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iPhone impressions

Jason Karney's picture

By now the iPhone is probably old hat to anyone who is curious. Either you have one, you know what it's about and educated yourself to consider buying one, or you disdainfully wrinkled your nose at this shiny Apple product. Still, I've spent a couple of weeks now with an iPhone, and wanted to share my impressions with any gamecritics.com readers who are still interested in learning more about the gadget.

Yes, iPhone is a phone. Some consumers think paying $500-$600 outright for a phone is outrageous, but that's because they are used to the subsidies offered by the big telecomms to lure in unsuspecting new customers into their ironclad, progress-hating, subscription-worshipping grips. But I digress. I've seen more expensive phones for sale via various online stores, and the MSRP of phones isn't a shock to me. Given what it does, I'd personally like to see the iPhone retail for $100 less, but as with most Apple products, the user is paying a premium for a beautifully designed product that (usually) just works. Some people criticize Apple for this, but it's a valid business model, and sometimes it's nice when things don't require hours of fussing. I'm reminded of my friend who spent hours every night wrestling with Fedora Core 3; but again, I digress.

I'm not the kind of person who might be expected to own an iPhone. I use Macs at home (I'm only a fan with the advent of OS X), and I have an iPod, so I obviously like some of Apple's offerings. But when it comes to wireless, I'm a big fan of Nokia. I've tried various manufacturer's phones over the years, but I've always come back to Nokia. And not just any Nokias, but the Symbian-based Series 60 (now S60) smartphones. I like the OS, and its user interface with all its strengths and its quirks is both familiar and known to me. I don't have to think when I use S60, because I know where every feature is and how to maximize my use of the smartphone. Plus, I'm a big fan of S60 third-party applications which can be easily added to the phone. (That's becoming an issue with the newest edition of S60, but I -- yes, digress.)

I was initially very hesitant about the iPhone. 8Gig of memory, which is really more like 7Gig of available storage? Great for a phone, weak compared to my 60Gig iPod. No installable third party apps, and the phone locked down for such by Apple? That was a biggie... in practice I don't run too many extra apps, but I like having those classic game console emulators on hand. The lack of themes and custom ringtones in the iPhone seemed downright archaic. The touchscreen keys looked interesting, but I couldn't imaging giving up tactile feedback, and I was used to my e61 -- which, like the iPhone, supports both EDGE and WiFi. (It also supports the high-speed 3G but only in Europe.)

So I was curious, and kind of wanted an iPhone for a while, but resisted the urge. Until I saw one in the wild. I was buying coffee before work, and another customer was showing his iPhone to the cashier. I only resisted for a few days, then I took the plunge. I now have an 8Gig iPhone.

It's not perfect, and it's not for everyone, but it is a really nice device, and there's a lot to like. Let me come out and say that the screen is the nicest feature. It's big, it's bright, and viewing videos is a great experience. Surfing on the larger screen is great too, it's very readable and easily zoomable. Reading PDF's is a benefit that I don't think is touted often enough; ebooks could get a new lease on life on the iPhone. I couldn't do much reading on my e61. I tried, but it was a chore to navigate through documents, there wasn't enough RAM to open more than a few-page, image-free PDF, and the quality was often poor.

Unless you've been living under a proverbial rock, then you also know the iPhone uses no buttons for input or navigation. The entire display is a touchscreen, and it's been designed around using your finger(s) for input. When it comes to the browsing experience, this works phenomenally well. The "pinch" gesture that's been described adequately elsewhere is an intuitive way to zoom in and out, the screen can be dragged around, and a quick double-tap zooms into the page element (image, headline, body text, etc.) under the user's finger. Links can be opened or bookmarked, and there is even multiple window functionality. Whether perusing the page of a web site or a document, this makes reading easy, efficient and pleasant. I had no eyestrain or navigation frustration here!

Related to input and the screen is iPhone's text entry, and this is the big one, the potential Achilles' heel. After a bit of practice it works quite well, and I daresay is faster than my e61 qwerty. This is because the touchscreen keyboard also supports a fairly accurate prediction mechanism, so even if you mistype keys it tends to guess what was intended. This is another feature described elsewhere on the web so I'll just say it works well. Sometimes I'm amazed at the relative speed with which I can type -- and without getting tired thumbs, as happened with heavy typing on my e61. I still mostly do one-finger typing, using my index finger to quickly tap out messages, as recommended by Apple when learning the touchscreen. I'm starting to experiment with two-thumb typing, but this is only used when typing while the phone is horizontal (and only available in the web browser). Thus most of my typing is done while the phone is vertical, and the narrower keyboard makes single-finger typing seem the better option anyway.

Being an iPhone, the iPod is one of the selling points of this gadget, and it's the nicest iPod yet. The new interface is much better than the click-wheel in my opinion. (I've come to dislike the click wheel because of what I call the "off by one" error -- I can't seem to navigate with the wheel without overshooting my intended selection by one.) Everything is clicked, dragged, flicked or tapped. As with the previous generational growth of iPods before, the improved screensize makes for improved readability of onscreen text, and makes the older iPods seem cramped for text space. Turning the phone horizontally presents the user with the "cover flow" feature to browse the phone's music collection, similar to that feature in iTunes. Playing videos always occurs in horizontal mode, and the user is given the option to delete any video after watching it, in order to claim space.

As I mentioned above, storage space is tight on the device, at least by my iPod reference. There's around 7.4Gig of storage available to the user (or at least to me), and this is shared by everything on the phone: email and any attachments, photos (the phone has a great phone viewer and a decent phone camera), contacts, as well as the iPod content collection. (And probably swap space for the underlying OS.) If you're like me and used to the large space on a full-sized iPod, it's hard (and a pain) to have to manage having a small number of synced content, which necessitates being selective with playlists. It's good compared to my e61, which would manage at most 2Gig if I had a microSD card for it. The time to sync is also very slow compared to an iPod. On the plus side, all the phone data (email accounts, bookmarks, contacts, calendar, possibly photos) is also backed up to the computer with each sync.

One hiccup I came across with someone else's iPhones: two phones were unable to access the same POP email account. I'm not clear if this is a general issue with how the iPhone accesses POP, the POP protocol or the particular mail server's settings. But if anyone on a family plan intends to share a family email account that will be accessed via iPhone, I suggest checking with your ISP first.

Of interest to the gamer is the fact that there isn't much diversity in the way of games currently available. Macmost.com offers the best selection of casual games for iPhone at this time, in my opinion, so they are worth checking out if you do get an iPhone. Word Spell is my favorite, followed by Knight & Squire. Third party apps are currently limited to Web 2.0 applications, and I recommend Leaflets as a good starting point; this is a third-party application launcher (i.e. web portal designed for iPhone). Popcap Games at the time of this writing has just announced Bejewelled for the iPhone, although I didn't see it on the web yet. I'm sure more intensive gaming applications will be available over time, especially if Apple makes third-party development possible; but at this time the iPhone is not much of a gaming platform, with the exception of the excellent macmost.com examples.


I like to call the iPhone a $600 portable web browser, because in many ways I feel the web experience with that fabulously clear touchscreen is what the consumer is buying. It happens to rely on AT&T for a lot of its internet access on the go. The iPod is great for this device, again, I am coming from a dedicated 60Gig iPod with video and haven't quite adjusted to the lesser storage. (Nor have I given up my iPod yet for total convergence.) As a phone, it works pretty well, with good quality, although it's hard to hear in noisy areas. It also seems to lose signal more than my e61, and I don't know whether to blame the phone or the network for that. (I was previously with the old AT&T and had an old AT&T sim chip, so I may have picked up different towers at times to give me better coverage; it depends on which wireless guru you talk to about this.)

I think that highlights the most important details from my personal perspective when it comes to the iPhone, and in my case how it compares with some aspects of my previous phone. If I were grading the iPhone, I'd give it a B+. Even if you don't like or want an iPhone, check one out if you have the opportunity, because I believe it has raised the bar for the mobile phone industry overall, by putting the user experience first in its overall design.

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