23
July
2008

iPhone first impressions 12:43 on Wednesday

I still remember buying my first “smart” phone, the Nokia N90, and I remember how that phone failed my expectation from the get go (namely by the N90 not having a vibrating alert).

The iPhone is a device of different ilk. Sky high expectations, and to be honest, I was not wowed when I got it. Surely the unboxing experience was nice, and the looks sleek, but the iPhone was all I expected it to be, not more. But in a way true to many Apple products, the iPhone keeps surprising in small, positive doses, reinforcing a good long-term user experience.

These “hey we slightly topped your expectations, again” design details not only make the product a pleasure to use and satisfy the users, but build an important safety net for the Apple brand. When things go wrong, a satisfied user is way more tolerant of the mishaps than someone who has been pissed on by sucky products a few too many times.

So, the first impressions after a week of use. As a life-long Apple geek, I wanted (but probably failed) to keep some form of objectivity in this “review” of the iPhone, but the only way I could help myself to do this was to compare to what I’ve said about the Nokia smart phone mentioned above. Hence a few links back to the old N90 posts.


The feel of the iPhone

The very first thing I noticed was that the iPhone is significantly slower than I expected. It still feels like on warp drive compared to most of the Nokia phones though. This is an important distinction: perceived slowness versus actual slowness.

The touch screen gets some getting used to, but it is evident that a massive amount of thought has been placed on the layouts of the user interface. I have not yet bumped into a design flaw like the physical keys of the N90.

The on-screen keyboard is learning to interpret my writing amazingly quickly, even if my thumbs cover two or three keys at a time. Writing with the iPhone is fast, and becoming faster all the time. Way faster than T9 ever was on Nokia.

In short, using the iPhone is a pleasure. Every detail seems fully thought out, especially after coming from the world of the object-oriented usability found on Nokia devices.

The missing manual

No manual comes with the iPhone, despite a tiny “getting started” leaflet (maybe 8 small pages), yet getting all your data to the device and starting to use it for making calls, sending messages, reading email, browsing the web, checking weather, flicking through photos, or listening to music — it’s all deceivingly easy. You don’t have to start by going through all the settings, instead you can start using the iPhone and it will be fun right away. You can later fine-tune some (but only a few) things to taste.

Only now when writing this post, I found the iPhone User Guide among my bookmarks. The manual looks like it is perfectly integrated to the device. It is not searchable, but seems to contain instructions on all functions of the built-in applications, written in a clear and concise tone. Could be a good call, as being able to do a search on bad content is worse than not search at all.

Smart equals slow

The iPhone is a true “smart” phone — guess how I know? It thinks a lot. In more common terms, the iPhone gets stuck. Often. In fact, way more often than my previous phone, Nokia 6300 and I would venture to say, even more than the S60-based N90 I had before that. It might take a few seconds to enter the text messaging screen, or the keyboard might lag a couple of seconds every now and ten. But I don’t mind. Either because the iPhone is so good to me (in overall), or because I’m such a Steve-worshipping Mac-geeker.

Applications crash on the iPhone regularly, again perhaps more than on Nokia devices. But the difference is you never seem to lose anything. You can always start a crashed app again and everything is there, exactly as you left it.

The mobile internet on iPhone

One application that has crashed on me multiple times is of course Safari, the web browser. Again, I don’t mind, as re-opening the application feels like a mere second and all my open pages are there, as I left them. Browsing and generally using the Internet feels really natural, not at all like using a tiny browser on a high tech gizmo. Especially the made-for-iPhone versions of sites are great.

I’m reading a lot more feeds now that I can super easily do it anywhere with the Google Reader for iPhone. Again, could be the novelty factory of the iPhone. A bit like what happened to me with the Nokia 6300 and sudoku (I played 199 levels of the 200).

Updating the firmware

After just a few days of use, all of my downloaded applications stopped working. Clearly something was wrong, but nevertheless the most important and built-in functions (phone, SMS, also Safari, maps, photos…) continued working flawlessly. Mind you, this was the most serious mishap I have encountered so far, and in reality, who cares if I can’t open the Facebook app for a few days?

This gave a chance to try out the Restore functionality in iTunes. Restore is used to update the phone with the latest firmware and software updates. Again, the restore process was unbelievably flawless: after iTunes had finished downloading the updates from the net, it installed the new firmware and the phone was back on the cellular network in less than 10 minutes. After that, iTunes automatically restored everything from the backup that iTunes takes before each sync (again automatically), transferring 14GB of content back to the phone in 50 minutes. And this means everything. The web pages I had open in Safari, every text message conversation, call logs, every single detail, just like it was before starting the firmware update.

This is so, so far from the Nokia world, where every fix to the slightest problem starts from the assumption that you will lose everything on the phone. Yes, you can manually make a backup to a memory card (provided that you have one with enough free space), but this backup is far from complete.

Location based services

The iPhone SDK apparently makes location based services so easy to create (and the App Store so easy to distribute), that useful apps like Local Picks appeared instantly after the release of the 3G iPhone.

The location services are certainly an area where a lot of development will be taking place in the near future. It will be interesting to see how much the GPS-enabled iPhone will affect this space.

Applications

Overall, some of the apps are magnificent. I’m finding new joy in using Facebook just because browsing online content such as photos on Facebook feels as easy as browsing the photos stored on the phone — all the gestures from flipping through the pictures to tilting the screen work smoothly and in exactly the same way as in the built-in apps.

The voice quality people love to blame

I like the dull voice sound of the iPhone, to be honest. I hated when Nokia moved from the dull “telephone sound” to a supposedly more high-fidelity audio quality. To my ears the technical increase in quality was nothing more than transforming all the hard phonemes in the other person’s speech to sounds bordering in between annoying and ear-shattering. The dull telephone sound is not natural, but a voice heard over the phone doesn’t need to be. All it needs is to be clear, with no jumps in the perceived volume.

Little wackiness

All that said, there are tiny things that either don’t work the way I expect, or just don’t work at all. For example, text message notifications act wacky — sometimes I get the sound and vibrate on new message as expected, sometimes just the sound, sometimes only the vibrate, and sometimes neither. And if I’ve left open the “discussion view” (i.e. the message bubbles), the new message sound is a different and very faint one.

Other noticeable problems concern the new MobileMe service, and syncing the credentials to that site to the iPhone. It seems some lines of code inside iTunes, OS X, and the iPhone think the service is still .Mac, and some think it’s MobileMe. The results of this confusion can be duplicated email accounts, accounts with wrong mail servers, access problems, and splash screens asking me to try out MobileMe, although that’s what I’m doing all the time.

Conclusion

Compared to Nokia phones which I have used since 1996, the iPhone is from different planet. It succeeds in providing the basic functionality of a phone with excellent UI, enhancing those functionalities with features that are nice to have, but not essential, while hiding or omitting the features that developers love, but users don’t.

Instead of trying to create a platform with a multitude of management functionality, the iPhone simply replaces paper notes, thermometer, maps, stacks of photos, music player, DVD player, calculator, etc. As an analogy: using the iPhone features feels more like playing a casual game, than flying the Microsoft Flight Simulator. Both are good goals, but there’s a reason the casual games appeal to a wider audience.

4 Responses to “iPhone first impressions”

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  3. Melanie Says:

    Very nice evaluation. When you talk about crashing applications and little things that don’t work, I think it shows how important the beauty and emotional component of a UI are. Something that is just so nice and fun to use can crash, because you will try it 100times over and over just to get be able to use it. I think Apple is lucky not to be a phone manufacturer, they had a fresh start. Companies like Nokia rest on their tens of years of “experience” (“We know how to design phones”).

  4. Niko Says:

    Indeed. There’s a world of difference between drawing from past experience and replicating past experience.

  5. villehoo Says:

    I had a hacked iphone for a year and updated now to 3G, and have to say that the new 2.0 system is much more slower and buggy and much less of a “apple user experience”. Only things that really bug me after year of use, are lack of SMS forwarding, copy paste and no support for “business cards”. I think I have repeated the sentence “please send the number as a regular SMS and not as a business card, as my smartphone is bit too smart” about hundred times.

    -v