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Judge David Ryan's Blog

Judge David Ryan • Location: Natick, MA
• Member since: July 2004
• 92 full reviews
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Adventures in iPhoning
July 5th, 2007 9:01AM

First, a programming note: the HSX Report remains on indefinite hiatus until I can find the time to start it up again.

Now... Yes, I caved in to overwhelming peer pressure and got myself an iPhone. As a loyal AT&T/Cingular/AT&T again customer, I figured out that it would only cost me about $12/month more to have one (service-wise), for which I'd get a heck of a lot more features and usage than I did with my current phone. So it was off to the Apple Store in Chestnut Hill (the AT&T Store closer to me didn't have any left, and actually referred me to the Apple Store) to pick up the gizmo.

They only had the 4GB model left, which was fine by me -- I don't intend for the iPhone to replace my 40GB iPod, just to supplement it, and the iPod features are the only thing that memory size really impacts. The transaction took maybe 8 minutes to complete, including the obligatory attempt by the clerk (genius?) to convert me from Windows. And off we go, hand in hand, me and my iPhone.

The iPhone, from a hook-up perspective, works the same as an iPod: you get a USB 2.0 connector and a dock, plus a wall socket thingy, and you use iTunes to manage the device. (Again, this is all Windows stuff; I can't say how it connects with Macs, not owning one.) Unlike most phones, which are activated over the wireless network itself (usually involving inputting certain codes into the unactivated phone and such), the iPhone activates over the Internet through iTunes. Hence, you have to have an iTunes Store account to activate it, besides the obvious AT&T account that's necessary. If you're an iPod user like me, you already have one, so no biggie. ITunes asks you some questions, you pick your rate plan (in my case, keeping the same one I had), and press "submit". And presto, your phone is ready to go!

Um.... not so fast.

The first inkling that trouble was afoot: a message from iTunes saying "your activation requires more time to complete". Uh oh. About half an hour later, I get an email saying that AT&T has not accepted some information I provided (?) -- puzzling, since I AM ALREADY A CUSTOMER OF THEIRS. (And have been for nearly a decade.) There is a phone number to call. But first I try the AT&T customer service line. That person checks my account -- nothing amiss -- and starts to walk me through the REGULAR phone activation process. Which I can't complete, because the iPhone is utterly functionless until iTunes tells it it's activated. There's no keypad to enter hardware codes or nothin'. So after consulting with his supervisor or something, he tells me that I have to call the iPhone line. Which I do.

FORTY-FIVE MINUTES later, I come off of hold on the iPhone line and speak to someone. He checks the account -- nothing seems amiss. Then he goes to dig into the account to see what's holding up the activation. After ten minutes or so of research, he finds the problem: My rate plan was a legacy AT&T Wireless plan, whereas one must have a Cingular plan if one wants to move the plan to the iPhone. But of course they don't handle billing on that line. Back to AT&T customer service.

The plan issue was easy to fix -- after the $36 change fee, of course. (In fairness to AT&T, the Cingular plan gives you a bit more value for your money, due to the rollover minutes that the AT&T plan didn't have.) The AT&T woman stayed on the line to transfer me to another iPhone-related line, where I was supposed to accept the terms, yadda yadda, and get the phone activated. That guy told me that everything was fine, and I should get an email saying the activation was complete within 4-6 hours, and to leave the phone hooked up to the computer (and to iTunes) until then. (By the way, it's now 10:30 on Monday night.) Okay, fine. Meanwhile, my old phone is now inactive, since the account has been switched to the iPhone's SIM card number.

I'm a bit of an insomniac, and occasionally wake up in the middle of the night for no reason. Which happened at roughly 3AM on Tuesday morning. So I got up and checked the computer -- no email, no active iPhone. Uh oh. Got up at my usual time in the morning, and checked the computer again at 8:15 or so. No email, no active iPhone. So I call the number of the last guy to speak to me -- the accept and yadda guy -- and get a nice woman on the line. I explain the sitch, and she checks the account. Well, there's the problem -- the account doesn't have the phone's hardware ID number. So I give her all the code numbers from the phone, which are put into the account, and she says that it looks good, and I should get an email, etc. And if I don't, call the iPhone line (the 45-minute-wait line) and get them to finish the activation.

Off to work I go. No email, no active phone. I put iTunes on my work computer and hooked the phone up -- nothing. So around 10AM, I call the iPhone line. THIRTY MINUTES LATER, I get a lovely young woman on the line. Explain the sitch, etc. She looks at the account, and sees no reason why it shouldn't be activated. Puts me on hold for five minutes. Comes back and says she's fixed it, and I should immediately get the email. The email comes about a minute later, et voila, active iPhone. Huzzah! And it only took 14 hours! For an existing customer with a non-corporate account!

Functionally, the iPhone is four devices in one:
(1) A phone (duh);
(2) A small-capacity video iPod;
(3) A Blackberry-style remote email client;
and (4) A near-full-function web browser.

It is both WiFi and Bluetooth 2.0 capable, and should work with most (if not all) third-party Bluetooth headsets. Apple sells an iPhone Bluetooth headset that automatically pairs through a special dock (that is included with the headset); I didn't get that option. The iPhone package includes a set of headphones similar to the standard iPod headphones, but with a microphone and button integrated. It's a functional, if not optimal, handsfree option.

But how well does it work? Well, the phone is a phone -- competent, unexciting. The interface is the main advantage; it is much easier to navigate your contacts list (especially if it is large) compared to a normal phone, and dialing is a one-touch process. The Visual Voicemail feature is great -- organizing your voicemails as if they were emails is a bit of brilliance. Negatives: currently no support for MP3 ringtones, so you're stuck with what they give you.

The iPod functionality is basically the same as that of the current video iPods, although you can flip through your albums in Cover Flow (a la iTunes), which I don't think is supported on the iPod. Could be wrong. In any event, the sound repro is identical to the iPod's to my ears, and you do get the same iPod equalizer presets for fine tuning. The only consideration here is storage space. The iPhone slots into the iPod lineup basically alongside the iPod Nano (which also has 4GB and 8GB models), except unlike the Nano the iPhone has a full-sized color display and can handle video. Another difference is this: the iPhone needs memory overhead for all of its other features, whereas the iPod can dedicate the storage competely to music. For example, my iPhone is the 4GB model. About half a gig is dedicated to the operating software and applications right off the bat, leaving roughly 3.5GB available for storage. However, if you filled that space up with music or video, you'd have no room left for photos, the browser's cache function, and all the other things that use up memory space. So it's a balancing act. If you only have a small number of albums/songs, the iPhone could probably serve as your primary iPod. For people like me and my 11,000 songs, it's not going to replace the Pod. In practice, I have a playlist set up in iTunes that's a subset of my library, and have set the iPhone to synch to that playlist only. It's a relatively simple way to control what goes on the phone, and definitely is workable without too much hassle. Video playback is quite good on the large screen; you can watch iPod-based video either vertically (like the iPod) or horizontally in widescreen.

The Safari web browser is both a strength and a weakness of the iPhone. On the plus side, it is a full service browser -- it's not some bastardized GSM browser like you see on other phones. You can browse any normal website with it; you don't need to find special cellphone-friendly reduced-content websites. It does have its quirks, though. while it can handle Javascript, it doesn't appear to handle Java applets at all. Which has another consequence: no built-in games, or game support, as of now. Second, since you browse with your finger and the touch screen, there isn't actually a pointer hovering over the webpage, so context-sensitive popups don't work at all. However, these are relatively minor annoyances for the most part, overcome by the neatness of seeing a real webpage on your phone, in living color.

The weakness is, of course, bandwidth. Real webpages aren't optimized to be small and quickly transmitted over G2 (or in this case, G2.75) networks. The iPhone is WiFi capable, and you can set it to look for and use detected WiFi networks (e.g. a WiFi hotspot at a Starbucks). This gives you a pretty good throughput on web/internet stuff. You can also set it to automatically log back into known WiFi networks as you drift in and out of range -- so, for example, you only have to set up your home and office WiFi info once, and the phone will connect whenever its in range of either. If the phone doesn't have a WiFi network to hook up to, it uses AT&T's EDGE network. Which is a mixed bag. In theory, EDGE has bandwidth performance that's more than respectable for a wireless GSM network -- but in practice, a LOT of variables go into your download speeds. If you've got a good link and there aren't a lot of users, you can get near-DSL-like speed -- not bad at all. But if you're in a poor signal zone, with a lot of cell traffic, be prepared to wait. A lot. But -- and this, I think, is important -- it does work. And one of the advantages of the iPhone platform is upgradability -- so there's no reason why the EDGE (or whatever comes next) performance can't be improved through software upgrades combined with hardware improvements on the network end. Or maybe I'm too optimistic....

Finally, we have the mail client, which is where the iPhone goes head-to-head with the Crackberry. Cons for the iPhone: except for Yahoo mail accounts, your mail isn't "pushed" to the handset, as I believe it is with the Berry; you have to manually check it (or set it to periodically check automatically, with a minimum interval of 15 minutes). However, it is pretty easy to set up and configure most email accounts to work with the iPhone. I had my Verizon email account up and running in no time. Corporate networks may be more of a challenge, because the iPhone currently doesn't support Microsoft Exchange mail servers. I'd expect to see that corrected very, very soon, though. When you do get it set up, the mail client works pretty much like every other mail client out there. You can view most major kinds of attachments, including Word and Excel documents (although, as noted above, they may take forever to download). Embedded links will pop open in Safari if you click on them. Contacts can be synched up with Outlook, Outlook Express, or Windows Mail. The client doesn't appear to support user-created lists of addresses, but I may just not have figured that out yet. In any event, to me it's been the functional equivalent of having Windows Mail on the phone. I haven't found anything that I couldn't do that I wanted to do.

There's also a built-in digital camera; pretty much a requirement for phones these days. A tiny lens on the back of the phone provides good, but not terrific, picture quality. A "soft" shutter button (i.e. a non-corporeal one on the touch screen) means that it's difficult to take a good picture of yourself. It is very easy, though, to sort and manage pictures, and to email them to whomever you want. You can also synch a folder or folders of pictures with the iPhone, using it as a portable display for your pix.

Beyond that, the iPhone incorporates -- like the OS X platform it's based on -- "widgets" to do little fun things. For example, there's a weather button, and a stock button, and a world clock. Not earth-shattering stuff, but cool and well implemented. There are two extremely super-cool things built in as widgets, though, that deserve mention.

First, the iPhone is integrated with YouTube. It sounded wacky and unnecessary to me in theory, but in practice it's bizarrely fun and fascinating. If you hit the YouTube button, you're brought to one of four screens. You can look at the "featured" YouTube clips for the day, the most popular ones, your bookmarked clips, or you can search for whatever you want. The clips are compressed (on the YouTube side of things) into a more streamlined format for use on the iPhone -- not all of YouTube's clips have been converted into the new format, but YouTube says they should have their entire catalog converted by the fall. IF you have a decent connection, the clips load surprisingly fast, and look darned good on the iPhone's screen. Necessary? Hell no. Fun, useful time-killer? Absolutely.

Then, there's the feature that's probably sold half the phones already: Google Maps. I can say that the iPhone has a specially-integrated version of Google Maps built in, but that doesn't begin to describe it. It really needs to be seen. Functionally, it's like having a combined map and yellow pages that's easy to navigate and search. All it lacks is a GPS function to tell you where you are. (If it had that, though, I think my head might explode.) It's also dependent on download speeds, incidentally. The mapping function is basically the same as the web-based Google Maps, including the option to view the satellite imagery. (You can't overlay the map on the satellite, though, as you can online.) But wait, there's more. If you wanted to find a local bar, say, you'd just enter "bar" into the search bar, and pin marks will pop up showing all the bars within the viewed area. A couple of touches, and you can call said bar to find out if they're open; if they are, you can get directions to the bar, and the phone will walk you turn-by-turn to your destination on the display. (Again, without the GPS function, you have to be proactive with it, but it's still useful.)

Finally, there's the interface. As with the iPod, the iPhone has a simple, clean, and intuitive interface. A number of people have complained about the onscreen keyboard, but I haven't had any problems with it whatsoever. Zooming in and out is as easy as using two fingers to "pinch" the screen. After an hour with the device, you'll be discovering that you intuitively know how to do certain things without reading the manual. I don't know how Apple does it, and why others aren't nearly as successful as they are at it, but human interface design on Apple products is impeccable.

So that's my review of the iPhone. Am I happy? Heck yeah. Do I think it was worth the $500? Actually, I do. I can see myself using this phone for internet/GSM type stuff a lot more than my old Motorola, simply because the iPhone is so much better at it, and gives you "real" webpages and mail. The lack of MP3 ringtones is a drawback, but I assume that could be fixed in software in the future. There are some other negatives that I haven't already mentioned -- MMS text messages aren't supported, and there's no cutting and pasting of text, for example -- but on the whole, I think it's a rousing success of a device. I wasn't going to get one at all, but now I'm glad I did.

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