Dr Plokta (drplokta) wrote,
Dr Plokta

iPhone Impressions

The executive summary is that while its functionality is lacking in a number of areas (some of them important, and some of them not), and it's buggy in some respects, it's the most engaging gadget I've acquired at least since my first Mac (a last-generation TiBook 5½ years ago). It's simply fun to use, which makes up for a lot.

And now some details.

Form factor: Very acceptable. It's both wider and taller than the Nokia N70 it's replacing, but a good deal shorter and narrowed than the Nokia N800 that it's also replacing, and it's much thinner and lighter than either. It's the first allegedly portable gadget I've had that is comfortable in a shirt pocket. It also looks good, like a single lump of obsidian hewn from an iPhone quarry somewhere.

Functionality: Things it doesn't do, in decreasing order of annoyance:
  • Bluetooth network tethering -- really needed for the TomTom to download traffic updates (at least unless and until they do a TomTom iPhone app --for more on that see below). Would also be handy to let me use the 3G Internet connection from the laptop, although I appreciate that that would annoy O2 -- but it shouldn't, since they're selling an allegedly unlimited Internet connection.
  • Bluetooth file transfer -- would be a nice handy way to get stuff on or off the phone. I can't imagine why it's not there (except see notes below about the file system).
  • Bluetooth sync -- why does it need a wired connection to sync calendars and contacts with a Mac or PC when Bluetooth would do it nicely?
  • Bluetooth GPS lookup (are we seeing a pattern here?), to let my Kodak V610 camera acquire the location automatically from the phone at the time of taking photos. Presumably missing because a) Apple didn't put any useful Bluetooth profiles on the phone and b) the GPS chipset isn't powered unless an app specifically calls it, to save battery life.
  • SD card slot.
  • MMS -- I think I've sent two or three MMS messages in two years of having the capability, so no big deal.
  • Video calls -- I've never made a video call except to try it out, so I really doubt I'll miss it.

Power: As other have mentioned, the battery life when using a 3G Internet connection is alarmingly short. A heavy Internet user would need to recharge during the day. I think I'll be OK as long as I remember to charge it every day.

Bugs: Crashes worryingly often when running third-party apps, to the extent that I'm not sure I see the point of the "walled garden" approach. Backup to the Mac takes several hours, which is just insane. Mobileme just doesn't work with Outlook calendars stored on an Exchange server, and also should sync with different categories in a single Outlook calendar rather than creating a new calendar for each category on the iPhone (and iCal).

App Store: A number of developers seem to be waiting a long time for their apps to be approved, and while I'm sure they're snowed under, Apple need to do whatever it takes to get apps approved in a reasonable time -- let's say two working days from submission. "Whatever it takes" may include relaxing their standards and cutting down on the amount of checking they do, until the backlog is cleared.

Apart from that, the App Store is going to be a raging success, and some developers will make an awful lot of money. It makes it ridiculously easy to buy software. It could do with some standard way of creating a time-limited free trial version of apps, however.

Navigation: The GPS seems reasonably quick and accurate outdoors, and pretty slow indoors. Which is to be expected. I tried it out in the car (while stationary), and it seemed to get a lock reasonably quickly, so it should be good for in-car satnav. The terms & conditions of the SDK prohibit turn-by-turn navigation programs, and there are all kinds of theories about the hardware not being up to it or Apple trying to suppress competition for a program they'll sell themselves, but I believe the real story is simpler. The map data on the iPhone comes from Google, who license it from TeleAtlas, who are owned by TomTom, and I suspect they're simply not licensed to use the maps for turn-by-turn navigation. Which would thus not exclude such a program from a company that actually owns the map data and can provide the data along with the app, which would be TomTom or Garmin, and I hope and expect that we'll see such apps later this year.

Camera: The Internet is full of complaints about the 2 megapixel camera, but a tiny camera in a phone is never going to be great quality. It's actually OK as long as you have reasonable (i.e. low) expectations, and in particular seems to perform well at low light levels, which is a good thing in a mobile phone camera. Shutter lag and time delay on startup are a bit of a problem.

Price: For once, the UK comes out pretty well on international price comparisons. The ex-VAT price for phone and contract for the full 18-month contract at the lowest level is £544. In the US, it's $1,459, which is around £730 -- you get a lot more minutes (which I wouldn't use) but no texts unless you add another $45 or £22 over 18 months. And after 18 months, you're still locked in for another 6 months and $420.

Individual applications (briefly):
  • AIM (IM client -- free) -- seems like a pretty reasonable implementation, no problems, have hardly used it
  • AirMe (instant photo uploads to Flickr -- free) -- 1.00 was buggy and crashed a lot, 1.02 seems stable, works pretty well. I'm using this one regularly.
  • Banner Free (scrolling banner -- free) -- a bit of a gimmick, but might be useful one day. Not used it seriously.
  • Bookshelf (ebook reader -- £5.99) -- the best ebook reader to date, and probably the app I'm going to spend most time in. Have already read a fair chunk of a novel. It's a bit buggy, and a new version is apparently awaiting approval.
  • Break (Breakout game -- free) -- played it for five minutes and stopped. Doubt I'll try it again, but I've not deleted it yet.
  • Byline (Google Reader RSS client -- £5.99) -- much better than Google's own web-based version of Google Reader for the iPhone, but it needs more ways to mark items as read. I'd wait for the next version.
  • Comic Touch (Adds speech bubbles and captions to photos -- £2.99). Lots of fun, and will doubtless come in handy for the odd amusing photo post.
  • Cube Runner (Flying game, temporarily withdrawn -- free) -- not very engaging, and I doubt I'll play it much.
  • eReader (ebook reader, links to ereader.com and Fictionwise -- free) -- handy way to download books you've already bought, but not very user friendly, and certainly not as smooth as Bookshelf.
  • Exposure (Flickr client -- free ad-supported, but paid version available) -- this is a pretty good client, and I especially like the ability to see Flickr photos near your current location. I'll probably upgrade to the paid version at some point.
  • Facebook (Facebook client -- free) -- the new version works well, and this is one of the most polished apps available. I'll be using this one regularly.
  • Fizz Weather (Weather forecasts -- £2.99) -- Much prettier than the built-in weather app, and with more information. I'll be using this one regularly.
  • Go Figure Lite (Calculator for pre-determined formulae) -- will probably use it occasionally for conversions and suchlike, but doubt I'll ever have more than three formulae of my own and thus need to upgrade to the forthcoming paid version.
  • iMaze (Mercury maze -- free) -- I find it very hard to control, but have barely touched it.
  • iPint (Beer simulator -- free) -- In the "funny once" category, I think.
  • Light (Torch -- free) -- all this does is give you a blank white screen to maximise the illumination from the phone. Other apps are available with more options (different colours, strobes, etc.), but this one is good enough for me. Have used it occasionally.
  • Mandelbrot (The Mandelbrot set -- free) -- seems not to calculate sufficiently precisely, so there's too much black at high zoom levels.
  • Morocco (Reversi -- free) -- Plays a better game than Othello, but it's really annoying that you can't save your preferences.
  • MotionX Poker (Poker dice -- £2.99) -- purchased on bohemiancoast's recommendation, and it's great. Beautifully implemented, and pretty addictive.
  • NearPics (Finds photos near you on Panoramio -- free) -- does what it says on the tin, but downloading the pictures can be slow.
  • Numba (Pattern matching game, £3.99) -- Just bought it, haven't tried it yet. Has very good reviews.
  • Othello (Reversi -- free) -- Better implemented than Morocco, but a very weak player.
  • PayPal (PayPal client -- free) -- Just what it says, Haven't used it yet.
  • reQall (Voice notes -- free) -- Not used it yet, as you have to set up an account, but it supposedly lets you make notes and have their timetable be automatically recognised.
  • Shazam (Music recognition -- free) -- play it 12 seconds of music and it will tell you what it is. I've tried it a couple of times, and it seems to work really well.
  • Stanza (ebook reader -- free) -- iPhone client for the Mac ebook reader Stanza. Not as smooth as Bookshelf, but seems to work OK.
  • Sun Compass (compass -- £0.59) -- draws a compass rose with the current positions of the sun and moon based on the time and your GPS coordinates, so you can find your bearings. Nicely implemented and very pretty, but not terribly useful.
  • Super Monkey Ball (Game -- £5.99) -- Looks fantastic, but pretty hard, and you can't stop and restart where you left off, which is pretty poor for a casual game on a phone.
  • Tap Tap Revenge (Game -- free) -- A game rather in the vein of Dance Dance Revolution. I've barely touched it.
  • Twinkle (Twitter client -- free) -- Not used yet, due to not having a Twitter account.
  • Vicinity (Location program -- £1.79) -- The best program I've found for showing nearby information, photos, shops, restaurants, etc.
  • Where To (Location program -- £2.99) -- Much prettier than Vicinity, but all it does is a Google Map search, and despite claiming to be optimised for the English language it's actually American -- it searches for "movie theaters" and "gas stations", for example.

And the ones I've already deleted:

  • WeatherBug -- free weather client, not as good as the built-in app let alone Fizz Weather.
  • Local Picks by Trip Advisor -- free restaurant and shop guide, but doesn't work very well.
  • MoPhoTo -- free Flickr client, but not as good as AirMe or Exposure. Supports some other photo sites as well, but I don't use them.

File System: An oddity of iPhone OS is that there's no file system available to the user or to apps. In fact, apps seem to have no way to share data with each other. This causes a number or problems, and I suspect Apple will have to retrofit a file system into the OS at some point. Every app that needs files from your Mac/PC has to invent its own sui generis method of transferring them. If you want to get something back to your Mac/PC, email is the easiest way. Even if it had the hardware for an SD card reader, nothing could read the files. And so on.

Future: In version 3.0, I'd like to see:
  • A decent selection of Bluetooth profiles
  • Better battery life
  • A shared file system accessible as a USB drive on a Mac or PC
  • Increase in screen resolution to 720 x 480, but keeping the size the same
  • Better camera

That's all that comes to mind right now, but I may well post a followup.
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