Tuesday 25 March 2008

So I got an iPhone Last Week

And it is almost as good as the fanboys would have you think it is. Eddie suggested that I may be a bit smitten by the shiny-shiny-ness at the moment and that I may become more critical of it over time so I think I'll kick off a couple of blog posts about it so we can all see whether the reality distortion field's effects are persistent or ephemeral.

I've ranted at length to anyone who'll listen over the past few days about the hassle I got from both Vodafone and O2 when I indicated that I wanted to buy an iPhone and switch over my number. Now to be fair to both companies they were acting sensibly from their own perspectives but it left me feeling like neither one really cares much about their actual customers. Vodafone's staff were reluctant to let me know that I could cancel out of my contract cheaply (at a cost of around €40) is understandable but it took me an hour to extract that from them after I fended off a number of frankly daft suggestions that would have either cost me far more money or required me to abandon my existing number. O2 then had me hand over practically every piece of personally identifying information that exists about me - if their internal data security protocols are ever compromised I dread to think how fubar'ed my privacy will be. Finally the iPhone registration process required me to give a similar degree of personal data to Apple so basically I felt about as happy at the end of the purchasing process as I would have been after a visit to a proctologist.

Anyway that trauma aside my initial impressions of the iPhone are:

  • The user interface is stunning. It's highly responsive (far, far faster than iTunes on my PC for example and it leaves all WinMobile devices in the dust). It's (almost) entirely internally consistent which is a major relief after Windows Mobile which changes spots at every other step. Simple things like the flick to scroll gesture used to handle any display item or list that extends beyond a page and the pinch-to-zoom concept are wonderful to use.
  • Safari works far,far better as a viable web browser than anything I've used before. It is nowhere near being a viable replacement to something like the PC versions of Firefox or IE6/7 but it makes all versions of Pocket IE, Opera Mobile and Netfront look miserable. It's lack of support for Flash is a major deficiency, as is its inability to handle any form of streaming media that I've tried (apart from the dedicated YouTube app) but it is slick and fast enough to make browsing fun despite the limitations of the screen size (more on that later)
  • The lock in to a provider means that set up is pretty much all done for you but there were a few odd quirks. Most notably the Alarm and Calendar app time zones were left at the US Apple default (Cupertino). Setting up WiFi is simple and straightforward but I suspect things would have been different if my home network wasn't running on 802.11g with WEP (I know that is not secure but I, frankly, don't mind - I need to keep it because I like having my DS linked to my WLAN). 
  • The data network management interface is almost entirely hidden but that's actually not much of a problem as it works exactly the way it should. It detects WLAN's and allows you to set them up if you are trying to do something that requires a data connection and a WLAN is visible, thereafter it just remembers it and stays connected. No messing about. It switches invisibly to WLAN and back to EDGE when it needs to and you never get bothered by it. From a usability perspective it makes even my PC's Wireless network management look lousy and in particular it makes Ubuntu's issues with WLAN look pathetic. The only real options available to the user are to turn off all radios (Flight Mode) or to turn of WLAN (which presumably will save some battery life). So far battery life with WLAN enabled and heavily used has been very good - I've spent sessions of over three hours browsing that burn up about about 30- 40% of the battery. That's 2-3x better than the best Windows Mobile device I've ever seen.
  • Battery life when using Cellular data (EDGE) is not as good but I can still get approximately 3 hours continuous heavy use before running out of juice.
  • E-mail setup using G-Mail via IMAP is straightforward. It works, it's not "push mail" but it suits my needs.
  • Importing Contacts is a pain. Perhaps there is a better way to do it but the best option available to me was to use the Windows Contacts system to manually capture my contact details from my old phone. If I had Outlook set up that might have been simpler but I really wish Apple had an actual contact manager built into iTunes .
  • The Camera is alright but frankly little more than a gimmick. I don't use phone cameras for much apart from taking pictures of the occasional pint and emailing them to people I want to tempt into the pub but this one seems at least as good as the average, possibly better.
  • I've never had an iPod but the iPod mode seems to work pretty well. I can't understand the fanaticism that people have about them to be honest. It's an MP3 player, it sounds good and has an acceptable interface. Personally I'd like more capabilities on the device such as being able to build play-lists based on searches and the like but I'm not complaining really. Time will tell if it grows on me.
  • The touch screen keypad is much better than any other touch screen keypad I've used but it's still vastly inferior to any half decent thumb pad such as those on the Blackjack\Treo.
  • Battery life is good when you just use it as a phone or when you have a WLAN nearby but its cellular data radio chews up a surprising amount of power. In general I'm charging it every night though , and more often than that if I'm using WWAN data which makes it about on a par with an average Windows Mobile device overall.
  • The phone dialling \ in call options, ring tone\ alert tone management stuff seems to be good to excellent so far. No sign of the dreaded five seconds of silence that the Blackjack suffered from at the start of many calls for example.
  • There are just enough buttons to get the job done - a Home Key to back out of apps or wake up the device, a sleep\reset key to shut down and lock the screen, volume up\down buttons and most importantly a physical mute switch which is a godsend.
  • I was worried that 16GB of storage would be a bit limiting but it turns out that I actually only have about 10GB of music so that's more than enough for me.

Things that are not so good

  • The aforementioned lack of Flash and streaming media formats in the browser.
  • Where's the Cut and Paste folks? ?? Monumentally stupid decision not to have it.
  • How do I select a block of text and just delete that? Seems to be related to the Cut n' Paste issue and is just as stupid.
  • The lack of a Storage card Slot and a replaceable battery are craptastic anticustomer decisions IMO. I still bought the device even knowing that so clearly it doesn't matter that much but both are still very poor design decisions.
  • The pseudo GPS Cell tower\WiFi location system doesn't work at all which is a let down. I expected this to work at least as well as it does with the Windows Mobile GoogleMaps app on the Blackjack.
  • Calendar doesn't seem to integrate with anything, kind of makes it useless for me but since Google Calendar SMS's me for all important events it's not all that vital.
  • The custom iPhone port is a bit lame - what's wrong with USB? Why bother reinventing the wheel for very device? Well apart from using it as an excuse to extort money from customers looking to replace the sync\power\av cable that is.
  • Safari crashes a couple of times a day. In general that appears to be related to the so-called iPhone WebApps but it's still poor. It recovers pretty well, and in fact you might even miss it happening if you weren't paying attention but they were definitely crashes because iTunes repeatedly asks me if I wanted to send the crash dumps to Apple.
  • Safari tends to "forget" the session state of some open tabs periodically. This may be related to the crashes. It's mostly just annoying but it could be really harmful if you were switching away briefly from something that you wanted to keep (like a post into a message board\blog comment etc)
  • The entire phone locked up twice the first day I got it. Both times happened just after I plugged the phone into my PC. Recovery required the iPhone equivalent of a Windows Mobile Soft Reset. It hasn't happened since but I haven't done much syncing since either.
  • iTunes Store support on the phone. It's sort of kind of there and you can buy some stuff directly from the phone but you can't grab a podcast with it for example which is just plain dumb.

Things that I'd like to see

  • A more stable browser,
  • Flash support
  • Either a real thumb pad (A slider design should work) or good haptic feedback for the onscreen keyboard
  • Real GPS
  • User replaceable battery
  • Better support for streaming audio feeds.
  • HSxPA 3G support would be nice.
  • A better screen resolution. The screen is excellent but it's not widescreen and at ~160dpi it's no where near best in class when compared to the best of the opposition (the VGA\XGA Windows Mobile devices). If I were voting I would be pushing for at least a 720x405 (16:9)  but 1280x720 (ie 720p native) would be ideal.

Overall though it is even better than I'd hoped and despite the negative online comments regarding its cost (€499 for the 16GB model / €45 per month) it is certainly a cheaper option for me than Vodafone over the 18 months that I'm now stuck with it. I've already used about 20MB of data which on its own would have cost me €100 from Vodafone.