Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/07/29/iphone_v_q/

iPhone v. Q – War in the backwoods of Mississippi

Apple convinces us to wait for Gen 2

By Brett Brennan

Posted in Mobile, 29th July 2007 06:24 GMT

Register Hardware reader Brett Brennan recently joined good friend Pat Coggins, the CTO of CATs Communications – a company that specializes in using wireless networks and GPS for real-time tracking applications - for a hunting trip of sorts. Here's the report from the field.

iPhone vs. Q: a shoot-off

The pair of technophiles started out in Memphis, Tennessee and then made their way to rural Mississippi with the hopes of finding Pat some real estate for a new home. They were armed with an iPhone, a Motorola Q running on Sprint's network and Pat's own CATTRAX software.

OK, the short list.

Both devices handled the internet connectivity well, although the iPhone was easier to navigate than Opera on the Q. That's not really Opera's fault. Rather, it just the small Q screen and the need to zoom in and out to read the small print that caused problems.

Due to poor cellular coverage, both devices were in and out of service throughout the drive. The Q, however, exhausted its battery after about an hour of continuous use in marginal radio coverage. The iPhone was barely 20 per cent down. Both were fully charged overnight and had near equal time using voice and data. You can score a major plus for the iPhone battery life; it pretty much eliminates the need for a swappable battery.

The UI (user interface) on the iPhone, while difficult to use initially (too many ways to touch the wrong thing on the screen), becomes easier with experience. After about 15 minutes I was getting around fine, with only occasional gaffes. Zoom and scroll were smooth and pretty easy after I learned where not to put my thumbs.

Typing was also a bit quirky initially with "fat-fingering" the keyboard (in landscape mode) frustrating at first. After about an hour of typing, though, I achieved the same accuracy as with the Q's QWERTY keyboard. It still required more thought and using both hands, but was nothing I couldn't live with.

As a phone, the iPhone worked just fine. Voice quality was as good on the GSM network, as it was on Sprint PCS, although PCS is still a bit crisper than GSM. My Bluetooth headset (Plantronics Voyager 510) worked fine, although I didn't test all the hands-free profile features, the connect and hang-up worked fine. The address book is fairly intuitive and straight-forward to use, so no surprises there. And the iPod headset worked fine as well, although plugging it in does not disable Bluetooth automatically.

The Safari browser was a pleasure to use, especially on the larger landscape screen. The integration of Google search with Safari makes searching for stuff like restaurants and directions easy to use, much more so than on the Q. Again, this is not an iPhone-specific feature, but it is much nicer than the OEM applications from Sprint and better than Google by itself. (This feature has been a hobby horse for me since I got my first Blackberry years ago: the time it takes to get a useful result from a search while navigating in a car (not driving!) is usually too slow to do unless you stop until a result is produced. The iPhone actually does this quickly enough to be useful in real time.)

And now to the networks.

EDGE vs. EVDO

The most interesting discovery about the iPhone was the performance on the EDGE network. Using CATTRAX (which uses MapQuest maps) in real time with zooming and scrolling was excellent. While some of the updates took a few seconds, there was nothing that was a show-stopper in the performance. It was much better, in fact, than the Q with EVDO and Opera: that might be the AT&T network enhancements alone, but the end result was excellent. Even El Reg popped up quickly and was easily navigable, unlike sometimes on the Q where style sheet problems make the page hard to read.

The real surprise was the integrated Wi-Fi. The fact that the phone will pick up Wi-Fi on demand and use this for the "heavy lifting" data transfers eliminates the need for HSDPA in many (but not all) situations. (This is still a toughie for me, as I have no wired WAN connectivity and eschew using hot spots. However, Pat also has the same set up as I do in his motor home, with an EVDO rev.a modem feeding a Wi-Fi router, and this works very well for the higher speed downloads as needed.) It appears that the iPhone does a superior job of scheduling data transfers between foreground (web pages) and background (large downloads) thus keeping the EDGE speed available for immediate use.)

Email

The iPhone access POP and SMTP directly, without needing Outlook 2007 to synchronize. And no auto-delete when the message is removed from the device but not the server queue. Windows Mobile 5 devices like the Q can send and receive POP/SMTP but don't download the mail from the server. If you don't synchronize using a PC and Outlook 2007 (2003 doesn't seem to work any more) you lose the message on both the device AND the mail server when it is deleted in either location. The iPhone, on the other hand, acts like a regular mail client and moves the message to the phone from the server if set up that way. Neither Pat or I use IMAP and neither of us runs Exchange or Notes or another communications management server, so POP/SMTP support with a "real" email client is important. (We even go so far as to have a completely separate mail address for the phone - on our server, not the phone company's server - thus we use phone mail at a different "priority" than our regular email accounts.)

As far as attachments go, the iPhone lets you view them but that's about all. However, WM5 has similar limitations. I can view doc, xls, ppt, pdf (but not ODF), but can not copy from them or save them.That is, I believe, acceptable: if I can't run the tool that created the document I probably don't want to save it locally. And, given the screen size and all, I don't WANT to run the tool on the phone. Let me forward the note and document to a PC and work on it there. Aside from screen size, there's little difference in device capabilities. (Note that Pat and I didn't test this on the drive.

Video and Audio

I watched a "South Park" episode on the iPhone to see how the "multimedia" aspect really worked. Yes, it is a SMALL screen. Yes, a PC or tablet screen would be "better". However, the image quality and performance of the playback was better than anything I've seen short of a portable DVD player or the PSP. I would use this feature to view a movie on an airplane or while sitting through a horrid awards banquet.

I also listened to some of Pat's music, which was excellent . . . as expected.

Now, on my Q, I do download some video - but only stuff I post-process myself (reducing resolution and changing encoding to eliminate stuttering on playback). I also download my own MP3 music from my collection. The Q and Windows Media Player do an excellent job with the music and a fair job with the video (it loses the first 5 seconds on any video due to slow CPU start-up), but WMP kills the battery very quickly (only about 2 hours total use with a full battery). The iPhone is superior in battery life and does not have the delays in start up that the Q has.

Pat and I did not try downloading music that was not from iTunes (a must for me: I do all my own ripping) or our own videos. I still need to test those features.

The camera is quite adequate. It is much more responsive than the camera application under WM5, so it is useful for quick pix and videos.

Ruggedness

Pat keeps the phone in his pocket, along with other "stuff". So far, there are no scratches or gouges. Neither of us wanted to toss it out the window of the car to test impact resistance, but it's survived drops from the car seat to the pavement and from eye-level to the floor. It will not survive immersion in water - without a removable battery no device can manage this. But the ruggedness is good enough for me.

And now for what the iPhone's missing and how it stacks up in total.

Missing features

The iPhone should, to be most useful, incorporate Bluetooth A2DP protocol for stereo sound. Add-on applications are needed (I use Mobipocket eBook reader quite a bit) as well, but other than enhancements to use the device in boring situations as mentioned above, there is little to add right now. It also should have Bluetooth PAN capability, and support for HSDPA or EVDO. However, the last two are things I could live without for the time being.

Voice dial is also a must-add. I use voice dial while keeping the phone in the belt holder, and given the iPhone design, it's probably the one feature that sticks out as missing.

Conclusion

Well, no device is perfect. And the iPhone isn't perfect either, but it seems to be a good leap in the right direction.

The single biggest issue with the iPhone is the "paradigm shift" that it makes to a mobile device. The quirky interface, the limitation of services and expandability - these are not "failures" per-se, but a shift in the way a communications device is defined by Apple.

The majority of people out there, as Cade Metz highlighted in the returning the iPhone article, need voice and SMS. I agree: most people I know are intimidated by anything beyond the simple features of their Nokia brick phones - most can't use the calendar or even manage a sync with their PC. (This might be an American bias...) Without a QWERTY keyboard email is nearly impossible, and web browsing is too restricted by the screen and incompatible object mapping from the web sites themselves. Music is a nice addition, while video is useless unless it's the built-in camera kind.

The iPhone approaches convergence from a different perspective. In reality it's a thin client PC with limited on-board functionality, with a phone and multimedia capability. The UI is targeted toward making this a "quick-and-dirty" device for Web 2.0 applications that are not "rich" in all content, but provide very specific interactive facilities. You don't need a keyboard or mouse to use most of the interactive features, and, with practice, the tools provided do the job very well.

Pat has written some applications that use secure web services to provide VNC capability to the iPhone, allowing him to manage his server farm remotely. This demonstrates another aspect of the paradigm shift: with the properly designed server, you don't really need most applications on the remote devices. This is not something that the iPhone is unique in using: any web phone can do this, but the iPhone provides the screen real estate to make it workable and the performance to support the local execution of AJAX, JAVA etc. fast enough to be useful.

I expect that the iPhone will have an uptake like Windows Vista: initially a big splash, then a big slowdown, then a gradual increase in penetration as a combination of user learning curve and Apple updates cleans up the initial problems. Once users that need the capabilities of web access and remote applications via a browser get more hands-on time with the device, I expect it to become more and more ubiquitous.

Recommendation

Wait for the second generation iPhone. Apple has talked about reducing chip count and increasing the battery size for the next model, as well as addressing the multitude of flaws already uncovered. While US$600 is a steep price, given the functionality that the device has the potential to deliver, it is less expensive than "the next step up" - a mini-tablet PC - and provides, in my opinion, as much functionality. ®