iPhone: More Upside Than Down

Being neither a smart phone enthusiast nor an Apple products buff, I fully expected to be unimpressed by the much-hyped iPhone.

After playing with the device for a while, however, my skepticism was at least partially overcome by the sheer "niftiness" of the thing, and I now understand why it has captured the imaginations of diehard mobile geeks and communications technology dabblers alike.

Before extolling the merits of the iPhone, however, I have one serious gripe: being tied to AT&T or "Cingulerror" or "The New AT&T" – or whatever that company is calling itself this month – is a major negative for the iPhone.

Despite its repeated-ad-nauseum claim that it is "the network with the fewest dropped calls," my own experiences with AT&T have been less than stellar. For example, it is not uncommon for me to receive voicemail several days after the caller left the message in question. With as fast as things move in both the publishing and adult entertainment worlds, this delivery delay is far from ideal.

AT&T's network contributes mightily to another of the iPhone's few real drawbacks: a lack of speed when not connected through something other than the device's default connection, which is AT&T's EDGE network. The EDGE network is simply far too slow to support web surfing that is any more demanding than browsing text-only pages. Downloading via EDGE – where my speeds averaged just under 60Kbps – reminded me of my early web-surfing days, when I was tethered to a dialup connection.

How slow is AT&T's EDGE network? If you find yourself in an area where no Wi-Fi is available, it might just be faster to wander around until you find an available Wi-Fi connection, rather than try to surf using EDGE (OK – that's probably a bit of an exaggeration, but how much of an exaggeration it is depends on how far you end up having to walk).

My anti-AT&T orientation notwithstanding, I have to say that the iPhone has far more upside than down, including its undeniably cool web-browsing features. Trying to view the web on most other handhelds has always struck me as akin to playing XBOX 360 games on a 12-inch black-and-white TV; you can tell there's a lot of potential in what is taking place on your screen, but you get the strong sense that something important is missing.

You can't compare surfing the web on the iPhone to browsing about on a cutting-edge PC with a top-of-the-line monitor – not by any stretch of the imagination – but it certainly ranks as "best in show" where currently available handhelds are concerned. The first time I used my finger to "click" an image and saw it enlarge, it was like a moment from childhood; even though I knew what was going to happen, I couldn't help but feel like I'd just performed some manner of magic trick.

Probably the coolest ancillary functions of the iPhone are its music storage and playback capabilities. While the snafu concerning the need for an adaptor to actually plug in headphones indicates that Apple experienced a collective brain fart when engineering the phone's iPod-like functions (see Colin Rowntree's review for more on that problem), the iPhone interface deserves major kudos from a design perspective. While I'm sure it can become cumbersome once one's on-board music collection is enormous, flipping through album artwork is just way more enjoyable than scrolling through text titles using an iPod's dial.

On balance, I'd say the iPhone is deserving of most of the hype that has surrounded its much-celebrated launch. Once Apple has addressed some of the most obvious flaws – the widely reported battery life issues, in particular – my sense is that it will be well on its way to carving out a market share in the mobile communications sector that is similar to the one the iPod enjoys in the handheld music playback device market.


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