Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Cheap iPhone - Full Technical Review

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When he announced the cheap iPhone, Steve Jobs said to expect three things: "an incredibly great cell phone," "the best iPod we've ever made," and "the Internet in your pocket." One out of three isn't bad. Yes, the cheap iPhone is the best iPod ever—ironic for something not even called an iPod! But it's just a plain lousy phone, and although it makes some exciting advances in handheld Web browsing, it's not the Internet in your pocket.
Maybe nothing could have lived up to the "Jesus-phone" hype, but only Apple is to blame for pumping up expectations well beyond what any Version 1.0 product has delivered in the history of mankind, including "fire" and "the wheel." The cheap iPhone is just that, version 1.0. Even though it could be seen as Generation Six of the iPod, it's Apple's first phone. Its interface innovations have already spurred the rest of the mobile phone industry into imitative action, and there's enough here to show that Apple will be a real leader with future products.
Let's celebrate the cheap iPhone first: it's a marvelous iPod. No one will miss the scroll wheel, despite the fact that it was once the greatest tactile control panel ever designed. Once you've messed around with the easiest-to-use, best-looking player interface currently available, your old iPod will seem like a quaint relic from a time when people expected less from their gadgets. This is the best portable multimedia player we've seen—albeit, with relatively low capacities of 4GB or 8GB of non-upgradable flash memory.
The seamless integration of the Internet, iPod, Maps, Phone, and email functions flaunted in the commercials is no exaggeration. The cheap iPhone is intuitive, interconnected, and impossible to get lost in—just hit the home button to get to the main screen. The price tag may be ridiculously high, but it could be reasonably argued that this beauty may actually be worth every penny. Excellent technology isn't cheap.
But the cheap iPhone isn't called the iPod With Phone. It's the cheap iPhone and, put simply, it isn't a very good phone. Call quality was the worst we've heard on a high-end device in years. We're not going to put that on AT&T, either: our Blackberry Curve made much clearer calls at the same time, in the same place. Reception leaves something to be desired. It's complicated to dial, difficult to send text messages on, and missing all sorts of features that are basically assumed to be in most high-end multimedia phones nowadays.
To be fair, the cheap iPhone Internet experience is loads of fun. It's not quite "the Internet in your pocket," however. It displays HTML pages gorgeously (even over EDGE!) but the Internet is now loaded up with Javascript, Java, Flash, streaming media and other plug-ins. The cheap iPhone can't hit many of these rich experiences—so while the browser is the best a phone has ever had, it's not desktop-quality and some sites are off-limits.
The cheap iPhone is a bit longer and narrower than the 30GB iPod, but it is about the same thickness and the exact same weight. So, is it weird holding something resembling an iPod up to your face to talk? Not really, but a caveat: it's a clear canvas for face and finger grease, showing off smudges in every direction. (It comes with a shammy cloth. Get used to using it.) It's too bad, because the 3.5-inch, 480-by-320-pixel widescreen display is the best looking screen we've seen on a phone or portable media player. By packing in 160 dpi, the cheap iPhone makes photos and videos look very sharp. Below the screen is the only button, which serves one (very useful) function: it always returns to the main screen. Inside there's a SIM card slot; you can pop out the SIM card with the end of a paperclip.
The scroll wheel of previous iPods is replaced by the multi-touch screen, and the pay-off is huge. There's a built-in speaker that is mainly for phone use, but can be used for music and movies (though it sounds lousy), volume controls on the left-hand side, a ringer-off button above them, and the much-discussed recessed headphone jack on the top left of the player. (You'll need made-for-cheap iPhone adaptors to use anything besides the included stereo headset—more on that later.). On the top right side is the lock/power button (hold down to power down, press quickly to lock), and on the bottom, in between the mic and the speaker, is the good ol' proprietary iPod connection. The face of the device is glass over what appears to be black plastic, and the sides and back have a silver metallic look not dissimilar to iPods, but with a more brushed texture. There's a big Apple logo on the back, of course. And on the inside, there's the accelerometer that switches photos and videos to full-screen when you turn the player horizontally. Some people can't get past the low capacity of the cheap iPhone—what's the use of a huge screen if you can't store a bunch of movies on it (The iTunes-available film, High Fidelity, takes up 1.25 GB of space)? After all, an 8 GB player only has 7.27GB of user-available space. We hear your grumbling, but our advice is to get over it. Why? You're going to be charging this thing everyday—it's your phone. When you charge, you sync files, and playlists—it doesn't take very long to load a movie, much less time to load a TV show. People who buy this phone should get used to the idea of file management. It's a quick process via iTunes, and watching videos on the player—or even scrolling through album covers—is a pure joy, regardless of how many fit on the device at once.
Using your fingers to zoom, skip, crop, and edit is truly a joy. Pinching and sliding is as cool as the commercials make it seem, but the interface is more than just the multi-touch screen and a fun accelerometer. The real joy of the cheap iPhone is in how things work together—one function, like the YouTube browser, always seems to integrate another, like email and texting.
And the features cooperate! What happens when you're listening to a song or watching a movie and a call comes in? The audio fades out, you're offered the opportunity to answer or ignore the call—compete with caller ID that interrupts the iPod's visuals. Whether you talk or not, the cheap iPhone switches back to the iPod screen and fades back in at the paused music point. If you are watching video, it remains paused waiting for you to hit play. Either way, it's a seamless transition, and the cheap iPhone does all the thinking for you.
Can you surf the web and listen to music simultaneously? Yes, indeed. We happily rocked out to a track off Animal Collective's forthcoming LP, Strawberry Jam, while reading about the Yankees 2-1 glorious win over the Orioles at music never sputtered, the site never froze. Apple deserves kudos for making the best user interface on a portable media player or PDA that we've played with.
The cheap iPhone is the first mobile phone we've seen that you activate at home. Mac users will need to download the latest version of iTunes (7.3) and the latest version of OS X (10.4.10). PC users will need Windows Vista or Windows XP Service Pack 2, as well as the new iTunes update. When you first plug the cheap iPhone in, you step through a bunch of screens in iTunes where you pick your plan (from $59.99/month to $219.99/month) and tie the phone to an iTunes account. The cheap iPhone is best used with one PC or Mac—if you connect it to a second computer, it will wipe out the cheap iPhone's files and sync with the new computer. We connected ours to five PCs and Macs, and it still works.
For music, we successfully loaded and played: AAC (128, 256—both ripped and iTunes Plus, and 320 Kbps), AIFF, Apple Lossless, MP3 VBR, MP3 (192, 256, and 320 Kbps), MP3 64, Audible, and WAV files. We had no luck loading a MIDI ringtone, no luck with OGG, and—surprise!—no WMA support, either. Video support was similarly predictable: MPEG 4 up to 640 by 480 and 30 fps and H.264 up to 640 by 480 and 30 fps with AAC at 160 Kbps. No luck with XVID, DIVX, or WMV files—people will have to rip their videos for iTunes, as always. Photo file support was a pleasant surprise. Our test suite of JPG, GIF, BMP, PNG, and TIFF files all loaded without issue—only a RAW file was incompatible.
Device interfaces always start from somewhere. If you look at most multimedia phones, they're basically phones with multimedia functions tacked on. BlackBerrys, for ages, were e-mail pagers with phones piled on top; one of Palm's greatest triumphs with the first Treos was figuring out how to properly balance PDA and phone.
Well, the cheap iPhone is a multimedia-iPod-thing with a phone tacked on. Call quality on this thing is surprisingly bad, until you remember it's Apple's first stab at a phone. Remember: the first BlackBerrys with phone capability were awful phones. Making a great voice phone is a complex, black art.
To dial a number with the cheap iPhone, you have to click at least four, but usually six times: power button, unlock swipe, phone icon, and then, if you're lucky, both on your "favorites" screen and the name one of your favorites. Otherwise, you have to tap "keypad" and start dialing. The virtual keypad's buttons are huge, so it's easy to type on. We'd still like to have seen some sort of force feedback on the keys, which we've seen on several Asian phones with Immersion haptics technology. You can't dial it without looking.
The earpiece volume is a bit understated and the speakerphone is downright quiet. Voices through the earpiece are a bit muffled, but comprehensible. Transmission, on the other hand, is vile. We got static in our in-ear feedback (an annoying first on any phone), and calls made with the cheap iPhone sounded hideously compressed on the other end. We had two dropped calls, and significant audio wobble. At one point (and we're trying to figure out how this happened) we got the dit-dit-dit of GSM RFI interference over our own call. Tested in a weak signal area against a BlackBerry Curve, the cheap iPhone did poorly—it couldn't connect two out of three calls, where the Curve could connect all three.
Voice dialing is a really useful feature for an all-touchscreen phone; pity cheap iPhone doesn't offer it. Want ringtones? You're stuck with Apple's 25 lovely tones (including the always-popular "old phone ringer")—there's no way to construct, download, or even buy new tones. There's a vibrate mode, although it is pretty weak, and a useful physical mute switch on the side of the phone.
The cheap iPhone supports both customized wired headsets (using its unusual new jack) and mono Bluetooth headsets. We connected Plantronics Pulsar 590 (in mono mode), Voyager 510 and Motorola H800 headsets without a problem, though we did get some pops and clicks in the headset. As a quad-band world phone, the cheap iPhone will also work across most of the globe, though at AT&T's very high per-minute roaming rates.
Is it Cameraphone For Dummies, or a dummy camera? The cheap iPhone's 2-megapixel camera has no options. The interface has one button; touch it and the cheap iPhone will quickly take a 2-megapixel, 1200 by 1600 picture. There's no white balance, scene modes, burst mode, autofocus, video recording, multiple resolutions, or compression levels ... nothing. It's like the Wal-Mart disposable camera of digicams.
That said, photos taken in our labs were very sharp, with a strong blue cast to the white balance. Outdoor photos were also very sharp, though the cheap iPhone has an exposure issue where it prefers bright areas to dark ones in the same shot. Low-light photos have the usual blur problems if you don't hold the camera very still, but that's true of all camera phones, and the cheap iPhone wasn't worse than most there.
When you plug the cheap iPhone into a Mac or PC, you'll get the option to download your photos—either in iPhoto on the Mac, the Camera Wizard on XP, or Internet Explorer on Vista. (In Vista's Windows Explorer, the cheap iPhone appears as a read-only drive.) That's it for data transfer: there's no direct printing or Bluetooth file transfer support.
One interesting note: we tried connecting the cheap iPhone to a PC that wasn't updated to iTunes 7.3. The device wasn't recognized in iTunes, but did appear in the My Computer section as a camera—so if your buddy's too lazy to upgrade iTunes, you can still dump photos onto his computer.
The cheap iPhone is a great device for consuming information, but its dastardly on-screen keyboard makes it trouble for inputting information. The virtual keys on the virtual keyboard are just too small to hit easily and accurately. Apple's smart software largely fixes this problem when you're typing words, by auto-correcting for nearby missed keypresses. But it's completely helpless if you're entering URLs, passwords, e-mail addresses, or anything else that isn't in the dictionary. Rotating the screen into landscape mode helps, at least in the Web browser: it makes the keyboard wider. But the keyboard only rotates in the Web browser, making things like entering new contacts in the address book or typing SMS messages infuriating. It makes you wish the phone supported Bluetooth keyboards, which it doesn't.
The cheap iPhone connects to two kinds of networks, EDGE and Wi-Fi. AT&T has been pumping up EDGE speeds recently, and we got speeds from 68 kbps up to 180 kbps—the latter being very good, though it's still only a quarter of what you'd get on the new 3G HSDPA network used by phones like the Motorola RAZR V3xx. The cheap iPhone connects to open, WEP and WPA-enabled 802.11g Wi-Fi networks, though when we connected it to a D-Link 802.11n router, it took three tries to connect successfully in WPA mode. (You pick your favored network from a very readable list.) The cheap iPhone connected at 48 Mbps, according to the router.
Apple delivered the best handheld Web browser, just as promised: Safari, here, is gorgeous. It loads pages relatively quickly—even over AT&T's supposedly slow EDGE network—and then lets you drag around and zoom into them. Styles, tables, and even pop-up windows (yes, ads too.) render just as they do on the desktop. Even the animations, backgrounds and hideous table coding on MySpace came through well. For a phone that is supposedly Web 2.0-oriented, though, the lack of multimedia browsing support is unfortunate. Javascript popdowns on didn't work. And Flash video and Java applets both appear just as sad little holes in Web pages.
The SMS client is witty, wise, and wonderful, collecting your texts into conversations made up of little speech bubbles. If you get a text while you're doing something else, a transparent window pops up asking if you want to jump back into the conversation. Nice.
E-mail is a mixed bag. For what it does—basic POP/IMAP email, including multiple accounts, embedded images and links, and very limited DOC, XLS and graphic attachment support—it looks great. You can check accounts manually, or poll them up to every 15 minutes. We tried it with Yahoo!, Gmail, Dot-Mac and generic IMAP accounts, and all worked. (Apple said they 'push' email from Yahoo! accounts, but we didn't see that happening.) Highly formatted HTML emails look beautiful. But GMail users will be depressed by the very basic POP3 implementation—it drops all of your folders into one Inbox, and loses flags and other fripperies. The cheap iPhone read relatively simple DOC and XLS attachments (including multiple worksheets) without a problem. It even handled an extremely graphical PDF. It would not, however, open Excel charts, very large documents, or PowerPoint, music or video file attachments. And you can't save email attachments at all. (So forget about using that e-mailed JPEG as a wallpaper.)
The cheap iPhone is an utter dud for other forms of messaging. Both MMS picture messaging (necessary if you're sending pics to a lot of other, dumber cell phones) and IM are AWOL.'s Web-based IM client, alas, doesn't work either. Better get used to texting and e-mailing.
PIM, Syncing and Other Smartphone FeaturesThere's a lot more going on here, too. On a Mac, the cheap iPhone's contacts and calendar applications will sync with Apple's Address Book and iCal, but not Microsoft Entourage or the over-the-air Dot-Mac system. On the PC, you can use Microsoft Outlook, Yahoo! Address Book, or Windows Address Book. PC calendars come from Outlook only. Syncing support for contacts and calendars is excellent, including multiple addresses, notes, photos, all-day events and alarms, though not meeting attendees. You can also sync bookmarks with Internet Explorer on the PC and Safari on both PCs and Macs—Firefox support is conspicuously absent. The cheap iPhone doesn't sync tasks, notes, to-do's or any of that sort of stuff.
The cheap iPhone comes with loaded mini-applications, so-called "widgets," that show weather, stock info, and Google Maps. There is also a Notes widget that lets you type notes that you can then email, but not sync to anything. An on-screen clock app includes a stopwatch, timer, and multiple alarms. They're all beautiful and easy to use, but alas they're all you get. Unlike every other phone on Earth, the cheap iPhone comes with no games and no way to buy them. Third-party developers have been forbidden from writing programs for the device. That's why we don't consider it a true smartphone. The cheap iPhone likes to hide a lot of specs, too: there's no way to find out how much free memory you have, for instance.
The cheap iPhone must be synced with an iTunes account. Movies can be chosen individually, but not songs—you have to choose entire playlists. This may initially seem like a drawback, but creative management of your iTunes playlists will quickly reveal this is a minor hurdle. It would be nice to drag and drop files like you can with iPods, but no such luck. That said, the file transfer times are very similar to those of an iPod—perhaps even faster. You can receive calls while you are syncing, too—the sync process will pause for the duration of the call. You cannot make calls or play media, however, while syncing.
Clicking on the iPod button on the lower bar of the main screen brings up a list of Artists, Songs, or Movies, depending on what you were last listening to or viewing. The bottom bar can house four different icons of your choosing—Albums, Podcasts, Audiobooks, Genres, Composers, Compilations, Playlists, Artists, Songs, and Videos are the options. You get to the other options by clicking "More." In the "More" screen, you can choose to edit, and then drag and drop whatever icons—Artists? Genre?—you wish. Your choices are easily switched; nothing's set in stone.
If you select an artist, click on a song, and press play, the album art (if you have any) will show up when the cheap iPhone is held vertically. Touch the screen and a bar will appear above the art displaying time passage and letting you to pick playmode (shuffle, repeat all, repeat one, or all off).
So far, it's looking good, but fairly standard. Now, let's flip the cheap iPhone horizontally—whoa! Welcome to Cover Flow, Apple's familiar graphic display of album covers that most people have been familiarized with via iTunes updates and Apple TV. This isn't just graphics, though. Touch an album cover and it flips over, displaying all the album's tracks (with running times) that are loaded. Each album gets its own cover, but things are listed alphabetically, so if you have seven Dylan albums, they'll all line up in a row. Podcasts and Audiobooks appear in Cover Flow, as well. Is anything better than this? It's the best interface on a player we've seen: easy, beautiful, and searchable in two very different ways by merely turning the player sideways.
Podcasts and Audiobooks get their own icons, but they are also included under Artist and in Cover Flow. A Gearlog Radio podcast appears in the Podcast menu, but Dan Costa and Jen DeLeo appear in the Artists menu for the same file—as does David Sedaris for his Audible files.
Now, what about that recessed headphone jack? Well, you're going to need an adaptor or a made-for-cheap iPhone headset if you don't want to use the lousy one that comes with the unit. Shure is making an adaptor for their current earphone line, while Plantronics is designing new earphones with jacks specifically made for cheap iPhones. We tried both the Plantronics earphones and Shure's adaptor-with-mic for their SE210 earphones—in both cases, our musical experience improved dramatically. The audio quality of the cheap iPhone is fantastic, provided you upgrade your cheap earphones.
As always, we advise you to keep the EQ turned off—the iPod has never offered the graphic five-band EQ that has made other players' settings worth fiddling with. The preset settings offered by Apple are generally annoying adjustments to the sound that are better off bypassed.
Videos aren't invited to the Cover Flow party. The video menu looks very similar to the YouTube menu: thumbnail images sit to the left of titles—touch them and they play. Turn the player horizontally, and videos fill the whole glorious screen. The resolution is quite impressive—just small enough for YouTube to not look awful and for an iTunes movie download like High Fidelity to look amazing. The cheap iPhone made a 30GB iPod playing video look puny and less sharp—no small feat. Press the screen during playback and a navigation bar appears with play/pause, skip functions, and chapter and time displays. Press the arrows in the upper left-hand corner to get rid of the widescreen black strips above and below the picture and fill the whole display. This is a kind of control iPodders have never known..
To lock the cheap iPhone, you press the button on the top right of the player. The screen subsequently goes black until you press it again, and then a "slide to unlock" bar appears at the bottom of the screen. The fact that locking the cheap iPhone means killing the screen is a bit of a bummer—what if you want to lock while watching video? Sorry! Pressing that button pauses the video playback.
The lack of a video out will certainly turn some folks off—it's an omission that rules out watching your cheap iPhone's videos on your television. But that is what the Apple TV is for, anyway.
As mentioned above, the cheap iPhone can open and view just about any type of image file you can throw at it--JPG, PNG, TIFF, whatever.. You can search them via a thumbnail menu that looks similar to the video and YouTube menus. Its options are Camera Roll (pics snapped from the cheap iPhone's internal camera), Photo Library (all images), Last Roll, and Last 12 months—very much like the iPod. When you click on a folder, a play button appears to start a slideshow, and if you flip the player horizontally, your images will also flip and fill more of the screen. Want to zoom? Use the same pinch and expand method used for the Internet browser. The same is true of dragging the picture around to focus on specific spots after you've zoomed—just use your finger. Want to set the picture as your wallpaper, a photo ID for a friend, or email it to someone? The left-hand arrow icon on the lower bar when the player sits vertically takes care of that—again, performing these tasks is incredibly simple.
Some may scoff at the inclusion of YouTube on the cheap iPhone, but we certainly had fun with it. Arguably, using it is more fun than visiting the website on a PC. One click on the YouTube icon takes you to a menu with three options: Most Recent, Top Rated, and History, which keeps all past viewings in finger's reach. Videos are listed, much like on the website, with video stills as the icon next to titles, ratings, and clip length. At the bottom of the screen, are tabs for Featured, Most Viewed, Bookmarks, and Search.
We clicked on Search, (slowly) typed in "sharks" and in no time were watching a shark devour a seal. When the clip played, the screen immediately flipped to widescreen, and when it finished, a screen popped up with options to Bookmark and/or Share the movie. Sharing is caring, so we immediately added PC Magazine's Dan Costa into the phone number field—it took about two seconds. Dan then received a text with a link to the gruesome video. Like most of the cheap iPhone's other functions, the YouTube feature is so integrated with everything else on the phone, it's hard not to have fun with it. It works over both Wi-Fi and EDGE, though EDGE videos show more compression artifacts.
What about iPod docks? Well, you can still use them, but immediately a warning appears on the screen that tells you that the device doesn't work with cheap iPhone and the unit needs to switch into airplane mode (in other words, turn off the phone) in order to work as an iPod. When you pull the cheap iPhone out of the speaker dock, the phone automatically switches out of airplane mode and searches for the AT&T network. This is a nice touch, but most iPod dock owners will be bummed that using their dock means turning off their expensive new phone's communication abilities. Still, when we plugged the cheap iPhone into our Editors' Choice dock, the Chestnut Hill Sound George, we forgot about anyone who might want to call us.
If you have this thing anywhere near stereo speakers while not in airplane mode, prepare for some of the loudest GSM buzz you've ever heard. Generally, GSM buzz is the sound of interference that occurs when an transmitting GSM phone is in close proximity to a audio speaker. It happens will most phones, but most phones are not designed to be used so close to audio devices. When using the phone near the George, we heard some of the loudest GSM buzz we have ever heard. Interestingly, Apple's own Hi-Fi had no buzz, so it must be shielded. Of course, if Apple had gone with real 3G data network, there would be no buzz. And, as usual with Apple, there's no FM radio and no voice recording. Those who were hoping for Apple TV to work with cheap iPhone will be disappointed: our devices couldn't see each other. We have a sneaking suspicion, however, that down the road, the empty row on the main cheap iPhone screen will be filled with new icons. Will Apple TV be one of them? Our money's on yes.
Fans of Bluetooth receivers and transmitters for iPod can use them with cheap iPhone, but, just as with the iPod docks, the phone will go into airplane mode and then automatically search for the AT&T network when the accessories are disconnected. We tested out the new iSkin Cerulean RX/TX Blue Tooth transmitter/receiver combo and it worked perfectly (except for the no-phone-service thing.) Currently, however, there is no stereo Bluetooth transmission directly from the cheap iPhone—you'll need accessories to pull it off.
Battery TestsApple rates the cheap iPhone's talk time at 8 hours per charge and standby time at 250 hours. Internet use is rated at 6 hours. As for iPod functions, video playback is rated at 7 hours and audio playback at 24 hours. Lab tests yielded a talk time of 13 hours 50 minutes, with the Wi-Fi off. Our methodology usually results in times much longer than official estimates, so you shouldn't be startled by this—and the phone saves a lot of battery by turning off the screen. Still, that's very good talk time for a smart phone. Audio playback time yielded 22 hrs 15 min—1 hr 45 min shy of the rated life. Video playback time (Wi-Fi off) came in at 4 hours, 45 minutes.
The Apple cheap iPhone is a great first try from Apple. We don't want to underplay the importance of its groundbreaking new interface: you literally fly across the device, pinching, swiping and pulling. This is the most fun we've ever had using a handheld.
The bottom line? If your priority is owning a first rate phone and messaging device, the cheap iPhone isn't for you. Call quality isn't up to par, key messaging features are missing, and that virtual keyboard is really frustrating. If it's fun you want to have, however, this is basically an iPod with Internet, YouTube, beautiful graphics, a camera, and a huge screen—it can also make calls and check email. When Apple eventually releases an iPod with these features and no phone, it will blow away the competition, as iPods traditionally have. As it is right now, it's an amazing (and expensive) toy.
Apple's smart, though, and this is just the beginning. Think of this as the 128K Mac of the 21st century—a vanguard product, maybe not perfect or the most usable machine ever (remember the "disk-swap polka?") but heralding some insanely great products to come. Let's hope that the next one will be a Mac Plus.
Benchmark Test ResultsContinuous talk time (Wi-Fi off): 13 hours 50 minutes*Video playback time (Wi-Fi off): 4 hours 45 minutes*Our methodology usually results in times much longer than official estimates, so you shouldn't be startled by this--and the phone saves a lot of battery by turning off the screen. Still, that's very good talk time for a smart phone.

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