Monday, September 8, 2008

iPhone review

I had been long overdue for getting a new cell phone...so when the iPhone 3G was offered in my region, I decided to jump on the bandwagon -- after some hesitation.  (Questions like: "How much will I use will I get out of the bells and whistles?" and "Will the on screen touch-screen keyboard be suitable for typing?" popped to mind, among others.)

I've had the phone for a couple of weeks now, and overall I'd say I'm pleased.  I've explored some of the built-in features, as well as downloading a handful of free apps available through the app store.

The on-screen keyboard initially took a bit of getting used to, however once I became accustomed to using the tips of my fingers/thumbs, typing speed increased notably.  Without much practice I'm reasonably over 20 words per minute, and expect that 30-40 WPM would be manageable with regular use.  One quirk regarding the on-screen keyboard is that you are presented primarily with the qwerty layout for letters, with a key to switch to entering numbers/symbols and back again -- you get used to this pretty quickly, though, and being presented in this fashion does allow for more accurate typing, as there are fewer keys crammed into your "fingerspace" at any one time.

Connecting via wireless access points at home/work/on the road is quite painless, and a boon for anyone who's a big data user, as it allows you to do what you will on the net without cutting into what's allotted by your data plan.

Initially accessing the app store was interesting.  There were no problems viewing the apps available for download out-of-the-box, however when I went to download my first free app is where things became a little more complicated.  When trying to grab my first free app, I was on a coffee break at work -- as I had not yet plugged it in at home, it didn't have an association to any iTunes account.  Being at work, I didn't want to install iTunes on my work machine.  When going to the iTunes site, there didn't appear to be any way to create an account without having a working installation of iTunes.  For those of you who haven't installed iTunes, this may be a necessary step in order to access even the free apps, even if you won't have a use for iTunes beyond that.

There's a built in calendar with alerts -- allowing you to keep track of appointments and events, a photo album, a simple camera (picture quality is 'ok'...but not great, with no immediately apparent means for recording video), built in gps with mapping/route planning functionality, a clock configurable to show time zones of interest (complete with timers/stop-watch functionality), a simple note-taking application, a stock market info widget, local weather, and a fairly well thought out contact manager.  There are also widgets for quick access to youtube and iTunes, as well as your iPod library, but I haven't put them through the wringer yet.

There's a widget built in to make it easier to connect to your e-mail service, whether Exchange, gmail, yahoo, or what have you, and a built in web browser, Safari.  It's unfortunate that this rendition of Safari doesn't support Java or Flash -- I don't miss them much at the moment, although having Flash support would have made things easier on one occasion, where a site didn't have any real alternatives to their Flash interface.

Although I'm not surprised, it was a little disappointing to find that the SDK for the platform is only usable on OS X.  Along with that, it sure would be nice if wrappers for other languages were openly accepted by Apple.  As it is, rather than playing around and whipping up a few things in python to feel things out, I'll have to make the time to familiarize myself with their Objective C.  Although there is a python port out there, I believe, it's not in a state suitable for general consumer use...while it would be fun to try it out, that does take the wind out of the sails a bit, as if you do whip up something nifty, how will you share it with friends?  (Get them to apply what's needed for that python port to work?  Umm, no.)

The App store is quite a mixed bag...I've been quite satisfied with the free apps I've grabbed so far, including VNC, telnet, and RDP clients, and a few games.  There are a number of apps at a cost that appear to be decent, too, although keep your eyes open -- sometimes the free alternatives appear to be more feature rich than the pay-for alternatives.  Your milage may vary, depending on the author(s).  With apps at a cost typically ranging from $0.99 to $24.99 (rarely more), the outlay isn't much, regardless, although it would be a shame to spend your money on a lemon.

Battery life seems to vary wildly, although I haven't put my finger on why, yet.  I imagine it's tied to what apps I've been using that account for this difference -- even though apps appear to be closed/minimized, when sleeping, the phone's battery may last on standby for days, or it may be completely drained over the course of a few hours.  For the most part, though, it's fallen into the 'days' category.

Sound quality: when using the phone as...a phone (imagine that), I find that I can hear a conversation with reasonable quality, although the people I speak to have commented that background noise can be an issue.  A quick google search reveals others with this problem, however this appears to be readily dealt with by getting a bluetooth earpiece that has decent noise-cancellation.  The phone detects when it's by your head, and turns off the screen so as to not bathe you in a surreal glow.  When you're on a call and pull the handset away, it presents you with the options to mute, switch to/from speaker, put a call on hold, and so on. 

It does have built in accelerometers and the like, allowing apps to be built that detect the orientation and motion of the phone.  (you can download a free level, for example, as well as game that put this functionality to use -- like those wooden mazes which you tilt to move a marble about therein, etc.)

Off the top of my head, the main other nice-to-have would be the ability to copy and paste text...it would be handy for pasting the contents of a note into e-mail or a web form, for example.

All in all, I'm quite happy with the phone.  It's pretty sleek, and its usability has been for the most part well thought out.  I have it in a Griffin hard case, so that it doesn't become a nice looking paperweight as a result of a clumsy moment, and find that there are no issues with using it, protective plastic over the screen and all. 

As it is relatively new, I expect that future revisions will see the addition of more nice-to-have features, along with filling in the gaps where people find it most lacking.  Meanwhile, I'll carry on as a happy camper. 

Of course, my productivity will no doubt increase notably, just as soon as I delete that free version of Solitaire I installed ;)