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Hello, iPhone: what you need to know about Apple's groundbreakin by Perkal

Steve Jobs prefaced his introduction of the iPhone by saying, "This is a day I've been looking forward to for two and a half years." And it's safe to say that Mac users have been pining after such a product for at least as long.

Apple touts the iPhone as an iPod, a mobile phone, and an Internet-communications device all wrapped up in one. Perhaps it's not a huge surprise coming from a company that's taken a prominent consumer-electronics focus (with the iPod) and even dropped Computer from its name, but the iPhone is clearly big news.

We had our hands on this innovative device for a short while. Although Apple plans to share more details about the iPhone in the months preceding its release in June, here's our in-depth look at what we know about the iPhone's capabilities as a phone, an Internet-enabled device, and a wide-screen iPod.

The Phone

Like most of the Palm, Windows Mobile, and Symbian smart phones on the market, the iPhone has a touch-sensitive screen. But that's pretty much where the similarities end.

How is the iPhone different?

Instead of a small keyboard, which is standard on most smart phones, the iPhone has no keyboard at all. Instead of a bevy of buttons on the front for navigating and controlling features, the iPhone has just a Home button on its front and a few others on the sides--everything else is controlled via on-screen buttons and icons. Instead of a stylus, the iPhone requires that you use your finger. And instead of a scaled-down operating system to power it, the iPhone runs a version of OS X.

OS X? Which version?

It's a version of OS X that's been optimized for the iPhone hardware, but Apple's statements lead us to believe that the iPhone runs a mostly familiar version of OS X.

Tell me more about the iPhone's screen. Won't it scratch easily?

Indications from Apple are that the iPhone's display is more scratch-resistant than that of the iPods. The screen itself is a 3.5-inch, touch-sensitive display, which has a resolution of 320 by 480 pixels at 160 pixels per inch.

If there are no buttons, how do I make calls on the iPhone?

As Jobs said during his keynote, "What's the killer app [for the iPhone]? The killer app is making calls. It's amazing how hard it is to make calls on most phones." Having used various smart phones in the past, we can attest to that frustration.

Making a call on the iPhone starts with a click on the Home button, which takes you to the main window. A finger-press on the Phone application's icon activates the iPhone's calling features. This is possible thanks to Apple's patented multi-touch technology, which also lets you use your finger for fairly accurate typing that ignores unintended touches and certain multifinger gestures (more on that later). To make a call, you can type a number on the virtual keypad that appears at the bottom of the screen, or choose a number from your list of contacts, favorites, or recent calls. The iPhone lets you put a party on hold and merge calls for a conference call, with one touch of the screen.

What about ringtones?

Jobs demonstrated only one ringtone during his presentation, but the iPhone will ship with several of them. We don't yet know whether you can assign different rings to different people (as many other phones allow) or use your iTunes music as ringtones.

What other calling features will the iPhone sport?

We saw two on display during the keynote.

Voice Mail The iPhone takes a modern approach to voice mail. Instead of dialing in to a voice-mail system and listening to all your queued messages one by one, you use the iPhone's Visual Voicemail feature, which displays a list of current voice mails, including the names of who left them and the times they called. When you press one of the listed items, that message plays. You can also choose to save or delete voice mails, one at a time. The entire effect is not unlike an e-mail-client interface, but it's for voice mail.

Sensors A proximity sensor turns off the iPhone's display and the touch sensor when you bring the phone to your ear, to prevent accidental button activations. There's also an ambient-light sensor that adjusts the screen's brightness depending on the surroundings (think of the MacBook Pro's keyboard), and an accelerometer that senses when you turn the iPhone from one orientation (landscape or portrait) to the other.

What are the iPhone's tech specs?

The 4.5-by-2.4-by-0.46-inch (115-by-61-by-11.6-millimeter) iPhone has no external antenna and weighs 4.8 ounces (135 grams). It will come in two versions: a 4GB, $499 model and an 8GB, $599 model. Those capacities are the iPhone's total storage for all applications, photos, music, and videos.

The iPhone, a quad-band GSM phone, works in the United States and in many other parts of the world. GSM--Global System for Mobile Communications--is the dominant standard in most of the world, but in the United States only AT & T (Cingular has merged with AT & T) and T-Mobile use it. For wireless data, it can work with e-mail and connect to the Internet, using AT & T's network or using the phone's built-in 802.11b and 802.11g Wi-Fi. The iPhone also includes Bluetooth 2.0+EDR capabilities.

But the iPhone's wireless capabilities aren't clear yet--we don't know whether Bluetooth will work just for headsets or whether it or Wi-Fi will work for syncing data with a computer. One thing Apple did tell us is that you won't be able to use the iPhone as a wireless Bluetooth modem for a laptop (at least that's the current plan). Jobs also noted that Apple will release models with third-generation (3G) wireless-data capabilities in the future--3G networks are faster than AT & T's EDGE network.

Does that mean I have to use AT & T as my iPhone service provider?

Yes. Both iPhone models will require a two-year contract with AT & T, the exclusive U.S. carrier. Apple has no plans to release a version of the iPhone without a service contract or one that is unlocked. Both models will be available beginning in June, from Apple Stores and from AT & T.

There's just the one Home button on the iPhone's front. What other switches and features does the phone's case have?

On the front of the iPhone, just above the screen, is a small slit for a speaker--the one you'll hold to your ear when you're talking. The back of the iPhone sports a camera lens for its 2-megapixel digital camera. On one side are a pair of volume-control buttons and a switch that lets you toggle between an audible ring and silent operation (no word on whether the iPhone will vibrate). The top of the case has a 3.5mm headset and audio jack, a slot for the phone's SIM card (which identifies you to the cellular network), and a sleep-wake toggle switch. On the bottom, there's a loudspeaker (for audio playback and the speakerphone), a microphone, and a standard 30-pin iPod dock connector.

And for travelers, there's a selection in the iPhone's settings called Airplane Mode. Activating it turns off all the radios inside the iPhone (cellular, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi), so you can safely use the iPod and PDA features during a flight.

What about accessories?

There may not be many at first, but near the end of his Macworld Expo presentation, Jobs mentioned two accessories that Apple plans to sell: stereo headphones with an integrated microphone, and a Bluetooth headset that pairs automatically with the iPhone and goes to sleep to preserve battery life. And without a doubt, we'll see other innovative iPhone add-ons--not just from Apple, but also from third-party developers.

iPhone: Behind the Hardware

Although the iPhone is still months away from release, Apple has shared a bunch of information about the surprising new gadget. Here's a rundown of the buttons, ports, and other pieces that make up the iPhone.


The Internet-Enabled Device

Steve Jobs made it clear that the iPhone belongs in the smart phone category, as a product that does much more than just make and take calls.

First, here are some of the iPhone's skills.

E-mail The iPhone tackles mail through its e-mail client, which supports rich HTML and inline images--it resembles OS X's Mail app. It works with POP3 and IMAP e-mail accounts, lets you choose a split-view display (with your inbox on top and selected message on the bottom), includes standard e-mail folders, and parses phone numbers in e-mail messages for quick dialing. In addition, Apple has partnered with Yahoo to provide free Blackberry-style push IMAP e-mail to all iPhone customers. Push e-mail automatically notifies you whenever you have new mail, without your having to check manually. Of course, you may need to switch to a Yahoo e-mail address to reap the benefits of that feature.

SMS Messaging The iPhone includes a full SMS text-messaging client that looks just like iChat. Unfortunately, the version of the software that Apple showed didn't let you connect to the AIM instant-messaging network; it worked only with SMS messages. Many cellular phone plans charge a premium for text messages, but it's unclear whether that will be true of the AT & T calling plans available to iPhone users.

PDA Another component of any smart phone is PDA functionality--storing and displaying your contacts, phone numbers, appointments, notes, and so on. The iPhone seems quite capable of tackling all this and more. There's an iCal-like Calendar app for appointments, as well as a Contacts section within the Phone application where you'll find contacts' phone numbers, addresses, and the like. So how do you get all your contacts and appointments onto the iPhone? Fear not--you won't have to input everything by hand (or, as the case may be, by finger). The iPhone will sync data, via the familiar iPod-syncing interface within iTunes, with a Mac or PC. So presumably, the iPhone can sync with OS X's Address Book and iCal apps on the Mac, as well as contacts in Outlook Express and calendars and contacts in Outlook on Windows PCs. There's also a Notes application on the iPhone, but Jobs didn't say much about it, and it wasn't functioning on the iPhone we played with.

Widgets Miniature apps like Apple's Dashboard widgets seem like a great match for the iPhone. Jobs showed two that he said will be on the iPhone--Stocks and Weather. The Stocks widget can display multiple stock quotes and show percentage changes. The Weather widget can have multiple windows for different cities, and you move between them by "swiping" your finger across the screen. These widgets automatically connect to the Internet to update. There may be more widgets once the iPhone launches. And Apple (or third-party developers, if they're allowed) may offer additional widgets at some point.

Web Browser Unlike other smart phones, which run browsers that are anything but full-featured, the iPhone includes a version of Safari. Apple calls it "the first fully usable HTML browser on a phone." It can load standard Web pages (not scaled-down versions), complete with images. You can navigate a page by dragging your fingers to scroll. To zoom in or out on a section, you can either "pinch" (draw two fingers together or apart on screen) or tap twice on screen. You can even open multiple Web sites at once and move between them at will. Rotating the iPhone automatically switches its screen to landscape mode.

Google Maps Apple worked closely with Google on several aspects of the iPhone. The Safari browser includes a Google search bar (like the one in Safari 2.0), but the phone also includes a Google Maps application. With it, you can map out destinations, search for local businesses, save and access favorite locations, and view satellite imagery of mapped locations. (Google Maps isn't exclusive to the iPhone--for example, the company currently has a free app for Palm Treos, which provides similar functionality.)

All of this sounds like a lot of data entry. How do I type on a buttonless phone?

Use the on-screen keyboard. Both the e-mail and chat modes use this feature for text input. The keyboard doesn't offer tactile feedback, making error-free input more difficult than on a hardware keypad, but the iPhone features automatic error detection and text prediction--even if you do make a mistake, the software will often fix it before you notice. In our brief hands-on time with the iPhone, we found that single-finger typing actually worked quite well. (Although the iPhone doesn't offer tactile feedback for typing, it does offer some feedback--when you press a key, it enlarges, as if it's rising up to meet your finger.)

Tell me about the camera on the iPhone. What can I do with that?

The iPhone camera's 2-megapixel sensor is small by digital camera standards but impressive for a mobile phone. The camera uses the very large screen for image framing, and the phone's software includes a photo-management application that lets you browse your photo library or view individual photos in full-screen mode. This app takes advantage of the touch screen by letting you swipe left or right to cycle through images, or pinch them to zoom in or out (as with the version of Safari on the iPhone). There's no word on whether the iPhone will also be able to capture video.

How do third-party apps figure in to the iPhone?

The iPhone runs a version of OS X, but developers won't necessarily be able to modify their apps for the iPhone and release them on their own. In an interview with the New York Times, Jobs said that Apple will "define everything that is on the phone." As with the iPod's games, other companies will be able to create software for the iPhone, but Apple will be the gatekeeper (for example, for the Google and Yahoo software that the iPhone will include).

Our best guess is that third-party developers will be able to write software for the iPhone, but not with the freedom they currently enjoy when it comes to Mac development. Apple may allow more freedom for the installation of simple widgets, while tightly restricting the release of full-blown applications. We envision a model similar to those you see on gaming platforms, in which third-party developers can create software that the hardware manufacturer (in this case, Apple) controls and approves before it's released to the general public. In the end, we think that the iTunes Store will most likely be the only place where you can buy iPhone software.


The iPod

As an iPod, the iPhone's functionality is similar to that of a fifth-generation model. In addition to being able to play the standard array of music file formats, the iPhone can display photos and play video. But there are several key differences between the two devices.

How is the iPhone different from the fifth-generation iPod?

For starters, notably absent from the iPhone is the iPod's famous Click Wheel; to navigate through your files and control playback, you use the iPhone's touch-sensitive screen. To find a particular song, for example, you press the Music item and then the Songs item. Then you move your finger up or down the screen to scroll the song list; a flick of your finger down the screen makes the scroll move more quickly. You can also press any letter of the alphabet from the list displayed on the side of the screen to jump directly to items beginning with that letter. (We had a hard time achieving accurate jumps because of the small size of the letters, but we did bypass a lot of scrolling.) Once you've found the song you're looking for, press the track's name to start playing it. Even with the different method of control, the menu- and file-browsing systems are recognizably iPod-like.

What is the screen like?

The iPhone is the first iPod to offer wide-screen viewing. (The built-in accelerometer recognizes when you rotate the iPhone and adjusts the onscreen image accordingly.) The screen measures 3.5 inches diagonally, with physical dimensions of 3 by 2 inches. That's not quite a cinematic 16:9 aspect ratio, but it's wider than the current iPod's. Press twice on the iPhone's screen to switch between a zoomed-in view, in which the video fills the screen, and a letterboxed view, with black bars at the top and the bottom.


Apple takes advantage of the iPhone's screen in other ways. For example, album art appears much larger than on current iPods. And when browsing music with the iPhone oriented horizontally, you can enjoy its Cover Flow mode--just as in iTunes 7. Drag your finger across the screen to flip through album covers and find music.

Will other iPods soon add that wide-screen capability?

We don't know. Although Apple uncharacteristically unveiled the iPhone many months in advance of its release, that doesn't mean the company is changing its long-standing policy of not revealing future product plans. That said, we're hoping to see the wide-screen design in the next iPod, perhaps with the cellular components replaced by a large hard drive but with Bluetooth for wireless headphones and Wi-Fi for direct-to-iPod purchases from the iTunes Store.

Does the iPhone have a hard drive?

No--like the iPod nano, the iPhone includes 4GB or 8GB of flash-based memory, which is much more compact than the 1.8-inch hard drives found in fifth-generation iPods. Although flash memory helps prolong battery life, the small storage capacity is an interesting limitation for a device with video-viewing capabilities. (Full-length movies easily top 1GB, so you shouldn't expect to carry too many on an iPhone.) There's also no slot for expanding the iPhone's internal memory with extra flash cards.

Are there any similarities between the iPod and the iPhone?

The iPhone uses the 30-pin dock-connector port present in iPods since the third generation, so many existing dock-connector-based iPod accessories may work with the iPhone right away. However, others will need a redesign. As a cellular phone, the iPhone broadcasts wireless signals. The iPod has never done this; therefore, some accessories will also need to include shielding so they don't pick up radio interference from the iPhone.

Since the iPhone uses the same dock connector, we'd assume that you'd be able to charge it from a computer's USB port or via an AC adapter.

What kind of battery performance can I expect from the iPhone?

With so many great functions, it'll be easy to run down the battery without even noticing. Apple told us that the iPhone will contain one battery (which, as with the iPod, you can't access yourself) that should last up to five hours for talking, playing video, or browsing the Internet, and up to 16 hours for playing audio. (In comparison, the iPod nano is rated at up to 24 hours of audio playback, and the 80GB iPod can play up to six-and-a-half hours of video.) In any event, just exercise good judgment to ensure that you have enough juice left for your phone, especially after you listen to music, browse the Web, or watch a video.

The Last Word

In the coming months, Apple will parcel out additional bits of information about the iPhone, just to keep us salivating. But one thing is already clear: Apple has again done what it seems to do best--give an idea that exists in a flawed implementation the polish and attention to detail it deserves.

Hands (and Fingers) on the iPhone

Although the undisputed winner of the most-talked-about product award at this year's Macworld Expo was Apple's new iPhone, it was actually quite a rare commodity. There were two units behind plastic on the outskirts of the Apple booth, surrounded by throngs of worshippers and a phalanx of security guards. There was one onstage at the Apple booth, briefly shown off before being swept backstage to a high-security room. And there were some small number--maybe two, maybe more--being used in private briefing rooms by Apple executives.

I don't have an exact count, but as far as I can tell there aren't very many real iPhones out there in the world. (And since the iPhone is still months away from release, that's not too surprising.) It's also too bad. As big an impression as the iPhone has evidently made simply by dint of Steve Jobs's extended product demo and its coolness factor when slowly rotating in a clear cylinder, let me tell you from personal experience that the iPhone is much more impressive when it's in your hand--or rather, when your finger is running across its multi-touch screen.

It feels small and quite thin. The screen is remarkably responsive--I could sense no delay between my pressing an on-screen button and the phone's response to that finger-press. I typed on its on-screen keyboard with my index finger, and after about a minute, I felt that I was already well on my way to becoming a proficient iPhone typist. (The iPhone's software works very hard to figure out what you're trying to type, including taking note of what keys are near the one it thinks you pressed, in case your finger was just a bit off target.) And as you type, the keys "pop up," getting larger as if they're rising up to meet your touch, which gives you visual feedback that you're pressing the right letters.

The screen is impressively bright and remarkably crisp, thanks to a high pixel density of 160 pixels per inch (ppi). In contrast, the MacBook Pro has a pixel density of 110 ppi; the MacBook, 113 ppi; and the 23-inch Cinema Display, 98 ppi. The iPhone's screen is 320 by 480 pixels, meaning that the iPhone has twice as many pixels as the video iPod, but it fits them in an area that's 88 percent larger.


In any event, I can admit that I found it quite difficult to form complete sentences while I was holding the iPhone. In terms of sheer gadget magnetism, its power cannot be understated. One of the joys of using the iPhone is understanding that it's not just a press-and-hold interface, but rather one that you can control with numerous gestures, most of them fairly intuitive. When you're in a long list (such as a list of iTunes artists), flicking your finger on the screen makes the list scroll rapidly. To unlock the iPhone and start using it, you slide your finger across its face, a movement that made me feel as though I were unzipping the phone. Zooming in on an image or a Web page by poking at the area you'd like to enlarge with two fingers and then spreading them apart (Jobs called it "pinching") feels quite natural, too.

With five months between Expo and the iPhone's scheduled arrival date, it's clear that there's a lot more work for Apple's developers to do. We haven't seen all the software that will ship on the phone, nor do we really know details about how it'll let you browse important documents--for example, if someone e-mails me a PDF file, a Word document, or an Excel spreadsheet, will there be some way for me to display it? Apple officials assured me that the iPhone will support PDF, but they didn't offer any such assurances about other file formats. If the iPhone's not just a phone but also a revolutionary Internet-communications device, it'll need to be pretty versatile, and that means displaying (or editing) common document types.

Take it from someone who held one in his hand, if only for a moment.

This article was published on Friday 18 January, 2008.

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