Frustrations with the iPhone, from an Apple admirer

I got my first “smart” phone, a BlackBerry Pearl, in 2007. I got it from LetsTalk.com for $0.00 with a 2-year AT&T contract. It was EDGE-only – no 3G – and certainly had a lot of problems, but I loved it. At some point the ball fell out of it and it became unusable. The iPhone 3G was out by that time and I ended up getting my wife an iPhone 3G for Mother’s Day in 2009 and one for myself a few weeks later. I pretty much fell in love with the iPhone, and my concern about the on-screen keyboard was negated by having a real web browser after suffering with Blackberry’s for so long. And 3G was an amazing step up from EDGE speeds.

My Blackberry Pearl in its final days
My Blackberry Pearl in its final days

One of the reasons I was reluctant to get an iPhone was my hatred of iTunes. iTunes is a bloated, huge, slow piece of junk. I know it has fans, mostly among people whose primary environment is Mac, and it certainly runs better there than on Windows. Prior to iOS 5, you had to connect your phone to your computer and back it up via iTunes periodically, and also had to connect via USB cable to copy movies or MP3s onto the device. This isn’t something I do that frequently, though, so it wasn’t a big deal, and as I said, the iPhone was so amazing that it was worth the pain. (And, with iOS 5 doing backups to iCloud I haven’t really had to touch iTunes much over the past year).

But the list of “cons” for the iPhone is still pretty long and the “pros” haven’t really grown at all. It’s always bothered me that the iPhone uses a proprietary data/charging cable, and with the iPhone 5 Apple doubled down on this idea by introducing the “Lightning” connector – with the added bonus of obsoleting all devices designed to work with previous generation iPods & iPhones, such as the Sony clock radio we have, or the 500 watt stereo that’s “made for iPhone.”

Another annoyance is that I can’t simply plug the phone in to any computer and have it show up as a hard drive and copy music files onto it – I must still use iTunes for that. Sure, I can do the actual transfer now via wifi rather than via the USB cable, but it still requires iTunes, and can only be done from my “main” computer – not either of my two other home computers or my work computer.

Videos are even worse, since they have to be in m4v format using a proprietary codec. A downloaded .avi will need to be converted to an Apple-compatible format, and that’s not trivial – or quick. To get a video onto my phone I need to

  1. Download it
  2. Transcode it to iPhone format (~20 minutes on my laptop for a 60 minute video),
  3. Copy it to the one computer that my phone is “bound” to via iTunes
  4. Copy the video to the phone.

There are other quirks with the OS that I find annoying, but lately it looks like Apple’s just been putting all its money on Siri as its killer feature. Personally I hate Siri and have disabled the feature on my phone – it didn’t work about ¾ of the time when I tried it and was more an obstacle than a convenience. It kept activating randomly when I’d hold up the phone to my face, so I disabled it and haven’t looked back. The Maps debacle in iOS 6 is common knowledge at this point, but thankfully I never upgraded to iOS 6, and at this point I don’t ever plan to, since the only new feature in it of any use to me is Do Not Disturb, which Apple didn’t even implement properly (see below).

I like my iPhone a lot, but there are some basic features I would like to see in it, many of which seem to be available in many Android devices already. Ars Technica recently posted an article on this subject and the realization that there are other people feeling these frustrations is what prompted me to write this.

Number 2 on their list, customizing “do not disturb,” seemed so unbelievably obvious that I can’t believe it wasn’t included as part of the feature in iOS 6 – you can schedule DND, but you can’t set different schedules per day? WTF? And the default weather app always shows it’s 73 degrees and Sunny? Why? Surely by now they could make that live-update. And why can’t the phone be smart enough to enable wifi only when I’m at home or at work, and disable it the rest of the time? Android can do that… iPhone has geofencing already, so there’s really no reason they couldn’t do it, they just choose not to. Disabling wifi on the iPhone is a 6-step procedure: Unlock phone, enter passcode, find settings app, open settings app, click “wifi”, move slider to “off.” Then repeat to turn it back on when you get home.

While I’m not crazy about the all-glass construction, the 4S is a nice piece of hardware, and for the most part it “just works.” Personally I’m not a big app user – I spend almost all my time using the built-in default apps. The things I do on my phone, in order of decreasing frequency, are email, web, Twitter, Facebook, phone, weather, music. But iPhone isn’t the only game in town anymore, and the Samsung Galaxy line of phones is looking very attractive, if for no other reason than I can stop looking for “discount” iPhone cables for $3 each from shady Hong Kong stores and just use standard USB cables. Since Apple decided that upgrading to an iPhone 5 would render my current $300+ worth of accessories worthless anyway, I don’t really have any incentive to stay with the iPhone platform. I mean, I’d like to, but I’m not seeing anything compelling coming down the pipe from Apple, and Samsung has hardware that’s arguably as nice (or nicer) and features like a removable battery, a micro SD card slot for added storage (without having to buy a completely different phone for $100 more…), and the aforementioned MicroUSB charger. Plus you can just mount the phone as a hard drive and drop your MP3 or video onto it and play most standard formats without any ridiculous transcoding – things I was able to do in like 2005 on a “personal media player” device. I haven’t seen any real improvements in iOS since 5.0, and as I said, Apple appears to be pushing Siri as the “killer app,” . One of the bullet-point features for iOS 6.1 is the ability to buy movie tickets through Siri. Yay…

I’m halfway through my 2-year contract with my current 4S so I have a while yet before I go phone shopping, but as it stands now Apple isn’t offering very much to keep me happy – the $30 “Lightning” cable bullshit is definitely a step in the wrong direction. But I mean, I have a couple episodes of Walking Dead on my computer. They’re .avis and I want to watch them on my morning train ride. I was looking at the Samsung Galaxy Player (which appears to be essentially a Galaxy phone without the phone functionality) but I don’t want to have to carry a second device just to watch videos. It’s really obnoxious on Apple’s part that they stick to their way of doing things despite how much it annoys people, but I guess that’s been the standard Apple complaint for over 20 years. Frankly I didn’t mind it with the iPhone as long as they had no real competition, but if there’s a better product at the same/comparable price then it seems foolish to stick with them.

Updated 2/12/2013: After I wrote this rant I started hunting down reviews of Android phones to see which are the best. I found this great review of the Nexus 4 on Anandtech. It wasn’t really a comparison with the iPhone 5, but taking a look at the benchmark results on that page, it’s pretty clear that the iPhone 5 is the best-performing phone on the market, especially for the things I use most (e.g. browser):

Anandtech Nexus 4 Benchmark

This has tempered my anger with the iPhone 5, but not made the decision any easier. I was hoping newer Android phones would be the clear winner on the hardware front but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Another important factor seems to be the quality of Samsung & LG phones’ screens, which judging by the video reviews I’ve checked on YouTube, are pretty inferior to iPhone’s – much more variation in color, with yellower whites.
http://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/MIWYp6ZXe-s
Plus, the Nexus 4 basically only runs on T-Mobile in the US, and I don’t have any interest switching to T-Mobile. And, icing on the cake, the Nexus 4 has no SD card slot. So rather than making the decision easier, research has made it harder, because it appears that Android phones’ hardware is still not on par with iPhone’s. Or maybe the performance issues are software-based, but if the Nexus 4 is Google’s latest flagship device I’d expect it to be running a fully tuned & tweaked OS. So if the best they can do is nowhere near iPhone’s current baseline, that’s pretty sad.