iPhone review

specs_measurements20070627.pngI wrote this for work, but I thought I’d repost it here, stripping out some of the work specific stuff.

Last Friday July 6th at about 1 I picked up my iPhone. I wanted to give it a serious couple of days of use before I posted about it.

We all heard and read about the activation problems in the first 24 hours or so. I’m happy to report that those issues were non-existent when I went to activate. Almost everything you do with the phone starts with iTunes, and activation is no different. I fired up iTunes, plugged the phone into the USB port and just started answering the questions. The activation went very smooth and I was mostly using my phone within 15 minutes of getting back from the Apple store. The snag I had though was in transferring my number from my old carrier. It took them 24 hours to give up the number to AT&T. During that time I could make calls and do network functions like e-mail and web surfing, but I couldn’t receive calls. Once that was done, it went like a shot.

Synchronization is also done via iTunes. On my OS X based MacBook Pro, this provides for a very tight integration with tools that Apple ships with OS X. The good side is much like an iPod sync, things just go when you cradle your device. The down side is that you’re tied to using iTunes. If you’re on OS X or Windows this isn’t really an issue. For those on other platforms, this could be a limiting issue. I haven’t tried syncing the phone with Windows so I can’t comment on what you can and cannot do via iTunes on the Windows and how well it integrates other than knowing what tools Apple says is supported on the stats page.

The rest of this will really focus on the parts of the phone I really interact with. If I don’t mention an app or don’t really talk about it, I haven’t used it much yet.

Calendar

For the past year or so, I’ve been very tied to iCal, the calendar application that ships with OS X. I have a number of calendars for my own use (home, work, family) as well as being able to see my staff’s calendars. Via iTunes I select the calendars I want to have on my phone to very easily get them on the phone.

One thing that isn’t preserved in the sync is that separate calendar names and the ability to turn on or off those calendars in your view. On the other side, calendar events you create on the iPhone can only go to a single calendar you choose in iTunes. This is an annoyance as I use Spanning Sync (a topic for another post) to synchronize my various calendars to Google Calendar where I have them shared with people under different access levels.

To get around this limitation I created a new calendar named “From iPhone.” After I sync, I then visit all the entries in this calendar and sort them into the calendars they belong in. This adds a depressing manual step to the process, but seems to fit my needs. Other people may not have this issue if they have fewer calendars or don’t share them like I do.

E-mail

The E-mail client can use any existing IMAP, POP, or Exchange (via IMAP) accounts. It also has some helpers and settings for popular services like AOL, GMail, and Yahoo. One benefit to using Yahoo is that Yahoo does some “Push e-mail” where you get it on your phone the second the back-end gets it. Without being on Yahoo you are still with polling, so you don’t get up to the minute mail. The shortest amount of time supported by the configuration for polling is 15 minutes, but you can force a manual update sooner than that.

In my reading, it appears that the Yahoo setting just uses IMAP’s IDLE command, which isn’t really that pushy, instead of something like the draft spec of Push IMAP. Since IDLE is part of the IMAP spec, I’d like to see them support other IMAP services besides Yahoo with that. What I read could have been wrong, so maybe it is P-IMAP and hopefully it’ll be supported on services other than Yahoo soon as well.

My needs were both for “Other” servers, my person and work mail servers. Both mail servers use dovecot as the IMAP server and the combination works perfectly. I wasn’t surprised by this as Mail.app works fine with both. For the record dovecot does support the IDLE command, but doesn’t yet support Push IMAP. However, the iPhone doesn’t seem to take advantage of the IDLE support.

The configuration was as straightforward as any other mail client for IMAP. Its even easier if you already use Mail.app, it’ll copy the mail settings from there to configure the mail client. Since I only had my work account configured there, I had to manually configure my personal mail. In any case, thanks to the one account being automatically transferred by iTunes I was reading mail within 5 minutes of activation.

After using my Sidekick 3 which only got copies of my mail, I can’t tell you how nice it is to have really IMAP support. Little things like mail being read or deleted on the device being reflected in my other mail clients has made a tremendous difference for me. Users of Blackberries with the back-end integration piece have had this for years as well as some of the users of Windows Mobile based phones with Exchange, but this is the first time I’ve had this on a mobile device. This has been my best mobile e-mail experience to date.

One thing I know that I questioned before I had the phone was how usable a touchscreen virtual keyboard would be over a physical one. While I’m not as fast as I was with the old SK3 keyboard, I’ve slowly increasing speed. The spelling/typing assist from the iPhone helps with the speed as I’ve learned to work with it better. Also, its good to note that I can do two thumb typing, but your mileage may vary with the size of your thumb. However, I’m still not as accurate as I was with a physical keyboard and am still fat fingering/thumbing more than I’d like when I’m typing fast. I think my accuracy will improve as my thumbs just learn the new relative positions.

Editing itself isn’t bad, but its all geared towards top posting, which I often feel is bad netiquette. In-line responding is a bit painful as you can’t select large blocks of text to delete them. There’s no selecting at all. So either you just jam on the delete key for a bit (and it does speed up to deleting whole words after awhile) or you just left a bunch of irrelevant text in your reply. There’s also no undo, so if you delete for too long, you might be retyping. It also puts your signature above the mail you’re replying to, so that also doesn’t lend itself to in-line responding.

I have run into a few other downsides:

  • I can’t see how to add a BCC: to mail, I only get a choice of To:, CC: or Subject:. This isn’t a killer, but it is annoying as I tend to use BCC from time to time.
  • No matter how many accounts you have, there is only one signature. Since I have both personal and work mail on here, I have to either craft up a signature that is generic and would work with both, or just punt on one being more important.
  • There is no way to have the mail client check every folder for new messages. While I recognize this would take more bandwidth and probably isn’t useful for most people, I have a ton of server-side filtering (via procmail) and I have to visit every folder that’s not INBOX to see if there is new mail there.

In general, I find it to be snappy enough even over EDGE, that its a good mobile e-mail experience even with my complaints.

Web Browsing

I know this is the section where I’m going to sound like a bit like an Apple apologist, but I think the web browsing is as good as can be expected under EDGE. From other reviews people have been very down on the Safari mobile experience, but I’m not sure what they were expecting in terms of speed. While G3 would have been nice, with EDGE you can’t expect WiFi speed, and I think that’s what people were expecting. The SK3 also used the EDGE network so I maybe had my expectations more in alignment.

It is a full functioning web browser in the palm of my hands. Its handled pretty much every web page I tossed at it, even those that were chock full of Ajaxy scripty goodness. (The SK3 had a slimmed down browser and just did enough javascript to tick you off when nothing worked right and the javascript interpreter took all possible memory.) I was particular impressed with how it handled meebo.com, thinking that would be a site that would be a bit too much for it.

iPod

Yep, its an iPod. It syncs my songs from iTunes and I can do everything I can on my old 3rd Gen iPod. Since my listening pattern for the past six months has mostly been podcasts, the 8GB isn’t as limiting as I thought it would be coming off my 20GB iPod. The interface is a bit different and I find it harder to do things like jump to an arbitrary place within an audio file, but its mostly the same iPod experiance that one is used to.

Apple has said not all iPod accessories would work with the iPhone. As my wife and I have both had iPod for a while, I tried the random collection we had at home. Its been hit or miss.

o The Altec Lansing portable iPod speakers i have worked awesomely.

o The interface in our Honda Odyssey, could control the iPhone, but the sound was coming out of the iPhones speakers and not the mini-vans.

o The charger I have in our other car charges the phone fine, but cuts off any sound, including the headphone jack, which makes the FM transmitter that I have in there kinda useless.

o Also not helping the FM transmitter is the interference a GSM based phone puts off, however, to the phone’s credit, if you hook up an accessory that is for an iPod the iPhone will warn you that it might not work and that you might want to turn off the GSM functionality.

o It also doesn’t help that the FM transmitter’s headphone jack housing is slightly bigger than the iPhone’s headset area, a comment complaint.

The Phone

I have to admit up front I’m not a very heavy cell phone user, at least with voice communication.

I’ve mostly used the phone through the headphones/headset it comes with. The headphones that come with the iPhone have a microphone and a one button remote. The sound is nice and clear and no one has complained about how I’ve sounded to them.

One of the neat features is that if you’re listing to something via the iPod functionality, when a call comes in it’ll pause the iPod side and then you hear the ringing. You then can hit the one button remote to answer the phone, and when you hit it again to hang up, the song resumes. You can also choose to answer via the screen, but the one button remote is pretty handy when you’ve already got the headset on.

Bluetooth in the iPhone only supports bluetooth headsets, no syncing or anything like that. It worked perfectly with the Siemens hands free kit I have in one of my cars. I could answer, see who called on the display of the kit, and hang up. My hands free kit also tries to copy the address book so you can quick dial via it. For some reason the iPhone only sends it one address and it seems to be a random one based on how many contacts I have. That was a bit disappointing, but its still more than my old phone did.

Photos

The photo funtionality is the same as you’ve seen on recent generation iPods. On the Mac, iTunes will sync your photos either with iPhoto or a directory you specify. You can use the photos for wallpaper or to feed the pictures in the Address Book.

This is also where you view photos you take with the built in camera. Its a cell phone camera, it produces nice images, but its still a cell phone camera. No flash, things like that. Its a 2 megapixel camera, so it’ll probably work for photos for the MLS listings given enough light.

Other apps

The YouTube functionality has been covered in a bunch of other places, so I won’t really touch on that.

Google Maps is amazingly responsive on both EDGE and WiFI. I can see this being really useful for on the fly directions and maybe as a way to show graphical properties you will visit with a client.

Battery life

As an experiment I let the battery go for as long as it could before it started to complain about low charge. I made it about 26 hours on a single charge with very light voice usages and moderate WiFi, EDGE, and iPod usage. Its definately something you want to charge every night. I was used to that pattern with my old phone, but other people may have to adjust.

Overall

Overall, I’m generally please with the phone. Its nice eye-candy with great functionality to back it up.

The UI really responds like they show in the commercial. Although, I think I’ve managed to multitask more than they’ve counted on and I can get it to hang up from time to time. I did that to my old phone too, so I’m not sure if its just me or what.

I’ve also managed to crash most of the apps at least once. Safari seems to crash more often than the rest for me. However, I expect to see some stability fixes in the next release. The biggest thing is that none of them were really data loss issues. However, I can see the browser crashing at a bad time angering me at some point.