By Michael Fisher | September 24, 2013 11:52 AM
As listeners of the Pocketnow Weekly podcast will recall, it’s been a while since I owned an iPhone. A long while, in fact: the last time I used an Apple handheld as my personal smartphone, the year was 2008 and the device was an iPhone 3G. That was the first phone I’d ever waited in line for, and it was supposed to be the last. At the time, I saw the switch to iPhone as an opportunity to rid myself of the crushing device-buying habit that had been draining my pockets ever since I bought my first cellphone. The iPhone could do so much, and do it so well, that it was the perfect product to serve as my “escape hatch” from my mobile-device addiction. I happily plunked down a few hundred Benjamins for the 3GS and left the Apple store, content in the knowledge that I was now “an iPhone guy,” probably for life.
Of course, things didn’t quite work out that way. In fact, I didn’t even last a full year with the first iPhone; the following June, I was yet again standing in line for the latest and greatest, this time coming from a little outfit known as Palm. I’d fallen right back into the “buy early, buy often” smartphone mentality – but not (just) because of an unhealthy obsession with mobile gadgets. To tell the truth, the iPhone had failed to captivate me. Even back in 2008, the static grid of icons looked stale to my eyes, the entirety of the chromed-up interface seeming like a wasted opportunity. I fled to the lands of webOS, Android and -eventually- Windows Phone, seldom looking back with fondness on my days with the world’s most-hyped smartphone.
Five years later, after a much-needed visual refresh and the introduction of some overdue hardware customizability, the iPhone again caught my eye. I’d long wanted to review an Apple handheld, but this was the first time in years I’d ever contemplated buying one. Maybe, I thought, the time had come for my return to iOS.
Well, we’re a few days past last week’s iPhone 5c unboxing, and a couple days short of our official iPhone 5s and 5c reviews – but four days back in bed with Apple’s old stalwart have reminded me just why I’m not -and may never be- an “iPhone person.” Here’s why.
One size doesn’t fit all
Apple is to be commended for its consistency. The company has managed to build a smartphone empire on the back of a device family that, until recently, only included one screen size: 3.5 inches. Even when it finally bowed to pressure from its ballooning competition and increased the iPhone’s display dimensions, it only went as high as 4 inches – and whether you buy an iPhone 5s, 5c, or 5, that’s the screen size you’ll be living with. That consistency is good for manufacturing simplicity, it’s good for third-party app developers, and it’s good for one-handed usability.
But it’s awful for me – and I’d wager that’s true of anyone who’s spent more than a year with a modern Android device.
There’s nothing wrong with my eyesight, and I have no arbitrary affection for massive screens on my smartphones. But as I began to discover earlier this year with BlackBerry’s then-new Z10, the 4-inch display size just doesn’t do it for me anymore. Is it usable? Yes – and as I mentioned above, it’s easier to use with a single hand. But it’s also confining: watching videos for extended periods isn’t enjoyable, and even casual browsing and reading gets tiring after a short while. What’s more, the software doesn’t have enough room to enable truly useful multitasking on that screen size: it wasn’t long after powering up the iPhone 5c that I found myself longing for the multi-screen abilities of the Galaxy Note II, or even (heaven help me) the half-baked Qslide nonsense from LG’s G2. Sadly, even the new and flashy iOS 7, with its webOS-derived cards, isn’t able to overcome the inherent limitations of such a small screen.
Lest you think I’ve drank the Kool-Aid of the Galaxy Mega lobby, let me be clear: size isn’t everything. There’s definitely some merit to the argument that Android manufacturers competing on size is supremely unimaginative, but that doesn’t change the fact that I just can’t get as much work done on a 4-inch screen.
Everything new is old again
iOS 7 is the most striking revamp of Apple’s smartphone UI in history. It addressed so many of my (and the community’s) objections that it almost feels sacrilegious to criticize it at all. Between the brightened colors, flattened elements, translucent overlays, and bright white wash pervading every corner of the interface, iOS 7 is far and away my favorite version of the world’s most-advertised operating system.
“But will I still know how to work it?” my mother asked me just before I updated her iPhone 5 to the new OS.
“Yep; it’s prettier and has some more features, but it works exactly the same,” I reassured her. And that’s the truth.
It’s also the problem.
Because for all the complaints iOS 7 resolved, the one big thing it didn’t address is still hanging in space over everything: the home screen design. Longtime iPhone users the world over were no doubt relieved to see the familiar 4-by-6 grid of icons greeting them after the upgrade process – but to me it was (and it remains) a cage. Having experienced the convenience of endlessly customizable widgets in the Android world, and the joy of glanceable information via Windows Phone’s Live Tiles, the static app icons and folders staring back at me from the screen of my iPhone 5c represent 24 missed opportunities – animated Clock icon notwithstanding.
The handheld experience stands alone
Finally, while Apple does a fine job of providing a consistent experience, it doesn’t offer the kind of integration that Google -or even Microsoft- does. I don’t mean that in the sense of a unified ecosystem, and I certainly think Apple has those outfits beat in other areas, particularly customer support: the company controls the entire iPhone user experience from top to bottom, after all.
But using an Android phone together with a Google account results in synergies that are truly remarkable, and conveniences you take for granted until they’re not there. Many of these can be replicated with Google apps inside iOS, but functionality like systemwide sharing among third-party apps is something I’ll never get used to not having again. Android’s new cross-device notification sync feature is just one of many examples of a software environment that’s only getting smarter. Meanwhile, I still can’t share photos directly to Instagram from the Gallery app on my iPhone. Why?
And what’s more: the Apple desktop experience doesn’t sync well with the handheld one. I use a MacBook Air for almost all of my Pocketnow work, and I adore it – but using the iPhone alongside it doesn’t make that experience any better. Yes, there’s iCloud syncing in the background, but the interface design of the handheld (or the iPad) is so different than the one on the computer that it’s sometimes hard to tell they’re from the same manufacturer. There’s neither the intuitive cross-device communication of Google’s products, nor the unified interface aesthetic of Microsoft’s. The experience isn’t bad, but it isn’t outstanding, either. And it’s this middle-of-the-road experience that leads me to answer, when people ask me what device I’m carrying this week, that “it’s just an iPhone.”
Of course, that’s overstating the case. I’m looking forward to continuing my poking and prodding of Apple’s newest smartphone, which is a remarkable achievement and a device many “normal folks” would be proud -elated, even- to carry. But speaking as a mobile geek to my fellow mobile geeks, I have to say: fresh coat of paint aside, the iPhone (still) isn’t the phone for a power user. And given Apple’s behavior up till now, and the company’s history and culture as a whole, I don’t think we should be holding our breath for a geektastic iPhone anytime soon. And while it won’t stop Apple from continuing to sell millions of iPhones, I do find it a little disappointing that something so “new and exciting” is actually so familiar and predictable.