July 18th, 2008
I did not have a first-generation iPhone so many of my comments and impressions will not be specific to the 3G iPhone, but rather be impressions of just having an iPhone in general, though of course some will be 3G-specific.
Anyway, one week ago today I stood in line at the Baybrook Mall Apple Store to get an iPhone. I got there a little after 7:30 in the morning and I walked out with with my black 16G iPhone 3G at around 1:30 in the afternoon, so it took me about five hours. It wasn’t so bad as I spent the bulk of the time finishing a very nice novel, The Name of the Wind. My observation was that the reason the line took so long was because a lot of customers weren’t actually ready. The Apple Store employees handed out a little list of what you needed, but once I was in the store it was possible to see how much variance there was in how long it took to process each customer. It took about five minutes for them to process me, but some people were sitting there with Apple Store employees for upwards of 45 minutes, much of it with the customer on their (previous) cell phone. I think a lot of people just didn’t bother to prepare in advance, and that’s what cost everybody so much time.
The reason I bothered to wait in the line the first day was not because of some desire to have it immediately, but because I was leaving the next day to do a month of traveling and traveling is when I most wish I had an iPhone, and I knew the first trip of the four I was taking would really push the iPhone, so I was determined to get one early on.
I didn’t have even the slightest bit of trouble with activation. I guess by the time I got home from the mall that all those problems had been sorted out, but there was no glitch for me. I’ll count myself as one of the lucky ones.
Of course, one of the first things I went to do once my iPhone was up and running was head on over to the App Store. I think Apple did a good job with this, as it’s both easy to find and install apps. There are many great free apps, my personal favorite so far is NetNewsWire (I realize it could be better, of course, but for free it’s nice). Having your RSS reader which syncs perfectly with my desktop news reader is fantastic. I also like VoiceNotes as a free voice recorder and I think PhoneSaber is hilarious. PocketPedia is also wonderful, as are the free news apps Mobile News (from the AP) and NYTimes. And I have an AppleTV at home, so Apple’s Remote is also excellent. Overall the App Store appears to be a huge win, and serves as a reminder that the iPhone is really a mobile computer with a phone on it, not just a fancy phone. Oh, and can’t forget PCalc.
As an iPod
Hardly novel, I know, since there are two ways to get the iPod features like this, both the iPod Touch and the original iPhone have this functionality. However, I have to say I really like the iPhone as a video iPod. I like to watch movies when I’m on an airplane, and my 5g video iPod screen is just barely tolerable for this. The iPhone is much better as a movie watching device. Oh, here’s how this is 3G-relevant: 16G means there’s actually enough space for movies; a 4G iPhone would be useless here.
I’ve never owned any kind of GPS device before and I thought that having GPS on the iPhone would be neat, but I didn’t know how really useful it would be. Turns out it’s fantastic, at least when traveling. Normally I’m very good with directions and navigation, but sometimes when reality doesn’t line up with my mental model (in particular, a highway in Rochester, NY stops being a highway and I became unsure I’d still be able to use that road to get where I was going). GPS let me know all would be well. However, the really killer use was with location-aware applications; I wanted to stop at a drugstore in Erie, PA (a place I don’t know at all) and found the nearest drugstore with the “iWant” application, which I downloaded right when I realized I might want it. iWant was right on the money. I will never go back to not having this. I expect someone will come up with a nice dash-mount kit for the iPhone soon, and when TomTom or whoever else comes up with a nice audio turn-by-turn bit of software for it, I’ll be all over that as well.
Battery Life and 3G vs. EDGE
I knew the 3G battery life wouldn’t be fantastic, but I didn’t realize how not-fantastic it would be. I’m going to have to keep chargers everywhere—home, office, car, at least—because I’m clearly going to have days where the thing won’t make it the full day on one charge. That’s kind of a drag. In some sense, that’s not really a surprise, though, as the original reason cited for not including 3G in the original iPhone is power requirements for 3G. And, apparently, the iPhone 3G does OK on battery life for a 3G device (apparently they all suck). I found that switching to EDGE-only makes the battery last for ages, but of course EDGE is a lot slower; why get a 3G device just to use EDGE? Good question, though I find that EDGE is tolerable for text-only newsfeed reading, but horrible for things like Web pages and app downloading. (This is the same for email, by the way: for text-only email EDGE is OK, but for attachments one needs 3G.) And 3G is definitely good enough to be acceptable for Web browsing and the like.
The whole is much greater than the sum of all the parts. I love having all of these functions in my pocket. While of course better battery life would be great, I think the current state is tolerable. In fact, I’d have to say this is a huge leap forward; this is a reasonable chunk of having a real computer which is always available. Frankly, this is a fantastic device. It is immediately clear to me that it will be worth putting up with AT&T’s crappy plans and all the rest. There was a time in my life—very brief, I’ll admit—where I carried a cell phone, an iPod (3rd gen), and a Palm V with me, and I still didn’t feel like any of these quite had it right. Well, now I have better than all three of them in a single package, only the iPhone absolutely crushes the Palm as a mobile computing platform. I’m much more of a techie than a phone user, but I have to have a phone. This fits what I want incredibly well.
Now, I admit that I haven’t owned any of the more recent competitors to the iPhone 3G, though I have played with a few of them at least a little. Having now seen what really makes the iPhone work for me I can’t see how most of them would stand up to it, at least for me. YMMV, of course; just because the alternatives aren’t better for me doesn’t mean I believe that’s true for everyone else. (You listening, BlackBerry fanboys?)
One of the things competitors like the Instinct advertise is that they also have a touch screen. Ugh, talk about missing the point. Yeah, the touch screen is great, but what kind of software do you have behind it? Is it a real Web browser or the typical mobile piece of crap? Can you just touch to select, or can you use gestures meaningfully like on the iPhone? What about third-party applications which integrate with other features like the GPS? Got any of that? No? Then I don’t care if you sell for $70 less than an iPhone; you’re not really on the same playing field, at least for me.
The obvious real competitor is BlackBerry. The only ‘Berry I’ve played with much is the Pearl, which is a pretty stripped-down model. I’m sure the Bold is (err, will be) much better overall—but will the Web browser still suck? Regardless, the Bold will have a lot of stuff on it that the iPhone lacks and only a complete idiot wouldn’t acknowledge that it’s a legitimate competitor. For me, the physical keyboard is one of the major drawbacks of the Bold. Most of the time I’m using the iPhone, I’m not typing. Reading news feeds, surfing the Web, playing games, looking at the GPS, etc.: for those things I don’t need a keyboard and, more importantly, I don’t want to give up the screen space to have it. When I need it, it’s there. Now, if my primary use was email, that might be different. I have read and composed email on my iPhone and it works fine, but that’s only one of many uses. So, for me, the Bold would not be better, but I can see how it would be for some people. BlackBerry seems to be getting that and we’ll see what the Thunder actually brings to the table (it’d better be more than 1G of on-board storage, that’s for sure). Personally I’m hoping the Thunder is awesome so that Apple will be forced to respond, ultimately raising the bar for all phones.
Still, having said all these wonderful things about the iPhone, I’d have to be a fool to miss the fact that it’s not perfect. Some of this stuff I mentioned before I even had one, and having one has demonstrated that these things do indeed bug me, plus some more that I hadn’t thought of at the time:
• MMS. OK, I didn’t think I’d really care about the lack of MMS, but it turns out that I was wrong (that happens a lot). Frankly, I’d much rather send and receive images and such in email, particularly since the iPhone handles email so well. However, other people have MMS, and can send me an MMS, and I can’t read one easily. What happens when someone sends one to my iPhone is AT&T sends me SMS with a URL and login/password to a web site where I can view the original message—as an SWF. Ugh. I’d MUCH rather just see everyone switch to email, but that probably won’t happen soon. I’d much prefer AT&T take the incoming MMS and turn it into an email rather than deliver it as a crappy Web page. I know, hoping for something from AT&T is like hoping for a no-mudslinging political campaign. Oh well. It’s still not a big deal but it’d be nice if this were fixed.
• Modem. I’d still like to use my iPhone as a modem for my laptop, either tethered or via Bluetooth.
• Keyboard. No, I don’t want a physical keyboard built into the phone—screen real estate is still the limiting factor for many things, as I said—but if I have a Bluetooth keyboard handy, I’d like to be able to use it, to continue to preserve that precious screen space.
• Copy and paste. I haven’t wanted it nearly as often as I’d have thought, but when I have, I’ve been annoyed to not have it. In particular, when replying to an email, I want to quote only a part of it, not the whole thing, and there’s no easy way to make this happen on the iPhone.
• Voice dialing is coming from a third party, or so I’ve been led to believe. Sooner would be better.
I still can’t believe all the hate out there leveled at the camera and lack of video recording. Look, I’ve seen pictures taken with 4 and 5 MP cell phone cameras, and you know what? They aren’t much better than the 2 MP pictures from iPhones. Why? Because there is a lot more to picture quality than megapixels. In particular, there’s the issue of a decent lens/optics, and virtually none of those are going to be solved dramatically better on a cell phone platform; throwing more pixels at the problem means virtually nothing. If you want good pictures/video, buy a dedicated camera; you can get a really nice 7-8 MP pocket-size job from Canon or Sony or whoever for like $150. If pictures are that important to you, it should be well worth it. Cell phone cameras are for quick-and-dirty snapshots, and that’s it, no matter how many MPs are stamped on the thing.