18 March 2012

Going mobile – iPhone edition

I’ve been toying with the idea of buying an iPhone since about a year ago. My previous quasi-smartphone – a Nokia N81 – was starting to show it’s age; after all three years is pretty much retirement age for any phone. I never considered Android an option; it was more a matter of taste than of features or phones. I would see myself instead buying a new Nokia with Windows Phone 7, it looks much more appealing than last year’s version of Android. I had only a small dilemma: I loved the design of the iPhone 4, but didn’t want to buy last years’ model. So you can image I was anything but disappointed when the iPhone 4S was announced, with pretty much the same design, but updated specs!

Long story short: it’s an awesome smartphone, get one if you can! And now for the long story:

The truth is, me and the iPhone got off to a wrong start. From day one there were problems connecting to the cellular network. I could make a call one minute and the next the signal dropped for hours, throwing error messages like “Invalid SIM”. Anything else was working flawlessly, but I didn’t had a phone, which was kind of defeating the purpose of buying one. From what I saw online, this issues is not that uncommon, unfortunately. And that only turned worse during the next days until finally I had to return the first iPhone and wait for a new one from the carrier – a closed shut case of dead-on-arrival. Of course, that meant another two weeks until the carrier finally decided to replace the faulty iPhone with a working one.

After that, the real fun started. No matter how user-friendly iOS is supposed to be, I had a lot to learn, including how to reject a call and how to type. I had played around with touchscreen phones before in stores and I always found it hard to touch the right key without the feedback from a physical keyboard. But after the first couple of days it got surprisingly easy, even if I’m still an one-finger-typist – the predictive function helps, in most cases anyway.


iPhone lock screen iOS 5.1No matter how many features you pack in, a phone should still be about communication and the iPhone has some nice tricks up it’s sleeve here. The best one for me was the ability to sync your mail, contacts and calendar with your Gmail account: I had my address book downloaded to the iPhone in a matter of minutes, with phone numbers, emails and contact photos. Of course, it helps to be slightly obsessed with keeping your address book clean and up-to-date in the first place. For an added bonus, go to the mobile site for advanced configuration; this way you can get all your calendars synced to the iPhone, not only the main one. You could say that’s not much of an advantage over iCloud sync, but since all that data was already in my Google account that makes it much easier than importing it into Outlook. Moreover, I’m pretty sure that third-party apps don’t get access to this contact set (at least doesn’t seem to read them), preventing the privacy problems uncovered first with Path.

I like the ‘Favorites’ section in the Phone app – Nokia had one as well, unfortunately limited to only 5 entries. On the down side, I would complain about the lack of profiles on the iPhone, like many others before. Sure, a hardware switch for silent mode is nice, but it doesn’t help if you forget about it. Comparing again with Nokia, older, “dumber” models actually had timed profiles: you could switch to silent for example for the night, during a meeting or concert and have it automatically revert to the default profile after the duration you specified. Would it really be that complicated or “un-Apple-like” to implement something similar? Or just for push notifications? Other blatant ommissions: contact groups and the ability to jump to a date far into the past or future in the Calendar app.

Another thing that could be improved is the workflow to mark messages as read/unread in the Mail app. You need three-four actions for this simple task compared to swipe to delete. Personally I use ‘mark as unread’ much more often than ‘delete’; it would be nice to have a range of shortcuts included in the swipe menu, just like in the Twitter app after the latest update. For all the hype, even the new Sparrow app doesn’t seem to have ‘mark as unread’ in the swipe actions menu.

The location-based reminders look like an awesome idea at first, but they’re a long way from being useful. They have a lot of limitations: you can’t just type a new address or use locations from your Maps history, you have to use your current location or something saved in your address book, which makes the process unnecessarily convoluted; there is no way to control the distance from the target location where the reminder should kick in. And there is the obvious draw-back of the app constantly checking your location, draining your battery; it would be better if you could set a minimum time when the app should start checking, e.g. when you are on a train and you know you can’t possibly arrive in less than three hours. For me, this is a case where over-simplifications ends up hurting the feature so much, it’s nearly useless.


If setting up my mail and contacts was a breeze, I can’t say the same thing about music. In the two years since upgrading to Windows 7 I built up my library in Windows Media Player, but you can’t sync that directly to an iPhone and iTunes doesn’t have any easy, straightforward way to import my star ratings. Finally I gave up and simply synced by albums just to have some music available on the device. At least I can trick iTunes into making custom ringtones without paying for them! On the other hand I developed a taste to listen to podcasts on the iPhone, especially a good book reviewer who can usually rant – in the most positive sense – for almost an hour about a book.

My biggest annoyance with the music player so far is the placement of buttons on the lock screen: they’re just too close and I keep hitting ‘Next’ or ‘Previous’ instead of ‘Play/Pause’. It’s not like the screen isn’t wide enough to accommodate them! Marco Arment goes into a lot more detail about this issue on his blog.


Working with the apps also required a bit of getting used to. Coming from Symbian, I was checking the running apps list at least once a day to make sure there was nothing in the background eating my battery. So the iOS quasi-multitasking was actually a refreshing change, once I understood how it really works.

Even if mobile Safari is a good browser I generally found the web apps underwhelming. Google Docs was especially annoying, it kept logging me out and refreshing while I was typing, presumably to save the changes to the cloud. Without a native app, I don’t see myself using Docs anytime soon. usually behaves better, but still fails to update when other apps have perfect signal or to post comments with no apparent reason or to show notifications on the home screen. The only good thing to say about web apps is that they don’t require updates, with content being served through a web address. Mobile Facebook is also ad-free - at least for now - maybe one of the reasons I usually prefer it over the desktop version.

And speaking of the browser, another thing from the Symbian world that would fit very nicely on iOS would be the history management. Specifically: in Symbian you would get a nice visual slideshow of all previously visited pages, you can flip through them to get to the page you want like you would with open tabs in Safari. On the iPhone you need to go back one step at a time, which is unnecessary and time-consuming.

Like many other I quickly became a fan of Flipboard on the iPhone. I tried Zite for a short while, but I just couldn’t get used to the bleak design and dark green colors. The only thing that Zite does better than Flipboard is the option to share to Facebook, Flipboard only does email and Twitter. I’m not going to go into details about how nice it is to flip through stories on the Retina display; instead there two minor annoyances with Flipboard I would mention: the lack of a landscape mode and the inconsistent way it renders articles: some are paginated and you can flip through like in the main list, some are scrollable while other aren’t optimized for the small screen at all, rendering the web version of the site. I suspect it’s related to their publishing program, so let’s hope they will let more sites join.

The camera

And, saving the best for last, the camera! A reason to buy an iPhone onto itself. While it doesn’t have adjustable zoom or many of the controls entry-level cameras offer, the iPhone does have a massive advantage even over professional cameras with three features: the touch-screen, allowing you to control focus and exposure with a simple tap; location tagging, with better precision than most dedicated devices and something photographers usually have to pay extra and carry an external device for, and the wireless backup to the computer through Photo Stream. The HDR mode is so-so, if you ask me; you have to have a perfectly still subject for the result to be good, otherwise the movement will become visible in the final picture. The low-light performance and noise level is surprisingly good for a camera with no control over exposure time. The accessibility from the lock screen is also wonderful; as of iOS 5.1 you can start the camera without entering your passcode with a simple swipe-up motion.

So, there you have it, my 1000+ words take on the iPhone 4S. It’s fun, easy to use and extremely helpful. So much so that I fear I will loose all my sense of direction because I rely so much on Maps to get me where I need to go…

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