Usability test: Does iPhone match the hype?

Users try out the iPhone, HTC Touch and the Nokia N95

We all know that in the technology world, the hype about new products often doesn't match reality. So it's fair to ask: Is the iPhone as good as its hype? In particular, does iPhone's much-discussed touch-screen interface really make using the device simpler and more intuitive?

Everybody will have an opinion, but what's need is something more objective and definitive. So an expert in the field -- Perceptive Sciences, a Texas-based usability consulting firm -- was asked to examine and compare the iPhone and two competitors; HTC Touch 4 and Nokia N95 2.5.

The results of its tests were unequivocal: While the iPhone is not the most feature-rich device, this group of experts found that when it comes to usability, iPhone does, indeed, live up to its hype.

The phones

Besides iPhone, the two other products in this usability comparison test were selected for two reasons: They were available, and they had competitive feature sets. In particular, the testers needed a touch-screen phone to compare to the iPhone and a more traditional button-based phone with strong multimedia capabilities.

For now, there are few touch-screen devices available. One that has received a fair amount of publicity is the LG Prada, which is not yet available from a U.S. mobile carrier. LG declined to participate in these tests.

While the HTC Touch currently isn't available from a U.S. mobile carrier, the company has indicated that it will be before the end of the year. An unlocked GSM version of the Touch is currently available from numerous resellers for between US$450 and $600.

Nokia's N95, based on the Series 60 variant of the Symbian platform, provides only the more traditional type of button-based navigation, but it is a multimedia powerhouse. It boasts a 5-megapixel camera and can create VGA-quality, 30-frames-per-second videos. It also supports many types of media playback and has a long list of other features including built-in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS, not to mention a bar-code reader that came with the test device. It has a 2.6-in., 320-by-240 resolution display.

Unlocked versions of the Nokia N95 are available for between $600 and $700.

Obviously, iPhone is the best known of the three devices. It has received much attention for its 3.5-in., 480-by-320 resolution display screen and its touch-screen interface, in which you use finger gestures for virtually all tasks. Based on the Mac OS X, it comes with a built-in 2-megapixel camera.

The tests

Perceptive Sciences designed this test to be as objective as possible, according to senior research scientist Tom Thornton and research scientist Tim Ballew. That's particularly important, they said, because of the high level of attention iPhone has received; it would be easy for that hype to influence the results of more subjective tests.

The company brought in 10 testers who had never used any of the three devices. It then asked the testers to perform a series of tasks on each device with quantifiable results, such as the time needed to find and use the on/off switch. Other tasks included setting the phone to vibrate, making a

Based on the test results and on Thornton's and Ballew's observations, each phone was given a score of between one and five (five being the highest) in each of five categories. In addition, each phone was given an overall score.

It's important to remember that these are usability tests, not tests of functionality. Perceptive Sciences took a broad look at the features on each phone, but largely as they related to usability. For instance, the Nokia N95 is justly famous for its strong feature set. But did that feature set contribute to overall usability, or detract from it?

It's also important to remember that the tests focused on how easy it was to pick up the device and use it right out of the box.

"People can eventually learn to use any device," Ballew said. "But that's not true usability. We wanted to see how long it took to figure out how to use the phones. That's the difference between learnability and usability."

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