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Who should buy an iPhone, and who shouldn’t

Thu., June 28, 2007

NEW YORK — The most eagerly awaited cell phone ever is upon us Friday. Should you resist the iPhone’s breathless hype, or take the plunge?

Unless you’re already standing in line outside an Apple or AT&T store, or are prepared to mug one of the first customers to come out after the 6 p.m. launch, the answer, at least for now, will have to be “let me think about it for a week or two.”

Hype aside, the iPhone is a radical design, a sliver of a device with a 3.5-inch glass screen and very few buttons. The iPhone differs by being designed to be touched with the fingertips rather than a stylus, making it a greater departure from the PC experience. (There have been several expensive phones with large touch screens before, generally using Windows Mobile software.)

The iPhone does e-mail, Web browsing, music and videos. It comes in two models — $499 for a 4-gigabyte version and $599 for 8 gigabytes of memory — and requires a two-year contract with AT&T Inc.

That’s the basics. Here’s a breakdown of who might want to consider an iPhone and who shouldn’t:

The music listener — Possibly. The big screen will make it easy to navigate a large music collection. A feature called Cover Flow shows your album covers like they’re pages of an open book. However, the storage capacity is smaller than today’s full-size iPods. The 4-gigabyte version fits about 800 songs, the 8-gigabyte version 1,800. The memory is not upgradable or expandable with external cards, so the 8-gig version is probably the one to get. Apple puts the battery life at 24 hours of audio playback, which is good.

The video watcher — Sure, get one. The screen is twice as large as that of the video iPod, and the resolution, at 320 pixels by 480 pixels, is twice as high. The smaller memory capacity is going to mean frequent syncing with a computer, but the bigger screen will make it worth it. Definitely get the 8-gigabyte version, which will fit about 9 hours of video if that’s all you keep on the gadget.

The iPhone also can access some YouTube videos, but since it relies on a relatively slow data network, access could be spotty, unless you’re using its other built-in wireless technology: Wi-Fi. Other Web video will mostly be inaccessible, since the browser doesn’t play Flash content, but that may change.

The phone chatter — Maybe, but using it mainly as a phone seems like a waste. You can’t type in names to quickly bring up someone from the contact list. Voicemail is listed with the caller’s name or number, sort of like e-mail. In another neat feature, a sensor turns off the screen when you bring the phone to your face.

The cheapest service plan costs $60 a month for 450 daytime minutes — relatively expensive, since you’re paying for unlimited data use. Getting 1,350 minutes costs $100 a month.

The gamer — No. The iPhone does everything except games. A pity, with that nice big screen. Third-party developers might put something clever together that works in the iPhone’s browser, but it’s going to be limited. You probably have a Sony PSP or Nintendo DS already, and the PSP, in particular, already has the big screen and some of the iPhone’s multimedia functions, so you can complement it with a cheaper phone.

The frugal buyer — No, the first-generation iPhone is likely to be followed by something substantially better, like one that uses a faster cellular broadband network and has more memory. It’s unlikely that the first iPhone will be upgradable, and in any case, it would require a trip back to Apple.

The photo buff — Not likely. The iPhone has a 2-megapixel camera, which is decent, and the large screen should make the results easy to appreciate. But phones dedicated to camera buffs also record video and have higher resolutions. The new Nokia N95 has a 5-megapixel sensor and a lens from Germany’s famous Carl Zeiss. Unfortunately, it sells for $750, since it isn’t subsidized by any U.S. carrier.

The world traveler — Possibly, but it’s not ideal. The iPhone will work overseas, but only at AT&T’s roaming rates. Better to have a world phone that has been “unlocked” by the carrier, so you have the option to use a local number and pay local rates.

The fashionista — Sure. The iPhone is one of the best-looking phones ever. The screen is glass, not plastic, and should be fairly resistant to long fingernails. Goodbye, pink RAZR.


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