Product Review: iPhone progresses towards all-in-one device

Though the wild success of the PalmPilot happened quickly, handheld vendors had been labouring for years to find a golden mean of price, form factor, and feature set. Each close-but-no-cigar attempt and even outright failure added to the knowledge of the group. The PalmPilot didn't come out of nowhere, although it seemed so at the time.

Vendors in the still-gestating Internet appliance space should take heart from the history of handhelds. For instance, InfoGear's new iPhone Series 2000, which combines a telephone and calling features such as Caller ID with Web browsing and e-mail applications, is neither a dud nor a breakthrough. Although it might have a role in small or home offices, the iPhone can't replace a corporate-issue handset and PC. But because it helps to flesh out the idea of what makes a useful device and what doesn't, the iPhone advances the Internet appliance market.

The iPhone console is about the size of a large laptop and includes a handset (not cordless, unfortunately), telephone keypad, flip-up touchscreen display, 56Kbit/sec modem, and a keyboard that slides out from the base of the unit.

For the most part, I liked the iPhone's industrial design. The console is substantial without being bulky. The gray-scale display measures 7.4 inches and has a resolution of 640-by-480 pixels. Images were sharp, but the display had some ghosting and bleeding. InfoGear is obviously trying to keep the price down by not using a colour display, but devices such as the iPhone will eventually need colour screens to compete, particularly for browsing the Web.

The iPhone's keyboard is the weakest part of its design. Although the alpha keys are full-size, the space bar doesn't stick up far enough above the keyboard's frame, making it easy to miss. Also, the number row is annoyingly shifted one space to the left as compared to a standard keyboard. And because the keyboard is so shallow, it feels unresponsive. If you've ever used a Psion handheld device, you'll recall its thin action when using the iPhone keyboard. A final complaint about the hardware: The iPhone's handset should rest more deeply in its cradle. It was too easy to jostle off the hook, which disabled Internet connections when using a single line.

I got the hook-up

The hoped-for appeal of Internet appliances is that they are much easier to set up and use than networked PCs. In this regard, the iPhone succeeds. There is no software to load; you simply plug in power, telephone, and data lines and then dial in to an Internet service provider to configure your account.

Like a football team that "wins ugly", the iPhone's Internet browser isn't a work of art, but it gets the job done. Without colour, a lot of the visual appeal of the Web is taken away, but the iPhone is fine for checking a score or getting a stock quote. In fact, the product's instant-on capability takes less time than booting up a PC and is preferable for hit-and-run browsing.

Rather than underlining links, the iPhone displays them as buttons. Although buttons may be easier than underlined words to press on a touchscreen with a finger or stylus, the design decision is a poor one. Pages with numerous links, such as Yahoo's home page, become a mass of jumbled buttons and awkward line breaks. A better choice would have been to use underlined links that become highlighted when selected. More important, the iPhone makes it too hard to enter a URL. You must first click a "Go" button, then enter the address, and then press "Enter." InfoGear should add an editable address bar to the iPhone's main browser window.

On the bright side, the 56Kbit/sec modem and low-resolution display made browsing extremely responsive. The iPhone browser supports forms, cookies, and Secure Sockets Layer (SSL). I was able to order a CD from Amazon.com, check my bank account, and review my investments.

To be a serious candidate for the small or home office, the iPhone needs better e-mail capabilities. E-mail is stored on the ISP's server, but this isn't Internet Messaging Access Protocol-level functionality. There's no way to organise messages in folders, and the iPhone has a limit of 250 headers. Attachments are noted but stripped from the message.

When you pick up the handset, the iPhone pops up a display that shows the number you are calling, the elapsed time of the call, and 12 programmable speed-dial buttons. (These are standard phone calls, not IP-based ones.) The display also provides the interface for the iPhone's telephony features. Unfortunately, they will not be available for another month or two, and I was unable to test them.

The iPhone's upgrade feature should make enabling the telephony features easy. A connected iPhone is prompted by the ISP's server when a software revision is available; users can automatically download the update with a single click. In my tests, upgrading iPhone's OS took about five minutes and went off without a hitch. Features such as automatic upgrades show the promise of Internet appliances.

The iPhone obviously targets the techno-phobic, but it's hard to recommend it when you can buy a basic PC for about the same price and get more functionality, even if it is a pain to set up. The iPhone isn't a proper telephone for the main office either because it can't handle multiple extensions or digital phone lines. Thanks to the iPhone's instant-on capability, it could be useful as a kiosk-like device in small offices, but I think its real value is the progress it makes toward the emergence of mass-market Internet appliances.

(Chip Brookshaw (chip_brookshaw@infoworld.com) has been covering Internet-related technology for the InfoWorld Test Centre since 1996.)The bottom line: fairiPhone Series 2000Summary: The iPhone merges calling features with browsing and e-mail applications. In the quest for a revolutionary Internet appliance, it's a milestone, not the final destination.

Business Case: Although it integrates telephone, answering machine, and Internet features, the iPhone is too expensive. A sub-$500 PC plus a corporate handset is a much better value.

Pros

+ Generally sturdy, all-in-one design

+ Easy setup

+ Instant-on capability

Cons

- Relatively high price

- Rudimentary e-mail

- Crude, but functional, browser

Platforms: Not applicable

InfoGear Technology Corp, Redwood City, California; www.infogear.com

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