15 - Onboard a Boat With Apple's iPhone
Our Review Asks: Is the iPhone Perfect for Onboard Use?

No mobile phone generated more attention than Apple's iPhone when it was released in 2007. Like all Apple products, the iPhone has a sleek design and elegant feel. The interface is responsive and intuitive. The screen is beautiful even in bright sun. All in all, it's a fun device to use.

However, to fully evaluate the iPhone for use on a boat it is important to go beyond the hype and honestly look at its advantages and disadvantages.

First the downsides: the iPhone does not use expandable memory cards meaning the amount of storage you buy is what you get. It cannot tether to a laptop easily meaning you will need a separate source of Internet connectivity for your onboard computer. The iPhone's beautiful touch screen interface does not work well with hands that are wet or gloved. Most Bluetooth devices, in particular GPS's, cannot be used. And finally, the iPhone is only available through AT&T - a major issue for long time Verizon users or in places with poor AT&T coverage. Apple iPhone The iPhone screen is beautiful and its browsing capabilities are excellent, but there are some drawbacks.

Having said that, the iPhone is a solid product with much about it to recommend including unparalleled media and web browsing capabilities, a large assortment of add-on applications, and so many slick bells and whistles that it would be a challenge to name them all. There is, after all, a reason that people are literally lining up to get an iPhone.

Apple has shown its willingness to improve the product with each successive release. For example, early iPhones lacked integrated GPS hardware and did not support copy and paste - limitations that made the iPhone difficult for boating and other uses. But the latest version, the iPhone 3G and 3GS, has a built-in GPS that can pinpoint your location on a Google Map, give you directions, and even help navigate on nautical charts by adding inexpensive apps from the iPhone Store.

Whether the iPhone is right for you will depend, like so many things in boating, on your needs and your personal situation. So let's take a look at it.

MEDIA SAVY

Following up on Apple's success with the iPod, the iPhone truly excels in the areas of entertainment and media. Music, movies, photos, and books are all easily and expertly handled on the iPhone - after all, it has an iPod built right in.

It's also hard to beat the iPhone's web capabilities. The iPhone comes with Mobile Safari for web browsing. Mobile Safari is the best web browser out there for mobile devices with lots of features that make viewing web pages on the smaller mobile phone screen easier and less frustrating. Web browsing is further enhanced by built-in Wi-fi and 3G data transfer rates on the iPhone 3G/3GS.

Other nice features are a built-in weather application, which allows you to quickly check onshore forecasts, and two different calculators: a simple pocket calculator when the device is in portrait mode that transforms into a scientific calculator when the device is turned on its side to landscape mode. Pretty cool!

The 3GS made several enhancements in the media department. The iPhone 3GS has a 3 mega-pixel camera, an improvement over the 2 mega-pixel camera found in the early iPhones, and has added video capabilities. Another cool feature: once a video is captured to your iPhone, it can be directly sent to YouTube - great for adding video clips to your blog. We do this all the time on our cruising blog, TakingPaws.

Karen worked for Apple in the late 1980's and early 1990's selling Macintoshes to the federal government. Back then, there was nothing that wowed an audience more than showing copy and paste (strange to think that there was a time when this was a new and unfamiliar feature). Since then, Apple's feature has become an industry standard. We were surprised when this feature was left out of the early iPhones, and are pleased it was finally added with version 3.0 of the operating system. It is now much easier to move information between apps or to send information to others by email. We find this so important on our boat as we transfer information between programs.

SCREEN AND INTERFACE

There is no question that the physical design of Apple's iPhone is sleek and sexy. However, the same characteristics that make the phone so handsome also make it slippery to hold. This can be a major detriment on a boat. If you're thinking of an iPhone, we recommend buying a non-slip skin or case as your first accessory. We know of more than a couple of iPhones that have become offerings to Neptune when they went overboard. The latest example is our friend Bill currently single-handing his first cruise (See Bill's blog.)

The iPhone's screen is bright with big, colorful icons and performs well in sunlight. The phone also does some thinking for you when it comes to operation. The iPhone has an accelerometer that automatically senses when you've turned the phone and rotates the image appropriately. A proximity sensor shuts off the display when you bring it to your face to use the phone. A light sensor adjusts the screen brightness based on the ambient light. And the new 3GS has a compass sensor with many obvious boating uses. Even with all its bells and whistles, the iPhone has a pretty good battery life but keep AC/DC/USB chargers close - you will need them often.

Getting used to the on-screen keyboard will take time. The lack of a physical keyboard and the tactile feedback it gives can make entering a long email frustrating, though it is acceptable for light typing. Apple's "large character" feature helps. When you tap on a letter, it shows a magnified view of what you selected. iPhone Keyboard The iPhone's touch screen is intuitive and easy, but may not work with hands that are wet or gloved.

Overall, the iPhone touchscreen is impressive. Apple's Multi-Touch technology, which allows you to use two fingers to make gestures on the screen, is not just cool, it is extremely functional. But there is one significant drawback for use on a boat. The screen uses capacitive technology to detect your touch. It is this technology that facilitates the Multi-Touch capability. Unfortunately, this technology has problems if your fingers are damp or wet, not an uncommon occurrence on a boat. We have found that the touchscreen becomes unreliable with damp fingers and won't work at all with gloved hands. Keep this in mind if you plan to use the phone in an outdoor environment. Consider using a covered case or a ziplock bag - both generally allow you to touch through to the screen, but make sure to test it before you really need it.

STORAGE AND NETWORK

One shortcoming that stands out more sharply is the inability to expand the iPhone's memory. While the 3G did increase the available memory to 16 gigabytes and the 3GS added an optional 32 gigabytes, the lack of an expansion slot limits any future upgrades.

Adding music, videos, nautical charts, and other data to your phone can use memory rather quickly. The iPhone is fun to use and you will find yourself wanting to use these capabilities. In the beginning, you may feel like you have plenty of memory. But like locker space on your boat, you'll find that you eventually will run out of room and need more.

Another drawback is that AT&T is currently the only mobile carrier supporting the iPhone. If you want an iPhone, you have to use AT&T service. While the partnership between Apple and AT&T helped make the iPhone possible, it saddled users with some limitations.

Although AT&T has pretty good coverage, particularly in the coastal areas, there are gaps. These are somewhat more pronounced on the west coast and in middle America, where lakes and rivers predominate. In addition, most users already have mobile plans - some with multiple family members and phones - and they may not want to switch everyone to AT&T. Similarly, many have plans provided through work, meaning an iPhone will have to be an additional purchase if you're not already using AT&T.

AT&T in the US does offer some nice features such as rollover minutes, unlimited calling to other AT&T users, and an unlimited data plan. Rollover minutes are great for part-time cruisers. Minutes that are not used in a given month are saved, or rolled over, to future months. You can save these minutes for 12 months. It's perfect for us as we rarely use our minutes when in our homeport of Castine, Maine. This gives us thousands of saved minutes we can use while cruising. Unlimited calling to other AT&T users means you do not use your minutes at all when calling another AT&T customer. And an unlimited data plan let's you use that great iPhone web browser without worrying about expensive overage charges. Unlimited data plans are very rare today. Finally, AT&T has implemented a visual voice-mail system that is integrated into the iPhone. Retrieving, deleting, and saving voice-mail is a total joy with these capabilities. All carriers should implement a feature like this!

However, we still look forward to the day when the iPhone is available on other carriers especially Verizon. We think that this will make the iPhone's use explode.

A particularly disappointing decision of AT&T and Apple was not to include a tethering capability with the iPhone. Using your mobile phone to connect your laptop to the Internet is a feature we think is critical for use on your boat. See our article Connecting a Laptop. The frustrating thing is that Apple's OS 3.0 release has the ability to tether built right into the iPhone. Unfortunately, AT&T has not allowed this feature to work on their network.

However, necessity is the mother of invention. It took only a brief time before numerous ways to "jailbreak" an iPhone began appearing on the web. This is a process of modifying the iPhone's firmware to allow non-approved software to work on an iPhone. It requres a willingness to meddle with your phone and may not be the choice for many. We will be providing more detailed information in a future article about jailbreaking and creating a way to tether an iPhone. Sign up for the ActiveCaptain newsletter to receive notification.

GPS

Since the introduction of the iPhone 3G, GPS hardware has been part of the iPhone. Unfortunately, the built-in GPS is one of the worst performing GPS's we have ever seen. We find this extremely odd as we have many other phones with integrated GPS that work incredibly well. The iPhone GPS however, doesn't. Getting accurate speed-over-ground (SOG) or course-over-ground (COG) seems especially poor. Sitting with a clear view of the sky in our pilothouse with multiple software applications produces the same poor results. This just doesn't happen with other phones and we have to conclude that the iPhone GPS is a problem.

One nice feature is that the iPhone's GPS provides applications with an accuracy value which allows the app to indicate how inaccurate the displayed position is. Unfortunately, the application must choose to make use of this data and few nautical chart navigation products do this. It's something to be aware of if you're ever piloting your boat through a narrow channel and want to use your iPhone to assist you.

Using our mobile phone as an anchor alarm is quite possibly our favorite mobile application. Although we have an anchor alarm at our helm, it's well above our stateroom making the alarm difficult to hear at night. We like having the phone right next to us monitoring our anchor's position. If our boat position strays outside the safe zone at night, the device sounds an alarm right next to us. It's a perfect use of a mobile device. Unfortunately, because of the iPhone's poor quality GPS we are unable to rely on it as an anchor alarm. The moment the iPhone is covered in any way, the poorly performing GPS becomes even worse - often unable to obtain a position with better than 1/4 mile resolution. That completely fails as an anchor alarm. iNavX has a built-in anchor alarm, but it is impossible to believe anyone has ever been able to use it with any confidence in their stateroom.

The iPhone's GPS hardware problems would be easily fixed if Apple would only allow external Bluetooth GPS's to be used with the iPhone. If they did this, a $30 GPS could be placed in the boat and used for accurate navigation. Keeping the GPS at the helm would allow it to be used at night as an accurate anchor alarm. Currently Apple supports some Bluetooth devices but specifically does not allow external Bluetooth GPS's to be used.

APPLICATIONS

Hardware and operating system aside, many thousands of add-on apps are the lifeblood of the iPhone and truly set it apart from all other devices. If you need something, "there's an app for that." It's not just hype, it's real. From navigation to database to general apps that show where the closest grocery stores are (See our AroundMe blog entry), there are many to choose from. Some apps are free. Others cost a few dollars It's rare for an app to cost very much. Installation of apps is a breeze with the integrated iPhone Store. When an update is available from the developer, you're automatically notified and the upgrade process is trivial. Apple has done an outstanding job facilitating apps for the iPhone. The only negative thing is that you will lose hours browsing and searching through all of the interesting applications available.

For the major application areas applicable to boating check out the other articles in this series which provide more details and examples for the iPhone, such as Navigation and Tides and Currents.

THE BOTTOM LINE

So here's the thing - the iPhone is fantastic. If you understand the issues and can live with them, get a 3GS now. If some of the things mentioned in this article make you wonder if the iPhone is for you, then wait. Apple has been doing a good job at fixing the issues and will continue to do so. If you can't live with AT&T, give it time. Other carriers will eventually pick up the iPhone - it's just a matter of time.

The biggest issues for us with the iPhone on our boat is the lack of laptop tethering and the poor quality GPS. These are the limitations that keep our Palm Centro and Windows Mobile devices at our helm. If you already have an aircard for your laptop, then tethering may not be an issue. It's one of those things that extra money will solve. If tethering is a major roadblock for you, watch for our article on jailbreaking your iPhone for tethering use.

There is no doubt that we've been critical of the iPhone in many ways. We think there has been too much hype and not enough discussion of some of the issues we've raised. We feel it is much better to enter with your eyes wide open knowing what you will face. That said, although we have dozens of mobile phones, if you call us on our boat today, we'll answer with our iPhone because it is the phone we use now in real life. Quite simply, we love it.