The iPhone is billed as the ultimate portable Internet device, featuring "the most advanced Web browser ever" and rich HTML email. The reality, as is often the case with over-hyped technologies, is a bit less exciting. Dogged as it is by the horrific AT&T EDGE network, the iPhone will never achieve meaningful Internet transfer speeds, regardless of the quality of its browser, and I've suffered through constant and annoying service disconnections, making the features even less useful. But if you look at the iPhone's Web browser and Mail applications, a more disturbing trend emerges. This isn't a first class Internet experience at all. In fact, it's decidedly second rate.
Oftentimes, it's not the underlying technology's fault. The iPhone, as ever, features amazing hardware and software features that put traditional smart phones to shame. Browsing the Web, you can double-tap and squeeze the screen to zoom into Web pages, a handy feature when you consider that the iPhone's diminutive screen resolution is incapable of displaying traditional Web pages in a readable format. Obviously, other smart phones are even worse: My Motorola Q has a tiny screen compared to that of the iPhone. But as you'll see in a moment, the iPhone's hardware and software strengths amount to nothing when it comes to Web browsing: It's still painful browsing the traditional Web, and you'll find yourself gravitating to the mobile Web sites ghetto.
Email is similarly constrained, but since the iPhone supports a few different email services natively, and many others via generic POP3 and IMAP3 compatibility, your email experience will vary wildly depending on which service you use. Indeed, diehard iPhone fanatics may wish to switch to a particular email service (hint: It's not Apple's) in order to get the best experience.
Yup, it's a mess. But that's what makes this so much fun. Let's dive right in and see how the iPhone handles the Internet.
Making the connection
I've covered this elsewhere in the review, but your overall iPhone experience, and your iPhone Internet experience specifically, will be horrible or decent depending on how you're making the connection. The iPhone will intelligently default to a preferred Wi-Fi connection (802.11b or 802.11g) if one is available. So if you're browsing at home (for some reason) or in a trusted hot spot that you frequent, the connection speeds will be decent.
For the other 99 percent of the time you'll be out and about, however, the iPhone will utilize AT&T's subpar EDGE network. This is a "2.5G" network that's less than one-third as fast as, and quite a bit less reliable than, Verizon's high-speed 3G offering, EV-DO, according to my unscientific testing. Put simply, EDGE is both slow and dodgy, and the constant disconnections I suffer from are exasperating. It makes using the iPhone's Internet features aggravating.
Unfortunately, you're going to need to keep an eye on the little status bar at the top of the screen to see how you're connecting. A small Wi-Fi graphic indicates you're connecting via the superior wireless connection. A small square "E" means you're using the slower EDGE connection. AT&T requires you to pay for an unlimited data plan just to get an iPhone ($59.99 a month for the cheapest version), so you won't have to watch data usage inside the US. Should you travel internationally, however, as I did in August 2007, you'll have an a very real reason to watch this area of the screen carefully: Even if you sign up for one of AT&T's Draconian international plans, you will pay through the nose for non-Wi-Fi data use overseas. People have come up with bills of several thousand dollars for just two weeks of international uses. Yes, I'm serious.
What Apple really needs is a software switch that will disable all non-phone traffic over EDGE. The problem is that in addition to the standard browser and email applications, there are other iPhone applications, like YouTube, Maps, and Weather, that will query the Internet the second they're tapped. That can make for some expensive mistakes if you're outside the US.
Anyone who's browsed the Web on a smart phone knows how lousy it can be trying to access even well-written sites using the small screens and hokey browsers typically used on such devices. And that's why the iPhone promises to be such a breath of fresh air: It features a huge high resolution screen, given the size of the device, and promises a desktop-like Web experienced with a "full-featured" browser that's based on the Safari browser Apple has been providing to OS X users for years. (This year, the company shipped a lackluster version for Windows as well.)
This is, sadly, a fantasy. First of all, even the desktop version of Safari can hardly be called first class. Despite making an excellent stab at standards compliant, Safari suffers in the most important measure of quality for Web browsers: Usage. Today, most people use Internet Explorer to browse the Web, and those that don't largely use Firefox. The iPhone would have been much more useful had Apple bundled a copy of either browser on the phone instead of Safari. As it is, iPhone users will have to suffer from the same compatibility issues that dog desktop users of the browser.
It's also worth noting that Safari is one of the only iPhone applications in which the screen rotation feature actually works reasonably well. You can browse the Web in both portrait and landscape modes (I find landscape more readable), and switch on the fly. The only times that isn't true is when you're in the Bookmarks list (always portrait) or when you're working in the Address Bar and have the virtual keyboard displayed. Once that keyboard is up, you can't rotate the screen. But you can use the keyboard in portrait or landscape mode, unlike most apps.
The iPhone's version of Safari handles Web forms in a unique and generally usable way. Clicking a text form brings up an edit box, but if you click a drop-down list box, you'll get a unique scroller control with all of the available options. Nice.
OK, fine. But what about Safari's ability to display and then zoom into areas of full-fledged Web sites? This actually does work fine, though I find this way navigating the Web to be highly frustrating. Yes, you can view sites that will never look right on, say, the Pocket IE version that comes with Windows Mobile. But the screen size issue isn't going away on the iPhone, and sometimes being able to see how something should look is even more frustrating than not getting it at all. Long story short: The Web experience on the iPhone is nothing to get excited about, and as is the case with the Q and other traditional smart phones, sites designed specifically for mobile devices still work best.
In fact, this situation is so similar to that on the Q that I've spent a great deal of time finding and saving bookmarks for good mobile Web sites. I use a lot of Google services, and that company offers nice mobile-friendly versions of Google search, Gmail, Google Calendar, and even Picasa, and they work just fine on the iPhone.
While the iPhone's email application, Mail, benefits greatly from the large screen of the device, the actual email support it delivers is sub-par, even by smart phone standards. (Look to Windows Mobile's Pocket Outlook Email for an obvious comparison.) Most of the email support is POP-based, though those lucky enough to have IMAP support can at least take advantage of that system's work-on-the-server approach. I happen to use Gmail, and was hoping the iPhone would offer something sophisticated, given all the rumors about Apple and Google working so closely together. That isn't the case.
Obviously, the best mobile email is text-based, and here the iPhone does a great job of displaying messages with its gorgeous screen and crisp fonts. Now if we could only do things like download and edit Word documents and not just view them. And why can't I save JPEG attachments to the device and use them for wallpaper? Too obvious?
One of the problems with Mail is the result of a simple design flaw in the iPhone: If you click on a hyperlink in Mail, the link opens in Safari. But if you want to get back to email, there's no Back button messing up the device design. So you have to click the Home button and then manually tap the on-screen Mail icon to go back to your mail, and the message you were reading. Another problem with Mail relates to one of the iPhone's many inconsistencies: If you're viewing a list of messages in your Inbox and rotate the screen to landscape mode, the display doesn't swivel with you. The view doesn't swivel when you're viewing email messages or attached Word documents either. (You can view but not edit or save Word documents sent via email.) Both would benefit from this possibility, and because the iPhone does this in other places, it's bewildering when it doesn't work. Apple makes a big deal out of the screen rotation stuff: It should work consistently everywhere.
The iPhone supports a few email services, if not natively, then at least specially. These are, in order of sophistication, from best to worst:
Unique to the iPhone, Yahoo! Mail is a special form of "push" email that is described as being IMAP-like, which is excellent if you happen to be a user of this service. Yahoo! will literally push server-based changes--like new folders, new email, and so on--to the device automatically every fifteen minutes. This is the preferred email service for use on the iPhone.
Users of Apple's .Mac email--all 16 of them--can take advantage of IMAP technology, which is a first-rate experience, but not as sophisticated as push email: Basically, the iPhone has to manually sync with the server on a set schedule (every fifteen minutes by default). That means that the iPhone won't be updated with new messages until in manually pings the server. With Yahoo!, it's almost instantaneous. In case it's not obvious, no Windows user would ever sign up for .Mac email, and thus .Mac support is useless to most iPhone users.
AOL uses IMAP on the iPhone. The big advantage of the iPhone's "native" AOL support is that the device only requires your name, user name, and password, and then configures the server settings automatically.
Any IMAP email service
If you are using a third party email service that supports IMAP, and have access to the server information you need to configure it, iPhone is good to go. This includes, by the way, the supposed "Exchange support" that's advertised in the Mail Settings on the device: Exchange only works if it's configured for IMAP, a setting any credible mail administrator would never allow, since it opens up the server to a wider variety of electronic attacks. Put simply, the iPhone does not support Exchange in any meaningful way.
Though Google's email service is listed as one of the top-tier choices in the Add Account section of Mail Settings, it's just POP access. The only advantage is that you don't have to look up the server settings; the iPhone will do that automatically when you enter your name, email address, and password. This is really unsophisticated and doesn't meet my needs, as I use Gmail's server-side filters and labels extensively, and these don't translate to client-side access technologies like POP3 at all.
Any POP email service
If you are using a third party email service that supports POP, and have access to the server information you need to configure it, iPhone is good to go. Note that POP email is unsophisticated but better than nothing.
As a failover, you could also access any Web-based email service, like Gmail, Windows Live Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, or whatever, through Safari, which ranges from OK to completely unacceptable depending on the service and various browser compatibility issues. I've found Gmail access to be decent (but not "good") via Gmail Mobile in Safari, and I'll certainly use that before I ever configure Gmail for POP.
Basically, if you use Yahoo!, you're all set: Yahoo! Mail on the iPhone is a first class experience. I'd describe .Mac mail, AOL Mail, and any other IMAP-based email as a second class experience. Everything else is a joke, or at best better than nothing if you have simple email needs. In my particular case, I'm stuck using Gmail Mobile via the Web, which is what I was doing on the Windows Mobile-based Motorola Q, though Google does offer a (lousy) Java-based Gmail client on some smart phones too. So it's basically the same experience, with some pros and cons. On the iPhone, the screen is bigger and nicer looking than that of the Q, which is good. But you can't download attachments or edit documents, which is terrible.
Ultimately, I was hoping that the iPhone would offer a killer native Gmail application, but really all it has is a POP-based Gmail client. That's useless to me because I organize my email up on the server using Gmail's amazing labels-based technology, which treats email like a database table which you can access using different filtered views. This stuff doesn't get pulled down to any client, POP or otherwise, so Google and/or Apple would need to actually do some work to make the iPhone a first-class Gmail citizen. I desperately want a smart phone that can do this. The iPhone isn't it.
A word about desktop sync
I've highlighted throughout this review that Apple's lackadaisical approach to PC/iPhone synchronization is a weak link for the product, especially for those hoping to access their calendar on the device. As far as the iPhone's Internet features are concerned, there are two primary synchronization points: Web browser and email.
On the Web browser front, you can synchronize with Internet Explorer or, get this, Safari. There's no Firefox or Opera option, despite the fact that Firefox, especially, has garnered some serious market share in recent years. Safari, meanwhile, is something of a joke. However, it's Apple's product, so no one should be surprised that it's supported.
If you're familiar with Windows Mobile devices, you've probably seen the Mobile Favorites option that crops up in IE after you've installed ActiveSync (XP or older) or Windows Mobile Device Manager (Vista). Browser sync with the iPhone is similar: As you save bookmarks on the iPhone, and sync with the PC, they're synced to the desktop browser you've selected in iTunes. This works the same in Safari as it does on IE, where your iPhone-based bookmarks and desktop Safari-based bookmarks are comingled in the same list. It's inelegant, but it gets the job done. Assuming you use IE or Safari. (On the iPhone, synced bookmarks can be found in folders called Bookmarks Menu and Bookmarks Bar, if you're using Safari to sync. This makes them a bit more ponderous to use.)
On the email front, you can choose to sync mail accounts between Windows Mail or Outlook and the device. Because of the lackluster nature of the iPhone's support for Gmail, the fact that I'm accessing Gmail from Google's Web-based interface anyway, I've pretty much opted out of this system for day-to-day use. But I did test this feature early on, and here's how it works: Email sync isn't really "email sync," it's "email account settings sync." And it's one way only, from PC to iPhone. So if you set up an email account on the iPhone and set up iTunes to sync with Windows Mail, that account won't be created on the desktop, sorry. (Contacts are synced both ways, so that changes you make on the phone are copied back to your desktop application, or to Yahoo! if you've selected that service.)
This means, in short, that you will need to download your email messages to the device using the device in order to read them on the device; they won't sync over from the desktop.
As with most of the iPhone experience, accessing the Internet is ultimately frustrating. Yes, it works: The iPhone offers a best-ever mobile Web experience in some ways, but is limited in serious ways as well, thanks to the use of Safari technology and a lack of popular plugins. The email support, in my mind, is horribly broken unless you have very simple needs. (And if you do, why would you spend $600 to access your email on a phone?) There's no easy fix for these issues. Apple will never replace the iPhone's Safari browser with a more appropriate and Windows-friendly choice, obviously. And the device's email support would need to be redone from the ground up to natively support the email services Windows users really use, like Gmail and Hotmail. (Perhaps Google will eventually write a first-rate iPhone Gmail application. I can dream.) And then there's EDGE, the iPhone's Achilles Heel. I could go on and on about this wireless disaster.
Until these issues are addressed, the iPhone is a less-than-ideal Internet companion for most Windows users, despite the obvious technical advantages of the device itself. Hopefully, we'll see some upgrades in this area in the near future.
Well, it's time to arrive at some kind of conclusion about the Apple iPhone. In the final part of this review, I provide an overall score for the device and explain how I arrived at this decision.