iPhoning it in (updated)

Did anyone know Apple released a new product today? Not sure how they kept it so quiet!

I just returned from my local Apple store - it was pretty busy, but they had plenty of iPhones, and had 10 or so out on the floor to play with.

First, it is definitely cool and generally lives up to the Apple marketing machine. It is very small and slim, much thinner than even the 60GB iPod. The iPhone is built very sturdily and feels solid. The glass screen seems pretty tough too - doesn't feel like it would scratch very easily, and the display seems very high-res for a handheld.

In terms of functionality, it does quite a lot. The home screen is accessed by pressing the sole button on the bottom front of the iPhone. From here, you can access any of the built in applications with a press on the touch screen.

The iPod functionality is phenomenal. The interface is very responsive, and cover flow works as advertised allowing you to browse your library by flipping through cover art. Music plays through the speaker or through headphones. You can flip the orientation of the interface simply by turning the iPhone sideways; the sensor seemed pretty responsive but did get confused at times - still pretty neat, though. I am truly looking forward to a true iPod with this interface. The iPhone only has 4 or 8gb, but an iPod with 80gb+ with this easy to use and attractive interface will be a great product (and is hinted to be in the works already)

The built-in photos app was very smooth as well - browsing through a large library of photos using thumbnails is a piece of cake. You can zoom in and out of a photo by "pinching" the screen. The iPhone also has a camera that can take still photos. The photos can be emailed to others, used as wallpaper, or assigned to a contact as a picture ID.

Finally, you can view YouTube content very easily - videos looked sharp and loaded quickly on the iPhone's display in landscape mode.

The included Safari web browser allows "real" web surfing. Over WiFi, the experience isn't too terribly different from a PC, other than screen size. You can easily zoom in and out to view portions of pages at a larger size. Scrolling through a page is pretty smooth, although I found it best to wait for the page to fully load before doing so.

Turning off WiFi, the iPhone automatically connected to AT&T's EDGE network. The web browser still worked, but was significantly slower. The experience was very similar speed-wise to what is experienced on other EDGE devices like the Treo or Blackberry. Not horrible for quick lookups of information, but not great for heavy surfing. On the plus side, the iPhone does a good job of detecting WiFi networks and automatically switching between EDGE and WiFi. It also supports L2TP and PPTP VPNs for secured connectivity with corporate networks.

Email worked similarly well; there were presets for setting up Yahoo Mail, GMail, and .Mac. You can also manually connect to a POP3 or IMAP server. There is also an option for Microsoft Exchange, but indicated that IMAP support was needed, so I'm not certain of the difference between selecting Exchange and just plain IMAP. One thing I noticed missing was support for SSL mail connections to encrypt communication with the mail server was that iPhone automatically tried to connect via SSL and enabled it automatically.

There is a Google Maps application as well. Overall, it works similar to the Google Maps clients for Treo or Blackberry, but has a bit of Apple flair in terms of user interface - placemarks "fly" in. The iPhone doesn't have a built-in GPS receiver, so it can't do true turn-by-turn directions, but it will provide directions and you can step through each turn with a press. I had a few problems getting routes to download properly, but in general it was easy to use.

The phone functionality is easily accessed using the front screen. One potential issue though is making a call. With the phone in standby, you have to press a small button on the top of the iPhone, and then "swipe" your finger across the display, and then select the phone, and then dial. It is a few extra steps than a typical smartphone. Other than that, phone functionality is excellent - the on-screen controls are easy to use. Visual voice mail is something I wish more devices would use - instead of dialing in and using touch-tones to listen to messages one at a time, visual voice mail displays your messages on a screen, and you can touch any one to listen to it, similar to an email. Conference calling, transferring, and call waiting was significantly easier to use than on nearly any other phone I've seen.

Typing on the iPhone was a bit tricky - I can see it taking some time to get used to it. Without any physical feedback, you have to watch the display as you type. I was mostly successful using my index finger; I'm not sure if I'd be able to type using 2 thumbs on as Blackberry. The key you press does enlarge, and if you hit a wrong letter, you can simply slide your finger over without lifting to correct yourself. It also has a built-in correction routine that can detect words as you type them. It's certainly easier than multi-tap or T9 on a traditional cell phone, but not quite as easy as a handheld keyboard.

Overall, Apple has a revolutionary device on their hands. As a first generation product, there are still a few kinks to work out (keyboard) and features to add (GPS, 3G wireless) but they will have given new life into the wireless industry. Using the iPhone is significantly more intuitive and fun than any other PDA or smart phone out there!