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iPhone 3GS Review
Bar Harbor
iPhone 3GS Review
I have now had my new phone long enough to offer some reasonably informed opinions about it. I should note up front that I am not a typical user; I use a phone in fairly non-standard ways, and I use it a LOT. So the criteria by which I evaluate it may be very different from yours. (I used to prefer a very basic phone, and have the complexity live in a PDA. Sadly, PDAs, per se, don't seem to get made anymore.)

1) Phone. Poor.
Usability features are good. A third-party app let me easily make a custom ring tone. But AT&T doesn't have the reliability of coverage that I was getting with Verizon. Of course, folks who hang out in different places, may get different results. But the A-number-1 function of a phone, for me, is so that kestrell can reach me in an emergency. So this is a pretty serious mark-down.

2) Ebook Editor. Meh.
I really like reading ebooks on my phone. But many of the books I read are scanned, and need corrections. I also like to write on my phone (and am writing this review on it!). So I don't just need a reader, but a robust editor as well. This actually divides up into many subcategories.
2a) Storage. Excellent.
This is the main reason I went with the iPhone, 16 GB of onboard storage. My old phone had an SD card, but if you use it as much as I did, those cards wear out and start corrupting files after about six months, which is clearly unacceptable. I currently keep about 300 MB of documents on my phone, and I expect that number to keep going up. The iPhone is the only one on the market that has enough built-in storage.
2b) Battery Life. Meh.
While the iPhone's battery is plenty good enough for the average user, I'm not that. When being used near-constantly, as, say, at a convention, the battery won't last out the day. I get paranoid when phone batteries run low, as reliability ( in all senses) is important to me. I solved this problem with third party hardware. There are several different iPhone battery extenders on the market, which shows that I am not alone in considering it a problem. I got the most powerful one, a Fastmac ($99), which in hindsight may have been overkill. On the other hand, it can be used to charge other USB devices, and has a potent flashlight built in, so those are fun.
2c) Text Entry/Edit. Average.
Lack of a tactile keyboard is annoying. The software one does work pretty well. Many typos get mitigated by an autocorrection system, which is usually correct (though it does have a baffling desire to replace "or" with "o'r"). Moving the selection point is a bit harder with a finger than with a stylus. The methods for selecting arbitrary blocks of text still sort eludes me in practice, though the theory is simple enough.
2d) Software. Meh.
On my old phone, I used Documents To Go, and I saw that there was a version available for iPhone, so I naturally went there first. The iPhone version is rather different from the Palm version, some improvements, some missing basics. The desktop synching software is easier to use in the iPhone version, which can remember folder and subfolder information from your PC. It does have a limitation (common to many iPhone apps, as it apparently stems from some bizarre Apple 'security' policy) that it cannot synch documents over the synch cable, but has to synch them over wireless. This was a bit of a problem for me, as I had previously had no use for wireless, but a relatively cheap dongle was able to fix that for me. One very serious flaw is the lack of ability to set bookmarks, which makes reading/editing lengthy documents quite awkward. I have hopes that a future upgrade will include this functionality, but for the moment it's just a hope. DTG is still the most advanced editor out there for the iPhone; none of the others have bookmars either (though several plain reader programs do).

3) Calendar/Alarm. Epic Fail.
The builtin calendar program is pretty bare bones. It will let you specify simple repeats for recurring items, but not such complex ones as "second Thursday of the month" or "every 28 days". It allows you to attach a maximum of 2 alarms to an item, and only one by default. Once those alarms have gone off, it will never bug you again, nor give you any indication that you may have missed something. I got very used to the way my Palm would bug me every five minutes until I explicitly acknowledged the appoinment; indeed, this functionality is vital when using a device as an 'alarm clock with snooze'. I tried purchasing a third party replacement app, but their alarm functions are *worse*! Apparently another of Apple's 'security' notions means that these apps have no background or interrupt ability. As near as I can tell, a third party calendar is only allowed by the OS to set off an alarm when the phone is turned on, and the calendar app itself is open. Totally useless. This feature is *such* an epic fail that I am still carrying around my non-phone-connected Palm for the sole purpose of filling this function.

Final Verdict: Meh.
I am definitely feeling some buyer's remorse. On the flip side, my perfect device doesn't seem to exist, so compromise is necessary. I will definitely be keeping an eye open for a better compromise in a year o'r so...

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The internal storage on an iPhone is flash-memory, the same technology as on an SD card. It's likely to wear out in the same way an SD card's memory does, with enough erase/write cycles. Unfortunately it's not SD card-based so you can't swap it out easily to replace it if it does fail. I recommend doing regular backups.

As for the screen, Apple builds iPhones on the cheap -- the display is only half-VGA resolution at 320x480 pixels. Higher-end smartphones and some PDAs have full-VGA displays (640x480) or even better in the same form-factor (about 3.8" diagonal) which makes for much easier reading of text and viewing of images and movies.

I have hopes that the short life on the SD cards wasn't just due to heavy use, but was due to the card being a removable part, and often in a pocket, thus subject to grit incursions. (Not that I *did* remove them often, but they were more exposed than a builtin piece of memory would be.) Do you have any knowledge of whether I am at all correct about that?

Current display resolution is sufficient for me. More would be a plus, naturally, but I'm still struggling to meet all of my important requirements.

Additionally, it isn't -exactly- the same type of flash memory. Also note that newer flash memory is much better built. Also check the difference between SLC and MLC. If those SD cards were MLC they would wear out much faster in general.

Built in memory may also have different voltage requirements and solid interconnects, so there may be less purely electrical wear and tear,

I'd love to find out which phones have full VGA resolution at that small a size. It seems to me that it's a poor value proposition to invest too many pixels, and I would expect the battery to drain even faster with those.

Final Verdict: Meh.
I am definitely feeling some buyer's remorse. On the flip side, my perfect device doesn't seem to exist, so compromise is necessary. I will definitely be keeping an eye open for a better compromise in a year o'r so...

Thanks for that. I have a Palm Centro, and love it, but of course the Palm OS is going away soon, and I'm not at all happy about having to switch over to some Windows piece-o'-cr%%. I was thinking my next phone might be an IPhone, but now Idunno. I'll be watching closely.

There are other options besides Apple and Microsoft. Google's Android OS, Palm's new "Pre OS", the Blackberry. Maybe others, but those leap to mind.

The real problem here is that Smartphones now are incredibly dependent on a vibrant third party application ecosystem, and network effects can lead to a winner-take-all situation. Right now the Pre has no third party apps effectively, and Android has very few, especially in comparison to Apple's -thousands-.

This is very true. However, I'm reminded -- ironically -- of the old Mac vs. PC situation. For many sorts of application, there would be dozens of choices on the PC and a single one on the Mac, of which the one on the Mac was far and away superior to all the PC options. (Examples include: FTP clients, desktop databases, low-end graphics applications. I understand there are others in video and music editing.)

The thing being a desktop consumer taught me in the 90s is that I don't need a thousand applications all of which are crap, I need a few applications which DWIM. Choice is a false value. What I want is quality, for which I don't need choice, and which, contrary to what certain economic/political doctrines teach, was not a product of choice.


That's one of the reasons I was reluctant to buy a Pre, despite being quite happy with Palm machines for years.

Should you set the calendar to sync with Google Calendar, I think the more complex appointments can be set up there. (Or in iCal on the Mac, but then again, that's what it was built to sync with).

Not that I'm at all trying to apologize for the many shortcomings you have, just trying to offer a workaround for a single issue.

I found iCal to be seriously broken (compared to the Palm) wrt repeating appointments. I don't remember precisely how, though.

ETA: I just fired up iCal. Apparently it doesn't do them at all?

Edited at 2009-07-27 09:38 pm (UTC)

iCal definitely does do repeating appointments, though I can see how some people might not find it customizable enough. When you add a new event on my iPod Touch (OS 3), the repeat menu is right below the start and end time. The options are limited to every day, week, two weeks, month or year. The full application on my computer also has a custom repeat menu with many more options. I have an alert set for the first Friday of every month, for example, and have also used it to remind me of various quirky billing cycles.

It does them rather decently. It might not offer the option when you drag to create a new meeting, but if you then view the info for the meeting (via context menu or standard Apple-I) you can set it to be repeating on any of a number of definable intervals.

Thanks for the review! I have been considering getting an iPhone when it comes time to replace my current Palm Centro (Verizon service). As laurion notes, it's all about the apps!

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