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Can the iPhone do double duty as a laptop?

Joe Hutsko, technology writer for, shoots a self portrait using an Apple iPhone. He spent a week living with the device as his only communication device.
Joe Hutsko, technology writer for, shoots a self portrait using an Apple iPhone. He spent a week living with the device as his only communication device.Joe Hutsko / for
/ Source: contributor

My dream gadget: A handheld device powerful enough to let me leave my notebook computer home and still get things done on a weekend trip without too much difficulty. By “things” I mean getting real work done — writing, e-mail, Web browsing, making and receiving phone call. Also important: This device must keep me entertained with media, including music, and video. And oh yeah: It absolutely must have a full keyboard.

For me, that last requirement, a full keyboard, was my biggest worry about the iPhone —  or more accurately, the lack of actual keyboard keys, replaced instead by a virtual keyboard that pops up when needed, then vanishes when not, freeing up all of that gorgeous screen space.

Sure the virtual keyboard looked good in the demo videos I watched, but would it work as well as the physical keyboard on the Palm Treo 680 I was reasonably comfortable typing on at a pretty quick clip?

The only way to find out was to buy an iPhone, so I did. Eager to put the keyboard to the test, I connected the iPhone to my computer, activated it with iTunes, then clicked a few check boxes to choose what to keep in sync, including my contact and calendar items, Web bookmarks, music, podcasts, photos, videos, and e-mail accounts.

Up and running
The iPhone sucked in my contact and calendar items, but there was no option to sync the iPhone’s Notes program with  my sticky notes (whether in Outlook on the PC or the Mac’s Stickies program). This missing feature was among the first of a lengthy iPhone wish list (see “iWish: iPhone updates we'd like to see.”)

I clicked sync and a few minutes later I was ready to disconnect the iPhone and begin using it. Curious to see how much of my key contact, calendar and mail data was transferred, I checked out the iPhone apps in that order.

As someone who hates to let a friend or family member’s birthday or anniversary go by unnoticed, I was pleased to find iTunes had synced those important dates to the iPhone’s respective programs accordingly, as well as multiple phone numbers, and e-mail and street addresses — a thoroughness rarely present in many other mobile phones.

As for e-mail, the iPhone showed all of my e-mail accounts except for Hotmail, which isn’t supported. Checking the inboxes I was surprised to find them empty. iTunes does not sync e-mails, only e-mail account settings, saving you from having to type e-mail account setup info by hand.

Which brings up the keyboard, and the big unanswered question hanging over my purchase decision: How does it feel? To find out, I touched the icon to create a new e-mail, then held my breath and began tapping out my first words.

Initially, the keyboard feels weird
Skipping the advice I found in the Getting Started video on Apple’s Web site to begin by typing with only one finger, I jumped right in with both thumbs, the iPhone comfortably cradled over my interlaced digits. Initially, the keyboard felt weird. Mostly because there’s no tactile feel or feedback beneath the fingertips. There is an audible tick sound as you type, and that helps.

Replying was slow going at first, mostly because I was taking extreme care to tap each key. As I typed, words popped up alongside the cursor, best-guesses at what I was getting at — and in most cases, it got them right. A tap of the space bar completes the best-guess word and inserts a space. Autocorrect guesses I didn’t want could be ignored by clicking on the suggested word.

Reaching the end of my first sentence gave me pause when I saw that there was no period key. Instead there’s a punctuation button that brings up another keyboard filled with punctuation and symbols — which means two taps to get to two of the most common symbols: period and comma . (Quick tip: Tap and hold down on the punctuation key then slide to the period or comma and let go to pull off punctuation in a single gesture instead of two taps.)

I continued typing, gradually gaining in speed after five or so e-mails. A new question occurred to me: What was I doing sitting at my desk in front of a computer when I could be in another room — or anywhere, for that matter — getting things done?

iPhone on the road
I shut off the computer and made a pact to spend the next week or so using the iPhone for my day-to-day e-mail and Web browsing, going back to the computer only to sync or when faced with something beyond the iPhone’s reach.

As the week progressed, my understanding and appreciation of that reach grew every day.

Swift connections — when in Wi-Fi range
As for the iPhone’s literal connected reach, the device offers to tap into any nearby Wi-Fi access point it detects, be it my own wireless router, or the T-Mobile hotspot at the Borders café. The iPhone’s Safari Web browser pulled up Web pages with satisfying swiftness, and sending and receiving e-mails — even with large photo or document attachments — felt similar to doing the same on my MacBook.

When out of Wi-Fi reach, AT&T’s much-scrutinized network was akin to those dial-up modem days, and at best a little faster. Many have griped that the iPhone wasn’t designed to connect to faster 3G networks and the complaint is legitimate. Still, I’m willing to live without 3G with this first iPhone — especially if that translates to longer overall battery life, as has been reported.

I would like longer battery life from my iPhone. As a phone, it is on par or better than other mobile phones. As my all-in-one dream device, it lasts longer than my MacBook, but not long enough for me to put in a full day without keeping an eye on the battery gauge and making adjustments to squeeze out as much time as possible before I need to recharge.

When in do-not-disturb work mode, for instance, I turn off the Bluetooth signal that connects the iPhone to the hands-free Jawbone headset I’m testing. (First impression: the much-vaunted noise-canceling feature seems to work as described.) Ditto for Wi-Fi if I’m not in range of a wireless router — no need to have it turned on if I can’t get it on with Wi-Fi.

A day in the life
A day trip to Philadelphia provided the best example of a routine day in a life with the iPhone. The morning began with reading and replying to e-mails, making a couple of calls, then using the iPhone’s iPod feature to listen to music during a 30-minute run, after which the iPhone’s battery indicator showed about 3/4 power.

During the 50-minute trip to Philly, I made a few phone calls, which drew down the battery a bit more. But, I still had more than half left when I parked and hit the street on foot. The plan was to meet my friend at a café we’d visited the week before. I didn’t know the name or address of the place — just that the word “java” was in the name.

I tapped on Google Maps, searched on “Philadelphia java cafe,” and seconds later a map peppered with pushpin search hits appeared, including the one I was looking for: Philadelphia Java Co. I called my friend to say I was on the way, he asked for my cross streets, and told me to head up Spruce instead, which I easily found on the map.

On our way to check out a new apartment my friend was thinking of renting, I checked my e-mail. My editor had e-mailed me to coordinate a conference call about a possible writing opportunity with a colleague of his. Between replies I searched for nearby restaurants, and we eventually wound up at a great falafel sandwich shop called Mouz that I saved in Google Maps for future reference. Checking mail again I agreed to a 3:30 conference call. Before leaving the city I used Google Maps to search for used bookstores, found one nearby, but didn’t find the book I as looking for.

I got back to the car, connected the hands-free Jawbone headset, and then tapped the phone number in the e-mail I’d received to dial into the conference call. A few minutes into the conversation the call dropped, which seems to happen more on the iPhone than with my Nokia or Treo 680. Fortunately, the Jawbone allows redialing the last number with quick double tap of the rear button.

When the conference concluded I hung up and answered two calls, then made an unplanned stop at a Barnes & Noble. I spotted a book I wanted, but instead of buying it I ordered an iced coffee in the café, sat for a spell, and used Safari on the iPhone to search Amazon for a used edition of the book. Finding one I ordered it and headed out of the bookstore, checking mail again before hitting the road.

By the time I was home, the iPhone still had 20 percent of its battery life remaining. I kept it unplugged and went about making a few calls while preparing supper. Several e-mail checks after dinner brought the 10 percent remaining power warning, and an hour later the iPhone was down to 5 percent. A half hour later it was depleted. By my estimate, I got about six to seven hours of battery intensive service.

When I say I’d really like longer life battery, I’m not saying other devices do any better. I’m saying that because the iPhone has proven that it can meet my requirements as a notebook replacement for day or weekend trips. So it’s only natural that I’d rather not have to think about whether the battery can make it through the day. So add longer battery life to the other items on my wish list that I won’t go into here — because better battery life and all the other wish list items wouldn’t make a bit of difference if I can’t use the keyboard.

Can I type as quickly on it as I can on my MacBook or any real keyboard? No. As fast as on my Treo 680? Yes. Faster, actually. And comfortably enough that I can imagine getting real editing work done once there’s a Word-compatible editor for the iPhone.

And not just editing, but real writing too, as demonstrated by this story — the first draft of which was written entirely on the iPhone.