iPhone: a really effing long review

Wednesday, after a morning and early afternoon tromping about the hospital for maintenance appointments, we stopped at the AT&T store and bought an iPhone. I’ve been using it constantly since then, so here’s a really effing long review behind a cut:

What it is

The iPhone is a cell phone built by Apple, Inc. It runs on a modified verison of Mac OS X (a Unix-based operating system developed by Apple) and has gained significant attenion for being unlike any other phone on the American market.

Hardware-wise, it’s the only phone that uses a very minimized physical interface (a lock button, a volume rocker, a mute switch, and one button on the front) and a touchscreen that displays all the other features. External speakers at the bottom (and a small speaker at the top for your ear) and a microphone at the top, along with a camera lens on the back.

Software-wise, it’s the only phone that runs on a modified version of Mac OS X (a Unix-based operating system by Apple), and because of that operating system and the choice of the touch-screen interface, it’s more like a Palm or Blackberry than your standard phone — but with a significantly more consumer-oriented set of applications.

Because it’s a touch-screen, the controls can be a lot more fluid than you’re used to. The keyboard that’s used for entering text is a virtual keyboard, in QWERTY style, so there’s no trying to figure out how to spell “home” in numbers (or realizing that it’s the same as “good” and constantly having to correct the phone) because you just type the letters you need, y’know, like normal people do. Because the “keys” are so close together it’s easy to miskey, but the word-predictor is first rate and automatically fills in the correct words without you having to pause in your typing. As a result, you learn it fairly quickly. It’s used in any application where you need to type.

In addition, there’s the Internet. Actually there’s two Internet connections – wireless 802.11 and EDGE.

So if you’re at home or at work or at Starbucks or wherever you can log into an available 802.11 wireless network, you switch your settings to Wireless and you get the fast Internet you’re used to.

If you’re in the woods or under a rock or too cheap to drop $10 to log into somebody else’s wireless network, you still have Internet. AT&T charges a flat $20/month for all the EDGE internet I can grab. Is it fast? No. It’s faster than the 56k dial-up modem I used in high school, but it’s not a T1 line. But it’s not nearly as awful as I’d heard. (Or maybe I just go to lightweight fast websites, I dunno.) And it means that in the car when Nighthawk and I are debating the relative merits of purchasing a specific video game, I can look the game up (while he drives) and we can make educated decisions. Or I can Wikipedia something, or read Fark, or whatever. And that’s just through the Safari web browser.

The one OS interface feature that I wish the system had (and maybe it does but I just haven’t found it) is a copy/paste feature. I’d like to be able to copy a URL from a browser and paste it into a contact’s Homepage field or into a text message and I haven’t found a way yet. I don’t need to be able to copy images, but dangit, I don’t want to retype that long URL for that tire company into the SMS app.

So let’s get to the guts….

The Software – Pros and Cons

The iPhone consists of:

An SMS application (text messages) that organizes and displays your messages so they display like AOL Instant Messenger (or similar) conversations. If you’ve seen iChat on the Mac, you’ll recognize the interface. The great advantage to this is that you can remember what you were talking about without having to flip through other unrelated messages to get to the last one from the person in question. The only disadvantage I’ve found is that — so far — I haven’t figured out how to re-hide the keyboard after finishing a text message, except to exit and reenter the screen and that makes me grouchy.

A calendar application that makes tracking your schedule easy — and syncs to the popular calendar apps on your PC or Mac.

Now here’s what sets me apart from most reviewers: it’s the calendar app that drove my desire for the iPhone, not the iPod, not the video, not the fancy-schmancy voicemail. In high school I kept a calendar on the computer and printed it — or manually wrote it up on a clipboard I carried to class. (Not doing so resulted in tons missed homework assignments and a very angry father.) In college I switched to hardbound calendars – the X Files annual calendar, then the Anne Geddes calendar. Both of those approaches gave me the advantage of portability but the disadvantage of scribble. I hate having cross-outs in my calendar because they take up space. Plus, it’s difficult to back up a paper calendar.

After college I used a Palm for a while, but typing on the visual keyboard via stylus got old, I lost about a dozen styluses (styli?) and when I learned Graffitti (the Palm shorthand) I found it started changing my already-illegible handwriting so now even I couldn’t read it. Plus, syncing the Palm was a pain in the ass because I kept my calendar in iCal which didn’t play well with the Palm desktop, and charging was a pain in the ass because it required a cradle with a power brick the size of my dog. When I discovered that the software wasn’t being updated for the Mac anymore, I pretty much lost interest in torturing myself.

So last year it was back to a paper calendar, but now with the insane work schedule I have I needed a page-a-day planner, which required expensive refills every year and took up half my purse. I hate carrying a purse to begin with, and this was like carrying Harry Potter and the Brick Shithouse in my purse at all times.

Now, Apple offers an app called iCal, which comes as part of the iLife suite and allows me to organize my events and activities into multiple “calendars” (think of them as categories sorted by color) and flip them on and off using checkboxes. In addition, I can download other folks’ calendars, allowing me to grab the Phillies and Eagles schedules with three clicks instead of having to enter them manually, as well as publish my work schedule out to the ‘net where my folks can view it and not invite me to dinner the same night that I’m scheduled to work late.

You remember me mentioning that iCal didn’t play well with the Palm? Well, a stripped-down version of iCal is on the iPhone. So there are zero synchronization problems — if I type it on the Mac it shows up on the phone, and vice versa. Typing in new events is easy due to the aforementioned kick-ass keyboard. One really neat thing is the date interface, that lets you roll through dates and times the same way that you roll through the tumblers on a bike lock.

I have only a single nit-pick about the calendar, and that’s that I can’t set which category/calendar a new event belongs in until I sync back up to the Mac. Everything displays in the same blue color on the calendar, which seems silly on a full color screen.

The calendar, however, has by far exceeded all of my expectations and even some of my hopes. And my purse is a hell of a lot lighter as well.

Back to the other features…
A photo album for displaying the photos you took on the camera, or the photos that you sync over from iPhoto on the Mac and a camera for taking pictures. The camera quality is very good, much better than the 640×480 on my old phone. One feature that pleasantly surprised me was the fact that when I sync the phone, my pictures are automatically dropped to iPhoto, where I just happen to keep all of my photos. I don’t have to go through any connection/ftp gyrations to move pictures on my phone to my computer.

Then we get to the web-based goodies.
A YouTube interface allows you to download and watch YouTube videos via either EDGE or wireless. I ‘m not a big YouTube user, but the video looks good and I know a lot of people who are nuts about it. A Stock Ticker is more my speed. Though I’m not a trader I work in the industry and knowing what the market’s doing can tell me what kind of day I’m going to have, so I keep a close eye on that one. A Google Maps interface has already made it easier for me to tell a friend how to get to the local tire store in the elevator, and since my sense of direction sucks ass I suspect it’ll get more use than just that. And there’s
a Weather widget where you enter your zip code and can view a quick summary of the weather at any time. All handy.

In addition there’s a clock interface — mine’s got the clocks for Philly, Denver, and London, so I know who’s still asleep and who’s awake when I decide to call around the family, a calculator that… calculates…. and a notepad that lets you jot down quick notes or directions or instructions if there’s no paper handy. And since that keyboard really does kick ass, it’s honestly quick, not like trying to T9 yourself directions to the post office.

Finally, there’s a single Settings section for configuring the main applications, where you can set your ring, background, app settings, wireless prefs, etc.

Then we get into the big guns.
The Phone (remember the phone? it’s in the name) also contains your contacts. In my case, it took them all right out of my Address Book on the Mac. The fields are all mapped properly, it remembered what was mobile and what was home, and even allows me to add custom fields that will show up in the Address Book when I resync.

The phone sound quality is very good, though I occasionally have problems if I switch to speaker because the speakers are at the bottom of the phone and it results in whoever I’m talking to hearing their own voice coming back over the line at them. (Lowering the volume takes care of this but I’m as deaf as a post in heavy-white-noise areas so it’s not so great for driving.)

It’s easy to dial if you need to type in numbers instead of just choosing from your contacts. It also allows you to set up favorites so even though my husband’s name is way down the alphabet, he’s at the top of my favorites and easy to call.

If you receive a call it goes to the Recent list, and if you miss a call then the main screen shows the number of missed calls and those calls show up in red on your Recent list.

Voicemail is amazingly easy to set up and doesn’t require you to navigate some stupid phone recording system. I put it off for too long because I hate setting those stupid things up and listening to the computerized voice telling me to set my name and my message and all that garbage. Never happened here. And when you get your voicemail, you can see who called and choose from the list – to listen to the messages in the order you choose, or just flat-out ignore one if you want.

Mail lets you check your e-mail. I have nine active email addresses and on my first sync, the phone just picked up all the settings from my Mac. (In fact, I had to go back and tell it to knock it off – I only actively monitor like five of the accounts.) Since the Internet is a flat rate I can set my phone to check my email as often as I want and it doesn’t cost me anything, even when I get hit with eight buckets of spam.

On the spam, well, there’s no perfect way to deal with it. I’d like for it to get routed to a spam folder but then Apple would have to write all kinds of code to handle spam. Instead they’ve made it so that when you’re looking at a list of messages, the first sentence or so of each message displays, and you can hit edit and delete each of those messages without loading it fully.

In addition, HTML-based email displays with no difficulty, images and all – which can be a blessing or a curse depending on what kind of spam you get. (It makes it twice as nice to delete the spam based on the first sentence!) But the newsletters I get also load perfectly, and that’s quite nice. I’ve never seen a phone load HTML mail so cleanly and readably.

Then there’s Safari. It’s a full-fledged web browser. No crappy WAP device websites for you – you get the real Internet on this thing. You can import your bookmarks from your computer, open and load multiple windows at once, and get back into your history to see that page you visited a few days ago. You can flip between landscape and portrait view of pages and use the “pinch” technology to zoom in or out of a page, making it easily readable and usable. Switching between windows is a piece of cake. Typing URLs, usernames, and passwords are also cake. One warning: if you have the phone set to auto-capitalize it can hose up case-sensitive logins, but that setting only takes a moment to change in the Settings panel.

There’s no way to complain about having a fully-functioning real web-browser in your pocket.

And then there’s the iPod. I bought the 8GB phone (after the price dropped), which doesn’t sound like a lot. It’s replacing my 20GB 3rd gen iPod (black and white screen, scroll wheel) — so it sounds like I’d be losing a lot. But I only have 9 GB of music (2500+ songs in AAC format) and honestly, I don’t listen to all of it, so I set it up to sync about two-thirds of it. I’ve also finally got the ability to watch video.

Now y’all know I’m not a TV watcher, but it’s really fun to have the Pixar short films I’ve bought from the iTunes Music Store on my phone. The picture is fucking gorgeous. And thanks to Handbrake, a free app that lets me rip my DVDs to multiple formats including an iPhone format, I’ve also got Howl’s Moving Castle on my phone, and can add anything else that’s in my library. Handbrake took Howl, which was almost exactly 2 hours, down to just under 1 GB, so it fits nicely.

Because the iPhone’s got external speakers, I’m not tied to listening to it through headphones. I listen to it in the car via the speakers, no FM transmitter or other stuff required. The volume’s decent – not window-shattering, but definitely listenable.

Because there’s no clickwheel/scrollwheel, you end up using your fingers to scroll up and down, but it stops cleanly when you poke it, and it’s a very natural-feeling interface.

The ear buds that come with it have a pause button built into the cord, but I tend to use ear-covering headphones at work so I’m hoping there’s another pause feature I’ve overlooked that doesn’t require me to unlock the phone every time. Because that’s a pain in the ass compared to my old iPod’s very accessible Pause button.

What I didn’t know until I got one

  • The headphone jack is a standard headphone jack, not one of those skinny-ass wired cell phone jacks. Update: but it’s longer than a standard jack, so normal headphone still don’t work. And unlike my ROKR it didn’t come with a converter.
  • The phone charges using a standard iPod charger. If you already own an iPod charger, well, now you’ll have two. If you have a car charger for your iPod don’t let the AT&T rep talk you into a “phone charger” for your car.
  • The touchscreen doesn’t respond to fingernails really, and it gets annoyed/confused if you use the full pad of your finger. You’ll rapidly learn to just use the tip of your finger, and you’ll be amazed at how well that works.
  • This is the only phone I’ve ever seen where you switch between vibrate and ring with a physical switch on the outside of the phone, and it’s kick-ass easy.
  • Being able to check your email all the time really is as addictive as everyone says. I understand the “crackberry” email addiction syndrome now.
  • Apparently I’m averaging two new meetings and two rescheduled meetings a day — because that’s how often I have to go edit my calendar. But date editing is dead simple and kind of fun.
  • I’ve removed my phone, planner, and iPod from my purse as well as the notebook that frequently got thrown in there, and my purse is MUCH lighter.
  • For reasons that probably have more to do with AT&T than the phone, I can’t place international calls from my cell phone. I can, however, send international text messages. Freakin’ weird.
  • Fingerprints are annoying — but the included cloth cleans them off nicely if you use circular motions. Up and down motions just seem to make it worse.

Who should own one

My understanding is that the phone syncs to a PC pretty cleanly. That being said, if you already own a Mac and you’re already using iCal, iPhoto, and iTunes, you’ve gained a serious productivity tool using this phone. This is the personal organizer that Mac users have been waiting for since the Newton.

If you’re looking for a personal organizer that lets you track all your contacts, your schedule, and your mail on a screen big enough that you won’t go blind using it, and a keyboard that doesn’t make you feel like you’re all thumbs, this is the phone for you.

If you’re not able to spend more than a half hour away from Google or Wikipedia or Digg or your blog or Livejournal, or you spend a lot of time writing and receiving email even when you’re on the road, this phone puts the whole Internet in your pocket for a flat fee.

If you’re expecting to use highly complex Flash-based or AJAX-based sites or anything that’s Windows-specific or IE-specific, this is NOT your phone. In fact, your phone probably hasn’t been invented yet.

If you listen to music constantly or you love your iPod video or you spend a lot of travelling and sticking a DVD player in your purse isn’t really an option, this is probably your phone. It will let you leave the iPod video at home and just carry one device.

If 8GB isn’t enough storage for you because you need to carry your entire library with you, then you need to wait another year, because what you want isn’t available yet.

In summary…

I bought the iPhone for two purposes: to regain space in my purse, and to find a better calendar/planner than I owned already. I did both of these successfully with the iPhone — much more successfully than I had with any other planner/phone combination I’d owned in the past.

The iPhone certainly has drawbacks on almost every application if you’re looking for them — from the lack of a copy/paste to the slowness of EDGE to the lack of separate calendar categories. But for every drawback I experienced (none of which were showstoppers), there were two or three benefits I didn’t expect. The keyboard was even better than the greatness described, the date picker in the calendar is excellent, spam is easy to remove, the browser’s pretty snappy and easy to read.

So far the iPhone has wholly exceeded my expectations and proved to be worth all of the money I spent on it. And that’s just after two days!

4 thoughts on “iPhone: a really effing long review

  1. i just got an ipod touch. Its pretty cool. The keypad is really easy to use. (I’m using it right now.)

  2. I got mine @ the apple store. They only had the 16g model – which wasn’t the one I had wanted. But I’m a sucker and bought it. But it worked out well – all our music fits on the 16. I checked online and they are not shipping until the 29th.

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