Saturday, August 25, 2007

Review: Rival phones no match for iPhone ; Apple's IPhone Takes Other Luxury Cell Phones to School

Another testament of the quantum leap achieved by Apple with the iPhone UI. It's raved to be not only simple and intuitive but a generation or two ahead from anything else available today !

Review: Rival phones no match for iPhone ; Apple's IPhone Takes Other Luxury Cell Phones to School

Peter Svensson
AP News

Aug 24, 2007

The iPhone makes me mad. Not, mind you, at the iPhone itself, but mad at cell-phone manufacturers who have saddled us for years with interfaces that lure us into labyrinths of menus.

The buttons that are supposed to guide us through this maze do different things on every screen: a single button can mean "Back" on one screen, "Cancel" on another, "Exit" on a third.

The iPhone has one button on its face. It always does the same thing: takes you to the top menu, where icons representing all functions of the phone - music player, Internet browser and more - are laid out in a clear manner. Wham, you're out of the labyrinth.

This makes me mad, because this isn't just the way it should be done, it's the way it always should have been done. This became clear to me as I set out to look at the iPhone along with two other top-of-the-line phones, the Nokia N95 and Helio's Ocean.

The Nokia N95 costs $750, even more than the iPhone, and is jam-packed with features like a high-resolution camera, radio receiver and satellite Global Positioning System receiver. There are 13 buttons on its face, and that's before you slide the screen out to reveal the keypad.

Two of the N95's buttons take you to a top menu. But each button takes you to a different top menu. The menus navigate differently. The first doesn't have all the options of the other, the second has all the options but hides some of them. How am I supposed to remember which menu has which option?

This wouldn't have bugged me before using the iPhone. But the iPhone has a way of opening one's eyes. After using its beautiful, logical touch-screen interface, I get the feeling that if an Apple designer had said "Hey, let's give it two top menus! Give the user more choice," Chief Executive Steve Jobs would have demanded not just his resignation but his left pinky finger. Just as a lesson.

As you probably know, Apple's first phone launched amid tremendous hype in late June. Since then most of the press has been about hacks and complaints, and speculation that it's not living up to sales expectations. Most recently, the news has been that AT&T uses too much paper to print bills for the iPhone (the company said it would shorten them).

Don't pay it any attention: the iPhone is the best phone you can buy right now.

The two iPhone models, with 4 and 8 gigabytes of memory respectively, cost $499 and $599, and AT&T's plans start at $60 a month. Like the N95, its price is high partly because the cell-phone carrier doesn't subsidize the cost of the phone. Unfortunately, with the iPhone you're locked in to the AT&T plan for at least two years.

With the N95, you can sign up for any AT&T or T-Mobile plan, those being the two major U.S. carriers that are compatible with the phone's GSM technology.

The Ocean is considerably cheaper, at $295, with monthly plans starting at $65. Helio's stated goal is to bring cool high-powered phones, as found in Asia, to hip, young Americans. It rents time on Sprint Nextel Corp.'s network, which provides broadband download speeds. This gives it a leg up over the iPhone and N95, which both use slower data networks, supplemented by Wi-Fi where available.

But the Ocean's main claim to fame is that it's a "dual slider:" push the screen up, and you reveal a standard numeric keypad. Push it sideways, and you get a QWERTY keyboard.

The screen on the N95 slides two ways too: up to reveal the keypad, down to reveal a set of media-player controls: play, stop, forward, backward.

Three months ago, I would have found these Swiss-knife-type designs brilliant, or at least useful, but really, they're not the way to go. To do different things with them, like switching from typing an e-mail to listening to music, you switch between different modes - slide parts of the phone this way or that, and see buttons change their functions.

Basic theory of user interface design states that you should keep the number of different modes to a minimum, for ease of use. This theory seems to have been hammered into the designers of the iPhone.

Sure, the iPhone has its annoyances. To name a few:

- The headphone jack is deeply recessed. The only headphones I managed to use were the earbuds Apple supplied, which don't do justice to music or shut out noise. You can't use wireless headphones, at least yet.

- You have to use Apple's iTunes application, which doesn't run well on PCs. In fact, my PC screen turned itself off, then back on a few seconds later, when the iPhone was connected. It's a phenomenon I have never before seen.

- AT&T's EDGE data network can be painfully slow, taking minutes to load a Web page or load e-mail. A pity, since the iPhone's Web browser is the best ever.

- The pictures from the 2-megapixel camera are fuzzy, and the lens smudges easily to make them even fuzzier.

- Standby time is supposedly up to 10 days, but I found I had to recharge the phone at least every three days of light use, which isn't very good.

- It has Google Maps, but it can't tell you where you are. The N95 can, if you manage to get the GPS receiver working, which was quite tough. The Helio can too, or is at least supposed to. It placed me half a mile off.

I could go on about the iPhone's flaws, but it doesn't really matter. When you're in love, you forgive the shortcomings of your loved one.

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