iPhone Review - Smartphone Round Robin | webOS Nation
 
 

iPhone Review - Smartphone Round Robin 48

by Dieter Bohn Fri, 18 Dec 2009 3:04 pm EST

 

I'm kicking off this year's Smartphone Round Robin with the iPhone platform. You can take a look at this year's first-looks video for some initial thoughts. Heck, you can take a look at the articles I wrote about the iPhone for Round Robin 2007 and Round Robin 2008. The iPhone sits in a unique place in the Smartphone world - apart from the rest, the de-facto phone that others are now judged against, for many people it's the smartphone. There's probably little about the iPhone that I could tell you that you don't already know.

So why are we here? Well, while the iPhone platform has remained relatively unchanged (though of course not completely, there have been advancements), the rest of the smartphone world has changed significantly around it. Some might call that catch-up and that's fair, but it's also the case that the iPhone, for all its apps, still isn't the best platform for everybody. So let's take a look at where the iPhone is now and how it stacks up against webOS.

Hardware Design

The most notable thing about the iPhone as a platform is how little the hardware has changed. Externally, the iPhone 3G and the iPhone 3GS are essentially identical and, what's more, different only in materials from the original iPhone. All of the changes are on the inside - adding processor speed, adding in video, bumping up the RAM.

Keeping the hardware largely the same has meant that the iPhone has a single (mostly) platform for developers to program against. This is at least a small reason why there are over 100,000 apps for the iPhone, it's just easier to make a single version of an app for a single screen resolution.

I will admit to being a little tired of the iPhone's design. It's iconic and singular, but honestly it doesn't feel as 'high end' as it once did. Not that the Palm Pre or Pixi is the picture of luxury, but sometime soon Apple will need to remember that phones are fashion and fashion changes.

Looking to the future, the iPhone has a more difficult road ahead of it than webOS does when it comes to allowing for design creativity. webOS, as I've said many times, is way down to the core able to accomodate nearly any screen size. Just like you can resize your browser any way you like, the web-based system for webOS theoretically can work at any resolution.

No so for the iPhone, which as of right now feels pretty locked-in to its 320x480 screen resolution. Sizing apps up to some of the larger 800x480 (and bigger!) resolutions that are coming onto the market is going to cause significant headaches for Apple and for their thousands of developers. 320x480 is still a respectable resolution, don't get me wrong, but I fully expect other platforms, including webOS, to embrace more pixels in 2010.

Once again I'll say that although I prefer physical keyboards, the iPhone stands alone as the only keyboard that doesn't feel like it has a cackling gremlin prancing around behind the screen and throwing molasses in the works between my key presses and the field I'm entering text into. The Storm2 is a close second (more on that later) - but basically if you need to type fast you can learn the iPhone and get by on the keyboard.

Speed and Capability

There's no doubt about it: the iPhone 3GS is fast, capable, and able to do more graphically-intense stuff than pretty much any other phone out there. I'll gripe about the lack of 'true' multitasking (again) later, but I should point out that much of that pain is mitigated by the fact that the iPhone 3GS is snappy.

More importantly, the iPhone 3GS is stable, reliable, and not prone to throwing up error message to confuse and frustrate you. Living in a world where webOS tosses up "No More Cards" errors, this is something to be jealous of. I still occasionally run to odd pauses, wait times, and (rarely) app crashes, but they are the exception that makes the rule.

Apple has also famously finished up the iPhone's basement, adding Cut and Paste, MMS, Video recording, and so on and so on. Honestly, the number of things that can't be done on the iPhone but can be done on other platforms is rapidly approaching zero. Whether they'll actually get there is another matter, of course, but it's already cliche to compare the iPhone to Windows: nobody gets fired for picking it.

The list of reasons I keep in my back pocket for not using the iPhone (what, you don't have one?) includes a lot of things, but it's gotten quite a bit smaller. Universal Search on the iPhone is generally better than what you get on webOS (although it can't dump you into a web search). Voice dialing works well. You can get push Gmail via Exchange. Hacking it via Jailbreak is simple these days.

We can get some other capabilities out of the way: iPhone wins on music and movies, obviously. I'll discuss apps a bit below, but you know who wins there too. I prefer texting and calling on webOS over the iPhone, but mainly because I prefer the physical keyboard and a network that doesn't drop calls despite the fact that I have a strong radio signal. Battery life is a wash: the iPhone beats the pants off the Pre and Pixi, but the Pre and Pixi let you replace the battery when you run dry. I think that the iPhone has a slight edge for enterprise device management, but otherwise Exchange features are basically on par.

Using the iPhone

As some of you heard, I ambushed Rene Ritchie during this week's PalmCast with a revelation: I officially think the iPhone's UI needs a fundamental refresh.

It feel revelatory because Apple has received lots of credit, and it's deserved, for creating an intuitive, beautiful, and usable touch interface. After using webOS, however, it feels very static to me ...staccato, actually. The transitions are still nice, but the basic interaction is "Tap, Wait, Tap Tap. Wait, Tap. Tap. Tap." Apple deserves credit for bringing gestures and multitouch to the masses, but they are under-utilized in the platform. Gestures and multitouch on the iPhone largely only happen inside apps, not as a way to interact with the OS overall.

Compare this to webOS, where you are constantly swiping up, swiping left and right, and swiping in the gesture area. It feels much more fluid to have movement associated with certain common actions like switching apps or going back.

Back. That's another thing that the iPhone needs. If Apple has the guts they should steal the gesture area from Palm right now. The area underneath the iPhone's screen is begging for it. I can't tell you how many times I try to use the back gesture on the iPhone now. If you start using iPhone apps after webOS you'll be frustrated by the lack of a back action. It's not just that the iPhone lacks the back gesture, it's that so many of the apps use some sort of back button, I'd almost go so far as to say it's the majority of them. What's worse, the majority of them place their back button in the upper-lefthand quadrant of the screen, which forces right-handers to reach across the screen they're looking at to go back. Tap, wait, tap. Tap. Tap.

Once its in your head that the basic iPhone experience is staccato, you start to see it everywhere. Take WiFi settings. No matter where you are on webOS, you can swipe down the upper-right menu to toggle it, choose a network, or open settings. Same with Bluetooth. As annoying as it can be sometimes, webOS also lets apps hide functions under a menu to give you a cleaner default interface. On the iPhone, you are quitting whatever you're doing, drilling back to your launcher, finding settings, tap, tap. Tap. Then you have to head back to where you were. Tap. Tap. Tap.

The iPhone has push notifications, something Palm has teased but not yet delivered for webOS. I am jealous of them. I'm also jealous of the iPhone's icon badges showing you unread messages. You know the thing I'm not jealous of: the lack of any sort of notification system that lets you queue notifications.

Before we get to the elephant in the room when comparing iPhone with webOS I'll repeat: Apple deserves huge credit for what they did for user interface on smartphones. It's three years old, though, and needs a bit of an update. I worry that, as with their screen size, Apple may have painted themselves into a corner when it comes to future developments to their UI metaphors. Don't get me wrong, the iPhone's UI stands above almost every other smartphone out there ...I just don't think it stands above webOS.

Multitasking: Yeah, going there.

Let's get a few things out of the way before we dig into this multitasking debate. The iPhone multitasks for certain special apps, all made by Apple, and it does so quite well, thanks. With various Jailbreak solutions, you can get other 3rd party apps to multitask. Apple's push notification system also does go a long way towards mitigating the pain of not having 3rd-party multitasking, as does the fact that many iPhone apps are well-formed and elegantly save their state when you quit them by hitting the center button. Finally, denying true multitasking to 3rd party apps does yield benefits for the iPhone: it means that it's faster overall because poorly-written third party apps can only do so much damage. webOS lags sometimes and it definitely wouldn't if it was limited to one app at a time.

Ok to argue for true third party multitasking now? Ok.

To be honest, the number of "true multitasking" situations where the iPhone really falls down is small. The iPhone can't play Pandora radio in the background. Navigation apps will take a bit of time to get back on track when you quit them and come back. I haven't tried, but I suppose persistent location tracking from certain exercise/GPS apps probably suffers. There are probably other examples, but none of them feel like true deal-killers to me.

The great thing about webOS is that what you're doing never goes away until you dismiss it. This is actually true of most platforms, iPhone-included in many cases, but with webOS it's more "in your face" and so switching to another task (like answering a text message) feels much less interruptive, much more fluid.

That's the thing that gets lost when people talk about the benefits of a multi-tasking OS. It's not just that you can run third party apps in the background, it's a feeling that the phone isn't tossing away the stuff you're doing at the moment. It's interruptive, staccato. Tap. Tap.

Could the iPhone overcome this without enabling true multitasking? Probably - borrowing the "hold down a key to show recent apps" from BlackBerry or Android would come pretty close. As it currently stands, though, I feel 'placeless' on the iPhone more often than I do on webOS.

Apps

90% of the preceding gripes about the iPhone UI are rendered into tinny squeaks sounded from a great distance for 99% or users when compared to the number and quality of apps available on the iPhone. Anybody who denies this is deluded, dissembling, or both.

There's potential there with webOS even without high-quality WebGL or OpenGL graphics, but it's going to take time and it's a steep, steep climb to reach a point where webOS can even be considered in the same arena. Palm is obviously working their tail off to make this happen and I don't think it's impossible.

Hacking

I jailbroke my iPhone to try to get a 'power user's' perspective on the platform, but to be honest I'm way too far out of the loop on the community here to speak intelligently about it. I will say this: Jailbreaking the iPhone feels more precarious and dangerous than Homebrew and patching does on webOS.

First, the iPhone is fundamentally more closed than webOS and although the present generation of tools makes jailbreaking easy, there is a cloud hanging over the entire endeavor. At any time Apple can (and has) lay the hammer down on the latest Jailbreak method. The community of iPhone hackers does incredible work every go-round, but it's also clear that they're fighting what Apple wants for the platform.

On the other hand, while Palm hasn't explicitly endorsed patching their OS, they are certainly not fighting it and in some ways appear to be making it easier. Patching webOS these days also feels like it has a clearer safety-net to it: the community has gone to great lengths to ensure that everything they do can be easily rolled-back and plays nice with the core of webOS.

Conclusion

When somebody asks me what phone to get, and it happens often, I always go through the same rigamarole. "Which carrier? No, seriously, which carrier is best for you?" If the answer to that question is AT&T, my next question is usually this "Well, why not get the iPhone?"

That's a pretty strong endorsement. I don't have to convince anybody why the iPhone would be a good choice, because they usually already know everything there is to know about it. Instead I start a conversation about why it might not be the right choice for AT&T users. When webOS lands on the network, I imagine that conversation is going to revolve around multitasking, physical keyboards, and apps.

We try not to pick winners in the Smartphone Round Robin, but rather talk about user needs and preferences. If you need apps and music, right now your choice is iPhone. If that's not big and you care about openness and multitasking, webOS has a serious leg up. What's sort of amazing is that most users don't need to dismiss either out of hand.

HUGE thanks to the fine people in The iPhone Blog forums, whose thoughts and input have been invaluable.