Saturday, July 19, 2008

Consumer Review

Progress report: the 3G iPhone.

I'm not someone renowned for my self-discipline and goal-setting. I have achieved things in life that required some sustained focus and effort, but far more of my existence reflects a tendency for instant-gratification.

So when I tell you that I waited over a year for my iPhone, that's saying something. But, spendthrift that I am, even I recoil at Sprint's $200-per-line cancellation fee, and when the original iPhone came out I had almost exactly a year to go on my Sprint contract. And voilá! I'm now a patient man and a saver! (Another mostly foreign word for me.) As it happens, my Sprint contract expired on exactly the day (9 June) that Apple announced their next generation of iPhone. And the release date of that phone was another month hence (11 July). So even more waiting. (Hell, I'm almost a new man.)

Well, the date came, and I dutifully sprang from bed at 5:30 a.m. (along with my lovely wife, whose enthusiasm for the iPhone phenomenon is considerably more restrained than my own) and drove out to our local mall. We have two AT&T stores in town, a stone's throw from each other. One is along the mall's perimeter drive, and the other is inside the mall itself. Given the very limited number of phones each store would have initially, it became a question as to which store's line to get in if I were not to go home with a rain check slip (a topic which I had discussed with both stores several times in that month; so we see that I'm not really very good at waiting). The outside store actually had people in line who had spent the night there--thankfully providing a shred of dignity to my up-at-5:30 lunacy)--and had about 20 people in line when we arrived at 6 a.m. for an 8:00 opening. So we opted to wait for the mall to open and to wait in THAT store's line, where we ended up being the fifth customers.

Apart from the much-publicized difficulties which Apple experienced from the apparent oversight of releasing both its new phone and the updated software package for the old phone on the same day (thus causing some seven million people to be seeking the firm's online services simultaneously), we had no glitches in getting or activating the phones. There was a couple hours' wait before iTunes would let us initialize, but everything else related to our number porting and the death of my Sprint association went smoothly. Now we've spent a week getting to know the new phones a bit.

I think no device like this can be all things to all people, and there is room for improvement in a number of aspects. But it seems silly carping to be too critical of things which were not even in the realm of possibility with one's cell phone before this device came along. It does so much, so capably, that it seems like science fiction. The scope of Apple's accomplishment here is breathtaking: the iPhone has comprehensive cell phone capabilities, of course, but also 16 gig of memory for an excellent music player, a video and TV clip player, a surprisingly good camera, and a full-feature web browser (not the truncated pseudo-web of phones hitherto), plus excellent text messaging capability. It uses at least two different phone networks--Edge and 3G--and will also communicate via any WiFi site it finds. And it does a bunch of other stuff as well.

Part of my getting all googly-eyed may be because I've not had access in other forms to some of iPhone's standard features. Things like the GPS-enabled Maps function, which is basically a Google Maps widget that tracks your (and others') movement. I've played around with Google Maps, of course, but never while walking around with my laptop (which still wouldn't do what the iPhone does). I've never had a portable GPS unit, nor any kind of navigation in any of my cars. My dad and brother have had either / both of these, and I expect to them the iPhone's GPS-enabled map feature would be pretty basic. It won't give turn-by-turn instructions, nor does it give you total mileage or speed or altitude or some of the other things that a dedicated GPS unit would be expected to provide (surely a third party supplier will offer such a program for the iPhone shortly). But to me it's a revelation! Push the button, and within a few seconds it has located you down to an accuracy of within a couple feet, and can display that information to you with either a nicely-drawn map or a high resolution satellite photograph. As you walk or drive around, your location marker (of course) follows you, and it's a snap to zoom in and out and to put a pin at places of interest so finding your way back to that cute little shop you saw or to the freeway or whatever--these things become a breeze! It will draw a driving route for you, and give traffic information, at least in major metropolitan areas. This would seem quite enough from a thing that slips unobtrusively in your pocket; and yet it's practically an afterthought to the iPhone. I find I've used that map function for more than just silly because-I-can reasons every single day so far.

And there is a weather widget that tells you what your current temp and sky condition are, plus that of any other city you'd care to specify. I could do this with my old phone, but not with a single button, nor with the projected high and low temps for today and the rest of the week. The 2 megapixel camera has storage space for a buzillion pictures, and operates as seamlessly as one would expect. The iPod function has its expected user-friendliness, and a lot of storage space, and now you can visit the iTunes Music Store (where I've done a majority of my music purchasing for a couple years now) and audition and purchase music and movies and TV content directly to your phone. All this stuff--pictures and music and movie purchases and the calendar and contacts--then syncs with your computer when you plug in for a charge, so that you can work these programs from either end and still have them be current everywhere. All the phone's features, as one would expect with Apple, dovetail beautifully with their suite of software on your home computer / laptop. And there are a whole bunch of ways to personalize your device, from hand-crafted ringtones to custom wallpapers to customizable menus and so on.

The end result of all this is that you very quickly learn to rely on your phone to solve all of life's problems, from quick access to showtimes (and reviews of those shows) to the ability to photograph something on a whim and easily mail it off to someone, to checking the temp so you can dress appropriately before you head out to getting driving instructions to a particular restaurant. Over the last few years I've become accustomed to looking up stuff on Wikipedia (or other places on the web) about 20 times a day, and now I can gratify those urges instantly, whenever a question arises. What a concept. If I want to be old school and wait until I'm at my laptop, then I can use the iPhone's notepad (with a very effective qwerty keyboard) to remind me. I used to check my email with my old phone a dozen times a day if I were away from the computer; the iPhone checks for me constantly, and gives a little bleep and a shake whenever something arrives at my email box. No more checking. And it keeps watch on as many accounts as I care to specify. (We're still trying to find a way to get Susan's school account hooked up in this way, but it seems to require some support on the school's end.)

Any gripes? A few minor ones so far. Everybody complains that the camera has no controls or features, and one cannot shoot video. Fair enough. I don't give a shit about video, but a zoom or exposure control or flash might be nice. The photos themselves seem to look great--I'll post some when I have pictures of something to post. The lack of physical buttons takes some getting used to; something simple like silencing my old phone's ringer in my pants pocket just required me to squeeze the phone thru the fabric to click SOME button. Now one has to be deliberate about it and take the phone out; one push of the power button on top will silence the ringer, and two will send the call directly to voicemail. Or there is a ring silence / vibrate activate toggle on the top side, but good luck finding these by feel. (I'm pretty good about turning off my ringer when I don't want it on, and the iPhone makes this a one-button affair.) Another button issue: selecting the next song on your iPod requires unlocking the screen first--or leaving it unlocked, which invites problems if you then put it in your pocket. The provided headset gives you a little microphone / clicker along the line to your right ear that answers / hangs up for phone calls, and starts / stops / advances to the next track with the iPod. But the headset is uncomfortable for me--it won't stay in my ears. And nobody else makes a corded headset yet with a microphone built in. (You can use a regular stereo headset for the iPod, but if you get a phone call you have to speak into the microphone at the bottom of the phone. A bit awkward, but workable. You could just unplug the headset, of course.) The battery lasts only a single day, and maybe less than that if you're using it to death the way I have this week. A buddy and I drove around Southern Indiana as he looked for property and we had the GPS on for several hours. I needed a car charger then. Having everything turned on--bluetooth, 3G network search, WiFi, GPS--drains the battery more quickly, obviously.

But the screen is beautiful: high resolution and bright and colorful and beautifully rendered. The unit feels like a block of aluminum, solid and high quality. The whole concept would fall to pieces if the touch screen did not work, but it works brilliantly. I put a protector over the screen on day one, and it didn't seem to affect its function at all. This is the second phone I've had that is Bluetooth-enabled (the first was five years ago for use as a modem when I was on the road) and yesterday I picked up a relatively cheap single-ear headset for driving or walking around (a Jabra BT 8040 for those who care). I always thought people with these things in their ear were power tools, and now here I am getting all power-tooley. But not having a corded headset is fabulous, and the sound quality is surprisingly good. My one quibble with the phone feature is that I often don't have quite as strong a signal as I did with Sprint. I had heard that Sanyo's signal meter reads exaggeratedly high, but my Sanyo rarely dropped a call. I've had a few dropped calls on the iPhone when my signal reads low, and it's my bad luck that I seem to have a pretty weak signal in both my house in Appleton and in the crash pad in Louisville. On the other hand, the phone's functions are great (with menus very thoughtfully designed--just like everything else), and the sound quality is fabulous--a good deal better than my Sprint phone ever was.

Whatever shortcomings I may find with some of the features, to have them all bundled together into a single unit barely larger than half a deck of playing cards seems like a miracle. Everybody I've shown it to seems now hell-bent to get one, and I can easily see that all the stuff that was once luxurious will quickly become necessary. Leave it to Apple to find a way to move a boundary so far out in a field where many of the world's great engineering concerns have been at work for two decades. It's hard not to love a company that has done so many cool things over the years, continually finding exciting ways to innovate.

And that, to me, makes for an endorsement!

We'll see how long the honeymoon lasts.


Dzesika said...

Oh, the object lust. I'm not even going to pretend to hide it.

Cool new toy!

truist said...

I just ordered a Griffin SmartTalk headphone/mic specifically to replace the standard iPhone one. I haven't used it yet, though. There are two other similar options on that same Amazon page, also, in case you'd prefer a different design.

Fusion said...

I just jioned the iPod generation a couple months back, I love it and iTunes. Not so sure I need all those features yet, I think I'll wait for the next model out that will make me coffee, wash the car, and feed the dog...

Good review! Thanks Wunelle.