“Primitive” Phones vs. Smartphones

Back in February, after months of deliberation about what kind of phone I should upgrade to, I bought an iPhone on Verizon. Shortly thereafter, I began receiving many, many inquiries from friends and family members asking whether this was a good move, whether they should upgrade, whether it’s worth it, and so on. I told them all the same thing: “It’s still too early for me to say.”

Well, it’s been some months, I’m less busy with work, and I’m looking for an excuse to blog, so it’s no longer too early to say. Here are some thoughts for those of you who were once like me: Not trying to choose between different smartphone brands (which is another question altogether), but those who have been using a flip phone without a data plan for years, and are wondering whether those shiny iPhones your friends seem to love finally give you a reason to get a smartphone.

The short answer: probably not. But it’s still pretty cool.

To pick this apart a little more, I’d like to discuss the differences between what my smartphone (an iPhone) does well compared to what my primitive little flip phone (a free-with-contract Motorola KRZR) turned out to do just as well, or even better. I can’t actually say what other smartphones (like Blackberries and Android phones) do well because it turns out that fiddling with your friend’s phone for five minutes is completely unlike taking a phone to work for months on end, using it to field incoming calls and messages over the course of the day, and otherwise actually using it like a phone. But I’ll tell you what I know.

Battery Life: Motorola KRZR
By the end of my old Motorola’s lifespan, I had to charge it every day or two, or else it ran out of power. Mind you, this was after using it for over two years, and the phone had a removable battery I could’ve easily replaced or upgraded at any time. When I first got it, I could use it for days at a time without charging it. In comparison, I challenge you to find an iPhone user who doesn’t charge it every day. Mine nearly died on me on my commute home on the first day I took it to work, as it never occurred to me to disable call receiving and WiFi features in my 3 hours on the subway. Now, whenever I commute on public transit, I have to navigate through a couple screens and toggle “Airplane Mode” four times a day (assuming I remember to do it and don’t just accidentally leave calling disabled, which I have certainly done more than once, rendering me completely unreachable for hours on end). Even then, I still have to recharge overnight to get the phone through the whole next day—and if I played any games or used the phone to read during the day, I may even need to recharge it after work just to get it through the rest of the day. I see all this charging as a trivially acceptable sacrifice to be able to do more with my phone in general, but if it’s a deal breaker for you to have a phone that needs to be charged daily, the iPhone isn’t for you.

Reading Material: iPhone
This is an unfair comparison, in a way, since I don’t even know if I could’ve gotten RSS feeds on my old phone. If I could’ve, though, I can guarantee they’d have been so ugly as to be not worth it. Plus, my old phone could never have shown high-res videos embedded in feeds, and was barely capable of displaying photos recognizably. But that’s not to slight the iPhone in this category. In fact, I’ve learned that I actually like skimming RSS feeds on my iPhone (first with Google Reader, then with Reeder) even better than on my computer. It’s quick, clean in appearance, seamless in switching from text view to watching embedded videos, and way more attractive than using NetNewsWire or Google Reader on my laptop. (Chalk one up for iPhone over both my other commonly used devices, then.) Plus, the iPhone makes a passable PDF/ebook reader—not great for extremely long reads or for documents with wide columns, but good enough that I’ve emailed myself reading material as PDFs because I knew I’d be more likely to catch up on my reading on the train than I would back at home.

GPS: iPhone (assuming it’s your only GPS)
This is another unfair comparison, as GPS is not really an expected feature for non-smart phones. Clearly, I get more use out of Google Maps on my iPhone than I did on my other phone. If you already have a GPS unit for your car, though, the iPhone won’t replace it. It’s good in a pinch when you’re lost, but it doesn’t talk to you, and I’ve gotten some zany directions from the Maps app on more than one occasion (such as when I was driving alone and instructed to go the wrong way down a one-way street). Handy, but not the best guidance system in the world.

Web Browsing: iPhone, grudgingly
I think I was technically able to browse the web on the KRZR, but its browser was so basic that it was basically unusable for anything other than mobile-optimized pages. To my mind, the iPhone isn’t so much better that I’d actually recommend thinking of it as a web browsing device. Sites that aren’t designed to be used on a phone are simply a pain to use, like my work’s webmail client (which is the only way I’m able to check work email remotely), and sites that rely on Flash (like many restaurant sites and many web-based games) don’t run at all on the iPhone. It’s nice to be able to tap into the internet hive mind if you absolutely need to wherever you are, but it really doesn’t come up for me all that often in an average week. (As fun as it is to settle those “who starred in that movie” debates while out with friends, it’s really not a life-changer.) In short, iPhone web browsing works in a pinch, but if you really want to use the web, you’ll still be lugging your laptop (or iPad) around. Mind you, I imagine my criticisms of the iPhone browser would hold for all smartphones, but I’m talking about smartphones vs. primitive phones here.

Games: iPhone
My Motorola only had cruddy games on it, and the screen was tiny. My iPhone has more options, and some are quite pretty. As a handheld gaming device, I’ve already gotten almost as much use out of it as I ever got out of nearly a decade of owning a Nintendo GBA and DS, mostly thanks to Words With Friends. Most games for the iPhone are pretty poorly made and easily ignored (which is why I use Words With Friends and not the official Scrabble app), but the few gems out there will get you through a long commute.

Music: iPhone
The iPhone is slimmer than my (admittedly aging) iPod, and I could swear it actually has better sound quality. I’m not gonna toss the iPod, but it’s nice to be able to listen to music without putting another device in my pocket. My old phone was no good for that. I will admit, though, that there are non-smart phones that make it a lot easier to load music onto them than the iPhone. You have to “sync” your iPhone with a computer, and you aren’t able to download free, legal mp3s from the web onto your iPhone the same ay you’re able to download PDFs to iBooks. Apple should be embarrassed that it’s so hard to actually manage music on their devices.

Texting: iPhone (barely)
Everyone told me that you get used to typing on the iPhone touchscreen eventually. I improved slightly over the course of my first week, and hit a plateaued. Typing on this thing with my nubby sausage fingers is a pain. I’m constantly making typos, getting autocorrected to inane things unless I deliberately slow my typing, hitting “Enter” and “Send” when I don’t mean to, and flummoxing the spellcheck on what I thought would be obvious mistakes (e.g., two correctly spelled words side by side, when I accidentally miss the space bar). I’m also not a fan of the iPhone’s text messaging interface, with its colorful, space-inefficient word balloons. Plus, the time spent calling up a contact from those in my list of contacts and previous messages is significantly longer than it took to quickly start up a text message on my Motorola, and that old beast’s interface took something like three more clicks than it needed to as it was. All of that said, I give iPhone just a tiny bit more credit than the old KRZR, even despite the KRZR’s lack of a qwerty keyboard. They both require navigating through more clicks and screens than necessary to get a text message going, and having real buttons reduces errors and annoyances in typing—but even with the annoyances of the touch-screen keyboard, I’m able to text faster (and browse old texts more easily) than I once was. And all of that said, I love, love, love Android’s “swipe text” feature, and I wish Apple would pay whatever licensing fees they need to pay so I can use it.

Speaker Phone: Tie
I didn’t notice much of a difference.

Calling: Motorola KRZR
I get slightly worse call quality and reception on my iPhone than I did on my KRZR (such that I now I have to leave my office and walk into the hall when I get phone calls at work). Mind you, this is still pretty good quality and reception, and not many dropped calls to speak of. (Since getting a Verizon phone in 2001, I think I could count my total number of dropped calls on my fingers, unless you count those from talking to people who were using iPhones on AT&T.) Nevertheless, it is simply quicker to make a phone call on a device that is nothing but a phone. That’s what the thing is for. Calls can be answered quickly and easily by opening up the phone. Calls can be made quickly and easily by opening up the phone and pressing a button without even looking. And pressing keys to navigate call trees doesn’t require you to navigate a menu just to make a keypad magically appear.

I don’t make or get many phone calls, but I must admit that I feel slowed down every time I get one on my iPhone, and not just due to unfamiliarity. Answering calls isn’t that much more difficult, but for some reason it ends up being a slower, often two-hand process for me. Making calls is a bit more of a pain, as the touch-screen interface makes it harder to navigate a list of names by letter, and you can’t assign a “default” number for most contacts (so you must navigate the list, click the name, then click which phone to call). Speed dialing is replaced on the iPhone by looking at and touching a somewhat shorter list, but at least these skipped the step of picking which phone to call. My KRZR, meanwhile, had easy speed dials for nearly everyone and every take-out place I ever call on a regular basis, easily dialed up by hitting a single key once or twice. Add in time to gingerly remove the fragile little iPhone from my pocket as if it were a Fabergé egg, and it ends up feeling like a bit more of an involved process. (I dropped that Motorola more times than I can count, but it was durable and practically free to replace.)

I realize how whiney it sounds to be talking about seconds or fractions of a second lost to interface considerations, but you notice those things when you use a device. Those are the details that make for acceptable design versus great design, and Apple keeps getting touted for its great design. You know what’s great design when it comes to phones, though? Buttons. They give feedback through the sense you’re using to control them rather than relying on visual feedback for tactile control. They are easy to find and fast to use. As moving parts, they will eventually degrade—but the buttons on my Motorola were will working long after the charging port cover fell out, the battery cover started to pop off, and the plastic started to peel on the back. And that phone is a year and half past the time when I could’ve replaced it for free.

Customizability: Neither
Here’s the rub, I think: The iPhone looks like a computer. It performs like a (pretty, somewhat slow) little computer. But it is not customizable like a computer. It is sealed up tight, just like any other phone. I never minded this on my Motorola because you don’t expect those things to be customizable anyway, but it’s painful to know that it’s possible to trick out an iPhone and even improve the UI, but that doing so (through jailbreaking) voids your warranty and potentially creates problems when Apple updates the OS. Unless you want to risk that kind of thing (if you even feel technically competent enough to have the option at all), you are stuck with what Apple decides on for the size of icons (too small for my taste), the layout of SMS messages (too brightly colored and scattered in layout for me), the placement of toggles for WiFi and call receiving shutoff (buried in Settings), the sound for incoming text messages (which actually is customizable for just about every other phone on the planet), and so many other things that would really be nice to fiddle with. I might be willing to forgive the iPhone its failings as a phone if only it were everything I hoped for and more in a mini-computer, but it’s not.

In Summary
The iPhone is pretty. It’s a good iPod, a decent RSS reading device (and thus not a terrible ebook reader), a nifty casual gaming device, and a passable web browsing device. It’s half decent as a phone. If you rarely use your phone and only need one because our society still expects everyone to have a phone, then consider the iPhone as a cool gadget that includes a phone among its many features. If, however, you want an awesome phone that’s awesome because of its phone features, this just isn’t it. In fact, you’re probably out of luck entirely, as the mobile industry has kind of given up on that market for the most part. But you can still get a free phone with great call quality and passable usability, and it’ll cost you $30 a month less than an iPhone would. If cost is an issue and checking Google Maps wherever you are isn’t that big an issue, do what my girlfriend did: hold off and just date somebody else with a smartphone. Works like magic.

Honestly, a bizarre article. Was this meant for the onion?

All kidding aside, comparing an iPhone to a razr or anything similar is like comparing the horse and buggy to cars today.

  1. I use my iPhone constantly. I charge it overnight while sleeping (while also using it as my alarm clock) and that’s all I need. If for some reason I don’t use my iPhone much that day, I can go two days without a charge. And If I do any driving, there’s no need to do any charging if I charge it while driving. Battery is simply not an issue on iPhones (as it is on androids). Remember, you’re charging a computer, not a phone. if you don’t want a computer in your pocket, or hate charging a phone a little more, a razr is great.

  2. With an iPhone, you also get a camera that is a great point and shoot, and a video camera that isn’t bad either. That’s just two things you get with an iPhone that’s superior to a razr but you forgot. There are many others. Those jump out.

  3. Text messaging sucks in general, but it’s better on the iPhone. And the new iOS will have free messaging (with advanced features) for iPhone to iPhone messaging.

  4. This is the biggest flaw to your argument. What makes the iPhone especially useful is apps. From weather, to gps, to task managers. There is almost nothing you can’t do on the iPhone if you want to.

Just one example, you compared the gps on the iPhone to whatever the hell razr has. But you can download a gps app for about 40 bucks, less when on sale, that is as good as a standalone gps. In fact, I sold my car gps because I use navigon on the iPhone to go everywhere, and I do a lot of traveling.

The bottom line is this. The iPhone is a computer in your pocket. It does some things better than a computer, some things just as well, and some things not as well, but it CAN do just about everything a computer can do, AND IT’S IN YOUR POCKET :)

(As an aside, I fine web browsing on the iPhone to be just find. Would I want to spend all night on it? No, I’d rather be on a laptop. But in a pinch, it does the job. Complaining about restaurant websites is kind of nitpicking, especially because they suck in general.)

It comes down to this. If you want a computer everywhere you go that fits in your pocket, the iPhone is amazing. If you’re 90, or hate computers, or just want to talk on the phone, get a razr.

Oh yeah, it’s got a pretty good camera.

This is the longest comment I’ve ever gotten specifically to tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about. I hope this means I’m making it to the big times. Then again, this WAS a pretty long post just to say “upgrade to a smartphone if you want a little computer in your pocket, but don’t bother if really all you want is a phone” … so I’m really not one to cast stones.

Great posting. I agree with everything you’ve said, and those reasons (along with price) are why I don’t have an iPhone…especially your last point about Apple having “locked” the phone. What a ridiculous practice (though industry-standard).

I’m happy with the gold Krzr I bought on eBay. $50, unlocked, totally customizable, durable, reliable, long battery life. If I want a computer, I’ll take along my laptop, thanks.