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Published: Thursday, 6/28/2007

iPhone buyer's guide: Look before leaping onto Apple's cell phone bandwagon

ASSOCIATED PRESS
The iPhone goes on sale tomorrow. The iPhone goes on sale tomorrow.
AP Enlarge

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."

The level of hype and demand for Apple Inc.'s phone is reminiscent of the debut of the PlayStation 3 game console in November, when minor riots broke out at some electronics stores. However, eBay prices for resold PS3s quickly fell, and two months later the console was in ample supply.

Apparently, much of the initial demand came from people who weren't really interested in getting them for themselves, but counted on being able to sell them to people who were.

It's quite possible that the iPhone will be subject to the same demand bubble. Check with the stores a month from now: If they have iPhones in stock, the bloom may be off the rose.

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 corporate road warrior - No. For professional use, you're probably stuck with what the company supports, and for now, that's going to be BlackBerries and Windows Mobile devices like the Samsung BlackJack. Corporate Microsoft Exchange e-mail servers can be configured to send e-mail to the iPhone, but many companies will not take this step. Other features of Exchange, like contact and calendar syncing, are not available.

One possible solution is to forward corporate e-mail to free Web-based e-mail accounts that the iPhone can access, but that raises security issues.

If you're looking for some entertainment from your work phone, Windows Mobile phones like the T-Mobile Wing are already quite capable. A recently released BlackBerry, the Curve, plays music through a standard stereo headphone jack and has a built-in camera.

* 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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