Article: An Original

by on April 10, 2013

A little over six years ago, the original iPhone was unveiled at the Macworld Conference & Expo in San Francisco. At the time it was leaps and bounds ahead of anything else out there, and people were already wanting to know when and where they could get one. Jumping forward to the end of June 2007, the iPhone was available for anyone on AT&T. While revolutionary at the time, I wanted to take another look at the original iPhone and see how it holds up.

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iPhone iPhone iPhone

If you don’t recall, the original iPhone didn’t feature a whole lot by today’s standards. The iPhone as a platform really took off with the iPhone 3G and 3GS, so the original iPhone is a bit of a rarity for many folks (although they did sell quite a few). Not only did it not allow installation of apps (no App Store), but it also didn’t have GPS, a compass, 3G/4G/LTE data, a gyroscope, rear camera flash, front-facing camera, and the ability to record video. From a software standpoint, even with the latest version of iOS (technically still known as iPhone OS), 3.1.3, this iPhone does not get updates like iCloud, iMessage, AirPlay, Game Center, Notification Center, FaceTime, and multitasking.

Obviously since iOS updates only go one way, this revisitation of the original iPhone will be looking at it with iOS 3.1.3. Take away some marquee features like push notifications, cut/copy/paste, MMS, and the App Store, and you have a rough idea of how the iPhone was when it first shipped. In the days prior to iOS 4, the focus for each iOS update seemed to be centered around only a couple of marquee features for users and a lot for developers. With iOS 4, Apple started including a large number of smaller updates for both demographics.

At first glance, using the original iPhone reminds me a lot of my original iPod touch—it feels overly engineered and special. Compared with the iPhone 5, there seem to be unnecessary textures and components with the basic construction: there’s the aluminum back, plastic antenna window, glass face, metal ring around the screen, and plastic buttons. The overall design is a good mix of textures and surfaces, and really makes the plastic back of the iPhone 3G feel like a step backward. In some ways, the aluminum back with an antenna window is most analogous to the design of the iPhone 5, although it feels a bit more refined in its current incarnation. I still feel like the iPhone 4/4S was the most cohesive iPhone design and the back glass held up quite well to scratches (just don’t drop it), especially compared to its predecessor. The screen does not have the oleophobic coating, so fewer scratches have really developed, but it ends up getting greasier faster. The buttons still have a very satisfying feel, but the plastic silent switch and one-piece volume control really make this iPhone feel like a miniature version of the current iPad. Even the meeting of the camera and the aluminum back are similar.

The hardware still looks modern (then again, how much can change with a slab of glass and some sort of back material?), but feels amazing in your hand. Not only do the rounded corners and edges feel like they’re designed to be held for hours, but even someone with average sized hands can get a good grip (some may argue that the iPhone 5 is just a little too tall or too thin). It’s also noticeably heavier than modern iPhones, but not unbearably so.

Even with iOS 3.1.3, the original iPhone feels a bit slow. There are moments of lag, even when doing some simple tasks. In comparison, an iPhone 4 running iOS 6 still (arguably) feels snappy running software from over two years after its initial introduction. I am surprised at how much has stayed the same, but feels different. Opening the Settings app reveals a very simple and uncluttered list of options, while notifications are very obtrusive (blue box in the middle of the screen). All of the included apps can fit on one home screen. There is also a more cohesive feel, as every app uses the same user interface controls and widgets (and no alleged skeumorphism!)

Unfortunately, this old iPhone isn’t getting much love from the developer world, either. Most apps require iOS 5, while some lenient ones work with iOS 4.2, still just out of reach for this aged piece of hardware. Some of these requirements are due to developer APIs that are just not supported in older versions of the operating system, while others need just a bit more horsepower. I was able to load some apps from an old backup, but most were still from the early days of the iOS 5 era, meaning that many apps were already shifting away from iOS 3. Surprisingly, Pandora’s current version still works, although must stay open while playing (iOS 4 brought background audio from all apps). It would be nice if Apple would let users download older version of apps if they had previously purchased (as opposed to the latest version of apps in their purchase history). Some other apps that would install just plain wouldn’t work, due to changes to servers they communicate with. Fortunately, Safari works, so you can still access some web services.

Some other annoyances are that some long-dead services just don’t work on this iPhone (.Mac and MobileMe, anyone?), so even for email, iCloud isn’t officially supported. This is not surprising, but really prevents these early iPhones from being a convenient backup off the shelf. Speaking of using this iPhone as a backup, popping the nano SIM from my iPhone 5 into its slot using a SIM adapter yielded a slow, but functional EDGE connection. I will no longer complain about the HSPA+ (fake 4G) connection in my area. One interesting thing about EDGE is that you cannot use data and talk on the phone at the same time, something that AT&T has advertised numerous times in regards to later iPhones. If you are connected to a Wi-Fi network, you are able to do two things at once, much like an iPhone on a non-LTE Verizon connection.

Overall, the original iPhone was a revolutionary device for its time, and still is an astonishingly beautiful product. When used side-by-side with iOS 6 on an iPhone 5, it becomes apparently clear that Apple hasn’t sat back and repackaged the same thing for the last six years as some tech writers have alleged. Due to the lack of support for apps and services, this iPhone may still be a pretty useless backup (especially in the United States when AT&T is killing its EDGE network in a couple of years), but it still functions perfectly as an iPod (quite similarly to an iPod nano or classic), and may be something worth hanging onto from a collectibility standpoint (only six million were sold during its entire run, while nearly that many were sold in the iPhone 5’s first weekend). Still, just like the original Mac, it’s an important part of Apple’s history and worth hanging onto for any geek.

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