Ten of my favorite iPhone things

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Ever since the first time I saw (but couldn’t touch ) the iPhone, I’ve sort of become Macworld ’s resident iPhone curmudgeon. Long before it was ever released, I came up with a list of shortcomings. Then, at the Worldwide Developers Conference last month, I was unhappy with the announced support for third-party web pages, er, apps. And finally, once the iPhone was out and I’d had the chance to use it, I put together a list of 10 iPhone apps —real apps—that I would find most useful on my iPhone.

If you were to simply look at my body of iPhone work, you might conclude I hate the iPhone, and would rather be dropped in the midst of a swarm of Africanized honey bees than be forced to use the thing. Surprisingly, perhaps as much to me as to you, that’s not the case. For all the things it’s lacking, the iPhone really does get quite a few things right—and it’s the things it does oh so well that keep me coming back to it, despite its shortcomings.

So without further ado, here’s my list of 10 things that the iPhone simply nailed—and yes, PC World put together a similar list, but I promise this one will be somewhat different.

1. The display: OK, so PC World listed this one first, too. But in this case, duplication is required. The screen really is that impressive. Between the gorgeous colors, the high pixel density, and the amazing glass, the iPhone’s screen is simply stunning. Even something as bland as a list of contacts looks great. Coming from a Treo, it’s like someone took off my “muddy brown overlay” filter glasses and I can suddenly see the full color spectrum. If you have a chance to see one in person, I highly recommend it.

2. The acceleration curves: The what, you say? Hard to explain, but easy to demonstrate, the acceleration curve is what gets applied when you fling your finger up or down (or across) the screen. Say you’re in contacts and you want to go up a few screens’ worth of data. Fling your finger upwards, and the contacts start scrolling up very quickly. But then they slow down; they don’t just jerk to a stop at your destination. It’s the difference between a driver who slams their brakes on to stop for a red light, and one who progressively increases pressure on the brake pedal, and then, just before the car reaches a full stop, eases off the brake pedal, so the car comes to rest quite gently. (Try it sometime; it really does make for a nicer ride!). I can’t explain it better than that, but really, Apple got it perfect.

3. Sound management: No, I’m not talking about Steve Jobs and the executive team. Instead, I’m talking about what happens when you’re, for example, listening to the iPod and you receive an e-mail or a calendar alert. Instead of your music just arbitrarily cutting out, it fades down a few decibels so you can clearly hear the alert tone, and then the music fades back up just as smoothly. The first time I heard an alert while listening to music, I think I actually said, “Oooooh, that’s nice!”

4. The form factor: As Jason Snell discovered, Apple’s decision to recess the headphone jack was basically aesthetic—the iPhone would have been thicker if the headphone jack were not recessed as it is. At first, I thought this was a silly decision… but that was before I had the chance to have the iPhone on my person for a couple weeks (and before I figured out how to make my Bose headphones work). As compared to my Treo, carrying the iPhone around is a joy. Not only is the iPhone a bit lighter, it’s almost exactly half the thickness (.46 inches vs. .90 inches) of my previous phone. The difference is amazing—the iPhone slips easily into any pocket, which I couldn’t say of the thicker Treo. It’s also easy to hold in one hand, and there are no sharp corners or edges to catch a finger on.

5. The Mail application: Yes, I think Mail has some fundamental flaws—the lack of a unified inbox and no mass delete being two of the bigger ones. However, I’ve found that my favorite device for checking e-mail during nights and weekends is now the iPhone. Compared to waking up a Mac and launching Mail, tapping a couple buttons on the iPhone is much easier. I can fire off replies of reasonable length without too much effort (see the next entry), thereby saving myself some wasted time the next morning. This past weekend I basically left the Macs sleeping and dealt with the typical handful of weekend emails via the iPhone. Reading and replying to messages is a snap thanks to the large screen size and high pixel density.

6. The virtual keyboard: It seems there’s a mix of opinion on the iPhone’s virtual keyboard: Some love it, some hate it. Count me in the “love it” group. There’s definitely a learning curve, especially for someone like me coming from a Treo. But after some practice, I found that my speed on the iPhone’s keyboard is at least twice as fast as it ever was on the Treo. The Treo’s keys are tiny, and my fingers are relatively large—I was constantly hitting the wrong keys. The iPhone’s keys aren’t all that much larger than the Treo’s, but the iPhone has a key strategic advantage: there’s a brain that helps you type. The auto-correct feature on the iPhone is really amazing; it fixes words that I think are beyond repair. You really do just have to trust that the machine knows what you meant to type and keep right on going—most of the time, it will fix even the most blatant of errors. I now tackle e-mail replies that I never would have attempted on the Treo, as they would have taken way too long.

7. The Weather widget: It’s a small thing, but the Weather widget is really well done. Unlike OS X 10.4’s Weather widget on the Dashboard, the iPhone makes it easy to keep multiple locations open and updating. You can do it in Tiger by opening more copies of the weather widget, but you’ll lose all those cities if you ever close the copies. On the iPhone, you enter all the cities you want to track on the back of the widget, and then just use your finger to flick left and right from city to city.

8. Free Wi-Fi finder: A couple months ago, I was actually looking to buy a Wi-Fi Finder—something like the Digital Hotspotter reviewed in this MacGems write-up. But now with the iPhone, there’s no need. There are actually two ways to find free Wi-Fi with the iPhone. The first is to just turn it on—any wireless networks in the area will pop up in an onscreen list, and you can see at a glance which are open and which are locked. The other way to find free Wi-Fi in your area is to open the Maps widget and then type something like Tigard, OR wifi or wifi 80305 and you’ll get a cool map showing local free hotspots—and if you need driving directions, they’re but a tap or two away.

9. Drop-dead gorgeous photo browsing: After sharing various pictures with friends squinting over my shoulder looking at the Treo, doing the same with an iPhone seems like the equivalent of the step up from normal TV to high definition TV. The screen is bright, zooming in with the two-finger flick (or a boring double-tap) feels completely natural, and flicking from picture to picture is simple. To a person, everyone who has seen the photo browser has loved it, with many commenting, “Wow, that’s almost enough reason to buy an iPhone right there!” By comparison, the iPhone even makes the photo browsing on the iPod Video somewhat painful—your eyes very quickly adjust to the large screen on the iPhone, and going back to anything smaller is tough. Really tough.

10. The iPod: Oh yeah, that’s right. This phone plays music, too. And movies. And does both very well. Cover flow browsing is addictive. Movies look simply stunning on the large screen. Heck, even cover art looks great. And with a rated 24-hour audio playback time, this would be the one iPod to take on that Los Angeles to Sydney flight (just don’t be tempted to watch your movies, or your battery won’t survive the flight!). I can’t wait to see what Apple can do with the iPhone’s interface on a hard drive based iPod.

See, I’m not the official iPhone Curmudgeon. This device is truly amazing in many, many ways—and yes, equally frustrating in some other ways. But I have confidence that Apple will address the more serious shortcomings with future iPhone updates. Even if they don’t, however, I think my iPhone is here to stay!

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