iPhone review, part 2

I was going to rant about Apple’s assault on interoperability and software freedom with the iPhone here, but as it turns out, PC Authority were happy to pay me to rant over on their site instead, and I was happy to sell out. If you want to know what I really think about the iPhone, then, you’ll have to head here.

calling from the walled garden: iPhone review, part 1

So, last week a bunch of us at the office got work-supplied iPhones. I wouldn’t have bought one myself, since I’m still very happy with my current phone, but I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to check it out, so I’ve been using it for the last week. Overall, I have to say it’s quite an impressive device, but it’s not for me. Most of that is due to software freedom issues, which I’ll discuss in a follow-up. For now, though, I want to talk about it as most people will see it: as a consumer device for the iPod set.

Physically, it’s a nice device — a little wide perhaps, but still easily pocketable for me, due to being both thin and rounded. The plastic back is pretty scratch resistant, and the glass front is extremely so. The headphone socket is a standard 3.5mm affair (apparently the first-gen iPhone had a recessed socket that caused problems with various headphones/cables), and there’s a dedicated volume rocker on the side, which is something that iPods have traditionally lacked. My only major complaint is that, when holding it one-handed, trying to hit the home button on the bottom is either uncomfortable, or requires holding the device in a fairly unsafe manner, one of those minor gripes that ceases being minor the first time you drop it.

Software-wise, there’s a lot to like. The touch interface is generally pretty good, and it’s always pretty easy to find your way around. I’ve seen people struggle with the on-screen keyboard, but I personally haven’t had much trouble with it, and found that its auto-correcting features generally work well. Browsing with Mobile Safari is excellent: it renders pages well, it’s generally quite responsive, the touch-based controls for zooming and scrolling are great, and the UI is perfectly minimal, knowing when to get out of the way to maximise the usable screen space. The SMS interface is also excellent with it’s conversation-based view, something I hope other makers are paying attention to. As you’d expect, it generally works well as an iPod as well, though I didn’t find the iPod interface as intuitive as that seen on the wheel-based models.

Some other features aren’t as well developed, though. MMS is totally missing, leaving email as the only option for sending images around. Bluetooth is uselsss outside of handsfree devices, so you can’t use it to transfer pictures to a PC or other phone. There’s a built-in GPS unit, but the GPS software is a pain, since it’s just Google Maps, so it’s constantly fetching data as you move, and it doesn’t have turn-by-turn voice navigation, a must-have while driving.

Customisation is also severely lacking. You can change the alert tones used for various events, but most of them (SMS, email, etc.) don’t allow custom sounds at all. The alarm clock and ringer to support custom tones, but the only official way to make a custom tone is to buy the song from the iTunes Store, and then edit it in iTunes, for an extra charge, in to a ringtone, and in Australia, you can’t even do that right now. It’s therefore a far cry from many other phones, which let you use any playable media file on the device as a ringtone. There are tools that use undocumented hacks to import custom ringtones in to iTunes, but that’s not the point — I’m not bitching about Apple’s lack of interoperability in this review, so I’m sure as hell not going to give them a pass on this because others have found ways to hack around their bullshit.

The UI has some performance issues as well. A number of the applications take several seconds to open sometimes, or open immediately but remain unresponsive for several seconds. This seems more related to the 2.0 firmware than to the device itself, though, so it’ll likely be addressed in the future. Stability hasn’t been an issue though — I’ve seen Safari and the iPod app crash (the latter of which should really never happen), but the device itself has been fine, and I’ve never had a problem making a call or sending an SMS.

Perhaps my biggest issue is with the touch interface itself. It’s hardly fair to critisise a touch-screen device for having a touch-screen of course — it’d be like reviewing a car and complaining that it can’t fly — but I think it’s important to mention that touch screens are not some fundamental improvement over physical buttons. There’s no physical feedback to button presses, so it’s sometimes hard to tell if the device has registered your button-press and is just being laggy, or if it hasn’t noticed it at all. It also means that you can’t do anything without looking at the screen, which among other things makes the iPhone a terrible MP3 player for in-car use.

The other main problem with the touch-screen interface is that it’s really geared toward two-handed use, holding it in one hand and using the index finger on the other to work it. You can do some things with one hand using your thumb, but answering a call, which uses the same slide control as unlocking it, is very difficult, and typing on the keyboard is fiddly as well. Even the iPod interface is difficult, since the back button is in the top left corner, which is quite a stretch to get to.

Overall, if you’re using an iPod and iTunes now, are looking for a new phone, and like the idea of a touch-based interface, it’s a good device, and well worth checking out. Definitely check one out first if you can, though, since you couuld be more annoyed by the touch interface than you might think.

Coming up next: reasons why I could never really use an iPhone myself.

the new console war

The whole 360/PS3/Wii battle is so last year; right now, the real console war is between Rock Band and Guitar Hero. Thanks to Activision’s fear of making Guitar Hero games compatible with Rock Band instruments, the release of Guitar Hero World Tour is going to mean a lot more crappy plastic instruments in loungerooms, and I’m sure more than a few people will have trouble justifying two sets of drums in particular.

I’ve bet on Rock Band, of course, but if you want an explanation, this review of Guitar Hero: Aerosmith pretty much covers it. Guitar Hero 3 was clearly inferior to 2: the note charts are often either not fun or are just plain ridiculous, and to make up for that, they made the timing far too loose. The final track, Metallica’s One, is such an incredibly bad song for the game that I still, after some 8 months, haven’t mustered the energy to actually finish it and hence get to the end of the Hard career.

I was hoping that Neversoft would get the hang of things after their first game, but it sounds like Aerosmith is just as bad, if not worse. Guitar Hero has lost its soul, but what did Activision expect would happen when it handed the franchise to a developer that’s been producing the same tired and stale skateboarding game every year for the last decade? Then again, even Activision’s CEO has said that Guitar Hero will be “exploited on an annual or close to annual basis”, so perhaps it’s all going exactly to plan.

rock band 2 — fuck yeah!

Harmonix announced Rock Band 2 about two weeks ago, but information about it has been very thin on the ground until today at E3, when it announced the complete set list. It’s one hell of a list, too: 75 tracks, all of them master tracks (no covers!), with 9 indie bonus tracks, spanning a huge range of tastes. There’s simply too many highlights in there to bother mentioning them, so check the list and see for yourself.

Other awesomeness confirmed for Rock Band 2 so far includes:
* new guitar and drum instruments which are apparently much improved — they’re all wireless now, and the guitar includes a light sensor and microphone that’s used to automagically determine the AV lag on your system
* if you have a spare US$300, you can a real Ion electronic drum kit that works as a drum controller
* DLC from Rock Band 1 will work seamlessly with 2
* if you have the Rock Band 1 disc, you can copy most of its songs in to Rock Band 2, probably for a nominal fee (I’ve heard “less than $5” mentioned)
* new game modes, including a Battle of the Bands mode, and a drum trainer mode that effectively teaches you how to play the drums

Of course, it’s all still compatible with Rock Band 1 instruments, and Guitar Hero instruments on the 360, so Harmonix is basically being as totally super-awesome as they can be, in stark contrast to Activision/Red Octane’s monopolistic bullshit. One thing Rock Band 2 lacks, which Guitar Hero World Tour is promising, is and editor that lets you create your own music, but to be honest I’ll be surprised if Neversoft manage anything genuinely usable in that regard — no-one wants to rock out to canned guitar sounds arranged MIDI-style.

The major unknown is whether or not this will see any kind of local release, given the delays that have plagued Rock Band 1. I’m not expecting it until some time next year, but I’m hopeful that it will happen. If not, I’ll just have to import a set of drums, and hope that it’s at least released in the UK sooner rather than later, so I can import the disc from there.


My webcam telescope adapter arrived last week, on Thursday night I found some time to give it a go on Jupiter:

With the webcam, the idea is to record video and then process the frames in to a single image, which averages out most of the noise, and for a first attempt I don’t think this looks too bad. The colours are off, though, and there’s not as much detail as I’d like. I think I had the shutter speed a bit too high, though, so the dynamic range in the images was too small. If I can fix that next time, I’ll hopefully get some better results.

I also finally managed to get a glimpse of the ISS in my telescope, as it passed overhead last night. It was an ideal pass, really, but the sky was covered in clouds, and I didn’t think I was going to see it at all until I finally spotted a faint white star moving through the clouds. I only got to see it for about 30 seconds before it disappeared in to thick cloud, and it was tricky to track, even at my lowest magnification, but I could still make out a central structure (the station itself) with some extra bits on either side (the solar panels).

I tried to get some pics of it during tonight’s pass, but I got set up about a minute too late. If it’s clear tomorrow night, and I’m home early enough (it’s passing over at about 5:30), I’ll have another go then.

new host!

The virtual dedicated server I host my sites (including this one) on, hosted at VPSLand, has had a few annoying packet loss issues of late, and while everything seems to be working now, I used it as a flimsy excuse to upgrade to a shiny new Linode VPS. Linode’s pricing starts a little higher up than most, but the cheapest option, at US$20, has a pretty generous 360MB of RAM and 12GB of storage.

The management tools are pretty awesome as well: though a neat web interface, you can reboot your system, manage your disk images (you can split your allocated storage in to as many separate images as you like), reinstall the OS or switch to a new OS, check graphs of your server and network utilisation, and even access the local console through a neat-o AJAX-based terminal emulator. There’s also an SSH-based system that gives you command-line access to a lot of those features, so you can reboot your box or check the local console without having to go through the web interface. All up, it’s a very cool service.