Tuesday, 7 October 2008

My iphone 3g review and thoughts

(disclaimer: I did post a similar version of this onto the apple applesauce forum)

Ok, my review of the iphone 3g (after one week I am now an expert).

Let me start by saying that I like it. The iphone is a good phone. I have not had any problems. It is easy to use. I did not need to read the manuals. I like it. I am happy. I am content (relatively, for the moment).

By way of background I have lusted after an iphone since S. Jobs announced the original 2 years ago. However, living in Australia, and with the original iphone not allowing apps (ok, it did allow web apps, but I mean real apps, (ok, it had jailbroken apps, but I wanted real apps)), I decided that the purchase was just not worth the trouble.

When the new model came out I decided that this was the way to go. The new model had a GPS, could handle the 3g network, and it had real apps. Cool. Since I travel a fair bit I decided that tying myself into an expensive Australian network was not the way to go. Via ebay, via a friend in Australia, I purchased an unlocked 16gb iphone and had it posted to me in Thailand (that was a story in itself, but lets not digress). I began using it immediately. For your edification here are my thoughts on the iphone 3g.

First off, I like it, it is a good phone (did I say that already?), however, it does have a number of short comings. Most of these are attributable to its 'newness' and Apple's desire to get everything 'just right' before releasing any improvement. As the MobileMe mess demonstrated, it is not easy to always get things right, all the time, first time.

Lets start by listing the things which are very annoying. At the top of this list is bluetooth. Totally sux. Bluetooth as it is today on the iphone can only be used to link the iphone to a wireless earpiece. Nothing else. That totally sux. On every other phone, which even comes close to being considered smart, bluetooth can perform a host of services: swapping files between computers and other phones, syncing data, keyboards, whatever. Lots of things. BUT not the iphone. I do not know why not, maybe Steve is waiting to spring the best ever set of bluetooth features on us in the next major operating system upgrade, but HURRY UP DUDE !—embarrassing.

Speaking of charging—battery life. I get about four hours plus of what I consider to 'normal' usage, along with about four to five hours of standby time. This is not too much, in fact, for me, not nearly enough. Now, admittedly, I do a lot with my iphone: wireless, surfing, reading, apps, but even so, a few hours is not enough. Come on Apple, better battery life! I will be buying soon the Mophie 'juice pack', which doubles the battery life, but Apple come on! Better battery, solar cells, cold fusion, whatever. I paid a $1000 for an iphone, I want to use it all, all the time, with no restrictions! --> interlude ---> a few days later --> ok, if you turn off the stuff you are not using, and be a little judicious in usage, you can get a few more hours out of the phone. It is difficult to state just how much time you can get from one charge, much depends on how it is used, but you may be able to get through a work day on one charge, if you are frugal.

Speaking of wireless, there seems to be a bug in version 2 of the iphone os which makes logging on to a wireless internet connection tricky. I say 'tricky' because sometimes it works just fine, with speed and dash, other times I cannot even get steady reception. After looking at a few forums it seems that I am not alone in this problem. Hopefully Apple will tackle this in the next os release, hopefully, soon. One bright spot of good news, it is easy to setup a wireless network from your Mac. So, if your Mac is on the net, with a few clicks of the mouse your iphone (most of the time) will be sharing your connection.

Lets talk about the camera. I have read many complaints about the iphone camera, the main complaint, in fact what may be the only complaint, is that the camera is 'only' 2gb (this produces a file ~500k in size). I am not happy with the iphone cam, however, my unhappiness does not stem from anything as minor as the image size, rather, from the lack of software controls and camera options. On my previous phone, a Samsung Z510, I had oodles of cam options. You can adjust brightness, image size, add borders to pics, colourise, enhance, do a fair number of things (most of which I never did). On the iphone—nada—, you turn the cam on, point and shot, the pic is saved to a roll, it can be synced to iphoto, and there is the option of emailing the pic. That is it. Come on Apple! Add a few bells and whistles, or at least encourage a few 3rd party types to come to the party. I want more control of my camera! As for the 'small' 2gb camera, this is not a concern for me. I am of a generation where 2gb was a lot. And, and I have no numbers here, but a tiny little phone lens is not going to produce a good image, no matter how many bytes are involved. 2gb is ok for a phone cam (that is until adaptive lens start to make their appearance). But Apple, add some features to your phone!

Lets turn to a few small things. First, get a screen protector asap for your iphone. Not so much for protection, but because the iphone screen (beautiful) shows finger smugs quickly and easily, as does the rest of the shiny case. Also (I do have long hands and fingers), I found the iphone all by itself hard to hold, hard to get a good grip. Without a case I could see myself easily dropping the phone—so buy a case or a 'grip' holder asap. I would be happy if the iphone screen was say, 1cm larger in height and length (though people with smaller hands/fingers might not agree). The 16gb storage limit is not really an issue, so far I am at only a few gbs. Some people, those for example who want to carry around Gbs of music or vids, will find this a limit, but not me. I can remember when 1gb was a lot of memory. I can remember when DOS fitted onto 1 disc, with room for a copy of word. I can remember ... I forget what I remember (of course, next week, when the 32gb model is released I will be selling this old piece of junk for a few dollars on ebay).

The os is ok, it is clearly non-multitasking, one app at a time. This can be a little annoying, but then the iphone is designated as a phone, not a comp. What the iphone does need is some sort of app manager. As it is now each app has its own icon, and a new 'page' is generated when the number of icons cannot fit onto the current number of pages (16 icons per screen). atm I have 4 pages of icons. The problem is that finding an app can be tricky. It is possible to rearrange icons, but some sort of search function and/or a better way to group apps would be good (e.g. user definable groups, like the palm had, would be good), or some other form of app management is needed. This need will only grow as does the number of available apps.

Speaking of apps, I have a few grievances. First, while I am inclined to say that the range of apps is good, I feel that the apps could be better. My impression is that a lot of the developers are looking at the iphone as a 'second job', not their 'day job', or maybe they are so 'happy' over writing iphone apps they are forgetting usability, or something else (I do note that game apps seem the best designed apps of all!). The apps could have more options, more functionality and so forth--this is just an impression I get. Keep in mind though that iphone app development is < 6 months old, so lets look again in another 6 months. The prices are good, many good qual apps are free, some are only a few dollars, the most expensive are in the $10s.

Lets turn to a few specific annoyances, the SMS app, which comes with the phone. It does the job, and in a stylish Apple way (looks a bit like ichat—which I have never used), but, like the cam, it is missing a few features. On my Samsung, for example, I can lock selected messages so that they are not deleted. This cannot be done on the iphone sms app. Like the cam it needs a few industry standard additions to make it a truly useful app (like, delete all messages, really useful once the messages start accruing). Similarly, the default map map app is severely limited. It does not display lat and long, it is a little clumsy, etc. I can add one other annoyance, on my Palm (now gathering dust on a shelf), merely clicking one easily accessible button on the side of the device would start a voice recording session, that was easy and quick. There are several competent voice recording apps for the iphone, but none of them (feel free to correct me) have such an easy interface. These apps require: opening the iphone case, sloowwwwly finding the app, clicking it on, wading through the options, and then, finally, turning on the record function. Seconds of time! Ok, enough bitching. You get the idea, the entire range of iphone apps/services/functionality seems half finished, unrefined.

Still on the subject of apps, but from a different direction—the itunes store. It is ok, but mediocre at doing its job. There are a number of annoyances, for example, the initial description of each app should be better. The problem is that each app is listed in a general category, for example 'lifestyle', but beyond that there is only the name of the app to indicate what it does, and as many of the names are rather vague you need to click on the app to see a detailed description. Since this takes several seconds for the app store page to load, searching the 1000s of apps in the store is near impossible. A one or two line summary would be a big help. Also more comprehensive reviews of the apps at the innumerable iphone websites would be nice. There are also no date or version numbers on the reviews—not a help when making a buying decision. Additionally, there is no try before buying option for apps. Overall, maybe, itunes (which now sells vids, apps, music, rentals, Cambodian orphans, podcasts, and maybe other things I cannot think of) might not have been the best way to go when it came to Apple distributing apps. Again, a better approach would be something like Palm, open up the sale process, but have your own website. Easy.

One minor annoyance is a difference between the osx contacts app, and the iphone contacts app. The osx app searches the entire database of names for any match, this is not the case on the iphone. This is inconvenient as, on the Mac, one can search for a street, suburb or even the contents of a note, while on the iphone one can merely search for the name of a person. In addition, many Thais (I am in Thailand) and other sea's (south east asians) use nicknames in preference to their long 'real' name: so you in osx can search for Noi or Ratchanwakoe, your choice, but not on the iphone.

The iphone os: it is good, but could be better. I find myself comparing the iphone interface to that of the Newtwon (sigh), and the Palm. Both were good machines. The handwriting recognition of the Newton was fantastic, it would be interesting to see something like that appear on the iphone (just never refer to the Newton by name, nis = not invented by Steve). The Palm had a number of better thought out little things going for it—see my comments about apps and grouping above. A little copying of good ideas would not hurt the iphone. With regard to the iphone itself and its finger gesturing, great idea. It works well, efficiently and smoothly, well executed, however... I would like to see more use of the gesturing. I say this as most apps, once you get to the info/settings/options screen(s) fail to implement gestures and instead rely on tapping buttons. Even the os itself falls in this regard. When I first started using the iphone I gestured my way across the screens. When I reached the last screen I kept gesturing forward, expecting to be looped back to the first screen. No. To return to the first screen you must gesture back, or tap the little dots at the base of the screen, each of which represents one screen. A more uniform approach would implement gestures across the entire interface, and implement gestures within apps. As it stands you gesture to reach an app, activate it, and then have to navigate via buttons to switch app screens. Uniformity (or at least optional conformity), would make for a better user experience.

I would also like to see a few improvements on the virtual keyboard, however, let me say that as it is it is good. My suggestions are small improvements. First, more keys on the main keyboard screen. All the characters are there, laid out in qwerty fashion, but no full stops, commas or other commonly used keys. To access these keys one must hit an option key which brings up a second keyboard. Now, I admit, there is little wasted space on the main keyboard, so the question does become, where? Two answers to that question, a.) not my problem, I make suggestions, I am not an engineer: b.) the space bar is big, the size of 5 keys. How about reducing it in size somewhat and sliding in a few more keys?

A few more thoughts: MobileMe, I have not tried it, not even on a free trial. It is a good idea, even with a small setup (one MacBook and one iphone), however, at us$100 per annum it is pricey. If Apple were to reduce the price, or even make it free, or added a few bells and whistles, I will reconsider.

Speaking of the screen, it is very good for reading ebooks, far better than the palm screen. I keep thinking of the kindle and its low power consumption. If this tech could be added to the iphone, it would go a long way to making the ebook go mainstream. Again, I would be ok with a larger iphone. Ebook reading is great, fantastic, really cool on an iphone (did I say that already?). Really, over the last 2 years or so (since Palm sunk under the weight of its own unbelievable level of incompetence—I mean, from being king of the handhelds to laughing stock in a few short years), I had lost interest in handheld ebooks, confining myself to reading from my trusty MacBook screen. Now, the iphone has restored my trust in technology. It is a great handheld ebook reader. The screen is good, there are several good ebook reader apps (ereader and Stanza are both good, and complimentary). My only annoyance is the convoluted manner in which you must move ebooks to your iphone, however, I expect (hope) that this will be fixed asap.

In conclusion, was it worth the $1000 price tag—YES. The phone itself is a good phone, it is quick and efficient. The web surfing is great, Safari on the iphone is good, well implemented and just about as good as surfing on a phone can be. The apps, even with the drawbacks listed above, are good. There are many fine apps which enhance one's life experience: gps (great for a traveller), ipod functionality, internet, email, notes, notes, lists, games... I do feel that if one's computing needs were light to moderate the iphone, with the 'cloud', could take over as one's main comp. Great for travellers, digital nomads, and cool people everywhere. The annoyance comes as they are not as good as they could be.

Here's to speedy development of the iphone, the iphone os and apps !

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