So last week, as I was shaking off the last vestiges of whatever ridiculous illness I was suffering from, I did something I’d been meaning to do for a while now: I bought a 16 GB Apple iPhone.
Love it or hate it, I find that the iPhone is another example of Apple’s exemplary user interface design. Since UI design is often part of my own profession, I appreciate the benefit that a well-made UI can bring to the user experience. Compared to the other phones I’ve used, the iPhone’s user interface is a real treat.
I’ve never owned a “smart phone” before, or anything close to it. Every cell phone I’ve had until now has been just that: a cell phone, and very little else. Sure, I send a text message once in a while. But I’ve never paid for a data plan, never done any mobile browsing or email on my phone. It just seemed…unnecessary, somehow. Like, why would I need all that stuff in my phone?
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that simply having that capability would create useful scenarios in which I could take advantage of it. Like today, I was in the auto parts store looking for an air filter. What’s the AC Delco part number for the filter I need? Well, the ubiquitous reference book doesn’t cover Delco parts — so let me just grab the iPhone and do a query online. In a few moments, I had the part number I needed. (The store didn’t actually have the part, but that’s a failure of reality, not technology.)
This is like the next logical evolution of the Internet’s usefulness in everyday life. Back in the ’90s, the rise of search engines — culminating with Google and Wikipedia — meant that if you had a question, you could probably find the answer if you were near a computer. For instance, I look back at some of the classic Oddball Updates from my high school years, and see glaring factual errors or places where I made assumptions about things, and it drives me crazy. “Why didn’t you look that shit up if you weren’t sure about it?” I scream to myself. And then I realize, because there was no way to look things up! I mean, short of going to the library and dicking about in the card catalog, there was no instant-on way to get access. Even if there had been Google in 1995, you still would have had to wait for your dialup modem to connect to Compuserve or some crap so you could get your answer — chances are, you just wouldn’t have bothered.
Now, we have Internet access on our mobile phones. Sure, folks have had this for years, particularly the Blackberry crowd. But the iPhone is the first time I’ve had Internet access on my phone, and even though it’s not even 3G (ultra-fast) access, it’s still awesome. Now, no matter where we are (well, in the United States at least), chances are we’ll be able to pull out our phones and answer any question with a simple Google query. Say, that guy in that movie we just saw…wasn’t he also in that other movie? Well, let me get out my phone and I’ll look it up at IMDB. Say, what’s the phone number to that pizza place by the mall? Let me look it up at Google. OK, we ordered — now where is the pizza place so we can go get the food? Let me look that up too! Oh, and even though the iPhone doesn’t have GPS, it can give me directions from my approximate current location by doing cell tower triangulation. It works surprisingly well.
Of course, the iPhone is also basically an iPod, meaning it plays music, movies and soforth. I’ve loaded a number of albums onto it, as well as the entire Knight Rider episode “Knight of the Juggernaut,” just because I can.
The beautiful UI doesn’t stop with the phone part of the device; the iPod application has its own eye candy in the form of “Cover Flow” view. This shows you a stack of album covers representing your music library, and lets you flick through your albums with your finger until you find the one you want. You can flip it around and look at the track listing on the back, etc.
My music collection is poorly tagged and arranged mainly by folder structure, but I’ve actually gone through and started tagging and embedding album artwork in all of my MP3s, just so they look great on the iPhone. That’s how awesome Cover Flow is.
Even though it’s far easier to just drag-and-drop folders onto my Cowon iAudio X5 player, the iPhone (and iPod Touch) make playing music look so damn good, going through the hassle of using iTunes to sync my library to the device is well worth it.
In fact, even though there are far more robust mobile phones out there, like the Nokia N95 for example, I find the iPhone is perfect for me because it focuses on exactly what I like to do most: Play music, browse the web, and send an occasional email. You’ll find much more full-featured email clients on other phones, but I challenge you to find one that looks and works as smoothly as the mail app on the iPhone. You’ll find much speedier web browsing on a 3G-enabled phone like the LG Voyager from Verizon, but I find it doesn’t work anywhere near as smoothly and seamlessly as Mobile Safari on the iPhone. In fact, even though the iPhone uses AT&T’s slower EDGE network, web browsing seemed a lot more responsive on the iPhone than on the LG Voyager I tested.
Other stuff is just cool to have, like a 5-day weather forecast at the single touch of a button, full-screen picture ID on your incoming calls, Google Maps with driving directions, and the really spiffy Visual Voicemail (you’ll never go through a voicemail phone tree again). And with the iPhone SDK being released soon, the iPhone will finally be open to third-party applications, so we’ll get even more functionality.
Rumor has it that a new iPhone, supporting AT&T’s faster 3G networks, might be released as soon as the second quarter of 2008, rectifying one of the largest complaints about the device. I have to tell you, though, I don’t think the slower EDGE network is that bad at all. The other night we went down to the Asian grocery store, and while Apple shopped, I reclined the car seat and surfed the web on my phone. It was absolutely, 100% perfectly usable. Not as fast as my cable Internet at home, for sure, but certainly not as bad as dial-up. AT&T hasn’t lit up a 3G network in our area yet either, so we’d be waiting on them, too.
As far as the phone service itself, I’ve actually been pretty impressed with AT&T. I’d have to say that Verizon still has them beat in terms of reception and call quality, but I’ve still gotten a very strong signal everywhere I’ve been, which is more than I was expecting. Calls seem loud and clear (very loud, actually) and I’ve only dropped once. The service seems to have gotten better since I initially activated it, if that’s possible, and I was able to port my phone number from Verizon in about an hour with no difficulty. I’ll have the ability to do further signal tests in a couple of weeks when we visit Orlando, and it’s possible we’ll also be in Kansas for a few days here pretty soon (I’ll be going there on business).
In fact, my iPhone switch went so well, there was only one “WTF?” moment in the whole affair. Apple and I went to buy the phone last Thursday night, found a store that had the 16 GB model in stock, and handed over $600 in cash. The store would not accept my money. Turns out, Apple’s policy (that’s the phone manufacturer, not my wife) is not to accept cash on the iPhone. This supposedly cuts down on “unauthorized resellers.” I must be an idiot, because I honestly don’t see how.
So here’s how I gamed the system: I paid cash for an Apple Store gift card, then came back the next morning and bought the phone with it. I was going to just use the gift card right then and there, but the guy at the Apple store said he couldn’t allow that. “I can sell you the gift card, but I can’t then accept that card for an iPhone in the same transaction,” he said. “But if you come back tomorrow it won’t be any problem.” I had him check with his manager, but it was a no-go. Freakin’ weird. So I came back the next day. A bit of a waste of time and gasoline, but in the end, worth it.
(For the record, I’ve heard that the cash limitation may not apply if you buy the iPhone from an AT&T store!)
If I’m to be absolutely honest, there was one other “WTF?” moment, but I was able to get around this one, too. Unbelievably, the iPhone does not officially support custom ringtones — in other words, you can’t put your own music or sound effects on the phone to use as a ringer. Unless, that is, you either use GarageBand on a Macintosh computer to make a custom song, or you buy a ringtone from the iTunes Store. Yeah — like I’m gonna be able to buy a System Shock sound effect from the iTunes store!
Fortunately, there’s a workaround. Save your ringtone as an AAC-encoded .M4A file, then change the extension to .M4R. Drag the .M4R file into iTunes, and voila — it will appear in iTunes’ ringtone list. Sync it to your iPhone, and you’re in business. I’ve got all of my custom ringtones back, thanks to this procedure. (The risk is that Apple could decide to intentionally break this workaround in a future version of iTunes, so you have to stay vigilant.)
The iPhone might be thought of as a mere “toy” amongst users of power phones like Blackberries and uber-devices like the Nokia N95 — and compared to their phones, it may well be — but there’s an audience for whom the iPhone is perfect, and I’m clearly a member.
Meanwhile, I gave my Motorola Razr2 V9m to my wife — she loves it!