Early impressions of the Apple iPhone
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When I was walking away from the Palo Alto Apple store Friday evening, my friend said, "Well, I hope you like it." I thought about that for a moment, then said, "I just hope I can finally stop hating my cell phone." A guy walking just ahead of us turned, laughed, and said, "Me, too!"
I hadn't actually intended to get an iPhone so soon. I was immediately impressed by the phone when I watched the video of Jobs introducing it—I found it simply delightful, that it appeared to work the way a device like this, well, should work—but I was very skeptical of AT&T. They were my existing carrier and, based on what I know about carriers, I expected them to screw their customers. I actually figured that they might screw their customers so badly on a phone that was obviously going to be a big hit that it would disqualify the phone for me.
The last few days before the launch I was surprised to read that the rate plans were reasonable (in fact, more reasonable with an unlimited data plan and a couple hundred prepaid SMS per month than my current plan for the Treo 680 with a limited data plan and no prepaid SMS). The morning of the launch I was again surprised when I read that they wouldn't be penalizing me for the switch, except for extending my contract to two years again, which is fine. So all the barriers I had anticipated were eliminated.
And then it dawned on me: I had been in Mountain View for the week, I was staying one more night because I had an afternoon training to attend, I had nothing planned for the evening, and the Palo Alto Apple store was only a few minutes away. So I figured, what the hell! I shared my plan with a guy I work with and he offered to drive me up. We decided to also have dinner and he would give me a tour of his alma mater, Stanford.
We got to the Apple Store about 7:00 PM. It felt pretty festive. There was still a fairly big crowd standing in front of the store, protected from the traffic by a line of police, as well as a longish line that snaked around the corner. Most of the crowd was just milling around watching the entrance and clapping whenever anyone walked out of the store with an iPhone. That has got to be one of the weirdest things I've ever seen, people clapping because someone bought an electronic device. Really crass. I wonder if it was staged.
Anyway, I'm not about to wait around in line for more than a few moments to buy something, so we headed off to have dinner. When we returned later, things had calmed down. The crowd was smaller and the weird clapping was finished. The line was short and moving fast, so I decided to go in. They had it really well organized inside with lots of employees who each had a handheld checkout system, and it only took a couple minutes to buy the phone.
I opened it in the car and was immediately struck that it is smaller than I thought it would be (yes!), hefty, and solid feeling. The glass surface is incredibly nice to touch and glide across. And the phone feels good in the hand because it is so rounded and smooth.
Then we took a tour around Stanford University, which I found astonishing. Such a huge campus! It's amazing that right in the middle of the bustle of Silicon Valley there is such a stately and spacious place as that.
When I returned to my hotel later that evening I activated the phone, which was easy and took only a couple minutes. Unfortunately, according to engadget.com it seems that it was that smooth for only about 1/2 of the users responding to a survey, and an astonishing 38% reported being unable to activate their phone within 24 hours. It seems that AT&T has dropped the ball badly on this. I was unable to access my online account for a couple days after I activated, which is a hint that things were pretty messed up behind the scenes over there.
Anyway I was lucky enough to have a smooth activation, so I was able to to start playing with the phone right away (and consequently didn't get much sleep that night).
- Screen - Gorgeous! Far sharper than any other I've seen, with beautifully rich colors. My eyes relax when I look at this screen. I hope monitors start getting this good. Keep this in mind: it looks better than the image you're viewing on your monitor right now (unless you're viewing this on an iPhone). It does pick up smudges, but except for the worst smudges, they aren't noticeable when you're actually viewing the screen. They are noticeable when you have the device turned off, but a quick wipe on your jeans takes care of most of them.
- Usability - Incredibly easy. You don't need even a moment's instruction to be off and running with this thing. Contrast this with my old Treo 680, for which I needed to read a small book to really begin using it fully. The only challenge is that some apps use different finger motions and taps than others, which can be confusing.
- Experience - Fun. You can't help but smile, and even chuckle, when you slide the unlock button, flick your finger to scroll through a list, turn the iPod view to horizontal and then fling through the album cover art, expand or pinch your fingers to resize a photo or zoom in and out of articles and photos on a web page, twirl the time cylinder of the alarm clock, or flick a finger to indicate you want to delete an email.
- Form factor - Elegant and small. It's about the same height and width as my old Treo 680, but it appears to be about 1/2 as thick. Feels good in my hand, and this is the first phone I've had that truly feels comfortable in my shirt pocket.
- Music/video - Music sounds great. Movies look and sound great. I was really skeptical about watching films on a screen this small, but it works. In fact, the image is so clear and vivid I find myself wanting to watch video on this device. Delightful surprise. Even the built-in speakers sound okay. I just wish there was a deeper selection at the iTunes store (hint, hint, studios!).
- Strength - Solid and tough. I watched a PC World stress test video that showed them purposely trying to scratch the screen by vigorously rubbing keys on it, as well as dropping it multiple times from head level onto a concrete sidewalk, to simulate dropping it while on a call. The chrome got scratched from bouncing around on the concrete, but otherwise it continued working perfectly. I was astonished to see that the glass screen didn't break. Each time the guy conducting the tests would pick it up, he'd start using it, and then, with a surprised look on his face, would say, "Still works."
- Phone - Oh yeah, calls. It's easy to make calls, they sound good, and the volume is fine, though it might be tough to hear in a noisy environment. Yeah, yeah, yeah, you can't make a call using a single hotkey press, but who cares, it's easy enough. Weigh in how easy it is to conference call and use visual voicemail, and this device absolutely shines as a cell phone.
- Web - Well, waddya know, someone finally made the web work on mobile device. Once again it's a delightful experience. Many websites will want to reconfigure their design to be a bit more mobile device friendly. News site-style narrower columns are essential and forms need to flow down rather than down and across. The interesting thing is that I think the iPhone may well cause a general shift in website design, and cause a more mobile-friendly web. Since websites don't recognize Safari on the iPhone as a mobile browser, they may want to make switching to a mobile view easier. The Edge network is slow, but widespread. It's easy to get on wifi. I did have some problem with Safari crashing, but then I restarted iPhone and that went away.
- Virtual keyboard - Typing on it is easier than I thought it would be after having read so much skeptical press about it. Yes, there is an initial learning curve because of the lack of physical feedback. But the visual feedback is great and the error correction is robust. Perhaps most important is that it only takes a light touch, which I find much more pleasant than the firm presses I had to make on the Treo 680. Of course, another advantage is how easy it is to type in poor light.
- Email - The one clear negative for the iPhone. The email app is clunky and limited. I tried it for two days, but now have stopped using it. I'll just use the mobile browser version of Gmail via the Google mobile homepage (http://www.google.com/m). If you do lots of email on the go, especially for business, and you don't use Gmail, this may derail the iPhone for you, at least until they release an improved version of the Email app.
- Bluetooth headset - Apple didn't get their Bluetooth headset ready in time, so I connected, easily, my Plantronics 510. The 510 is a bit clunky, but works better for me than the sleeker 655, which unfortunately sits in a drawer. The 510 works fine with the iPhone.
- Camera - Okay. Digital cameras didn't start impressing me until they got above three megapixels, and this is only two. Certainly a big improvement over the crappy camera in the Treo 680, but that's one area that can be improved in the next model.
- Memory - 8 MB is not enough. I synced 900 songs, 2 movies, 3 shorts, 1 podcast, 1 audio book, and a handful of photos to the phone, and I'm just about out of space. Another area that I expect to be greatly improved in the next model.
- Battery life - No complaints so far. I had a spare battery for my Treo 680, but the truth is I didn't use it very often. The iPhone has a lot longer battery life than the Treo, so I think it's going to be fine for me. It'll need to be improved, of course, but it's starting from a reasonably good place. It charges quickly, a few hours. Given the way I use a phone I'll probably be charging every other day. I've heard that Apple expects battery life to start decreasing after 300 - 400 charges, so that should give me a couple years before I run into that issue. I'm guessing that by then there will be a new model out with faster internet access, even better battery life, and more memory.
- Syncing with iTunes - Easy to do, but I wish selecting the content to sync was more flexible. I have more music than will fit on the phone. It would be nice to be able to select an amount, say 2 GB, and have iTunes randomly select music to fill up that space, and then refresh the selection each time you sync. As it is, I've had to make special playlists for chunks of my music, and then select some of the playlists for syncing, which is clunky.
- My only regret? That I bought the Treo 680 about a month before Jobs announced the iPhone. The Treo never delighted me, but I thought it was an adequate phone … until I saw the iPhone, which made the Treo instantly look like a dinosaur. Oh well, it makes me appreciate the iPhone that much more.
By the way, I use (and have used for many years) a PC at work and home, although for my home office I've been carefully buying peripherals lately that can make the switch, and I'll probably do so once the next generation of iMacs comes out, and after Leopard is released this fall.
The folks at engadget just posted an in-depth review: http://www.engadget.com/2007/07/03/iphone-review/
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Further reflections on the iPhone
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I didn't expect to like the iPhone this much. As I said in my Early impressions post I had hoped I could finally stop hating my cell phone; in fact, I've ended up really liking it.
The first law in John Maeda's excellent The Laws of Simplicity is: "The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction." As I've been using the iPhone, my first Apple computer, for the past few weeks I've been pondering exactly why it is such a delightful device to use. There are a lot of contributing factors, but one of the main ones is that Apple has mastered thoughtful reduction.
As a long time PC user I'm used to having many different ways to do each thing. My experience from the little bit I've used a Mac in the past and now from my more extensive use of the iPhone has made me realize that one thoughtful reduction Apple has made is to simplify the number of ways to do each thing, sometimes to just one.
At first I was a bit skeptical of this approach, but I've been won over because of the huge gain this provides: the elimination of the at times overwhelming complexity that plagues Windows. (I remember reading an article by Joel Spolsky in which he bemoaned the 15 different and often confusingly unclear choices for turning off Vista on a laptop, and contrasted that with the iPod, which doesn't even have an on/off switch.)
Eliminating choices wouldn't be an advantage if the remaining choice was poorly designed. For the most part, the flow on the iPhone is brilliantly executed. Aside from some minor annoyances (I find the Edit and Favorites functions to be inconsistently implemented in the various apps), it's charmingly straightforward; it just does what it does. Imagine: this is a powerful device—cell phone, SMS, email, web browser, music player, movie player, camera, photo album, and more, and I'm actually using all of these things—but I haven't had to read a single word of instruction.
At lunch the other day an engineer I know said he'd heard I had a new toy and wondered what I thought. It sure was easy to come up with a substantial list of positives.
- Simple - It's so simple to use that I use it.
- Delightful - Not only that, it's a delight to use. This is the first time I've actually enjoyed using a mobile device, at least a personal mobile device. (Mark Kremer, a friend of mine who is a UI designer, created a wonderful interface for capturing a patient care record in the field on a touch-screen mobile computer in a product called RescueNet TabletPCR. Like the iPhone, you touch it to use it. And also like the iPhone, it's colorful, elegant, and a delight to use.)
- Stunning - The screen is stunning. My eyes aren't what they used to be so I couldn't imagine being able to enjoy reading the web or watching movies on a small mobile device. I'm thoroughly enjoying both. The screen is crisp and well lit, and the colors are richly saturated.
- Aesthetic - What can I say? I love elegant eye candy. The iPhone UI is is as sweet as it gets. (And it works. Have your cake and eat it, too!) Apple is an impressive company. Just think, they're managing to be leaders in five areas: 1) hardware performance, 2) hardware size, 3) hardware design, 4) software performance, and 5) UI design. Most other tech companies would die to achieve a lead position in any one of those areas. Oh, and you gotta admit, they're really good at marketing, too.
- Empowering - For the most part, browsing the web is an excellent experience. (The exception: websites that are designed with overly wide, fixed-width columns of small text, requiring horizontal scrolling when viewed at a zoom level that makes the text readable, but these sites are even challenging on a full-sized monitor because of their excessive line length.) It's interesting how empowering it is to have constant access to internet.
Let me give you an example: for the most part I haven't been in a physical bookstore for a couple years (I'm hooked by the ease and power of online book browsing and searching at bookstores like Powells.com), but when I used to visit one it drove me nuts that they didn't provide access to an online version of their site so I could supplement browsing with searching for books. Now that I have an iPhone, that wouldn't be a limitation. And I have to say that, when wi-fi isn't available, the EDGE network has been adequate for me.
- GeoCool - The maps are utterly cool. I've actually totally lost myself in browsing the satellite view, visiting places I've been around the world or that I've heard of but haven't yet visited. And the driving directions are both fun to use and invaluable.
I love calling Google 411 (1-800-Goog-411, a free, automated, phone-based directory), asking for a business, requesting that the results be sent to me via SMS (by saying "Details"), tapping the location link to open it on the map, requesting the driving directions from where I'm at, and then following them to the destination. It's an almost magical experience.
- Gorgeous - I have to admit that I'm a sucker for viewing my photo album. When I'm traveling, the opportunity to see photos of Garima, our home, and our favorite places to hang out together in the mountains surrounding our home really helps me keep my heart connected. The photos look gorgeous on the iPhone, and I love the transition effect called "ripple" for the slide show (you can select it in Settings).
- Delicious - Both music and movies sound great. I've had a couple iPods before, but I never liked the standard Apple earphones and always replaced them. Although the specs for the iPhone earphones look identical, they sound better to me, definitely adequate. Either the earphones have been improved or the iPhone does a better job as an iPod, but the result is that listening to the iPhone with the standard earphones is a delicious experience.
That said I did get the noise-isolating V-MODA Vibe Duo Earphones/Headset to use when I'm flying, and they're wonderful. They provide a passive noise-isolating technology they call BLISS—just enough to knock the unpleasant edge off airplane noise—and they have a bit better dynamic range than the standard earphones, providing a noticeably richer listening experience. However, they have one shortcoming compared to the standard earphones: there's no switch built into the microphone.
- Expanding - Some have complained that the iPhone is locked down, but I'm impressed by how quickly the pool of third-party, Safari-based apps is expanding.
- Astonishing - The form factor is … wow! It looks really good, it feels good in the hand, and it's astonishing how thin it is. Finally.
- Transparent - Sometimes the biggest compliment I can pay something is that I don't notice it; in other words, it's transparent to use. My previous "smart" phone continuously irked me: it was too bulky in my pocket, it was uncomfortable to hold, it was a pain to use. The iPhone is quickly becoming transparent for me; I interact with the things I'm doing on the iPhone, and it doesn't get in the way. When I do still notice it, it's almost always to appreciate some facet of it. That's an awesome experience.
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The iPhone's camera
Is awful. We went for a hike and drive up in Rocky Mountain National Park today and I took a couple dozen photos under various lighting conditions and at different ranges. Four turned out okay, but definitely not great. The rest were terrible. I didn't buy the phone for the camera, thank goodness, but this is really an embarrassment for a phone this expensive. I continue to be very happy with the phone, but won't use it as a camera again, except in an emergency.
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