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The ‘Jesusphone’ cometh

Ted AlvarezVail, CO
Jason DeCrow/AP Photo
AP | AP

At first touch, using an iPhone feels like playing with the future. Fingers slide across the sleek glass and chrome, typing, zooming and sliding items without so much as pressing a single button on the iPhone’s featureless face. It feels like a gadget heaven-sent from a sci-fi movie, art designed to death and not of this world.Then you have to wait for 15 seconds while your web page loads.Despite crashing into the brick wall of less-than-instant Internet service, the aesthetics and general experience of using an iPhone often trump the technical gaps left by Steve Jobs and Apple. Serious business users used to getting actual work done on their hyper-synchronized Crackberries might want to sit this one out, but the iPhone provides a smashing entry into the world of smart phones for casual consumers, gadget geeks and dabblers in mobile Internet – namely, the rest of us.Waitin’ on an iPhonePreliminary reports of massive shortages of iPhones at Apple stores proved largely unfounded; Denver-area stores have maintained stock since the release on June 29. The hype behind the iPhone reached a deafening thrum as the launch date drew close: Tech bloggers dubbet it the “Jesusphone,” and everyone was going to want one. Still, lines were largely confined to New York, Los Angeles and other large coastal cities.But the basics of the iPhone limit those who can spring for one at launch. Units come in a $500 4-gig or $600 8-gig model, and beyond the prohibitive expense, prospective users have to sign up for an exclusive two-year contract with AT&T. For our preliminary tests at the Vail daily, we used an iPhone owned by Vail Daily graphic artist Jon Scharfencamp, who purchased his while on vacation at the Mall of America in Minnesota.”There weren’t really any lines at all,” said Scharfencamp. “I just wandered in, and a sales rep saw me fiddling with one and mentioned they still had a few 4- and 8-gig models left. It was busy, but not excessively so.”

Scharfencamp has largely been extremely satisfied with the phone so far, and he’s experienced good-to-excellent call quality, even on top of Vail Mountain.”I was talking up there, taking pictures, the whole thing,” he said. “It’s awesome, isn’t it? You want one when you look at it, don’t you?”Yes. Yes I do.The Internet in your pocket?Jobs promised “the Internet in your pocket” when the iPhone was unveiled this past January, and while the iPhone does an admirable job of browsing the web, it falls far short of that proclamation. The web browser, a stripped-down version of Safari, is much more intuitive and crash-resistant than anything currently out there, but your browsing experience will truly depend on the connection you’re using.The iPhone comes with built-in WiFi accessibility, which is a boon since many smartphones don’t possess the feature. If you’re using the web at a cafe or on a home connection or other hotspot, the pages load quickly and are robust. But if you aren’t near a WiFi hotspot, the iPhone uses AT&T’s notoriously slow EDGE network. On EDGE, pages load at near-dial-up speeds, sometimes taking as much as a minute to load. This is far from a cutting-edge (ahem) experience, and anybody out to get real work done on the web will come away frustrated. But for casual web surfers, the glorious 3.5-inch color screen goes some way to ameliorating the pain once your page does finally opo up.To manipulate the page, you pinch your fingers on a certain area to zoom in and spread them apart to zoom out. Rotating the iPhone to landscape view spreads out the web page in widescreen as well. Typing is done entirely through the touch screen, and while it bears a bit of a learning curve, single-touch typers and those with small fingers will be typing full emails in no time. An automatic spellcheck helps fill in words that are easy to mistype, and it works relatively well. The tactile feedback from a real keyboard is nice, but as long as the user isn’t writing a novel, the touch screen is mostly successful and a great deal of fun.Apple’s Visual Voicemail is a huge jump in performance for smart phones. No longer will you punch numbers or have to wait through a droney operator as she announces how many new and saved messages you have. Voicemail pops up in a list with sender information, like email, and you simply tap to listen to a single message. It’s incredibly easy and amazing no one has thought of this before.iPhone syncs with popular email clients like Yahoo and Gmail, but it can’t hook up with Outlook or similar business-themed email programs, so most business-oriented users will be left in the dark. The browser can’t handle Java or Flash, so millions of web page features won’t show on the iPhone. You can’t voice dial or use dedicated chat software, and Apple chose to stick with the outmoded non-removable battery. That means that after 400-500 charges, users will have to send in their phones and pay for new batteries – a tall order on an already pricey phone. But battery life seems to be better this time out; one online tester watched an entire two-hour movie, listened to eight hours of music and made a several calls without draining even half the battery.

Multimedia masterpieceAs a pure iPod, the iPhone is maybe the slickest, coolest one yet. In addition to fantastic sound, music lovers now have a digital album covers that they can flip through when selecting songs. It’s like digging through a deep record collection, and it’s extremely satisfying to flick through your amassed collection of records and tap on the album art to select a song.Video is brilliant and eminently watchable, given the beautiful screen. If you are a frequent flyer, and iPhone could be a saving grace with its capacity to display brilliant movies and TV shows. Throw in podcasts and music, and that transatlantic flight ought to pass by in no time.YouTube provided a dedicated widget that features their videos that work on the iPhone; while it’s not as robust as the full PC version, there’s plenty of videos available to blow your time.The dedicated Google Maps feature remains one of the most useful and entertaining applications. It’s thrilling to log on to Google Maps, search for an Italian restaurant in Denver, map your route step by step, and tap the restaurant’s profile to instantly call for reservations.Unfortunately, the iPhone has no built in GPS, so the phone can’t determine where you are. You’ll have to advance the directions yourself, but it’s not too much of a drawback.The 2-megapixel camera shoots better photos than expected; as long as you can keep the shot relatively still, colors are vibrant and clear, and the photo is relatively detailed. The inability to send picture messages is a huge drawback, though, as you’ll have to attach the pic and send it in an email rather than firing it off like a text message. There aren’t very many features either: No flash, editing, or digital zoom or scene selection for more advanced photo users.Calendar, Notes, text messaging, and weather widgets work exactly like their OSX counterparts (with the exception of text messaging). Text messaging allows you to view the texts like conversations, which is nice when replying. The weather feature is perhaps even more useful than when on a laptop; this enables you to check weather forecasts on the fly, which is extremely useful while traveling in our unpredictable mountain environment.Future phone

So is it really worth plunking down the bucks for an iPhone? As with so many things this complex, the answer depends. It’s truly a groundbreaking multifunction device – it brings together phone communication, the Internet, digital media and productivity tools like no device before, and it packages them in easily the most user-friendly, slickest format to date.But when you pound so many uses into one device, shortcuts will have to be made, and some of those shortcuts will effectively eliminate potential users. If you need high-speed, non-WiFi Internet access for your business, often times the EDGE network on an iPhone just won’t cut it. People who demand a more functional camera or picture messaging from such an expensive device may want to look elsewhere. The touch-screen interface is fun and interesting, but it isn’t especially fast; people used to typing 200 words a minute on their Blackberries or Treos may want to try before they buy.Anybody who’s questioning the iPhone can always wait until the next generation, which will inevitably streamline the bugs and add a lot of the missing features. But that probably won’t happen for another two years or so.If you’re interest is even piqued a little by the peerless looks and design of the iPhone, it’ll be hard to let go of it once it’s in your hand. It’s the ultimate toy, a super-gadget perfect for monkeying around with and getting a taste of some beautiful, seamless device that will one day deliver on all the promises and possibilities of this iPhone.This iPhone may be just a taste of the future, but small bitter bits aside, the future tastes pretty amazing.Arts & Entertainment writer Ted Alvarez can be reached at 748-2939 or talvarez@vaildaily.com.Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado


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