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iPhone: The Usability Question

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Jan 1, 2008 3:00 PM PT

Apple's iPhone is hands-down the best cell phone I've ever used. It's not the lightest, smallest or most durable, and it doesn't even have the best call quality or loudest volume. However, the sum of its parts -- and there are many -- easily push it to the top of my list.

iPhone: The Usability Question

First, the basics.

Quality of Calls

Overall, I've found the calls to be clear. Around last January, when the wireless division was still called "Cingular," service around my area was so bad that I was a hair away from ditching the plan completely. Only Steve Jobs' iPhone announcement saved my account. Since then, and before I received my iPhone, AT&T miraculously fixed whatever problems were causing dropped calls and the near-constant static.

I compared my iPhone's signal quality against the signals of phones belonging to friends and family members who also use AT&T in my area. I found the iPhone to at least as good as, if not better than, newer models offered by Motorola, Nokia, Samsung and Sony Ericsson.

The speaker phone performs well enough -- not loud enough to gush over but not so quiet as to irritate either. The included headphones, which come with the built-in microphone, also work well, but generally not as well as an add-on bluetooth headset like the Apple iPhone Bluetooth Headset or the well-regarded Jawbone. I believe this is primarily due to the likelihood that the mic on the headset cord moves around as you move your head, leading to inconsistent audio for the person on the other end of the call.

Ergonomics Get Interesting

Half the battle with using a good cell phone is the feel and function -- the simple ergonomics of everyday use. The iPhone's relatively large size compared to basic cell phones (not compared to smartphones, which are typically larger than the iPhone) actually works in the iPhone's favor. Talking on a larger phone for long periods of time is flat-out easier than talking on a tiny phone. Of course, I'm a bigger guy with big hands, so take that into consideration.

When iPhone is naked, however -- when it's not in a protective case or skin -- it's a bit slippery. You have to pay attention when you're holding it, partially because of the slip and partially because of the unfamiliar form factor. In addition, the iPhone has the annoying ability to catch and pull my facial hair. It turns out the metal rim next to the glass has a gap just large enough to let a bit of cheek stubble slip in so that when you shift the iPhone, it pulls your hair. Obviously, this is a flaw that only affects men who don't keep their cheeks silky smooth.

Both the slip and the hair-pulling issues, however, were easily remedied when I added a black Speck ToughSkin. I'm not sure if it's a rubber or silicon material -- Speck doesn't say -- but it's definitely rubbery. On the plus side, it's rugged-looking, protective and prevents the iPhone from sliding from my hands or out of my pocket. On the minus side, it masks much of the iPhone's elegant style. Still, ever since putting it on, it hasn't come off.

Double-Touch Interface

Many cell phone reviews cover the feel and size of the keys -- often the keys are small or slippery or simply feel weird on cell phones. On the iPhone, there's only one button on the face, and there are no keys. The keypad is a virtual touchscreen-based pad. When you use the touchscreen keypad to dial, each key makes a familiar beep and briefly lights when you tap it. Plus, you can double tap numbers really fast and the iPhone never makes a mistake.

Once you're on a call, the screen goes blank when you lift the phone to your ear. The iPhone's proximity sensor notes the presence of a cheek and turns off the touch screen. It's a seamless feature that you quickly forget about.

When you pull the phone away, however, the screen comes back, giving you seven large button options: mute, keypad, speaker, add call, hold, contacts and end call.

If you choose contacts, you can scroll through your address book, find the person you want, and add him or her to the call. So three-way calling is wicked-easy. Tapping add call, by the way, sends you directly to your contact list. If you don't want to merge calls, which is an immediate option when you add a call to your existing call, you can swap the calls back and forth.

Additionally, you can ditch the phone interface altogether, punch the iPhone's main button to go to the home menu, and tap your calendar to see your schedule. Getting back to the call is easy -- you tap a green bar at the top of your screen. Can't miss it.

To end a call, all you have to do is a tap a large red button at the bottom of the screen. Surprisingly, this took me some time to get used to. Because the iPhone's main Home button is used so often to take you back to the Home screen, you tend to use that button whenever you want to exit whatever it was you were doing on the iPhone. When I "exit" a phone call, I still sometimes use the iPhone's Home button, which doesn't end the call. Unfortunately, the iPhone is not yet able to read my mind.

Recent Calls, Contacts and Favorites

The touchscreen interface gives you menu options for your favorites, which you have to enter, as well as your recently made, received and missed calls. Calling any one of these numbers is a simple matter of tapping the name or number, and you're dialing. To find out the date and time of the call, you tap a ">" icon and it pulls up the contact information for the caller. If the number is in your contacts list, you can call them back using a different number listed handily for you -- for example, if your friend calls from work but it's 9 p.m. and you know he's at home, you can simply tap the "home" number. There's no fumbling, no lookups, and -- I'm not sure if this is good -- little need for human memory.

For a phone with complex features, using it is extraordinarily intuitive. All of these features don't require a learning curve at all. There's a reason Apple doesn't bother to ship a thick owner's manual with iPhone -- you don't need one.

See Your Voice Mail

Of all the basic phone features the manufacturer bundled into the iPhone, Apple and AT&T's implementation of visual voice mail is the best. When a voice mail comes in, and you choose not to listen to it right away, it's stored for you in the visual voice mail menu. Listening to a voice mail is easy -- tap the caller's name or number and you're one more tap away from listening to it, calling the person back or deleting it. Plus, you get a cool little slider bar that moves from left to right as you listen to the message, which also shows you how long the message is. For instance, if it's 30 seconds, you can skip it and just call the person back.

If you're using a traditional landline, you'll come to hate your regular landline voice mail service.

In the Car

Because the iPhone doesn't have physical keys that you can feel, you must look at the touchscreen keypad to tap a number. That makes dialing while driving a dicey proposition. I'm not recommending that anyone talks on any phone while driving, but in certain situations, most cell phone users are likely to do it.

With the iPhone, if you don't pay attention and wisely choose your moment to dial or answer, you might put yourself or others in a dangerous situation; however, for most of your calls, all you have to do is tap the right contact or number to easily start the call. If you use the speaker phone, you're better off as well. In any event, if you must drive and use the iPhone, you must be particularly vigilant of the road.

E-Mail's Phone Number Link

When you're viewing an e-mail message and it contains a phone number, as e-mail messages often do, the iPhone recognizes the format of the phone number and makes it a live link. Tapping it gives you the immediate option of automatically dialing the number. This feature is so cool that I wish it was built into my MacBook's Mail program, too. Plus, when you're browsing the Web and run into a phone number ... yup, that's right, it's a hotlink that, when tapped, gives you a pop-up button asking you if you want to dial the number.

Of course, you can assemble these kinds of features yourself using VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) products and special VoIP phones, but the iPhone is a consumer-level device that just works flawlessly, end-to-end. There's no assembly required.

Now, I can't imagine going back to anything else.

This story was originally published on Aug. 21, 2007, and is brought to you today as part of our Best of ECT News series.

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