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What the iPhone commercials tell us

Besides the June 29 release date, the iPhone commercials tell us more about the most highly anticipated cell phone of the year.

Apple iPhone watchers breathed a collective sigh of relief yesterday when TV commercials shown during 60 Minutes revealed the June 29 release date at long last. From our perspective we don't know what's better--finally putting an end to five months of rumors or actually getting more information about a cell phone that has sent people into hysterics (yes, I'm including Crave in that group).

iPhone in size Apple

Though the commercials didn't tell us much more than what we already know, they do let us get a look at the device in action. Here's what we saw.

Let you fingers do the walking: Though we've known since January that the iPhone will shun almost all buttons as we know them, it's clear from the commercials that you'll use the touch screen for everything--even for turning it on. Instead of pressing a power button, the now-famous hand that demonstrates the handset swiped its finger across the display to unlock it. On the other hand, we're unclear if locking the iPhone again then turns off the phone and data connectivity. Yes, iPods have always lacked a dedicated power button but this will be a new thing for anyone who doesn't use a Treo. Also, it looks like the Talk and End buttons only show up when you place or receive a call.

Admittedly, the touch interface looks quite lovely. We especially like the fluid onscreen motion when scrolling through your album art and photos. On the other hand we're still a bit skeptical of the virtual keyboard. On its site, Apple promises that "the keyboard is predictive, so it prevents and corrects mistakes, making it easier and more efficient to use than the small plastic keyboards on many smart phones." Yet the commercial shows the user typing with one finger while holding the iPhone in his other hand. That's hardly an efficient way to bang out text messages or e-mails, particularly if you have no tactile feedback. To be fair, we might feel differently once we try it ourselves, but until then we don't buy the theory that the iPhone signals the end of cell phone buttons.

Scroll through your music Apple

We'll also be interested to see whether the display can handle lots of wear and tear while not attracting fingerprints and smudges. Though the Boy Genius Report claims the screen will be "surprisingly resistant to smudges and blemishes," will that still be true if you text while eating French fries? We'll see.

Flip it: We also like that, thanks to the handset's accelerometer, the display will adjust the display's orientation automatically when you flip the iPhone on its side. At the moment most cell phones require you to press a button to make such a switch, so the iPhone does save us a step. The switch seems pretty quick as well.

Easy Internet: As expected, the Safari browser will display full HTML pages in all their glory. It's no secret that Web pages viewed on a WAP browser aren't fun, and though the iPhone won't be the first cell phone to support full HTML, it does offer the ability to zoom in and scroll around with a finger swipe. The search and mapping functions also looked cool and especially user-friendly. On the commercial, the user searched for "seafood" in San Francisco and got a map of the city with fishy restaurants shown by location. When selecting a specific restaurant he got the restaurant's phone number, Web site, street address, and directions. Touching the phone number was then all he needed to call for a reservation. And speaking of searching, the iPhone will support both Yahoo and Google.

Or surf the Web Apple

Beyond the commercials, Apple's Web site offers several how-to demonstrations for important functions. Among them are the following.

Making calls: After placing a call, you'll have a static onscreen menu for a variety of commands, including mute, hold, speaker (nice!), phone book access, keypad, and add call. The latter allows you to activate conference calling simply, though it's not that much easier than on many other cell phones.

Voice mail: Much has been made over the iPhone's visual voice mail that will allow you to choose from a list and go directly to the voice mail you want to hear. It all looks quite nifty, and considering it's the first such feature, it should be one aspect of the iPhone that will be worth its hype.

Texting: Like many smart phones, the iPhone will display text conversations in their entirety rather than displaying messages individually. We're not sure if it will support instant messaging (darn) but you'll get e-mail.

Wireless and mapping Apple

Photos: As I said above, the photo-scrolling visuals promise to be very pretty. Using your finger you'll also be able zoom photos (using the pinching method that Steve Jobs demonstrated onstage at MacWorld) and move around the images once you've zoomed in. With each photo, you'll also be given the option to use it as wallpaper, send it to a friend, or assign to a contact for caller ID. That latter is nothing really new but it it's worth mentioning just the same.

Music: Music will be displayed similarly to how you see it on an iPod. You'll be able to find songs by title and by artist and then when in an artist menu, you'll be able to search by album as well. It appears that when held vertically the iPhone will display albums in a simple mode, but when you turn it sideways it will use the attractive album flipping that I previously mentioned. You'll also get a shuffle mode and you'll be able to display songs by recently added, recently played, the top-rated, and the 25 most-played tracks. On the other hand, you still won't be able to download music over the air and you won't get an FM radio. Pardon me, but that's just poor planning. The commercial simulated music quality but we'll hold our opinion until we get it in our hands.

Volume controls and Play/Pause buttons will be on the screen, and you'll also use your finger to scroll through lists. From what we can tell, though, you'll have to do a lot of finger swipes to get through a long list. It doesn't seem like you'll be able to swipe and pause to keep moving through the list until you lift your finger.

More on mapping: Thankfully, Google Maps are integrated as part of the iPhone. That's a huge step above many cell phones that treat Google Maps like a troublesome third-party application. What's more, you'll also get the satellite view of an area. For map geeks like me, that might be the phone's coolest feature of them all.

A sensor rotates the screen automatically Apple

Still other things we know, some of which you've heard already:

A proximity sensor will turn off the display automatically when you lift the iPhone to your ear for a conversation. We don't see that in other handsets.

An ambient light sensor will adjust the display's brightness for various lighting situations. That's still rare in cell phones but the iPhone won't be the only one to offer it.

OS X will bring things like HTML e-mail and applications a variety of widgets for the weather and stocks.

Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.0 and EDGE round out the connectivity options. Again we'll say they lack of 3G is a big disappointment.

Its dimensions are 4.5 inches long by 2.4 inches wide by 0.46 inch thick, with a weight of 4.8 ounces. Thin phone lovers take note.

The battery life is five hours for talking, videos, and Web browsing, and up to 16 hours for music playback. That's about average for a GSM phone if the ratings hold up in lab tests.

The camera is 2.0 megapixels. We'll have to see about photo quality though.

The screen resolution is 320x480 pixels at 160 pixels per inch and it measures 3.5 inches diagonally.

Storage is either 4GB or 8GB.

AT&T will require a new two-year contract for all iPhone buyers (even old long-time customers off their contract). That's a big ouch, particularly at that sky-high price.

Finally, is saying that the iPhone will interact with your Mac, iPhoto, and iTunes but it will not appear as a removable drive on your desktop. Also, the battery won't be user-replaceable (unique among cell phones) and though the MacWorld announcement said the iPhone will have an external SIM card slot, this may not be true anymore (also unique among cell phones). Of course that means you won't be able to exchange the SIM card easily, but since the phone will be locked to AT&T that won't be much of an issue anyway. We'll verify the above once we get a unit in our hand but the battery issue is not good if it's true.

So that's about it. Though we're still three and a half weeks from the June 29 release date, we have to admit that it looks promising so far. But will it be worth $499 or $599? That's a question we can't answer just yet. Yes, it's pretty but we have some big usability reservations at the moment. And remember, any cell phone is only as good as the calls it makes.

And now that we know the release date and know a lot more about the iPhone, what can we possibly obsess about until we get our review model? Fortunately, this reader has an idea.