Friday, January 18, 2008

Analysis: What iPhone Updates Mean to You

The iPhone has received two major software updates since I reviewed it in June 2007, so I decided to take a fresh look at the new features this week.

Overall, the changes are pretty minor, but welcome, and they don't change the main conclusions of my iPhone review. Basically, the iPhone is a marvelous device, an excellent media player and Web browser that unfortunately has trouble with phone call quality. Still, the improvements fulfill Apple's promise to keep delivering new features to what is in the end just a tiny PC running Mac OS X.

One warning: if you've hacked your iPhone, and especially if you've unlocked your iPhone, you might be beyond the pale. Apple has said publicly that updates may make hacked iPhones useless.

Here's how the iPhone has changed.

The iTunes WiFi Store: If you're connected to Wi-Fi, you can now browse and buy songs from iTunes, including unprotected iTunes Plus tracks. It's very easy to peruse and purchase tracks, and songs bought on your iPhone sync back to your PC. You can only buy music, though – not videos.

Custom ringtones: You now have the option to turn your purchased iTunes Store songs into ringtones for an extra 99 cents. You can use Apple's GarageBand '08 with unprotected music to create free ringtones. That's a very quick task in GarageBand – you basically just select a chunk of a music file and choose one menu option.

Home screen enhancements: To make up for the lack of third-party applications and promote the idea of "Web apps," Apple lets you put your Web bookmarks on the phone's home screen, just as if they were apps.

It's actually a seductive trick, because you start getting lulled into thinking they're real applications (until you're out of network coverage, of course.) In my case, I placed my Microsoft Outlook Webmail on the home screen to make me feel like I had Outlook connectivity – losing that extra click of digging into the Safari bookmarks made a big difference in usability. Since you can now add icons to the home screen, you can also easily rearrange icons, including bumping them to one of nine 'extra' home screens you scroll through by flicking your finger. While you can't delete the iTunes Music Store, at least you can exile it to another screen.

Better maps: Using the magic of cell tower or Wi-Fi hotspot triangulation (not GPS), you can click on a little 'bullseye' icon in the Maps application and have it figure out where you are. When I tried it in several New York locales, it always got my location to within a block. Flipping up a preference pane with a cute animation lets you switch to Google's satellite view or drop custom 'pins' into your maps, marking your favorite locations. There are also improvements to the driving-directions feature. I found it worked just like Google Maps – fine with some routes, and a bit odd with others.

More SMS: You can now store more than 1000 SMS messages, and you can broadcast SMS to multiple recipients, with the results appearing on your iPhone in a chat-room-type layout.

Better e-mail: The IMAP client has been stabilized and now actually works with Google. That means you get your GMail folders.

Manual media management: You don't have to 'sync' your iPhone according to playlists and rules any more; you can manually drag over just the songs and videos you want in iTunes.

Data entry tweaks: Though the touch keyboard still takes getting used to, Apple has been refining the typing experience. Now, if you press two keys down at once, it will type them in the order you pressed them. Hitting the space bar twice inserts a period and a space as well.

Lots of other tiny stuff: There's plenty of other enhancements to talk about, but it's all tiny, like lyrics support in iTunes (I've never seen an iTunes song with lyrics) and chapter support while playing movies.

All these updates don't address my biggest concern, however, which is call quality. The earpiece was a bit louder than before. But I still get a hiss in the earpiece when making phone calls and static on the in-ear feedback, the speakerphone is still much too quiet, and transmissions sound like they're underwater. While Apple says its September update improved call quality and volume, I just didn't hear enough of a change.

There's still no stereo Bluetooth either, no audio or video recording, and no Flash support in the browser. In addition, the phone still uses AT&T's EDGE network rather than the carrier's faster 3G network. You still can't enter email in landscape mode, delete multiple e-mail messages or solve certain other minor complaints that aren't listed above. And there's still no way to do instant messaging or picture messaging to other phones. That last concern may change in February, when Apple opens up the iPhone to thousands of possible third party applications. I can't wait.

No comments: