iPhone 3GS Review - Smartphone Round Robin

Yin and Yang is the concept of duality forming a whole. In our every day lives, we see many examples of Yin and Yang before us. Think of pairings like night and day, or female and male. Diving deeper into the principles of Yin and Yang in Taoism, you'll find that neither are absolute, nor are they static, and that the summation of Yin and Yang form a whole and that their balance can be skewed due to outside influences. Over thousands of years a LOT of things have been sorted and grouped under Yin and Yang classification systems. You know where I'm going with this. When it comes to smartphones, there has been no example more clear in demonstrating Yin and Yang then that of Apple's iPhone and Research in Motion's traditional (non-touch) BlackBerry.

I've said it many times over the past two years, be it in blog posts, on our CrackBerry podcast, or to individuals asking advice on what device to buy, that if you want the absolute no-compromise best smartphone solution that you keep a BlackBerry in one pocket and an iPhone (or iPod Touch) in the other. Though both Apple, RIM and every other manufacturer and platform in the smartphone space for that matter have the aim of developing the one device you need (in other words they're trying to be both Yin and Yang), I still think as of now it takes two devices to have Best of Class everything. A device like the BlackBerry Bold 9700 is the ultimate communication and productivity tool, which excels in areas that matter both in enterprise (security, deployment, IT management) and to people who run their business and their lives depending on the phone, maximizing every minute of their day (one-handed speed of use, battery life, push everything, etc.). Apple hit the market with a compelling touchscreen experience that's both intuitive and enjoyable to use that fits into the Apple ecosystem of products and services (ie. iTunes) and took it to the next level by causing a revolution in the mobile app space. So while the BlackBerry is still the ultimate communication / utilty tool, the iPhone arguably remains the ultimate convergence device.

Compared to last year's Apple and RIM devices in the Round Robin, this year with the iPhone 3GS and Bold 9700 and Storm2 what we really have are better BlackBerrys and better iPhones. They're still both Best in Class this year as they were in their respective areas of strength last year, which means which is best for you will depend upon your priorities and your needs. We can't end a CrackBerry Round Robin review in three paragraphs though, so keep reading for more thoughts on the subject!

A Look Back at Frenemy #1 - the iSmudge and Ahh Frack Phone... 

Every year I try and come up with a new nickname for the iPhone to tick iPhone owners off. It's not that I really have anything against the iPhone or iPhone owners, but as leader of CrackBerry Nation that's part of my job duties. In the 2007 Round Robin I called the iPhone the iSmudge. That seemed fitting since, well, the screen did smudge and at the time BlackBerry didn't have its own bSmudge yet in the Storm. In last year's Round Robin I called the iPhone the Ahh Frack phone, for the simple reason that sooo many times when I observed people using their iPhones in public that they were always saying Ahh F**k because they accidentally tapped the wrong thing on the display. Kinda funny, and true for a lot of iPhone users. In 2009 I have become much less clever and much more vulgar in my old age... these days whenever the iPhone comes up in a conversation I simply refer to it as a douchebag phone. Now I don't really think of it as a douchebag phone, but for some reason I just enjoy putting iPhone owners on the defensive (it always leads to a fun conversation) and the look in the iPhone owner's face when you say it is simply priceless. Now that I think about it though, there do seem to a be lot more douchebags in the world than there used to be and there are more iPhones out there these days than there were... so maybe we're actually onto something here (for much more douchebag talk, listen to our first CrackBerry Podcast of 2010). If we go the correlation route, I guess we could also blame iPhone owners on the recession too, since the economy has gone downhill since the iPhone hit the market. It must be all those iPhone users killing time playing games instead of being productive. Want to end the economic downturn? Give everyone a BlackBerry! :)

In the past two Round Robins I nitpicked on pretty much every little thing I dislike about the iPhone (fyi... I've given it a lot of compliments as well), so follow the links below if you want to get up to speed on where I have stood historically with Apple's touchscreen. I'll try to talk about "other" things in this review rather than bring up what I've gone into extensive detail on in the past.

The iPhone 3G I reviewed last year was already a good phone in my opinion. The release of iPhone 3.0 software have made the iPhone 3G an even better phone and the further tweaks made to the new iPhone 3GS make that an even better phone still. So let's take a look at it!

My Round Robin iPhone 3GS Video First Impressions

The iPhone 3GS. The S stands for Sex. At least that's what Rene Ritchie, Editor in Chief of TheiPhoneblog, tells me. He might be lying to me though (he does that sometimes) or maybe he's just got that on his brain... he is from Montreal afterall. Seriously though, the S is for speed and if you want a full run down and detailed walk through of what that means, you'll want to jump over to TiPb and read Rene's detailed iPhone 3GS Reviews.

As for the Coles Notes version, essentially the iPhone 3GS has gained:

  • a faster processor: now at 600mHz vs. 412mHz. Also gained Cortex A8 architecture which makes it better at doing uhh.. stuff :)
  • a better graphics card: the Power VR SGX GPU supports Open GL ES 2.0 standard
  • double the ram: now supposedly at 256MB up from 128MB on previous iPhones
  • more onboard storage: up to 32GB max if you shell out more $$ 
  • better cell networking capabilities: from 3G to 3.5G/HSPA 7.2
  • 3 megapixel camera, now with video recording: egadz! you can record video on a smartphone? who would have thunk it? :)
  • and also Voice Control and a built-in Compass
The iPhone 3.0 and 3.1 updates also brought forth a bunch of changes and improvements (Apple finally invented copy and paste). You can learn about them here: iPhone 3.0 walkthrough | iPhone 3.1 walkthrough. Because both the iPhone 3GS and 3G look basically identical, I think it's easy for people looking to justify passing on the 3GS in favor of the cheaper and older 3G in order to save money up front. That's a mistake in my opinion. The much greater expense in smartphone ownership over the life of the phone is the monthly bill. The amount you save up front on the cost of a cheaper device is small compared to the full cost of device ownership over the time you're on contract. If you use your iPhone a lot, you'll find the 3GS to be demonstrably faster. That said, if you're set on an iPhone, save up for a couple months to get the 3GS vs. going for the 3G sooner. Although I'm guessing the iPhone 3GES or 4G or something is just months away from getting announced, so you never really can win.

Getting Intimate With the Apple iPhone 3GS - Turn Ons and Turn Offs

iPhone 3GS Review
BlackBerry Storm2, Apple iPhone 3GS, BlackBerry Bold 9700

I'm not an iPhone person. Period. I've tried. I REALLY HAVE tried to make the iPhone my everyday device - the one device I can use to handle not only my communication and work tasks that I love my BlackBerry so much for, but then also all that other fun stuff like media and games that iPhones do so well. No matter how hard I try, I just can't do it. I still find the iPhone uncomfortable to hold. Sure I could get used to it, but if I know my BlackBerry Bold 9700 feels sooo much better in my hand then why would I want to use something that doesn't feel as good? I've tried relatively successfully to become better at using the iPhone one-handed, but that also is a bit awkward - it's definitely been designed for two-handed use (ie. hold it in your left hand, tap with your right index...). It still takes too many steps to do simple things that I can do in half the steps on a BlackBerry. So it's not that the iPhone can't perform the tasks I need it to do - for the most part it has the capabilities - it's just that I don't like the actual way you have to use the device. It's designed for you to stop what you're doing in order to pick it up and use it, vs. BlackBerry who's user experience is optimized for on the go use. And I'm an on the go sort of guy.

Some boys and girls just prefer BlackBerrys over iPhones. Watch the video above for a real life example. :)

To a power communicator, I find the iPhone is slow and cumbersome though I'm sure some iPhone owners out there will disagree. I know there are a LOT of BlackBerry users out there who made the iPhone switch (or got one in addition to their BlackBerry) who feel the same way on this subject. It's not that they dislike the iPhone - there's not much you can genuinely dislike about it as it really is  compelling all-around consumer product, but that they just like using their BlackBerry better for all that every day communication stuff that eats up the majority of their usage smartphone usage time. Apple won't change their way of doing things to appeal to these people. They don't have to. The great majority of iPhone owners likely were not hardcore BlackBerry users before that so never experienced what I'm talking about now (ignorance is bliss) and the ones that were who still want to get in on the Apple action and want the best of both worlds will pick up an iPhone 3GS or iPod Touch as their second device as well. It really is Apples and BlackBerrys. Yin and Yang. 

iPhone 3GS Review
The view from behind...

While there are bunch of things I personally dislike about the iPhone experience, there are a lot of things I love about it. There are also some things I somehow like and dislike both at the same time. I love the web browser. I hate that the battery isn't replaceable. I love the gaming experience. I hate the fact there's only one little speaker that I almost always end up covering when playing a game which drives me crazy. I like the iTunes integration. I hate that I'm tied to iTunes and Apple's App store. I like the multitude of apps available. I hate the multitude of useless apps available. I like the fluidity of the OS - it feels modern. I hate the fluidity of the OS - the transitions waste time and you can out tap quicker than the device can keep up. You get the idea.

One thing I really both LOVE and HATE is the simplicity of the iPhone OS. I love how intuitive it is. I mentioned last year how I was impressed that both my niece and nephew at 4 and 5 years of age could pick up the iPhone and use it no problem. I ended up getting them an iPod touch this year for Christmas because following their first iPhone encounter they kept bugging me for my iPhone whenever I saw them (which I always let them down as I never have it with me since it's always sitting at home with a dead battery). I was even more impressed that my 65 year old dad, who'd never touched a cell phone in his life, was able to pick it up one day and checkout the weather. Whenever I have handed him my BlackBerry, he just looks at it and says "too many buttons" although now that my mom is hooked on her Bold I think he's a bit more willing to give the BlackBerry a try again. Conversely, the BlackBerry operating system experience takes a bit more time to understand and get used to. For example, my older brother finally got his first real smartphone, a BlackBerry Tour, last week. Prior to that he was always on some kind of crap flip phone (just used his cell for emergencies). On Friday night I gave him an in-person BlackBerry 101 lesson and taught him all the basics. My older brother is a smart guy. Way smarter than me. Mechanical engineer, and is pretty much brilliant at everything he does. Yet some of the initial questions he had for me were surprising. In just picking up and using the device, he didn't really get how the BlackBerry was multi-tasking (exiting to the homescreen but leaving apps open was confusing, and then backing out of apps having them close). The whole menu key / click action on trackball / back button / home button actions just was not that intuitive as to how it all worked together. Once we spent a bit of time walking through the device and the way the OS works (very hierarchical in design, menu key for options) and showed him how to customize profiles and settings and taught him some shortcuts, he was good to go. More than good to go in fact. He was blown away by the fact you could set in-holster / out-of-holster profiles. Speaking to him last night, I could tell he was already hooked and was regretting the fact he didn't get a BlackBerry years ago. He's LOVING it. But these examples just illustrated to me again how different that initial user experience can be and also shows where RIM needs to do better at making that initial BlackBerry experience more intuitive and more positive. At the same time, Apple's simplicity is also what limits it. While BlackBerry arguably has too many options, the iPhone doesn't have enough. I'm pretty sure after only four days of BlackBerry ownership, my brother wouldn't even be able to switch to an iPhone now because he wouldn't be able to customize the notifications the way he wants to now that he knows that's something he's able to do. It still drives me nuts that if I'm on a call on the iPhone and an email comes in that the thing bongs in my ear and I can't do anything about it. And I hate that I can't turn off that search page when you scroll to the far left of the OS. I do it accidentally way too often. 

iPhone 3GS Review
iPhone 3GS vs. BlackBerry Storm2

iPhone 3GS Review
BlackBerry Bold 9700 vs. Apple iPhone 3GS

iPhone 3GS Review
Apple iPhone 3GS vs. BlackBerry Bold 9700

Apple iPhone 3GS
Apple iPhone 3GS vs. BlackBerry Storm2

BlackBerry Users on the Apple iPhone 3GS

So what would a BlackBerry user gain in switching over to the iPhone? What would they lose? The answer varies a bit depending on if you're a non-touch or touchscreen BlackBerry owner, but for the most part are consistent:

Web Browser: Apple's Mobile Safari browser is pretty awesome. BlackBerry's web browser? Not so much. RIM has announced a Webkit browser is coming so hopefully BlackBerry will have a real kick ass browser soon too. But for now, this is definitely an iPhone advantage.

Apps, Apps, Apps: The Apple App Store now has over 100,000 apps. Over at theiphoneblog, I asked iPhone owners how many apps they had installed on their device and how many they used regularly. Most had anywhere from 50 to 150 apps installed, but from there most only used 5 to 15 on a regular basis. A few people claimed to use two to three times that on a regular basis. Regardless, it shows that volume really isn't what matters in an app store -- nobody is running 35,000 apps on their iPhone -- but rather finding the apps you want. BlackBerry apps are growing in number - things are coming to a point where most people can find good "general" apps that appeal to a large group of people. What we're still missing are those really specific apps that appeal to less people but that the Apple App Store has. A recreational pilot can pull up a whole bunch of apps on their iPhone. How many can they find for their BlackBerry?? People won't and don't literally download an app for everything onto their single device, but it's definitely awesome to have an app for everything available. On the apps front, the fact that the iPhone lets you save apps onto the device memory and doesn't limit how big apps can be in filesize is solid. Overall, the iPhone runs apps very well. 

To me, those are the two big things a BlackBerry user would love about Apple right now. As for what you'd lose, I've pretty much iterated it throughout this post. Traditional BlackBerry users who value that day to day BlackBerry abusing way of life will feel like they're giving up a lot to make the switch, though they might like an iPhone in addition to that BB they're rocking. There's a good chance Storm owners would take the jump to an iPhone more easily than those who are addicted to a physical keyboard. I think a lot of the original BlackBerry Storm owners out there on Verizon were people who ideally wanted an iPhone to begin with but weren't willing to switch to AT&T to get one. When the Storm came out it, it was sort of like Verizon's answer to the iPhone... but we all know that it wasn't. Storm owners had to put up with a lot with that device. The Storm2 is improved, but I'd argue that RIM stil hasn't put out a real compelling touchscreen experience just yet; rather, they've adapted their non-touch OS for use with with a touchscreen. It works well, and a lot of people have grown to love their Storms, but there's still work to be done from RIM on their touchscreen experience. Of course, every BlackBerry user gets used to things like BBM, awesome battery life (on most devices), excellent displays, solid reliability, speed of use, visiting CrackBerry.com everyday, etc.. These are things you don't always notice when you have them, but when you miss them you quickly long for their return.

Some Closing Thoughts - a look at the Smartphone Hierarchy of Needs

Smartphone Hierarchy of Needs
BlackBerry is Best in Class at communication/productivity, iPhone at the fun stuff

It wouldn't be Round Robin review this year unless I brought up CrackBerry Kevin's Hierarchy of Smartphone Needs. But I really need to here as it all ties together the Yin and Yang analogy introduced in the beginning of this article. As you can tell from the image, for Best in Class these days it still takes two. RIM's approach to the Smartphone Hierarchy of Needs has been to start at the bottom and build it up block by block, solid as can be. They have a couple gaps to fill in (cough.. web browser, more app memory, better memory management) but are now at a point where they are legitimately beginning to tackle the top of the pyramid. The announcements at this year's DevCon have really breathed new life into what has been a bit of an aging OS. RIM seems pretty confident that the BBOS is like a fine wine, it's going to get better with age and I hope they prove that to be the case. Assuming things go as planned, it's just a matter of time before RIM climbs to the top of this pyramid. Apple's approach to the Hierarchy has been a lot different. With the original iPhone, they basically tackled the middle of the pyramid mixing up some cool features for everyday use with an operating system that was simple and intuitive and hardware that was pretty revolutionary at the time it was introduced. From there, they've been climbing both up and down the pyramid, filling in gaps here and there. Their momentum in the app race has the iPhone pyramid reaching higher into the sky than anybody else out there right now, and it'll be interesting to see what it all transpires to over the next year or two. Both Apple and RIM will continue to build better iPhones and better BlackBerrys, with BlackBerry likely to become a bit more iPhone-like and iPhones trying to improve a bit in the areas where RIM is so strong.

Some people love BlackBerrys. Some people love iPhones. Heck, some people love both - they each have their strengths and weaknesses and you can make your arguments for or against either all day long. Your priorities and needs will determine which is best for you at any given time. One thing is for sure though... both RIM and Apple have been selling a ton of smartphones over the past couple of years and the smartphone market still has a lot of room for growth in it. Even as more competition enters the race (android) you're still going to see both of these companies continue to thrive.

That's it for now. I've kept this one pretty tame (and a bit all over the place). Be sure to sound off with your iPhone / BlackBerry likes and dislikes in the comments.