charger.

But the iPhone takes 2 - 3 hours to slowly build up to about a 90% charge, and to go from 90% to 100% can take that much extra.  Being as how you're going to be all the time needing to charge your iPhone, it is a shame that the charging process isn't a little quicker.

Some people still travel with spare phone batteries.  If this is you, then you're in for a disappointment with the iPhone.  You can't replace the battery.  It is sealed inside the unit, and replacing the battery involves sending your phone back to Apple, and paying $85.95 for a new battery and shipping the phone back to you.  With daily recharges, a battery will probably last you more than one year but less than two.

This is a huge amount of money just to replace a battery, and being without your phone for some days is another unwelcome inconvenience too.  This is a very user-unfriendly design limitation on Apple's part.

There are of course strategies you can adopt to extend the life of the battery.  For example, turn off the Bluetooth any time you're not using it, and turn off the Wi-Fi any time you're not using it.  Set your email to only synchronize when you open up the email account, rather than to do it regularly in the background.  Dim the display brightness.  Reduce the number of stocks tracked, and the number of cities you receive weather forecasts for.  And so on, and so on.

But, what you're doing here is making major reductions in the functionality and convenience of your phone.  What is the point of offering these features if you're then told not to use them to best advantage so as to get a useable battery life?

Exclusivity with AT&T and Unlocking the iPhone

Apple has signed a five year exclusive marketing contract with AT&T in the US, and has 'locked' its phones so that they will only work with an AT&T provided account chip (or 'SIM' as it is called).  Subsequently, Apple has signed agreements with service providers in other countries, and in each case has again signed an exclusivity contract and is only releasing its phones with a lock/restriction to work with that one wireless company's SIMs.

For a brief while, Apple was compelled to make the phones it sold through T-mobile in Germany unlocked, but as of now (Feb 08) a court ruling has overturned the lower court and now Apple and T-Mobile are free to restrict the phones only to T-Mobile again.  It seems that possibly in France Apple may have to unlock the phones, but commentators believe that Apple will only partially unlock the phone, allowing it to work with other French wireless companies, but not with other companies around the world.

Probably the reason Apple is doing this is because it stands to make a profit not just from selling the phone but also then gets a cut of the monthly fees paid by the phone user to the wireless company.  It is estimated that in the US, Apple gets about $10/month as a kickback from AT&T on every iPhone contract.  When you consider that AT&T are requiring a minimum two year contract with iPhone signups, this means Apple not only makes a generous profit from selling the iPhone in the first place, but it then gets a second 'bonus' of $240 or more per phone once it is put into service.

However, phone enthusiasts have rebelled, and not very long after the iPhone was released, a hacker came up with a way to defeat Apple's locking procedure, enabling the phone to be unlocked and used on any GSM network, anywhere in the world.  Apple retaliated and each software upgrade release makes the phone incompatible with previous unlocking techniques, and relocks the phone.  But within a month or so of each software upgrade (and there have been five in the first nine months), the hacking community has defeated the new locking process and phones are being happily unlocked once more.

We provide an iPhone unlocking service ourselves, as do many other companies.

Unlocking the iPhone has been very common, much to Apple's chagrin (it doesn't get its revenue share on an unlocked phone, of course), with some estimates suggesting that a quarter or more of the iPhones sold to date having been unlocked and now being used on other wireless services and in other countries.  To date (Feb08) more than 4 million iPhones have been sold, and it is expected that 10 million will be sold by the end of 2008.

Many of these iPhones have been shipped and sold in other countries where there is not yet an official iPhone reseller; I've seen them being ostentatiously displayed in some quite out of the way places in Eastern Europe and Asia.

Part of a series on the Apple iPhone - please also visit the other articles listed at the top on the right

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Originally published 22 Feb 2008, last update 21 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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