Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Glory of the iPhone

As most of you know (from my incessant bragging), I have succumbed to the devil with white earbuds: a black iPhone 3GS 16GB. It’d be fair to say that life has been better for the week that I’ve had it. Is this how it feels to be one of those stoner hippie Mac users?

It would be hard to name one (or *just* one anyways) killer feature that makes the phone such a rewarding experience. More than anything, I think it’s just the polish of the entire experience. Solid performance, unwavering reliability, intuitive yet childishly simple UI, and a never-ending stream of “oh hey, that’s clever!” moments that make you really feel that a bunch of very smart people put a lot of thought into how people would use their creation.

First, it’s a 16GB iPod. That’ll hold my entire music collection easily. And unlike most phones, a real 3.5mm jack, so no crazy adapters. Special category and sync setup for podcasts makes listening to the BBC a breeze (a serious pet peeve of mine, if you recall). Plus, a sufficiently large screen to make video watching not just possible, but practical, be it Youtube clips, or a 2hr movie to entertain on a long car ride. If you want, you don’t even have to sync with a computer: you can access iTunes directly from the device.

It’s a full featured phone. Audio quality is great, if a bit quiet. Works perfectly with a bluetooth headset. Visual voicemail – no more touchtone prompt nonsense. Reception is top notch.

It’s a PDA. Exchange email and calendar sync, with push. The interface, while lacking some of the advanced features in Pocket Outlook, is arguably far more usable, and far less annoying (in particular, less fail from the notifications over WinMo). Notepad for the grocery lists. Facebook communications with an app. You can even become a Kindle, and read Amazon’s e-book titles.

It’s a gaming platform. Touch-enabled games, from the simple joys of cat-stacking to futuristic tower defense. Specialized apps for the Zynga Facebook games that are so popular right now.

It’s a camera. Not as good as a dedicated camera, but enough for clear pictures in all but the dimmest of light. Even video! Beats any other camera-phone I’ve seen to date.

It’s a navigation device. Google Maps built in, but that’s not the only way to use location. One of the most interesting GPS uses I saw was the AAA app, which can call for a tow at your current location with literally just the push of a button.

It’s even a web browser. Having seen the utter rendering failboat that is Pocket IE (even the newest one), and the 50lb slug that is Opera Mobile, I’ve been consistently impressed both with the speed and accuracy of webpage rendering from Safari. It’s the only mobile device I’ve seen where it’s actually practical to surf the web.

Even the common iPhone criticisms seem lacking. Soft keyboards are unpopular with many, but you’d be surprised how quickly one adapts. Many criticize that you can only run one downloaded app at a time. Yet this very limitation leads to a very consistent application design, where apps have to make the conscious choice of what state should be persisted. It doesn’t hurt that this keeps performance good as well. Finally, there’s a fundamental objection to the tight leash Apple keeps over its OS and the app store. While that does irk me from a philosophical standpoint, the reality is that Apple has served as exceptional gatekeepers for quality, keeping the worst of the cruft out of the app ecosystem, and to a similar extent preventing the worst crapware that the carriers love to add to otherwise working phones.

But more than anything else, the damned thing works. This may seem wild to those who haven’t suffered buggy phones before, but the fact that I don’t even know where the reset button is says volumes about the device’s reliability. Thus far, no hangs, no crashes, not even any slowdowns. I’ve never drained the battery past half-charge (though GeoDefense certainly does try). Not a single feature that did not work exactly as expected on the first try.

So yea, iPhone = win. Go get one!

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Why I scrapped my WinMo phone

The context of the discussion: Kyna got me an iPhone 3GS. While an interesting topic of itself (coming soon), here I discuss what finally pushed me away from a more Redmond-friendly device.

I’m no stranger to Windows Mobile. I started eight years ago on a third-hand Compaq iPaq I bought from Lyllea, long before WinMo was even WinMo, let alone a phone. I’ve upgraded several times since then, including HP iPaq successors, up to my most recent device, an HTC TyTN. Next on my list, a brand new WinMo 6.5 device, the HTC Tilt2. But instead, I got an iPhone.

There’s a variety of reasons I defected from the WinMo brand (most of which I can’t discuss publically, given my access to internal betas). But one very specific scenario put me over the top.

I want to listen to the BBC World News during my drive to work. I don’t think it’s an unreasonable request; the BBC offers it for free, I have a modern car stereo, hundreds of dollars of computing hardware strapped to my hip, and more internet access than your average developing nation. Why shouldn’t I be able to keep abreast of world news once a day?

First off, I subscribe to the BBC Global News podcast in Zune (which, if you remember, I consider totally awesome). Set it to download the latest episode, which true to Zune form, works flawlessly. But of course, the Zune app is too good for my clunky old TyTN… it only wants to sync with Zune devices*.

[* Some may observe that this entire scenario would work flawlessly with a Zune. Which is true; but a Zune isn’t a phone, and damned if I’m dropping hundreds of dollars EACH on a phone and a dedicated media player. Not to mention being an even bigger geek by having two devices on my belt. ]

So I fire up Windows Media Player on Windows 7. WMP can in fact sync directly to my phone’s memory card (my phone itself has a paltry 64MB RAM). But Windows Media Player won’t show me the latest version of my podcast… the library is outdated, showing me last week’s news. So I can just click refresh? No of course not, that would be too complicated. Even after waiting for the library update to complete, which takes upwards of 20 minutes thrashing on my DivX files, it’s not updating. No way to add it manually either.

Say, hypothetically, I actually get the latest file to show up in the library. I have to find the new content, and manually click on it to sync (no autosyncing a specified folder, that’d be too smart), and also manually remove the old episode I’m done with from the device. If I can’t get the file to show up, I have to use Windows explorer and copy the files manually.

Now, on to the phone. Fire up Windows Mobile. I have to manually build a new playlist. But, like its desktop companion, I have to first convince it to add my new content to “the Library”. On the plus side, unlike its desktop companion, there’s an explicit ‘update’ button. On the downside, the update is dumb and takes like 10 minutes to locate an MP3. Then locks up. You have to notice the UI freeze, and hit cancel. But the library, not being transactional, is in fact mostly built now. I then have to manually delete the old entries from the playlist, then find the new podcast episode and add it.

Now, I’m ready to drive, but of course have to restart Pocket WMP. It’s still running, but if the device is idle for more than five seconds, it flips back to the today screen. Using media controls while driving is out of the question, given the eight pen-target clicks one has to go through just to get to the pause button.

My phone, being too cool for a 3.5mm jack, needs an adaptor to plug into the car, which takes up the power socket. If you use the power splitter, you get feedback any time you rev the engine. Hope the battery is full… but it always is – I charge the phone nearly 24 hours a day, just to keep it able to receive calls anyways.

So finally, I’m ready to find out the latest from $ConflictedCountryDuJour, but ironically, in the 30 minutes I’ve spent fiddling with various bits of software, I could have just listened to the podcast at home, and let BJ Shea keep me company on the way to work.

Just to be clear, on my iPhone, my process: plug my phone into my computer, wait about 15 seconds. From my phone, press the “podcast” button, plug into my car using the convenient 3.5mm jack, and news happens!