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13 November 2009

Stéphane Épardaud

by Stéphane Épardaud

This year I bit the bullet and got myself rid of a decade-old relationship with Nokia to get a phone with a good Internet experience. I then used this new phone on vacation instead of the usual laptop to stay connected. Here’s a list of things I’ve learned during this experiment.

I’ve always been a big fan of Nokia. I was blown away in 1999 when I could trigger calls by voice on my first Nokia phone. It had a UI to type in music for your custom ringtone (which subsequent models made obsolete by allowing MIDI, but that was only better). This is so handy when driving since it doesn’t require you to touch or even look at the phone. My second Nokia phone had a modem in it, so it did tethering. Around 2005 it had SyncML and let me sync my contacts with GMail (that was a bit later). Ever since the first phone I could sync the phone contacts with the computer using Windows first, then Linux. Since I hated typing on the phone I sent my SMS using Linux, by connecting with the phone. Ever since 2000 I was able to send my vCard using SMS and infrared, then later Bluetooth.

Few people can say that their contacts list grew from 1999 to 2009 without ever being lost or typed in manually on new phones. My contact list went from my first phone in vCard format to the second, then all the way until it went to GMail using SyncML and from there to newer phones using synchronisation. I never lost it or entered it by hand on new phones. It just grew and evolved.

Over the years I grew very attached to the simple and stable interface of Nokia phones and their feature sets. Naturally I also noticed some flaws, like when my new phone did want me to record the names of the contacts for voice-controlled calls anymore, but used some sort of analysis of my voice and compared it how the phone thought I should be pronouncing names. Needless to say I was never able to get the hang of how the phone wanted me to pronounce anyone’s name, including my own wife. At some point the phones got 3G (around 2005 probably) and naturally included a browser which would take ages to render any page and crash most of the time, effectively rendering it useless. I skipped the whole WAP thing.

##Searching for a new phone

In 2007 I was finally accepting the fact that I expected my phone to do internet browsing and email correctly, and decided to get one as soon as I would find one with the following features:

  • Large multi-touch screen

  • 3G with a good navigator and email application

  • Bluetooth (for headsets and sending vCards)

  • MMS (for sending pictures in case of emergency such as “Do I buy this or that?”)

  • Voice-command calls

  • Synchronization (SyncML preferably)

  • Good battery charge

I never could get used to the idea of using an iPhone 1 or 3G since too many of my requested features were missing, but when the iPhone 3GS came out, and the price was fair (150€ with a contract renewal) I couldn’t wait for Android or Nokia phones to get there fast enough, so I reluctantly bought an Apple product.

##First impressions

At first I was a bit disappointed I had to reboot to Windows and install the dreaded iTunes application which only recently bricked my iPod, and whose user interface I never understood. Nevertheless, those are the rules. Then I’m very surprised because I learn that if you want to install (or just browse) applications (even free ones) on the iPhone you need to give your credit card number to Apple. Needless to say I never gave mine to Nokia. This is a really cunning move from Apple, not one that I like one bit.

After I set up iTunes and stuff, it allows me to use the iPhone. This gets me into trouble I will describe next.

##Contacts synchronisation

As I mentioned all my contacts are in GMail, and there is just such an option to import then from GMail. Turns out this got me all my contacts in the iPhone with the first and last names reversed. I then discovered that since my contacts list evolved from my first vCard capable phone in 1999 some had their names set in only one field, while others had the proper "first name, last name" decomposition. As of today the GMail contacts interface still doesn’t allow you to set those as two fields, although once you export your contacts list to a vCard you can see which ones are correct and fix those that are not properly decomposed.

Once you fix your contact list, you can re import it in GMail and it works. At least it works if you don’t mind losing any associated contact image and GTalk handle. It took me a while to fix that, but then I discovered that what I really wanted was to use the "Exchange Server" synchronisation with GMail. That got me not only the contacts list but also the calendar. It also fixed whatever issues I had with the "GMail contacts synchronisation" I cannot recall now.

I have to say it now works like a charm for both the calendars and contacts.

If you’re looking for how to chose which calendars to sync with your iPhone, try this page.

##Free applications you must have

Here’s a list of free applications I found useful for the iPhone:

  • Google Earth: let’s face it it is just as useful as Google Maps, but much more eye candy ;)

  • Google: mostly for the handy shortcuts

  • eBuddy: the "all Instant Messenging accounts" application you must have

  • Facebook: much faster than their web site for this phone

  • Twitterific: a fast and simple Twitter client

  • Torch: turn your phone into a lamp

##Free applications you must have (in France)

If you are living in France, chances are you’ll be interested in the following:

  • Le Monde.fr: if you want to read the headlines, it’s even better than their iPhone dedicated web site

  • PagesJaunes: if you ever look for a phone number, it’s better than their iPhone dedicated web site

##List of things that are annoying on the iPhone

When I went on vacation this year I thought I could avoid taking my laptop with me and use the iPhone for all the browsing and mail I needed to do while away. After a few weeks of experience with the iPhone as my primary internet access, I have written down a list by no order of importance some of the shortcomings and frustration I’ve had with the iPhone:

  • No alternate "From" address in the mail application. This is terrible if like me you have several email addresses and need to change the "From" address when sending mail. I have one for work, one for home, one for the Riviera JUG, several for different mailing lists I’m subscribed to. Fact is I just could not send any mail on behalf of the Riviera JUG and all mails sent to mailing lists were rejected since my "From" address could not be changed to the registered one. It turns out that this is supported provided you can type all your alternate addresses separated by a comma in the account address settings. If you’re wondering why the manual doesn’t mention this or why the particular setting’s keyboard does not let you type a comma, then welcome to the club. You have to copy a comma from somewhere else and use the paste function to type it in this field. Wow.

  • You can view attachments (like PDF) but not save them. In fact I haven’t been able to figure out why you can’t save anything on the iPhone, but when you must save an attachment to upload it to a web site, fact is you’re out of luck.

  • Copy/paste, just like automatic landscape rotation is something that will work on some applications while not in others. This is not necessarily the iPhone’s fault, but it’s fairly annoying that landscape doesn’t work in Twitterific, Facebook and eBuddy, and copy/paste doesn’t work in eBuddy (try grabbing a URL there).

  • Internationalisation is just not good enough. In French I need to be able to type accents often, and they are hard to get (impossible to guess where they hide also, you must see the manual). That makes typing in French really slow. Also they should have changed the symbols order for specific languages like French.

  • Sometimes you lose the 3G or GPRS connection and your best bet is to reboot it. Why does it take up to a minute to shut down?

  • The lack of background apps is very annoying if you use this as your primary internet connection. Luckily some applications save enough state to reduce this limitation, and some others use Push to notify you of things to check out in a non-running app, but not all applications so this is annoying.

  • The GPS is often wrong by a few kilometers. In the 3 places I’ve tried it, it put me on the beach when I was in the mountains, in a different valley or in a different part of town. I’m glad I don’t use this.

  • I still haven’t found how to type the degree sign (I hear there’s a Japanese keyboard workaround): 30°C anyone?

  • It’s missing user profiles: when you share it with people for a while, you want it to know that everyone has different mail accounts, contacts and facebook profiles for instance. I know this is a feature missing from most (if not all) other phones. It made sense to not have that on non-internet phones, but on a device which is not only a phone but also an internet tablet, I expect a few ubiquitous computer idioms such as those. I wouldn’t mind if Apple were the first to implement it on a smart phone.

  • Although the iPhone can present you with several contacts list (from different mail accounts probably) you can only add one Active Sync server, which means if your wife and you have different address books on GMail you cannot see both.

  • The spell checker is just plain awful. It almost always turns what you’re typing into what you don’t want to type and requires you to look at what you’re typing and be really fast in going up to tap on its wrong suggestion to remove it before it transforms your correct word into gibberish. It’s a game I just don’t like to play. Please give me underlined words and a one-step correction.

  • Battery life is terrible. Sometimes you want Wifi, Bluetooth, Push and automatic synchronisation, while other times you want battery life. There is no single button ready to press that says "Save my battery" that disables all these in the hope that your phone lasts more than one day without you even calling.

  • I hear there’s an iPod part in there. I have my own iPod with a much bigger disk space and I use it with Linux (I hear iPhones just don’t play nice). But yesterday I clicked on an mp3 podcast on a web site and expected the file to be added to the iPod so I could listen to it in the car (which talks to iPods). I was completely amazed not to see the iPod app show up but instead a lame QuickTime player interface (which worked, but didn’t let me connect it to the car, or save it for later). This is really lame.

  • I still didn’t find how to send vCards using Bluetooth.

  • After hesitating a while, when I found a few minutes of time while on vacation I decided to try downloading a movie from iTunes. I was ready to pay for it, but the lack of Wifi prevented me from buying any movie on iTunes from the iPhone. I thought that was rather lame, what’s the point really? People at home have better devices to watch movies on than small iPhone screens…

  • imageThe Google Maps application icon uses a locale-specific road sign (the 280 part), which makes this icon a puzzle for most of the world (including me). This sign means so much nothing to me that I can look at each individual icon on the iPhone initial app list (one screen only) and still not guess which is the Google Maps application. Please change it.

##Conclusion

While the iPhone is certainly a step forward in terms of Internet browsing (crashy at best on my previous phone) and email (inexistent on my previous phone), it leaves a lot to be desired. This is the third phone Apple makes, so I was expecting that it didn’t have enough background on the subject to do everything right, but let’s just say I was just as pleasantly surprised by the many nice features it has (which I didn’t talk about here, there are enough Apple fan sites around) as I was amazed at some of the limitations it has.

All in all I’m still happy I made the move since I wanted proper Internet connectivity on my phone and I did get that. I would also be damned if I knew which other phone would be better, since it’s really easy to know what the iPhone does with all the hype, but pretty hard to get a good idea what the many competing phones allow you to do.