Of course I’ll spin it that way, as if I’m altruistically documenting my experience for others and wasn’t planning on posting it anyway. As if posting massively delayed reviews wasn’t my gig. To own the truth, however, a delay of six months – the iPhone was released on June 29th according to Wikipedia (and cracked 5 days later by DVD Jon) – is a bit long, even for me. But that’s simply how long it took me to be given one, ergo the supremely belated (and thus irrelevant?) review.
The nutshell version, for the impatient and anyone with any regard whatsoever for their free time, is that Mossberg was right: it is unquestionably a breakthrough device. What kind of device – he considers it a computer – is a point worth debating, but I won’t do that here. In one dramatic step, Apple has at once exposed virtually every other mobile interface as childishly primitive and dramatically upped the bar in a realm not exactly known for rapid innovation (more on the why later). Even after using the phone for three days – most of that away from an iTunes equipped machine – that much is obvious. Next to the iPhone, my previous handsets have been, to paraphrase Yeats, “paltry things, tattered upon a stick” (for the record, I don’t know if the opening line for that inspired the title for the McCarthy novel, but I’d guess the answer is yes).
That said, it’s a significantly flawed creation. Whether the flaws render it unsuitable for your purposes depends on, well, your purposes. I can’t say that it will be a permanent solution for mine, particularly if as promised a 3G version is introduced early this upcoming year, but for the time being it’s an enormous upgrade to my mobile experience. Even lacking the 3G connectivity that both my LG CU320 and Nokia N75 had.
Now, for those interested in the excruciatingly detailed details…
(I like to end on a positive note, or I’m addicted to alphabetical listings – take your pick)
- The 3G Question:
Or more properly, the lack thereof. Everyone and me has bemoaned Apple’s decision to forgo 3G connectivity, relying on the much slower EDGE network in the absence of available wifi, and I suspect AT&T wasn’t thrilled that millions of new customers’ introduction to their service would be a network with bandwidth a bit above dialup. In my usage thus far, the molasses-in-January performance of the network has been only a marginal impediment to usage, and when I’m at home the device blows away my LG or Nokia by leveraging its wifi capabilities. Also, the delta in battery life – one of the rumored objections to the initial inclusion of 3G functionality in the iPhone – between my N75 and the iPhone has been noticeable. Thus far, the iPhone performs better, even when utilized as an iPod.
- The Apps Question:
First, the good news: Google Maps is on your phone. Indeed, there’s an applet on the homepage that will take you straight over to a decent interface to my favorite mobile service. Now, the bad news: it’s not the regular Google Maps Java or Symbian app, meaning no fake-GPS/”My Location.” I feel this loss even more because when my parents and I got lost after they picked me up in LaGuardia, I was able to both figure out where we were and track our progress via that Google Maps feature. The lack of the newer Google Maps application is, of course, due to the closed nature of the iPhone platform, which is as regrettable as it was predictable. At the current time, the only client applications available for the iPhone are those written by Apple.
- The Headphone Jack:
Even understanding that, as a phone, the iPhone benefits from a headphone/microphone combination over the basic headphone that one might utilize with an iPod, the decision to recess the headphone jack just enough to render most existing models – such as my Shure’s – incompatible smacks of short sighted greed. As does the Apple store employee’s attempt to push me towards a brand new $100 headphone rather than merely inquire as to whether I already had a pair I was happy with and offer me the $35 Shure adapter with microphone. I don’t want two separate $100 sets of headphones, thanks. If you want to skip even that expense, here‘s one alternative, or you could always resort to surgery.
- The Keyboard:
Like the absence of 3G, the decision to embrace a fully virtual keyboard was not without controversy. And unlike Mossberg and other longer term users, I still cannot type reliably on the device. The irony of this flaw is that this is actually a selling point with me; the more difficult it is to type on the device, the less tempted I am to actively reply to incoming email. That temptation being the primary reason I’ve refused to get a Blackberry, I’m relatively sanguine about the virtual keyboard thus far, but understand that it will be an adjustment. Maybe if you have smaller fingers, it’s easier.
- The SMS:
Unless I’m missing something, and lots of other parties are missing it along with me, the iPhone is unable to send an SMS message to multiple contacts. Sending a simple “Merry Christmas” text to a group of your friends, then, becomes a serious ordeal of epic proportions. Particularly if you can’t type on the virtual keyboard. Given that this has been a standard and utterly unremarkable feature on my past two if not three phones, I really can’t fathom how this feature was omitted. I’m sure there’s a reason for it, but I can’t imagine what it would be.
- The Ringtones:
This one is particularly galling, as I’ve had the same vintage Van Morrison track as my ringtone for several phones now and never had to pay anyone for it. Unfortunately, as Wired documents, Apple wants to prevent me from repurposing music that I already own legally as a ringtone. Unless, of course, I pay them for the track. Again. Madness, as is the very question as to whether or not manufacturing a ringtone for yourself constitutes “fair use” or not. Honestly, people are asking that. Anyhow, thanks to some Twitter folken, I’ve been made aware that any of you that have both OS X and GarageBand can produce your own ringtones with no difficulty. I’m going to have to find another way to do it, myself, but c’est la guerre.
- The Browser:
As Ian put it, the browser on the iPhone and iPod Touch is magical. Safari has been repurposed entirely for the mobile platform. Zoom in or out by pinching or tapping the screen, view landscape or portrait style simply by turning the phone sideways and rightside up, and most importantly: view any webpage you want. The real webpage, not some horribly crippled version. No more sometimes-it-works mobile.jetblue.com, bring on the full jetblue.com. Same with the New York Times, and ESPN. Hell, this page, which would crash the Symbian browser I ran on my Nokia, renders perfectly on the iPhone, and is even legible if you zoom in just a bit. It’s the first mobile browser I’ve used that is remotely usable. John Battelle predicted last year that in 2007, “Mobile will finally be plugged into the web in a way that makes sense for the average user and a major mobile innovation,” and he’s right to credit Apple for making that come true. The experience is really unparalleled.
- The Camera:
While I cannot claim that the inset photo of the NYC subway system is any great work of art – as Ted wisely observed, a better camera doesn’t magically turn you into Ansel Adams – I can confirm that this is exactly the sort of shot that my Nokia and the LG before it would have turned into some grainy, pixelated blue-green horror. Low light or no, the iCamera in the iPhone seems to be well designed. My N75 had the same megapixel rating, but as any good photographer will tell you that’s a tremendously inadequate representation of camera quality. One interesting note: Flickr doesn’t seem to record any metadata associated with the images, as it has with all of my other cameras. Notice that there’s no “Taken with” notation on the inset picture, as there is with, say, this one.
- The Flip Menus:
Are merely emblematic of the kind of attention to detail that went into the usability of the device itself. For those that haven’t seen the device in person, you can scroll through long menus – say, your contacts – with a flick and stop scrolling merely by placing a finger on a result. Sounds trivial, but compared to the painful page-by-page scrolling we’ve been subjected to in mobile devices for years it’s a revelation. As is virtually every other aspect of the UI experience: the fading in and out, the animated transitions, the slickness of the iPod UI. It’s all gorgeous, and it’s all light years beyond any other handheld device that I’ve seen. Most impressive is that the performance is excellent; unlike Symbian devices, there is rarely any perceptible lag between interaction and response from the UI. In spite of the sophistication.
- The Gyroscope:
Frankly, the gyroscopic capabilities of the iPhone – the auto-rotation of the browser or iPod interfaces, etc – struck me as a little more than an impressive novelty when I first saw it, and that reaction has only softened a little during my usage of the device. It is handy when you need the wider browser for a particular web page, but honestly I employ the capabilities very little. That said, the inclusion of this ability does point to some potentially far-reaching UI enhancements if the Thinkpad experience is anything to judge by. And even if it is little more than an impressive novelty, it’s a really impressive novelty to those that have never seen it before.
- The Music Fading:
Exhibit A in the case for Apple considering the entire user experience in as holistic a fashion as you’ll find is the music integration with the device. As tested out this week, an incoming call will silence playing music automagically, while the termination of said call will resume it. This feature, more than perhaps any other, has me on the road to being convinced that my phone and music player should be a single device – an idea I’ve been enormously skeptical of in the past.
- The SMS Threading:
Such an obvious feature, but the first I’ve seen it implemented. The iPhone captures text sent to a given contact and integrates them with those you’ve sent, to give you a threaded conversation much like you’d find in up-to-date email clients. Trivial? Mayhap. Useful? You bet.
- The USB Charging:
Maybe my favorite feature (that’s not really a feature): I no longer need to drag around a separate charger for the phone, just an USB cable. This is so blindingly obvious and yet rare, there aren’t words to express my appreciation for this particular ability. And to those that are worried that Apple won’t be able to make a mint off the margin on the accessories as do other carriers that charge $30 for a charger: not to worry. A new cable is $20.
- The YouTube Application:
Phenomenally useful when you find yourself within sipping distance of a wifi pipe, this transforms your iPhone into a quasi-video device. And if you’re thinking that this means watching classic Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry while laying on a couch, well, we need to chat, we’ve got a lot in common. This, as well as the compromised Google Maps application cited above, is a perfect indication of why it’s important to open up: there could be lots of these applications, if Apple but loosened their grip. In the meantime, we’ve got to make do with pure web apps.
Update: Totally forgot possibly the most important feature, USB charging, so that’s been added.