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Cellphones

Journal: iPhone review from an Ubuntu user

Journal by randomsearch

I have something to confess. I'm an Ubuntu user and I recently bought an iPhone. I'm currently doing a PhD in Computer Science and use Linux almost completely exclusively on desktops. I like Linux, I like some of the philosophical ideas behind open-source software, the low cost and most importantly of all its flexibility and power to get my research done.

Having said that, the current Android phones were not enticing, and I wanted to buy something fun and different from what I'm used to. So I walked into an O2 store and bought the thing (a 3GS). A month later, having used it a lot, I realised I'm well-placed to review the phone for other Linux users, or people who just want an independent view without any Apple-hype.

I know several Apple fanboys, and some of them push Apple products like Jehovah's Witnesses push their religion. This has resulted in two things: I had this idea that Apple was able to write software that _must_ be better than things I use at the moment, and that I would probably be critical of any flaws I encountered in Apple products.

To cut to the chase: I really like the iPhone. It's great. It's a pleasure to use. The interface is awesome, it looks gorgeous, and I can see how it will change my life compared to my previous pay-as-you-go high-end Samsung. However, I can feel the cost of Apple's closed approach.

Here's my specific comments:

- Messaging looks great with the bubble-conversation arrangement. I find this makes me use SMS like instant messaging, and I've had a lot more conversations than I ever would have done previously.

- The onscreen keyboard is a bit strange at first, but grows on you. You wouldn't want to do extended typing on it, but it's better than any physical keyboard on a small device I've used.

- Using the phone as a phone is not great - it gets hot and is heavy to hold to your ear. The worst mobile I've used for actually chatting to people.

- Calls seem to take an unusually long time to initiate, compared to previous phones.

- The calendar is fairly good. At first, I thought it was too simplistic, but it has grown on me. There are a few fantastic UI widgets in there that make it very easy to enter details, despite the lack of keyboard. I got it to sync with Google calendar, so I have thrown my paper diary away.

- The camera is terrible. My Samsung had a great camera and flash, I almost didn't need to bother with my digital any more. For me, the camera on the iPhone is a waste of space. I'm going to buy a new digital. I noted before I bought it that a few fanboys had put good photos taken with the iPhone on flickr - they are *completely* unrepresentative of actual use. Indoor photos just don't happen.

- The small apps such as the weather and notes are very useful. I use them a lot.

- Safari is ok. As a regular Firefox user, I miss a lot of Firefox's features. Having said that, the screen is too small for extended browsing. Despite Apple's innovative attempts to make it more navigable, a lot of web pages are a pain to use. It renders pretty fast, but I guess this is one area where Apple's minimalism and my requirements diverge. For example, RSS bookmarks in Firefox and the awesome bar are indispensible for me now.

- Some of the gestures are great. However, the "pinch" actions to zoom are no fun. I'd heard so much fanboyism about such things, but I'm disappointed. I don't have any better suggestions, but I don't like it. This is probably personal taste.

- App Store is a mixed bag. As a Linux user, I was quite shocked by the move to Apple-land. Suddenly, every line of code must be paid for. There are some good free apps, but the vast majority charge. I know that I could write the apps myself, I know how little work some of them take, and I resent paying someone, say, £2 for an ssh app. This really comes down to philosophical issues over what "value" means and whether piece of software can be worth £2 if it costs close to £0 to reproduce it. Do you believe in demand-led pricing, or cost-based pricing? I think the latter makes a lot more sense.

However, in Apple-land you don't have a choice - you take it or leave it. The platform is closed. The same goes for iTunes. The lack of OGG support is another example, most of my music is in ogg so I'll need to convert it and take the quality hit if I want to use it. iTunes on the desktop is no fun (although it has improved since the last version I used), especially given it's not available under Linux. Rhythmbox in Gnome is much less pretty and much more responsive.

- The free apps I downloaded stopped working after a few days and needed to be reinstalled. This looked like a DRM or corruption problem.

- The interface is all kinds of awesome. Clearly, this is what Apple do best and no phone I've ever seen even comes close.

- Behind the scenes, I'm not convinced. The fact that everything seems to run almost sequentially is a bit scary, and occasional hangs do happen. For example, accessing mail servers for the first time I had to come out of the settings menu as the thing froze. At least it didn't crash the whole phone. I get the feeling this might also be the case with other Apple products - I've used an iPod Nano extensively and that's crashed on me plenty of times. By comparison, I have an iRiver that has never crashed after about the same amount of use. From using Macs occasionally, it seems like this is Apple's approach - get the interface right and make it pleasant for the user, and they'll forgive shortcomings in the underbelly. Probably a very savvy approach.

Overall, I would recommend the phone and give it 8-9 out of 10. The only thing that will beat the iPhone is a well-designed Android device, the idea of a completely open platform with comparable usability would be revolutionary. Until that emerges, I'll stick with the iPhone.

I have never seen anything fill up a vacuum so fast and still suck. -- Rob Pike, on X.

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