iPhone: making the PDA sexy again

Apple's converged device offers lessons in product design

On first inspection, Apple appears to have made a quantum leap in terms of mobile handset usability. The new Apple iPhone doesn't have a mechanical keyboard or a traditional stylus and most of its features are accessible from its glossy main screen.

Anyone familiar with a Mac should be instantly at home with an Apple iPhone because it's running a version of OS X. And because it's running OS X, there are some meaty bits of computer software in there. Forget the limited 2.5G mobile phone functionality; the iPhone is effectively a handheld computer. It's single-handedly making the idea of the PDA sexy again. Here are ten reasons why:

1) User interface

The multi-touch, OS X-style interface enables you to navigate the Apple iPhone's many features just by tapping or swiping a finger across the screen. Waking it up is a matter of pressing a button, then swiping an on-screen slider. It's an elegant solution for a 21st Century handheld. No stylus required.

2) Phone software

The iPhone's UI puts a delicious gloss on traditional functionality. Tapping the Phone icon brings up Contacts, synchronisable with Address Book. Flick a finger to scroll, tap an entry, then tap on the number to call. There are icons to mute, bring up a numeric keypad for numbers not already stored, and a speakerphone facility. Hold, swap call and conference are also possible.

The phone functionality is arguably the weakest feature of the iPhone. But tell that to the people who camped out just to be the first to own one. Such is Apple's keen attention to style that even the most mundane features on the iPhone have been given a polish. Apple seems to care about every little bit of its product.

3) The onscreen keyboard

On PDAs and some smartphones the onscreen keyboard hasn't changed in years. It's basically a digital representation of a QWERTY layout, complete with SHIFT and CTRL keys that give you access to punctuation marks or numerals.

The iPhone keyboard is 'intelligent' in that it prevents and corrects mistyped words, a feature that's bound to find favor (sic) with many. Find out more in our article: Why the iPhone keyboard rocks .

4) iPod software

Yes, other phones and PDAs can play music and video. But none manage to do it as slickly as the iPhone. Your music and video library is navigable by playlists, artists and songs. If you know the Apple iPod, then iPhone media navigation is a doddle. The neatest feature? Undoubtedly Coverflow. Just like in iTunes. Rotate the iPhone 90 degrees into landscape view, then riffle though a carousel of cover artwork to locate the album and song you're after. As for video, you can double-tap to zoom out and watch in theatrical widescreen. Beautiful.

5) Photos

Other phones and PDAs can also display photos. But the mistake they make is in taking basic JPEG-viewing software and calling it 'photo viewer' or 'photo gallery'.

On the iPhone images are displayed as thumbnails and a one tap on a photo enlarges it to full screen. To scroll to the next image, you swipe left or right with your finger and should a landscape shot come up, turn the iPhone 90 degrees to display it. Zooming in is where the multi-touch feature comes into play. You place your finger and thumb over a portion of the photo, then move them apart to zoom - it's called 'pinching'. You can move around the image by dragging, then double-tap to zoom out.

6) Safari web browser

PDAs and phones don't usually offer a full web browser as standard. But pages render on the iPhone exactly as you'd see them on computer. They're just smaller and a double-tap enables you to zoom in to view the detail. Bookmarks on the computer can be synced to the iPhone for two-tap access. To search using the default Google search engine, tap to bring up an on-screen QWERTY keyboard and enter a term. You can also enter URLs and there's a dedicated .com button to speed up entry.

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