Peter Lewis
July 05, 2007 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Apple has this new thing called an iPhone. You know, the combination mobile phone/MP3 player/Internet device that’s supposed to revolutionize consumer electronics? Perhaps you’ve heard of it? Assuming you weren’t one of those dorks who lined up at Apple Stores days in advance — sleeping in lawn chairs, peeing in bottles, frightening children — you needn’t feel bad about not being the first one on your block to score the most hyped new gadget of the year. As a phone, the iPhone is nothing to call home about. In fact, there are plenty of better, cheaper mobile phones out there.

But as a portable entertainment device (this is an entertainment site, after all), the iPhone is incredibly seductive. Apple claims that the iPhone is the best iPod ever made, and that’s a fact. With its dazzlingly intuitive touch controls, the iPhone instantly renders obsolete the iPod’s once innovative click-wheel interface. The iPhone’s motion sensors automatically detect when the device is turned sideways, transforming narrow, up-and-down graphics into a bigger and more viewer-friendly widescreen format. Then, with a swipe of a finger, one can fan through a music collection by looking at album covers, using Apple’s Cover Flow technology. Tap a finger on the cover art, and it ”flips” to show a list of songs. And the scratch-resistant glass screen (measured 3.5 inches diagonally) makes the displays on previous video iPods seem unbearably dinky. Small text is easy to read, digital photos and album art look rich and vibrant, Web pages are crisp and easy on the eyes, and videos — including downloads from YouTube and movies, TV shows, and music videos downloaded from the Apple iTunes Store — can be easily viewed without squinting.

But it’s also a fact that the best iPod ever is also the most expensive iPod ever. There are two models, one that stores 4 gigabytes of digital content ($499), the other 8GB ($599) — and the memory can’t be expanded. On top of that, buyers are required to sign up for a two-year phone service agreement with AT&T, with plans ranging from $60 to $100 a month, plus a one-time activation fee of $36. If you currently have a phone plan with a carrier other than AT&T, you’ll have to pay extra to break that contract. We’re talking a minimum of nearly $2,000 to take the iPhone leap.

More stuff we didn’t like: While the internal rechargeable battery is surprisingly good — seven hours of video playback, 24 hours of music, podcasts, and audiobooks — eventually it will have to be replaced, which will require you to send your iPhone back to Apple. And AT&T’s wireless EDGE system for connecting to the Internet is agonizingly slow compared to the services offered with many other Web-enabled smart phones. Connections are faster with the iPhone’s built-in WiFi connection, but you can’t buy music or video wirelessly from Apple’s iTunes website; you have to sync the iPhone to your PC or Mac. As a phone, the iPhone is pretty much an iPhlop. Visual Voicemail — a nifty feature that lets you see who left a voicemail and hear it without having to listen to prior messages — is way cool, but overall voice quality is just so-so. And the iPhone’s ability to pull in a signal seems weaker than other AT&T models.

But the first Macintosh computers and iPods had flaws galore, too. And like the Mac and the iPod, the iPhone also has undeniably brilliant features that qualify it as an instant tech classic. (We can’t wait to see some of the iPhone’s features make their way to iPods.) Nobody in the tech world comes close to Apple in software or product design. If you’re willing to pay a lot of money for the best pocket-sized music and video player yet invented, the iPhone is iPhenomenal. B+

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