Oh Hashmir, Multi-Touch Me Down There

We've already established that finger prints and smudges on the screen are a non issue when the device is on, now the question is: how well does the interface work?

Apple's idea behind the iPhone's multi-touch interface is that mobile phones can't work with a fixed input device.  Mobile phones have to be incredibly compact, yet these days they have to run a variety of applications: everything from writing emails to planning routes in Google Maps to organizing your photos.  To make things worse, the ideal interface for inputting an address is wildly different from the ideal interface for viewing pictures. 

A fixed keyboard is great for writing emails (e.g. Blackberry), but you need the equivalent of a mouse for scrolling around webpages on a small screen.  The stylus is a nice attempt at a mobile mouse but it's redundant, your fingers are just as capable of pointing as a plastic pen. 

The multi-touch screen on the iPhone fundamentally works like most other touch screens, with the exception that it allows multiple simultaneous inputs on the screen.  Much like Apple's approach in OS X, the iPhone's multi-touch interface works the way you'd expect it to. 

If you want to hit a button, simply tap on it.  If you want to zoom in on a picture or web page, double tap on it (double tap once more to zoom out).  To scroll around tap and hold your finger in one place then drag it around. 

Scrolling through long lists is done by flicking your finger up or down; place your finger on the screen then drag it up to scroll down and vice versa.  The motion takes seconds to master and it's quite intuitive. 

Flipping through multiple "tabs" in Safari or pictures in the iPhone's photo albums is just as easy as scrolling.  Instead of flicking your finger from top to bottom, simply move it from left to right as if you were flipping through pages of a book. 

By far my favorite gesture is used when quickly deleting items in a list.  If you want to delete an email for example, just strike through the email with your finger from left to right, a delete icon appears and selecting it will delete the email.  It's the smoothest way I've ever deleted anything.

The more advanced features involve two fingers, I found myself using my index finger and thumb but technically you could use any two of your digits.  Aside from the double tap (which may not work depending on the situation), you can zoom in on an image by taking your index finger and thumb and making a stretching motion with them on the screen.  Hold your thumb and index finger together, place them on the screen, then pull them apart while maintaining contact with the screen.  You'll zoom in on the area you just stretched.  To achieve the opposite effect, just reverse the motion by pinching your fingers together. 

You do have to be firm with your touches, and you can't use your fingernails (or gloves).  At the same time, the multi-touch screen works best if your hands are clean and dry; if you've got oily skin, plan on washing your hands a lot to get the best experience with the iPhone.  If your hands aren't clean/dry you'll find that the gestures don't always react exactly how you'd like them to, the device is still usable but there's a measurable difference between using it with clean/dry hands vs. oily hands. 

When the iPhone's CPU isn't busy downloading mail or rendering a web page, the pinch/stretch works flawlessly, as do all of the gestures mentioned above.  The only time you'll encounter choppy response is if a "heavy" task is still being executed in the background. 

The iPhone is usable in one of two orientations: portrait or landscape.  There's an integrated silicon mass sensor that detects, based on the gravitational pull on the device, whether it is being held in portrait or landscape mode. 

Switching between portrait and landscape mode is, for the most part, as seamless as it is in the TV commercials.  Not all applications support landscape mode (e.g. iPhone Mail only works in portrait mode) while the playing videos in the YouTube app works exclusively in landscape.  In order for the iPhone's internal sensor to best gauge its orientation, you'll want to hold the device as close to perpendicular to the ground as possible when rotating. 

I have seen some quirks where the iPhone's scheduler is unable to immediately interrupt a task as I rotate the phone, causing a multi-second pause between when I rotate the phone and when the screen switches orientation.

Mobile phone interfaces are often unreasonably sluggish, and it's clear that Apple set out to fix that with the iPhone.  The OS will do whatever it takes to preserve the responsiveness of the UI; for example, if you have a long email that you scroll through quickly, the iPhone may not have all of the email present in its frame buffer given the limited amount of memory on the device (possibly 128MB).  If you scroll too far down in the email too quickly, you'll be greeted with a checkerboard pattern while the email gets moved into the display buffer.  However, while this is happening, the UI never behaves any differently - it's still as responsive as when scrolling through data that's present in the display buffer. 


Scroll too far ahead and you'll get this before the display buffer gets the data it needs; the iPhone is fast, but you're still faster.

I suspect that future versions of the iPhone with more memory and a faster processor won't have this issue, but Apple made do with what was available at the time.  

For navigating through the basic iPhone interface, selecting applications, toggling settings, scrolling, zooming, etc..., the multi-touch screen works flawlessly.  Being able to re-orient the display from portrait to landscape mode on the fly with virtually no interruption in the user experience is beyond impressive.  It truly feels like something out of a sci-fi movie and it's one of the most understated but impressive features of the iPhone.  The interface just works.

Simplicity Perfected The Keyboard
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  • icruise - Monday, July 16, 2007 - link

    Excellent review that (surprisingly, given that this is a very tech-oriented site) "got" what the iPhone is about. It may not be the perfect cell phone, but it's certainly an amazing one, and the first really fresh take on the concept that we've seen in a long long time.

    One quibble, however. The review states that Yahoo charges $3 a month for push email support. Yahoo does in fact provide free IMAP push email to anyone using a Yahoo Mail account on the iPhone. However, there appears to be some issues involved in the implementation and I couldn't find any mention of using push email with Yahoo in the Apple documentation, which may be why the reviewer didn't realize this.

    It seems that if you have any other email accounts active on the iPhone, push email doesn't work reliably. It may take quite a while (many minutes) to show up. I tested this on my iPhone and when I had my Yahoo Mail account as the only active account, messages sent to it showed up pretty much instantaneously. When I enabled the other accounts, that changed, whether I had mail checking set to "manual" or a special interval. So in short, I think the iPhone's push capability is there, but they haven't quite ironed out the bugs. Hopefully they will do this soon with a software update, and also enable push email for .Mac mail as well.
    Reply
  • AnnonymousCoward - Saturday, July 07, 2007 - link

    How bout horizontal/landscape mode for the keyboard? With all this talk about fingers not being small enough for crammed keys, I'm blown away this wasn't addressed. Based on the aspect ratio of the keyboard in front of me, and the aspect ratio of the iphone, I don't see why you'd possibly want to type in portrait mode. Reply
  • ViperV990 - Friday, July 06, 2007 - link

    I'm curious if meebo.com (a web-based multi-protocol IM) works on the iPhone. Can anyone please give this a try and report back? Reply
  • Icehawk - Monday, July 09, 2007 - link

    Great article, I really hadn't read or watched too much on the iPhone so it was nice to see it all laid out clearly.

    Sadly the phone, like my Tivo S3, is missing some very basic features (voice activation?!) and has some weird ergonomic misses.

    However I think this is a big deal, if the interface is as much of advance overall as it sounds that is big. IMO the next major advance computing (and these MFDs by extension) is the interface - we are still using pretty much the same paradigms as 20 years ago.
    Reply
  • Calista - Friday, July 06, 2007 - link

    Hi Anand!

    I would like to know how you judge the value of the iphone. We fully understand that you find it an awesome device but it's no denial that it's also a fairly expensive and $600 will buy you both a normal feature phone (2MP cam and the rest) and a well-working internet-tablet like the Nokia N800 - which by the way support up to 16 GB of memory, carry a screen with higher resolution than the Iphone and support Skype. It's another device to carry for sure, but only another 200 grams and it can be left safely in your home when doing things more ..action-packed than sipping coffee at Starbucks.

    Quite frankly, I would feel fairly uncomfortable carrying a $600 device in my pants all the time.
    Reply
  • Justin Case - Friday, July 06, 2007 - link

    I'm sure you realise there's an obvious joke lurking in that last sentence... ;-) Reply
  • Justin Case - Thursday, July 05, 2007 - link

    Any chance of a comparison with the Qtek 9000 or Nokia's N700...? Reply
  • 2ManyOptions - Thursday, July 05, 2007 - link

    Why the hate? Its not something which you can totally reject or totally throw like trash ! It does look good when compared to it's competitors.

    The price tag for the iPhone is an individual's concern. If he/she thinks spending 700$ on iPhone is cool, so be it, i wouldn't lose anything !! Does that mean the person who bought an iPhone is stupid?? I wudn't agree with that, its his money n his idea of fun n spending.

    I would like to buy something like an iPhone but not unless its below 250$ or something like that...And maybe something new, something better than iPhone will pop up by then.
    Good marketing by Apple though.
    Reply
  • Koing - Wednesday, July 04, 2007 - link

    to pick the 4GB instead of the 8GB version! :P Reply
  • aGoGo - Wednesday, July 04, 2007 - link

    http://www.unwiredview.com/2007/07/04/htc-omni-pic...">HTC Omni

    If Steve was holding this phone a million idiot will be standing in line from now till October :p
    Reply

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