After much deliberation, I decided to upgrade my mobile phone last week (which has served me very well over the past 3 years) to an iPhone 3G. Was it a good decision? Let’s find out…

Design

You really have to see and use the iPhone to appreciate its beauty. Even with 16GB of memory and a wealth of features, the phone is extremely thin and the perfect size to fit in your pocket, yet have a large enough screen to browse webpages and watch videos comfortably. Most of this is due to the absence of a keypad. In fact, there are only 4 buttons (3 if you count the volume up and volume down buttons as one) and 1 switch on the phone. This leaves enough space for the large 3.5” multi-touch display to take centre stage. The phone is a tad heavier than comparable smart phones (such as the Blackberry Curve), but probably because of it’s thinness and form-factor, it is actually more difficult to feel in your pocket than much lighter phones.

The touch-screen functionality is a joy to use for the majority of the time. The obvious benefits of not having fixed buttons is the fact that everything can be context sensitive – this makes for very efficient use of screen space. There’s no need for a number pad when you’re not going to call someone, for example, and so the extra space saved can be used for displaying something else, such as useful on-screen buttons or extra information. Of course, this would all be in vain if the screen was unresponsive and sluggish, but thankfully the precision of hit-detection makes the idea work in practice very well. Of course, using it does take practise, so don’t be surprised if you get slightly frustrated when you inadvertently end up clicking things you don’t want to.

Apple are making a conscious effort to cut down on packaging, and the iPhone’s cute little box is a prime example of this. It is smart and compact, with minimal amounts of printed materials. Another feature I like is the absence of a separate mains adaptor and USB cable – instead the USB cable can be plugged directly into a power adaptor which can then be plugged into a wall socket. It reduces the mess of different wires in my drawer, and will also be useful for travelling. This has been present in iPods for a while now, but not on most mobile phones, and so I would suggest that other phone manufacturers follow suit.

Also supplied are Apple’s useless trademark white earphones, albeit with a microphone and a couple of buttons for handsfree purposes. Thanks guys, but I’d rather use some half-decent earphones for listening to music, or a bluetooth headset for using the phone whilst on the move. On the plus side, the headphone jack is more accommodating than with the original iPhone – it is not inset from the surface meaning that any 3.5mm headphone jacks should fit nicely.

Mmm... box. Taken with the iPhone's camera.

The Phone

There are no real surprises here. You get the standard contacts address book, ability to view missed calls, voicemail etc. A nice feature for Mac users is the synchronisation of your iCal calendar and Address Book. This is especially useful when adding large amounts of contact details in one go – it is much easier to do it on the computer and let iTunes sync it for you onto your iPhone.

The large touch-screen keypad is a boon to use, especially for those of you who are used to small, impractical buttons on many of the latest handsets. When putting the phone to your ear, the screen turns itself off by way of a light sensor – so there are no worries about tapping something accidently.

A rather nice touch is that silent mode is controlled by a two-way slider switch, saving you on having to navigate through menus or read anything to do so. Similarly, locking/putting the phone to sleep is controlled by tapping the power button. This means that it can be done whilst you are on any screen, again saving navigation time. It can also be done whilst playing music, saving battery life.

The large virtual keypad

Unfortunately, as the primary function of this device, the phone is rather weak in some areas compared to even basic competition. You cannot just use any mp3 file as a ringtone. Instead, you need to convert it so a ‘special’ format (oh how Apple love doing that) so that iTunes recognises it as a ringtone rather than music. This is not particularly difficult to do – there are a few websites as wells as apps that can convert an mp3 file for you – but this is an additional time consuming step that is extremely annoying, and one that I imagine most of you will need to go through unless you want to use one of the uninspiring default tones.

Things are worse on the text message front – with just 6 sounds to choose from. And these can’t be changed or added to unless you decide to jailbreak/hack your iPhone to allow you access to the folder structure.

Text messaging is also disappointing. Whilst the keyboard is pretty good once you get used to it, iPhone likes to show text messages as ‘conversations’, following the interface of iChat on the Mac. It’s actually rather a nice fresh approach to SMS on mobile devices, but an option to turn it off and use the standard mailbox format – having an Inbox, Sent Messages, Drafts and so on – shouldn’t be too much to ask.

Most frustrating of all for me is the lack of a character count. Apart from counting each character you use in your message manually, there is no way of seeing whether you have over-run into your second SMS. For those of us that actually pay for each individual message, this is just not good enough.

Famously, multimedia messaging is absent from the iPhone. This is less of an issue since e-mail works very well, but nonetheless, it is a piece of functionality that there is not much gain by omitting.

Internet and E-mail

From the worst function of the iPhone to the best one – the web browsing experience is the best that I have experienced on any device bar an actual computer. You can choose to connect via. Wi-Fi, 3G, EDGE or GPRS. When you don’t have a Wi-Fi connection, 3G is amazingly fast and is available now in the UK in most places where there is a mobile signal.

Safari allows you to view ‘proper’, non-mobile versions of webpages comfortably and accurately. The fact that you can zoom into any portion of a page whilst retaining excellent clarity takes away the annoyance that plagues internet usage with practically every other mobile device. Unsurprisingly, using the Safari code means that page rendering looks very similar to that on a computer, and it also means that much of Safari’s functionality is retained. You can open more than one page at the same time, and have the ability to add a page as an icon to the home screen for easy access. RSS feeds are a breeze to view.

My site looking fantastic on the iPhone

E-mail is also based around a Mac program – Mail. You can easily import MS Exchange accounts, Gmail, Yahoo! and others. Apart from the usual functionality you get with e-mailing on a phone, you can also open common attached file formats – including PDF, Word, Excel and PowerPoint files (both the old and newer XML formats).

Landscape viewing by tilting the phone 90 degrees

A small annoyance though, is the lack of basic copy and paste. This is an issue that will soon be addressed with the new iPhone OS v3, but as with the SMS annoyances, it is something that really should have been there to start off with, especially with internet browsing being one of the iPhone’s key selling points.

iPod

The iPod function works exactly like any other iPod, apart from losing maybe a few playback features. Music and movies (as with everything) are imported and synchronised using iTunes. The iPhone allows you to browse your music in the usual variety of ways and create playlists on-the-fly, as well as utilising the Genius iTunes feature to create playlists of similar songs.

The screen is a good size, and of good enough quality to watch films and TV fairly comfortably.

Overall, the iPod function is just like any other iPod – a slick user experience which overshadows mediocre sound quality. I’ve been using my iRiver H140 since 2005, and it still reigns supreme as far as supporting audio formats and sound quality go. With the iPhone, ‘crackling’ distortion is noticeable, and for serious listeners, this can be rather off-putting. I like the fact that I don’t have to carry around an extra bulky device with the iPhone for the daily commute, but for long periods of music listening for the fussy audiophiles among you, the iPhone (and iPods in general) are not the best option.

Cover-Flow music browsing works smoothly and looks great

Pictures and Camera

Pictures and photos can be put on the iPhone via iTunes, but annoyingly, you can’t just drag and drop them into iTunes. Instead, you must choose a folder for iTunes to synch the iPhone with. I find that it works best if I create a new folder with all things iPhone in it, and tell iTunes to sync with that folder. That way, you can control exactly what is on your phone by adding and removing things to that folder on your computer.

The 2 megapixel camera is there really just for the sake of having one. It does its job well, but is incapable of taking videos and has no additional features at all – no flash, auto-focus, no options whatsoever. The picture quality is similar to my 3 year old Sony Ericsson K750i, but to be honest, a class leading camera wasn’t high up on the list of what I wanted from a phone, and is not a key selling feature.

Yup, just one option on the camera: take the picture

Apps

Besides internet, the other strong selling point of the iPhone is the wealth of applications available to download from the iTunes Store. It also has some pretty nifty ones built in, including the famed Google Maps take on GPS and others that will be familiar to those of you who have used Mac OS X Dashboard widgets.

There are plenty of free apps for download as well as paid ones, so if you are stingy like myself, you still have a rather good choice. There are two things I resent, though. Firstly, you must use iTunes and the App Store to download applications. This means that no third party developers can just create one and put it on their website for download. The obvious reason for this is quality control – and it is similar to the systems used on the PS3 and XBox 360 for downloading content – but I would much rather have a bit more freedom, without having to hack my iPhone.

Glaurung Chess, one of the many free apps on the iTunes App Store

Secondly, I hate the iTunes Store and have never used it to buy media ever. I see it as Draconian and protectionist. Yet I was forced to sign up and create an account to use the App Store and you even need to use iTunes to activate your iPhone when you first get it. This is a personal objection, fair enough, but I do not like having to supply credit card details when I have no intention of downloading anything other than free content from iTunes. It is a clever bit of marketing that takes advantage of impulse buying, but I’d like the option not to supply any payment details, thank you Apple.

Conclusion

The iPhone is a typical Apple product. It successfully manages to strip out unnecessary functionality, and perfects the implementation of everything it keeps in. Also like a typical Apple product, it seems to miss some features which might seem obvious to you and me.

As with any other Apple product, you have to assess what you want. I personally wanted a device that meant I could use the internet and listen to/view media without having to carry around other devices. To this effect, the iPhone has been a big win. However, if you are looking for your phone to have a specific bit of functionality, make sure the iPhone does exactly what you want before buying.

Finally, for those of you looking to buy an iPhone in the UK, I’d recommend either O2 or Apple – avoid Carphone Warehouse like the plague. They were most unhelpful and rude in more than one store when I was enquiring, and they charge £10 more than both O2 and Apple.