April 20, 2008

iPhone hits Australia

I've been using the iPhone I purchased in the US since July 2007 - it's the longest period I've stuck with the same phone since I started buying mobile phones ten years ago. But actually, while the physical iPhone hasn't changed (although Apple recently launched a 16GB model) Apple have continuously released software updates for the iPhone which have added new features like faux GPS (the ability to find yourself on a map, anywhere around the world using cell tower triangulation) and the iTunes WiFi music store. Just last month in fact, Apple announced a free software upgrade for the iPhone, due in June that will users easily download and buy third party software for the iPhone.

While the iPhone is slated to go on sale in Australia sometime this year (Apple won't say when) that hasn't stopped thousands of Australians from importing and hacking them for use on Australian networks. Like Apple, the telcos won't tell you how many iPhone are being used here, but according to Bernstein Research analyst Toni Sacconaghi at least one million iPhones, or 27 percent of the total sold until January 2008 had 'been "unlocked" so they could work on non-AT&T networks.' That's a lot of demand for something as common as a phone.

But the iPhone isn't just any phone. It's the first true portable computer that's small enough to fit in your pocket and follows in the footsteps of some other truly remarkable devices like the revolutionary Handspring Treo, that helped converge three distinct devices (PDA, Phone and media player) into a new category now recognised as smartphones.

Pundits often compare the iPhone to other smartphones on the market - but spend even a few minutes playing with an iPhone and you'll quickly realise it's in a class of its own. It's the only phone for example, with a desktop class web browser (mobile Safari) which makes surfing easy, plus the built in applications range from Google Maps, world time, YouTube browser to a weather widget that can give you the current weather in any country in the world (These features are available on other smart phones but don't come as standard. You'll also need a programmers certificate to work out how to install them).

The secret to the iPhone (and iPod Touch, an iPhone without the 'phone') is its operating system. It's called OS X (pronounced 'o s ten')- the same operating system that runs on the Mac but Apple redesigned the interface to work with your fingers rather than a mouse. The new interface is called Multi-touch, and in many ways it's as revolutionary as the first Mac graphic interface was back in 1984.

Multi-touch lets you control everything using only your fingers. That means you move through album art with your finger, scroll through photos or contacts with a flick, and even use two fingers (hence Multi-touch) in a manoeuvre called 'pinch' to zoom in or out of photos or a web page. The iPhones interface is so responsive that the gestures quickly feel second nature (even my two year old has mastered them).
The iPhone is also the first phone to ship with a built in 3D accelerometer which detects when you rotate your iPhone from portrait to landscape and automatically changes the content of the display. There's also a proximity sensor built-in to the speaker at the top of the iPhone which senses when it's close to your ear and turns off the display to save power - this also prevents inadvertent touches while your on a call.

In other ways though the iPhone is very familiar. Take syncing for example, if you know how to sync your iPod with iTunes you'll instantly know how to sync an iPhone because it works exactly the same way.
On a spec sheet the iPhone isn't actually the strongest performer. Undeniably, its biggest weakness is its lack of a 3G or HSDPA high-speed radio. That means the iPhone accesses data on the slower 2.5 (or EDGE) GPRS network. It's also missing a 5 Mega pixel camera, built-in GPS and the battery can only be replaced by an Apple technician. Then there is also the question of keyboard. While other manufacturers use physical keyboards Apple chose to create a virtual keyboard. The virtual keyboard appears on the screen when needed (for example, when writing an email) and disappears when its not. While this method optimises screen real estate when a keyboard isn't needed the lack of tactile feedback from the keyboard can be daunting at first. But I've tried lots of keyboards (from BlackBerrys to Treos) and think the iPhone keyboard is easily as good - it just takes getting used to.

'Push' email (the ability to receive email in real time, as it arrives, rather than a regular interval), the only advantage BlackBerry users still have over their iPhone wielding rivals will be available in June thanks to the inclusion of ActiveSync in the next version of the iPhone OS. The free software upgrade will let small business and enterprise users with Microsoft Exchange push data, including email, calendar and contact information to the iPhone wirelessly, whenever a change at either end is made. ActiveSync also provides a 'remote wipe' function that lets administrators remotely clear an iPhone of its details if it becomes lost or stolen.

There's also been criticism over Apple's business practise of locking the iPhone to one carrier. In the US for example, you can only buy the iPhone if you commit to a 24 month AT&T contact. Local rumors place the iPhone with Telstra due to the carriers EDGE network (Telstra are the only Australian carrier to offer EDGE, an upgraded version of GPRS) and Apple's seeming preference to partner with the largest national carrier in markets it enters.

If you can't wait till the iPhone arrives here you'll either need to source your iPhone from somebody in the US ($550+) (actually, you can buy an iPhone in the UK, Germany, Ireland and France but the cheapest is the US due to the exchange rate) or you'll find lots for sale on eBay. If you decide to buy your own you'll need to 'Jailbreak' and 'Activate' it (a straight forward process that requires the use of freely available software from the Internet) but buyer beware. While Jailbroken iPhones function perfectly you'll need to be careful when applying Apple updates (like the update due in June) as they caused headaches for iPhone users. Also, Apple Australia don't officially support the iPhone so any problems you encounter will need to be routed via Apple in the US - including any warranty or repair issues.

Alternatives
What happens if you need a new smart phone now and can't wait for the iPhone to become officially available? My first suggestion would be to look at the new BlackBerry Pearl 8120. The 8120 is even smaller than the iPhone and uses a special keyboard which makes typing and dialling super easy (some argue it's even better than the iPhones on-screen keyboard). It's also got best-of-breed BlackBerry email (which currently provides better email functionality than the iPhone), voice recognition and a 2 megapixel camera. BlackBerry have enhanced the visual interface on the 8120 and it's now starting to look good - but BlackBerry still have a long way to go before it's good enough. The 8120 though, is a great phone that is quick and easy to use, and will keep you connected at all times. It's what I'd use if I didn't have an iPhone.

If you're used to Nokia the latest N95 8GB might be up your alley. It features the Series 60 user interface which is common on many Nokia phones. While it's easy to use for basic functions anything more sophisticated will require a thorough read of the manual. With 8GB of memory there's plenty of room to take lots of high resolution photos with its 5 mega pixel camera. You can also load up on lots of media. The only catch is that listening to music, and watching movies on the N95 is a painful experience at best.

For those that fancy Windows Mobile there are a variety of phones available. One of the most popular models is the HTC Touch Dual which features a touch screen and TouchFLO technology - fancy software which makes Windows Mobile slightly more bearable. HTC Touch Dual is available on the Telstra Next G network and features fast mobile Internet and access to applications like email, video calling, video messaging, and Foxtel. Still, using Windows Mobile can only be described as second rate at best. The interface was old and slow when Windows CE was released in the late 1980's and has only seen marginal improvements since then, despite new look themes and a name change to 'Windows Mobile'. In my opinion, beginners should steer well away from any phone that uses Windows Mobile.

At a Glance.

iPhone
iPhone is a revolutionary new smartphone due out in Australia this year. It's everything in one, including an iPod, PDA and phone. It's got the best web-browser on any mobile device and features a state of the art interface called multi-touch that makes using it easy.
Pros:
Easy to use, works with iTunes, small and light, scratch resistant screen, WiFi, Bluetooth, 8GB built-in memory (with a 16GB option), Built in speaker, 3.5 inch screen high resolution multi-touch display
Cons:
Keyboard takes getting used to, non-user replaceable battery, not 3G, 2 megapixel camera not good in low light

Rival Buys
Model: BlackBerry Pearl 8120
Price: $899
BlackBerry: www.blackberrypearl.com
The 8120 improves on the original Pearl 8110 by adding WiFi and an improved user interface. The 8120 now comes with a standard 3.5mm headphone jack making its media functionality more useful but still limited without iTunes syncing. If you need mobile email, BlackBerry is still the way to go.

Model: Blackberry 8800
Price: $899
BlackBerry: www.blackberry8800series.com
While the 8800 BlackBerry shares the same software as its smaller 8120 brother it features a full qwerty keyboard for fast text input. It's also got a bigger screen which makes the whole device much bulkier than the 8120. Because it's been designed for the business market the 8800 doesn't feature a camera either, but does have built-in GPS plus integrated BlackBerry Maps software.

Model: Nokia N95 8GB
Price: $1349
Nokia: www.nseries.com
The N95 was the benchmark smartphone until the iPhone arrived in June last year and will appeal to users familiar with Nokia controls. Now, compared to the iPhone it looks like a horse-drawn carriage does parked next to a Ferrari. Still, it's got all the ticks on the specs list and even has an FM radio, built-in GPS which lets you use the N95 as a sat-nav device, assuming you've got the maps.

Model: HTC Touch Dual
Price: $835
HTC: www.htctouch.com
The Touch Dual features a touch screen and TouchFLO technology that lets you manipulate some information easily with your finger. While TouchFLO works reasonably well it's like putting lipstick on a pig (In this case the pig is Windows Mobile). As soon as you want to access a regular phone function (say finding a contact) you'll need to pull out your little stylus and start pecking away. The Touch Dual also features a standard phone keypad for easy dialing. But it's the only phone in this bunch that takes advantage of the Telstra Next-G network to provide high-speed broadband to the phone, and syncs well with Windows thanks to ActiveSync.