Real World iPhone thoughts…

I’m a geek with an iPhone living out in the boonies and I thought it would interesting to post my thoughts of iPhone use as a contrast to the big reviews posted by people in NYC and San Fransisco.

When I heard that the iPhone 2.0 software would support Exchange email I was pretty excited because it meant the iPhone might make sense for me to use as a phone. I’m a long time Treo user and was reasonably happy with that device. I was able to get my email, post to twitter and use it as a modem when I needed to surf the web. Treo’s have their issues though as they run the much maligned Windows Mobile operating system. My Treo 750 came with WinMo5 but several months ago I was able to upgrade to WinMo6 so my experience should be equal to the average smart phone user. The core operating system is quite unstable and slow. Comically, the only things you could count on were the bugs in the OS. Things like putting a call on hold to answer another would seem to always drop both calls and crash the phone. Everyday at some point the ringer would stop ringing. You would get no noise for emails, phone calls, voicemail. Nothing. It would even stop vibrating. On the brighter side though email access was good and fast. I always got email on the device before my desktop and responding to messages was simple enough to do. It also allowed me to put in multiple accounts and switch between them easily. It wasn’t great but it was the best I had access to. I will admit that resetting your phone once or twice a day just isn’t a great solution.

Then one day the iPhone was announced and, for better or worse, the cell phone industry would never be the same. Here was a device that re-invented how we interact with our phones. For the first time ever you could actually surf the web on your phone and be able to see the web page as the developer intended. Most smartphones can’t handle the technologies being used on the web and most web pages were converted from what you see on your computer to a huge narrow column. For once, you could have a device that worked well as both a PDA and a phone without major compromises in either area. Finally, when someone sent me an attachment I could actually use and read it without having to squint and scroll for miles. Have you ever opened a PDF on a Windows Mobile phone? The PDF fills the screen and that’s about it. I couldn’t figure out a way to zoom in at all to make it legible. The screen is 3″ square and the page was zoomed out so that all you could see what a white border and gray blur where the text was.

So, all of that looks good on paper and during the famous Steve Jobs Keynote, but how about actually using it? Most of my time, both professionally and personally, is spend in New Hampshire. I visit a corporate office once a week in the Boston area but the other 6 days and 16 hours I’m in New Hampshire. I do IT work by day and it’s my job to make sure our Exchange server is running correctly. My boss was not about to buy me a phone that didn’t support it so for me the first iPhone was out of the question, but iPhone 2.0 sounded good and with an upfront cost of $200 it was a no brainer. We spent a lot more then that on our Treo’s and they were terrible. None of the other features beyond that really mattered to me. The GPS functionality is nice but not do or die and we don’t get 3G this far north. Sure, it’s nice to have while I’m on Boston but that is a very small percentage of my time. I was looking forward to the App Store though.

The day of the iPhone 2.0 release was 4 days before I left on a trip down to Nashville. I had to get the phone, and fast, if I was going to have it for my trip. I waited in line for 3 hours to be, essentially, the 31st person in line for a store with 30 phones. Not good. The local Apple store had a bunch but as I’m a corporate customer I was not able to be helped in an Apple store. After many phone calls and some cunning on the part of my AT&T rep I was able to secure a phone to be shipped out the Monday following the release for a Tuesday delivery, less then a day before I left on my trip. Phew! Comically, I was way over excited about getting the phone. I couldn’t sleep for days. I’m not sure exactly why. I enjoy gadgets but I’ve never been freaking out over them before. Truth be told, I had owned an iPod Touch and returned it a few months back so it wasn’t as if the device was totally new to me. Also, I knew that as soon as I got it the rush would evaporate and I would be back to normal, as I am. I mean, I don’t lead a different life now then I did before. It was very strange for me to be that excited. Apple has a way it seems…

The first thing I did when it arrived was to setup my email, of course. Step one was to sync up with the corporate exchange server. On a Windows Mobile device, this is a horrible experience. We have a custom security certificate that needs to be installed by hand on the device using a USB cable and the ‘Active Sync’ software on a PC. Windows Mobile phones have no ability to deal with that certificate on the fly, you have to get it to the device and then install it by hand. The iPhone though saw the certificate and then asked me if I wanted to accept it. I clicked Yes and was on my way. Simple as could be. You would think Microsoft products would interface to other Microsoft products that way.. but it took Apple to make it that simple. From there I setup access to my personal email server over IMAP and then MobileMe. Everything worked fine and I have access to all my calendars, contacts and email sync’d over the air. No fuss at all. Already, this is more then my Treo could do for me. I could access all of my email accounts on the Treo but I could only have one set of calendars and contacts. So far so good.

As I mentioned I was leaving for a trip shortly after I received the phone and the best way to test how well it will work is be in a place where the only option is the iPhone. Suffice it to say the only use my Macbook got on the trip was to backup my images and as a media center in the evenings. All of my surfing and email was done on the phone.

The lack of a real keyboard was somewhat worrisome for me. It seemed to be a huge crisis to people online. The noisy 1% on the interwebs made it sound like typing was impossible and I’d have to trade the iPhone back for my Treo. I’ll admit that the first 30 minutes were frustrating, my typing was all over the place, but since then it’s been fine. I type faster on the iPhone then I did on the Treo and I have less errors. I miss the multi-directional thumb control on the Treo for placing the cursor back to where my errors are but since I do it so much less often now, it’s not a big deal to touch the screen where the problem is and then retype as you do on the iPhone.

My only real gripe that I will place on Apple is switching between email accounts. On the Treo I could use the multi-control to switch from Inbox to Inbox with the press of one button. On the iPhone I have to back out from the Inbox to the folder list and then to the accounts list. From there you select the new account, then select it’s Inbox. Hardly my familiar one button switch. It should be something simple like tapping ‘Inbox’ at the top of the screen or something. Perhaps we’ll see that streamlined in an update.

I would mark battery life down as a win for Apple. It’s better then my Treo by about 4 hours under the same usage pattern. I have my data pushed down to me all day long and don’t make any attempts to minimize my phone usage. Actually, I surf and game whenever it’s convenient for me on the iPhone, activities that were too cumbersome on my Treo so perhaps I’m using the iPhone more then I did the Treo. For me the Treo would last from about 8am until about 8pm before it powered itself off, the iPhone lasts from 8am until around midnight when I plug it in as I goto bed. I’ve never had it die on me during the day before. I don’t carry chargers with me for the iPhone yet, though I have Treo chargers all over my house, office, and car.

That aside I’m very satisfied with the phone. As with all electronics it’s not without it’s faults and foibles but overall it’s an excellent package. It’s by far the best phone I’ve ever owned (though that isn’t saying much) and the applications that are offered for it are excellent as well. I had access to some application for my Treo but stability was so low on the device I was always wary of it. I have a great twitter client, NY Times, AIM, Weather, db400971999 and a VNC app to name just a few of the free programs I am using. It really is more of a mobile computer then a phone, though call quality and phone features remain very good as well.

The only pet peeve I have about the iPhone is how people are so up in arms about the cost of the phone plans that the iPhone is eligible for. I’m not going to suggest that the plans offered by AT&T are cheap or that I’m happy with the amount they are charging me but the iPhone is not being ‘unfairly charged’ for it’s plans. Truth be told some of the data plans offered for the iPhone are cheaper then you can get on other phones. I play $45/month for data alone on my iPhone, which is the exact same amount that I was pay for data on my Treo and if you are not a corporate customer you can get unlimited data for $30/month. The iPhone isn’t special, AT&T treats it just like any other smart phone. Apple does a lot of good things and I am a fan of them but people need to stop expecting that Apple can do the impossible. Apple is a company and is looking to make money. They happen to do that by releasing great quality products.. not by magic. AT&T charges for data, if you want and iPhone you need to pay that price.

Say what you will about the price of the iPhone, scream about how it’s more money now then it was last year ‘in the long term’ but keep in mind that the phone is cheaper upfront then a lot of smart phones and cost the same month to month as other smart phones. Apple has after all, released a smart phone and not a magic wonder device the likes of which the world has never seen. Sure, they have done it in a new and innovative way but the core of the phone is the same as a Treo or a blackberry and you should expect to be billed the same as other devices in the same category.

Overall, the phone works just fine. I don’t have a lot of trouble loading pages over the ‘slow’ GSM network and it certainly doesn’t hold up my email. I keep WIFI on all day and it stays connected to the wifi network at my office or my home which does help with that speed but even if I’m not using wifi, load times aren’t all that horrible. I mean, it’s still faster then dialup.

The ability search for and install applications from anywhere is very nice and a feature I use often. It was very hard to do a web search and find an app on the web using the Treo so having the ability to do that using centralized space Apple offers is excellent. With the exception of ‘Super Monkey Ball’ all the apps I am using are free and I can’t think of anything I’ve wanted to do that couldn’t be accomplished for free.

I don’t find my phone crashing very often, though you would guess from the reviews online the phone was crashing every two seconds. I have my phone loaded up with perhaps 20 applications and have only had it crash once, while playing ‘Super Monkey Ball’. I should mention though that I did run into a problem where my applications wouldn’t launch. Any application that I had download just dropped me back to the home screen. The problem actually turned out to be a DRM issue. I, as it turns out, have two separate iTunes accounts. One that is used on my laptop and one that is used on my desktop. I sync the iPhone to my desktop to get my iPhoto collection to the device but I did that after syncing apps from my laptop. While connected to my desktop I did some work sorting and purging unused apps and installing new ones. Since the desktop is using a different iTunes account the apps weren’t licensed for the account on the iPhone and I was ‘locked’ out of them. I’ll take this as my fault but I think Apple should have a method to authorize apps on the phone on the fly and not just at download. It would have saved me the trouble of deleting them all and re-adding them using the correct account.

You are either buying an iPhone or not, this review isn’t going to sway you but I thought some real world insight might add some value to the discussion. I hope I’ve dispelled some of the myths floating around but perhaps I’ve created some new ones as well…

As always, I’d be more then happy to answer any questions a potential buyer…. or Apple hater has.


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