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Ah! The iPhone. Never in seven years of reviewing mobile phones have we encountered a phone that has been so controversial. We’ve even been personally abused by reviewers who disagreed with our opinions. This review is an attempt to find balance between the conflicting opinions (something we always strive for at Mobile Phones UK, but which has been hard to achieve with the iPhone). Regular readers of Mobile Phones UK will know that we wrote an article back in June 2007 which cast doubt on whether the iPhone would live up to the hype. We hadn’t seen the iPhone at that time, but when it finally arrived here in the UK, we were blown away by the user interface and gave it a 5 star review (although we did point out its numerous limitations). With hindsight, 5 stars was wrong, and having taken on board all of the feedback from users, we’ve arrived at a 3 star rating.

The thing is that the iPhone is in some ways so good, and in other ways so bad. Let’s be generous and start with the good.

The iPhone is the first of a new generation of phones: it’s a touchscreen smartphone running Apple’s OS X operating system. Instead of using buttons, joysticks, etc, the iPhone has icons that appear on the huge touch-sensitive screen. The screen is enormous, and the user interface is simply breathtaking. Apple claim that the iPhone is five years ahead of the competition, and playing with the user interface you can begin to believe the hype. Touch the Phone icon on the screen and the address book appears; tap on a name and the iPhone makes a call. Touch the Photos icon and your photo album glides onto the screen. The responsiveness of the user interface and the wealth of effects makes using the phone an absolute joy. SmartPhones have a reputation for being slow, bug-ridden and difficult to use, but the iPhone is the absolute opposite. Using the iPhone is simply an amazing experience, and once you’ve owned an iPhone it’s hard to imagine ever going back to a normal phone. Take a look at the video demos on the iPhone website to see for yourself.

The iPhone is an iPod too of course. It plays music and with a built-in 8 Gbyte of flash memory, you can throw away your iPod. The iPhone plays music and video (on that stunningly big screen) and can download songs from iTunes on the move. 8 Gbytes is enough to store 2,000 songs.

Other great features include the Safari web browser (which provides one of the best implementations of the mobile web that we’ve come across), Google Maps (which is fabulous on the iPhone) and built-in Wi-Fi support.

That’s where the good stops and the bad starts. First the price. The iPhone is exclusive to O2 and will cost £269 to buy on a £35 per month 18-month contract. It’s locked to O2 and will continue to be locked even when the 18 month contract ends. This makes it far more expensive than any other phone in the mainstream market.

Some of the technology under the hood is more like “five years out of date” than “five years ahead of the competition”. For example, the camera is just 2 megapixels, lacks autofocus and has no flash. It’s just a toy camera compared to the Nokia N95, Samsung G600 or Sony Ericsson K850i. These three phones are currently in the top 5 sellers in the UK and all have 5 megapixel cameras with flash and autofocus. Apple seriously misjudged the public’s desire for quality cameras in their phones.

The connectivity of the iPhone is also seriously lacking (hey, it’s an Apple, we shouldn’t be surprised by this!) The most obvious omission is the lack of 3G. It’s the only current smartphone that lacks 3G. For a phone that places so much emphasis on its music downloading and web browsing capabilities, the fact that you can only download at 2G speeds is a major limitation. It’s like a Ferrari with a top speed electronically limited to 30 mph! If you’re in an EDGE-enabled part of the O2 network or a wi-fi hotspot, then you can access higher data speeds, but still nothing like 3G. It’s such a shame, because the web browsing capability of the iPhone is the best we’ve ever seen on a mobile. It seems that the iPhone was designed primarily for the US market where 3G is largely unavailable and where the choice of handsets is smaller. The Bluetooth support is also seriously limited, with no filesharing and nosupport for stereo Bluetooth headsets.

The battery life of the iPod is another issue. The iPod has a huge LCD display that eats power and with so many gadgets to play with, the battery is going to be used up fairly quickly. But even heavy users should get a full day’s use between charges, so it’s not the end of the world. Other problems include the omission of MMS, and the fact that you can only assign MP3 tracks to ringtones if they were downloaded from iTunes.

So, what to conclude about the iPhone. It’s clearly not a phone for everyone. It’s very expensive, so we should compare it with the best of the competition. What has the iPhone got that the others haven’t. The answer is the user interface: a huge touchscreen display, with a user interface that really is a modern wonder. It’s also a fine media player, but then so are its competitors. If you’ve got the cash and you love the look, then the iPhone could be your phone, but for the rest of us on a budget, you’d be advised to forget the charms of the iPhone and buy a cheaper alternative that does so much more. Alternatives include the LG KU990 Viewty, the Nokia N95, the Nokia N81, and the Sony Ericsson W960i.

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