art with code

2008-09-24

A month and a half of iPhone 3G

I bought an iPhone 3G in early August, and have been using it pretty much daily. I'm trying to sum up my thoughts on it in this post, I guess you could call it a review.

Conclusion: An Apple product. That is, a basic device differentiated by nice animations and destroyed by an inherent mistrust in people.

Cost: 520e for a black 16GB model, 17e/month phone bill (2e for phone, 15e for flatrate 512kbps 3G.) Total cost over the 24 month lock-in period: 928e. If I change to a more open device, minimum cost for the iPhone is 568e after dropping the 3G.

First, I'm not exactly a typical phone user, I think I've fielded two or three calls during the whole time I've had the iPhone. So I couldn't really care less about the call quality or SMS or MMS. The phone side has worked ok for me, but I bought it as more of a tiny web tablet.

The exterior design of the iPhone is very Apple. A 60s-style rounded functionalist brick, with some shiny metal accents and even fine detail in the speaker grilles. The metal Apple logo makes a nice contrast in the black plastic back. It's a quality design, but it's a very safe design; very emotionally aerodynamic. Can't really hate it, can't really love it. I suppose it's as neutral as possible to bring out the contents of the large screen.

The user interface theme is a variation of the Aqua theme, a theme that was made for the colorful plastic G4 PowerMacs and the colorful iMacs. It feels slightly out of place in today's sterile kitchenware Macs with its bright colors and slightly playful demeanor. As usual, the Aqua theme is a bit lazy in its attention to detail, especially the bottom-screen grill feels unfinished.

The animations are nice, as you'd expect. I don't know if they're using them to hide latency or just as emotional appeals, but they work as both. Good job on that. They're also quite low-key, you don't find yourself annoyed by them.

My most used application by far is the Mobile Safari web browser. It's a very mixed bag, as with all the software on the iPhone. On one hand, they look polished, but on the other, they're lacking compared to desktop apps. Browsing pages is nice for the most part. Scrolling is easy, if a bit error-prone and laggy. Pinch zoom is something you only use if the double-tap zoom fails, which it sadly often does. Tables and navigation bars especially screw up the double-tap zoom. Clicking links without zooming in is a game of luck: link small, fingertip big. And as most links you want to click are in navigation bars, in which the double-tap zoom fails, you get a recipe for unhappiness.

When you scroll, the browser doesn't render the page below, but instead shows you a checkerboard pattern. I suppose it's to keep the UI responsive? The rendering might cause jitter in the frame rate? Then again, they do have threads, right?

The browser crashes roughly once every hour, which boots you back to the home screen, selectively nukes your cookies and what little the browser remembers of your HTTP basic auth credentials. Thankfully the browser does remember what tabs you had open when it crashed.

You can't save files (except images) from the browser. You can't upload files from the browser. This bears repeating: you CAN NOT save or upload files from the browser. That alone makes the device useless for reading PDFs.

Safari's unwillingness to cache downloaded data on the huge 16GB hard drive further exuberates the problem. Read two pages of a PDF, sleep the phone, and when you open it, Safari downloads the whole PDF again. Which is not nice when the PDF is 4.5 megs and you're currently in a GPRS zone of 3kB/s bandwidth.

There's no file manager, only Photos and iPod. Photos is an application that has a single folder called "Camera roll", which has all the photos you've taken and images you've saved. You can't organize or edit the pictures, only delete them. I'm hard pressed to find any use for it.

IPod is a complex application for playing your music files. I find it difficult to use. You can't play internet streams with it. You can only upload music files with iTunes.

The only way to listen to an internet stream is for the stream provider to offer a raw MP3 stream and open it in Safari. Radio Paradise does this, I don't know of any other stations who do. You can't use Safari when you're listening to an internet stream because the Quicktime plugin takes over the full screen and trying to get around it (home key, click a home screen bookmark) stops the playback. iPod can play music while you browse though.

I haven't used the App Store or the iTunes Store, so I can't offer an opinion on those. Haven't tried writing an app either since you can't write iPhone apps without a Mac.

The mail app's screen design prioritizes sender name over subject, which along with the lack of a threaded view makes reading mailing lists impossible. Hence the mail app is useless for me. However, the desktop version of GMail works well in the browser, I recommend it over both the mail app and the iPhone version of GMail.

The map is a nice toy, but I haven't found much use for it. The timer is useful. The calculator works for basic needs. The weather app is nice. The stocks app is of no use to me. The contacts app takes a very long time to open, which is an achievement for so little functionality. The YouTube icon is patronizing and the app is clunky. Haven't used the calendar or the notes app.

Most of my use has been WiFi, with a couple times on 3G or GPRS. GPRS and Edge are very slow, as expected. 3G speed is OK, speed test said 485kbps.

The battery lasts about 3-4h of surfing, which is somewhat to be expected with a screen that big. Battery life for streaming music over WiFi is 4-5h. Probably similar for 3G streaming.

The camera is crap.

If the iPhone acted more like a wireless portable hard drive with apps and a phone, it'd be a good device. Now it's a mediocre device.
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Built art installations, web sites, graphics libraries, web browsers, mobile apps, desktop apps, media player themes, many nutty prototypes, much bad code, much bad art.

Have freelanced for Verizon, Google, Mozilla, Warner Bros, Sony Pictures, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Valve Software, TDK Electronics.

Ex-Chrome Developer Relations.