Is the Apple iPhone any good?

A bit of a review time now and very much catching up with all the hype about the world changing must have new gadget from Apple.

I’ve been a bit disparaging about Apple in the past but now the iPhone is in the shops and I could take an hour or so to play with one I thought I’d give an independent analysis of it.

First up, it’s made by Apple so we know from a hardware perspective we’re getting a nice bit of kit. Apple are disproportionately expensive in the products they make but the built quality is exceptionally good so there’s nothing wrong with paying a bit more for better quality in my book.

Style wise it’s an Apple product, they’ve got this sorted, sleek, looks nice, stylish, what else could we expect so if the trendy ‘looks good’ factor is what you’re after then it’s way up there in the stakes.

So, well built and looks good, all the Apple hallmarks that we would expect but where these are it’s strengths, it also inherits the traditional Apple weaknesses. Some really basic things like, you can’t change the battery or the sim card. It does seem rather obvious when you think about it but who would buy a phone where if the battery or sim card goes bandy you can’t just take the back off and swap it over? No, it will have to go off for servicing by Apple so anyone who does buy one should really consider keeping back their old phone just in case, not that you’re sim card will work because your account will have been paired with the card that you can’t remove from the unusable iPhone and even if you did keep your old sim it takes networks time to transfer your number, sometimes hours, sometimes days depending on how good they are.

For a business user or someone who relies heavily on their mobile for communication then being unavailable for even a few hours cost money and business. Contrast this against every other phone on the market (at least every one that I can think of) where if your current phone breaks, it’s a quick hunt around the bottom draw or in the attic to dig out the old one, swap over the sim, charge it up and you’re away again within minutes while you sort out a repair.

On to the user interface now. It’s been lauded as the major wow factor of the phone. A revolutionary touchscreen interface meaning the elimination of buttons except the big one at the bottom that takes you to the main menu. It’s good, very good actually, clean scrolling, if a bit slow on rendering when it comes to web pages but we’ll come to that in a bit. Using it to navigate around the menu system is easy and intuitive.

However, and that was obviously coming. The keyboard layout and functionality is rubbish. Now for the record, your humble Penguin is not the biggest of blokes in the world when it comes to his fingers. I’ve spent large amounts of my life messing around with techie stuff doing fine and intricate things and without wishing to blow ones own trumpet I’d rate my finger dexterity as being pretty good, spare for a bit of RSI in my left index finger through years of using laptop mouse interfaces.

However with the iPhone keyboard I just couldn’t get the hang of it. I know some have criticised it’s lack of tactile feedback which is true and obviously Apple have had to squeeze a full QWERTY keyboard layout into a small space determined by the size of the screen but typing on it is not particularly easy. You may well get used to it after a while but much the same as I really don’t like laptop touchpad mice I didn’t like this either.

What it really needs is a stylus but that would make it a PDA which isn’t what it’s supposed to be. Might be OK for small children’s finger but tricky for me and heaven knows how difficult for my friends of a rather larger stature and fingers like sausages.

Apple have also compromised in terms of the keyboard and limited space by dropping all the things like numbers and characters to separate screens. So if for example you wanted to put a full stop or a comma into your text then you have to press a separate button to navigate to that screen to do it. Equally for a phone that talks up it’s online usability you have to do this for such common characters as the ‘@’ symbol. This is silly, a pain for the user and ironically a lot slower to achieve than the old fashioned character layout on standard mobiles where characters, number and letters share the same button and simply require multiple presses of the key to get the one desired.

That said, with the exception of the keyboard, the touch screen navigation is very good, intuitive to use and it’s greatest strength is it’s simplicity of menu navigation in that it’s fairly obvious where everything is and finding things isn’t a problem.

That leads us on to ‘what you’ve actually got’. My mobile, the Nokia E65 is labyrinthine in terms of it’s menus and options and compared to the simplicity of the iPhone might be a bit of a challenge for the average user to find certain things. There is of course a good reason why the iPhone is so simple, it’s because it doesn’t actually have that much. I spent two sessions with the iPhone, each about 20 minutes long in both the Carphone Warehouse in Walsall and in Wolverhampton. By the end of my first stint in Walsall I’d explored everything that the iPhone had or could do. The second session was just picking up on a few things in hindsight I wanted to check out in greater depth for this review while killing some time waiting for a friend.

After owning my Nokia E65 for 8 months I think I’ve just about found out everything that it can do now although there’s a few little bits and bobs I haven’t played with because I don’t need them but the fact that I could get through everything on the iPhone in under an hour is indicative of its intrinsic weakness.

It’s got the obvious functions like a camera, picture browser, web browser, text messaging, e-mail support, mp3 player, calendar/organiser, clock etc but what was telling for me was that the clock function is directly on the main menu page. On first impression it just said to me, this phone hasn’t got much so we’re filling up the main menu with stuff to make it look like it has. There’s so much that could be there that isn’t in comparison to other handsets and certainly no ‘killer applications’ to make it stand out. If it had something like a very good GPS system then perhaps that would make it stand out. It’s obvious that Nokia think GPS is the next big thing on mobiles being already in place on handsets like the N95 which in theory is what the iPhone’s competition in the market is and other new handsets they’re bringing out.

When we analyse the reason for this then we return to the fundamental corporate model weaknesses that Apple have that I outlined before. Their position of trying to control and develop software for their products on their own means the end user is left with less. Not wishing to sound like a saleman for Nokia who have their own problems and are certainly in the same category of major multinational corporation but on the issue of interoperability although they haven’t got it completely perfect in their approach they are certainly much further ahead than Apple.

A little bit of history, but important in the context and something that as end users of these products as the technology becomes more advanced, it’s something that we should all consider.

Mobile phones these days are a lot smarter than they used to be when I had my first one. It was a Nokia 8110 which I still think is one of the best phones ever built. It could do voice calls and text messages (I vaguely remember it having the memory to hold 12 text messages before you had to delete them) but things have certainly moved on a lot in terms of functionality to the point where modern mobiles are not exactly that far off miniature computers particularly in terms of their need for what are in effect equivalents of operating systems to handle all the ‘programmes’ and functions. There’s a few out there, Microsoft have their Windows Mobile system, there’s Linux derivatives that are gaining ground but the big player is Symbian.

Nokia did a deal with Symbian back in the late 90′s to work together or takeover depending on your perspective. Symbian had the track record of providing the OS for the Psion PDAs which at the time were easily better than anything else on the market. Without going through everything in much greater detail, Nokia ended up with the Symbian (S40) (S60) and (S80) platforms to run on their phones. The S80 system was run on the old Nokia Communicators up until the latest version which has the S60 system and it appears that all the focus is now on the S60 OS.

It’s not free open source software like Linux OS’s but at least from my perspective far better than the restrictive OS that the new iPhone uses or a Microsoft Windows clone. There’s a fair amount of third party development for the S60 platform which means that users of it can hunt around for free/paid for additional software to increase functionality and that’s where we return to the iPhone.

With the iPhone you get what you pay for, there’s next to no ability to personally extend its functionality and you are wholly dependent on Apple for upgrades, fixes or dare I say it, some new software/programmes to run on it. I’m planning another (shorter) review on Opera Mini as playing around with the iPhone gave me the bug to try out my own phone’s online capability but the analogy is there. I wanted to see what was about in terms of a web browser for my phone, I had a little look, found something that I quite liked the look of, installed it and use it. I can’t do this with the iPhone, I’m tied to Safari (which is quite good anyway) as a web browser and their e-mail client. I don’t have the freedom to change these things and I particularly like the idea of choice.

So we’ve got a pretty damning evaluation of the iPhone’s actual content. Put in a nutshell, it doesn’t have much and the end user has no real way adding things outside of the rather limited constraints of the phone.

Again on the constraining nature of the phone, it’s locked status. Unless you’re minded to get the soldering iron out and crack the case open with no guarantee that after a ‘software update’ from Apple everything that you’ve done might well not work again, not to mention invalidating the warranty, you’re constrained into only one operator, O2 in the case of the UK. There’s some interesting rumblings going on over in Germany where Vodafone are taking court action which could end up with an EU ruling on open competition if things really get going but this is a big issue and again a heavy criticism of Apple’s approach to restrictive practices.

In the mobile market, at least in the UK we have developed the practice of paying more money on monthly contracts with the promise of ‘free’ upgrades on handsets. They are of course not free, just subsidised through higher monthly payments which in some other EU countries would be illegal, Finland comes to mind. There they pay much lower monthly bills but customers have to purchase the phone themselves and pay the actual market price for it.

There is then nothing new about having limited choice in terms of handset according to operator but that has always been the market position, that the operator chooses which models and makes to obtain from manufacturers to supply to customers. Apple has reversed this and in effect done deals with only supply one operator within certain geographical areas with it’s handset irrespective of whether other operators would wish to sell them. All in all a very poor anti-competitive practice which consumers should have in mind when considering purchasing an iPhone, not to mention being effectively tied to one operator for as long as you have the phone because even once the initial 18 month contract is up you’ll still not be able to switch because, well you know this already, you can’t take the sim card out.

On to its web capabilities now, which is another big selling point of the phone. It’s good, the Safari browser ports well to such a small screen and the ability to turn the phone sideways and it automatically changing to landscape mode so you can actually be able to read text although nothing more exciting than the inclusion of a mercury switch is a really nice touch. Scrolling with the touch screen on web pages is great and very easy. Rendering times on websites in all the demos I’ve seen on TV and in stores is also usually really fast.

BUT….

From a grammatical perspective I don’t start sentences with the word ‘but’, nor do I have a preponderance for the use of CAPS but this is a very big BUT.

All the demos are using the phone via a wifi connection so of course it’s cool and really fast. The only slight problem is the distinct lack of Wifi hotspots to actually use it. Great if you’re at home or in the office or live in Lincoln (I think) but as presumably any iPhone user is probably going to have one of those old strange things with lots of keys and big screen like a computer in their home or office and not live in Lincoln then a computer might just be preferable. The problem remains that there simply aren’t enough hotspots knocking around for viable web browsing on the move nor the cross compatibility of different networks so if you really really really want to browse the net on the move then you’re on to the good old GPRS/3G network browsing.

One slight problem though, the iPhone doesn’t have 3G capability meaning it’s actually slower to browse the net than every other phone in it’s class. Why is this, is the question?

Well, it’s simple. It’s an American phone, it’s designed primarily for the North American market where they don’t have 3G networks like us in Europe. Put simply, it’s just not up to the level on connectivity that we’re used to over here with our faster networks. There’s a note to add to this though before we suddenly get all full of pride as to our technical superiority on this side of the pond. Although what we have in Europe is ahead of the US, it pales into insignificance compared to the levels of speeds in Japan. They have broadband on their phones with speeds of 8Mbps which is faster than what I’ve got at home.

Digressing for a moment but about 7 years ago a Japanese friend of mine showed me his phone which he couldn’t use over here in Europe but its capabilities then are pretty much where my phone is now. They never particularly took to text messaging in Japan, they had things like e-mail straight off on their phones so lets not get too big headed on this one.

That said the criticism is there, it wasn’t designed with our networks in mind so on one of it’s core selling points, it’s web browsing capability, it runs short compared to the competition for us European consumers.

Final two points on the browser, clicking on links isn’t that easy with the touch screen if they’re small. I could just about get to some links by using my fingernail (not exactly advisable on a touch screen) and clicking about 3 mm above the actual link I wanted, not very good for blogrolls where large numbers of links are stacked together in small text. Equally and I’m happy to be proven wrong but I looked everywhere for a zoom function and couldn’t find it. Most websites render well but some still have small and almost illegible text not to mention accessibility issues for people with visual impairment.

Price. It’s expensive, not only does it come with an 18 month contract at a minimum of £35 a month (does go up to £55 a month), there’s an initial outlay of £269 for the handset. That’s £899 assuming that you only use the allowed 200 voice call minutes and 200 texts on the basic package. Compared against my own package, also with O2, I pay less than £35 a month, have the same unlimited data access and although I’ve lost count, a significantly larger number of minutes and texts, oh and my phone was free (as in not free but subsidised to the point where I didn’t have to pay extra for it).

How does it do on multimedia? Again it’s flagged as being a core strength of the phone. I’m not that interested in multimedia element of mobile phones, if it takes a reasonably good picture then I’m fairly happy but as Apple have played up its capability then it does need some evaluation. Well, it unsurprisingly takes photos, has a camera (2 megapixels), does video, plays it all back and has an MP3 player on it.

The problem is that pretty much every phone has that so there’s not much to shout about. My Nokia E65 isn’t targeted at multimedia user, it’s a business phone and Nokia have their N Series phones for more multimedia orientated consumers but even my phone has all the multimedia capability of the iPhone, same size camera, does video, plays it all back, has an MP3 player so what exactly is there to show the iPhone as something different? Mrs Penguin has a twelve month old Nokia N73, it does everything the iPhone does and has a 3.1 megapixel camera with a Carl Zeiss lens on it which knocks spots off the iPhone, it also has an FM radio which the iPhone doesn’t. Let’s not get on to the actual comparison to the iPhone’s main competition in this field, the N95 with a 5 megapixel camera and Carl Zeiss lens, oh and an FM Radio. That’s not to mention the iPhone has no flash, no zoom and no night mode all of which the N95 has.

How does it fare on connectivity? We already know it’s not 3G but there are other methods of connection that phones tend to have. Infra red connection? No. OK, let’s try Bluetooth. Yes, well sort of. Bluetooth is a cracking bit of technology allowing devices to communicate using radio frequencies. You can send all sorts of stuff via Bluetooth, data files, pictures, music ported to speakers, headphones, hands free devices even send files straight to printers from a mobile which although I’ve never tried it even my phone can do.

The iPhone can support sending music and hands free according to it’s specification guide to a headset. It can’t send files like picture to your mates sitting next to you in the pub, be used as a bridge between a laptop for mobile web surfing, it can’t port out music to an external hifi system set up and it can’t send files/pictures straight to your printer.

It does however come with a cable you can plug into a computer and Wifi but lacking all the other things and I think it’s fair to once again compare to the Nokia N95 as it’s the core competition which has all these so it’s really not looking good for the iPhone.

Would I buy one? I think it’s fairly obvious from what I’ve written that I wouldn’t. I’m not its core market audience. I’m a distinctly critical and savy consumer. I’m also a techie in the sense that a mechanic would look under the bonnet of a car to evaluate it rather that looking at the bodywork. It is not as good as my current phone on almost every count and there are phones on the market that are light years ahead of it in terms of functionality.

Who would buy one? When you first check it out it’s obvious who it’s aimed at. It’s got core functionality hooked up to social networking sites, YouTube and edges itself towards its multimedia focus. It’s for relatively young people who’s lives consist of uploading their nights out to their Facebook account and YouTube clips. It’s not a serious business phone for the more demanding customer. It’s designed to be hip, trendy, a style statement but from a technical perspective it’s nothing more than mutton dressed as lamb.

What’s the overall conclusion on the Apple iPhone? It’s lacking in functionality, connectivity, slower than others on web browsing, lacks software that’s standard on many other phones, doesn’t have a ‘killer application’ to set it apart from the competition, is highly restrictive but it looks good, is well built and has a nice touch screen user interface even if clicking on links while web browsing is difficult and the keyboard is crap. It’s built for the North American market not the European one which is why it falls down against the competition over here. It’s aimed at a certain part of the market who value style over substance and it will probably do well with these consumers because that’s what they want, to buy into the image, not consider the actual ability of the phone. It’s way over-priced for what it is and a final comparison to the N95. O2 offer the N95 for free on an 18, £30 a month contract. Presumably without additional unlimited data calls but even adding on a bolt-on for that it’s cheaper and it does so much more.

One thought on “Is the Apple iPhone any good?

  1. It’s outrageously expensive, but it remains an interesting gadget.

    The touch-screen keyboard is good, *if* you get the hang of the auto-correct software, which is impressive. No BlackBerry-beater, though. The 2 MP cam is also rather good considering its supposed limitations, but no, it won’t out-perform the N95, the latest LG cam/phone, or Sony’s Cyber-Shot phones. Expect to see a Xenon flash, video capture, and zoom on future incarnations.

    Some US cities do have 3G, it’s just not ubiquitous as in Europe. Again, 3G and Bluetooth stereo will come in future models. Also, Apple is opening up the platform to 3rd party apps in the new year, although don’t expect to see a IM client any time soon. Thanks to the shits at AT&T.

    Do I want one? No, not yet.

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