Friday, July 20, 2007

Review: iPhone - Starfleet Standard Issue

iPhoneI was on vacation on iDay (June 29, 2007). No one was in line to get me an iPhone, nor did I order one online. I followed the coverage online during vacation downtime though, eager to read about the line and hands-on reactions. When I got home, I called around on July 4th, none of my local Apple Stores had one. I had no intention to get one, but called out of curiosity. I went to the mall on July 5th with the intention to try the iPhone, and the Apple Store had a bunch of them. Within a few minutes of using the iPhone, it's pretty clear this is an amazing device. I still had no intention of buying one, but my wife pushed for it because she was smitten, figured out how to pay for it (business expense, check) and thus the 8 GB came home. My first impression...

Starfleet Standard Issue?! If you were a Star Trek The Next Generation (TNG) fan, you might have realized that the computing interfaces where multi-touch screens. The controls on-screen at any time were dependent on what the user was doing. Of course, this was all fiction, and back when TNG and later the movies where new, as a computer geek, that was always one of my eye roll moments. Where where all the buttons!?! The iPhone is the first device that nearly entirely implements a TNG-style interface (there are 5 physical buttons). All of the on-screen controls adapt to what the user is doing. It is breathtaking how far ahead the iPhone software is compared to the mobile devices I was using (Moto RAZR and Blackberry 7100) or that I have seen first-hand. My wife was emboldened by having the iPhone with the Web and Google Map, and she said why don't we really put it to the test, see if it can do all Apple claims and be a true mobile computer. So we took an unplanned road trip which we called iPhone Weekend.

Friday July 6th 2007
We didn't book hotels or print directions, we just got in the car and started driving south on the NJ Turnpike. We decided to go to Washington DC and take our son to the National Zoo (true story: when I wrote this part on my laptop riding the Northeast Corridor NJ Transit train to NYC, my 3G Verizon EVDO card couldn't contact Google to lookup the URL of the National Zoo. I had to use the iPhone because EDGE just seems to work everywhere). With my wife driving, the first thing I noticed navigating with the iPhone is that EDGE is faster than I expected and coverage is pervasive. AT&T and EDGE are the supposed weak link in the iPhone, but those criticisms seem overly negative. I had been using the iPhone on WiFi the previous day, and it was surely fast, but not laptop fast. EDGE is obviously not as fast as WiFi, but entirely usable, and certainly good enough. Google Maps loads data pretty fast. Web surfing feels slightly faster than 56K dial-up, and depending on location sometimes a lot faster. I never lost coverage with EDGE as we drove through NJ, into Delaware, and then Maryland. I used Google Maps to plot our way to DC, then killed time Web surfing, email, and seeing what's on YouTube. Again, EDGE is pretty good, even for YouTube because the video is scaled to your bandwidth. We left pretty late on Friday and weren't sure if we were going to drive straight-through (3 hrs, 41 minutes) or stop somewhere in Maryland.

Edgewood, MDAbout 40 minutes into Maryland we pull into a rest stop and decide we only want to drive another 40 minutes. I go back into Google Maps on the iPhone. I have our route from NJ to DC plugged in. I have been scrubbing along the map with my finger while we drive, I am acting as GPS. It is quickly obvious I don't really need GPS, it's a nice to have. Google Maps is a great tool to have on the go even without GPS. So I look ahead on the map and figure out that Edgewood, MD is about the right spot that we want to be. I then searched for hotels or motels around Edgewood, and it's just like this Apple movie on using maps shows. I tap on pins for each of the hotels, tap on their phone, and call to see if they have rooms available and pricing. It's all very slick. There are some problems with Google Maps though:

  • It wasn't obvious to me at first how to get out of directions mode (the two-way arrow on the bottom left)
  • Sometimes when you go out to iPhone home screen, do other stuff, and come back to Maps, it forgets what step in the route you are in
  • Google Maps crashes sometimes. You know this happens when you land back at the home screen without hitting the home button.
  • You really want to be able to tap anywhere on the map and get a push pin to do "Directions To/From Here" or use this as the current location to do searches from (filed as Radar Bug # 5350128)
We pull into our hotel, and score they have free WiFi. I get the access code from the front desk, plug it into their Web application on iPhone, and I am off surfing on WiFi again. My wife breaks out the MacBook and books our hotel for the next night in DC, while I surf the Web checking out the Zoo.
iPhone Weekend Day 1 Score: 9
Fantastic device. 1 point deducted for Google Map crashes

Saturday July 7th 2007
iPhone Weekend Day 2 started when I re-routed in Google Maps from Edgewood, MD to the National Zoo. My wife is again drove so that I could navigate using the iPhone. The drive is pretty straightforward, with Maps alleviating all doubt about how we get to the Zoo because of the map zoom level and turn-by-turn directions. Totally destroys paper maps, I can't imagine even buying one again. We get to the Zoo. I read that the iPhone camera is worse than Scoble's Nokia N95, so I wanted to try it out. My wife has the aging 3.1 MP Kodak the focus/shoot/review workflow is so slow, makes the iPhone feel like a revelation. I have been sticking it out with the Kodak because the images have always seemed good and it has good optical zoom. I didn't take a lot of pictures with the iPhone, because I wanted full-size images, but here is a sample iPhone image: I cropped this. Click for the original
This was taken under pretty poor light conditions, I was behind glass (so the iPhone non-flash was a plus) and pretty much in the dark, and I think this turned out pretty good, again like EDGE speed, better than I expected. I was able to take some shots with the iPhone we missed with the Kodak because of the glacial workflow, come on Apple, where is the line of full size cameras?

Hilton Washington Embassy RowWe wrap on the Zoo and need to check-in to the DC hotel, so I mapped from the Zoo to the the hotel. The directions again were spot-on, but I flubbed it up a bit. There is a tunnel under Dupont Circle, which I was supposed to avoid and take the circle instead, but I messed it up. Google Maps helped me out again, I just panned and zoomed around the map to get us routed back to the hotel. I am disappointed to learn we don't have free WiFi like we had at the cheaper hotel off of I-95 in MD. They wanted $25 for WiFi. My wife intended to look for restaurants and Sunday attractions, but paying that much money to use WiFi isn't going to happen. So we used EDGE on the iPhone with Google Maps and Safari to look up some restaurants. We quickly find one, immediately call and make a reservation, then call back and cancel after tapping the restaurents website and see the restaurant using Safari. Just a little too upscale for my sons's mood :-). We see a bunch of restaurants north of the hotel on Maps, but with the number of choices, I look to see if there are any reviews within Google Maps and there aren't. I try to hit a bunch of their websites to view the menu, but it's here that the lack of Flash is a real hinderance because most restaurants in the area, for whatever reason, use Flash, so I am stuck. So we decide to head out on foot and find Sette Osteria, which turned out to be quite good.
iPhone Weekend Day 2 Score: 8
I am loving it. 1 point deducted for Google Map having no star rating or reviews (Radar Bug # 5350338), 1 point deduced for no Flash

Sunday July 8th 2007
Visual VoicemailIt was really hot, 96 Degrees hot and high humidity. Our son likes rockets, so we decided for the cool air conditioning of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum for our afternoon in DC. I used Google Maps to route us there, again the directions get us there with no problems. My wife reminded me that my voicemail wasn't setup, so I went to take care of that. I tapped the Phone button, then Voicemail and was a bit surprised to be dialing into voicemail. Where is my Visual Voicemail? Turns out you first have to setup using the bad old standard dial-up procedure, but then the iPhone recognizes you have voicemail setup and prompts you for the password. Once you correctly enter this, boom, now you can manage everything on the phone, and even set your greeting. It's wonderful.

We wrapped up our trip to the museum and I routed us out of DC and back to NJ. I was surprised to see us go a totally different way than how we came into the city. If I had done this on my own, I would have backtracked to get on I-95 again. We drove for an hour into Maryland and the traffic started. I looked at Google Maps, only a bit of the traffic showed up. I found the exact point we were on the map, no traffic on the map, but it's bumper to bumper. When you have a feature called Traffic in Google Maps, I better see all of it especially on a major road like I-95. This logjam didn't last too long, so we got back to Jersey pretty much on schedule, but then we hit the parking lot. Right after Exit 6 (where the PA Turnpike mergers with the NJ Turnpike), everything slowed to a crawl. Again, Google Maps only shows a small stretch of this in red much further ahead of where we were. I planned some alternate routes. Eventually we got off at exit 7A (inside Jersey joke: no not for a side-trip to Great Adventure), but as step 1 on the alternate route home. Google Maps didn't just automatically plan this out for me, I had to look around at surrounding towns and plot from there, but having Maps easily saved me 2 hours of bumper-to-bumper driving hell.
iPhone Weekend Day 3 Score: 9
This interface is really sublime. 1 point deducted for Google Maps not having total traffic data coverage

To paraphrase Morpheus: "Unfortunately, no one can be told why the iPhone is so good, you have to see it for yourself". I wrote a review like this because I don't think feature comparisons alone can help define what it's like to use the iPhone, you really do have to go try it. It may be the phone features that get you, or the best-ever iPod, the rich Internet experience, the Maps, or something even more surprising, like the huge and natural interface calculator (I am not kidding), but I think the iPhone will get nearly all that give it a try, and those people will really get the iPhone. I haven't talked about a lot stuff in depth, either the positives (watch the movies or commercials, it does all that just like you expect), the adjustments (text entry takes some training, but I am now faster than on my BlackBerry), or the negatives (application crashes), there are tons of reviews for that. If it wasn't clear from the above, the interface, the way you interact with the device, how smooth it is, and how you truly can access all the information on the Web in very high fidelity, are revolutionary. Eventually, all mobile devices are going to have to work like this, and I find myself wanted some of the functionality in the MacBook Pro now too (why can't I get auto-correct as I type like on the iPhone?). One more thing, if you were willing to spend $249 on an 8 GB iPod nano, the iPhone is only a $350 premium over the nano. When you think of it like that, it almost feels cheap.

iPhone Overall Score: 9 of 10