Gadget mania

Is Apple’s much-hyped iPhone really all it’s cracked up to be? Sean Dodson looks at some alternatives that could even become classics in their own right

It’s one of the most desirable gadgets of recent years, but also one of the most over-hyped. It divides people as certainly as the logo for the 2012 Olympics. To some it’s an instant design classic, to others it is little more than a cobbling together of existing technologies. Indeed, the only thing for certain is you simply can’t ignore the Apple iPhone (pictured left).

The handset’s chief designer, the London-born Jonathan Ive says that Apple had to ‘rethink the mobile phone from the bottom up’, but it’s worth considering how much of the device is actually brand new. Folding iPod technology into a mobile phone was always going to be one of the most appealing convergences of two extremely popular devices. But critics have pointed out that MP3 players have been embedded in mobile handsets for almost as long as there have been MP3 players. The celebrated touch screen has been with us longer still.

The iPhone, on first glance, does look fantastic. According to Clive Grinyer, director of design at Orange, it is ‘the most stunning piece of technology I have ever seen. When you first use it, you notice that it behaves in a way that you have always wanted technology to behave. The combination of functionality and technology works so cleanly that I get a feeling of magic when I touch it. It does what you want it to do, there is no latency,’ he says. Furnished with optical-quality glass, the iPhone boasts a big, bright screen, and a host of nifty design features, including a dazzling Web browser. It does little things no mobile has ever done before, but there’s also a whole lot it does not do. Simple things like Bluetooth, memory card slots, optical zooms and recording video are absent from iPhone 1.0.

Naturally, Apple fans won’t care that many critics are saying that the device is over-hyped and they will point to the number of neat software innovations and its ability to integrate with iTunes as reason enough to part with many hundred pounds. And the iPhone will be expensive; estimates range from £300 to £600.

Then there’s the lack of Sim card. To own an iPhone you will have to tear up your existing mobile contract and lock yourself in to a long, expensive two-year deal with a provider of Apple’s choice (rumoured to be O2 in the UK). So don’t be tempted to buy one next time you are in the US or to pre-order one on Ebay: it won’t work back home.

If Apple can answer many of these criticisms, it will have a design classic on its hands, but there are plenty of rival handsets out this summer vying for our attention. Here we suggest five alternative future design classics.

1 Samsung Ultra Music F300
The iPhone’s fat ‘candy bar’ shape is nothing special. As wide as a box of cook’s matches, its principal innovation is the use of optical glass for the screen. The most revolutionary-looking handset on the market is the super-slimline Samsung F300. The first handset to use both sides (one side phone, the other a multimedia player), it actually comes encased in a dual vinyl ‘travel’ cover, rather like a switchblade or a Moleskine notebook. The handset comes with two batteries, one internal and one held in the black travel sleeve. A neat combination of music player and mobile, it costs just a fraction of the iPhone.

2 Nokia N95
Nokia, still the world’s largest mobile manufacturer, also launched a classic handset this summer. The N95 packs in more features than you probably know what to do with, and although it doesn’t offer a touch-screen, it has an inbuilt GPS system, which should stop you from ever getting lost again. Its two-way slider, which can reveal a numeric keyboard or a quartet of controls for the integrated music player, leaves space for the big screen.

3 Neo1973
Not to be confused with its Stockholm soundalike, the Neo1973 has the potential to be the most revolutionary mobile handset to emerge in the past decade. It is to be the world’s first to run OpenMoko, an ‘open source’ operating system that anyone is free to develop software applications for (the iPhone won’t be open to third-party developers). The Neo1973 – so named after the year of the first ever mobile phone call by its inventor Martin Cooper – might point towards a future where we spend far less on the hardware, but use tailor-made software to support our individual needs.

4 Neonode N2
Long before Apple developed its touch-activated optical screen, Neonode, a small Stockholm-based start-up, patented its own finger-activated technology based on a matrix of infrared beams. The tiny manufacturer’s latest handset, the N2, on sale next month, is its neatest yet. Twice as light as the iPhone and smaller than the shape of a credit card, some bloggers have tagged it the ‘iPhone mini’. Despite its understated appearance, the N2 is winning praise for its intuitive interface and minimalist product design. And while Web browsing might not be as tactile as the iPhone, its faster connection means that you can access Web pages in double-quick time. 5 HTC Touch Out a full six months before the iPhone hits the UK, the HTC Touch has been touted as the iPhone spoiler. Lighter, smaller and thinner than its US rival, the sleek little device comes with a rubberised back that accentuates the tactile feel of the touch-screen. You can, moreover, slot your existing Sim card into it and continue exactly where you left off. There’s no need to tear up your old contract.

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