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Apple iPhone review part 3

iPhone limitations, and should you buy one

The Visual Voicemail service is a truly innovative and positive new development, offered on the iPhone.

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



In the third part of this review, we look at some of the miscellaneous extra functions the iPhone has, and talk about some of the missing functions the iPhone should have.

Don't get us wrong.  The iPhone is a good phone, and with its ongoing updates via software, it is getting better.  The new iPhone 3g has further improvements, too.  But we don't yet consider either the original or the new 3g version of the iPhone to be the ideal perfect phone in all respects.

Using the iPhone (continued from part 2)

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 as part of its mapping program.

The Google based map program is wonderful, and just like on the web based service ( you can choose between map or satellite views, and you can also display local traffic information on the map too - definitely a great service when you're negotiating through the freeways in busy traffic.

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.

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.

iPhone Limitations

The following is far from a complete list - I've seen lists of over 50 items missing or not properly implemented on some website reviews, but here are a few of the things - in addition to those mentioned in the text - that I feel should be present on the iPhone :

  • There is no removable memory (ie SD card or similar) option.

  • The camera doesn't support video - a sad omission for a device that supports video playback.

  • No GPS capability.

  • Battery life is too short and batteries can't be replaced other than by returning the unit to Apple.

  • No onboard Help service.

  • It can't take an external antenna connection.

  • Email limitations in just about every respect.

  • No chat clients (for eg MSN or Yahoo Messenger).

  • Can't use the iPhone as a hard drive storage device.

  • iTunes based restrictions on copying pictures and music to and from the phone.

  • Doesn't synch with Outlook Notes or Tasks.

  • Cut and paste text feature missing.

  • Needs MMS message support.

  • Needs stereo Bluetooth for playing audio through Bluetooth stereo headphones, the ability to use Bluetooth to connect the phone to your laptop (and use the phone as a wireless modem) and the ability to transfer files via Bluetooth.

Which iPhone is Best

The iPhone was originally released in June 07 with two versions - having either 4GB or 8GB of storage, and priced at $499 or $599.  In September, the 4GB unit was discontinued and the price of the 8GB unit reduced to $399.  In January 2008, a new 16GB model was introduced, with a $499 price.

If you are not planning on using the iPhone to store and play video, you probably don't need a 16GB unit, and if you're not using the iPhone to play music at all, then even a 4GB unit would be plenty - but be careful if buying a used 4GB unit; make sure the price is right, because you might need to replace the battery before too long (at a cost of $86).

Most people should choose the 8GB unit, accordingly.


The iPhone is perhaps the most successful cell phone ever, in terms of both pre and post release publicity.  And while not the best selling phone unit out there (in part due to Apple's own restrictions on how and where it is sold) it is one of the most popular phones, with a projected user base of 10 million units by the end of 2008.

The promise of a simple user-friendly phone interface that finally brings some understandable extra features to phones which, until now, many people have only ever used for placing and receiving phone calls has been realized in part.

But, the phone is full of limitations and weaknesses.  These limitations would be acceptable in a $50 phone, but not in a phone which sells for $500, and are doubly unacceptable in a phone that makes such bold promises in terms of how good it is.

So - should you buy an iPhone?  You have, sort of, four options - not to buy an iPhone, to buy an iPhone, to buy a competing phone, or to wait until a better and/or less expensive iPhone comes out (perhaps in June 2008, being the one year anniversary of the first iPhone release, perhaps later this year in time for the Christmas selling season).

If you're not a 'power user' and if you need a new phone today, and if you're comfortable with the concept of spending a lot of money to get a phone that is part fashion statement as well as part phone, then why not do so, and join the millions of others who have already happily done so (the iPhone's user satisfaction level is much higher than other advanced phones).

If you use your phone a lot, and if you anticipate using the data services, then the battery life will be a problem.  And if you are choosing between a Blackberry or iPhone for email, then the Blackberry wins hands-down.

If you don't actually need a new phone at present, and are still somewhere in the middle of your current phone contract period, don't rush out to buy an iPhone.  There's nothing revolutionary about it, and it still does ordinary things in a more or less ordinary way.

Looking to the future, we hope to see new iPhones that address some of the omissions and weaknesses in the present iPhone, that have still more memory (ie 32 GB instead of 16GB, and maybe even 64GB), better battery life, video as well as still picture taking, and high speed data support, and hopefully all of this at the same or lower price than the current iPhone.

The iPhone is a bizarre mix of the imaginative and inventive alongside the really stupid and idiotic.  Most people are best off not buying an iPhone at present.

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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