-- Journey into the iPhone --

by Andy Foster, The AndyZone.com

When my wife and I talked about getting iPhones to replace our current cell phones, I had thought we were going to wait until our current cell phone contract with Sprint expired in November.  We would not only avoid the early termination fees but also have time to examine lots of reviews sure to emerge as the phone was used.  But as the release of the iPhone approached and my wife’s fever for one grew, I studied its features and read about its testing and got comfortable with the idea of buying at their release.  My last objection died when Apple and AT&T released details about the various individual and family plans, and the costs were competitive with what we were already paying Sprint.  Our Sprint plan was costing us $91/month, and I was getting almost none of the Internet ability it was supposed to provide, mainly due to the user unfriendly design of my Samsung i600 “Smartphone”.  You can see it and the Samsung side by side in the photograph to the right.

The lowest priced AT&T family plan for the iPhone not only upped our shared minutes but gave us unlimited data usage for two phones at $109/month before taxes. AT&T also had rollover minutes and Sprint didn’t and I knew from our usage patters that on most months that would play out in our favor.  Lastly, we had expected better coverage up in my wife’s home in Northeastern Missouri than we had gotten.  All that made switching look like a good move, even with the early termination fees from Sprint ($300 for two phones) thrown in.  We decided to take the plunge.  Damn the charge cards; full speed ahead! 

The Not So Long Wait

On June 29, the Friday of the iPhone’s release, my wife was on vacation, so she decided to stand in the iPhone line sure to form outside Friendswood’s Baybrook Mall’s Apple Store.  Frankly, I wasn’t willing to stand in line but a couple of hours for the thing; so she decided to hit the mall a little after 3 p.m., alone for only a little while before I joined her at around four after work.   

When I arrived (and close to the time I had promised, mind you), I found her about three quarters of the way back inside a second cordon of waiting shoppers, the cordon outlined by tin metal stands with fabric straps stretching between them.  The first cordon started at the door to the Apple store.  It pushed back ten yards before it ended, opening a five yard gap between it and the second one.  Some eager iPhone buyers were standing, some sitting, and others were lounging in lawn chairs.  It was an eclectic group, a good mix of people of all kinds, aged from two to sixty.  Many of the geekier people were entertaining themselves with iBooks or PowerBooks. (I thought about joining them, but that would take a return to my car to fetch my backpack containing my MacBook Pro and my iPod.  I decided against it since I wasn’t sure if a backpack full of Mac goodies would be allowed in the store.)  My wife busily worked a book of cross-number puzzles, which conclusively proved to me I had no understanding of how her mind works. Meanwhile, Apple Store workers passed by offering, first, coffee and, later, more appreciated water.  Then, about fifteen minutes before the store opened, a worker with Magic iPhone Tickets in his hand came through the crowd asking which iPhones we intended to purchase. Once we told him, he issued the Magic Tickets that entitled us to spend hundreds of dollars on our iPhone dreams; though, when pressed, he admitted the cards weren’t so magic after all, i.e., they did not guarantee anyone would get an iPhone, making them pretty but almost useless.  My wife asked him if the iPhone depicted on the front of the cards was real-size and he said it was; but I think it was slightly smaller.

The seconds counted down.  The crowd close to the store began a countdown chant, erupting in applause as they ended it at “ZERO!”.  The front straps on both cordons opened, and people spilled into the Apple Store like water over Niagara Falls, moving those of us behind them forward.  Security restricted the physical crowd in the Store to fifty people, and then let folks shuffle in groups of ten as people filtered out.  We moved fairly quickly out of the second cordon into the first and thought we were going to slide right into the store; but, as my luck usually has it, the security guy stopped us right at me.

As we waited for our turn to arrive, an Apple Store employee told us how they wanted the queues to work.  We would be herded into a line on the left side of the store for the sole purpose of buying an iPhone.  Accessories for the iPhone or anything else we wanted to buy would have to be done separately once the iPhone purchase was complete.  Sounded like a fair deal.  I was ready to do almost anything to get my iPhone and go home.

Our turn came, and we walked into the store past clapping and cheering Apple Store employees.  Our line stopped next to the table where iPhones were on display. WE picked them up and brushed against them as if they were forbidden lovers, putting them down as the line dragged us forward. Three people ahead of me, an Apple Store employee was selling iPhone cases off the display racks.  While I leaned forward to see what I could, I decided not to buy from the guy so I could make a leisurely decision about cases later.  This whole thing was already rushed enough.

We were soon at the end of the line at the back of the store where store employees were using three iMacs sitting on the Genius Bar as registers and more salespeople with handheld, wireless credit card readers roamed loosely in front of them.  We were directed to one of loose guys, and he took our two cards (each representing an 8 MB iPhone unit) and handed them to someone behind the bar who promptly bagged two 8MB iPhones into a special, black carrying bag while the loose guy swiped my credit card, checked my i.d., and wrote down my e-mail address.  Apple would e-mail me my receipt, he said.  If I had been told that anywhere else, I probably would have ended the sale then and there; but I swallowed my nervousness about having no receipt and took our iPhones.  It was just a cost for being cool.

Connie and I stopped at the accessory rack and bought a couple of cases for the phones, and left the store, passing by the angry, disapproving stare of a Sprint kiosk salesman who spied the iPhone decorated bag we were carrying and knew that he was doomed.

Activation and Synchronization

I had absolutely no problems activating the iPhones.  Admittedly, I had kept up with what was going on; so, before I did anything else, I ran Software Update and found iTunes Version 7.3 waiting.  (This is the version that contains iPhone Activation and Synchronization functions.)  I downloaded and installed it and plugged in the first phone.  Much to my surprise, unlike when I plug in an iPod, iTunes did not automatically launch.  I had to launch it manually; but when I did, it recognized the iPhone immediately and asked me if I wanted to activate it.

Both Apple and AT&T presented EULA’s I had to wade through; and once that was done, I was led me through the process of establishing an account for my phone. (I already had an iTunes account.) Essentially, I told the activation screens I was a new AT&T customer, that I wanted to transfer my current cell phone number, and then picked the family plan I wanted to operate our two phones under.  The whole process took only a few minutes; and unlike other folks, I had absolutely no problems which surprised me since it was about 7:30 pm CDT when I was stepping through it, i.e., two and a half hours after iPhone sales had begun in the U.S.

Once the process was complete, I let iTunes automatically synchronize my address book contacts, e-mail, and iCal entries with my iPhone.  I told it not to synch up photos, videos, movies, and music; I wanted to deal with them later after I understood more about how music synchronization with the iPhone worked.  (NOTE: While the iPhone does show up in iTunes, it does not show up on the Desktop like an iPod does during synchronization.  You must use the Eject buttons in iTunes to spit the iPhone off your system.) 

Once I had completed my iPhone’s activation, I hooked my wife’s iPhone into iTunes.  It recognized the phone as unactivated and presented the activation screens.  This time, I logged in as an AT&T customer (instead of as a new customer) and told it to add a line to my current account.  To validate who I was, I supplied it with my phone number and my social security number.  Again, the activation process on that iPhone also went smoothly.  Once done, I received two e-mails, one for each phone, telling me that AT&T was in the process of transferring its number.  While another e-mail arrived thirty minutes later confirming that my wife’s mobile number had been successfully transferred, mine, which had been requested first, did not arrive until the next morning.  That said, I knew my number had actually been transferred the night before because I had received an incoming phone call on it and checking my old Sprint phone showed it would refuse to hook up with the Sprint network.  (NOTE: If you want to see the activation process in detail, Apple has a video of it you can find here.)

Later, I hooked my iPhone back into iTunes and transfered a limited amount of pictures, movies, and music to it.  I discovered that even if you uncheck the “automatic synch” options on the iPhone Property page in iTunes, you cannot manually drag items from iTunes to the iPhone like you can for a manually managed iPod.  All synchronization with the iPhone is controlled by the iTunes application, so you have to manipulate its options to get what you want.  That caused me to establish an “iPhone” photo album in iPhoto so I could drag to it those photos I wanted on my iPhone.  To synch it, I only selected the iPhone album in the iTunes’ iPhoto listing and by clicking on the “Apply” button at the bottom of the page.  Likewise, I selected only two of my current movies in my iTunes Movie options (“Pirates of the Carribean:Dead Man’s Chest” and “Total Recall”) and only a few playlists in the Music options.  Currently, I have 3.7 GB of space left on the iPhone from a 7.3 GB usable capacity.  To say that another way, I have used 3.6 GB of space for 94 songs, 2 movies, and 64 photos.  I assume I can remove any of them by unselecting them in iTunes Options before the next synchronization, but I have yet to test that out. 


General Usage and Impressions

As I write this, I’ve been using the iPhone for three days.  To say it has met my expectations is an understatement.   All the things I’ve been wanting to do with a Smartphone I can now do, and do it with less effort than I would have imagined.  At times, it is even a pleasure.

First, as a phone, it has worked really well.  That said, I have only been in and around the Friendswood, Texas area, so the real test of how it performs as a phone will be when I take it up to my in-laws home in northeastern Missouri. 

One comment I do have is about the ringer.  Even at full volume, some of the ringers are either not noticeable or a bit soft.  If you buy an iPhone, have someone call you with the iPhone placed where you will most often carry it. My wife missed a phone call from me today with the iPhone riding in a pants pocket, and it was because the ringer was too muffled for her to hear it.

The voice call volume automatically lowers as you bring the device up to your ear.  While I suspect this is to protect your hearing when you move from speakerphone to handheld operation, it is also a bit annoying since it drops the volume significantly, causing me to often adjust it again as a call begins.

As an Internet device, the iPhone has exceeded what I expected of it.  I have used it solely on AT&T’s EDGE network and on our wireless home network which is hooked into a cable modem.  I have been happy with its performance on both.  While EDGE is significantly slower, pages still load in a reasonable amount of time and the presentation (full page as shown on the right and legible enough to tell what to zoom in on) makes it worth the wait.  One of the things I was not able to do with my previous SmartPhone was navigate to an aviation weather page and enter airports I wanted to see the latest reports from.  With the iPhone, that is finally possible.  Typing on the software keyboard is best done with just one finger, and it does take practice to hit a targeted key on the right edge of the keyboard.  The good news is that tapping your finger on a drop down menu or input box on a web page or in an e-mail automatically brings up the software keyboard, so you don’t have to call it up separately.

E-mail from our POP3 servers has worked well. Fetching e-mail using either EDGE or Wi-Fi has not been a problem.  I have four e-mail accounts and they are all loaded into the iPhone and there are separate inboxes for each one.   When starting a new message, a “+” icon appears in the right side of the TO: address line, and clicking on it opens your address book which you can stroll through to select a contact.  You can also use the software keyboard to address items.

Deleting an e-mail is done by simply tapping on a Trashcan icon at the bottom of the E-Mail screen.

Going to an URL pasted in an e-mail message is as easy as tapping on the URL.  Safari automatically launches to take you there.  However, when you are done, you must hit the device’s Home button and then hit the Mail icon again to get back to e-mail.  The good news here is that it will drop you right back into the last e-mail spot you were in.

To surf the web, you tap on the Safari button.  If you had Safari loaded on your Mac or PC, its bookmarks will now be in iPhone after its first synch (as shown in the picture to the right) and you can reference them by tapping the “Open Book” icon (Bookmarks) at the bottom of the iPhone’s screen.  Once you’re on a webpage, you can zoom in on it by either double-tapping on the screen or by doing a “reverse pinch” with your fingers.  Once you’ve gotten the type large enough to read, you can scroll around the page by simply dragging your fingers in the direction you want to drag the page. The device also remembers the pages you have gone to and allows you to either scroll back by using an arrow at the bottom of the page or by letting you select the pages as it displays them as if they were strung out together on a desktop(little double-square icon at the bottom right of the screen).  When it does this, you have the option of scrolling to or closing any page you’ve been to. 

I have set up my Weather widget to give me information about three places. They are Friendswood, Texas; Panther Junction, Texas; and Kirksville, Missouri. When I tap on the widget, it launches into the weather for my hometown (Friendswood) but shows three small white buttons below it.  Each button represents one of the places I’ve picked, and to go between them I simply tap left or right to switch.  The switch is instantaneous. 

So far, I’ve added two Notes to the Notes section.  When I enter Notes, I see a yellow notepad with a line corresponding to the title of each Note. To get to the Note itself, I simply tap on its title with my finger. 

The Clock widget has both a worldclock I use to let me know what time it is in areas where one of my sons serves in the US Army as well as a stopwatch I can use to track time to the second or set a countdown clock that will count down "X-many" hours and minutes. (I’d like to see Apple expand that to function down to seconds.)  It’s incredibly easy to use and very visible.  (I’d like to use the Stopwatch function to shoot IFR approaches in my airplane…if I can figure out how to mount the iPhone on my yoke.)

The Camera is a two megapixel version that works well under average lighting conditions.  To use it, you simply select the Camera icon, move the iPhone until it’s aligned with its subject, and then press the (software) Camera button.   The shots are stored underneath the Photo widget of the iPhone under the Camera Roll album.  This is the same section of the phone where iPhoto-synched photographs are stored, though they are in the Photo Library album and/or albums you selected in iPhoto.

The most important selection items in the iPod section are at the bottom of the screen where it shows Playlists, Artists, Songs, Videos, and More icons.  Movies are listed under the Videos icon.  One difference between the iPod function of the iPhone and a regular iPod pertains to what I mentioned above, i.e., photos are not stored here.  Only movies, videos, music, and podcasts are stored under the iPod widget.


Was It Worth It?

We went to a lot of expense and a little trouble to switch to the iPhone.  So far, my wife and I feel like the iPhone has matched the rest of our Apple experience, i.e., the iPhone has pretty much delivered what we expected of it, sometimes delivering a little more or a little less. It will take us a little time to get over the sticker shock, and I’ll be constantly reevaluating my position as time goes on.  If you’re interested you’ll be able to read further about my experiences, feelings, and revelations in future editions of The Computer Blog.  Be sure to check it from time to time.

What has surprised me the most about the whole experience so far has not really been the iPhone but the number of young people willing to shell out the big bucks to own them.  Most people were buying the more expensive 8GB version; it’s been reported that it accounted for 95% of iPhone sales.  My logic in deciding to buy the model was that it made no sense to cut the device’s memory and utility in half to save only $100, and I suspect most other buyers came to the same conclusion. 8GB of capacity ain’t much when you’re talking about loading up stuff from iTunes.  There’s a good reason why I bought an 80GB 5G iPod not long ago.

In the days since we bought our phones, Apple has come out with a battery replacement plan for $85.95 per phone.  A bit pricey, but that’s Apple for you.  With some financial analysts saying that the price margin on the phone is as high as 55%, you might think Apple will drop the price of the phone at some point.  But I wouldn’t count on that.  As a company, Apple rarely comes off its initial price points until the market makes it almost unreasonable for the company to hold to them. That’s going to be some time away.

One has to wonder, too, how AT&T justifies any kind of early termination fee with this phone.  The only one who subsidized it is me.  What the hell are they charging me for, other than greed?

What Came in the Box

Apple does its standard job of classy packaging with the iPhone.  It comes in a black box with a picture of the iPhone on the front.  Inside, as soon as you open it, is your iPhone, sitting almost camouflaged in the black boxing around it.  The iPhone sits on a clear plastic shelf; once you lift it out there is a very small black folder containing your legal paperwork and a small, black cloth you can use to wipe fingerprints off the iPhone’s screen; beneath that, you will find a smaller-than-iPod-size power adapter, a USB 2.0 chord, a plastic dock (a stand-up recharger/connector), and a small white headset based on the iPod earbud design. This headset, however, has a small plastic rectangle about a foot down the chord from the earbuds that acts as a microphone and external iPhone control.


Accessories, Accessories

What you don’t get in the box is any kind of a case, not even a small slip case like one that comes with the 5G iPod.  This is the only place where Apple has shown itself to be cheap. That means you really need to find some way to protect the device, even though testing performed by PC World has shown it to be fairly hardy.

The Apple Store had some cases in stock and my wife and I bought two of them, but we’re not happy with either. I bought the Speck Toughskin case.  While the case itself does a good job of protecting the unit, the belt clip was designed to double as a stand, and that is its fatal flaw.  It uses an alligator clip to secure the iPhone to your belt, and its jaws are easily forced open to allow your iPhone to fall off.  It also is too easy to accidentally jam the jaws open as you put the thing on your belt, since the way the clip forms a stand is to engage a latch at full open.  My wife bought a tight-fitting leather pouch by another company, and I’m not sure why she doesn’t like it; but she doesn’t.  So, we’re still looking. I’m still trying to figure out how to carry the iPhone’s small headset. No case I’ve seen so far accommodates it.  Worse come to worse, I guess I can stick it in my pants pocket.

The Apple Store was selling a set of touchscreen film protectors; you got two for $14.95.  They perfectly match the iPhone’s silhouette; but with only two in the package, you only can screw up placing one before you’re packing it back to the store for more.  Also, the adhesive on the screen side of the film easily picks up small hairs or specks of dirt that are impossible to get rid of once there, making the best environment to install one of these a “clean room”.   I’m sure other competitors will step in with their own versions of screen protectors that aren’t so pricey.  Then, again, maybe not.  A company named ZAGG Inc. has produced the full body “invisible Shield” which appears to be a thin-film protector that wraps around the whole iPhone.  That’s definitely a good idea and also a pricey one.  A single wrap costs $24.95.  Their website suggests that you’ll no longer need a case fro the iPhone, but that’s really only true if you have somewhere else to carry it.  I’ll write about them if I order some, and I probably will.


More To Come

The real evaluation of the iPhone is to come as more and more of my friends see it and as my wife and I use ours in more varying circumstances.  But I can say, as of right now, we’re happy we made the move.  I would encourage anyone who wants to and can afford it to do so.  The iPhone does nearly everything it was designed to do well and is a real joy to use.  Apple has published a 124 page User Guide. I have downloaded it and will read it to help me further unlock the device’s secrets; but like most Apple products, I have been able to figure out its most basic functions just by doing them.  It really, really is that intuitive.


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