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Smartphone Round Robin: Initial Impressions on the iPhone

Readers of WMExperts and of our iPhone site, Phone different know that the iPhone isn't exactly a mystery to yours truly. I am sub/co-host to the Phone different podcast and have chimed in over at Phone different with the occasional review from time to time. I've also put up several smackdown-y articles comparing the iPhone to Windows Mobile in various ways here at WMExperts:

Yet I've never made the iPhone my only device, dependent on it for all things from entertainment to productivity. I'm three days into doing just that for the Smartphone Round Robin and it's going, well, pretty darn well. Read on for my initial thoughts, feelings, gripes, jabs, and raves on the iPhone.

Hardware

The iPhone is quite possibly the most impressive piece of mobile hardware I've even laid my hands on. Apple's decision to exclude a physical keyboard and a removable battery -- while not something I am particularly happy about -- means that they were able to make the iPhone a single, solid piece. It's “singular” in a way that no other smartphone is. With other devices, you can pretty much identify “parts” and “pieces” that make up the phone, but the iPhone is an “object” in a way that's difficult to describe.

The effect isn't too difficult to describe, though, it makes the iPhone a very appealing device. I personally find it a touch taller than I'd like, but I'm also very impressed by how thin it is - I don't know that I've ever owned a touchscreen device this thin.

In addition to making the iPhone “singular” and thin, Apple has also added oft-discussed hardware innovations to the device. The proximity sensor, which turns off the screen when it's held up to your face, works flawlessly. The accelerometer, which tells the iPhone when it's time to rotate the screen, is a little buggier for me, but I have no complaints about it. It doesn't seem to work properly when the iPhone is “flat” and I occasionally find myself twisting the iPhone quickly to get the accelerometer to “take.”

Last, but not least, the screen is gorgeous. The pixel density of the 320x480 screen is superb and I love that it's scratch-resistant glass. The multi-touch touchscreen sensor is also very responsive and although I don't find the two-finger stuff blows me away, it is pretty fun to use. The only downside is that there are a few operations that pretty much require two hands (specifically tight-zooming in the browser and photos).

The Soft-Keyboard

I'm doing alright with the soft-keyboard on the iPhone. Apple's spell-check, “trust the magic” word guessing scheme is actually pretty good. However, when I really get moving on the keyboard it often fails me, sometimes spectacularly. The real hassle with the soft keyboard is that you'll always need to look at the keys a bit more than you do with a physical keyboard. I don't think I (or anybody) will ever develop muscle memory with the iPhone like we do with physical buttons. I could be wrong, but I doubt it.

Muscle memory aside, what happens when I'm looking at the keys is that I'll miss mistakes that were made earlier in the sentence, paragraph, email. The iPhone's magnifying-glass text positioning feature is alright (kudos for finding a non-stylus solution), but it's difficult to use sometimes (especially when the text is at the top of the screen). Finally, I get tired of holding down the delete button to erase entire stretches of gibberish that I missed because I was staring at the soft-keyboard instead of at what I was typing out.

In short, this writer prefers physical keyboards and seriously doubts any length of time with the iPhone will change his mind. Soft keyboard, however, are good enough 90% of the time, especially on the iPhone.

Staying on the subject of soft-keyboards: The iPhone's soft-keyboard is slightly better than most of the solutions I've used on the HTC Touch, despite what I've mentioned earlier in my HTC Touch vs. iPhone video. I still think that Windows Mobile-based soft keyboards can be better than this iPhone keyboard, but the issue right now is hardware. The iPhone has a larger screen and a more responsive touchscreen, so it's able to drive a soft-keyboard more easily.

Windows Mobile-wise, I do actually think solutions like SPB's Full screen keyboard or TouchPal are ultimately better than the iPhone's soft keyboard, but the hardware and some little implementation bugs are still present. As more touchscreen-only Windows Mobile devices are released, I think that WM soft keyboards will surpass the iPhone's. In fact, I suspect that the soft-keyboard on the Sprint Touch (see our hands-on) is likely better, but I haven't used it for more than an hour or so, so I can't say that with authority yet.

Setup & Sync

No complaints here, but I'm also syncing the iPhone to a Mac, so if I did have complaints they'd be pretty serious. The only real hassle I've experienced that that most of my life has been on an Exchange Active Sync Server hosted by 1and1.com. I've been very happy with their service but still haven't managed to get Apple's Address Book to talk to it properly.

Settings and general setup on the iPhone is equally simple. I do find it slightly unsettling that every setting is found under settings and not within the app itself - it makes me feel like there are tweakability options I'm missing out on somehow. But the feeling that I'm missing out on tweaking a device is something I've learned to get used to with the iPhone (at least until I jailbroke it, more on that below).

I do wish I could use custom ringtones for all alerts and not just the phone ringing. I'm particular about alert sounds (especially SMS). It drives me six kinds of crazy that I can't find a suitable SMS tone.

I'll also say here, in the setup section, that I highly recommend jailbreaking your iPhone to install 3rd party apps. It makes it a real smartphone and installer.app is sweet. By far the best solution for installing and managing 3rd party apps I've ever used, mobile or desktop.

Browser

Mobile Safari is the best browser on a mobile device I've ever used. Full Stop.

The thing that impresses me most about Safari is the thing that seems to get the least attention: their “tap-to-zoom” feature is really smart. When you tap on an area on a webpage, Safari takes a guess at the table cell or “div” and expands that to fill the screen. 9 times out of 10, it's exactly right. There have been a few problem pages where I can't get Safari to show me what I want, but it's a tiny fraction of the hassles I experience on a daily basis with literally every other mobile browser out there. Ditto clicking some links - getting Safari to zoom in enough or in the right spot for me to tap the link I want is sometimes a hassle - but still less of a hassle than 5-waying through an entire page.

If the next version of Windows Mobile doesn't have a browser that's at least half as good as this, you will find me camped outside their HQ in Redmond, eating beans from a can and holding up a “FIX Pocket IE NOW” sign.

Media

The iPod functionality on the iPhone is just grand. Version 1.1.1 fixed my hassles with the iPod (podcasts were appearing in coverflow and getting to the “stop” stuff took way too many taps). Videos are stellar - crisp and painless. iTunes WiFi is fun, though in a perfect I would be able to filter it so I was only seeing the non-DRM'ed files.

Microsoft - steal these interfaces and add them to Windows Mobile. But hang on to physical buttons for Play/Pause/Next/etc, I like those better than the touchscreen for music. Using the iPhone in the car is dangerous all the way around, it's even dangerous for music. I keep having to look down, flip the iPhone so the buttons are where I expect, etc.

Business & Productivity

We come to it: the turning point of this mini review, where my praise turns to condemnation and the joys of the iPhone are outweighed by its mystifying omissions.

Email

I've already explained, at length, why email on the iPhone is inferior to email on Windows Mobile, but it bears repeating: email on the iPhone is bad. Deleting, moving, saving, it's all a hassle. It's missing basic functionality like BCC. If I receive an email with a photo that's attached I can't do a single thing with it except forward it on.

That last bit points to even more missing basic functionality, but it's not entirely the fault of the mail client. Although the iPhone will allows you to view attachments (including office attachments), there is no way for the user to get access to anything like a file system (without hacks). So the iPhone has no concept of “saving files.” A glass-half-full mentality would view this as a refreshingly new take on mobile computing that breaks the desktop paradigm on smartphones. A rational mentality would view this as bollocks - my Treo 180g could handle this fine.

The response here is that I'm being unfair because the iPhone is too new, I should wait until February when the SDK is out and Apple's filled out the Operating System a bit more. Fair enough. Until then, the iPhone can't cut it as my only mobile email device.

I will say that the iPhone does a great job of displaying individual emails, be they html or plain text.

PIM

The iPhone does a decent job with calendaring and contacts (even though I miss autofilter searching on the contacts app). What is doesn't do it ToDo (one assumes that's coming soon) or syncing notes. I downloaded a 3rd party app for ToDo, but without syncing it's not very useful to me. Ditto other things I depend on my smartphones for, like encrypted password databases - there are now apps if you've hacked your iPhone, but they're not full featured enough yet.

Documents

I'll admit I'm not a heavy office mobile user, but when I need it I need it. Viewing is nice; Editing, Creating, and Saving are better.

Is it a Smartphone?

Mike at Phone different and I have a long-running argument about whether or not the iPhone “qualifies” as a smartphone. I have suggested that, until the recent hacks have turned it into a viable platform for 3rd party apps, it was not. Mike has suggested that I'm committing a logical fallacy with this. I have suggested a prime location to stick his claim that I was committing a logical fallacy. It has actually been fun.

The difficulty, here, is twofold. One is defining what a smartphone is in the first place, the other is trying to do the first with the iPhone in mind. The inevitable result is bars get lowered by one side and raised by the other. Add in the fact that so-called “featurephones” are getting “features” that were traditionally in the domain on smartphones and you have yourself a royal mess on your hands. Wikipedia's entry is no use either, studiously avoiding defining anything. I'm actually tempted to put a bounty out for “a decent, stable, and testable definition of smartphone” so we can really and truly pin the sucker down and then use that definition to separate the wheat from the chaff.

So let's just go on gut for now.

Speaking strictly about unhacked iPhones: I'll just say that the iPhone feels like it's not quite a smartphone, that it's still just a super-charged featurephone that happens to have a gigantic screen and a (soft)QWERTY keyboard. It's some combination of a lack of a user-accessible file system, a lack of 3rd party apps, a lack of tweakability. The iPhone seems like it comes from a world of iPods rather than a world of work.

Now - add in the fact that the iPhone is now “hackable,” that an SDK is coming and people will be able to develop 3rd party apps for it and a lot of those hassles disappear. The OS the iPhone runs on is fully UNIX (or fully OS X, though I'm not enough of a software engineer to be able to say just what makes OS X ...OS X), so I sincerely doubt that there will be a smartphone feature or need that won't be fulfilled by some app.

Is the iPhone a smartphone? Before it was hacked and 3rd party apps became available, my answer was “not sure, maybe, not really, could be, but not quite.” Now it's “I guess so, but I'm much more comfortable saying that if it's hacked.” In 6 months the answer will be “Obviously.”

Conclusion

I'll keep using the iPhone for the rest of the week and there's a strong chance it has found a permanent place in my gear bag (for movies) unless someone wants to trade for a 16gb iPod Touch. As my “main brain,” though, I'm not optimistic I can recommend it to a large swath of my readership. Which is to say: it's superb for people who don't need a smartphone for productivity, it's probably not going to cut it for those who do.

I could still be wrong, I could potentially make the iPhone do what I need it to do and I will keep trying for another 4 days. Keep an eye out for how I did on Friday. Windows Mobile users - Mike at Phone different has the Tilt, be sure to go help him out. Comment there or here for more entries in the Round Robin Contest!

WC Staff
WC Staff
26 Comments
  • Here we go - this is an official round robin thread
  • Great article. I've played around with the iPhone on various occassions and it's always been impressive but ultimately not for me. It really is a super-featurephone IMO, not yet a smartphone but more than most advanced "regular" cell phones. Perhaps MultimediaPhone is the term I would use to describe the iPhone.
  • If WM (or even Palm) made a phone with a screen that big and a browser that good - certainly in the realm of possibility - the difference between smartphone and iPodphone would be a lot clearer in my opinion. Smartphone folks want to be able to customize and tweak and work it to make it how THEY want it, now necessarily how somebody ELSE (Steve?) wants them to have it.
    With the iPhone's success there will surely be more and more form factor copies. If someone can build a 3"+ screen, use a real keyboard, and somehow manage to keep it decent sized it will be a fantastic device.
    I think one of the big questions about smartphones is whether or not they can go to work realistically. Maybe there needs to be two categories of smartphones - consumer smartphones and professional smartphones. IT departments don't have problems with WM or even Palm. It's hard to imagine them integrating the iPhone or handing out fleets of iPhones for real work.
    I know people either love or hate the slider on the Tungsten T3, but what if the resurrected that design as a phone but with a keyboard on the lower part? Picture a Treo where it's an integrated one-piece phone but the lower section could slide down to reveal a 320x480 screen. It wouldn't be that tall if the screen came out to the edge. All the screen glory of the iPhone plus a real keyboard plus all the functionality of a WM or even Palm phone. It's a thought....
  • I love the concept behind the iPhone and, if I wasn't spoiled on a Treo keyboard and WM with applications and customizations (and Sprint SERO) I'd probably be all over it but with what I mention I just don't see the iPhone as a Smartphone contender. I do feel that an SDK will drastically improve things, though.
    It's a real shame you can't access the file system...
  • If WM (or even Palm) made a phone with a screen that big and a browser that good - certainly in the realm of possibility - the difference between smartphone and iPodphone would be a lot clearer in my opinion. Smartphone folks want to be able to customize and tweak and work it to make it how THEY want it, now necessarily how somebody ELSE (Steve?) wants them to have it.
    With the iPhone's success there will surely be more and more form factor copies. If someone can build a 3"+ screen, use a real keyboard, and somehow manage to keep it decent sized it will be a fantastic device.
    I think one of the big questions about smartphones is whether or not they can go to work realistically. Maybe there needs to be two categories of smartphones - consumer smartphones and professional smartphones. IT departments don't have problems with WM or even Palm. It's hard to imagine them integrating the iPhone or handing out fleets of iPhones for real work.
    I know people either love or hate the slider on the Tungsten T3, but what if the resurrected that design as a phone but with a keyboard on the lower part? Picture a Treo where it's an integrated one-piece phone but the lower section could slide down to reveal a 320x480 screen. It wouldn't be that tall if the screen came out to the edge. All the screen glory of the iPhone plus a real keyboard plus all the functionality of a WM or even Palm phone. It's a thought....
    so would you say that the new LG iphone-look-alike might interest a person as yourself?
  • If Sprint could have the iphone (or AT&T with Sprint internet rates), and the iphone could have any 3rd party aps, I would have it in a minute. The only thing that consistently bothers me about the iphone are the fingerprints all over the screen. That would drive me nuts. I was using a friend of mines Saturday, and the pictures and internet were wonderful.
  • I use both the iPhone and an 8525. I love my iPhone and I love Windows Mobile ... but there's a serious issue coming down the pipe soon. The SDK from Apple could be the end all of my 8525.
    Email "actions" like save, delete etc SUCK on the iPhone. But with that said - the iPhone displays almost every email with no problems. I can't tell you how many blank page emails I get on my 8525. If there's even a few really good third party apps that come out to fill the voids in the iPhone software (like eWallet, FlexMail, PI etc) then I don't see WM staying in my bag. Sure 3G is nice to have, but its still very spotty where I live and I can't go back to using PIE. That and Windows Mobile just feels slow after using the iPhone. I've got next to nothing on my WM6 8525 and the thing just crawls....
  • I see no productivity in the iPhone, I see the iPhone as a glorified iPod, as for this SDK that everyone is waiting on, it'll def open the phone up to LARGER companies but for now, the phone already has plenty of 3rd party apps, providing you have jailbroke your device..it'll be a joy to see what the larger companies come up with..maybe they can sway me from my BB (doubt it) but hey ya never know...overall I'm just hoping Apple realizes the mistakes they made with Gen1 and really ramp it up for Gen2...prior to all the iPhone leaks and such, I was excited for it...then more information came forward, which killed my want for it...even since it lacks stuff that phones half it's price excel at.
  • Touch iPod + phone = Good iPod
    PocketPC + phone = Good PocketPC
    The iPhone doesn't do productivity well enough for business users, and Pocket PCs don't do iPod type tasks well enough for casual users. Neither of them are great phones.
    Apple is too niche to ever have a solid footing in the business user market. Microsoft on the other hand, can leverage 3rd parties and steal Apples innovations. They have the upper hand if they decide to seize the opportunity.
    Apple needs to untether the iPhone from iTunes...
  • open the iphone up. let the legion of apple fan boys start creating apps. Then let's see how quickly many of the short comings above are addressed.
  • Touch iPod + phone = Good iPod
    PocketPC + phone = Good PocketPC
    The iPhone doesn't do productivity well enough for business users, and Pocket PCs don't do iPod type tasks well enough for casual users. Neither of them are great phones.
    Apple is too niche to ever have a solid footing in the business user market. Microsoft on the other hand, can leverage 3rd parties and steal Apples innovations. They have the upper hand if they decide to seize the opportunity.
    Apple needs to untether the iPhone from iTunes...
    HERE HERE!! Spot on statement!
  • Apple is too niche to ever have a solid footing in the business user market. Microsoft on the other hand, can leverage 3rd parties and steal Apples innovations. They have the upper hand if they decide to seize the opportunity.
    part of me think that the Zune and Zune2 are nothing more than them test-marketing for features they want to include in Windows Mobile 7. I think you're spot on.Apple needs to untether the iPhone from iTunes...
    Hm.. I'm not sure what more they can do... It will work fine with Amazon's store and any other MP3 site out there. I sincerely doubt that they'll ever enable Windows Media on it, much less Zune files (whatever they are) - though it's possible that some 3rd party app might do it next year.
  • Apple needs to untether the iPhone from iTunes...
    Why? This is an advantage, not a problem for Apple. Apple owns the personal music player market. Lots and lots of people know how to use iTunes and do use it for their music. Why would Apple make it more difficult to play music on the iPhone for some other third party software?
  • SDK in February, and DocstoGo is rumored to already be working on an iPhone version.
    By then, a 3G iPhone may be on its way out the door.
    Windows Mobile 7 better step on the gas pedal a little harder!
  • The iPhone doesn't do productivity well enough for business users, and Pocket PCs don't do iPod type tasks well enough for casual users. Neither of them are great phones.
    I couldnt agree more...Apple is too niche to ever have a solid footing in the business user market. Microsoft on the other hand, can leverage 3rd parties and steal Apples innovations. They have the upper hand if they decide to seize the opportunity.
    MS still has never been able to do this on with desktop OSs, why do you have faith that they can now?Apple needs to untether the iPhone from iTunes...
    Maybe, but only if business users are the market Apples going for. I don't think that is the market they're shooting for, when has Apple ever seriously pursued the business market with anything? Just because this phone has a great browser, usable email functions and a keyboard people assume that it, like most smartphones, must be aimed at the business market. I don't think thats true and I think there is an ever growing market of people who want a smartphone just to manage theyre personal lives. The new treo centro is an obvious example of this, as is the BB pearl.
    The fact is that consumer phones are just getting smarter and more feature rich. the term "smartphone" may have to go away as more and more consumer level phones do everything a current "smartphone" does.
  • I have never had such a "wow" device in my hands. All others who are affected by it in awe. I am speechless. It is really good. Words fail me, and it is so simple yet so incredible.
  • With the iPhone's success there will surely be more and more form factor copies. If someone can build a 3"+ screen, use a real keyboard, and somehow manage to keep it decent sized it will be a fantastic device.
  • The iPhone's success there will surely be more and more form factor copies. If someone can build a 3"+ screen, use a real keyboard, and somehow manage to keep it decent sized it will be a fantastic device.
  • It wouldn't be that tall if the screen came out to the edge. All the screen glory of the iPhone plus a real keyboard plus all the functionality of a WM or even Palm phone.Its a great phone i must say.
  • good one thanks for this post
  • I think it will be really initial mmpressions on the iPhone.
  • My friend has an iphone and i always like to mess around with it at school, it is kind of awkward to hold but the keyboard does work very well for touch. Still prefer BB curve keyboard If I can now bring an iphone to verizon then i would do so as long as I'm fed up with the 8830 NOT having it's autonomous GPS enabled. Anyway, I heard from a friend with an iphone that it does not scratch.
  • Very nice,they were able to make the iPhone a single, solid piece.
  • Good Article!!!! Lots and lots of people know how to use iTunes and do use it for their music....
  • Apple needs to untether the i Phone from i Tunes...
  • This phone has a great browser, usable email functions and a keyboard people assume that it..its good....