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After spending a weekend with Apple Inc.‘s new iPhone, here’s what I think: iLike.


I’m compelled to touch the phone and watch as my collection of digital content, with nearly 500 photos and 1,000-plus songs loaded onto an 8-gigabyte version, strolls by with the swipe of a finger.


It’s a fun and fanciful device, combining a heaping dose of iCandy with a practicality I have yet to see from a smart phone.


I don’t think it’s enough to call this a smart phone. It’s a personal phone that reflects your tastes—music, movies and photos—better than any mobile device on the market today.


If a Blackberry identifies you as a busy, important person who needs access to e-mail at all times, the iPhone defines you as an individual with distinct cultural tastes in music, photography and video.


Everywhere I went with the iPhone, people wanted to touch it, to see if it was as cool as Apple’s advertising made it seem. Non-techies in particular wanted to play with the device; like me, they were amazed. There are a number of phones that can do much of what the iPhone can—and more, in some cases—yet none do so as simply or as well.


The most notable feature, and noticeable in every usage aspect, is how visual the iPhone is.


When receiving a call from someone in your contact list, that person’s picture pops up alongside his or her name (in big, easy-to-read type) and a box to tap for answering the call or one to dismiss it. If you hit dismiss, it goes to voicemail.


The other visual treat is the phone’s function as an iPod. Simply put, it’s the best iPod I’ve ever used (and I’ve tried them all) and the first one where I realized that having album art on your iPod does make a difference.


When I first “synced” the iPhone, some of my songs had artwork but most did not. That made the visual scanning of the music boring, with only a few bits of album art scattered among many more blank pages. Then I downloaded the album art through an iTunes function and synced the iPhone again. Wow.


Using your finger to scroll through the album art is akin to skimming through a crate of old vinyl albums, it gives context to the music, something that is lacking in today’s age of digital music files.


There are downsides.


Call quality is mixed. At best, talking on the iPhone sounds pretty much like any other mobile phone. In one call to a colleague who also has an iPhone, I heard a distinct echo when I spoke. When I called him on his Verizon phone, there was no echo and the clarity was better.


In another quirk, people using a mobile phone on the Sprint network cannot get through to my iPhone. But when I call them, the call is completed.


I like to talk using the iPhone’s iPod-like earbuds. Apple includes a mini microphone into the right side of the ear buds so that when a call comes in, I hear the caller in my ear, not the music, which is automatically paused. Likewise, when I make a call while using the iPod function in the iPhone, the music pauses when the connection is made.


But here’s what I don’t like about the iPhone earbuds: lack of choice. The iPhone has been designed so only Apple’s earbuds fit even though the phone uses a standard headphone jack. Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide product marketing, told me that decision was made to make sure the iPhone remained sleek.


OK, but it also means that anyone who bought very expensive headphones to improve the sound of the iPod will be out of luck. One headphone maker, Niles, Ill.-based Shure Inc., is developing an adapter, but it is annoying that it and other companies will need to do this for a phone that costs at least $500.


There are two other notable downsides:


First, AT&T Inc.‘s Edge network is painfully slow when you want to browse the Web. If you have access to a Wi-Fi network to get on the Internet, you’ll want to use it because the speed difference is as dramatic as going from dial-up to a high-speed connection. (AT&T has a faster network but the iPhone does not work on it. Blame Apple for this oversight, not AT&T.)


Second, I’m concerned about battery life. I had my iPhone fully charged when I started using it Saturday morning. I used it all day, making calls, surfing the Web, listening to music and showing it off to many, many curious people. At the end of the day, about 10 hours later, I had 10 percent power remaining. I charged it overnight again, something I think heavy users will need to do every day.


For me, activation was a breeze. You set up the phone through iTunes. Once you plug it into a computer, it recognizes the device as an iPhone, much like it recognizes your iPod. After about 10 minutes of signing up, including the time spent to pick a calling and data plan, my phone was ready to go. (Others have reported problems with activation.)


Then, like an iPod, the iPhone grabbed my contacts, calendar and other settings from a computer. (I set up e-mail to work with my Gmail account. That was a separate set-up, but it was ridiculously easy, especially compared to Gmail set-ups I’ve used on other mobile phones.)


I moved 829 songs over and 426 photos and two episodes of “Lost.” I have nearly 3 gigabytes of space left to use.


Next, I browsed the Web and checked out the YouTube channel. I had to force myself to go to bed after 2 a.m. that first night.


I browsed the Web at home using my Wi-Fi connection. Everywhere else, I had to use AT&T’s pokey network and sometimes I couldn’t watch videos from YouTube because of the lack of speed. Hence, even though you can’t get this phone through another carrier, T-Mobile will make money getting new iPhone owners to sign up for the “HotSpot” Wi-Fi service available in airports and coffee shops.


Here’s what the iPhone really is: a great iPod that surfs the Web and sends e-mail. You’ll love having an iPhone if you have a computer filled with digital media content, as this device’s big, bright screen will showcase it better than anything other than a desktop computer.


And while I didn’t mind the touch-screen keyboard, I didn’t love it, either. Others who played with the phone were mixed on that issue as well.


So the jury is still out on how well this will work as a true office tool, particularly if you are on the road all the time and need to e-mail frequently. But you’ll be very entertained.


___


(Eric Benderoff writes about technology for the Chicago Tribune. Contact him at ebenderoff AT tribune dot com.)

Tagged as: apple | iphone
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