First look: Apple reinvents the cellphone

  • First Look: Just like everyone else, we also spent a few hours in line to purchase Apple’s ridiculously expensive iPhone. After spending a day or so with the phone, it is clear to us that Apple has created a special product that extends far beyond the definition of a cellphone.

    The iPhone launch was one of these days where I sometimes wonder, if there is any common sense left in our society. There is a company that launches a $600 cellphone and thousands of us just can’t wait to get rid of their cash and even enjoy wasting the better part of a day waiting in line. If you ask me, that is just nuts. But here we are and the huge hype behind the phone of course was reason enough for us to become part of the frenzy and see if the iPhone can keep the promises Steve Jobs has made.


    Who bought the phone?

    The big questions prior to the launch were whether there would be enough supply and what type of user really would buy the phone. Yes, there was the Ebay crowd once again, but compared to the PS3 and Wii launch, where we found that eight out of ten buyers planned to resell the consoles online, we noticed that nine out of ten iPhone buyers actually planned to keep the phone for themselves - at least at the locations we visited.

    We purchased our phone in suburban Chicago after a somewhat acceptable 3.5 hour wait. At this specific location, there were about 50 people in line with about 100 phones in supply. The crowd consisted out of dads buying the phone as a gift for their daughters and sons as reward for good grades in school, gadget lovers who anyway buy everything that is new on the market and of course Apple-fanatics who blindly buy whatever Steve Jobs tells them to buy. Very few of them actually wanted to dump their current carrier – the vast majority already had an AT&T plan in place. And yes, even 50 miles outside Chicago, in the midst of cornfields, there is still cash to be made from the first spot in line ($300 in this case).

    After a few hours with the iPhone in our hands, we have a good first impression of the device. You can check back later today for a thorough review of the iPhone’s features and get some numbers on the device’s capabilities on Tom’s Hardware.


    Needless to say, the iPhone is a stunning handheld. The footprint is slightly larger than a Treo smartphone, while the device is slightly thinner than a Blackberry Pearl and even thinner than a closed Motorola Razr. The case design is in line with Apple’s philosophy to create simplistic industrial designs that hide the complexity of the technology behind it. Design is always a matter of taste, but Apple has done a great job in creating a product that is universally appealing.

    The glass surface protects a 3.5” screen as well as the only physical (“Home”) button on the front of the device, The sides and the back of the iPhone consist of a mix of matte, shiny and black plastic covers – which in our opinion would have deserved upgraded material choices, given the high price of the phone. For the first time in an iPod-like device, Apple has integrated speakers into the iPhone (in the bottom black panel). Other buttons, which are almost invisibly integrated into the side panels of the phone, are controls for volume, deactivating and activating the alarm as well as a button to turn off the device. There is no dedicated switch to turn off the wireless features (cellphone, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth) of the iPhone.

    Included in the iPhone package is a charger, a connector to the PC (USB) as well as a wired headset with an integrated control for accepting phone calls.

    Installation: Activate your phone

    If you have owned an Apple product before then installation is typically a Breeze. In the case of the iPhone, the activation does not happen in the store, but at home on your PC and through iTunes, which means that you will have to have an Internet connection as well as Mac OS X or Windows XP/Vista PC to be able to get the phone running. In the store, we learned that AT&T does not offer insurance for the iPhone (the store manager declined to tell us why, but we believe that is due to the short battery cycle life time, which is estimated to be a bout 300 charges) and that the phone will not work beyond allowing emergency phone calls, if it is not activated. That means, even if you just want to use the iPod feature, you will have to have an AT&T plan in place (at least for now).

    The installation process was a bit rocky, as iTunes on a brand new MacBook did not recognize the iPhone. The installation process started on a Windows XP PC, but iTunes insisted that the activation period was “expired” and terminated the process. Turning the time back on the PC by one hour fixed this issue and the phone was activated and fully functional within 3 minutes (the phone number is provided after the completion of the activation.)

    We have heard about other people having issues with the installation, but Apple phone support was available and wait times were less than 2 minutes shortly after launch.

    Read on the next page: Features and Conclusion 

    Features: Cellphone and more

    Turning on the iPhone for the first time and playing it for a few minutes, quickly reveals that (1) Apple has done a fantastic job in designing a new way to hop through the features of your phone and (2) that calling the iPhone a phone isn’t fair. The device is an entertainment device just as much as it is a communication device. In fact this very well may be the first device in a category that Intel labeled as “Mobile Internet Device” (MID). In that view, the $600 price tag for the 8 GB version is actually not that painful, at least if you are looking for a justification why you just spent your rent money on a phone.

    The GUI

    The graphical user interface comes alive through the 3.5” touchscreen. There is plenty of resolution and dynamics integrated, which could only be improved by the integration of touch-feedback in our opinion. There are 12 main symbols on the screen that open all available applications, which means that you can access the features without navigating through menus. The buttons include SMS, Calendar, Photos, Camera, YouTube, Stocks, Maps, Weather, Clock, Calculator, Notes and Settings. There is also a bar of four priority buttons for accessing the phone, Mail, Safari (web browser) and the iPod feature. The phone and mail buttons are dynamic and display missed phone calls as well as new emails.

    The touchscreen needs some adjustment due to an unexpected low sensitivity to the touch. However, applications open elegantly and there are unique ways to handle the interface and allow a more human like interaction with content. For example, in Maps (Google Maps) moving your finger across the screen changes the location of the map and moving two fingers apart zooms into a specific area. A double-tap returns to standard view. There is no stylus (and we do not recommend using one given the delicate surface of the device), but average sized fingers should work reasonably well, even with the small on-screen keyboard. People with larger hands may find it difficult to use the device and probably will look into a secondary Bluetooth keyboard right away.

    One more key feature of the GUI is the integration on an accelerometer, which detects the orientation the device and automatically adjusts the screen from portrait to landscape view: Rotate the iPhone 90 degrees from portrait view and you are watching a video or picture in landscape view. Rotate it back and you are back in portrait view within a second.

    Touchscreens have the tendency to stop working after some time, for example, many users of Palm Treos have gone through that experience, and it will be interesting to see, if the iPhone screen will be more reliable than what we have in the market today.


    In the end, the iPhone mainly needs to be a phone. The features of the phone are readily accessible, but some have complained that to many clicks are required to access the core feature: As the iPhone locks itself when it goes into sleep mode, you first need to unlock through a virtual slider, you click on the phone feature and then you dial the number. Once the call is active, you have mute, keypad, speaker, add caller, hold and contacts buttons on your screen – which in our opinion is about as convenient as it can get. What is really missing is the direct availability of the phone feature – either through a keypad displayed on the standard screen or through an extra physical keypad.  

    An important feature of today’s cellphones is texting capability – and the iPhone also offers a dedicated SMS button. The interface is alright (but limited through a small on-screen keyboard), but we haven’t found a feature to actually send MMS messages so far. If you’d like to send images, you will have to go through the email feature.


    But then, the iPhone isn’t really a phone, it is a communication and entertainment device, which makes the phone feature on of many. In the case of the iPhone, we of course have to talk about the integrated iPod characteristics. They are slightly more difficult to reach than on a dedicated iPod, but they are there. You pretty much handle the content (audio and video) just like you would with any other and organize it into playlists, artists, songs, albums, genres, etc. Video accessibility is available through a priority button.

    There are no surprises (except the integrated (and overdue) speakers), however we found that the integration of video playback is not sufficient. It may be appropriate for iTunes downloads, but we would expect that people want to share their home videos - which may be saved in other formats - such as MPEG, AVI, ASF or Divx. Expanded support for more video formats should be on Apple’s short list for the next iPhone generation.  


    There are two ways how to access the Internet – via EDGE or via WiFi.

    We are not wasting any time on EDGE as it is a painful experience, if you wait two minutes for the Yahoo homepage to come up. We are puzzled that Apple even considered the exclusion of 3G and AT&T has the nerve defending the functionality of the device on its network. If you depend on Internet on the road, this simple fact should make you wait for a 3G iPhone. It is a clear case of “what were they thinking?”

    But, if you are in Wi-Fi range, the iPhone is a real pleasure to use and for some of us may even replace the need of a notebook on short trips. Especially Palm should have a close look at the functionality of the iPhone: The Palm Foleo looks outdated before it even hit the market (well, maybe not for Treo users).

    The main Internet features are the Safari browser, Youtube, Maps and Email.

    In all four cases, the iPhone’s feature to automatically switch from portrait to landscape mode (Youtube videos only play in landscape mode) is a big help and actually allows you to recognize, read and use content. In Web browsing and email, zooming into content and adjusting it to the screen width is as simple as it can get and other manufacturers of mobile devices will have to look into a similar feature set for their products.

    Google Maps looks like a true killer application for the iPhone (and the zooming capability). Apple has made regular map as well as satellite views available. It does not take much to see that the availability of worldwide maps will be a popular feature on a cellphone with a large screen. However, at this stage, a GPS chip is not integrated, which means that you will need a separate GPS unit with Bluetooth capability to add location data (and a GPS capable map software) to the iPhone. And, again, the Maps work fantastic with Wi-Fi, but they are pretty much useless in EDGE networks due to the enormous load times.


    “It is just a phone.” This is probably the most frequent description of the iPhone when people are getting upset about the price of the device. But as so often, there are two sides to the story.

    First, it isn’t just a phone. It is a mobile communications device that will also entertain you. So, if you have looked into buying an iPod and have to replace your cellphone anyway, this may be worth looking into. However, expect this phone to be a beta product and expect breakage to occur. We certainly would not recommend relying on the iPhone as a critical communications device for your business, but as a private cellphone, it is about as good as it gets these days. Plus, at least today, the iPhone gets you tons of bragging rights.

    On the other hand, we are talking about $600 and it is stunning, how many people are buying this phone. I have heard only one story where someone indicated that he rather buys the iPhone and accepts the risk of getting into a battle with his landlord as we won’t be able to make his rent payment this month. But clearly: It is a ridiculous price for a phone and if you really can’t afford it easily, skip it and wait for the phones to become cheaper later this year and in 2008.

    The big downside of the iPhone today is AT&T. Slow network speeds aside, $60 a month for an entry-level plan is absolutely unacceptable. This needs to get cheaper, better today than tomorrow. We are still scratching our heads why Apple went with AT&T and with AT&T only. But perhaps rumors are true that cracks to unlock the phone from the connection to AT&T are true and the phone will be able to run on other networks as well. In the end, it wouldn’t be really against Apple’s interest.

    Apple iPhone report card

    What works

    + Compact form factor
    + Fantastic user interface
    + Excellent Youtube, Google Maps integration
    + Huge bragging factor  
    + Appropriate price

    What needs work

    - No keyboard
    - Phone feature not highlighted enough
    - Relatively complicated to use
    - Painfully slow EDGE network
    - AT&T only available carrier, expensive service plans
    - Battery