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My iPhone Review - No Native IM which Sucks!

There's no native AIM, Yahoo!, or MSN support. You can't use Google Talk because the widget requires Flash

Before I review the actual iPhone itself, I want to get one thing out of the way. This is a note to every single cellular provider in this country - throw away all of your stupid kiosks and stores and let people buy your phones the way they can buy the iPhone. The process of buying an iPhone and activating it is so mind-numbingly simple that for the first time in my life, I actually felt somewhat good after activating a phone... a far cry from that nauseous, crampy feeling you get after being accosted, insulted, degraded, and delayed by every other phone reseller in the country.

I'm not much on wasting your time with a bunch of flowery words, so here's a bullet-list of some of the high points (low points to follow) of the iPhone as I see it:

  • The iPod portion of it is absolutely stunning. I love the way the little nubby-thing (is there a name for it??) on the headphones lets me skip tracks and pause without pulling the phone out of its holster. I also noticed that the speakers on this device are ridiculously powerful. Easily 3-4 times as powerful as the loudest cell phone I've ever owned (which was my UT Starcom PPC 6700 from Sprint)
  • Videos. It's a video iPod. It's awesome. I was initially skeptical that anyone could ever enjoy a video on such a small surface, but I watched the Simpson's MMORPG parody episode where Bart slays his mother with a flame-sword on YouTube via my Wi-Fi and the video quality was fantastic. If YouTube looks that good, then the actual iTunes TV series (for which I have several season passes) will look phenomenal. Can't wait to start watching Heroes and Supernatural on the train without having to unload the 17" lapmonster.
  • The phone. Meh. The audio quality is comparable to most good phones right now. The thing that makes the phone awesome is its integration. I was trying to find a store over the weekend. I used the embedded google maps to find it, tapped the blue arrow near the store name, then tapped it's phone number and called them. This workflow is easily several minutes faster than the same task would have been on my PPC 6700, even without a stylus.
  • Size. The iPhone is quite a bit smaller than I expected. I guess all of the commercials and videos showing it close-up give you an artifical notion that the phone is a whopper. It's actually quite small, very thin, and is only a hair taller than a Blackjack. It weighs more than the BJ though, which I like because a device that costs this much should remind you that it's there dangling from your waist in a hip pouch :)
  • Wireless. The fact that I walked into a Starbucks and it made a noise while I was listening to music and then asked me if I wanted to join the hotspot was phenomenal. Every other mobile Wi-Fi device manufacturer needs to make them work like this. If I have to sit down and manually browse the devices and manually join them every time I go into a place, I'm far less likely to take advantage of the nearby Wi-Fi hotspot.
  • Synchronization. It simply does not get any better than this. The experience here is flawless. Every time I do a sync and something changes, I can actually preview the changes and see a count of what changed. I have never seen ActiveSync do that. Ever. Add to that the fact that Cocoa programmers get programmatic access to the central/unified Calendar and Task stores and I'm sure synchronization is going to become even more frequently used.
  • The Camera. You know, I've not seen a single review of the iPhone actually talk about the camera. Not only does it take pretty darn good pictures (at a really high shutter speed for a phone), but you can sync those pictures in and out of your PC/Mac with a USB cable. Unless you're using a Windows Mobile phone (or the rare phone with a data cable), the only way you're getting pictures out of a traditional phone is to pay the "picture mail" fee and e-mail it to yourself.

The downsides:

  • Regardless of what the commercial shows, rotating the device to activate cover flow is slow. It takes for-freaking-ever for the device to switch from a list view of all my tracks to the cover flow. I thought this might be that the device hadn't cached my cover art, so I hit "home", then slept the device, woke it back up, and then rotated. Sure enough, the time was cut in half...but there was still a noticeable lag. How bad is this? I couldn't give a rats ass... I listen to music, I don't browse album art... when I do browse album art, I'm usually showing someone my collection, in which case they can darn well wait for the pix to load up.
  • Greasy fingers. Good thing they included a wipey cloth for this device. Tip to the wise: don't eat cheetos and then make a phone call with this sucker. You'll regret it, and people will mock and scorn you if you take it into an Apple store for repair/cleaning.
  • Thumb response. I have been trying to two-thumb the keyboard with marginal success. When I'm accurate, my thumbs actually fly and I do some really speedy typing. However, when I start to sausage-finger things, it gets ugly. I've been told that this gets better over time, but I regularly hit the wrong thing on web pages and in the contacts area, even though I think I smooshed the right area of the screen with my thumb.
  • No IM. Ok, this is a big sore spot. This one sucks. You can't use Google Talk because the widget requires Flash (I tried...trust me, it doesn't work). There's no native AIM, Yahoo!, or MSN support. There are a couple of web pages that you can go to that simulate the AIM experience, but none are very good. My inner conspiracy theorist tells me that this lack of IM support is a ploy by AT&T to continue to make revenue from SMS texting. The reason that doesn't fly is that every single damn Windows Mobile 5.0 and 6.0 device on the freaking planet (well, virtually) can download and run an AIM client with very little effort. MSN Messenger works on just about every version of WM out there. Bottom line: the first patch/update/service pack for the iPhone had damn well better come with iChat. I want iChat on my iPhone and I want it NOW. You hear me? NOW!
  • No flash. While this certainly does suck (and is surprising, given the fact that YouTube works on the phone but Flash deosn't....) it's not the end of the world for me. While Safari on the iPhone is truly the best mobile browser experience, it's still a small form factor and quite frankly, the majority of flash content I can think of probably won't look quite right on the iPhone anyway. If a website's interaction is built using flash, there's a good chance it's using fixed-pixel co-ordinates which means you're going to be doing a crapload of zooming in and out just to hit the various spots on the GUI.
  • NO SDK. I've harped enough on this already, I won't re-open old wounds.
  • No EVDO. Coming from my last experience where I could bluetooth tether a PPC 6700 and use EVDO and get speeds sufficient enough to actually run around and fight things in a low-population zone in World of Warcraft on my laptop on the train, I find the lack of EVDO disturbing. However, the kinds of things I want to do on the iPhone are not the same that I want to do on a laptop. I find that for e-mail and casual surfing, the speed is sufficient. When my signal drops down to 2 bars (happens briefly on the commute in the same spot my Sprint Broadband card lost signal entirely...) it takes 3-5 seconds for gmail to reload the inbox. *shrug* It's not lightning fast, but it'll do.
  • It's an iPod. By this I mean that all audio plays at different volumes. This means I'm going to have to go through that pain in the ass process of pre-adjusting the volume of each album and re-sync everything because when the iPhone is in it's case, the little nubby thing doesn't control volume. If I could control volume from my headphones as well as pause/skip/answer calls, I'd be in heaven.

So, some of you might be wondering why the heck I would buy an iPhone when I've been so critical of it. Firstly, it isn't really the phone that I've been most critical of, it's the mindless lemming-like daze in which the fanbois run around and scream their affection for all things Apple that really bugs me. Come on people, it's just a freaking phone. Second, I've been in the market for a video iPod for a while (as mentioned before, I am a big fan of the Season Pass feature on iTunes). I figured if I'm going to get a video iPod, I don't currently own a regular iPod... I might as well get the 4GB iPhone. I don't need massive storage since, as you probably know, I'm never really more than 2 feet from a backpack that contains a laptop and 2 160GB portable USB drives. :) All I need is enough room on the device to hold my music, and whatever episode/movie I'm watching at the time.

Basically what I've decided is that the overall experience of using the iPhone is second to none. The user interface, the act of using the device is actually a pleasant, almost joyful experience. This cannot be said for any other phone I've ever owned, including the PPC 6700 (which I previously indicated was God's own PDAphone). Say what you will about it's shortcomings, I've got myself a fantastic little video iPod that has a camera and a phone in it, stores all my contacts and to-do items and sync's those with my PC, has a great mail client, and a really good web browser client. It's your basic swiss army mobile device ... only designed and engineered by Apple. Before the flame war begins, I am well aware that there are many, many phones out there with the same list of features as the iPhone. I have used many of them and owned several of them. But none of them are actually pleasant to use and none of them have such a stunning display.

Anyway, only time will tell whether I grow more fond of the device or whether I find more shortcomings. Given the trend, I suspect I've finally found the one phone I truly enjoy using.

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More Stories By Kevin Hoffman

Kevin Hoffman, editor-in-chief of SYS-CON's iPhone Developer's Journal, has been programming since he was 10 and has written everything from DOS shareware to n-tier, enterprise web applications in VB, C++, Delphi, and C. Hoffman is coauthor of Professional .NET Framework (Wrox Press) and co-author with Robert Foster of Microsoft SharePoint 2007 Development Unleashed. He authors The .NET Addict's Blog at .NET Developer's Journal.

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