Last Updated Jun 30, 2007 2:00 AM EDT
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 p.m. local time. I got my loaner phone at exactly 6:00 p.m. west coast time about two seconds after the doors opened 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 11:00 p.m. 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.