From an iPod perspective, Apple's biggest triumph with the iPhone is the fact that it has returned album artwork back into the music experience in a way that goes beyond a token thumbnail graphic. Physically flipping through your music collection in the iPhone's Cover Flow mode really brings back the visceral feel of digging through a CD or record bin. It's a tough feeling to quantify, but the real music lovers out there will appreciate how well the iPhone reconnects their digital music to a form that is both visually and physically more vivid. Even iTunes users who may already be jaded about using the Cover Flow mode on their personal computer will be surprised at how the experience is changed by using the iPhone's intuitive touch screen.
Truth be told, there is one feature that is new to the iPhone's iPod--the integrated speaker. While the iPhone's speaker sounds thin and is prone to distortion, it works in a pinch for sharing a song with a friend. Apple was also smart enough to manage its speaker volume independent of the headphone volume, so if you're listening to the speaker full-blast and then decide to plug in your headphones, you won't be deafened.
The bad news is that the iPhone's iPod leaves out the ability to manually manage the transfer of music and video content. Unlike any previous iPod, the iPhone does not allow an option for manually dragging and dropping content from an iTunes library directly to the iPhone device icon. Instead, the iPhone strictly uses defined library syncing options for collecting and syncing content from your iTunes library to the device. This should work out fine for most people, but for a device with limited memory the inability to manually manage content seems like a misstep. Our 8GB iPhone was already a quarter full after only a few hours of testing, giving us the impression that users will need to be vigilant at grooming their iPhone library. An external memory card slot is another one of those "nice to have" features.
The iPhone's music sound quality seems right in line with our experience using the 5G iPod. All the same EQ presets are available, only now they are found on the iPhone's main Settings tab. The included iPhone earbuds did a passable job for casual listening in a quiet environment. Unfortunately, the iPhone's recessed headphone jack prevented us from using many of the test headphones we're familiar with. We were just barely able to squeeze the plug of our Etymotic ER6i earphones into the jack to do the comparison.
Watching video on the iPhone is not quite as luxurious as a Creative Zen Vision: W or Archos 504, but its wide screen and bright contrast beat the fifth-generation iPod by a mile. As with previous iPods, video playback is automatically bookmarked so that playback resumes where you left off. And because the iPhone is a phone, it includes an airplane mode that will keep the music player activated while turning off the call transmitter. Thanks to the January 2008 update, you can also browse movies by chapter as well as view subtitles. Other changes include the lyric overlays on music tracks, support for the new iTunes movie rentals, and the ability to redeem iPhone gift cards from the device using the wireless iTunes store.
The Safari browser really sets the iPhone apart from the cell phone crowd. Rather than trudging through stripped-down WAP pages with limited text and graphics, the browser displays Web pages in their true form. It's a completely and surprisingly satisfying experience to see real Web pages on a screen of this size. Our only regret is that the browser does not support Flash or Java. To pan around a page, just swipe your finger across the display, and the page moves accordingly. Tap your finger on a link to open a new page and double-tap your finger to zoom in and zoom back out. You can use the arrows on the bottom of the display to move back and forth, while a multifunction button at the bottom of the display lets you open new pages and flick among them.
Google search is the iPhone's default search tool, but you can use Yahoo search as well. When searching for information or typing URLs, you use the onscreen keyboard. It's just like typing an e-mail except that the spacebar is replaced with Web-appropriate language like ".com" and a slash. That's a nice touch.
The January 2008 update brought the ability to add bookmarks to the home screen in the form of icons. The process is easy enough--when viewing your favorite site, just tap the bookmark icon and you'll find an "add to home screen" option. You can add multiple icons (thanks to the new second menu page), move them around, and delete then. It's useful as it will save you a few clicks later.
Thanks to the accelerometer, you can tip the phone on its side for a more comfortable landscape view. It doesn't matter which direction you rotate the phone, as it will work either way. It's also nice that the onscreen keyboard appears in landscape mode when using the browser. Most Web pages looked great on the screen, but visually busy pages like CNN.com can be too crowded. And because you can zoom in only a set amount, some text can still be too small to read clearly. You can store bookmarks and sync your favorite pages from your PC, but it works only for Internet Explorer and not Firefox.
You can activate the iPhone's integrated YouTube player straight from the main menu via a colored icon. Videos are organized using many of the same criteria as on the YouTube site, including Featured Clips, Most Viewed, Top Rated, and Most Recent. You can read the information attached to a video, such as the date posted and the poster's name, but you can't read comments. It doesn't appear, however, that the YouTube connection updates in real time. We uploaded a video of our own, and it didn't show up until a few hours later.
The iPhone has a widget for accessing Google Maps. You can see the satellite view--nice--and get turn-by-turn directions between two points, with traffic information. We tried mapping routes from CNET's offices to various places and received accurate directions. As the iPhone lacks standard GPS, it couldn't provide location information for the first six months of its life. But with the January 2008 update, it gained the ability to tell you approximately where you are. When you tap the new icon in the lower-left corner of the touch screen, a circle will show where you should be on the map. But rather than connecting to a satellite, it finds you by connecting to nearby Wi-Fi hotspots and cellular towers and pinpointing their location (sort of a backdoor locater). You then can find directions using your pinpointed location.
When I gave it a go, the location service was off by several blocks on my first attempt. Though even standard GPS systems aren't perfect, the margin of error was still too big. Also, the area that the circle covered was much too expansive (when I tried to zoom in, the circle disappeared). Fortunately, the second time I tried the location service it was much more accurate. Also, I like that the circle covered a smaller area. Yet it's worth noting that the functionality won't work when you're away from wireless civilization, which typically is a time when location services come in really handy. Also, the lack of audio instructions will limit its usability while driving.
The next mapping feature is pretty cool. By pressing the new icon on the lower-right corner of the touch screen, you can drop a pin wherever you like on the map. You can move the pin around, save it as a bookmark, and use it as a location for determining directions. The map interacts well with the calling functions; you can find a point of interest and ring it in just a few taps.
Additional widgets point to stock information and weather reports. You can program your own tickers and get information like a share gain or loss and see the chart of a share price over time. The weather function gives you a six-day forecast for your choice of cities. For more options, there is already a selection of third-party iPhone apps. No games are included on the handset
Visual voice mail
One of the most intriguing features on the iPhone is the much-touted visual voice mail. iPhone's voice mail works much like a text-message folder in that it displays the caller's name or phone number and the time. What's even more fantastic, however, is that you can listen to the message instantly by pressing the individual message--you don't have to call your voice mail first.
The iPhone's 2-megapixel camera offers a spiffy interface with a graphic that resembles a camera shutter. You're offered no camera editing options, which we didn't expect. That means you can't change the resolution, choose a color or quality setting, or select a night mode. There's no flash either, and with no self-portrait mirror, those vanity shots are going to be tricky. The camera performed well in our tests, however. Photo quality was excellent with rich, bright colors and distinct object outlines. White looked a bit too soft, but we approve overall. On the downside, you can't shoot your own video, which is disappointing on a phone at this price.
As we said earlier, the photo menu is attractive and easy to use, particularly due to the pinching motion. You can also flip between photos by swiping your finger across the display. When selecting a photo, you're given the option of assigning it to a contact, using it as wallpaper, or e-mailing it to a friend.
We tested the quadband (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) Apple iPhone in San Francisco using AT&T service. Call quality was good for the most part, but it wasn't dependable. Though voices sounded natural, the volume was often too low, and the microphone has a sensitive sweet spot. When we moved the phone away from our ears ever so slightly, the volume diminished noticeably and we had to move the phone back to just the right place to hear clearly. The volume wasn't so bad that we weren't able to hear a friend who was in a crowded bar, but it just could be better. The speakerphone was also too quiet though conversations weren't too muffled.
CNET users have also reported volume problems, and a few people we called said they heard a slight background hiss. We didn't hear the hiss on our end, but more than one of our friends said they noticed it. Automated calling systems were able to understand us, but only if we were in a quiet room. On the whole, the call quality stayed the same in most environments.
Our first test with the Safari browser was over CNET's internal Wi-Fi network. Web pages loaded in 5 to 10 seconds, though sites with heavy graphics took longer. It was a smooth experience overall, though it not quite as zippy as we had hoped. We thought that could be due to CNET's network, but it seemed to be more or less the standard. Pages took about the same time to load on a home network and just a couple seconds longer in a cafe. When not using Wi-Fi, you're stuck with AT&T's EDGE network, which is just too slow to render the lovely Safari interface enjoyably. With speeds in the 50-to-90Kbps range, it reminded us of a dial-up browser. In other words, it's pretty intolerable. CNET Labs tested the speed of the EDGE network against the Wi-Fi connection by comparing repeated results of the download time for a 9.4MB file. After two days of testing, EDGE resulted in an average download time of 15 minutes, 41 seconds for the file; Wi-Fi on average required a mere 1 minute, 11 seconds. In the end, our test results indicate that the iPhone's Wi-Fi connection is 13 times faster than using EDGE, although results will vary depending on location. We can only hope Apple adds 3G soon, especially since AT&T has a robust UMTS/HSDPA network.
We tried purchasing music through the wireless iTunes store, which was announced in September 2007 (originally we knocked the iPhone for not allowing wireless downloads). You'll need Wi-Fi to use it (sorry, EDGE isn't sufficient), but on the whole it was a satisfying experience. You can view featured songs and the top 10 tracks by genre. If you have specific music in mind, you also can search by song name. We found our track quickly, and we liked that results surface as you're typing. Once we selected our chosen song, it downloaded in less than a minute, and it appeared directly in our iTunes folder.