Unless you've cut yourself off from all media access this year, you know that on Friday, June 29 Apple will release its iPhone with AT&T. Ever since the device's unveiling last January, the tech world has been running in circles asking what the iPhone will be like, what it will do, and how it will do it. But because Apple hasn't been the leakiest of faucets when it comes to specs, the hype has resulted in a lot of speculation instead. Of course, that will all change in several days, as you can be sure everyone lucky enough to get an iPhone in their hands--including us--will flood the Web with opinions.
So while we can't tell you just yet whether the iPhone will live up to the hype, and more importantly, whether it will be a good phone, we can tell you what features the iPhone will offer and whether those features are the first of their kind. A lot of readers have questioned us as to whether the iPhone's features really are revolutionary, so we offer the following comparisons. While a few of its offerings are new to the cell phone world, the appeal of the iPhone lies more in its promise to do things differently, and perhaps better. Once we get our review model, we'll be able give you a thorough assessment. We note that you might know a lot of this already, so if that's the case, we invite you to read about a melodramatic chipmunk instead.
The touch screen
A lot has been made of the iPhone's touch screen and its lack of buttons. Yet the iPhone is not the first cell phone to rely so heavily on a touch screen. The LG Prada, the Motorola Ming, the HTC Touch, and the Samsung SGH-i718 all feature prominent touch screens, with this last handset offering tactile feedback as well. Sure, these other handsets may have the traditional Talk and End keys, but you won't find a standard dialpad or keyboard.
But will it be easy to use? Will it allow for fast typing? Though these questions are completely warranted--there is a learning curve for a touch screen if you've never used one before--a doomsday scenario doesn't exactly ring true. If other phones use a touch screen so effectively, the iPhone might just be able to do the same. Where the iPhone's touch screen really seems to distinguish itself is in the way you can manipulate things such as your music playlists and your photos. At MacWorld, the way Apple CEO Steve Jobs swept his finger across the display to shuffle music and resize photos was very showy indeed.
A big attraction of the iPhone is the iPod digital music player and the iTunes integration, but the iPhone is hardly the first cell phone to play music. Sony Ericsson's Walkman phones, such as the W810i, are especially good at playing your tunes, and Nokia's Xpress Music handsets such as the 5300 are quite nifty as well. What's more, the iPhone is not the first cell to interact with iTunes; it will just do so in a different way. Remember the dud that was the Motorola Rokr E1? That had an iTunes player. Moto's Razr V3i and the Slvr L7 had them as well. Yet those phones were crippled with a ridiculous 100-song limit and a sluggish iTunes interface. Fortunately, the iPhone boosts its memory to respectable levels--though 8GB is somewhat small as MP3 players go. We were hoping for stereo Bluetooth as well but you won't find it onboard. More phones are beginning to offer that feature including the Nokia 5300.
On the other hand, the iPhone will not be able to download music wirelessly. Several phones, such as the Samsung Upstage and the LG VX8300, have such capability--and Sprint and Verizon have their own music stores.
From what we've seen in the iPhone commercials on Apple's Web site, the video experience on the iPhone looks quite pretty. A lot of other cell phones play video, either through 3G services or Sling Box, but the iPhone will be the first to accept downloads from iTunes. So it goes without saying that it won't be average streaming video over 3G. On the other hand, Verizon Wireless has its V Cast Mobile TV service on handsets such as the LG VX9400 and the Samsung SCH-U620.
It doesn't have built-in GPS, but the iPhone is one of the first cell phones with integrated support for Google Maps. Though the application is available for other cell phones, the experience isn't always a seamless one. The Motorola Razr V3xx, for example, is beset with restrictions that severely limit third-party apps. When testing Google Maps on that phone, the browser asked us whether we wanted to proceed every time we requested data--frustrating, indeed.
Though it won't be the first cell phone to support a full HTML Web browser, the iPhone will be the first cell phone to feature Safari. Also, the browser will be the integration point for third-party apps, as Jobs announced two weeks ago at his WWDC keynote.
Visual voice mail
At the iPhone announcement, Jobs was eager to point out its visual voice mail feature, which will allow you to choose from a list and go directly to the voice mail you want to hear. The iPhone is the first cell phone we've seen to come integrated with such an application, but alternatives do exist. For example, an application called SimulSays does just about the same thing, but you must download it for use. Also, at the time of this writing, it's available only for the RIM BlackBerry Pearl and the BlackBerry 8800.
The iPhone's 2-megapixel camera is just above average as U.S. camera phones go. The Samsung SCH-A990 tops the Apple handset with a 3.2-megapixel resolution, and more powerful cameras are available unlocked. For example, the Nokia N95 and the recently announced Sony Ericsson K850 both offer 5-megapixel shooters.
Yes, the iPhone has a longer rated talk time than many other smart phones, but in our CNET lab tests, we've had quite a few devices give us that much juice or more. The Cingular 8525, the I-mate Jaq, and Nokia's N95, E61, and E62 each had eight hours of talk time battery life; the RIM BlackBerry Curve and the Sony Ericsson P990i went for 8.5 hours; the T-Mobile Wing offered 9 hours; and the Nokia N73 lasted 9.5 hours.
Yet the iPhone could surpass all of the above. And if it could do so with such a large display--high-resolution displays are notorious battery hogs--then that would be impressive. It's also important to note that few people use one application constantly. Actual battery life will depend on how often you switch between applications.
Wi-Fi and 3G
Wi-Fi isn't terribly common on cell phones, so we're glad to see it here. Current Wi-Fi phones include the Cingular 8525, the T-Mobile Wing, and the Sprint Mogul And as we all know, the iPhone won't support 3G networks.
Thanks to the handset's accelerometer, the display's orientation will adjust automatically when you flip the iPhone on its side. At the moment, most cell phones require you to either press a button to make such a switch, such as on the HTC Touch, or slide the phone's face, as with the Helio Ocean. So it's true that the iPhone will save you a step. Yet Sony Ericsson recently announced the W910, which will feature a "shake control." You'll be able to manipulate the phone's functions by moving the handset itself. Skip music tracks by flicking the W910 to the right or left, shuffle your playlists by shaking it back and forth, and move the handset around to play games.
Also, 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--and an ambient light sensor will adjust the display's brightness for various lighting situations. That's still rare in cell phones--the Rim BlackBerry Curve offers it, for example, but the iPhone won't be the only one.