Geek Foibles


My iPhone experience: too much trouble, not enough paradise.
November 18, 2009, 3:53 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

I’ve had an iPhone since it came out.  It’s a great phone that does a ton of things very, very well.  I love its browser, its iPod functionality and its over-the-air synchronization with my Mac’s calendar and contacts.  The app store ushered in with the 2.0 software opened the gates on a torrent of really useful apps I use on a daily, sometimes even hourly, basis.  It improves my life in many ways and I can’t imagine going about my day without it.

That said, there aren’t many days that go by where I don’t want to throw the damn thing out a window.

My first problem is the device itself.  It clearly has neither the processing power nor the memory necessary to run its operating system smoothly.  Many times a day I will try to scroll the browser window or tap a button and it will sit frozen for an indeterminate period before it responds to my input.  Sometimes it’s only half a second, but sometimes it’s longer than ten seconds.  This problem persists across all apps on the phone, be they built-in Apple apps or third-party ones from the app store.  Some apps also take an irritatingly long amount of time to launch and become usable.  The worst offenders are Apple’s own Messages and Maps apps.  Messages (formerly known as “SMS”) has had a long, long, long history of being slow to open (which is bizarre given how simple the app is technically) and I recently counted 14 seconds pass as I waited for the app to load and show me anything beyond a blank, gray screen.  Maps is similar but will actually draw out the map before stalling a while, leaving me tapping at the search box over and over as I wait for it to respond.  Conversations with customers and peers revealed that these problems weren’t isolated to my own phone.

I’ve spent countless hours over the past year trying to suss this issue out, having restored and even replaced the phone multiple times.  I’ve done split-half searches, I’ve tried installing no 3rd party apps, I’ve tried restarting the phone regularly, I’ve tried keeping WiFi disabled, basically everything I could think of I’ve tried.  After each restore it would seem like the latency had disappeared, but after a week or two of use it’d be right back to its old tricks.  But when the iPhone 3GS came out and starting running the same software on a faster processor with twice the memory, all of a sudden the software ran much more smoothly.  This confirmed my suspicion that I wasn’t doing something wrong, the pre-3GS phones just weren’t powerful enough to run their software well.

Obviously upgrading to a 3Gs would alleviate this complaint, but I’m not upgrade-eligible until next year.  But even if I shelled out the extra $200 to do it now, bringing my total to $400, it would do nothing to solve my other problem:

The network.  AT&T has done a remarkable job of earning themselves a very nasty reputation over the past year as their network (at least in urban areas) has crumbled under the onslaught of heavy 3G activity.  I’ve been a customer of AT&T’s for over 6 years and had no complaints until about a year ago, whereupon the problem developed very quickly.  Apple customer service itself acknowledges that dropped calls are frequent and normal here in New York, and the reports I hear from other major cities in the US don’t paint a much rosier picture.  It is normal for iPhones in major cities to lose their 3G connections and fall back to EDGE, only to drop that connection for a new 3G one a few minutes later.  The speed of the network has been deteriorating steadily and frequently tests below 200kbps.  While all of these are issues I experience regularly at home in New York and while traveling to other cities, they are also widely corroborated online by other users in the same locales.

Where does the blame for AT&T’s poor network performance lay?  Well, of course a great deal of it lies at the feet of AT&T, the one responsible for maintaining and expanding the network in question.  But I’m often surprised by how frequently Apple’s role in the fiasco is overlooked.  After all, it’s widely accepted that the iPhone’s popularity and typical data-guzzling use are the main contributors to AT&T’s network overload.  So why is this taxing phone only on one of the four major wireless carriers in the U.S.?  Normally a hot new phone will get an exclusive launch on a single carrier, but usually once the launch hype has subsided it will get released on other carriers as well.  Not so with the iPhone.  Apple’s decision to keep the iPhone on AT&T has meant that the millions of iPhone users in the United States, who consume up to ten times more data than the average smartphone user, are all stuck sharing the same 3G network instead of being spread amongst as many as four.  I’ve seen no evidence that any of the other networks could handle the sort of load AT&T has abruptly assumed any better, leading me to believe managing all iPhone subscribers on any single network is, at present, an impossible task.  I thus believe Apple’s repeated insistence on AT&T exclusivity is the real problem here, not AT&T’s network.

So it’s after two and a half years of being frustrated with the device and one year of the device being limited by a slow, unreliable network that I’m starting to look at other phones.  Android launched a little over a year ago, and Palm stepped back from the brink with the launch of webOS, so there are a lot more choices out there since the iPhone first appeared three summers ago.  I’m going to spend the next few days researching various offerings in an effort to find the most interesting one on another network, then I’ll be taking it home for a month-long test-drive.  I’ll post my hands-on impressions with each contender here, then have regular, more in-depth posts on the device I take home.  At the end I’ll decide how it stacks up against my iPhone 3G, and if I like the challenger better I’ll jump ship from Apple and AT&T.

The contenders have their work cut out for them.  For all of my complaints with the iPhone and AT&T’s service, the iPhone is a powerful device and AT&T’s network still works most of the time.  Apple has been typically stubborn in delivering many things that its customers have asked for since day one of the iPhone (copy and paste, MMS, tethering, etc.) but after two years it’s delivered most of them.  Android and webOS, by contrast, are much younger and still sorting out many of their shortcomings, so they’re operating at a disadvantage there.  Additionally, as someone who relies heavily on the iPhone’s multimedia capabilities, I’m already worried about them not matching the formidable example set by the iPhone in that department.  That said, I absolutely want them to.  If something can match or even exceed the capabilities of my iPhone, I’ll be thrilled.

I’ll be indexing everything at The Search for a Better Smartphone, so check back there periodically for updates.  In the meantime, I’m off to the T-Mobile store!

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