On a cold Friday night in October, I found myself standing in an unmoving queue on a dark and poorly-maintained sidewalk outside a UPS distribution center. Clutched in my hand was a tattered scrap of official-looking paper, which dispassionately stated that my iPhone 4S “could not be delivered’, and that someone would “try again on Monday”. As I glanced around at the people standing in line with me (well over a hundred in all), I saw that many of them wore the same expression as I did—a mix of shame, fear, and despair that reminded me of a domestic abuse victim as she tells her doctor the black eye happened when she “ran into a door.”
Then, the night sky opened up, and as the rain came down in sheets, I looked up and thought in horror: “My god... what kind of a smartphone can get people to do this to themselves? What has happened to me??”
A few weeks have passed since that night, and I’m still coming to terms with the fact that I’m now an iPhone user. To help me cope with this transformation, I’d like to share some of my thoughts on this strange new device in my life.
My Old Phone
To understand my perspective, you need to know where I’m coming from. I’ve been a Verizon Wireless customer as long as I’ve had a cell phone (at least 10 years), and about two years ago, I bought my first smartphone ever: the HTC Droid Eris.
I can say without hyperbole that this phone is one of the worst pieces of technology ever produced. With its woefully underpowered hardware and abysmal battery life, the Eris possesses a level of usability and functionality slightly below that of a cardboard cutout of a Motorola RAZR. Somewhere, there is a line that separates poor engineering design from criminal negligence; upon finding that line, the creators of the Eris leapt gleefully over it, so they could have a picnic with the designers of the Ford Pinto and the people who said asbestos was safe. Hell, those bastards even had the cojones to name this abomination after the Greek goddess of discord, and discord is exactly what the Eris created in my life every single time I used it.
The iPhone 4S
Given that my last phone was so terrible, it’s hard for me to evaluate how the iPhone 4S compares to the other smartphones on the market right now. In other words, if it were a meal, the iPhone 4S could be filet mignon or it could be day-old Taco Bell... either way, I’ve been eating dog shit for the past two years, so it tastes pretty good to me. Especially when paired with the beefed-up hardware of the 4S, iOS 5 is fast, responsive, and everything just plain works. (Well, almost everything works.) The entire experience is so seamless that even the gratuitous animations such as zooming icons, swirling windows, and the like—which always enraged me when using a Mac computer—seem far less offensive.
Having used a number of Apple products before, I was able to prepare myself for the idiosyncrasies of the iPhone interface. As an avid PC user, I’ve become accustomed to certain things, such as a second mouse button and the general feeling that my computer doesn’t view me as a complete and total moron who needs to be protected from himself. However, in switching to the iPhone, I knew I would be entering Apple’s One-Button Toddler Fun Park. For someone like me who actually likes all the buttons on the standard Android phone (menu, back, home, search, call, cancel, and a trackball), it has definitely been an adjustment. I’ve been getting used to a single home button that performs a variety of different actions depending on the context, while trying to pick up any slack in the user interface with a combination of haphazard finger swipes and swearing. While I understand Apple’s obsession with simplicity of visual design, I really think it would behoove them to relax their one-button rule. If nothing else, they could redirect the massive amount of development resources they currently funnel into arcane finger-gesture research.
One of the main reasons I made the switch to the iPhone was the apps. Although the Android app store has come a long way, the fact remains that nearly every Android app falls into one of three categories: (1) useful apps that would never be allowed on the iPhone, (2) shitty apps that would never be allowed on the iPhone, and (3) half-assed ports of apps that were originally developed for the iPhone. Although I certainly will miss offerings from the first category (like my Android NES and SNES emulators, as well as my app that provided free laptop tethering), I can do without the other two types.
Here are some of my favorites:
RunKeeper. This is my favorite exercise tracking app... in fact, my addiction to RunKeeper on my old phone was probably the only thing that kept me from shoving it down the garbage disposal. Since this app was actually designed for the iPhone, I’m finally getting use it as the RunKeeping gods intended, instead of struggling with its bug-laden Android counterpart. (Although, the Android version did have one advantage—you could turn on airplane mode, and RunKeeper would still receive GPS information with no problems. No such luck on the iPhone.)
MapQuest 4 Mobile. Believe it or not, MapQuest still exists, and they’ve decided to celebrate this fact by providing a free (yes, free!) navigation app with audible turn-by-turn directions. Although not the best navigator out there, you can’t argue with the price. It certainly takes some of the sting out of no longer having access to Google Navigation.
CardStar. This app lets you ditch your wallet full of loyalty/discount cards by scanning them all into its database. By the time I was done setting it up, I actually needed a smaller wallet because the few cards that were left kept falling out from all the space. The only problem with the app is that it makes using these cards painless, and so I no longer harbor the level of resentment towards stores that have their own discount cards that such places truly deserve.
Evernote. Basically an eidetic memory that you can download, this app lets you store the contents of your entire brain outside of your own head. ’Nuff said.
Supposedly the big game-changer for the 4S is “Siri”, the iPhone’s new “personal assistant”. Using voice commands, Siri can be instructed to perform a number of tasks, such as sending text messages, making appointments, or finding directions. Though Siri is fairly limited in what she can do, in my experience the voice recognition results have been excellent. I use her especially often for composing text messages, because trying to use that godsforsaken touch-screen keyboard is basically like trying to type with your feet.
The biggest problem with Siri is that the voice processing seems to be done remotely. Thus, any time that she can’t reach that special place in Skynet that her answers come from, she’s basically useless.
As this is allegedly a gaming blog, I suppose I should take a minute to talk about games. One of the reasons I was excited about getting an iPhone is that I don’t currently have a mobile gaming system. Although a smartphone is hardly a fair substitute for a Nintendo 3DS or a PSP, it’s certainly better than the other alternative, which is actually talking to the other person in the car with you.
Since I tend toward the action-adventure and RPG genres, I started with Chaos Rings (Media.Vision / Square Enix) and Infinity Blade (Chair / Epic Games). Chaos Rings is a J-RPG cast in Square Enix’s typical style, and its release last year marked the company’s first original RPG for the iPhone. Technically speaking, the game is well-executed, featuring effective touch-screen controls, fluid animations, and polygon graphics comparable to what you’d see on a PS2. However, in terms of gameplay, Chaos Rings is disappointing. The RPG mechanics are pretty shallow, the plot and characters are inane, and the dialogue is poorly translated from the Japanese version. (Or, perhaps it’s well-translated but poorly written; obviously, there’s no way for me to tell.)
The second game, Infinity Blade, is an on-rails action RPG. Gameplay consists of a series of one-on-one battles, where actions like attacking, blocking, and spell casting are performed by particular gestures or by touching certain on-screen buttons. From a technical standpoint, Infinity Blade is even more impressive than Chaos Rings—in fact, graphically it could easily pass for a current-generation console game. As for the gameplay, while the combat is fun at first, it starts to get pretty tedious after a few hours. Still, for $5 it’s well worth checking out.
Although both of these titles indicate that iOS gaming is headed in the right direction, they also highlight the fact that the iPhone has a long way to go before I would dare consider it a “serious” gaming platform. Of course, if one is looking for some meatier game offerings in the interim, there’s always the option of playing ports of actual console games, such as Secret of Mana.
One last thing... if you’re an achievement addict like me, then you’ll be pleased to hear that iOS boasts a “Game Center”, where you can rack up all the meaningless cheevo points you want. Consider yourself warned.
Now, we come to my favorite part of the program: the bitch list. In order to maintain my reputation as a hardened critic who eats Apple fanboys for breakfast, I’ve compiled a list of my biggest gripes with iPhone 4S. Here we go:
Shoddy Google support. One of the things that drew me to the Android platform in the first place is that I’m a heavy user of Google products. ;In switching to the iPhone, I was assured by many of my friends that I would still have access to my Google email, contacts, and calendar. ;While they were technically correct, I can’t help but feeling misled. ;You can indeed use Gmail as your iPhone mail service, but it has only a small fraction of the functionality of the web interface. ;For example, you have the ability either to delete or to archive messages you don’t want in your Inbox, but not both. ;(Hopefully a Gmail iPhone app will remedy this... if they can get their act together.) ;Other Google products are similarly crippled. ;(For instance, if you want to sync your Google contacts, it can only be done by hooking your phone up to the software equivalent of a bloated, rotting cow carcass, by which I mean iTunes.)
The battery is a lie. Well before reports came out that iPhone 4S’s battery life performs well below specifications, I noticed that something was amiss. ;Like a lot of other 4S users have been reporting, I’ve been charging my iPhone two to three times a day, though I had chalked it up to new-user zeal. ;Hopefully this issue is a software and not a hardware problem, and will be fixed soon.
iCloud is a joke. Sync with the cloud! ;No more iTunes! ;Despite sounding like a dream come true, iCloud is pretty much useless unless you want to switch all your mail and calendar services over to Apple products. And since any third-party app that needs to interface with files on your computer has to go through iTunes anyway, you might as well accept that your favorite overgrown beast of a music player isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
App limitations. There’s no way of getting around the fact that the iPhone puts some pretty binding restrictions on its apps. ;Although this helps protect the operating system from poorly-designed and malicious apps, it also means that there are a lot of cool things that iPhone apps just cannot do. ;With great power comes great responsibility—and clearly, Apple has decided we can’t handle either of those things.
A random gripe. No matter how much I looked, I couldn’t find an easy way to set one of my iTunes songs as a ringtone. ;Apparently, even though I’ve ;legitimately purchase a ton ;of digital music, Apple still wants me to pay for ringtones separately like it’s 2003?? ;Although eventually I was able to find a number of apps and other workarounds to deal with this issue, it still grinds my gears.
I’m not saying I’ll never own an Android phone again, but for now I’m pretty happy I made the switch. ;Nevertheless, owning an Apple product is a dangerous prospect. ;Every day I use my phone, I worry there’s a chance I’ve mistakenly drank the Kool-Aid that turns people into mindless Apple zealots. Only through ceaseless vigilance and unyielding negativity will I be able to avoid being subsumed into the Cult of Apple. ;
It’s a grueling prospect, but I’ll endure it... for the apps.