So I’ve just helped a friend set up a new iPhone, and have played with it a bit. The experience has reinforced my decision to steer clear of the most shamelessly overhyped consumer product since Windows 95.
The simple fact is that for all its admirable features — and there are many — this feels like a beta product. That is, it strikes me as product still very early in development, with many flaws and needed upgrades. And that’s apart from the extreme control-freakishness of this device: Apple and AT&T have decided what you need, and that’s that.
As noted, there’s plenty to like about the thing, with the larger screen heading the list. The display icons are gorgeous to look at. The phone feels fine in the hand, though it’s quite heavy, and has a genuinely advanced user interface that (one hopes) will push other mobile device makers to dramatically improve their own products’ ease of use.
But not only is the iPhone lacking in some key features and only works with AT&T’s mobile system — see my previous posting — the features it does have leave plenty to be desired.
The setup ignored some of the instructions about which phone numbers to import into the phone. It sucked everything into the device despite an attempt to get only a small subset of contacts.
The wifi setup is flaky, at least on a home network that requires a logon and password. It insisted on using AT&T’s low-speed digital network even though the wifi was supposedly turned on. The setup screens offered no help on this. (Help, in general, is in short supply on the phone itself.)
The browser is nice enough in landscape mode, given the size of the screen. But it’s not all that much better than running the Nokia N95 browser in landscape mode.
One nice touch is the touchscreen’s ability to let you pull the browser window sideways, or up or down, using a finger. (Give the absence of other controls, of course, there was no alternative. I’d like to have the touchscreen on the Nokia.)
The on-screen keyboard isn’t bad if you’re “typing” in landscape mode in the Web browser, because the keypad is sufficiently large to help you avoid errors. But if you’re trying to create an SMS message in the phone’s portrait mode (it doesn’t adjust to the sideways view except in the browser, as far as I could discover), be prepared for major frustration; unless you have tiny thumbs you’ll keep hitting the wrong “keys” and then delete what you’ve typed.
Amazingly, there’s no instant messaging, not even Apple iChat. Not much doubt about what’s going on there: AT&T will make a bundle with SMS. (I tried Web-based SMS, but Apple’s refusal to let Flash run on the phone nixed the Yahoo IM, and despite multiple tries I couldn’t get my AOL IM to work, either.)
The sound quality of the phone was okay, but not great. I heard an echo on one call we made.
The mail feature is good. Still, as with everything but the browser, don’t bother to try to type on the thing in landscape mode.
None of the modes I used let me select, cut and paste text. That’s bizarre, to say the least.
The camera is adequate, and that’s the best you can say about it. There’s no video recording mode.
The onboard speaker was decent, but nothing special. The ring and alarm tones were excellent in variety and cleverness, but for now you’re stuck with those; no doubt Apple and AT&T will use their walled garden to wring dollars out of anyone who wants to offer alternatives.
But when I plugged my Bose headset into the device, it didn’t work. Apparently it needs an adapter — now that’s shabby.
Some of the device’s drawbacks can and no doubt will be solved with software improvements. Some can’t and won’t, at least not in the U.S. version, where AT&T is the only carrier and — unlike GSM phones most places on the planet — the phone is locked to a specific kind of SIM chip from that carrier only.
Even more amazing — and outrageous — is that the device is absolutely unusable in any capacity until it’s activated with the phone company. Want to use it just for WiFi-based Web browsing, plus video and audio and note-taking? Forget it. I can’t think of another phone, however locked to the carrier it may otherwise be for calling purpose, that is this locked-down. Plainly, this is Apple’s concession to AT&T, but it utterly stinks.
(One small favor from these control-freakish companies: If an iPhone customer has to send the device back for repairs — an all-too-common occurrence with early versions of Apple hardware — the SIM chip will work in a non-Apple GSM phone.)
Then there’s the non-removable battery, which is designed only for a few hundred charge cycles. That will steer people — no doubt this is idea — toward new phones in two years when the service contract runs out.
The New York Times’ Joe Nocera couldn’t get a straight answer from Apple on the battery issue, which is no surprise given Apple’s secretive and arrogant ways. All he did get, as he noted, was non-responsive spin from robotic PR minions.
So my bottom line is this: I would consider buying an iPhone when Apple starts selling it in Europe or Asia with 3G capabilities; when I can install a SIM chip from the GSM/3G carrier of my choice, not Apple’s; when the early software flaws get fixed; and numerous other improvements occur.
Meanwhile, I’d advise anyone considering one of these devices in the U.S. to wait for the next version. The initial product doesn’t come close to living up to the hype.
(Clarification: I originally said the SIM was locked away inside the phone. It turns out that it can be taken out and reseated if it comes loose, but the phone won’t work with another carrier’s SIM, which is the fundamental point.)