FAQ: What you need to know about the iPhone

Is there anything left to know about the iPhone frenzy? We'll fill you in

Editor's note: This story was written before the iPhone officially went on sale. To read more about that event, see: The iPhone goes on sale, finally.

We hear you. We know, it's been iPhone, iPhone, iPhone. But the end is in sight, or to go Churchillian on you, "Not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

Whatever.

We're eager for the 6 p.m. iWitching hour to iCome and iGo, so we can, like you, enjoy our iWeekend. [What, you don't think there'll be endless follow-up articles next week? iWish. -- Eds.] With that goal in mind, let's cut to the chase and get to the FAQs that will take you to the iPromised Land.

Skip to the good part -- when can I get one? Today, 6:00 p.m. local time, but only at AT&T Inc. stores -- corporate stores, not a franchise; there's a difference -- and Apple Inc.'s retail stores. Again, that means Apple's own stores, not resellers. To locate nearby stores, use the AT&T Find a Store site or the Apple store list for the U.S. Both the AT&T and Apple stores will close early (AT&T at 4:30 p.m., Apple's outlets at 2:00 p.m.) to sweep out customers and prep for sales. The Apple online store will take orders starting at 6:00 p.m. Pacific.

I'll be there. How many can I buy? Pssst ... it's for my little friend I call '"eBay." AT&T's limit is one per customer. Apple says you can buy a deuce. That must be one of the things they worked out between them, or maybe it's just Steve Jobs' optimism.

I'm interested, but I don't care to be in the crush. Can I buy one this weekend? If supplies last, sure. AT&T store weekend hours are generally 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Saturday and 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Sunday, but check with your target store. Hours are posted online. (There's no word on whether AT&T stores will be open for extended hours this weekend.) Apple's stores, meanwhile, will open at 9:00 a.m. starting Saturday and running through the summer. Apple bonus: You can ping any store for iPhone availability the night before starting at 9:00 p.m. local. That could save you a wasted trip.

How much is this going to cost me? Like they say, if you have to ask, you can't afford it. First, there's the $499 or $599 price for the iPhone (4GB and 8GB flash drive, respectively) with no subsidized discount, a shocker right off the bat to most cell phone shoppers. Then you have to add the minimum two-year contract with AT&T -- the least expensive unlimited data plan is $59.99 a month -- and the $36 for AT&T's activation. Figure another $12 a month in taxes on the service. Finally, if you subscribe to any wireless service other than AT&T (formerly Cingular Wireless), canceling your current account means paying an early termination fee. Verizon Communications Inc., for example, pins you with as much as $175 for bailing, while T-Mobile charges $200. Say you're exiting Verizon; the total two-year cost for an 8GB iPhone will be $2,538, plus sales tax, if any, on the iPhone. Subtract what you'd pay out over the next 24 months for your current calling plan. That's your rough out-of-pocket difference. The upside? You pocket an iPhone.

I have it! Hallelujah! Now what? You have to download and install the new iTunes 7.3 for Mac or Windows, first of all, since you'll use it to pick a calling plan and activate the phone. You can take care of the iTunes update early; it's available today. You also need a credit or debit card, access to the Internet, an e-mail address and your Social Security number. That last is required for AT&T's credit check. Apple and AT&T claim that the iTunes activation process takes just a few minutes for new numbers, but it may drag on longer if you're transferring a number from another carrier. Try to run the activation from the computer where you keep your music, e-mail accounts, contact list and address book, since iTunes also synchronizes that content and information with the iPhone.

I'm sick of my phone's crappy battery time. Is the iPhone any different? Apple revised its battery consumption estimates upward and now says the iPhone's will handle eight hours of talk time, up from January's forecast of five hours. Video, audio and Web times increased, too. Amazingly, the first reviewers more or less confirm Apple's numbers. On the other hand, it looks like replacing the battery, assuming it dies before you ditch iPhone 1.0, will be more of a hassle than for other phones, perhaps requiring you to return it to Apple for a swap. We can only hope that it's nothing like the iPod battery replacement program, which runs $60 and takes at least a week (not including shipping time to Apple) to put the iPod back in your hands. And as for recharging, there's no word, even now, on how long it take to revitalize the iPhone's battery or whether there's a quick-charge feature.

Can I buy tracks on the fly through iTunes on my iPhone? No. Tracks can only be loaded into the iPhone via the Windows or Mac version of iTunes. And no, we don't know why, especially since iTunes already allows one-click purchases that don't require you to re-enter a credit card number. This may change, though. In an interview this week in The Wall Street Journal (subscription required), Apple CEO Steve Jobs said, "There's a lot of things you can imagine down the road," when asked if direct-to-iPhone music and video purchases were in the future. So, he didn't deny it.

I've read some of the reviews. Most of the dings are about AT&T and its dog-slow data network. What can I do? Nothing. If you want the iPhone, you're stuck with AT&T. And maybe for some time. Apple and AT&T have an exclusive agreement that, depending on whom you believe, will last from two to five years. (All AT&T has said is that it's "multiyear.")

AT&T doesn't do well in customer surveys. In the latest J.D. Power and Associates report, it tied with three others for the top spot in just one of six U.S. regions. T-Mobile got the nod, or was in a tie for first, in all six. And Consumer Reports' January survey of nearly 43,000 readers pegged customer satisfaction as "middling to low." Only Sprint Nextel Corp. did poorer.

As for AT&T's enhanced data rates for GSM evolution (EDGE) network, it's definitely the iPhone's weakest link. All four reviewers who posted evaluations this week dissed browsing speed while connected to AT&T. Even Steve Jobs wishes it was faster. In today's Wall Street Journal interview with Jobs and AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, Jobs said, "Where you wish you had faster speed is ... on a Web browser. It's good enough, but you wish it was a little faster."

The silver lining is that the iPhone also taps into 802.11b/g, so that when you're in a hot spot, surfing should be slick. Caveat: Finding free Wi-Fi will be crucial to browsing satisfaction; we can't imagine anyone wanting to fork over $60 and up a month for a voice/data plan, then even more to use for-fee wireless at, say, a Starbucks coffee shop or an airport.

What else could I buy for the $599 an iPhone's gonna cost me? Very good question, Mr. Ballmer. At the national average price per gallon (as of June 25), you could buy just a bit over 200 gallons, enough to drive 4,417 miles in a car that gets 22 miles per gallon. That's enough gas to get you from Los Angeles to Columbia, S.C., and then back again, assuming your car drives as the crow flies and you want to get to Columbia, or even back to Los Angeles. To put it another way, that's 605 tracks on iTunes, 91 showings of Live Free or Die Hard at the U.S. average ticket price, or 360 5.5-ounce bags of Dakota Style's "Jumbo Ranch Sunflower Seeds" or almost 124 pounds of shell-spitting. Not to mention two trips for a family of four to Fenway Park to take in the Boston Red Sox, which, according to last year's survey, was the most expensive Major League Baseball team to watch in its home park.

What could go wrong with the iPhone? The iPhone could be too delicate -- its screen cover is glass, not plastic, and there's a lot packed into the case, far more than in an iPod's innards -- to stand up to street use. AT&T's slow EDGE network may make browsing not just painful, but just not worth it. The touch-screen keyboard might be unusable for many, or just frustrating for some. A production or supplier problem -- and Apple's not immune to those -- could taint the iPhone's reputation. Or buyers might bash it for any number of missing features, including voice dialing (no), instant messaging (nope), extra ring tones beyond the 35 included (can't help ya), and video recording (nix on moving pix).

I'm sick and tired of hearing about iPhone around the clock. When are the new iMacs coming out? IMacs? You mean computers, right? Apple still sells computers?

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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