On being assimilated

Posted by steve on Jul 19, 2009 in Hardware, Hardware Reviews, Personal |

When Real Steve Jobs announced the iPhone, two years and a half ago, I knew I needed (not wanted; I needed) one. When Steve again walked the stage of the WWDC, last year, and told us of the goodness of the iPhone 3G, I was convinced to the degree that I queued up for nearly six hours (yes, I know…) outside Tampa’s Apple Store to secure a brace for myself and the missus.

And so, when this year’s iteration was to be unveiled, I dutifully chewed my fingernails in anticipation of spiffy new features. But they failed, almost entirely, to materialise. A compass? Meh. A better battery? About bloody time. An oleophobic screen? Be still, be still, my beating heart. All in all, I was utterly, comprehensively and thoroughly whelmed. Not overwhelmed, mark you, but whelmed — here was an iPhone that failed to set my young heart aflame.

Had my life continued down the path I’d been anticipating a year ago, I would have been somewhat torn — it was a new iPhone, and I knew I’d want it, but there wasn’t quite enough in the new release to justify the many more hundreds of dollars it would inevitably cost. But fate, as it has a habit of doing, intervened, and I recently decamped to New Zealand, a move that rather changed things. Around the time that the latest iPhone was released in New Zealand, I found myself looking to sign up for an antipodean cellphone, and so on Friday I found myself making for my local Vodafone shop. I bought one (I’ll get another for the lovely and talented when she arrives next month), and brought it home to start playing with. And here’s what I discovered.

Superficially, it’s all but identical to the iPhone 3G. The lettering on the back is glossy, rather than the matte of the last edition, but otherwise, you’d be hard pushed to know that you’re holding a 3G S (a somewhat less than brilliant naming system). The same glossy plastic forms the back, the same shiny metal covers the external switches. So what is new?

Well, there is the speed. Apparently, the internal circuitry of the new iPhone supports the much-vaunted 3.5G network that AT&T (of whom more later) will, sooner or later, be rolling out. But said technology has yet to trouble New Zealand either, and so I have no way of testing this new feature. But overall, the device does seem that little nippier. Applications do seem to open a little more quickly, and animation and graphics feel a tad more fluid. This is, of course, a highly subjective impression; it might be simply down to the fact that I’m chuffed with my new toy.

Most of the features of the new phone are also to be found in iPhone OS version 3, which I installed on my old 3G iPhone the day it was released. Cut, copy and paste have finally been implemented, finally putting an end to complainers who likened their absence to the Dark Ages. Oddly, though, I’ve not actually used any of these features yet — I can only assume that I’ve become so thoroughly used to using my iPhone without them that, now that they’ve finally arrived, I simply forget that they’re there. The new landscape keyboard that, again, people have been clamouring for as though its absence were a scourge against humanity is a little disappointing — I tried it and, frankly, found that I much preferred typing on the regular portrait-orientation keyboard. The keys felt more comfortably spaced that way.

The compass has proven to be a bit of a one-day wonder. It’s ever so impressive that Apple have managed to shoehorn a magnetometer into this device, but, frankly, what is the point? I appreciate the integration with Google Maps — having a map face in the same direction that I’m facing is clever, but hardly earth-shattering.

Voice activation has been added, one more of those catch-up features that Apple pretty much had to add. I confess to being impressed with its accuracy — my experience with American voice-recognition software is that it is hobbled by its assumption that everyone who ever uses it must be from the American midwest, and my Coronation Street vowels routinely confound such systems, but my iPhone makes a decent fist of decoding me. I’m still not sure how much I’ll use it, but it’s certainly an interesting novelty.

The iPhone 3G S’s new camera is the most visible hardware enhancement. I’ve long wondered why cellphones have to have cameras; I’ve finally come to the conclusion that as soon as one company added the feature, every other manufacturer had to, even though the two concepts have relatively little connection. I don’t, after all, insist that my toaster has a microphone, or that my dog is Bluetooth-enabled. But mobile phones, it has been decreed, will henceforth have cameras. And still cameras are no longer enough — they must now be video-capable. Much has been made of the quality or otherwise of the camera in the iPhone 3G S; most of it is pretty fair. It’s a phone, not a bloody Hasselblad medium-format camera, so I really don’t quite know what people expect. It takes pictures, and they’re perfectly functional. And it also takes highly serviceable video. I don’t see Martin Scorcese throwing away his Panaflex kit just yet, but if you want to make a lasting record of little Suzy turning her first cartwheel, you could do a fair bit worse. The integration with the rest of the OS is useful, though — on-phone trimming followed by the ability to email the video is rather convenient. I still don’t see cameras as a core feature of a phone, though, so I’m yet to be convinced that this is an area that Apple really need to be spending too much time.

The feature I’m most impressed with so far, though, is the oleophobic coating on the screen. In the days before we knew of the iPhone, I was highly sceptical of the idea of a touch-screen iPod. Surely, I would find myself thinking, my greasy fingers would smear across the screen and render it barely watchable. And, much as I enjoyed using my original iPhone, I found my prediction disappointingly correct. With last year’s iPhone 3G, I took to using a screen-protector sheet, but somehow it felt wrong, almost as though I was putting a barrier between myself and my toy. The 3G S’s screen, though, simply does not need a protector. I bought, as I mentioned my phone on Friday morning, and on Friday evening, as is customary, I found myself in the Warkworth RSA with Neil and Alex, who took a modicum of polite interest in my new gadget. I mentioned the screen; Neil reached across the table, took a hot, freshly-fried chip, and smeared it across the surface of the phone. “There, it looks pretty greasy now!” I liberated my iPhone from his Welsh clutches, gave it a quick wipe across my All Blacks rugby shirt, and handed it back to him. Spotless.

I’ve had my iPhone 3G S for barely a weekend. So far I’m less incrementally impressed than I was this time last year with my iPhone 3G, but then, I was less blown away with it than I was with my original iPhone a year earlier. Apple will have to pull something quite spectacular out this time next year if they hope to make even more money out of me; in the meantime, I’m enjoying being wired wirelessly again. I guess I’m powerless to resist a new iPhone. Resistance, clearly, is futile.

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