Smartphone Round Robin: iPhone First Impressions

Full Touchscreen iPhone Experience Better Than Expected

Thanks to the Smartphone Round Robin, I have now spent the better part of a month without my BlackBerry Curve. I first used the Windows Mobile 6 powered AT&T Tilt and from there moved onto the Palm Treo 680. While both of these devices retained some similarities to my BlackBerry  Curve (both devices have physical keyboards) I never had an easy time transitioning to either of these devices. Though I became extremely familiar with each device after a week of use, I never grew to be comfortable with either.

Round #3 of the Smartphone Round Robin put the Apple iPhone into my hands, which I have now been using for close to a week. After my luke-warm experiences with the hybrid (full keyboard and touchscreen) Tilt and 680, I was sure that the iPhone’s full touchscreen would be my bane. It turns out I was wrong – for this smartphone user it seems the key to a good user experience is to either go No Touch (aka BlackBerry) or Full Touch (aka iPhone).

All in all, I have to admit I’ve been very impressed with the iPhone. As a hardcore BlackBerry user, there are definitely things about the iPhone that really irk me, but looking at it from the eyes of a typical cell phone user there’s a good reason Apple is going to sell millions of iPhones in the months ahead – it’s sexy, has a very good out-of-the-box user experience, does most smartphone tasks well, and is sexy (did I say that?). There’s lots to talk about here, so let’s get started!

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Disclaimer - Hacked on Rogers
First off, the iPhone I received was hacked/unlocked/jailbreaked (thanks Mike from so I could immediately toss in my Rogers SIM card and experience the iPhone as a typical new customer would. For now this means I am stuck with the same v1.1.1 firmware that the iPhone shipped with. If I upgrade to the v.1.1.2 firmware that’s now available it’ll break my iPhone (at least until a new jailbreak is released). Limitations to this? Not many for the time being! The update adds a charging icon to iTunes when the iPhone is attached and there’s a hack to get free ringtones – but other than that I’m not really missing out on anything. For the purpose of this review, I am essentially good to go! Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s move on!

iPhone Hardware – Cool but not Comfortable

Like RIM with the BlackBerry, with the iPhone Apple has immediately achieved an ‘iconic’ look. And because it is iconic, it’s hard to comment on the actual “looks” of the device. When I look at the iPhone, I see an iPhone. In the gadget world it’s important to be able to stand out in a crowd, so I give applause to both RIM and Apple for being able to create devices that do so. A distinct look is definitely paramount in establishing a top brand. Even my mom can spot a BlackBerry at 100 yards, and I’m sure with time (remember, the iPhone isn’t in Canada yet) she’ll be able to do the same with the iPhone.

An iconic look - not much to see with the display turned off

With the iPhone in standby, there really is not much to look at or comment on. The iPhone is a simplistic, relatively unassuming slab object with a chrome border (and I hear it blends pretty well). This is ok though, as it provides the base for what really impresses on the iPhone – it’s sexy high resolution display. Power up the device and you’re greeted by a bright, welcoming, attention getting display. The iPhone’s 320x480 screen sets a new standard for smartphone displays – it has wonderful pixel density and the glass seems pretty tough (no scratches and I’ve left it in my pocket with keys when out and about). I hope RIM rises to and surpasses what I now consider to be the benchmark by which smartphone displays will be judged.

The iPhone's touchscreen display is impressive

The iPhone has a couple of sensors built in to help automatically control the display: a proximity sensor turns off the display when you hold it up to your face while talking; an accelerometer detects when you rotate the device from portrait to landscape and changes the display within certain applications to take advantage of the additional width; and a light sensor automatically adjusts the display’s brightness to the appropriate level for the current ambient light. In practice, I found the proximity sensor to work very well, which is good, because the display generates heat and would sunburn your cheek if it didn’t shut off. The accelerometer worked ok, but I had to learn to rotate the iPhone the way it likes to be rotated (not a perfect technology). As for the ambient light sensor, I actually haven’t really noticed its actions at all. Therefore, I think it’s safe to assume the sensor is doing its job as the display has always looked vibrant. 

Dieter, in his intial impressions of the iPhone article, talked about the “singularity” of the device. Essentially, Apple’s decision to exclude a physical keyboard and removable battery allowed them to build a smartphone that’s more of an object than a gadget. When you pick up a BlackBerry you immediately notice a lot of pieces working together (keyboard, navigation buttons, trackball, battery, battery cover, etc.). When you pick up the iPhone, it’s one solid piece – it feels more like holding a baseball or a frisbee than a component-filled mobile phone (this feeling has tempted me to chuck the iPhone a couple of times as I’m curious to see how it would fly, but I have managed to resist the temptation so far). I hate the fact I can’t remove the battery, but I’ll agree with Dieter in that the “singularity” of the iPhone is pretty cool.

While I give the iPhone hardware two thumbs up for looking good, my praise ends when it comes to actually holding and using the device. It’s not entirely bad – I just think there’s still room for improvement. First problem - it’s just too damn slippery. I’ve now dropped the iPhone twice (in less than one week). At least the build quality is there - it’s survived two hard falls unscathed. I know Apple is all about appearances and wants to go with the minimalist look, but I think some rubberized grip on the sides (like the BlackBerry Curve) would go a long way. I’m pretty sure the PhoneDifferent Accessory Store will be selling a lot of iPhone skins and cases in the months ahead – it’s the first thing I would invest in if I actually owned one. Ignoring the slipperiness factor, I just find the iPhone uncomfortable to hold. The iPhone is about the same width as the Curve, but is thinner, taller, and heavier by about 40grams. Sum it all up, and I find it awkward to grip and hold to my ear to talk on.

iPhone vs. Blackberry Curve
The Curve and iPhone are about the same width, but the iPhone
is longer and thinner. Somehow the Curve is super comfortable
to hold, and the iPhone is awkward.

In terms of holding/using the device, I’ve taken both two-handed and one-handed approaches. I think the iPhone is mainly designed for two-handed use. The most comfortable way for me to use the iPhone is to hold it in my left hand and tap the screen with my right index finger. This includes typing out emails and text messages. I tried the CrackBerry two-thumb approach while typing on the virtual/soft keyboard, but that quickly proved to be a bad idea. It takes a lot of concentration to type fast on the iPhone and avoid making mistakes and when you do make a mistake it takes a lot of time to correct it. Some recent research says people can type as fast on the iPhone as on a BlackBerry, but on average will make more errors. From personal experience, I’d have to agree with the findings. I’m still faster on the BlackBerry and can type with more accuracy, but I’ll have to take back the things I’ve said in the past about not being able to type fast on a full touchscreen device. It’s not necessarily easy, and I don’t see the soft keyboard dominating the business world anytime soon, but you can be quick on a soft keyboard. Good luck trying to send a message while in the car however (as a passenger of course – you shouldn’t use any smartphone while driving…though if you had to the BlackBerry would be the easiest by far), the bouncing around of your eyes and fingers makes it impossible to tap accurately. No soft keyboard will compete with a physical keyboard in a bumpy environment EVER.

Typing 50 Words Per Minute on the iPhone
This guy uses a two thumb CrackBerry approach and goes fast.
Note that he's not actually "holding" the phone. In practice, I found it necessary
to hold the phone in my left hand and type with my right index finger.

I can almost use the iPhone comfortably with just one-hand, but not quite. If I hold it in my right hand and use my right thumb for tapping, I can navigate around the phone for the most part (all of the icons/shortcuts are pretty big and easy enough to tap) but find myself having to re-adjust my thumb/hand position often to maintain a grip on the phone and tap where I want to tap. Keep in mind that even if using the phone one-handed, when it comes to typing out messages you’ll have to go back to the two-handed, type with index finger approach. Attempts to type on the soft-keyboard with my right thumb while holding the phone in my right hand have not turned out so well.

My typing technique - hold in left hand, tap with right index finger

I put a lot of value into being able to use a phone one handed – it’s a big part of the “Crack” in CrackBerry addiction. It means you can use the phone nearly anywhere (board room, dinner table, church or class) and only eyes trained to detect the CrackBerry Prayer will know you’re into your phone and not doing what you’re supposed to be doing. BlackBerrys are nearly ventriloquist phones – you can be sitting in a room perfectly still, and all you really need to get into your CrackBerry world if you so desire is a half an eyeball turned towards your BlackBerry and a half inch of movement out of one thumb. The centralized trackball with menu/back button form factor is seriously amazing. You can use the iPhone one-handed, but its one-handed ease-of-use is nowhere near that of a trackball-equipped BlackBerry.

Setting up the iPhone

Was very easy. The most difficult/time-consuming part was actually finding something small enough to stick in the SIM card holder hole to pop it out and get my SIM in (seriously, I had to search my house for twenty minutes. Apparently I don’t use paper clips. I eventually found a tack).

A tack or paperclip is required to open up the SIM card holder

SIM card being inserted

I use both a PC and a Mac (PC for work, Mac for play) and therefore needed to sync the iPhone to both. All my music is on my Mac, so I did that first. I plugged in the cable, the iPhone was automatically detected and opened iTunes, and I soon had 3.6 gigs of music loaded up.

From there, I plugged the iPhone into my PC and nothing really happened. That’s when I realized I didn’t have iTunes on it (I swore I did…I guess that was my old laptop). I downloaded a copy of iTunes, installed it, then plugged in the iPhone again. This time the device was recognized, and in a couple of clicks I had all my PIM data synced from Outlook. I’ve been synching the iPhone back and forth between both computers regularly, and it’s been working flawlessly. The only thing I have had to watch out for is NOT clicking ok when the prompt to upgrade to firmware v.1.1.2 pops up.

Turning on the WiFi and connecting to my local network was easy. Settings > Wi-Fi, enter my password and that was done. The Smartphone Round Robin has made me realize every phone should have Wi-Fi. RIM really needs to get it into every phone – no exceptions.

Setting up my email account was equally easy. I googled “iphone gmail imap video” and immediately found the YouTube video below that walked me through the steps. Now of course I cried when I realized the iPhone would only check for new messages every 15 minutes, but was happy to at least have it working within a few minutes (it took a lot more effort to get my Gmail going on the Treo 680). Can/will RIM and Apple ever release BlackBerry Connect for the iPhone?

Setting up Gmail IMAP on the iPhone

The first time I left my house with the iPhone and lost range on my WiFi connection I found I then had no data connection present - email, web browser, weather app, etc. simply would not work. I thought not being able to connect to the Roger’s Edge network might be a side effect of running a hacked iPhone. Upon return home, a quick google search set me straight – I had to go to Settings > General > Network > Edge and enter in
Username: wapuser1
Password: wap

I was impressed with how easy it was to set up the iPhone – yes, I had to use Google a couple of times, but the answers were found quick and the overall experience was painless (other than when I jammed myself with that stupid tack!).

Operating System

The iPhone’s touchscreen GUI is very intuitive to use. I’ve always considered the BlackBerry OS to be intuitive, but I think the iPhone beats it there. By intuitive I don’t mean “powerful” or “feature rich” or “well-integrated”. The iPhone OS is intuitive because there is only one way to use it. I’m reminded of the Productions class I took in Business School and the term “poka-yoke” - It doesn’t matter who you are or what your level of smartphone experience is, when you pick up the iPhone you are going to be using the OS the way Apple wants you to use it which will be the same way every other iPhone user does. There is really only one path to take in order to accomplish what you are trying to do at any given time.

With the other devices in the Round Robin (BlackBerry Curve, AT&T Tilt, and Treo 680) I think there are both “newbie” and “expert” ways to use the devices. The “expert” method (lots of keyboard shortcuts, hack away the unnecessary parts of the OS, hide unused icons, etc.) yield an incredibly efficient and easy to use device, while the “newbie” way of using a device (scroll and click) gets the job done, but in a slightly more tedious manner.

The iPhone is sort of stuck in “newbie” mode - it doesn’t offer a “higher level” of use. It’s navigation is hierarchical in design with every click taking you one more step away from the homescreen (not unlike the BlackBerry OS). The major departure from the BlackBerry OS is in the iPhone’s lack of menu/back buttons. With the iPhone OS, all of your menu options are present on every screen you are looking at. I guess you can consider this a good thing as what you see is what you get, but I consider it bad as the phone seems to be lacking in a lot of options (more to come in Final Impressions article). A quick example - How do I copy and paste text out of an SMS message and into a contact within the Address Book? That option just does not seem to exist.

I’ve often talked about how well-integrated and mind-reading the BlackBerry OS is. When you click the menu button at any given time, it’s like the device knows exactly what you want do next (and more). While every application on the BlackBerry OS is always as integrated into other applications as much as possible, this does not seem to be the case with the iPhone. The iPhone is much more like the Treo in this respect. It likes to focus on running one app at a time.

I really wish the iPhone had a back button. Granted, it would take away from the poka-yoke intuitiveness I just spoke about, but I really hate having to hit Done, Ok, Settings or Messages on the touchscreen to return to the screen prior on an OS that’s so hierarchical in nature. With the phone held in my left hand, if there was only a Back Button on the top right hand corner of the device (where my index finger wraps around the phone while holding it), I’d be able to back pedal within apps so much more quickly.

In terms of speed, the iPhone’s OS is smooth, but definitely not snappy. The design folk at Apple have loaded the iPhone with lots of screen to screen transitions that soak up time. Remember when PowerPoint first became mainstream in business, and how people always loaded their presentations with slide effects? It was neat at first and then became old and annoying real quick. That’s the iPhone. Everything is always zooming in or sliding out. It’s smooth and looks cool at first, but in a world where time is money the iPhone assumes you have nothing better to do than play with your smartphone all day long. Life’s short. Every second counts. And the iPhone soaks up a lot of precious seconds. While I applaud its out of the box ease of use (which does save time), if you plan to use it for a few years you better be willing to give up a good portion of your life to useless pretty screen transitions. I’ve been looking for a setting to turn off the transitions, but haven’t been able to find it yet.

To me, the best smartphone is the one that spends the least amount of time in your hands. You should be able to do whatever you have to do (check an email, send a text, listen to a song, find something on the web) as quickly as possible so you can then put the phone away and get back to your life. A good smartphone adds value to your life by putting a LOT of stuff at your fingertips – it shouldn’t become your life. This also puts the “Crack” in CrackBerry. The BlackBerry user experience is lightning quick, especially when it comes to text communication (checking and responding to emails, text messages, or IMs). I’ve been going back and forth between my Curve and the iPhone for the last couple of days, and no matter what I want do on the iPhone I can do it quicker on the Curve. And this isn’t because I am new to the iPhone and not familiar with its controls – I’m already very familiar with it. It’s simply slower because you have to follow the iPhone’s one way of getting things done and wait for the screen to screen transitions as you tap your way there. I find myself waiting for the iPhone all the time. I can simply tap way quicker than the OS will load screens.

A redeeming quality to the iPhone’s OS? All of the settings are in one place. With the BlackBerry OS, there are many settings in one place (under Options), but not all of them. You still find tons of settings within individual applications (mail app, phone app, messenger app, etc.). After now having used the iPhone for a bit, I’ve come to appreciate having every setting in one location. I think many of the questions we get in the CrackBerry forums would be eliminated if the BlackBerry OS took this approach. It makes it easy to find settings when you’re not exactly sure what you are looking for.

As I type this I just realized something. I haven’t been to the forums yet for help. With the Tilt and the Treo 680 I as at the and forums right away looking for help. With the iPhone I really haven’t been in need of any. That’s a pretty big testament to just how good the out of the box experience is.

Bells and Whistles
The iPhone’s web browser is awesome (though for all it’s awesomeness, why don’t I see Flash support?). I’m envious of the fact the iPhone’s email app displays the Newsletter perfectly while the BlackBerry default email client completely butchers it (trying to figure out what to do here - we sent out both an html and text version of the Newsletter, but the BlackBerry pulls the html version (instead of the text one) and totally kills the html version). The iPhone does an amazing job of playing videos (YouTube app is solid) and I like the built in iPod. I’m also a big fan of the native weather app and alarm clock app – I could probably sit there and spin the minute dial for hours on end (simple things please simple minds). I think down the road there will be a lot of fun touchscreen games for the iPhone.

The Newsletter looks a heck of a lot nicer when
viewed on the iPhone than with a BlackBerry. Get on it RIM!

Coverflow is pretty cool. Talk about an eclectic taste in music...
Gordon Lightfoot rock'n the iPhone!

Winnipeg has officially become Winterpeg

A2DP - Where’s the A2DP? I cannot believe the iPhone, which features a fullout iPod, is not capable of streaming music to a stereo Bluetooth headset like my Motorola S9s! I refuse to use wires in a wireless age.

Email - I guess you can get push email via Yahoo, but I use Gmail. I’ve essentially gone from a guy who gets email to a guy who checks for email (the iPhone turns itself on every 15 minutes to check). It sucks. Apple seriously needs to make a push on addressing the email situation. Even if the iPhone is geared more toward consumer use vs. business use, I still think consumers shouldn’t have to wait to get email. It’s almost 2008!!!

Voice dialing - The iPhone isn’t a device you want to play around with in the car. That means it needs to have voice dialing. And it doesn’t. Boooourns!

Video Recording - I won’t harp on this too much, since it is just making its way to BlackBerrys, but for such a media/entertainment geared device I would think this would a be a priority.

No Removable Battery or Expandable Storage - The BlackBerry has amazing battery life, yet I still keep backup batteries just incase. Not an option with the iPhone and that sucks. Likewise, being limited to the built-in memory is not cool. Once you run outta room, you’re forced to delete vs. swap out media cards. I wouldn’t mind if it the BlackBerry came with 4gigs + of internal memory – I just would always like the option to be able to expand on it. 

Lack of Crack - As “cool” as the iPhone is, I’m finding it still lacks the “Crack” of a BlackBerry. I have to consciously reach for the iPhone. The BlackBerry, however, compels me to pick it up all day long. Maybe it’s the lack of blinking LED message notifier on the iPhone. Je ne sais pas. Vive le BlackBerry!

Win Full Touch, Lose No Touch, or Draw Hybrid?

In Mike’s review of the BlackBerry Curve, he basically called the BlackBerry the anti-iPhone. Where the BlackBerry sucks, the iPhone excels. Where the iPhone sucks, the BlackBerry excels. He pretty much nailed it right there. I think with time you’re going to see RIM steal some Apple designers and Apple steal some RIM engineers and in the end the consumer will win. As we near the end of the Round Robin, for myself personally I have already decided that No Touch or Full Touch is the way to go (for me at least). The philosophies are completely opposite, yet I think they both make for an ease of use that’s not found in hybrid phones like the Treo 680 or AT&T Tilt. When too many input options are offered to the user I think the experience gets botched.

A lot of rumors are surfacing that RIM is working on a touchscreen phone. If they are, I hope the touchscreen model they introduce is a full touchscreen consumer oriented model. That will force them to get the OS and user experience 100% right. I don’t think it’s possible to achieve that 100% on a hybrid phone. If RIM can copy some of what Apple has done on the iPhone and then add in the “Crack” (back button, LED notifier, BlackBerry Messenger!!), I think a BlackBerry touchscreen could be a pretty fun phone. After using the iPhone, I also know that RIM’s No Touch approach won’t be leaving the smartphone world anytime soon. It offers a one-handed user experience that just can’t be beat. It’s hard to describe. It takes a few days to get used to it, but after that every other phone just feels wrong.

I really give credit to Apple though. This is their first smartphone and it’s pretty darn good.

Stay Tuned
There’s still lots of iPhone talk to come... Final Impressions article should be up sometime Friday or Saturday, so stay tuned!