Chris reviews THE NEW iPHONE

The new iPhones are coming, and the excitement is palpable. As a dedicated iPhone user since Apple introduced the device in June ’07 — I think I bought my first the following month — I’ve been daydreaming about possible advances for some time now. I thought I’d be waiting for clarity till the expected late June/early July announcement, when out of nowhere I got a call from a really nice girl named Susan who works at Apple in the PR office. She explained that in contrast with past product rollouts, Apple had decided to preview the next model iPhone to tech journalists and other interested members of the media. She asked if I’d like to spend a little time with iPhone 3.0 and write up my impressions for this website. I was more than a little surprised — WAS.com may have a great readership, but the content tends to veer away from respectable product advice and toward lies about celebrities, wanton use of words like fuck and shit, and video game cheats. But I was excited — heck yes, I was excited. I readily agreed.

So this morning I met Susan at the Apple store on Fifth Avenue, where she took me to a spare conference room in the back and gave me about fifteen minutes with the new iPhone. To say I was surprised by Apple’s change in direction would be a big understatement — so would saying I was merely delighted. One bummer stipulation Susan made was that I couldn’t take any photos; I was, however, allowed to make sketches, which I did. Without further ado, then, let me present the iPhone 3.0 (or rather, my pretty rudimentary sketch of it):

 

 

What’s the first thing that jumps out at you? Yeah, me too: It’s a fucking clamshell! When Susan handed me this phone, I was sure it was a prank, or that she was messed up on some goofy pills. But she just stared at me and nodded, and her pupils weren’t abnormally dilated or anything. I opened and closed the phone, turned it over in my hand a few times, and started to notice the kind of great details that could only come from Apple — this really was the new iPhone I was holding, and it was a clamshell! Now, I don’t know how you feel about clamshells, but I’ve always been an unabashed fan. You’ve got this tiny phone, something roughly the size of a credit card that fits easily into even the stingiest pockets, and yet when you’re ready to use it you simply unfold it, thus doubling its size. What’s not to love? I’ve been really annoyed to watch manufacturer after manufacturer turn away from the clamshell toward larger, hingeless phones with huge keyboards. I realize that the iPhone has played a big part in this transition, but it always compensated for that betrayal of logic with a number of wildly positive features. So it’s immensely satisfying to see the Apple people throw it into reverse and back out of the blind alley that the industry followed them into two years ago. I’m here to tell you that iPhone 3.0 is really, really small — think of an old Sanyo clamshell.

The second striking left turn the iPhone 3.0 makes, after the clamshelling, is dropping the touch screen and returning to physical buttons — and not the bloated QWERTY keyboards that Blackberry has made standard on smartphones, but a good old-fashioned 12-key number pad. Of course, it wouldn’t be an Apple product without a few elegant twists, and this isn’t your grandpa’s 12-key number pad. You see, the keypad on the new iPhone doesn’t stop at 9: it has a 10 key, an 11 key, and a 12 key. What?! Weird, right? But then you start to think about it, and you realize how much time might be saved when even just those three numbers — 10, 11, & 12 — require one keystroke instead of two. And you get that familiar tingling feeling: “Holy shit, I’ve just experienced the latest revolutionary-yet-obvious innovation from Apple. I will never look at X Product the same again.” As the wonder set in, I realized something was troubling me, some nagging detail. No zero! “Wait,” I asked Susan, “what if you have to dial a zero?” She took the handset, held down the 12 key for ten seconds, and a zero appeared on the display. I laughed. Of course!

 

 

Besides the addition of 10, 11, and 12, the keypad on the new iPhone has a visual simplicity that’s really pleasing. Several surprises still await, though. A star and hash key sit directly north of the number pad, and beyond their obvious role, they also unlock further keystroke savings. Hold down the star key while you press any of the number keys and you get the number you pressed followed by all of the numbers in the same column, starting with the one directly below it. So hold ‘*’ and press ‘1′, and the you’ll get ‘14710′ (1-4-7-10) on the display. Press ‘* + 5′ and you get ‘58112′ (5-8-11-2; notice that it wrapped back around to the top of the column to pick up that ‘2′; pretty cool, right?) You’ve probably guessed what the hash key does: hold it down while you press a number key and you get that number followed by all the other numbers in the same row, starting with the number immediately to the left. So ‘# + 3′ gives you ‘321′, and ‘# + 11′ gives you ‘111012′. I decided to see how long it would take me to input the phone number 546-271-0148 on the new iPhone. Ten keystrokes? Try four: ‘# + 5′, then ‘2′, then ‘* + 7′, then ‘8′. Not bad. In the course of a day, you’re looking at some pretty incredible keystroke elimination.

The minimalist keypad isn’t done yet, though. Sandwiched between the star and hash keys is a standard-looking alphanumeric key, but if, as I was, you’re expecting that it converts each number key into the traditional rotating series of three or four letters (‘2′ becoming ‘ABC’, for example), you’re in for quite a surprise. Clicking that little cursive ‘a’ unlocks the new iPhone’s most astounding timesaver of all: WordLists. Get fucking ready. In WordList mode, each number key becomes a list of words; you toggle through the list by clicking the key repeatedly. The lists add up to 250 of the words most commonly used in text messages, broken up into twelve extremely well thought out categories: pronouns, action verbs, general verbs, general nouns, places, people, and six lists of names. The pronouns are obvious enough: I, She, They, What, etc. The action verbs are: run, swim, dive, tread water, flip, fly, twist, roll, spin, somersault, raise, lower. General verbs include: think, realize, intensify. The places are ten of the most popular international cities (London, New York, Los Angeles, Paris, etc.), plus Italy and USSR. ‘People’ includes: sister, friend, prosecutor, senator, clerk. And the lists of names have 77 of the most popular names — everything from Chris to Ivan to Marion. Got the idea? Press the alphanumeric key, and your keypad becomes an incredibly efficient sentence builder. I was able to write ‘I wonder what James’ in seven keystrokes. ‘They go swim Turkey’ took five. If I have one complaint about WordList, it’s that the words don’t come up on the display as you toggle through them. Instead, the screen remains blank until it thinks you’re done toggling (about five seconds after you stop clicking the number key), then displays your choice. Until you’ve memorized the lists of words, you’ll need to rely on a paper index about the size of a credit card that Susan told me will come standard with the phone.

Let’s move on to the display: simple and elegant. Apple decided to eschew some recent display trends — many of which they helped create — and go with a low-res, black and green, four line screen. Plenty of real-estate to read a text message or program your phone book with a number that includes extensions, but not enough to perform most of the “handheld computer”-type functions that people have started to expect their phones to have. Which brings us to the larger issue: the iPhone 3.0 isn’t a palm-top PC — not even close. Apple is taking a brave stand with this phone, and I think it’s going to catch on in a big way. What’s their stand? No internet, no maps, no weather, no stock tickers — no elaborate software of any kind! In fact, the new iPhone plan won’t even have a data option, because the device can’t use it. I might as well put it all on the table: there’s no camera, either. Email? Nope.

So what the heck is Apple up to? If you ask me, they’re about to revolutionize the cell phone industry. Again. What Apple has realized is that, thanks in no small part to them, the cell phone has gone from a hugely useful way to communicate, to a big fat time suck. I don’t know about you, but I spend more time than I’d ever have imagined possible downloading Apps, cueing up playlists, trying to figure out cheat codes for little video games, slowly pecking out email messages on a tiny keyboard, and just generally dicking around — all on my cell phone. I barely have time to pick up a book anymore, what with all the time I spend pruning and sculpting the digital gardens contained inside my iPhone. In London, where I use a Blackberry due to the difficulty of parsing AT&T’s travel protocols for my iPhone, I’m totally lost in neighborhoods that I’ve visited dozens of times in the last couple of years. Why? Because I watch the little blue dot on my Blackberry screen instead of watching my surroundings. I know exactly what London looks like on the Google Maps Blackberry app — beyond that, I couldn’t tell ya much about the place.

 

 

There’s one last neat feature of the iPhone 3.0; this one showcases not so much Apple’s brilliant ingenuity as its whimsy. When it’s closed, the front of the iPhone has its own little display — the kind that used to show you either the current time or the number of whoever was calling. Apple decided those features were a little excessive — what, you don’t have a watch? — and instead lets you program the display to say anything you want, up to three characters. A simple, playful addition to Apple’s lean, mean return to efficiency-over-excess.

NB: It probably goes without saying that, since this is Apple, the new iPhone will come in a variety of awesome colors: silver, black, and a Product(RED) edition for an extra $89. Also, the phone uses two AA batteries, which Apple says will get 30 mins of talk time or two hours of standby.

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