iphone inhand thumb iPhone Review: the best office PDA ever

Many people have jumped both onto and off of the iPhone release wagon. First it was touted as the next-big-thing, a mind blowing, life changing and stylish entry into the phone market. Bringing with it some amazing connectivity apps and the Apple pledge “that if you used this phone then you were officially cool” Even the price wasn’t putting too many people off. Then, with cameras ready and mikes checked, the UK media circus descended onto London to catch a glimpse of the “thousands” queing for this wonder device.

In the end they had to take photos of themselves. The ‘launch of the century’ fell over its own booster rockets and very strange phenomenon happened;

It seems that everyone stayed home.

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What was wrong with the launch and, by proxy, the device is something the pundits have speculated about endlessly since then. Even those who were unabashedly positive about the iPhone before release, such as Stuff Magazine, sat around on their asses. In fact, on the launch night podcast, they came up with all sorts of reasons why they were going to tuck in early and give it a miss.

The real reason, the pundits agreed, was that the iPhone had lost its cool tag. Something Apple paid millions of pounds to setup, lost in a single release. Or maybe the punters had come to their senses; after all, “surely it was just a phone?”

I listened in carefully to Stuff’s podcast and read many blog reviews before purchasing my phone online at the Apple website. Most pundits had whined about the lack of 3G or mentioned hanging on for a new version that was to come out 2008 and somehow solve all the ‘problems’ with the device. At the moment it was proclaimed to be a “compromise”.

Compromise!?

Perhaps if us mere mortals lived in the magazine world of super-high-tech, where the stereos cost £2000, the gadgets are all reviewer only previews or freebees and the nearest next gen console was a joy pad away;

“Oh the Wii, yeah, [picks up wiimote] well it’s just not got the HD of the Sony has it [picks up the PS3 controller] “ [deep sigh] “Yeah, but then the largest collection of games are on the 360, just look at my gamer tag…[reaches for Xbox]”

I don’t live in that world. My stereo is a £43 T-Amp combined with 2 speakers from the bargain bucket at Richer Sounds. My last console purchase was a Gameboy Advanced, I haven’t even played a PS3 and if I want to play an Xbox 360 I have to take a 20 minute drive over to my brothers flat and kick him out of bed.

In other words, I am a fairly normal guy. I have a PC and I have a website, but essentially I am paying for this with my own money and living with it. For 18 months.

To be sure PDA’s combined with phones are nothing new, even to me. I have been using these so called ‘smart phones’ for a few years now. The best of which was the brilliant Nokia 9500 (which I have for sale if you are interested) the only problem with which was, put simply, that it was only slightly bigger than the Deathstar*. Others, like the N73, were more phone than smart and really didn’t offer me anything.

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Eventually I went for a PDA for business. I run a department for a bank and I needed a system that could be used as a minor note taker, connect to our email, manage my meetings and not be a hassle to use. I also need to be able to access documents and pull up pdf’s in meetings where we have no WIFI or network ability.

I got so fed up with electronic methods that I even used a Hipster PDA for 6 months!

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To say that I had used PDA’s “for pleasure” would have been an outright lie. Honestly I can only say that I have “tried” to use PDA’s for pleasure, but that the PDA itself has always succeeded to thwart me somewhere along the way. My first PDA was a Psion 1 given to me by my father at the age of 10, something akin to a Hitchhikers Guide that was so heavy you could beat whales to death with it (not to mention a non-qwerty keypad). My second was a Psion 3a that I used to write upon when working for Tempo. I then also tried the Sony range including the Clie and the P800. All of these had problems that prevented them from being “fun” and the most I could get out of them was emulating Monkey Island using the SCUMM emu software.

Finally I bought the HP Communicator. The HP was my first attempt to replace a dedicated PDA with a true PDA-phone. It was a disaster.

I tried to like HPs, but they all suck serious ass. My network administrator colleague now openly cries when he hears yet another support call incoming from our MD, who has a particularly bad model. He is constantly getting it fixed/replaced.

So can Apple please a man who has been around the houses on this issue? People who read my stuff will know that I don’t have much truck with Apple’s iPod advertising, which I think is aimed philosophically in the wrong direction. I have never owned a Mac, but my wife has had 3 in the time I have known her.

The issues that I wanted the iPhone to solve were as follows:

  1. Carrying multiple devices. I was starting to feel more machine than man. Twisted up in cables and getting evil in frustration and the risk off losing things that cost a lot and go beep. A phone, a PDA, an mp3 player, a notepad, a pen, a laptop and a good book. Could I do all that with one device?
  2. I was also getting narked by having to convert my music before I could copy it to selected device. Extremely narked. My mp3 player was not Audible compatible and thus I had to burn books to CD before re recording them back into the PC as MP3′s. A serious pain in the ass.
  3. Internet access. Sure my Nokia N73 claimed to have internet, but it didn’t really. Not internet like we are using now.

So does the purchase of the iPhone make up for all that? We all know the basic features of the iPhone: the internet and the rotation of the image when turning the screen.

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The Basic features list:

Calls, SMS, Voicemail, Photos, Ringtones, Music, Video, Wi-Fi Store, Safari, Mail, Maps, Widgets, YouTube, Multi-touch, OS X, Wireless, Accelerometer, Proximity Sensor

But, what is it actually like to live and work with? What are its good and bad points? What about the little things you don’t hear about in most reviews? The little peccadilloes?

The interface has been written about endlessly and indeed it is the unit’s main selling point. You really have to use it see how suave it is. If anything on the iPhone will go down as a design classic it will be the interface. Comparing it to the HP Communicator’s interface of MS Windows is like comparing a stick with a cruise missile. Moving between menus is classy. The amount of buttons have been pared down to an absolute minimum and while you will find yourself getting tired of the gestures (a simple click is always better) you will enjoy using it 90% of the time.

Once sufficiently trained and practiced you will navigate the iPhone astonishingly swiftly, much quicker than a novice. So, when you show it to someone there is a slight moment of disappointment. The interface hides the correct gesture, expecting you to know it and your super-proficient-demonstration, pinching and twisting the unit like you are doing jujutsu on a roof tile, will be hard for the newbie to replicate straight off the bat.

The phone is designed to be used by the person holding it. Not by anyone else. This necessitates constantly handing back and forth when demoing it or the touch screen fails to work correctly.

In three weeks I have had to reset the iPhone twice. Both times when taking off the cradle. This is probably a small bug in iTunes. Twice may sound like a lot but actually it is amazing for a PDA phone. My HP needed resetting every single time I looked at it.

iPod functions are exactly as expected; perfect. The system syncs with iTunes and the software is another smooth experience. In use the power button works as a hold button for when the unit is in your pocket. However, there is no inline remote yet. In order to stop the music you need to take out the iPhone, turn it on, slide the lock and then press pause. This is a slow process. Quicker is to simply yank out the headphones from the socket which stops the track where you are. One feature is that the position of the current track carries across to the PC. So, if you are half way through a podcast on your PC the iPhone will continue from that point. Exceedingly cool. The touch controls are OK, but moving through the track using the time slider is not as granular as I would have liked.

iphone pic iPhone Review: the best office PDA ever

The camera is much much better than the 2mp suggests. However, there is not much more here than a plain camera; no video or night mode, no zoom or attempt to replicate any great function.

Here are some images I took on a trip to Kew Gardens (click for full size):

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Simplicity is this devices byword in the Getting-Things-Done sense. Where a function isn’t necessary it has been left out. For some that will be a deal breaker. For me it is a God-send. I am so fed up of the branding powers that be promising a function that in the end is missing or doesn’t work properly. Too many gadgets promise and don’t deliver. GPS on the Nokia N95 is a recent example.

There is no cut and paste or application switching beyond having the iPod in the background. So, you write a note don’t expect to be able to cut it into a SMS. In fact the SMS app is strangely missing many features. Perhaps this is a USA thing but for us English, the lack of being able to send SMS’s to multiple recipients is bloody annoying. It annoyed me straight away as I couldn’t text all my contacts my new number and had to use my old phone! You can’t forward SMSs either.

On the other hand, SMSs are now threaded. In other words they are exactly alike the Mac chatting app (which this is obviously a relation of). I simply pick the person and bingo I have all the communications we have sent to each other in the form of a simple conversation. I like this feature a lot and it saves me considerable time. I just wish that I could chose whether to use it or not. This is a programming thing. Apple can fix this. Apple needs to fix this.

Using the unit whilst laying down is not easy as the unit thinks you are tilting it and may rotate the screen.

Internet on the device is REAL internet and is glorious. The large screen makes all the difference and the slick zoom function is easy and simple to use. The only thing missing is Flash, so YouTube won’t work outside the built in app.

The alarm app again overuses the touch interface by having a rolling timer. It is fun, but not super quick.

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The Googlemaps app is amazing. I loved it. It is for me the killer app on the iPhone. While it isn’t a GPS, it is very quick. You can zoom in, plot a course and add bookmarks. Never get lost again! never have to find the map in the car! Applications just don’t get any better than this.

mwk325wm iPhone Review: the best office PDA ever

Phone quality is very good, and I have had no problems at all with calls, taking calls, or ringing. Clarity is also very good and the screen turns itself off when held up to your ear. Reception is similarly better than other PDA-Phones, being one step down from perfect. I don’t have any problems connecting or reconnecting after train tunnels etc.

One thing that must be mentioned is online applications. Anything web based can be built to work in an integrated way with the iPhone. This means that they become as easy as built in apps. This is remarkably clever. Google has just added this functionality to Gmail and Facebook also has it.

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The onscreen keyboard is smart in helping those of use with big hands in working out what we meant to type rather than what we actually did. The application is well designed but the method of moving the cursor position is not as easy as it could have been. There are no arrow-keys and you move the cursor by pressing and holding down on the screen and then moving the pointer via a little magifying lens that pops up. Neat but overkill?

iphone keyboard iPhone Review: the best office PDA ever

Apple have taken so many of the phone specific features we all take for granted with Nokia, et al, off the machine. Such things as the SMS I mentioned, but also depth of configuration. The setup menus are half the depth of the average Nokia. I suspect this is because they ran up against the same software walls that Microsoft run up against and rather than bluff it out they simply stuck to what they knew worked well. After all the rest can be rolled out as an upgrade later. This adds to the air of simplicty the device exudes. A classy quality that states that whatever you find on the phone will be well done.

This is my average iPhone day,

  1. I get awoken by the iPhone’s rather evil alarm at 6am. I roll the slider to select snooze.
  2. 15 Minutes later, I get reawakened by the iPhone’s alarm. This is a really evil one that sounds like a reversing supertanker. Like a sealion’s roar spoken through a robotic voice box.
  3. I get up and do the usual morning stuff people do.
  4. When dressed I use the iPhone to check the weather using the special app. This takes 5 seconds and is very slick.
  5. I check my calendar as the items due pop up a reminder. This application saved my ass today as a meeting had changed day and I didnt know.
  6. On the way to work I listen to an Audible book. Currently I am listening to “Stein: On Writing”, which is excellent.
  7. Near work I quick call Kieran or Jim to see if the team wants coffee.
  8. In the the office, I then sync up my iPhone with my work laptop. I have screen protector film sheet installed. This is the one vital accessory I recommend to all.
  9. The sync also charges the phone.
  10. New podcasts, Ask Ninja episodes and videos are downloaded to the iPhone along with any updated PIM information.
  11. During the day I then carry the iPhone around with me as a short note taker and diary.
  12. Today for example I checked an email in a meeting by connecting into my M$ Exchange POP server over EDGE. Speed over EDGE is fine. I have no complaints at all.
  13. On the way home I use the iPhone as an iPod again, this time listening to podcasts or watching a film. I like both Virginworlds and MOGarmy
  14. I always call my wife on the way home.
  15. At home and before bed I check my personal email account (Gmail), now via my home WIFI, which is seamless in transition from EDGE. Speed over WIFI is amazing.
  16. I head to bed and set the iPhone alarm.

That is an average day. On a good iPhone day I may surf the net to look something up, use Google maps to plot how to get to a meeting (my personal killer app) or even write poetry.

Sure it doesn’t take the place of ‘real’ computing, but it is bloody brilliant to be able to do all this without costing the earth in usage charges.

The sheer smoothness of using the device, the accessibility and the combination of…

  • Phone
  • Mp3 player including audible
  • Googlemaps
  • Notes
  • Email both work and play
  • PIM
  • Internet
  • Films
  • WIFI

…in a small sexy looking tablet phone is bloody brilliant.

So, in conclusion, and your mileage may vary, but for me the iPhone is a massive win and you should get one.  I have never had such a seamlessly integrated system before, which is easy to use and very easy to live with. I love the device and combined with the excellent free usage rules on O2 means I am connected in ways I have never been before.

I find that my personal tech gear must be seamlessly integrated and that I will  have no truck with bad design or any ‘clunk’.  I need the stress free experience not the beta release.  The iPhone is the most stress free device I have ever owned and that alone is worth the money.

It scores a straight 10. Sure there are a few items that take getting used to, but all in all it is a marvelous device.

*Of course the Nokia 9500 isn’t as big as a Deathstar, since there is no such thing as a Deathstar. Perhaps a better comparison would have been with the Crab Nebula, which is tiny in comparison.