Does the iPhone live up to the hyperbole? Is the device really as cool as it looks? Even more important – is it a practical device to use or just an expensive, but impressive, luxury gadget? I can’t fully answer the philosophical aspects until I’ve used the iPhone for a longer period of time. Two weeks is my usual period for test modeling a product before passing final judgment. But in this case I will share my initial impressions and experiences. Some good, some not so good.

The first reaction I had was to the box itself when the AT&T salesman brought it out of the stock room. It’s REALLY puny. Not that packaging or size matters (cough) but somehow I was expecting a larger box.

Unboxing an Apple product is an event best experienced with friends. It’s like a Tupperware party for gadget freaks. Drinks are poured, and everyone gathers around for the big moment. In this case I skipped the spectacle and tore right into the package. Just me, my camera, and a sense of resolve.

After opening the box the iPhone is the first thing you see, presented as if on a pillow. Like a jewelry box. You are immediately struck by two things about the iPhone. First is the build quality – it is absolutely solid! I mean solid in terms of feel.The back of the unit is comprised of a brushed metal that feels absolutely wonderful. Elegantly designed and very firm in your grasp. No worries about dropping the device or having it suddenly slip out of your hand. iPhone feels extremely durable. I have no hesitation whatsoever carrying this device “naked” in my pocket.

It’s also slightly heavier than I expected. Not heavy in the abstract sense, but heavier than you would expect for a device so small and thin. But that lends to its durable feel and robust construction. As I said, it doesn’t feel delicate or fragile and that was something that concerned me prior to examining the product. In fact iPhone is probably the most solid and durable smartphone I have ever used, and that says a lot because I have used dozens of smartphone products. Now for the good stuff…

First let me give you a bit of background. I am what you might call a mobile expert in smartphones. I have years of experience reviewing and testing every popular mobile platform and devices on the market – Blackberry, PalmOS, Symbian OS (that’s Nokia), Windows Mobile, you name it. So I am approaching the iPhone from the view of an advanced PDA user, not a casual cell phone user.

As advertised, the iPhone requires docking with a Mac or PC prior to activation. You cannot simply power on the iPhone and begin making calls. Upon connecting the iPhone (Aside: Apple simultaneously released a new version of iTunes on Friday which integrates iPhone support, required download), iTunes will launch and the setup process begins. Both Apple and AT&T did a fabulous job developing this brilliant new method for phone activation. This new model is a radical departure from the status quo method of phone purchasing. You simply buy the iPhone, take it home, activate it and pick your voice/data plan from the comfort and privacy of your home. No commissioned salespeople to hassle you or sucker you into services you don’t need or want. It’s brilliant!

The whole process from start to finish takes a matter of minutes. In my case I was an existing AT&T wireless customer. My contract was up for renewal so that simplified the process even more.

Once you activate the iPhone, it’s all yours and you can begin immersing yourself in the software. Let’s start there – software. As I said I come from an extensive smartphone background, so I am accustomed to Windows Mobile, PalmOS, Symbian and Blackberry. Even at this early stage of the review process I can say without any hesitation the software running on iPhone (a modified version of OSX) far outclasses anything before it. Every other smartphone platform I mentioned above belongs on the Antique Roadshow -they are all inferior to iPhone. The level by which OSX outclasses other smartphone software is so great that to put in metaphoric terms; it’s like the transition from the era of command line interface to the GUI interface back in the early 1990’s. How badly does iPhone humiliate other platforms? Well, have you ever passed someone driving a moped - you know, those losers who had their drivers license revoked? Yeah, it's like that.

Apple has just changed the game, and no one has the software that can match the OSX experience.

I had a number of doubts about the idea of running a complex desktop class OS on mobile devices, but somehow Apple managed to pull it off. First off is performance. One would expect such a “bloated” codebase to perform like a pig stuck in molasses – but it doesn’t! OSX flies. No waiting, no hesitation, no spinning beach ball of death. iPhone is snappy and instantly responds to user input. My past experience with mobile platforms has shown me that the bigger and more complex the software, the worse it performs and less reliable it becomes. Not so in this case, and that is shocking to me.

And this opens a whole can of questions about contemporary smartphone platforms. How is that Apple managed to shoehorn a desktop OS into a phone and make it sing, while Microsoft and Nokia (Symbian) can’t get their own puny thumbprint-sized mobile platforms to perform at even tolerable speed? Could it be these companies are burning the candle from the wrong end? Is the right development model in taking advanced desktop class code and tweaking it down to mobile form factor, rather than trying to make an anemic brain-dead mobile OS try to do something it can’t? I think iPhone is a harbinger of things to come. It wouldn’t surprised me to see Microsoft axe Windows Mobile altogether, or relegate it to low-end phones, and instead bring its Windows Vista (NT) codebase onto mobile devices, just as we’re seeing now with UMPC. Of all the contenders I see Microsoft being the only one who can innovate and answer Apple’s challenge. Nokia and RIM are hopelessly lost in this fight. As for Palm, well…that OS was already dead.

The interface is fluid, and active. Every function responds in some visual way to your touch. Being a PDA guy I was apprehensive and certain that my instinctive reaction would be painful because the interface is navigated by digits rather than a stylus. I expected to have the same reaction to iPhone as I did with my Nokia E61 and Windows Mobile Smartphone edition devices – in that I would power on the device and immediately reach for a stylus that wasn’t there. To my astonishment, not only wasn’t that the case but quite the contrary the whole concept of tapping on a mobile display with a tiny plastic toothpick now seems archaic and almost alien to me. What I initially thought was a crazy idea is now proving to be a stroke of genius. Part of the success in this method of manipulation is due to the materials used on outer surface, which is a smooth high quality glass faceplace that feels wonder and quite natural to touch and interact with. Scrolling works EXACTLY as show in demos and works beautifully! To make a selection you simply tap gently on the screen and the device responds to your touch.

Still, as great as mobile OSX is, it’s clear this is version 1.0 software (Aside: that really is the actual build number in the system info screen, Version 1.0). One of the badly lacking features within the GUI environment is a method for going back to the previously access application. Here’s a scenario that illustrates my point; Say you’re browsing the web in Safari and want to read your email. You hit the home button, tap on email, and that takes you to there. Now say you want to go back to the web page you were viewing. How do you do that? You do it by hitting home again. Then tapping Safari. Maybe I’ve been hanging around PDAs too long but in my mind a function button should be located in the top left or bottom right that enables me to go directly my previously used app rather than making the process two steps. But perhaps I’m wrong. I did stumble upon a few problems with iPhone.

I notice that screen calibration needs some work, and is sometimes imprecise. On several occasions when tapping on an item the iPhone incorrectly selected the adjacent item above or below where I actually tapped. Some refinement needs to be done there. Still, that anomaly seems to be uncommon. Fortunately.

I’m pleased to report the keyboard isn’t remotely as bad as we thought, but it does take getting used to before you achieve good input results. The first 24 hours I have has a “Mossberg moment”. By that I mean that, as Walt Mossberg stated in his review I wanted to throw the device out the window. It was absolute disaster. I was pressing wrong keys, spelling words that looked more Polish than English. But after 48 hours of testing, results are completely different. What changed? Well what changed is that I was initially tapping the onscreen keys in the same manner as I would on a Treo or Blackberry. I discovered the secret to manipulating iPhone’s software keyboard is to tap lightly with the very tips of your fingers, not the whole fingertip. Believe it or not, it isn’t difficult at all. It just takes some a little practice to acclimate yourself. I don’t see this as issue any longer. Not for me anyway.

One problem that is VERY common is the predictive auto-correct spelling feature that anticipates your misspellings and makes assumptions about intended dictionary words. Based on my experience so far I call this feature broken or worthless. iPhone repeatedly failed to guess my intentional spelling and worse it offered words not even remotely associated with my intention. For example, when spelling the word “Move” as I typed m-o-v, the pop up beneath the text entry field came back with words like “overture”. Not guessing the right word is one thing, but miscalculation that involves words that don’t even start with the same LETTER of the alphabet is another. Apple needs to do a lot more work there.

I’ll be posting another “First Impressions” post later today covering more details about the iPhone. Lots more to cover. Stay tuned.