Editorial: 10 Rounds with the iPhoneBy: Tim Carroll
July 4, 2007
Author's note: I do not own an iPhone. This is not a review. This is an editorial/opinion piece based on the dozens of iPhone reviews and hundreds of users comments that have appeared on the net since the device was announced. Every effort has been made to ensure accurate descriptions of iPhone's operation. If iPhone owners would like to point out any technical inaccuracies, feel free to post them in the Comments section below.
iDay has come and gone, and the first iPhones have made their way into the hot, grubby hands of gadget geeks and Apple cultists. It's an important phase: how well is this svelte little beauty going to bear up under the hypercritical gaze of enthusiasts without the patented Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field surrounding it? In the words of the Boston Globe's Hiawatha Bray:
"After the relentless buildup of the past six months, the temptation to trash Apple Inc.'s new iPhone is pretty much irresistible. If only I could."
But Mr. Bray shouldn't fret: PIC is more than happy to give in to temptation. Six months ago when Steve Jobs claimed to have "revolutionized" the phone, we put the so-called "God Machine" up against Palm's Treo and concluded that while formidable, it's not the perfect device and could be beaten. Now that we have fresh, unbiased opinions coming in, it's time to see whether or not the Treo still passes muster. Let's take a walk down memory lane...
It's an epidemic!
500,000 freaking first-weekend sales. That's the number being floated by analysts after the iPhone's massively hyped launch. You can practically hear the AT&T execs laughing all the way to bank: half a million new two-year contracts in two days is a massive coup for them that no doubt has Verizon feeling mighty foolish. (Verizon, if you'll recall, reportedly rejected the iPhone, for fear of giving Apple too much control over their subscribers.)
But this was to be expected: with all the iPhone mania in the press and Apple's own genius marketing, the launch was always going to be huge - attracting not just Apple fans and gadget lovers, but eBay scalpers as well (current going price: $16,000 AUD.) Interestingly, a few sites have reported that most Apple stores still have plenty of stock. Were Apple hoping for a sellout? Who knows, but by any measure it was still a great launch for them and AT&T. It will be interesting to see how sales fare once the craze calms down.
I'm saying all this to point out that we're not here to debate the success of the iPhone - because no one could deny it was a good launch – but simply to see how it stacks up against Palm's best efforts. Let's get started.
With all the bells, whistles and doodads that are part and parcel of the modern cellphone, it's sometimes easy to forget that you have to use these things for talking, too. Fortunately for all of us, it's easy to declare a winner in this category: it's the Treo by a wide margin, almost purely by the virtue of one simple thing: buttons. Real, honest-to-god physical buttons that you can feel without needing to look. Touchscreens are fantastic – in fact, I can't see myself ever buying a device without one again – but they are not the be-all and end-all. iPhone in particular is going to require two-handed usage more often than phones with buttons. This is a completely unavoidable situation on a control surface with no tactile feedback. No getting around it.
Plus, dialing a contact on a Treo is as simple as tapping out a few letters, whereas on the iPhone you'll need to 'flick' through page after page to get to the number you're after. Yes, you can skip to a certain alphabetical section of your contacts, but that's still not as precise or as quick. Visual voicemail is very impressive, but not enough to compensate for the other problems. Finally, only Apple could come up with a phone that requires two steps to hang up from another app and then call it "revolutionary". Next, please! Treo 1, iPhone 0.
Here's another easy choice, and partly for the same reason as last time: real keys are simply easier to type on than virtual ones. But there's more to it than just that: stunningly, iPhone doesn't support MMS, a messaging feature that has been around for ages now. Want to quickly fire off a picture to a friends phone? It's email or bust, pal. Big kudos to Apple for implementing threaded SMS, a feature pioneered on the Treo, but they still come up short. Treo 2, iPhone 0.
This one's a little more complicated. Do we judge the Treo purely on it's built-in Versamail - which has copped a lot of flak for instability issues - or do we expand the field to include third-party email applications like the excellent Chattermail? To keep things simple we'll use Versamail as our comparison. iPhone's email is visually impressive, and has features like in-line photos that leave Versamail in the dust. It's also compatible with POP3, IMAP and Yahoo push email, so consumers – the main target market – will find most of their bases covered.
Of course, iPhone users still have to contend with a virtual keyboard. Plus, for the business user, it's hard to go past a Treo, which can be configured to do any kind of email you want. And if you don't like Versamail, then you have other options. If you don't like iPhone's implementation, you're stuck with it. So while iPhone's email is visually impressive, it's still not as functional as a Treo – which is why this round goes to Palm. Treo 3, iPhone 0.
And now the tables turn. Listen up, Palm: Blazer is a joke. It was pretty good a couple of years ago, but nowadays is just not up to scratch. iPhone on the other hand gives us a stripped-down version of Safari, a speedy and well-designed desktop Web browser now optimised for a small screen. But this ain't no Pocket IE or Opera Mini: it renders full web pages and meshes them with intelligent touch-controls to give us what is unequivocally the most impressive mobile web browser to date.
There's no Flash, there's no Java. But that's true of pretty much every other mobile browser as well. There's no 3G, which is a crushing omission for such an advanced device, but wi-fi is in there as compensation. All in all, features like the realistic rendering, smart zooming and smooth landscape switching set a new benchmark for mobile Internet that will be hard to match. iPhone 1, Treo 3.
The cellphone camera is a wonderfully useful thing to have. While you wouldn't want to use one to capture important pictures – wedding, birthdays, stuff like that – they're great for those spur-of-the-moment situations. Palm's cameras to date have been woeful; the Treo 680's camera does a great job given that it's only got 0.3mp to work with, but in this day and age the idea of shipping a VGA camera on a smartphone is ridiculous. Even the more advanced 1.3mp cam in the 700p and 755p is average at best. iPhone, on the other hand, has a pretty good 2mp camera. It looks pretty terrible in low light situations, but then very few mobile cameras don't. Of course, you can't MMS those pictures to your friends... but that's not the camera's fault.
The strangest omission is the lack of any kind of video recording functionality. Were Palm's video recording of any real quality I would give this round to the Treo, but since all Treo videos are limited to a maximum resolution of 352 x 288 they're usually not worth taking anyways. iPhone wins. iPhone 2, Treo 3.
If you're willing to shell out for additional software, then I'd hesitantly give this round to Palm, for which you can bolt on useful stuff like Bluetooth A2DP and even an iPod interface if you're so inclined (see mOcean); which can stream a large selection of internet radio stations; and CorePlayer which can play the world's most popular video format, DivX.
But out of the box an iPhone blows the Treo out of the water, and it's mostly due to two things: a large screen and iTunes. I personally can't stand iTunes, but I know I'm in the minority there; most seem to find it more than acceptable, and it's hard to argue against the simplicity of its syncing process. Palm instead relies on third-party music syncing with clunky nightmares like Windows Media Player, and since the transfer speed is so slow you're usually better off going through the cumbersome process of inserting and removing SD cards in order to copy files with a high-speed card reader.
iPhone's iPod functionality is visually stunning, with the supremely useless but eye-pleasing Cover Flow demonstrating just what you can achieve with graphics on a mobile device if you make the effort. Like many things on the iPhone, it looks so pretty you can't help but want to play with it. It's odd that Apple hasn't included any kind of background playback controls - apart from play/pause and next via the earbud button, but that's not a dealbreaker. I've never liked the way the iPod handles playlist creation and 'flicking' the touchscreen to get through your library could get frustrating in the long term, but overall it's just a better media player than the standard version of Pocket Tunes that Palm includes with the Treo. iPhone 3, Treo 3.
Make no bones about it, Apple's new multi-touch technology is indeed revolutionary. But as we've touched on earlier, touchscreens are the not always the best way to input commands. The iPhone is going to require two hands to use in most situations. That's just not good enough to best the Treo's combination of touchscreen, hard buttons, exposed keyboard and intelligent one-handed d-pad navigation.
As stated earlier, to hang up a call from another app in the iPhone, you have to first switch back to the on-call screen and then press end call – and try doing that without looking. On a Treo you press the red button. To switch apps on an iPhone, you'll always have to navigate back to the Home screen first, whereas on a Treo you have all the major functions one button away. These also double as a way of turning the device on, so even when it's switched off it's easy to get what you want with one press/ (You may also have to press the center button to unlock the keyguard, depending on your settings.) Not so with the iPhone; first you'll have to turn it on with the top-mounted power button, then slide your finger across the screen to unlock it, then press Home, then open whatever it is you're after. Unnecessarily cumbersome. Apple should employ a tap counter.
Palm OS can't claim total victory: Garnet is ancient and has well-known instability issues, but these are a lot rarer on the newer 680 and 755p Treos, to the point of being a non-issue. Overall it's still the most user-friendly mobile OS. Oh, and last but not least, iPhone can't even copy-and-paste. Like MMS, it's a stupid omission for such an advanced device. Point to Palm. Treo 4, iPhone 3.
The iPhone comes with a pretty good built-in software package that should satisfy the needs of most average users. But you shouldn't expect to get anymore out of it than what's already included; you'll be stuck with iPhone-compatible web applications as your only source of extra functionality. Given iPhone's gorgeous UI and powerful OS (a stripped down version of the Unix-based Mac OS X), it's an egregious kick in the face for smartphone fans. This thing is begging for third-party support, and the Mac developer community is an asset that Apple is foolish to waste.
It may be that Apple will eventually open up the iPhone – in fact, I'm almost certain of it – but for now it just screams wasted potential. A Treo on the other hand offers an app for almost anything you may conceivably want to do with your phone, from call recorders to games to note-taking apps to shopping lists to diet assistants to password keepers. Don't like the built-in phone app? Replace it with something jazzier like DialByPhoto. Don't like the PIM apps? Replace them with something more powerful like Agendus or Datebk6.
No contest, Treo wins. Treo 5, iPhone 3.
By all reports the iPhone is a solidly built device with a surprisingly good battery life, although you're still not going to get more than a day out of it. It features WiFi, Bluetooth and an array of intelligent sensors that will adjust the brightness, lock the screen and rotate the picture. It's got a handy Treo-style silent switch, a large screen and a 3.5mm headphone jack, and it's thin. In short it has everything that Treo owners have been clamoring for for years. Palm should be embarrassed. Although the Palm has the edge on speed – having had 3G for awhile now – and the benefit of physical buttons, it's not up to the same standard.
Apple's hardware has always been of high quality and specifically designed to inspire gadget lust. iPhone is no exception and kills the Treo stone-cold dead in this category. iPhone 4, Treo 5.
I'll keep this short: Palm Desktop and Hotsync have always been reliable workhorses for me, but they are outdated and don't fully meet the needs of modern mobile devices. iTunes on the other hand looks modern, syncs video, photos and music effortlessly and is can sync your PIM data with Outlook, probably the most popular desktop PIM software. As mentioned earlier, I have no great love for iTunes, but it's definitely a superior syncing solution to the Palm Desktop. iPhone 5, Treo 5.
$600 with contract is a lot to ask for a phone. Especially a first-generation product. To put it bluntly, it's exorbitant. You can get a Treo 680 for free nowadays on a contract, and with that you could get an 8GB SD card, a sweet pair of wireless headphones, all the best third-party Palm OS apps and still not pay as much as you would for an iPhone.
Feel free to challenge this in the comments, but this little black duck sees a Treo as better value for money. By far. iPhone 5, Treo 6.
Biased Treo Fan Declares Superiority Shock!!
Regular PIC readers will have seen me make these points at one time or another ever since the iPhone was announced, so my conclusion won't come as much of a surprise: when you break it down category-by-category the Treo still has a slight edge over the iPhone.
This could change in an instant: Apple could announce tomorrow that they're opening up the iPhone to third parties, and it would instantly neutralize Palm's biggest advantage. Apple are also more likely to issue patches and new features than Palm; their track record with things like the 700p ROM update is hideous. And eventually, that exorbitant price is going to come down.
But that's all hypothetical. In the here and now, the Treo is still the best smartphone available: user-friendly, fully featured, expandable and as versatile as you want it to be. It may crash occasionally. It's not pretty. It's not going to stop people in the street. But it's still the more useful and productive device with better value for money. And that's what really counts. -Tim
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