Review: iPhone

Posted on August 21, 2009 by Steve

After nearly four years of loyalty to T-Mobile, it was time to replace our cell phones with models that were not physically falling apart. In their thirst for new customers, the carrier has insultingly poor upgrade offers for existing customers. We were satisfied with the service, and I maybe could have gotten a better deal if I begged for one, but we ended up making an impulse switch to AT&T at a Costco.

It turns out that Costco was the right place to buy. All activation fees were waived, return periods were generously extended, and a small number of quite nice handsets were on offer, free after mail-in rebates. (Which I forgot to mail in, of course. I realized this on the day they had to be postmarked, naturally a Sunday. Happily, the rebate processor informed me that there's a 15-day grace period.) Not least of all, Costco handled paperwork, number transfers, and credit checks with dispatch.

The iPhone, with its budget-busting data plan, had been a temptation for some time. After putting up so long with a Nokia that was nothing special even before it went to pieces, I decided to take the plunge. I would have to go to Apple or AT&T for the handset, and the Costco guy suggested sotto voce that I wait until the following Monday to buy. Sure enough, Apple announced the 3G S that day. I had to wait until the following Friday to score one, but the end was in sight for my rundown candy bar.

I had little intention of camping out overnight outside a retail store with fanboy dorks, and was happy to make an online reservation. This turned out to be worthless, as it did not promise delivery of a device, but merely guaranteed a flood of reminder e-mails lest I forget my intention to buy the gadget on release day. So around 11:30 a.m. on Friday I started calling AT&T locations to check on stock. The Potomac Mills store had a few units left, but they were going fast. I sped over, only to find that they were fresh out. They called a nearby location and told me there was one in stock. With sketchy directions and my trusty, mapless Garmin, I circled around for a while and eventually located the store. There were several people in line, and I waited anxiously, straining to overhear transactions at the front. But eventually I did score that last iPhone, making my extended lunch hour worthwhile.

Here, then, are the pros and cons after two months of use.

  • Visual voicemail [screenshot]. Listen to any message immediately, delete and undelete messages without listening to them or that DTMF woman.
  • Physical silent mode switch.
  • Maps with GPS navigation. The interface is a little bit weak compared to a dedicated device (no voice prompting; turn-by-turn steps and rerouting require interaction), but integration is a big win. Click on an address in your contact list and go. Copy and paste an address from a web page. Satellite images, street view [screenshot]. Compass-based map orientation fails in the car, but is great when navigating on foot. Assisted GPS uses cell tower triangulation for an instant fix and improved coverage.
  • iTunes not required. I didn't sync to a computer for weeks, and haven't again since. Loading my music library and backing up my data are the only benefits I got from syncing.
  • Smart, responsive, intuitive interface.
  • Nice touches: ambient light sensor brightens the display outdoors. "Oleophobic" fingerprint-resistant screen. Standard headphone jack.
  • Automatic location lookup for unrecognized incoming calls is a great idea, but it only appears in the call history, not at ring time.
  • The silent mode switch allows no fine tuning, the way my Nokia profiles ("airport," "meeting," "night") did. You have to navigate the settings and request ring/vibration separately for calls, messages, and reminders.
  • Undroppable.
  • Battery not user replaceable.
    That's about it. This is the first cell phone I've had that didn't annoy me in many ways. I get most upset at unnecessary behaviors, like a useless "unlocked" message after you turn off keyguard that just slows you down. This phone was obviously tested extensively under all kinds of conditions. For example, if you put the same phone number in for two contacts, when one of them calls the Caller ID shows "A or B."
neither here nor there
  • The shakes. The accelerometer enables goofy games and an app that lets you use your phone as a level. Shaking the device sends an "undo typing" command. Whatever.
  • Form factor. I can't deal with corded headsets, far less with Bluetooth cyborg accessories, and pressing a pocketsize computer against my face doesn't feel right. But I can't imagine a better way to package the gorgeous display, which is fully half the size of VGA. The proximity sensor helpfully turns off the screen so your earlobe doesn't conference Grandma in.
  • Virtual keyboard. This almost made the "pro" list, but I recognize that it is a compromise. Unlike some, I find the on-screen keyboard completely usable, and can enter text faster that I do with a 12-key keypad or a full Blackberry keyboard. The secret is to blunder forward and allow the software to interpret your typos, which it does with impressive accuracy. Occasionally an unwanted correction appears on-screen that you have to cancel, but the custom dictionary transparently learns your personal keywords and doesn't repeat an unwanted suggestion.
  • The GPS receiver seems to drain the battery quickly -- at least the device gets noticably warm when it is on. I generally leave "Location Services" off.
  • Landscape mode. This is a great feature, almost necessary for the web browser, and it is perfectly intuitive that it would switch on and off depending on how you turn the device. But it sometimes switches to landscape when I don't want it to (e.g., in bed), and I would prefer manual control or the option to disable it.
The inimitable Edward Tufte offers his opinions on the user interface in a video, and a fair summary:
The iPhone platform elegantly solves the design problem of small screens by greatly intensifying the information resolution of each displayed page. Small screens, as on traditional cell phones, show very little information per screen, which in turn leads to deep hierarchies of stacked-up thin information--too often leaving users with "Where am I?" puzzles. Better to have users looking over material adjacent in space rather than stacked in time.

iBook update

Posted on August 03, 2009 by Steve

Much like our European sedan, the "sleek Euro-styled" iBook we picked up in 2005 has proven a disappointment. The sleek looks were marred early on by a crack in the top corner of the screen housing (a common complaint, and likely the cause of the display backlight turning off sometimes). The charger, with the orange/green indicator I praised in 2007, also fell prey to a common problem -- fraying wires at the plug end (we missed the class action settlement). This is probably why the current design uses magnetically-attached charging plugs; we had to buy a replacement (aftermarket, but indistinguishable from the original). The new one arrived cracked and fell apart in days, and its warranty replacement now fits loose, sometimes sending us to battery power unawares.

The original battery put in a respectable career, but had to be replaced in March 2008. Despite paying the full $116 to Apple for a replacement, the new battery soon showed signs of early retirement.

More significantly, inopportune crashes became a regular feature. These were hard shutdowns with no warning, and we sometimes could not power back on without removing the battery first. At first I suspected a faulty solder on the main board (for which Apple was scolded in Denmark), but then I noticed overheating. The fan would not come on even when the CPU temperature rose to menacing levels. Someone cobbled together an interface to reduce the temperature threshold before fans kick in, and this seemed to help a bit, but it's still hard to convince the thing to turn on. With the unreliable battery, a flaky power supply, and fear of unprovoked shutdown lurking, the iBook has become mostly a coffee table ornament.