On a fall day over eight years ago, I walked into an AT&T store in Davis, my college town, to see the iPhone 3GS. I held it, stared at it, looked at the price card, then back at the phone, and then down at the price card again. Reality began to set in.
I was locked into a contract with my Sony-Ericsson feature phone for another six months. I asked about early upgrade pricing - $200 on top of the $199 AT&T already charged for the phone - but I was a student, and my meager checking account balance could barely withstand the regular on-contract price and accompanying increase in the monthly service fee. I walked out of the store with my dinky little flip phone feeling defeated. Sometimes I would go on AT&T’s website and look at the 3GS some more, only to once again face the cold, hard reality that I did not have $400 - plus sales tax and activation fee - to spend on a phone.
Six months later, I spent basically all of my money I’d saved from my part-time job on an unlocked Nexus One, sight unseen. I’ve been using, and writing about, Android phones ever since.
When I say I’ve never used an iPhone, I don’t mean I’ve never held one or played around with one for a few minutes. Of course I have - so have most people. But I do mean that I’ve never actually used one for any extended period of time (even more than 15 minutes), let alone used one as my personal phone.
The occasions where I’ve been handed one, asked to look something up or to respond to a text while someone was driving, were often a little confounding. Getting around iOS was just different enough that brief, two or three minute-long experiences never quite got me used to it. Eventually, I decided to change that and bought myself an iPad Air, and the next year an iPad Air 2.
The iPads introduced me to basic iOS conventions, but the way I used those devices was fairly different from the way you might use a smartphone. The truth of it is that they were really just glorified web browsers, video screens, and Kindle readers. I didn’t communicate on them, I didn’t rely on them, and I certainly didn’t take them everywhere I went. iOS was more something I accepted as part of owning them, not something I embraced and had to know intimately in order to use them effectively.
So, when my iPhone X arrived last week, I did something I never had: I started using an iPhone as my personal phone. It’s only been a few days, and I plan to continue this experiment for a full month, but I already have many, many thoughts about the experience. I plan to share those thoughts in a series of five posts (I promise, we’re not becoming the Apple Police) over that time, starting with this one, and culminating in a larger reflection on how the whole thing went. In between this post and that last one, I’ll tell you about the advantages, the disadvantages, and maybe dedicate one post to more comparative analysis with Google’s Pixel 2 XL, my current favorite smartphone.
With that, let’s start with the obvious: how did the whole switching process go?
Abandon all [local] data
Shortly after powering the phone on, it came time to decide if I wanted to use Apple’s “Switch to iPhone” utility to set up my iPhone X. The whole process of transferring things just sounded cumbersome, and I never trust utilities like this to do a good job. It would be easier, I decided, to just start fresh on my new phone.
I signed into my Apple account and began to set up Face ID. I’ll have more thoughts for you about Face ID as I use it more, but my impressions so far are kinda positive. It works quite well sometimes, and it’s far more forgiving than, say, Samsung’s rather finicky iris scanning technique. Do I miss my fingerprint scanner? Yes, frankly. But I have a feeling I’ll adapt.
Apps that are optimized for the 18:9 aspect ratio and "notch" make the iPhone X look quite stunning in person.
I started downloading my apps, and as I waited, I began to delete those on the iPhone I knew I wouldn’t use. There’s something a little liberating about being able to fully, completely remove many of the stock applications - something it took years of griping from users for Apple to allow. I’ll never use iMovie, and it takes up a fairly massive amount of space, so away it goes. The same went for a good number of other bundled applications. I don’t even remember all of the ones I deleted. I’m fairly certain I’ll miss none of them.
I had already told myself I wouldn’t be fully dropping into the “Apple Ecosystem” during this experiment. I’ve been a heavy Google user for over a decade. I have countless hours and many gigabytes of data invested in the company’s products, with years of learned behaviors, tricks, and shortcuts that help me make the most effective use of them. I’m not interested in Apple’s take on apps that already serve my needs effectively (Inbox, Google Maps, Google Docs, Google Photos), unless I’m otherwise forced to use them (e.g., Siri, iMessage).
Some apps, like Google Maps, don't use the 18:9 layout yet (i.e., no notch action) and hurt my very soul. But most seem to be updating quickly for it.
Aside from some of Google’s apps not yet adopting the iPhone X’s 18:9 layout, I’ve found that being a Google user on iOS is totally fine. Most things work very similarly to the way they do on Android, and I only had to sign in to Google once, after which I could use my iPhone as an authenticator - just as I do on Android - to sign in to any other Google product or service.
Siri does a lot of the basics just fine. But it's no Google Assistant.
Switching to Siri is one experience I’ve been less than thrilled with so far. The ability to hotword Siri even when the phone is off is nice, but the lack of integration with Google Home, Play Music, or any of my personal data in Google definitely makes for a reduction in the quality of the query experience. Google knows a lot about me, and being able to access that data directly from the homescreen or simply by speaking to my phone was nice. Sure, Siri can do a lot of the same things Google can (e.g., “where’s my car,” “tell me what song this is”), but there’s no doubt that Google just does a lot of this stuff better. Anyway, I guess I could use the Assistant app for iOS if I really wanted, but I can’t say I see that happening much. Siri is instantly accessible. The Assistant is not. That’s where the conversation ends for me - meaning I will be using Siri.
The other big change is, of course, iMessage. Many of the people I text on a regular basis have iPhones, meaning I do tend be a heavier use of SMS than dedicated chat services. Switching to an iPhone means those conversations now support rich integration for media, web and app links, and (groan) animoji. While I don’t have a Mac to experience the full potential of the cross-device integration, I’m already liking the extra information in my conversations - be it live typing indicators or support for high quality photos. This stuff, I know, is incredibly basic if you use something like WhatsApp or even Facebook Messenger, but the thing you need to realize is that many people in the US use iMessage, and those that don’t - meaning those of us using Android - tend to use SMS because of all those iMessage users. I know the rest of the world doesn’t work this way. My world, however, does, and iMessage has been a very pleasant experience so far.
With all of my apps set up and signed in - down to Authy, which made handling all the two-factor processes a breeze - I powered off my Pixel 2 XL. This was it: no more reaching for the Google phone when I needed to look something up or fling through my notifications. The one less intuitive setup item was my contacts. I have all of them stored with Google, but bringing them into iOS requires the less-than-obvious step of signing into Google through the Mail app. You can choose just to sync your contacts and calendar to avoid redundant email sync, but I feel like this should just be a part of the device onboarding, considering how much data lives inside the average Google account. After all, doesn’t Apple want my information?
I’m sorry, David, I can’t do that
The common refrain when it comes to iOS is that the operating system simply doesn’t let you change many things. The common refrain is true. Want to set a custom notification chime for a particular iMessage contact? N
ope, can’t do it (edit: Yes you can - through the contacts app.) Want to turn off notification counters on your icons? Sorry. (edit: This can be changed in the settings app on a per app basis.) Remove the pointless gesture to unlock the phone when you’re using Face ID? If only.
After seven-plus years with Android, the iPhone certainly feels restrictive to me in some ways. Still, it probably feels far less so today than it would have even a few years ago. I think this is largely a function of the way I use my smartphone having changed over time. In 2010, I managed my notifications on the most granular level possible. Today, I’m usually content to just turn off notifications for non-critical apps, and iOS asks you whether or not you want to enable them basically every time you launch a newly-installed one. I used to use more widgets, too, but Google’s rich notifications, the quick settings shade, and launcher features like the feed have largely turned me off them. On iOS, we’re seeing Apple play catch-up to a large degree, but they are catching up.
I quite like the iOS control center - it's pretty and functional.
Notification actions are more and more common, and are well-implemented for apps like iMessage. The control center is easy to access (just pull down from the top right) and I actually prefer the interface to Android’s quick settings tiles, even if it does considerably less. The Apple widget list needs quite a lot of trimming to personalize effectively, but it can be done - and I find it much more personal than Google’s now very-static feed pane. Apple has clearly learned from and, to an extent, copied Android. I’m glad - because these are things worth copying.
Roadblocks do arise, though. While iOS has supported third-party keyboards for some time now, they’re hobbled by the limited level of access they’re allowed in the input engine. I mean, the GBoard app doesn’t even have the ability to add a number row or quick secondary function access to punctuation. What kind of nonsense is that? And, from what I can tell, Google’s usually excellent prediction engine has to work in the cloud on iOS, meaning predictions come down much more slowly than the locally-generated ones you get on Android. It just makes the whole keyboard experience suck for me. The stock Apple keyboard is quicker, but the suggestions are demonstrably worse, with far more annoyingly aggressive autocorrection. The iOS keyboard doesn’t even have a search function for emoji (luckily, GBoard does). Do people on iOS honestly scroll through the entire list of emoji to find the one they want? That’s madness. (Edit: They don't, though the iOS keyboard's "search" feature is not as robust as Gboard's, it does give you three options if you type the emoji you're looking for then hit the emoji button. I much prefer Google's dedicated search feature.)
Apple Pay requires a little more work than Android Pay, but it is very noticeably faster at terminals.
I doubt this will be the last shortcoming I encounter. I’m already annoyed by some smaller things, too, like the fact that Apple Pay requires you to double tap the power key, and isn’t just always active when your phone is unlocked. Android Pay is definitely easier to use in this regard. (Though, Apple Pay is quite a bit faster and much less finicky about the actual tapping and paying part.)
That laundry list is best served with another post, though, and I’ll be keeping a running list of the issues and annoyances I run into. Similarly, I will try to track the things I do like about it, as well.
One month on the other side - and comments from you
I started using the iPhone X on the evening of November 16th, so you will hopefully be seeing my final post shortly after I stop using it in mid-late December. I’m only four days in as I write this, after all, and I will doubtless learn and be taught more about my first iPhone in the coming weeks. And with no other phones to review, I’ll be able to focus fully on this one.
What I’d like to hear from you is just what you want out of this series. What do you want to know? What are you curious about? As a relative novice at the whole iPhone thing, I’m probably going into this experience as many of you would, sticking to Google services where I can and want to, and avoiding unnecessary integration with Apple’s. If I were to be keeping this phone for two years as my primary device, I’d probably alter this approach to an extent, and be more willing to dip my toes into things like iCloud, and it’s quite likely I’d consider replacing my Windows PC with a Macbook to fully take advantage of Apple’s integrated ecosystem.
But this experiment is a little more limited in scope. Still, I will be carrying the iPhone X, and only the iPhone X, with me for a month - my Pixel 2 XL has been powered down since Friday. I’m already noticing changes in the ways I use my phone as a result (which I will discuss in later posts), and I wonder just what other things I’ll discover I do differently - or relearn - in that time.