iPhone: It’s the little things that make it great

So I finally caved in and bought an iPhone 3G the other day (I’m not exactly an early adopter you know). I have to say, it’s more impressive than I expected. A lot of what makes it so good is the attention to detail that’s gone into the design of the hardware, software and user interface. Here are some first impressions of its loveliness:

Proximity sensor

When you hold the phone to your ear while on a call, the phone temporarily shuts off the screen (saving power) and locks it (so you can’t accidentally “tap” on the screen).

Keyboard

I wasn’t convinced by the on-screen keyboard at first. But actually it’s possible to type quickly and accurately on it thanks to the predictive word input. You just have to trust it and let it do its thing! A nice touch: you can double-tap the spacebar to quickly add a full-stop (period for my American readers) followed by a space.

Conveniently, the keyboard layout changes depending on exactly what you’re doing. When entering a URL, you get extra “.”, “/”, and “.com” buttons instead of the redundant spacebar; for email address fields, you get “@” and “.” buttons, and so on. This really exploits the idea of a soft keyboard to its fullest.

After using the iPhone for a few days I’m up to about 40 words per minute on its little keyboard. Not as good as my usual 120 wpm on a standard keyboard, but pretty damn good for a mobile device. Sure beats Graffiti on my Palm!

Dragging web pages

If you’ve watched any iPhone promo videos at all, you no doubt know that you can double-tap any section of a Web page in iPhone’s Safari to zoom in on that section. You can then scroll up, down, left, right and diagonally by dragging with your finger, or “flicking” your finger to scroll quickly.

The clever bit, though, is that if you drag either horizontally or vertically then Safari locks the drag direction while you’re dragging, so that you don’t start sliding left or right when you’re scrolling down a column of text, for example. The designers have really thought it through. As a feature it’s so subtle and “right” that you hardly notice it.

Watching movies in web pages

The built-in Mobile Safari does a pretty good job of rendering general web content (with the notable exception of Flash content), but obviously movies embedded within a tiny web page aren’t going to look that great. So instead a placeholder image is shown; tap the image to view the movie in full-screen landscape mode, which looks lovely. Exit the viewer and you’re back in the page where you left off. Here’s how it works when viewing a video of “Enthusiastic iPhone Guy” on the Apple website:

Deleting email messages

The built-in Mail client is understandably limited compared with its desktop cousin – no searching or junk mail filtering, for example – but it does have some lovely user interface touches. For example, you want to delete messages from your mailbox, of course, but screen space is too limited to shoehorn Delete buttons or checkboxes into the message list. Nor can you tap to select messages for deletion, because tapping a message opens it.

So instead, you click the top-right Edit button to reveal checkboxes; tap the checkboxes to select messages, then click Delete at the bottom of the screen. Alternatively, swipe from left to right across a message to reveal a Delete button, then click the button to delete. It keeps the message list nice and tidy, and yet is eminently usable for deleting single messages or a whole bunch. Very cool.

Summary

I could go on and on. The iPhone is a great piece of hardware, but by carefully designing its software and user interface, Apple have managed to get around practically all the limitations of a small device: the tiny screen real estate, the imprecise nature of a touch screen, the lack of a physical keyboard. Very impressive.

And because I know I’m sounding like a complete fanboy at this point, I should add that there are many things that infuriate me about the iPhone, which I shall be addressing in future posts! :)

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6 Responses to “iPhone: It’s the little things that make it great”

  1. cdude Says:

    Small screen and mobile platform is no excuse for not having the ability to search email. (And calendar)

    I’d also like the ability to read more than the last 200 messages.

    Funny how neither of these things were an issue on my anemic Palm.

    I love my iPhone overall, but no search is killing me. And don’t get me started on cut and paste…

  2. Matt Says:

    @cdude: Great comments – thanks!

    I guess there’s no email search because fast searching would involve caching all messages in all mailboxes (on IMAP at least) on the phone, which could be tricky with 8GB total storage and a cellular link. Still, I guess Mail could still use the slower IMAP search. Calendar searching would be good too, you’re right.

    I guess iPhone’s Mail is mainly intended to check your inbox for new mail and fire off quick replies, which it’s great for. Apple presumably expect you to return to your computer once in a while to do things like searching and organizing!

    I’m sorely missing both text selection and cut/copy/paste from my Palm. I hope Apple addresses these issues sooner rather than later.

  3. Eytan Says:

    Check out what happens if you hold your finger down on the .com, or on an e, or any other character that can take options (for example, in the US, holding down the ! gives you the option of a ¡
    Some very careful attention to details there…

  4. Matt Says:

    @Eytan: Hey, cool! :) I knew about the accented characters thing, but that .com trick is great (lets you choose .net, .edu, or .org). I wish it had an option for .co.uk though (I visit a lot of British sites).

    Very nice.

  5. Greg Says:

    “And because I know I’m sounding like a complete fanboy at this point, I should add that there are many things that infuriate me about the iPhone, which I shall be addressing in future posts! :)

    Please direct me to this!! Its just not possible :P :P

  6. Matt Says:

    @Greg: Well, there’s this for starters ;-)

    http://mac.elated.com/2008/10/27/is-apple-dropping-the-ball-on-iphone-features/