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.

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