I've also invested in many gizmos that I tried and abandoned for one reason or another. The Information Superhighway, as they called it back in the day, is littered with the molded plastic scraps of digital roadkill.
Perfect example: I've resisted the urge to carry a PDA or Smartphone for years, despite working on the marketing of those sorts of devices for a spell in the '90s. My biggest complaint is that they tend to take too much time to configure and manipulate versus the time you save using them. The pattern, for me, is that I'd spend a week or so loading my entire life up into a gadget and then never touch it again because I'd have to constantly plug the thing into a computer to sync or find it's just faster to fall back on traditional methods (e.g., paper). It's sort of like the economics of clean fuel: Once it becomes cheaper and easier to use than oil, we'll quit the dinosaur juice and never look back.
That's how it is with the iPhone 3G for me. The thing is so well designed and easy to pick up and use, I finally have a portable device that's faster than backsliding to old habits. And it does so much more than I expected.
I ignored the first generation iPhones since they were scarce, overpriced and – by most accounts – didn't work very well. I held off on the 3G model for awhile too, mostly because I was too busy to backup and clear my old phone. Turns out I needn't have bothered; the AT&T Store rep transferred all of my contacts from the SIM card (though I did still need to recover my old cameraphone photos).
Configuration and usage is very simple. It really does control as smoothly as you see in the ads! Also, you can download free and purchased apps directly to the phone and sync them to iTunes later, so you're no longer tethered to your PC or Mac except to backup your data every day or so and download new playlists if you use the iPod functionality.
Best of all, most apps remember your login/settings and so you just tap to access mail, contacts and even social networking tools such as Facebook, Linked In and Twitter. It is pricey: You get "all-you-can-eat" data for $30 a month ($45 if you want access to an Exchange account), but at least you're not counting kilobytes. So if you can afford the price of entry, you're free to go wild, watch videos from YouTube and Joost, stream audio from Pandora, whatever you want.
I honestly don't receive a ton of calls, though as a consultant it's important for me to be reachable most of the time. Now I have a number of great uses for my phone when I'm not talking on it. From productivity to entertainment, the phone almost never leaves my hand now except when it needs charging.
Some sample uses:
|Exchange mail and calendar. Now I can keep up with projects even when I'm out running errands, doing chores, whatever. This means I'm not tethered to my computer while waiting for important mails. This feature costs an extra $15 a month, but it's worth every penny for me. And if you just need POP, IMAP or Gmail there's no extra charge. And you can load up at least half a dozen mail accounts (that's as much as I've done so far). The only downside is that it only proactively checks your primary account, which is fine by me.|
|iPod. I already have an iPod, but this app is so well integrated that I've made this my de facto player even though the iPhone can only hold a fraction of my music collection. The great thing is that it pauses when I receive a call and picks up where it left off afterwards, which is great when driving. Best of all, music just sounds better on the iPhone than my Classic. A few peeves: It is a little frustrating that you can't use the software keyboard and tap interface to create more than a single on-the-go playlist, and rating songs is hidden and doesn't seem to sync properly anyway. But still, overall, it's an improvement on the standalone iPod.|
|1337pwn Xbox Live friend tracker. There are a couple of Xbox Live friend trackers (none of which will easily import your friends lists), but this one works more reliably for me than iNXES (which supports full avatars but is laggy and less intuitive). The good news is that many iPhone apps are updated frequently, usually for free, so this may change by the time you read this. Try 'em both and, while you're at it, get the free Add Friend app for slightly more convenient access to the Xbox.com add friends page.|
|Twinkle. This is a free Twitter client that's so much more. The addictive part is that you can see what other iPhone users nearby are doing, including any pictures they attach (which you can save!). Many of these are shots of beverages and unappealing meals people in your neighborhood are about to consume. But during Seattle Snowpocalypse '08 (the atypical blizzard we just had), there were some great shots of everything going on – from sledding to crashed vehicles with the word "fail" written into the snow on them, and even the big crash that left two buses overhanging a busy freeway (no one was hurt).|
|Open Table. GrrlGotGame and I had to cancel a December date when we all came down with colds, and while it sucked to have to bag on our getaway, it was so nice to be able to cancel our dinner reservations and rebook for January with just a few taps.|
|Clock. This built-in app is more useful than you'd think, particularly for me since one of my clients has me managing relationships in Europe and Asia. Now I can quickly tell what time it is in London and Tokyo. There's also a hidden sleep timer in here, which will turn off your iPhone if, like me, you listen to music while drifting off at night.|
|Safari. As a devoted PC user, I haven't used this browser since v1.0 when I still used Macs. But on the iPhone it works brilliantly. Tap links, zoom text by dragging two fingers together and tilt for landscape reading. Not every site will be readable or offer full functionality, but it's surprising how many do. Best of all, Movable Type has a free iPhone plug-in so I won't have to shell out for one of the pricey apps unless I want to enter more than short, picture-less posts. And those I'd do on the computer anyway.|
|PhoneFlix. Reorganize and add to your Netflix queue. It doesn't support Instant Queue at this writing, but it was free and works well. i.TV adds the Instant Queue feature but won't let you browse movies to add beyond some recommendations, but makes up for this by providing movie theater and local TV listings. So both together are a good combination.|
|Pandora. This free Internet radio app lets you choose artists as the basis for custom radio stations. It limits your skips and only works via WiFi, so you can't listen while roaming in your car. But that's what the iPod is for.|
|ICanHasCheezeburger. Instant LOLcats. You can even save your favorites to the photo gallery. I never used to be a fan of these, but they're fun to pull up when you need a quick smile and they amuse our 5-year-old to no end. No day is complete without a visit!|
|Facebook. Last year I became hooked on Facebook, but during the work day I often can't access it while logged into a remote network. Now I can keep up with all of the posts, update my status and respond to friends during downtime! If only I could access my Mousehunt game with it. Fortunately, there are plenty of other things to play on an iPhone...|
There are thousands of games available, so the danger is you'll spend a lot of time wading through all of the junk in search of the good ones. Fortunately, Apple recently added a feature so you can see the most popular in both paid and free categories, and there's a free app called AppVee that reviews apps and includes a video so you can preview them before you buy. Many apps also offer free or lite versions. I haven't bought any of the more expensive games yet such as I Love Katamari or Super Monkey Ball; if I do, I'll try to post some impressions.
Here are some of my faves:
|Poker Quest. This game is just fun to watch. Shake the phone to roll the dice and watch the pretty animation as you try to make the best poker hand. Plenty of unlockables and achievements. There's a free version that gives a taste of the full game, so you can try before you buy.|
|Tap Tap Revenge. This free rhythm game that's reminiscent of Guitar Hero doesn't have a ton of songs, but they've been known to offer tracks from Weezer which makes it alright with me. There are for-pay versions with more features and tracks, including a Nine Inch Nails edition and Weezer holiday album.|
|Solebon. This solitaire game has one of the best tap interfaces and in-depth scoring and play statistics, blowing away the competition. If all you want to do is play Klondike, Demon, Baker's Game or Spiderette, get Sol Free – it's not hobbled except for the limited game selection. The full version has 25 more games, though alas no Tripeaks.|
|Frotz. This is the interactive fiction reader, it's free and it includes Zork! You can play a dozen or so included games, or download more.|
|Tangram Puzzle Pro. Rotate the shapes to fill in the puzzle. There are several games in this category, but I've found this one has the best interface to move and rotate pieces. It was free when I got it, and now it's $1 – still worth it. At this writing there was a free holiday edition, and they'll probably post a trial version eventually.|
|iBowl. This free app lets you swing your iPhone like a bowling ball. It's actually pretty easy to pick up and fun to play, just don't let go of your phone!|
Sounds great, right? Alas, the iPhone 3G is not perfect. Here are a few of my gripes:
- The battery isn't user replaceable. So you can't have a backup battery charged and ready to swap out for those long trips. And when it fails (as it will in 1-2 years of heavy usage), you'll have to pay Apple to replace it.
- Older accessories won't work. Is it really too much to ask that my old iPod charging cables, which fit the iPhone, can also charge it? I have a dozen of these lying around that are useless. And at least one accessory says it won't work (a wireless remote I use to pause and skip songs in the car) does work, but I always have to dismiss an irrelevant warning that says it won't and asks me if I want to switch to Airplane mode.
- Camera is mediocre. It has medium resolution at 2.0 megapixels, but lacks a flash or zoom. Basically it does well in bright situations where you can get in close: Decent though not great. The SteadyCam app (free version available) helps by snapping only after you stop moving for a second or two to reduce blur, but greatly slows down how quickly you can take pictures. You often miss the shot you wanted waiting for the camera to detect adequate stillness and snap!
- Apps crash – a lot. iPhone apps frequently become unstable and require you to reboot the phone. Many apps will suggest you reboot after installing. It's hard to tell if this is because the apps are poorly written but Apple released them anyway, or if iPhone memory management is just poor. I suspect a little of both. Amazingly, this is only rarely frustrating.
- Bluetooth toggle is buried. I really wish I could tap an app button to turn Bluetooth on and off, rather than having to dig two layers into the Settings app for it. I often rundown my battery because I forget to turn it off, or find myself driving and unable to make a call.
- Ringtones are pricey. It seems ridiculous to have to spend $1 per ringtone when you already have the full song on your phone. The good news is that there's a free alternative (iRinger for Windows, several others I can't vouch for on Mac), which works great on tracks you DON'T buy from iTunes. (There's a workaround, but to quote Seth Green in Idle Hands: "Too far.") So now when I buy a song from iTunes, I consider whether I might want to make it a ringtone and, if so, pick up the CD instead.
- Rearranging icons is a pain. The iPhone supports up to nine screens of 16 icons (aka 144), and I've already mostly filled these after a few weeks. Once you have more than a couple of screens filled, moving around all of your app and bookmark buttons becomes very cumbersome. The best tip I can suggest is to leave 1-2 spaces open on each screen after the first one, so when you drag icons and they inevitably drop onto the screen, you don't keep breaking up your carefully arranged sets and have to drag them back.
So the iPhone 3G is recommended, if you can afford it. Just don't spend all of your time watching the new releases on the App Store. Like I do.
For larger resolution images of the iPhone interface and apps as well as some Seattle Snowpocalypse '08 pictures referenced in the article, visit the Busy Gamers group on Facebook.