iPhone 3G initial impressions

iPhone maps

iPhone maps

Last Friday (through means which I’m too embarrassed to publicly discuss) I got an iPhone 3G. Here are my initial impressions after using it for a couple of days.

Screen. Visually, it’s near perfect. Bright and with sufficient field of view. The only problem I have with it is that sometimes my finger just won’t slide over its surface. I don’t know if I’m just some sort of physical mutant, or if I’ve got weird finger chemistry, but sometimes it’s just unusable as a touch screen as my finger sticks to it, especially if the screen has just been cleaned. It seems that the screen was designed to work best when covered by a thin layer of grime from you fingers. I just don’t get why everybody loves this so much, but I guess I’m just weird. This problem was solved by getting a matte protective anti-glare film for the screen. The display isn’t as sharp, but its finally a pleasure to use the touch screen. I recommend you play with the iPhone in the store for a while and actually use it (try scrolling and dragging) to make sure you like dragging your finger across polished glass a million times a day.

3G network. This is a bit of a disappointment. As many many other people have found, the 3G reception is poor, and a huge battery killer. With 3G turned on I can’t get through a full day without having to recharge. Where I live in Cambridge the signal is so bad that calls will degrade and occasionally drop. It fluctuates between zero and three bars. Cambridge ain’t exactly the middle of nowhere, however, and I expect AT&T’s network is better than the iPhone’s performance would indicate. From what I’ve heard, this is a problem with the iPhone; an AT&T 3G phone from another manufacterer will often have five bars sitting right next to an iPhone with one.

I will say this, though: when it works, it’s quite fast, and I usually see speeds of around 1 Mb/s. Fortunately, you can disable 3G from the phone settings, but unfortunately there’s no way I can disable the $10 a month extra I’m paying for it. From all my previous experiences with Apple, I knew I was asking for trouble by buying the first batch of anything. Apple brutally punishes early adopters like no other company.

If there’s an excuse for this poor performance, it’s the near engineering miracle Apple had to pull off to get everything to work. In one tiny package, the iPhone contains GPS, multi-band 2.5G, multi-band 3G, WiFi, and Bluetooth radios. That’s a lot of RF going on in one place, and they all have to share antennas. I’m kind of amazed it works at all, frankly.

Data integration. For now, the iPhone only integrates natively with iCal (on a Mac), Outlook and Exchange. Fortunately, if you use Google calendar, there is a wonderful solution available from www.nuevasync.com. The folks at NuevaSync have essentially built an Exchange server that can pull your contacts and calendar from various online services (Google and Plaxo, for now) and make it available from the industry standard Exchange protocol. A brilliant idea, and a very timely one given the release of the iPhone 2.0 software which allows for Exchange integration and push. When I (or my wife) edit a calendar item online, it instantly appears on the iPhone.

App Store. As everybody predicted, there is a plethora of putative social networking revolutions, with trendy names like beepo and blue lemmingster, etc. But there are some surprisingly good apps available, and it seems the best ones are free. Some highlights: Bloomberg has an app gives you access to beautiful stock charts and a live news feed. AOL Radio provides dozens of live streaming radio channels across several genres, and it works over the cell network.

As Apple opens up the API more and more, I think the biggest impact of the iPhone will be as a new development platform for connected mobile applications. The most powerful applications of the phone are those which use the wireless broadband to connect to remote information and computing resources. It’s very satisfying, for example, to be out walking around outside and yet have access to the terabytes of satellite photos in Google Maps. On a more frivolous level, there is Shazamm, a program that will tell you the name and artist of virtually any song based on a 15 second sample played into the phone. One of the most interesting examples of the mobile-to-cloud computing paradigm is Jott, an app which will transcribe dictated notes. It records and compresses your voice at the iPhone, and then sends it to India where it is transcribed by a person and then sent back to your phone as text.

I’m looking forward to seeing what other kinds of applications are enabled by having a computer in your pocket with an always-on broadband internet connection. The iPhone isn’t so much a phone in this context as it is a rich mobile interface to remote supercomputers (and underpaid Indians).

What’s missing. Cut and paste, for one. Video conferencing. Live mobile TV, such as AT&T makes available on some of their other cell phones. Flash support in the browser. The ability to read PDFs anywhere but within an e-mail attachment or from a webpage. Push Gmail.

What’s just plain bad. The third from worst design flaw I’ve seen is that turning off the sound doesn’t actually turn off all sounds. Music can still play through the speaker in certain cases, and not all apps respect the mute setting. The second worst is that when you unplug the headphones, the phone sometimes turns on whatever music you were last playing in the iPod software (it fools the phone into thinking you momentarily hit the play button on the headphone remote). The absolute number one design flaw is that the second and third worst flaws can combine, so that you can end up blaring music in the middle of a lecture just by pulling out your headphones. I presume Apple will fix this in an update.

The 2.0 software feels like an early beta. The interface is often unresponsive, taking a few seconds to do something as simple as open a field for editing (the contacts program, of all things, is the worst offender). The browser crashes fairly regularly, and I’ve even hung the phone one or twice trying to watch a video podcast. It’s the first phone I’ve ever owned that crashes more than my laptop…

The battery life is rather poor. I haven’t gotten the phone to make it through the day yet, though a lot of that maybe that I leave the WiFi on. Regardless, I have no idea how Apple can claim five hours of 3G usage. Maybe that’s if you’re standing on the top of a cell tower.

Summary. Were it not for some of the aforementioned issues, it would be a truly remarkable piece of technology, especially in terms of the wonderful interface. It’s more enjoyable to use than a computer for most small tasks like checking e-mail. While I really love the iPhone in many ways, I have to admit that it’s clearly not worth the money when you factor in the plan. Of course, I’m kind of loath to return it at this point. It’s a kind of irrational psychology that is probably responsible for most of Apple’s revenue, I suspect: In the end, it’s just cool, and it would be hard to go back to klunky, even if klunky gets the jobs done for half the price. Look-and-feel counts for more than anybody (certainly I) would like to admit. Steve Jobs is a genius for being so cynical as to truly plumb the limits of this. So, I’m gonna stick with my heavy, big, overpriced, crashy, no-battery-life, embarass-me-in-meetings iPhone. Because it’s just so goddam fun to scroll around with a flick of your finger!

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