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Under the hood of the iPhone

Apple chief executive Steve Jobs may have got the masses salivating with early images of the iPhone on Tuesday but the technical spec is providing more questions than answers.

There is no doubt that for a device that is a combined iPod/web browser/phone, Apple has packed in as much fancy kit as it was able. But can the iPhone cut the mustard with a hardware and software specification that is at best, beefy and at worst, adequate?

Here is a technical snapshot of the device and how it stacks up to existing gadgets:

The display

The screen is 3.5 inches with a resolution of 320 by 480 at 160 pixels per inch and uses Apple’s new, patented multi-touch system as the input method. This apparently means you can do stuff like shrinking or enlarging photos or areas of a web page by pinching or spreading two fingers on the screen.

Size wise the gadget is lightly smaller than Nokia’s made for TV mobile, the 7710, which boasts a pixel display of 320 x 640, although the iPhone, whilst not tiny, is a fair bit smaller and thinner.

With not a single button on board, the display will also be the measure by which the device stands or falls. The typical touchscreen-on-a-phone experience has been less than satisfying to date. There is still no word on who is manufacturing the screen.

One of the funkiest features is the accelerometer that detects when a user rotates the device from portrait to landscape, automatically changing the contents of the display.

A proximity sensor also detects when the iPhone is lifted to the ear and turns off the display to save power and prevent inadvertent touches until it is moved away. An ambient light sensor automatically adjusts the display’s brightness to the appropriate level for the current ambient light, kind of like with flat panel TVs.

Under the hood

The stainless steel casing comes in at 4.5 x 2.4 x 0.46 inches, weighs 4.8 ounces and is understood to be assembled by Foxconn – the Taiwanese company that builds the iPod.

The heart of the device is an as yet unspecified processor, early reports that this would be provided by Intel have now been retracted, while Samsung is thought to have scored the video and applications processor.

The battery promises up to 5 hours talk time/video viewing/web browsing or up to 16 hours audio playback.

The hard drive comes in either 4GB or 8GB configurations and the camera is 2.0 megapixels. But given the high-endedness of the rest of the gadget, some may consider the 2 megapixel camera a bit poor, especially given the existence of Sony’s 7.2 megapixel Cybershot DSC-T30. Apple’s effort is just shy of being a reasonable replacement for a pocket digital camera.

Connectivity

Apple wisely plumped for the universal GSM standard for cellular connectivity, featuring a quad band radio (850/900/1800/1900 MHz) to ensure global compatibility. EDGE allows for faster data rates where available but many operators are probably disappointed that the device is not 3G. It stands to reason that a must have gadget such as this could do wonders for 3G adoption. Then again, a 3G version is probably even more expensive, which may mean it is best left for the future.

Cingular Wireless, the first confirmed operator to offer the iPhone, operates an EDGE network in the US.

A wifi client (802.11b/g) is included, as is Bluetooth 2.0 with enhanced data rate.

Software

The operating system, which appears to be a handheld version of OS X, is another one of the features that sets the iPhone apart from the crowd. But this also raises new questions about how those operators that are standardising on a number of mobile operating systems will fit a new one into their portfolio.

The user interface uses a full QWERTY soft keyboard for the input of SMS and email text but again, it remains to be seen just how friendly the touch screen is to use.

Naturally, the device is loaded with iTunes, allowing syncing with both a PC or Mac. The only way of shifting music onto the device is by sideloading, there is no mention of over the air downloads so it will be interesting to see what other operators think about this stance.

As with the desktop version of OS X, the iPhone implementation comes with the Safari web browser and rich HTML Mail client capable of accessing POP3 or IMAP mailboxes, Notes and Address Book.

The OS allows user installation of widgets, while Safari also includes built-in Google and Yahoo! search as well as Google Maps.

The phone client meanwhile, uses something which Apple calls Visual Voicemail, which has nothing to do with video messaging. Instead, a graphic interface allows users to go directly to any voice messages – displayed with caller details – without listening to them in order.

This introduces a new operator question – that of how willing the service providers will be to tweak their voicemail systems to accommodate Visual Voicemail. Usually the shoe is on the other foot and carriers are demanding that handset manufacturers incorporate their platforms.

So many questions still remain, mostly about how the operators react to the device. Apple is not experienced in dealing with this industry, but then again it does have one hell of a reputation on its side.

That just leaves the consumers and the question of whether they are willing to part with between $500 and $600 for the device, when other top end smartphones such as the Treo 700 or Nokia E61 are available for a couple hundred dollars less.

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