Saturday, June 2, 2007

The iPhone

As the release date for the coveted iPhone draws nearer (the latest rumor sets it at June 11), it’s time to examine what we know, what we don’t know, and whether or not to step up and pay the $499 to $599 price tag for what could be the best phone yet to be released on the market. There are many facts we already know about the iPhone, but many details of which we’re unaware. For instance, the touch screen interface is revolutionary, but how well will it work? The widescreen video playback is second to none, but how long will that battery last? Let’s dive into the facts and questions before we decide to dig deep for this, the latest and greatest in mobile phones.

What do we know?

For starters, we know the iPhone will only be available for Cingular users, and then only if you sign a new two-year contract. That’s certainly a downer, but it also isn’t all that surprising in this day and age.

Beyond that, we know that the iPone is feature-rich. First, it’s a widescreen, touch screen, and video iPod with either 4GB or 8GB of storage. This, of course, will still interface with iTunes, which most of the modernized world is comfortable navigating. The screen is 3.5 inches with a 320 by 480 resolution. Not bad. The total size is 4.5” x 2.4” x .46”, meaning it’s relatively small compared to similar smart phones. New to the iPod is the touch screen navigation instead of the well-known click wheel. This could be a huge enhancement, or possible hindrance, to your search and retrieval of music, movies, television shows or podcasts. Finally, the battery claims to have up to 16 hours of audio playback along with five hours of video, talk and browsing (more on that later). So, as far as an iPod goes, the iPhone looks to be a nice step up from previous versions.

As the name indicates, the iPhone is also a phone. However, if Steve Jobs and Apple are right, this isn’t like any other phone you or I have ever seen. If there is another phone out there with a touch screen interface and no number pad at all, I don’t know of it. Instead of dialing with numbers, which most of us rarely do anyway, just point and touch a name or address book entry to make a call. Amazingly, voicemail works the same way. If you have five old voicemails to listen to, just point and touch the one you want to hear first instead of listening to them in order. Switch over to text messaging and use the touch screen QWERTY keyboard to keep in quick touch with friends and family. One cool aspect of the text messaging is that it shows the previous texts in order as if you were having a conversation. Finally, add a 2.0 megapixel camera and you have yourself a pretty cool phone.

The iPhone doesn’t stop there. It also includes an email and internet interface like no other phone today. Apple joined with Yahoo to offer unlimited email messages on the iPhone. Now you have no need to worry about deleting old messages or storing them on your phone. Yahoo will handle the storage, iPhone will handle the sending and retrieval. A full version of Safari is also included with the iPhone. For those of you who, like me, aren’t Mac users, Safari is an internet browser. Instead of having 3G capabilities like most current phones, the iPhone uses EDGE along with Wi-Fi to coordinate all your downloading of email, files and internet browsing. It will be nice to sit in an internet café, local coffee shop or at home to utilize the speed and reliability of true Wi-Fi. Finally, in addition to Bluetooth, the iPhone will also include mapping and widgets. Again, for those of us non-Mac users, widgets are virtual tools where you can track stocks, check the weather and follow the news, among many other things.

Some of the other things we do know about the iPhone are actually what it does not have. First, it does not have the Microsoft Office applications. While this may not be an issue for some, for those of us who send and receive word documents and excel files, it could be a deal breaker. Second, it does not have 3G capabilities. 3G is a superior downloading technology to EDGE and is what most of the world is moving toward for streaming audio and video on mobile phones. Also, the iPhone will not allow third-party applications to be installed on it. Many technology proficient people will frown at this. The last thing we know about the iPhone is that is has no track record. This is the first phone of its kind and the first phone for Apple. Which leads us to think: what don’t we know about the iPhone?

What don't we know?

iPhoneWhile the list above does provide some nice facts and figures about the iPhone, it may be the unknown that influences our decision more than the known. We know it is a widescreen, touch screen, video iPod with phone, voicemail, camera, email, text and internet support. One thing is for certain about all of that: we don’t know how well any of it is going to work.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that the “iPod portion” of the iPhone should work well, at least as it pertains to music playback. What we don’t know is how well the scrolling and visual interface will work. Will it be cumbersome to use? Will it be as slow and choppy as Cover Flow was the first time it was introduced to iTunes? We also will not know how good the battery is until it is thoroughly tested. Will the battery really last for five hours of video playback? Is that enough battery life to watch a movie, listen to some music and still call for a ride when you get off the plane? We also don’t know much about the actual touch screen. How well will it react to the touch? Will it build up dirt, grease and grime from our fingers? Will we always be cleaning it? What happens if the touch screen is scratched or damaged? Unfortunately, those last few questions also pertain to the rest of the iPhone’s features.

The phone interface sounds amazing. The touch screen voicemail system is the first of its kind. The email and text interface look incredible. But how good is the call clarity going to be? Last time I checked, mobile phones are for making calls first; everything else comes second. Even with that knowledge, there are several phones on the market today that offer tons of features but sound terrible when making a simple phone call. We won’t know if the iPhone fits that bill until it is tested. Another big question is the touch screen QWERTY keyboard. With less than 2.4” of space for a keyboard, how mistake prone will it be? Again, what happens if it’s scratched or damaged? Will a scratch, smudge or dirt significantly interfere with texting or internet browsing?

Finally, it has to be asked: is 4GB to 8GB enough space for an operating system, internet browser and widgets, along with music, video and photos? This is the first widescreen video iPod. People are going to want to watch movies and their favorite television shows. Is 8GB enough space to satisfy those needs? How much of the 8GB is usable space after the operating system and internet browser is installed? How much space will we need to keep free for text messaging and internet browsing cache? Speaking of internet browsing, how fast will full sized internet pages load? Is the EDGE technology enough to handle all that traffic? Finally, I have to go back to the battery. Is the five hours of talk, video and internet browsing going to hold up when you’re storing up to 8GB of music and videos? We won’t know any of these things until Apple releases the iPhone for testing, and ultimately, for the real world. Which leads us to the most important question of all: should we go out and purchase an iPhone?

Should we buy?

You have to hand it to Apple -- it took them a while but they finally came out with an impressive iPod-phone with some groundbreaking features. I can’t wait to get my hands on the new touch screen. From scrolling though music, to point and touch voicemail, to the QWERTY keyboard, this could be a huge advance in the gadget world. I’ve also been dying to get a widescreen iPod because, let’s face it, everything looks better in widescreen. Also, having a full version of an internet browser will be so nice while surfing all of my favorites. So, all that said, should we buy?

Ultimately, the decision is up to you. This could be the next great advance in mobile phone…or it may not live up to the hype. Me? I’m going to wait on this one. At least for a little while.

Let’s see it out in the real world. Let’s see if the battery lives up to what’s been promised. Let’s see how the touch screen reacts to dirt, grime and smudge. Let’s see what happens the first time it gets a scratch. Lastly, and most important to me, let’s wait and see how good the call clarity is. Let’s not forget, this is a phone first and foremost. I already have an iPod, and I already have a phone. Do I want an iPhone? Yes. Can I wait and see how all my questions will be answered before I go out and pay $599 for one? You bet your ass I can.

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