Stunning iPhone, alas, has big flaws

At its original price of $600, I thought Apple's iPhone was an overpriced toy. But now that everyone who absolutely had to have an iPhone has bought one - and Apple has conveniently dropped the tariff to a mere $400 - I decided to take a closer look.

After a few weeks of fooling around with one, I can report that the iPhone is, indeed, a fantastic gadget - a stunning example of industrial design that borders on art.


On the other hand, I still wouldn't buy one for everyday use. In fact, most of us can get the iPhone's most important bennies from a newer Apple toy that's a better value- the iPod Touch. More about that later.

Just in case you've been off-planet the last few months, let me describe the iPhone for you: a slim, hand-held, do-everything gadget with a sharp, 3.5-inch touch screen display. It plays digital music, browses the Web, sends and receives e-mail and text messages, snaps photos, plays videos, shows maps with satellite photos, and lets you buy tunes online. It also makes phone calls.


The iPhone performs many of these chores with greater elegance than any other smart phone or PDA -but unfortunately, not all of them and not always the right ones.

One problem: Apple's exclusive, two-year deal with AT&T.; You can't use an iPhone - legally at least - with any other wireless carrier. If you have another service provider now, you'll have to pay a stiff termination fee to switch. And then you have to sign a two-year contract with the former Cingular (rebranded under the AT&T; label), and be willing to settle for AT&T;'s slow, second-generation Edge network for the Web.

Neither ranks high with consumers, a fact Apple tacitly acknowledged this week when it noted that 250,000 iPod buyers haven't bothered to set up AT&T; accounts.

That means they've broken through Apple's security and are using their iPods with other carriers, or they're waiting for someone to make that easier for them. Or, they may not care about the phone part of the iPhone at all.

In practice, I had relatively few problems making calls. My issue was the effect of AT&T;'s performance on the iPhone's otherwise astounding Web browser. The iPhone is a Web wizard if you can tap into a local Wi-Fi hotspot, but excruciatingly slow if you have to rely on Edge.

In fact, if they gave out Pulitzer Prizes for programming, the guys who created phone's hand-held version of Apple's Safari Web browser should get one - maybe even two. iPhone's Safari redefines the notion of what a hand-held can do on the Web.

Its smooth, touch-screen interface makes it a snap to scroll up, down and sideways, or from page to page. But the phone's two-finger mode is the real stroke of genius: Put your thumb and forefinger together on a page and spread them apart: Lo and behold, the image enlarges. Squeeze your fingers together, and it contracts. With Web pages, it's a brilliant notion - with maps, photos and satellite images, iPhone's pan-and-zoom is mesmerizing.

I also was astonished by how well Safari managed complex Web pages - even the notoriously difficult Web version of our Microsoft Outlook e-mail and calendar program.


My one major disappointment with Safari was its absence of support for animations or videos requiring Adobe's Flash plug-in. Flash is pretty close to Web standard today. In fact, The Sun's Web site and many others use it to display videos. Apple's refusal or inability to support Flash is puzzling.

Just remember that almost most everything iPod does well on the Web requires a connection to a Wi-Fi hotspot. Out of Wi-Fi range or on the road, Edge's transfer speeds are so slow they make an old dial-up connection feel like greased lightning. Even the slickest browser will give you the jitters if complex pages take two or three minutes to load.

On the up side, the iPhone's built in, 8-gigabyte iPod Nano is close to flawless - even without the traditional iPod scroll wheel. The online interface with the iTunes music store worked well, too.

Aside from Web speed issues, the iPhone has two serious flaws. First, it's awkward to handle. At 4 1/2 by 2 3/8 inches, it's half an inch wider than my regular cell phone - too wide to hold comfortably. And the iPhone is slippery - too easy to drop.

The touch-screen phone keypad is almost impossible to use with one hand. It's tough to be accurate even with two hands.

The same goes for every kind of typing - Web addresses, contact information, notes, text messages, or e-mail. The on-screen keyboard was too small for my big fingers and lacked the tactile feedback that makes the tiny, thumb-based keyboards on other PDAs usable. A stylus with handwriting recognition software would be a great addition to future models.


Even the iPhone's sharp, 1.3-megapixel camera often took blurry pictures because the shutter button was a virtual spot on the screen that I brushed too soon or too late, or too hard to keep the camera steady.

Since I loved the "i" part of the iPhone but not the "Phone" part, it occurred to me that I don't need everything in one gadget. I'd be happy to keep my own phone and supplement it with a cool little Web browser and music machine.

Which, according to the spec sheets, is a pretty good description of Apple's new iPod Touch. Selling for $300 (about $100 less than an iPhone), it has many of the iPhone's best features - including Wi-Fi Web browsing - but without the phone or two-year contract with AT&T.; The only problem is that I bought a regular Nano a few months ago. How do I persuade the chief that I need a new one so soon?