iPhone 3G Review: Top Apps, Gripes, and Gadget Love

Friday Jul 18th 2008 by Joe Kissell
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It's far from technically perfect, but it’s pretty darn cool. Plus: some must-have Apps from the iPhone App Store.

The night before the iPhone 3G launched here in France, I was at a get-together for North American expats in Paris, and I happened to mention that I was planning to get an iPhone the next morning. A woman sitting near me said that she'd heard about the iPhone, but didn't understand what the big deal was; her Nokia phone worked fine, took great pictures, played music, and did everything else she needed.

"What exactly does the iPhone do?" she asked.

I said, in my best faux-conspiratorial tone and with a carefully raised eyebrow, "It lets you talk to people who are far away."

Okay, maybe it was a lame attempt at a joke, but she didn't get it. "Any cell phone will do that," she said.

Of course. But for me, talking to people who are far away is the least interesting thing about any cell phone, especially the iPhone. I tried to explain how, despite the wealth of features in the iPhone, it has an amazingly easy-to-use interface and is just plain fun to operate—in a way that conventional cell phones (or even most smartphones) aren't. That didn't impress her, but to be honest, even that isn't what impresses me the most either.

What I was really thinking is that if my server (located at a datacenter halfway around the world) starts acting up while I'm out at a restaurant, or on vacation, or otherwise away from my computer and an Internet connection, I can use a VNC or SSH app on my iPhone to log in remotely, fix whatever the problem is, and get on with my day.

I was thinking that I'd never again have to plan my schedule around the fact that I might be getting a PDF late at night for a last-minute review before a magazine goes to press. I was thinking that I can start leaving my bulky Paris map book at home, and that I'll never get lost again, no matter where I travel.

In short, what made me excited about owning an iPhone 3G was that it will enable me to lower stress, reduce clutter, and do a lot of other things that can't be neatly captured by a feature checklist.

There have already been plenty of iPhone 3G reviews, but as each reviewer has his or her own priorities and interests, I wanted to say a few words about what I was (and was not) looking for.

To start with, the iPhone 3G is not only my first iPhone, it's my first smartphone of any kind. So I'm still very much in the "Wow, it can do that too?" mode, and not especially tuned in to the numerous subtleties that distinguish, say, a Blackberry from a Windows Mobile phone. I also don't work for a large corporation, so most enterprise features are uninteresting to me.

On the other hand, I am responsible for running a number of Web sites and performing a good bit of server administration, so I'm extremely interested in how effectively (and securely) the iPhone 3G will let me do those sorts of tasks. I also get hundreds of email messages per day in a total of eight main accounts; I use the Web and RSS heavily (both as publisher and as reader); and I enjoy music and movies as much as the next person—so I knew I'd be examining all those features carefully.

Finally, as an American living in France, I was quite interested to see how the iPhone 3G dealt with a number of issues involving language and geography that don't tend to come up in reviews from the U.S.

Physical Design: The Big Screen

I normally carry my phone in my pocket, so one thing I was looking forward to was something thinner than my old model. And the iPhone 3G delivers—it's wonderfully svelte, and it feels great both in my hand and in my pocket. Sure, it's not the shortest or narrowest phone out there, but if the length and width were reduced, I'd have to put up with a smaller screen too, and I like the big screen. The phone feels solid in the hand and well-made. I'd love for it to be slightly lighter, but it's not unreasonably heavy.

However, as numerous other reviewers have mentioned, the surface (not only the screen but the back too) is a smudge magnet. I can't even look at it from across the room without getting greasy fingerprints on it. Yes, I'll be getting lots of mileage out of the included polishing cloth, and I'll be looking into cases soon, too.

The included earphones sound fine, but they look and feel extremely cheap—they don't begin to compare even with the set that came with my first-generation iPod. I'll be looking for a third-party replacement in the near future. The USB sync cable and AC adapter are nicely compact and perfectly functional, but I'd much prefer to have a dock. The France Telecom dealer where I bought the phone said that docks weren't yet available, but that a shipment was expected soon.

The first time I explored the phone's settings, I came across the brightness control and was shocked to see that it was set at the halfway point. When I slid it to full power I was almost blinded—it was really much too bright. Photos and video look spectacular, even at half brightness. I haven't noticed the yellow cast that many sites have mentioned, but then, I don't have an older iPhone to compare it against.

iPhone Email

The first time I synced my iPhone with iTunes, all my email account settings were synchronized, and I had no problem receiving messages from, for example, my IMAP, MobileMe, and Gmail accounts.

For accounts that provide "push" services (notably MobileMe and Exchange accounts with ActiveSync), your messages can be delivered immediately or, at your option, fetched at regular intervals or manually (turning off push improves battery life), which is the only option for accounts that don't support push. With or without push, almost everything worked as I expected it to, including filing read mail in IMAP mailboxes.

But one UI choice in the iPhone's Mail application bugs me greatly. In one of my IMAP accounts, I have a lot of nested mailboxes—for example, a Take Control mailbox with sub-mailboxes for each of the books I've written in that series. In OS X's Mail, Entourage, or any other IMAP client I've used, I simply keep those higher-level mailboxes closed until I need them; then I click a disclosure triangle or + sign next to the topmost mailbox to expand it and show the mailboxes inside.

Alas, the iPhone's Mail app has no way to "collapse" mailbox lists. Sub-mailboxes are shown indented, but there's no way to show just the top level of the outline. That means if I want to move a message into a mailbox later in the list, I have to scroll past many mailboxes that I'd normally never see.

This wouldn't be a problem if the iPhone's Mail app let me selectively subscribe to IMAP mailboxes, as Entourage and most other modern IMAP clients can do. Apple Mail on OS X also lacks this capability, and I've always found it to be an incomprehensible omission. Similarly, neither app lets me reorder the mailbox list arbitrarily.

In order to work around this problem, I may have to give some thought to reorganizing my IMAP mailboxes so that the ones I access most frequently are earlier in alphabetical order (and thus appear closer to the top of the mailbox lists). But it's silly that I should have to do that—Apple should be more clueful in designing their email apps.

Finally, the iPhone has no spam filtering. Although some of my accounts have excellent server-side spam filtering, others don't, and for those I rely on a smart client-side tool like SpamSieve.

But in the absence of such a program on the iPhone, a lot of those messages that conveniently appear on your screen (using up battery life and bandwidth—a concern for those with caps on data transfer, like Orange's 500 MB monthly limit here in France) will be spam, and will require extra work to delete manually.

Web and Network Access

The included Safari Web browser renders pages well, and both zooming and rotation work as expected. I was surprised, though, to see that a number of sites loaded significantly more slowly than on a Mac, even when using the same Wi-Fi connection.

I would have liked to see support for form-filling and password saving comparable to what's in the OS X and Windows versions of Safari, or better yet, an iPhone version of 1Password .(1Password can, after a fashion, sync passwords to your iPhone using a special Safari bookmark, but the forthcoming my1Password service is what I'm really looking forward to.)

I set up the built-in VPN client to connect to my WiTopia account using PPTP, and it appeared to work without any issues. However, activating VPN requires a few taps, and it doesn't necessarily reconnect automatically when you switch networks (say, from Wi-Fi to 3G).

So if VPN access is a necessity for you, you have to get in the habit of looking for the little VPN icon at the as you move from place to place to make sure the secure connection is still active.

Battery Life: The Hard Warmer Option

As has been widely reported, the battery drains pretty quickly. I haven't yet spent enough time with the iPhone to see how long it takes to get all the way to zero in normal usage, but my casual observation is that the combination of GPS, 3G, Wi-Fi, push email, and music playing tends to make the battery level fall at an unpleasant rate.

Apple recommends turning off power-intensive features (the ones mentioned, plus Bluetooth, the equalizer on the iPod, and a few others), but of course that means you're also turning off the device's most interesting and useful features. (Heck, I can make the battery last for days by turning the iPhone off and using it as a paperweight, but that's kind of missing the point.)

I have noticed that when the phone is busy doing processor-intensive tasks like playing videos, the back gets quite warm. Not lap-searingly hot like my MacBook Pro, but certainly keep-your-hands-toasty-in-winter warm. I think Apple should really advertise that hand warmers are among the many pocket gadgets the iPhone can replace.

Media: Sweet (But What about Slow Transfer?)

As a portable media player, the iPhone is nearly all I could ask for. Music playing, as anyone with virtually any iPod knows, is about as good as it gets in a portable device. Videos were smooth, crisp, and easily watchable. The stereo music accompanying games like Aurora Feint was fantastic.

I was disappointed that I couldn't get a model with more than 16 GB of RAM. Videos—especially feature films—chew up a lot of space, and if you have a lot of music (I do) and photos, you can fill up 16 GB mighty fast.

If I had a 64 GB iPhone, I could keep all my music and photos, and enough video to last me a few days on the device, with room left over for apps and data. That'll be, I presume, next summer's splurge.

On the other hand, even my initial sync that copied about 4 GB of data onto the iPhone took what seemed to me like an extremely long time (I didn't time it, but I estimate it was about a half hour). If data transfer speeds over USB 2.0 can't be improved, maybe I don't want 64 GB of data on my phone after all!

Applications: The App Store

Third-party applications (which also work on first-generation iPhones upgraded with Firmware 2.0) are one of the best things about the new iPhone. Although some tools were previously available on iPhones that had been "jailbroken," the iTunes App Store now has hundreds of legitimate, Apple-sanctioned products that do tremendously useful things. Many of them are even free.

I've used only a handful so far, but a few I'm particularly jazzed about include these:

Evernote: Among other things, Evernote lets you snap a picture with your iPhone's camera and put not only the photo, but an indexed copy of any text in the photo (thanks to OCR software that runs on their server) in a searchable database that you can access from the device of your choice. You can also record voice memos, create to-do lists, and more.

Jott: Another note-taking tool, Jott takes a different and very clever approach. You record your voice, tap a button, and Jott creates a transcription of what you said, putting it in a to-do list.

Linguo: There are other, more elaborate foreign-language dictionaries and phrase books, but Linguo is cheap ($2.99), covers 17 languages, and provides good basic translations in whatever direction you need. It even includes audio recordings of many common phrases (though only in English, German, Spanish and Italian—not French, unfortunately for me).

Mocha VNC: A (nearly) full-featured VNC [virtual networking computing] application on your iPhone! This really knocked my socks off—a few taps and I was controlling my Xserve's virtual display from my iPhone. It's been a long time since VNC seemed magical to me, but being able to do screen sharing from a pocket device is way cool.

NetNewsWire: I'm an RSS junkie, and this lightweight version of my favorite desktop Mac news reader automatically syncs all my subscriptions and read articles with the online service NewsGator.

Twitterific: This iPhone version of the popular desktop Twitter client for OS X makes it easy to tweet (and keep up with the goings-on of friends and coworkers) when you're on the run.

Having said that, I have to say that a few things about the current incarnation of the App Store are a bit under-ripe. To wit:

• You can't try before you buy. Sure, lots of apps are free and most of the rest are inexpensive, but I hate that in many cases you can't know what you're getting or how well it'll meet your needs without making a purchase. And unfortunately...

• A lot of the apps are lousy. I've downloaded quite a few apps that crashed repeatedly, had ugly and unusable interfaces, or were just stupid for some other reason. There are some real gems, no question, but the selection is very uneven.

• Beta testing? Anyone? As far as I can tell, it's not possible for iPhone developers to release preliminary versions of new applications for wide-scale public beta testing—it's finished app in the iTunes Store or nothing. So it's no wonder some of the existing apps aren't better. This is an odd and unfortunate hole in Apple's app distribution system, and it needs to be fixed.

Location-Specific Issues

In my testing so far, 3G voice and data on the Orange (France Telecom) network has been fine, just as I'd have expected in the biggest city in the country. All the location-based features (GPS, cell tower triangulation, and Wi-Fi hotspot proximity via Skyhook) have functioned brilliantly.

However, I had much less luck with third-party applications. For example, the much-praised BoxOffice application, which shows you what movies are playing at nearby theaters, can determine the postal code of my current location (good); but then it simply treats that five-digit number (75010 in my case) as a zip code and shows me movies playing in and near Hebron, Texas.

Of course there are a zillion theaters in Paris, most of which have online listings and ticket purchase available, but BoxOffice doesn't know about anything outside the U.S. Since BoxOffice was free, I simply said, "Oh well," and deleted it.

Unfortunately, many ostensibly location-aware third-party applications cost money and don't specify in advance whether, or to what extent, they function outside the United States. If in doubt, contact the publisher to ask before making a purchase.

Another location-related problem I encountered regarded formatting. The iPhone 3G lets you specify how things like date, time, and addresses should be formatted, with many different country-specific options available.

The problem, though, is that these settings are both global and available only as a set. For example, 10-digit French phone numbers are usually formatted as XX-XX-XX-XX-XX rather than (XXX) XXX-XXXX, and French addresses follow different patterns from U.S. addresses. If I want my iPhone to display French phone numbers and addresses correctly, I can go to Settings > General > International > Region Format and select France. Fine, but that also changes the date and time format to "14:49 19 juillet 2008" rather than "2:49 p.m. July 19, 2008" as I'd prefer. You can't mix and match formats, as you can in OS X (though you can choose a keyboard layout and UI language separate from region format).

In fact, both on the iPhone and in OS X's Address Book, I'd prefer more granularity—I want my French addresses and phone numbers to be formatted properly for France while my U.S. contacts are formatted properly for the U.S. (and likewise for every other country).

Having to choose one or the other presupposes that all one's contacts are in a single country, which is a profoundly weird thing to assume, considering the other respects in which the iPhone is internationally aware.

Other iPhone Gripes

I'm not the first to mention any of the following quibbles, but they certainly diminish the iPhone and must be addressed in a future firmware update.

• No to-do list syncing. This blows my mind. You can sync your iCal calendars—but not any to-do items on them. You have to use a third-party app to even maintain a to-do list on your iPhone, much less sync it to your desktop computer. That's beyond silly. With everything else the iPhone can do, the absence of a proper, and well-integrated to do list is an embarrassment.

• No cut/copy and paste. There are all sorts of note-taking apps for the iPhone, but if you want to, say, get information between one of them and an e-mail message, get ready for some tedious retyping. So many situations in normal, day-to-day use of an iPhone require getting text from one place to another that the lack of a system-wide clipboard is seriously irritating.

• No horizontal mode for Mail and Notes. In Safari, and most other apps, you can turn the iPhone on its side to get a widescreen display, with a large, more comfortable on-screen keyboard. Except in the two most text-intensive apps, which need it most.

• No video recording. It's like this: iPhone users, who are supposed to be the hippest and most envied cell phone owners, should not have to endure the scorn of people with cheap Nokias that can record respectable full-motion video. Seriously.

• Limited syncing flexibility. Syncing of contacts and calendars via MobileMe works more or less as advertised; if you use Exchange, you can instead sync the contacts and calendars from your Exchange server. But although the iPhone lets you combine Exchange accounts with POP and IMAP email accounts, you can only sync your contacts and calendars with either MobileMe or Exchange. That means if you have an iPhone both for work and personal use, you'll have to put all your personal contact and calendar on the Exchange server—or do without it on your iPhone.

• No Flash support. To be candid, I've never liked Flash (for a long list of reasons), but it's just a reality of modern Web browsing. Ordinary people can't do the ordinary things they need to do without it, and the iPhone needs to have it in some form.

• No voice dialing. My six-year-old Sony Ericsson phone, which was about to self-destruct out of shame, could dial numbers by voice. It astonishes me that what is supposedly the world's most sophisticated and easiest-to-use mobile phone still can't.

Creating iPhone Envy

Despite the complaints I have (all of which were issues I was fully aware of before purchasing the iPhone 3G), I have to say I'm thrilled with my new toy.

Although the 3G download speeds and GPS are nice, they make up a relatively small part of my experience, so I'd probably have been about 85 percent as happy with an original iPhone running the 2.0 firmware.

But, see, my phone has a shiny black case, which is really, in a way, its most important feature. Merely by taking the phone out of my pocket, I can demonstrate to all my geeky friends who still have the earlier iPhone model that I have now surpassed them in cutting-edge consumerism. And all that for the bargain price of 199 euros.

Magnificent!

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