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Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Friday, March 28, 2008

Two weeks with an iPhone

It’s been two weeks since I got my new phone, and I’m impressed. I’m still in that phase of delight which follows me getting something new from Apple, such as my first iPod or my Powerbook. The iPhone isn’t perfect, but I’m struggling to find ways in which it under-performs my old Treo 650, and there are lots of ways in which it improves on the Treo.

Read on for a fuller review.

iPhone as a replacement for a Treo 650 – my experience

As I wrote earlier, my Treo came to a sticky end and I had to get a new phone. The 650 was one of the PalmOS-powered models – you could think of it as a Palm Pilot married to a cellphone. It is a pretty open platform and there is a vast collection of software that runs on it.

Out of box experience

My iPhone turned up in a proper iPhone box – the only thing betrays its imported origin were the US power adaptor (with a kiwi to US converter thoughtfully supplied) and the AT&T SIM card. The SIM card came straight out – you need a pin or a straightened paper clip to do this – and my old one went in. And bingo, there I was on Voda with my old number.

First impressions

The iPhone is a sheet of glass with a metal back. That’s how it appears. The corners are rounded and the external switches are concealed. You wake the phone by touching either the “home” button on the face or the “sleep” button on the top.

To accomplish pretty much anything on the iPhone you touch the glass surface. There’s no stylus – you just use your fingertips. It feels nice, like stroking a cat. There is a “home” menu page (which can grow to many pages), and each function of the phone is effectively a program you run by touching its icon on the home page.

The virtual keyboard seems to work OK. The “keys” are bigger than than the ones on my old Treo, and the “just keep typing, I’ll guess what you meant” feature is eerily good. It doesn’t get everything right, but my unscientific feel is that I’m entering text as fast as I did on the Treo.

Call quality is fine. And the iPhone syncs my appointments and my contacts with my Mac just like my Treo did – rather more easily in fact.

How is it better than the Treo?

This is the big question. The list of things the iPhone doesn’t do is significant – for instance it’s not 3G and it won’t act as a modem via bluetooth. It doesn’t do some of the Star Trek stuff like video calling or watching live TV. But those things aren’t what I wanted it for. I use a separate 3G card for my laptop when I’m out and about so that takes care of my serious data needs.

And the iPhone does equal or exceed the Treo in some areas where the Treo was already good – it has a hardware silent switch, for instance, so you can touch it in your pocket to check whether it’s in silent mode, and it stacks up SMS messages in a chat-style interface so you have a history of your messages with each person.

The iPhone is a fully-fledged smart phone with all the usual smart phone features. That’s good, because I use all that stuff. With Apple’s release of the SDK for iPhone, it also has a vibrant developer community and lots of software appearing on a pretty much daily basis. There is an Installer app on mine which just gets and installs software when you ask it to.

That brings me to the other major improvement on my Treo – the iPhone does WiFi. This is really useful – it means that all the data-using functions of the phone, like email and web surfing, will use a WiFi network if they can find one. So, when I am at home the phone does email and web surfing at a fair clip. It slows down to GPRS speeds when I go out. All this is handled automatically.

One of the effects of this is that when I’m at home I don’t keep sneaking off to check my email. I can do it from the phone without worrying about data charges or the lousy cellphone coverage at my house.

Web surfing on the iPhone is a lot better than on the Treo. You get a proper browser (a version of Safari) with a form of tabbed browsing, the auto-rotate feature (you just turn the phone through 90 degrees and it rearranges its view from portrait to landscape), and the famous “pinch” manoeuvre that lets you expand the view of the web page you so you can actually read it. It’s clever and well-implemented.

The email client isn’t bad – certainly better than the clunky one on the Treo. It could be better, though, compared with mail.app or Thunderbird.

Oh, and did I mention that the iPhone is also an iPod? And it keeps all your photos in it? Also, the camera isn’t half bad (the Treo’s one was terrible). The pictures in this post were taken with it.

How is the iPhone worse than the Treo?

I’ve a lot of software on my Treo, or more correctly I had a lot of software on my Treo, which I haven’t managed to replicate on the iPhone yet. Some of this is just because I haven’t found the right thing or figured out how to install it. Pointers in the comments are welcome! Specifically:

  • an SSH client (I like to control things remotely)
  • a star map so I can identify what I’m seeing
  • a basic s/sheet / word processing app
  • a clicker like Salling Clicker so I can control Keynote on my laptop while walking round the room. I really, really want to get this working.
  • third party apps can’t sync to the iPhone yet. This means that I can’t get my notes from my Treo onto the iPhone. Hopefully this will change as the new release of the SDK comes out.

And the big one: the Treo was (sort of) supported by Vodafone. The iPhone isn’t. To run the iPhone here you need to buy one that has been hacked to run on Voda’s network. That’s working beautifully for me so far, but I still feel it’s a bit of risk. If I let iTunes update the software on the iPhone, it will probably stop working. So I’m not doing that.

The bottom line

Is the iPhone a worthy replacement for my Treo? Absolutely. Its features list is good, its usability is excellent, its coolness factor is sub-zero and price is, well, ouch at $1,100. But that’s no more than I paid for my Treo 650 three years ago.

posted by colin at 2:48 pm  

7 Comments

  1. Damn I am so envious. My iPod Touch is just a teaser.

    In regards to software, Apple have just released an SDK (Software Development Kit) to the development community to provide the tools for further software so I would expect to see a rapid growth in the software available over the next few months.

    How Apple will “certify and release” this will be interesting. Will they want to lock down the ability to use or will they provide a free and open policy? Let’s hope it is the latter.

    Comment by Peter — 30 March 2008 @ 9:27 am

  2. Welcome to the Walled Garden — where you have to do what the vendor wants you to do. If Apple doesn’t approve of a third-party app, then it’s bye-bye to that app.

    Given your expressions of support for Open Source and open standards in times past, I’m interested to see how long you’re willing to put up with an iPhone.

    Comment by Lawrence D'Oliveiro — 31 March 2008 @ 1:54 pm

  3. Or you could travel down this path

    http://www.macrumors.com/2008/03/30/iphone-pwnage-project-opens-up-possibilities/

    Have a look at the video. Scary stuff

    Comment by Peter — 31 March 2008 @ 2:28 pm

  4. Lawrence – my phone has been “jailbroken” by Ziphone. There’s a lot of software available through the installer menus, most of it nothing to do with Apple. With the release another SDK soon I expect even more software soon.

    You are right, it is the availability of third party software which makes a platform useful and successful. And that happens when the SDKs are public.

    Cheers… Colin

    Comment by colin — 31 March 2008 @ 7:17 pm

  5. Does anyone know if the iphone will bluetooth to the new series Holden commodore handsfree kit? These cars use bluetooth as a hands free alternative and i’m wondering if I bought an iphone if it will work.?

    Comment by Roy — 4 May 2008 @ 3:58 pm

  6. Hi Colin,

    Thoroughly enjoy your comments on RNZ, nice work.

    Am considering purchasing an iPhone. Where is the best place to get one? Parallel imports retailers?m The USA??

    Please help

    Matt the Mac man

    Comment by Matt Fitzsimmons — 6 May 2008 @ 4:47 pm

  7. Roy

    Sorry, I have no knowledge of the Holden kit. The iPhone is supposed to be able to drive a bluetooth headset, so if the car kit looked to the phone like a headset it should work. Best to test it before you buy the phone or the car!

    Matt

    I got my iPhone from toshcomputers.com in Tauranga. Since Voda have announced they will be selling it in NZ, and probably the rumoured 3G version, you might want to hold off until then if you can.

    Cheers

    Colin

    Comment by colin — 7 May 2008 @ 12:51 pm

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