Yet Another iPhone Review

May 25th, 2010

I've had an iPhone for about two months now. Here are some notes on using it.

I bought an Otterbox Defender from Amazon UK about a week before the phone itself showed up. It's sturdy and well-made, to the point where people tend to make thoughtful "Hmmm." noises when they inspect it, usually indicating a desire to own such a case. I've been asked if it's a military issue iPhone, if it's a tank, etc. I gave it to my 18-month-old niece to play with, and afterwards wiped the jam smudges off with a damp cloth. I've dropped it and banged it off things without any harm. About the only negative is the fact that its hard shell extends a little too close to the dock connector, so not only can you not dock it (due to the case thickness), but I've also tried two different dock extenders so far and neither of them fit the hole - nor does the offical Apple A/V cable. Caveat emptor!
The single most annoying thing about the keyboard, specifically in SMS mode, is that the SEND key is where I expect BACKSPACE to be, and I've sent at least one half-written message on account of this; I'm gradually getting used to this, though. That aside, I find the keyboard surprisingly easy to use in either portrait or landscape mode, and the autocorrect is a good deal better than the dictionary learning on my old phone, which would typically forget words it didn't know which I used frequently, but remember one-off typos.
The appstore is, as I'd read previously, something of an overfilled cesspool, but there's plenty good stuff in there if you know what you're looking for. Some apps are disappointing in how little they make use of the phone's features - it's more a land grab, to say they've got an iPhone app, than an actual iPhone app. That aside, it would be nice to have a way of showing my app usage (akin to the Windows control panel that shows you when you last used a given software package), and a way to guide me towards rating all apps that I've installed and not rated.
The chat display is kinda neat. The default range of tones is appalling, though, such that if you've got two iPhones in the house you'll be hard-pushed to find a tone other than the default that you can use for one of them.
Use as a phone
This was initially a bit weird, given that it's about twice the width of my old phone. Someone in the office, on hearing me talk about using it as an actual phone, asked, "Is there an App for that?"... I've had some issues with the Contacts app (or that bit of it which shows up in the phone) around default gestures, resulting in at least three accidental phonecalls. I've also had MobileMe sync do some destructive editing for me, but that's possibly due to my incautious disregard of the Sync Confirm dialogue box.
This is very slick. It's got good tracking, and even better is that it degrades to using the cell ID as a locator if it can't get a GPS lock.
Two games that will eat your life: Words with Friends and Bejeweled 2 (especially in Blitz mode). Bizarrely, Bejeweled 2 is not as good in some respects as Palm version; the latter has a bunch more gameplay modes and some unlockable features if you play long enough. On the other hand, it doesn't have Blitz mode. Just one more game!
Facebook and social media in general.
The Facebook app is good. The app-to-site sync should be much better, though; if I visit the site from my browser and acknowledge the notifications there, I shouldn't see the same notifications on the app - and it's inconsistent about displaying the notification bar at the bottom of the screen, too. Twitter really needs a stronger server-side persistence model to support desktop and mobile use, which means you again wind up seeing things twice unless you use one of the apps that uses a third-party server or whatever to keep things in sync for you; on the whole, I've kinda lost interest in posting to twitter, and as a read-only medium I tend to trawl it in the evening from my laptop rather than from the iPhone. The Flickr app would be really good if it didn't feel the need to default to slideshow mode. And the foursquare app is straightforward and does most of what it should (although I was disappointed that I needed a desktop to add a picture to my profile). The Waze app is also fairly straightforward, although I've found it to be a bit crashy when the network connection isn't 100%, and their website is an absolute terror to work with.
The default "sent from my iPhone" signature is annoying. Really now. One of the other things I don't like about the Email app - that your accounts are kept separate - is being fixed in the OS 4 revision coming out later this year. That aside, I dislike that there are no data detectors, and no progress window or status bar to show you what the hell the phone is doing while the little dial spins around frantically before telling you you've got no mail.
I'm having no luck with this - it can't seem to interact with my MacBook, for example. And by interact I mean doing the brutally simple "send file via Bluetooth" that every other Bluetooth-capable device seems to manage without any problems. The fact that I would even need to try and figure this out is an indication that it's poor, because frankly it should Just Work. But perhaps Bluetooth isn't part of Steve's Plan.
I've been using my own RSS toy for several years, the principal features of which are that it never misses an update (within some reason), it keeps the updates until I've read them (even if they're gone from the original site), and it tracks revisions to articles as if they were separate articles (something I've been meaning to make a little smarter). As such, there isn't actually an RSS toy for the phone that would work for me, so I've made some minor changes to my own so that it runs a little better under the reduced screen real-estate on the iPhone. It's already targetted at Safari, so that wasn't a problem. One RSS-alike that I do make extensive use of is Instapaper; I wrote about Instapaper on the desktop back in March, and I've since purchased the app to put it on the iPhone, and frankly it's sheer genius. Of particular note is that clicking a link in the iPhone version gives you a choice of opening it in Safari, or tagging it onto your Instapaper reading list.
Ignore the iPhone notepad, and use Simplenote. This is, as the name suggests, a simple note-taking app with a companion website and support from several desktop tools. Write a note on the app, sync it to the site (this happens automatically on the premium version, I think), visit the same app on the site or with your choice of desktop client, and there's your note. If you've got automatic sync working, this is truly awesome in action; you can work up a document whenever and wherever the mood takes you, without needing to worry if you've got the latest version or not.
Random UI notes
Any app that doesn't have orientation detection, and corresponding portrait/landscape flipping, should have a very good reason for this. Even ones that are locked to one orientation or another should at least cope appropriately with the phone being upsidedown - I'm looking at you, Youtube! The corollary to this, however, is that orientation lock should be a feature of the phone, not the individual app; using the phone while lying on your side becomes highly irritating otherwise.

It'd also be nice to be able to lock a page of apps in place; load it up with kids' games and give the phone to the young 'un without fear that they'll accidentally dial Alpha Centauri.

That's it for the moment. I'm sure I might have a few more comments after another few weeks or months of playing with the thing, but I'm never very good about updating these pages once I've written them...

update: how could I forget to mention the app I've been raving about since I got it to anyone standing close enough? Jamie Oliver's 20-Minute Meals is an absolute gem for those of us who'd rather cook at home. You've got a list of recipes, each with a clear list of required ingredients and utensils; the recipe steps come as index cards which you can flip over to see a picture (although this feature isn't necessarily as useful as it could be), and which lend themselves very well to being flicked from one to the next while you're cooking; there are video clips on basic cooking techniques like chopping things and preparing your working area; and there's a shopping list which you can populate from the recipes and tick things off from as you pick them up. It could do with the ability to add custom recipes, and to know that a lemon belongs in the fruit & veg section even if you added it manually rather than via a recipe, but in general this is one excellent app.