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First Look at iPhone

This post first appeared on CBSNews.com

by Larry Magid

With the exception of four anointed reviewers from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Newsweek, as far as I know no journalists were able to get their hands on the Apple iPhone until the day it was released to the public, Friday at 6:00 PM local time. I got my loaner phone at exactly 6:00 PM west coast time about two seconds after the doors were open at the Apple store in Palo Alto, California.

That didn’t give me any time to test it prior to my first TV shot at 6:02 and I had precious little time with the device for my subsequent radio and TV segments that aired at live at 6:20 and 6:30. But as I write this column, it’s already 11:00pm on Friday night and I’ve had the iPhone for five hours. That’s hardly enough time to do a full fledged review but certainly enough to report on my “out-of-box experience” and share my first impressions of this innovative device.

My overall thought is that the iPhone’s software represents a truly remarkable accomplishment. Sure, the device’s ultra thin case and large 3.5 inch display are nice touches, but what really stands out is the user interface that can best be described as inspired. Regardless of how well this device ultimately does, it will always be remembered as the phone that broke the mold from which all others were fabricated.

The big difference – like it or not – is the touch screen and the lack of a physical keyboard. While my very first experiences with the touch screen were frustrating and – five hours later – I still find myself making some mistakes, I can certainly understand the advantage to being able to dynamically re-define the keyboard depending on the task at hand. I can also understand why the Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg, who had two weeks to use the machine before writing a review, found that after five days of use, he “was able to type on it as quickly and accurately as he could on the Palm Treo he has used for years.”

I haven’t had five days of practice yet but I have already discovered the device’s ability to correct mistakes as you type. Of course Walt’s comparison between the iPhone and the Palm isn’t setting a very high bar. I’ve never been thrilled with the keyboards on any of the handheld phones from Palm, Blackberry or any other vendor. Let’s face it; unless you have extremely thin fingers, you need a decent sized keyboard to be able to type accurately. Even after five hours, I’m finding myself making about the same number of mistakes on the iPhone as I typically make on Blackberries or other smart phones I’ve tested.

Over time, with any device, you tend to get better which is why I think – in the long run – most people will find the touch screen acceptable, though I’m sure there will be some who’ll never get used to doing without the tactile feedback of a physical keyboard. Before I can be sure, I need at least a few more days with the iPhone.

I do miss the telephone keypad that you get with regular cell phones. True, when you press the iPhone’s green phone icon, the iPhone’s touch screen turns into the visual representation of a full sized phone keypad, but there’s no way that the smooth glass surface can give you the feel of a real keypad. Of course, I’m not all that thrilled with dialing phone numbers from a Blackberry, Treo or Windows Smart phone either. I still prefer the regular keypad that you get with ordinary cell phones.

When it comes to browsing the web, I give the iPhone a mixed review. The good news is that the phone’s version of Apple’s Safari browser is by far the best browser I’ve ever used on a hand held device. While surfing the web on a 3.5 inch screen remains far less satisfying than using a full sized desktop or laptop PC, Apple has found a way to mitigate the limitation of screen real estate letting you use your fingers to shrink or expand web pages by pinching (to shrink) or spreading a thumb and finger on the screen to expand text by tapping on it twice.

You can look at a full web page – albeit with microscopic text and graphics — and then quickly expand it so you can actually read the text on that portion of the page. Using your finger to push the page one way or another lets you easily scroll in any direction. It’s not perfect, but it’s by far the best tiny screen interface I’ve seen.
The bad part about web browsing is the sometimes agonizingly slow AT&T Edge network that the phone forces you to use unless you happen to have wireless WiFi access. AT&T has two cell phone data networks: The slow Edge network and a much faster 3G network. When I tested the phone out in front of the Apple store, it sometimes took minutes for pages to load. At one point I had a web page loading race with a friend of who was using a Blackberry on AT&T’s 3G network. A page that took him 20 seconds to load took more than a minute on the iPhone.

To be fair, that hasn’t been my experience 100% of the time. There were a few times during my few hours of testing where I have been able to get reasonable web performance. The problem could be network congestion. I’ll need to spend more time with the iPhone before reaching any final conclusions but my initial impressions of browsing on the cellular network are less than positive. Fortunately, the phone also works with WiFi networks and now that I’m at home wirelessly connected to my fast cable modem, pages are loading at truly broadband speed.

I give the phone high marks when it comes to email. Although you can use it with virtually any POP3 or IMAP email account (which means it should work with most corporate email systems that don’t have iron-clad firewall requirements), the iPhone works out of the box with Yahoo Mail, Gmail, AOL and Apple’s own .mac mail service. With each of these services you simply enter your user name and password once and let the iPhone’s software handle the rest. It took me under 2 minutes to start getting and responding to my Gmail.

Getting around the phone is easy. While there are very few physical keys on the phone, I quickly found the Home button which takes you back to the home screen where you can access any of the phone’s features.

Activating the iPhone was easier than expected. First, you have to download the latest version of iTunes (7.3) and then you simply plug the iPhone into the USB port of your PC or Mac. I activated and synced it with a Windows Vista laptop. You have to select a service plan and give it some basic account information including your social security number but the process took me about 10 minutes, plus another two minutes of waiting for the AT&T server to validate my account. Once it was done, it presented me with my new phone number and the phone just worked. Frankly, it was faster than waiting for a sales clerk at a cellular store. Having said that, I’ve already seen some blog postings from people who have not been able to activate their phones, so what went smoothly for me was apparently troublesome for others.

Steve Jobs has called the iPhone the best iPod ever and there is no reason to doubt that. Like all iPods, you can sync music, video and photos from your PC or Mac and display album art. I put a few albums on the phone but haven’t had time to fully explore the iPod features.

I was able to sync the iPod with Microsoft Outlook, which is great – I now have contact information for more than 1,500 people stored on the phone with easy access to email addresses directly from the mail program. You can also sync the iPhone Outlook Express on Windows and Address Book and Entourage on a Mac.

It’s too early in the review process to give this phone a definitive thumbs up or down but I think it’s fair to say that for those who have plenty of extra cash and the desire to live on the bleeding edge of technology, owning an iPhone will truly be an interesting experience. For everyone else – my preliminary thought is that it’s probably best to wait awhile.

Even though there were plenty of people lined up to pay $499 or $599 to be among the first to own an iPhone, it remains a very expensive gadget that you’ve managed to live without so far. It’s very cool, it’s fun and it’s oh so very chic. But as innovative as it is, my practical nature tells me that it’s not worth skimping on groceries or dipping into your kids’ college fund.

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