Please note: This review is of the original iPhone classic. See also iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS for more information on those models.
iPhone review from someone who really, honestly tried to like it and was disappointed.
I really wanted to like the iPhone. And for what it was intended to be, the iPhone is a marvelous piece of technology. The multi-touch user interface is superb, easy and intuitive in all respects. The high-resolution screen is beautiful and renders even small text sharp and readable. And the much-hyped Safari web browser is virtually indistinguishable from one on a desktop computer.
But for all the iPhone's successes, it fails to provide a comprehensive software library that would make it a truly useful personal digital assistant. True, the device was only recently released, but Apple failed to provide a number of utilities that I need, and furthermore they (officially) refuse to allow 3rd party developers to write their own applications. Not that this stops the truly dedicated hackers, but it at the very least pushed back the development of the software library that would take advantage of the revolutionary hardware to make the iPhone the best smartphone currently on the market.
What the iPhone does right
Despite what critics say, the iPhone really is "internet in your pocket." Wi-fi compatible when it's available and utilizing the EDGE network when it isn't, the iPhone is the first PDA I would consider to be a truly useful mobile internet device for more than just e-mail. It's clearly the iPhone's primary function, as most of its built-in applications are either related to the phone or the internet (YouTube, Stocks, Maps, Weather, Mail, and Safari).
Safari demands a more intimate look, as it's clearly the killer app of the iPhone. Web pages render exactly the same on the iPhone as they would on any Apple desktop computer running Safari, with the exception of Macromedia Flash and Java support. While the screen is considerably smaller than your desktop's, the high resolution and incredible text rendering make everything clear and readable when in landscape orientation, or with a slight zoom in portrait. Besides the pinch zoom, double-tapping a text column or picture will zoom in on that content, making it easy to optimize the content for the size of the screen. Clearly, the iPhone's web browser is in a class of its own compared to other smartphones, to the point where comparisons can only be made to desktop machines.
Oh yeah, the iPhone has a phone in it too. That's almost easy to forget when the main push is for the internet functionality. As with nearly any smartphone, the call quality and signal reception isn't as good as you can get with top-end dedicated phones, but it's perfectly acceptable. Faint praise, perhaps, but smartphones have never won high marks for the actual phone.
As for the PDA applications, Calendar works fine, syncing with Apple's iCal, and incorporates all the standard PDA calendar features. As an added bonus, the icon for Calendar in the iPhone's menu displays the current day of the month. The contacts are another home run though, seamlessly integrating not only with the phone and SMS programs but also with Maps. Tapping on any address will bring up the Maps program on that location, and the contacts list is available as shortcuts from within the Maps application.
The iPod application does not disappoint either, but Apple has had plenty of practice in this area. The iPhone's built-in speaker is one of the best I've tried on a mobile device, but for real sound quality you need to use external speakers or the headphones. The recently-announced iPod Touch is basically an iPhone without the phone, a lower cost, and more storage capacity. One notable disadvantage to the touchscreen interface, however, is that with no tactile feedback, you cannot play, pause, or skip tracks without actually looking at the screen to see where the buttons are (although the headphones that come with the iPhone have a button that can do these things).
The user interface is of course the main draw for the iPhone, and it is beautiful. The 320x480 pixel touchscreen covers nearly the entire front of the phone, leaving barely enough room for the "home" button and the phone's speaker. Portrait to landscape orientation is operational in many applications, but not all of them, and the keyboard is easy to get the hang of (combined with the surprisingly good auto-correct feature to correct typos, it's better than mini-keyboards on other PDAs). The interface makes it easy to click, drag, zoom, and select without trouble.
What the iPhone does wrong
The iPhone's major problem is the lack of applications. After using a Palm Treo for several years, I've come to rely on the army of professional and amateur 3rd party developers who have come up with an impressive and useful software library. Right now, the iPhone completely lacks a scientific calculator (the built-in calculator doesn't even do square roots!), a dictionary, a unit converter, any games whatsoever, and several other useful little programs that I have installed on my Treo. Furthermore, the Memo application lacks the ability to categorize the memos, keeping them all in one enormous list. This is a must for me, as I have nearly 100 memos on my Treo.
Doubtless Apple is counting on the iPhone's internet capability to fill in many of the software gaps. Google's calculator is better than most handheld models, and dictionary.com provides access to every word in the English language, but I shouldn't have to connect to the internet for these things. Even over wi-fi, this only slows down a simple process that should be available on the device itself. Maybe some day enough developers will be available to fill in the gaps Apple has left, but that day is not here yet, and I need my electronic Swiss Army knife.
The user interface, as wonderful as it is, has two glaring omissions. First, the iPhone completely lacks a copy-paste function. I don't understand this at all. Second, while much has been made of the iPhone's usefulness without a stylus, the touchscreen cannot be used with a stylus even if you want to, it simply doesn't react to the plastic tip (or your fingernail). This seriously limits the precision with which you can tap the screen with a comparatively gigantic human finger. When editing text, you can position the cursor with a magnified view that automatically pops up, but without zoom or magnification, on-screen buttons are only useful if they are rather large. Fortunately Safari has work-arounds for clicking hyperlinks.
Apple's obsession with the iPhone's slim, sleek design seems to have come at the price of battery life. When new, at least, it'll last a full day of use, but you'll want to turn off the wi-fi feature when you're not using it (the small Weather, Mail, and Stocks programs will update just fine in the background over the EDGE network) to save the battery. Expect to recharge the iPhone every night. Rechargeable batteries lose capacity with time, and the iPhone is too new to tell when the battery will have to be replaced, but like the iPod's notorious battery, the iPhone's is not user-replaceable and will need to be returned to Apple for servicing when the time comes.
Finally, I'm sure everyone knows by now that there are certain situations in which you should turn off your mobile phone's ringer and put it into silent vibrate mode. While the iPhone has a convenient switch on the side to put it in silent mode, I'm afraid it's a little too silent. The vibrate feature just isn't strong enough, even in my front pocket, and if I'm not paying attention I can easily miss it. Your mileage may vary, but this is a problem for me.
The bottom line
The iPhone is primarily a mobile internet device. While it is without a doubt the best mobile internet device on the market, that's all it really is, at least for now. If this meets your needs, then this is most definitely the phone for you.
However as far as portable e-mail is concerned, the Blackberry doesn't have anything to fear. The 800 pound gorilla of the mobile e-mail market, the Blackberry's killer app is its unique push e-mail system for corporate e-mail, which managers, salesmen, and anyone else who sends and receives over 100 e-mails a day have come to rely on. The iPhone can only check corporate e-mail at the push of a button, a relatively primitive inconvenience, only currently supporting push e-mail from a free (but less professional-looking) Yahoo e-mail account.
For my needs, the Palm Treo is still the best choice. Thanks to its army of developers, the Treo has a massive and highly useful software library to choose from, making it my electronic Swiss Army knife. I can honestly wait until I get back to my desk to check my e-mail or browse the internet, but as an engineer in the field, I find a portable scientific calculator and organized memo pad indispensable.
Although I've come to this decision reluctantly, the iPhone just doesn't meet my current needs. It's breaking my heart, because the hardware and user interface really are everything Apple promised they would be, but the tiny software library was a deal-breaker for me. I'll be returning my iPhone to the store later this week, paying a $40 restocking fee, which I will consider a fair price to rent this beautiful device for a week. Maybe some day in the near future Apple will open development to 3rd party programmers or expand their offerings themselves, and when they do, I'll be waiting to pick it back up and give it another chance.