Apple’s iPhone

Apple didn't invent the idea of a cool phone, as anyone who's ever owned a Blackberry, Treo or first-generation MotoRAZR can attest. But Steve Jobs' latest innovation iPhone goes far beyond cool, so easily combining phone/email/web surfing/media player capabilities that it comes very close to being an essential accessory for the modern age.

Apple didn’t invent the idea of a cool phone, as anyone who’s ever owned a Blackberry, Treo or first-generation MotoRAZR can attest. But Steve Jobs’ iPhone goes far beyond cool, so easily combining phone/email/web surfing/media player capabilities that it comes very close to being an essential accessory . Sure, the pre-launch hype was ridiculous, but two months later and despite a couple of annoying version 1.0 flaws the iPhone reveals itself to be nearly worthy of all the praise that’s been showered upon it. No wonder Apple is now rolling out a new iPod Touch with a design nearly identical to that of the iPhone.

By now, anyone who cares about such things knows just what the iPhone can do. It makes calls, sends emails, surfs the web, takes photos and plays songs and videos. And it does it all in a breathtakingly elegant package that replaces confusing buttons and menus with an intuitive touch-based operating system.

The simplicity is what makes the iPhone such a wonder. Indeed, the iPhone is to most cell phones what a Mac is to a Windows-based PC — a phone for the rest of us, to put a spin on the original Mac pitch.

As fate would have it, my mother bought a new phone from AT&T the same week my iPhone review unit arrived. She hadn’t upgraded in about six years, which meant she had a lot of new technological bells and whistles to try and get used to.

“Try” is the operative word here. I consider myself a bit of a tech geek, but it took the two of us a good week to figure out a simple way to take a picture with her new device. Entering numbers into speed dial proved just as tough. I was afraid of what might happen if we tried to get on the Web.

By contrast, my Mom had no trouble taking a quick snapshot of me on the iPhone. A camera icon pops up every time you turn on the machine. Press one button and you’re in camera mode; press another, and you’ve got a pic. It’s a snap to upload the pics via iPhoto, and the print quality was great.

Likewise, the iPhone synchronizes nicely with your computer’s list of contacts, while entering contacts manually is an easy task. What’s more, the list of contacts is easy to access and nicely displayed.

Surfing the Net is equally effortless, and actually enjoyable — particularly compared to the Web-surfing experience on a standard cellphone. The touchscreen really pays off here, making it easy to navigate through an entire page of Web copy with just two fingers.

On the downside, the AT&T Edge network the iPhone uses kind of crawls, but it’s not nearly as slow as some reviewers have made out. Web pages fly when using a WiFi connection.

Making calls on the iPhone sometimes requires an extra tap or two on the screen than seems logical. Voice dialing is missing, but most folks don’t use that service on their regular cellphones anyway. By contrast, voicemail –which you access like email on the iPhone — is so much more convenient than the “press three to delete” interface standard on most phones.

Whether using Edge or WiFi, Web video is a treat on the iPhone, particularly those clips found on YouTube. The iPhone has a dedicated YouTube “button” on its homepage menu, which means killing time via the viral video service is a snap.

That brings us to the display quality of iPhone video. The machine’s 3.5-inch screen feels much bigger than it is, thanks to a brightness and clarity that surpasses most non-HD television sets.

The screen is why Hollywood has reason to root for the iPhone to succeed. While ringtones and text messaging have become huge markets within the cell phone industry, consumers haven’t been so quick to embrace mobile video. Assuming Apple can make peace with NBC U and a couple of other media giants it’s annoyed lately, the iPhone should become a major driver of download sales as consumers realize that watching TV on a cellphone doesn’t have to be a miserable experience.

(Of course, some people will simply pick up a fullscreen iPod Touch, which Apple unveiled Sept.5. It offers the same video experience, plus WiFi, without any monthly phone fees).

Then there’s the iPod portion of the iPhone. Apple execs have called the iPhone the best iPod the company’s ever made, and that’s true — to a point.

The display, which allows you to flip through all your music as if you were hovering over an album rack, makes finding music very easy. It’s also a snap to type in an artist name or song title via the iPhone magical keyboard.

Unfortunately, it’s a bit more difficult to call up playlists on the iPhone, and — sorry to sound so 2003 — I kinda miss the scroll wheel. Brushing your finger up and down a screen doesn’t offer the same tactile response as a wheel.

Likewise, it takes some getting used to the fact that the iPod doesn’t have a real keyboard. But after eight weeks of regular usage, the fingers (and the mind) adapt, making typing on the iPhone painless. A predictive typing program, while not perfect, can actually speed up the process by anticipating what you plan to type before you actually type it.

While living without a physical keyboard proved easier than expected, people who send out more than 75 to 100 emails a day (read: any agent or studio exec) might want to consider holding on to their BlackBerry.

Latter device is engineered for business and is a more logical solution for corporate settings, particularly since many companies are leery of making the needed e-mail protocol changes necessary to make the iPhone work with their systems. And while using the iPhone’s touch-screen keyboard is easy, a Blackberry is even easier.

If you can handle the dual phone bills, there’s a good argument to buy both devices –much as many corporate slaves tolerate a Windows machine in the office but use a Mac at home.

There are some aspects of the iPhone that warrant complaint.

It makes no sense that the virtual keyboard that pops up when typing an email is so narrow, especially when the machine uses a bigger keyboard when typing in Web addresses.

Music played through the iPhone’s speaker is tinny but surprisingly listenable. Not so the speakerphone used for voice calls, which was consistently muffled.

It’s also weird that you can’t instant message on the iPhone, especially since Apple’s iChat program — used for text messaging — is so well suited for the phone.

These flaws are quibbles, however. And, just as the current iPod doesn’t look anything like the original, there’s little doubt the iPhone will radically evolve over the next five years, with most of the early drawbacks (including using AT&T as an exclusive carrier) fixed.

For now, version 1.0 of the iPhone is about as perfect a first draft as anyone could’ve imagined.

Apple's iPhone

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