Mobile phones, and iPhone review

My first phone was a Motorola StarTAC. I liked this because I’d previously had a pager, and this was similar in that you could slide it into a nice plastic holster on your belt when you weren’t using it. Also, using it felt very much like it must have felt to use the communicators in the original Star Trek. Unfortunately its user interface was awful; for example, if you wanted to send a text, you had to go into your address book, find the phone number of the person you wanted to text, memorise the number, go into the text messaging menu, start a new text message, then manually type in the phone number that you had just memorised. Appalling.

Then I moved onto a Nokia 8210. This was a lovely little phone. It was small, light, robust, simple and functional. Also, its sexy good looks caught the attention of a cute German girl, and things looked quite good there for a while until I made such a pig’s dinner of our first proper date that she immediately lost interest. Anyway, I seem to have digressed a bit.

I then decided I wanted a phone with a more exciting range of features and the ability to synchronise its address book and other data with my Macs, and so it was that I progressed into owning a succession of trusty Sony Ericsson mobiles. I had the T68i, then the K700i, then the K750i, then the K850i. These all worked well with Macs – I could use iSync via Bluetooth to keep address books and calendars in sync, and I could connect them via USB to transfer photos into iPhoto. The cameras on these phones were generally way ahead of the competition, and I’ve taken many lovely landscape photos with the K750i and the K850i. I think the K750i was probably the best all-round phone, with a great 2 megapixel camera, nice size and weight, excellent look and feel, and plenty of other goodness such as customisable ring and alert tones.

It’s therefore been quite a radical departure for me to move away from Sony Ericsson into the world of the iPhone. It wasn’t that I was particularly dissatisfied with Sony Ericsson phones, but I fancied a change, I wanted easy portable access to my email and the Web, and I wanted to see the possibilities that third party applications held for such a device. So, I’ve had my iPhone since Friday. What do I think of it?

The iPhone doesn’t seem to me so much a phone, but more of a very comprehensive portable appliance which also happens to have some phone functionality on it. Ergonomically it’s solid and satisfying. The multi-touch interface is absolutely wonderful and is the main reason why this device utterly wipes the floor with everything else available at the moment. I’m starting to get used to the keyboard but I think I’ve got some way to go yet. It works brilliantly with MobileMe, automatically synchronising my emails, contacts, calendars and bookmarks with my Macs without me having to do anything at all. The multimedia features – camera, photo library synced with iPhoto on my Mac, iPod and iTunes – are excellent. I love the way text messages are shown in the form of a conversation so I don’t have to go through my history to remember what it was I said 12 hours ago which Roger has only just replied to. There’s loads of other cool and genuinely useful stuff I could mention like Google Maps and GPS, but I want to move on to third party applications.

Of course, it’s the App Store that’s really taking the iPhone to a new level, and I’ve already been able to find good versions of the sorts of things I previously used Dashboard for – for example, the excellent TubeStatus application, which enables me to see the exact state of the Tube network at any time. I’ve got some of the currently-popular utilities for web sites such as eBay and Facebook which work well and make good use of the iPhone’s interface. The Last.fm app provides the fantastic ability to listen to Last.fm stations. I tried out MotoChaser to see how well games can make use of the touchscreen and accelerometer, and the results are certainly fun.

There’s already some great music-making software available. iDrum is a fully-featured and great-sounding drum machine with a brilliant interface. The suite of iTouchMidi applications enables you to control other musical devices via MIDI. I’ve also discovered Bloom, the new application co-written by Brian Eno, which enables anyone to make ambient music and visuals in a unique way, regardless of their level of musical knowledge.

The iPhone isn’t quite perfect. Here’s my little list of things I’d like to see sorted out:

  • I know I keep banging on about this, but why no MMS? Seriously, why? Come on Apple, sort this out for god’s sake. I really like MMS and am going to miss this.
  • The Calendar doesn’t seem to show my To Do Items. I could really do with having these available!
  • iPhoto groups photos by Events, but the iPhone doesn’t seem to do this, so when I go into my library I’m immediately plunged into a massive page containing my entire photo library. I want my photos grouped by Events on my phone too! It’s a bit hard to find stuff otherwise.
  • Video recording with the camera would be rather nice, if possible.
  • Safari seems a bit unstable and has crashed a few times, which surprises me as I’ve always found it to be solid and reliable on my Macs.
  • Battery life isn’t great, but that was to be expected. It’s going to take me a little while to get used to this after years of having phones which could go for days on end without needing to be charged up.

Anyway, despite these annoyances, the iPhone is a truly great piece of technology, and Apple deserve to take a lot of credit for producing something that really is quite a revolution.