The Apple iPhone's UK launch date is just around the corner but, after all the build-up, is it worth your hard-earned cash? We found out whether the iPhone lives up the hype by testing it against two of its closes rivals - the Nokia N95 and HTC Touch.

Apple has finally announced the UK release date for the iPhone – British consumers can get their hands on the highly anticipated handset on 9 November. But, as all technology junkies know, the hype surrounding new products often doesn't match the reality. So it's fair to ask: is the iPhone as good as they say? In particular, does the device's much-discussed touchscreen interface really make using the iPhone simpler and more intuitive?

Everybody will have an opinion, but what's needed is something more objective and definitive. So we asked an expert in the field – usability consulting firm Perceptive Sciences – to compare Apple's new baby to two of its rivals.

The results of the tests were unequivocal: while the iPhone is not the most feature-rich device, when it comes to usability, Apple's handset lives up to its hype.

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The phones

Besides the iPhone, the two other products in this usability comparison test were selected for two reasons: they were already on sale and they had competitive feature sets.

In particular, the testers needed a touchscreen phone to compare to the iPhone and a more traditional button-based phone with strong multimedia capabilities.

The most obvious contender is the HTC Touch, a Windows Mobile device that has both standard button-based navigation and touchscreen capabilities. This device has a 2.8in screen, 240x320 resolution and a 2Mp (megapixel) camera. It also supports Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

HTC Touch review here

Nokia's N95, based on the Series 60 variant of the Symbian platform, provides the more traditional type of button-based navigation only, but it's a multimedia powerhouse. It boasts a 5Mp camera and can create
VGA-quality 30fps (frames per second) video. It supports many types of media playback and has a long list of other features including built-in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS – the test device even came with a barcode reader. It has a 2.6in 240x320-pixel display.

Nokia N95 review here

Obviously, Apple's iPhone is the best known of the three devices. It has received much attention for its 3.5in 320x480 display and its touchscreen interface – you use your fingers for most tasks. It's based on the Mac OS X
and comes with a built-in 2Mp camera.

Apple iPhone - the definitive UK review here

The tests

Perceptive Sciences designed this test to be as objective as possible, according to researchers Tom Thornton and Tim Ballew. This is particularly important, they said, because of the high level of attention the 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. They were asked 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 call, saving a phone number to the contact list, sending a brief email, taking a photo and finding a website using the device's built-in browser.

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

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 generally they were interested in user-friendliness. For instance, the Nokia N95 is justly famous for its strong feature set. But did this contribute to or detract from overall usability?

It's also important to note that the tests focused on how easy it was to pick up the device and use it 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 work out how to use the phones. That's the difference between learnability and usability."

The results

In terms of usability, the iPhone blew away its two competitors. Its overall score in the usability tests was 4.6. The HTC Touch was a distant second with a mark of 3.4, while the Nokia N95 scored just 3.2.

"Testers were typically able to perform specific tasks about twice as quickly on the iPhone, which is pretty remarkable," Thornton said.

On the following pages we've prepared a breakdown of how each device scored in the five sometimes-overlapping categories, along with comments from the researchers.

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