Wednesday, April 11th, 2012 http://adamkhan.net/rambles/nokia-n95-to-iphone-4s
t’s taken three weeks of owning the device to transfer my phone number from my five-year-old Nokia N95 8GB to the iPhone 4s. Aside from minutes and data remaining on the contract, I was accustomed to the N95, even if I’d felt more affection for its predecessor the jolly Nokia 6630, and hesitated to say goodbye.
I did hold off switching for a while even after I got the phone.
The iPhone is so engaging I’ve worried I’ll be fiddling with it whilst out and about; undesirable, because back at my desk I already spend so much time facing a screen.
Turns out however that it’s so engaging I actually prefer it for some tasks—such as quick email checks—to the MacBook Pro, for which I need a desk or a countertop; and to my first-generation iPad, which in comparison can feel slow and the browser can stutter. So I’m using these other screens less often.
Whether total screen time is reduced I’m not sure, but it’s more varied, so it feels like less. Or at any rate, if it is more then I’ve succumbed to it gratefully.
There were some initial unpleasant surprises.
Initially though the iPhone did present some unpleasant surprises. How to insert the SIM? I hadn’t noticed the little tool provided in the box. The home screen doesn’t rotate when the phone does—encountering this I thought the gyroscope might be broken. The phone’s exquisitely handsome looks are marred on the back by small print and regulatory logos, which is a pity—the N95 doesn’t have all this crap. Plus its edges initially felt a little sharp in the hand, though no longer. In the Mail app, only one signature can be set for multiple email accounts, a clear case of erring too far in dumbing down (I’m trying Sparrow instead). On the N95, the app I used most turned out to be the amazing Google Maps. Picking up both phones and firing it up, the buttons on the N95 enable me to use it with one hand, whereas I definitely need two to competently pinch to zoom on the iPhone.
The iPhone’s iOS has no interest in hunting down the strongest wifi signal it can access. This is particularly annoying when walking from room to room using Skype. Going to Settings to change network is tedious, as is adjusting other settings such as Brightness or switching on Bluetooth that’s been off to conserve battery. (Shouldn’t Bluetooth switch itself off after a period of non-use? Knowing iOS, maybe it does. How to find out?) To seek the strongest wifi signal I’ve taken to quickly switching Airplane Mode on and off—it’s the easiest switch to get to in Settings, as it’s the first and the only one without a submenu. Accessing settings was easier with the N95 thanks to Jbak Taskman and desktop icons that go beyond apps. Improving access to settings is alone sufficient reason to jailbreak the iPhone (until I got the phone I’d never even heard the word Cydia and its secondary iOS market) which in itself is upsetting as this is after all a usability issue, which Apple surely cares about.
I have a song for each person who calls me. Transferring these over, I realized I couldn’t: the iPhone uses a special ringtone format. Goodness, why not allow any audio format that the phone can play, just as the N95’s Symbian system does? I suppose having to convert a song into the iPhone ringtone format—and GarageBand does this easily—forces you to be more picky about when the sound starts and ends, but this choice by Apple is worrying. You have this Unix-based phone that brings users the web so magnificently, and you’re selling ringtones?
For the more principled among us this closedness is a reason to avoid iOS devices entirely—Cory Doctorow said it in his famous essay Why I won’t buy an iPad. But the jailbreaking community does help address this concern. I’d like to think that even if I personally don’t end up jailbreaking my iPhone, I would hesitate to own it if I knew nobody else was doing so. Okay, this is not true; the fact is, Apple had me with the Retina screen. I justify my seduction by viewing the web itself as our giant open platform, that ways of accessing it will come and go, and that currently this is the best.
Though I do think it’s important that we remain literate in the Unix command line, and considering Apple’s interest in education, I’m surprised the phone doesn’t include a command line app—perhaps it will eventually. Meanwhile my work as a web developer justifies buying Prompt.
Any annoyances were however compensated for.
Pretty soon these annoyances were more than offset by the aforementioned screen, by the glassy low-friction symmetry of the phone’s surfaces, by the camera, and by the third-party ecosystem for both software and hardware. Google Maps looks so fabulous on the iPhone that I don’t mind using two hands for it. Which is what I knew would happen, and is one of the reasons I’d put off getting a touchscreen-only phone until succumbing to the Retina screen.
What a spectacularly audacious leap, making the back feel identical to the front, so that the device is a completely regular shape, a rounded mini monolith. Low-friction glass is arguably terribly impractical and would surely have been vetoed anywhere else but Apple—the thing will slide off a surface that pretty much any other device will stay on. Then crack. Ah, but it is so lovely and sleek in the hand. I was concerned that the iPhone seemed designed less for the hand than for the eye—the lack of buttons, for instance—but it actually gives the hand, at least while switched off, significantly more graceful pleasure than does the N95. With one button-press on the top the phone is instantly off (the thing is so fast and responsive), and you can rub it and juggle it and generally do pleasant little hand gymnastics with it like it’s a playing card. Yes, it lacks sliders with which to fiddle, but that’s what makes the fiddling more elegant. Yes, it’s heavy, but that weight already feels normal to me now, pleasantly substantial, so that picking up the N95 I’m shocked by its lightness—it just feels like nothing. As the Mac brought computers within the humanist tradition by introducing proportional typefaces, so the design and materials of the iPhone bring mobile phones into the fold of other civilizing little accessories like a nice razor, lighter or pen. I love how its low-friction surfaces let it slip so easily in and out of pockets, like silk; those are moments when it especially feels a classy, elevating accessory.
The iPhone 4S’s display is so amazing it makes photos appear more spectacularly than I can remember otherwise, save for looking at an illuminated slide through a viewer. With all my digital photos effortlessly synched onto the iPhone, it isn’t only a mini-monolith, it’s a mini-monolith of me, like I can almost climb inside my past. As life goes by and you don’t see various loved ones because they’re far away or no longer, the vivid representations within the phone of both those present and those not can seem to equalize them, so that perhaps for older people an iPhone loaded up with photos categorized by face is even more emotionally compelling. Though it does help to be short-sighted rather than long, as most older people are, so that you can hold it close to your eyes, still unable to distinguish pixels that until the Retina era would break the backlit illusion.
I now notice how creaky the N95 is; the pressure of pressing the buttons makes the whole plasticky thing groan. While it too is a little wonder—I’ve dropped it on hard surfaces a number of times, whereupon the battery case flies off and the battery falls out, but with no permanent damage—in contrast to the pared-back elemental shapes of the mini-monolith it now looks and feels weirdly idiosyncratic. The plastic buttons have evolved to a most peculiar shape, garishly color-coded and marked with obscure Nokia system-specific icons, whereas the iPhone has brushed metal steel buttons that are either circles or rounded rectangles, their only icons the universally understood “+” and “-”. More than any other Apple device, the side view of the iPhone illustrates Apple’s debt to the audacious beauty and simplicity of Dieter Rams’s Braun devices. Antenna-gate, the problem in the previous iPhone where holding it could reduce signal strength, reminds me of the Frank Lloyd Wright story of his favored client Johnson calling him up to complain that the beautiful ceiling leaks. Move your chair, Wright admonished. Hold it differently, Apple suggested. But of course these arrogant retorts hid utter mortification and the error would be corrected.
Actually, because of its lovely slab shape I feel strange putting it up to my ear and speaking into it like a phone. With the relegation of this functionality to the Phone app being just one among many other apps, the iPhone feels less a pocket phone with amazing computer-like functionality than a pocket computer which can, among other methods, communicate with people using telephony networks. For me at least this change in emphasis suits.
And here are some more peeves and pleasures.
With use I did however acquire more peeves. Whereas I miss T9 for text entry less than I thought—after all, I made plenty of frustrating errors there too—I miss Speed Dial with physical buttons more than I thought. In order to call someone, I’d rather hold down a physical key on a number pad for three seconds than (avoiding Siri, which is usually even more annoying) fire up the Phone app (possibly after escaping whatever app I left the phone in), touch Favorites, then scroll down an indistinguishable text list rather than say a grid of thumbnails of faces. Well, thumbnails in Phone.app’s Favorites will probably come. Once nice thing is that with photos synched and categorized by face in iPhoto, my favorite photo of someone can appear fullscreen when we speak.
I finally started using Folders; whereas on the iPad 1 all the folders look the same, on the iPhone I can actually see all the little icons within each folder, so can distinguish among folders without having to read their labels. Voice recognition works surprisingly well and is impressive, even though sometimes it’s a relief to return to the keyboard, even the iPhone keyboard, because with voice recognition correcting an error is harder than writing it out in the first place. Which brings me to my least favorite aspect of iOS: the elimination of arrow keys. This is sadistic, borderline criminally so. And how disturbing that with all its cash Apple won’t make a deal with Swype in order to improve the keyboard.
When I first got the phone I hunted the webs for apps to download, and the type I downloaded most were related to the camera. Most of these were a waste. The camera apps are confusing with nasty graphics and ultimately seem to only offer one function beyond the built-in Camera app: separating the focus and the light metering touchscreen functionality, which I can live without; I can’t understand all the praise for Camera+. The only camera app that was worth buying was Pano; very nice. In contrast the photo editing software seems more worthwhile. ColorSplash does what it sets out to do very nicely. Halftone is a good fun app that I’ve actually used a few times. For everything else iPhoto seems superior.
I think having date-based Reminders separate from Calendar is a bad idea. Sure, there can be two apps, but they should share data; Reminders should be just another way to get things into your Calendar. I do like Photostream, that I need do nothing to get photos from the phone’s camera onto my laptop to archive and edit, and iPad to view (and if I had a newer model, maybe edit here instead). Having such impressive apps such as GarageBand, iPhoto, dJay and Halftone on such a small device is mindblowing. I mentioned I bought Prompt by Panic, whose Transmit app is still a central part of my workflow. I trusted them to do something nice, but still, it’s painful to pay for such a fundamental computing thing as a terminal application.
Aha, the camera!
One reason as significant as any that I got the iPhone is to be walking around with a better camera, as nowadays it’s invariably the only one I carry, and always carrying a camera is an ambition I’ve always harboured on and off since high school. The N95’s camera seemed great for a phone, was a great improvement over the Nokia 6630, which also amazed me at the time, but this is so much better still. It’s quick on the draw, and also in switching back and forth between the camera and the recent photos—important for checking whether the shot is good enough or to try again. And holding it as a camera is simply nicer because it’s metal.
Being able to do 1020px video is just phenomenal. I bought a tripod adaptor case from kungl.com (also seriously considered the Glif and may try that as well), and also got my first GorillaPod tripod, which not only stands on a surface but wraps around most anything. I knew there would be tripod adaptors because there’s such a rich accessories market for the thing—blood pressure monitors, etc. The iPhone’s flourishing ecosystem is a vital reason to choose it, and ultimately probably the only reason, or at least the best measure of all the others.
It’s a revolution in reading affairs.
People write about watching movies on the iPad in bed, lying on their backs, the iPad on their chest. Even with the lower resolution on the iPad I have, it’s still better for watching video than the iPhone just because it’s bigger.
But for reading in bed, I greatly prefer the iPhone, because I can lie on my side and put it next to my head on the pillow. It’s so small, I don’t have to move my eyes much to take in the entire screen. For reading in the dark, set the triple-click home button to reversing colors.
Since I’m short-sighted, and because the device is so small and dense I can bring it so close, I can remove my glasses to use it and see it even better, which is liberating. It’s at such moments, being able to read comfortably in bed in an unpixellated serif font with the lights out, I might remember how insanely great the iPhone is.
Well, I’ll just have to carry around a battery pack instead of a spare.
For all the pros and cons, we must end on the fundamental issue of battery life, for without it, all else is moot. For years on the N95 I’d used a third-party double-capacity battery, which was thicker and required a case that stuck out the back of the phone. I didn’t care. Battery life is paramount. I also carried two spare batteries in my wallet.
With the sealed-in battery of the iPhone the whole setup is more fragile. I bought a case with a battery and another external battery that connects with a USB cable. These solutions are clunkier than little spare batteries, but provided they do the job, I guess I can accept it. It does however seems a basic flaw to be unable to swap out batteries. Maybe the glass back of future iPhones will be solar panels.
I’d be perfectly glad if Apple held off doing anything more with the phone except reducing the size of its internal components to allow for a bigger battery, and continue working on improving the battery itself. And for the phone to charge itself a little with solar panels. (Might better battery life cannibalize iPad sales?) Everything else seems pretty much perfect already: The human eye can probably no longer detect any improvement to the screen; the thing feels more responsive for many tasks than my MacBook Pro; the form factor is exquisite. Oh, it would be nice if the “+” camera button could be two-stage like a camera, and the Home button an accelerating little thumbpad so that I can, when the need arises, and it does, revert to one-handed use.