I've owned at least one of every kind of iPod ever made and as I've watched Apple steadily improve the product line and drop prices, the iPod has become the gotta-have-it gadget of the early 21st century. These days, it seems, everyone has an iPod, sometimes more than one, and Apple has responded to the maturing market by expanding the product line with new models that meet different needs and by lowering prices. After plying consumers with three evolutionary models of the original iPod, Apple expanded the line first with the lackluster (and initially impossible to find) iPod mini and then later with the stellar iPod nano and iPod shuffle. Though the iPhone does so much more than any iPod, one might consider this device the next generation iPod, thanks to its new form factor, gorgeous new graphical views, compatibility with the hardware's finger-based scrolling, and more. No, it's not perfect--the iPhone also drops some key iPod functionality too--but wow. It sure is an awesome iPod.
As a fan of portable video, I've been waiting for Apple to make a "true" video iPod for years and have resorted to using an Archos 604 for this purpose. An iPhone without phone capabilities would make a fine video iPod: It garners fantastic battery life--almost 5 hours of video playback with normal volume--and because it actually displays video in landscape mode, it better takes advantage of the device form factor than does the current generation iPod with video (see my review), which sports a tiny and semi-useless (for video) screen.
The iPhone's iPod functionality isn't just about video, of course. But it's hard to look at this device and not imagine the possibilities. Most of Apple's iPod line is overdue for a refresh as I write this: Though the iPod shuffle was significantly and successfully updated in late 2006 (see my review), the designs of the iPod with video and iPod nano (see my review) are now two years old and getting a bit tired. Presumably, these two iPods will be updated this year, and if we're lucky, the iPod with video will look and act very much like an iPhone. Here's why.
The iPhone's iPod functionality is handled through a software application named, get this, iPod. The iPod application is important enough to warrant one of just four available spots at the bottom of the iPhone home screen, alongside Phone, Mail, and Safari, and Apple lists iPod as one of the four core areas of iPhone functionality. This makes sense: Apple's sold a gajillion iPods, and its experience designing, improving, and marketing the iPod is all over the iPhone. Spiritually, if not technologically, the iPhone really is an iPod.
Of course, the fact that iPod functionality is now handled via an OS X-based application, and not some simpler embedded application, as it is on all real iPods, means that the iPod application is both more sophisticated and buggier than traditional iPods. The good news is that a recent iPhone update appears to have fixed the rampant iPod-related crashes that occurred with annoying frequency in the device's first month and a half of existence. The iPod app was particularly problematic when you switched to other iPhone applications. For example, if you left a music playlist running while trying to browse the Web or answer email, the iPod application would inevitably crash, again and again, requiring you to manually navigate back to the application to restart it and then restart the playlist. It still happens, but less frequently than before.
Like other core iPhone applications, the iPod application is presented as a set of lists, though in this case, you have far more customization possibilities than with other similarly constructed iPhone apps. By default, you'll see four main options, along with a fifth option, More, which gives you access to other views. In total, there are ten views, and you are free to use whichever four of the following you wish on the iPod's initial screen. Here's what's available:
Albums. An alphabetical list of the musical albums you've synced to the iPhone.
Artists. An alphabetical list of the artists whose music you've synced to the iPhone.
Audiobooks. An alphabetical list of the audio books you've synced to the iPhone.
Compilations. An alphabetical list of the greatest hits albums, soundtracks, and other musical compilations you've synced to the iPhone.
Composers. An alphabetical list of the composers whose music you've synced to the iPhone. (This is most accurately used with classical music, but composer information can and should of course appear in any song.)
Genres. An alphabetical list of the genres you've synced to the iPhone.
Playlists. An alphabetical list of the playlists you've synced to the iPhone. This includes both the manual playlists you've created yourself and the automatically generated smart playlists that are managed by iTunes (see my review of iTunes 7). Because of the iPhone's somewhat limited storage capacity (4 or 8 GB, depending on the model you purchase), you will find that proper playlist creation is key to using the device, as it is with the iPod nano and shuffle.
Podcasts. An alphabetical list of the podcasts you've synced to the iPhone. Might I humbly recommend the Windows Weekly podcast? My voice has been known to cause people to slip immediately into deep sleep, which can be helpful if you're an insomniac.
Songs. An alphabetical list of the songs you've synced to the iPhone.
Videos. An alphabetical list of the videos you've synced to the iPhone. (This includes movies, music videos, video podcasts, and TV shows.)
Finding content: Lists and CoverFlow
These lists can be viewed in portrait (vertical) or landscape (horizontal) mode. In portrait mode, they are presented as text lists, which makes sense, and some--like Albums and Compilations--display small album art as well. The Songs and Playlist lists (and other sub-lists) include a "Shuffle" option right at the top, so if you want to simply shuffle the contents of a particular list of songs, it's easy to do so. (Indeed, it's even easier on the iPhone than it is on a traditional iPod, where shuffle--and repeat--are set globally.) Many of the long lists here include a right-mounted alphabet, in tiny letters, that runs from the top of the screen to the bottom, letting you quickly move down the list--say, to songs or albums that start with "T" or some other letter far down the alphabet--quite quickly. This is necessitated by the iPhone's lack of a scroll wheel, but I really like the way this works: You can finger flick the list to scroll up and down normally, or just jump to a point in the list by tapping one of the small letters. It's intuitive and effective, and less prone to over-scrolling than the iPod's Click Wheel.
In landscape mode, things get more interesting. You can't actually view lists in landscape mode, but the iPhone switches into a cool CoverFlow mode you may be familiar with from the PC version of iTunes. In this mode, the iPhone presents all of your albums, complete with album art, in a horizontally-scrolling view where you flick the screen to flip from album to album. The effect is absolutely wonderful and, like the somewhat similar picture navigation feature in Photos, is one of the iPhone's show-off features. It's a real crowd pleaser.
Well, it can be. To truly take enjoy this feature, you will need to have album art for all of your albums configured in iTunes and synced to the iPhone. (Videos automatically provide an album art-like still frame). This can be done in two ways, either by manually managing album art, as I've done for years (not recommended) or by allowing iTunes to automatically provide your album art. (This latter option requires you to create a free iTunes account and tie your PC to that account.) If you've done this, CoverFlow is awesome. It's a neat way to browse your collection.
The other problem with CoverFlow is that it only works with all albums (including non-music content types like podcasts and videos). So if you're browsing a list of, say, podcasts, and you rotate the screen, you're going to see a CoverFlow view of your albums, not just your podcasts. That's most likely not what you were looking for. It's a small disappointment, but hopefully Apple will fix this in the future.
When you actually choose some content to play, the iPhone switches into Now Playing mode, which is quite a bit more attractive than it is on normal iPods. With music and other audio content, you see a large album art view that's more than a bit similar to that of the Microsoft Zune (see my review), though to be fair, there are only so many ways to display this kind of content. At the top of the screen, there is a Back button, three lines of text displaying the artist, song title, and album title, and a List button that switches to a list view from where you can see where you are in the now playing list and rate the current song. The bottom of the screen includes simplified playback controls, with large, finger-friendly Previous, Play/Pause, and Next buttons, and a volume slider.
On the iPod, you can quickly move through media by scrolling the Click Wheel, and when this review was originally published, I thought this feature was missing from the iPhone. Turns out that's not the case: Just tap the album art and you'll see the timline scrubber--and controls for repeat and shuffle--appear. It's unclear why this is hidden so effectively, and it's even worse when you realize that the iPhone has built-in volume up and down hardware buttons, right there on the side of the device. So there's no need for an onscreen volume slider. That should be the on-screen time scrubber, obviously. But at least it's available, if hidden. (Thanks to everyone who wrote in about this.)
So what about video? Video playback is predictably excellent, too, though again with a few minor issues. Though you can only navigate video lists, like Videos, in portrait mode, the videos themselves only play in landscape mode, and only in one direction, with the hardware volume buttons on the bottom. (That is, if you flip the device into portrait mode, or upside down, with the volume buttons on the top, the video continues playing as it was originally.) That's OK, I guess, but I've run into an issue at the gym when I'm on an elliptical trainer with the iPhone sitting on the stand in front of me; when I need to change the volume, I have to physically pick up the device to access the volume buttons. That's silly, and you should be able to use it "upside down" so that the volume buttons are accessible on the top.
That said, there are some unique niceties to iPhone video playback. By default, the playing video fills the screen completely, but you can double-tap the screen to change it to the video's actual aspect ratio. A single tap will reveal the playback controls. On the bottom is a floating control with large Previous, Play/Pause, and Next buttons, along with a volume slider. (And no, that control is no good for the gym either, if you're wondering; it's too hard to manipulate when you're moving.) On the top is a Done button, a time scrubber (woo!), and an Aspect Ratio button, which toggles the video aspect ratio just like a double-tap.
I'm curious why video isn't played in the proper aspect ratio by default. At the very least, this should be an option. On the other hand, once you've made an aspect ratio choice, the iPhone appears to defer to that for future videos. This isn't immediately obvious, especially if you're playing a number of different videos, with different aspect ratios.
Finally, video podcasts won't play properly if launched from the Podcasts list. If you start a video podcast from there, you'll just hear the audio, played over some automatically generated album art (typically a still frame). To actually watch a video podcast, you actually have to go into Videos, and then scroll down to the Podcasts section and find the video podcast you want that way. Whether that's by design or just a simple mistake, it's wrong. And before you Apple fanatics get your panties in a bunch, yeah, I know the iPod works this way too. It's wrong. And at the very least, there should be an option, so that those who occasionally need audio-only access to video podcasts can get it. My feeling is that the majority of iPod/iPhone users will expect video to play when they launch a video podcast. Call me crazy.
When you do complete a video, the iPhone pops up a screen asking if you'd like to delete the video you just enjoyed "to conserve space." This is a great idea, given the iPhone's somewhat limited storage capacity and sync options. We'll examine this issue in a bit more detail below.
Other iPod notes
As we discussed above, Apple recently provided an iPhone firmware upgrade that fixes some reliability issues when listening to iPod-based content while performing other tasks (i.e. using other applications) on the iPhone. This is good news, because you'll often want to start a playlist and then go off and view a photo slideshow, browse the Internet, or crunch some numbers with that bizarre Calculator application. (Hey, you never know.) This works as expected, except that you may find yourself needing to quickly pause the music or change the volume, which you can't do unless you use the headset Apple bundles with the iPhone: This headset includes a handy toggle switch that sits near your mouth when you're wearing it. The switch does double duty as a decent microphone, for phone calls, and as a mini iPod controller: Squeeze it once, and any playing music (or other content) pauses. Double-squeeze it and the iPod application navigates to the next track.
This works quite nicely, but since it's hard-wired into the headset, you can't perform these tasks with other (read: better) headphones, requiring you to manually navigate back to the iPod application to make even the smallest change (well, except for volume up or down, thanks to the volume buttons on the device). And this isn't just a problem when you're using other applications: If you've been listening to music for a while, say while commuting, and something comes up, you will have to take the iPhone out of your pocket, tap the Home button to activate the screen, unlock it by sliding your finger across the right part of the screen, punch in your four-digit passcode if you've configured security as you should, and then potentially have to navigate to the iPod application (by tapping Home again and then tapping the iPod icon) if you had since navigated to a different app. If that sounds like a lot of work, all of it requiring your attention and eyes on the screen, you're correct. It's much faster to simply rip off the headphones and deal with the iPhone's monotonous UI constraints later. You can kiss the iPod's "no looking" capabilities goodbye.
On the other hand, the iPhone handles electronic interruptions much more seamlessly. If you receive a phone call while the iPod application is playing back content, whether it's onscreen or not, the currently playing content will fade out as the phone ring sounds. After you complete your call by tapping the End Call button, your selection fades back in and begins playing again. Sweet.
The iPod application has a few other limitations. It doesn't support iPod games, mostly likely because the iPhone doesn't include the iPod Click Wheel. I don't consider this a huge limitation frankly, as the market for iPod games hasn't exactly taken the world by storm. A bigger limitation, at least for those with huge media collections, or those who wish to enjoy video content on the iPhone's gorgeous screen, is physical: The iPhone comes with just 4 GB or 8 GB of storage space, and Apple deliberately hobbled the device by not providing any form of memory card expansion support, a feature that's available on just about any other smart phone on earth.
This is a problem because full-length Hollywood movies, as purchased at Apple's iTunes Store, typically consume between 1.2 GB and 2 GB of storage space, depending on their length. TV shows, meanwhile, weigh in at about 520 MB for a one-hour show, or about 256 MB for a 30-minute episode. Add it up, and you can store only a handful of videos on an iPhone, rendering its gorgeous screen somewhat less useful.
To alleviate this problem as much as possible, iPhone owners will need to be careful about which video content they sync with the device. Fortunately, iTunes does a good job of giving you logical video sync options related to unwatched or recent TV shows, movies, and other content, and when you complete a video, as mentioned above, the iPhone will prompt you to delete it. If you are using the iPhone to watch video regularly, you'll want to take advantage of these features, and sync the device frequently with your PC, to keep the on-iPhone video list refreshed with new content.
Somewhat surprisingly, given the number of ways in which you can configure a traditional iPod, Apple supplies only a very short list of iPod settings in the iPhone. You can toggle the Sound Check feature, which attempts to volume level your songs so that they all have the same basic volume profile, choose between three audio book speeds, choose an EQ setting, and toggle and configure the volume limiter. And that's it. Looking over the list of settings on a real iPod, however, you'll discover that most of the "missing" settings aren't missing at all, they're just related to other aspects of the iPod, like screen dimming and so forth, that are handled elsewhere in the iPhone's settings. However, I've outlined a few features in this section of the review that should be configurable through Settings.
While you'd be foolhardy to spend $500 or $600 (plus AT&T monthly service fees) just to get the best iPod on earth, make no mistake: That's exactly what the iPhone is. Sure, there are problems, though Apple could easily fix most of them with a software update and, hopefully, will do so soon. But the iPhone gets most of it right: Scrolling through simple text lists with finger flicks is a joy, and the CoverFlow navigational mode makes even more sense on the iPhone than it does in iTunes on the PC. Video playback is particularly nice, thanks to its horizontal layout and the iPhone's gorgeous screen and ample battery life. Please, Apple, stick a hard drive in this thing, drop the phone functionality, and sell it as the next video iPod. I'll be first in line.
Next up, we take a look at the iPhone's Internet capabilities, including the Safari Web browser, email, and more.