The Apple Hardware Report: Is the iPhone a Disposable Piece of Junk?

January 26th, 2007

Take a look at your wireless phone, especially if you’ve had it for more than a few months. It probably shows a fair amount of mileage, with loads of nicks and scratches. The pristine, shiny case looks like it’s been a victim of a few too many drops onto the pavement or tiled floor, and it’s amazing the thing still works. Well, maybe not completely, because it sometimes turns off without warning. But you turn it on again and get on with your business.

Oh yes, maybe you’re different. You put your phone in a leather case, and it looks as good as new. Certainly the Motorola RAZR and its siblings might survive, because of their titanium case. But they can be bent.

After a year or two of this use and abuse, you’re ready to hand it off to the kids, who probably have phones that seem as if they’ve had several close encounters with the wheels of a spinning automobile. Or maybe it’s no longer working, so you just buy another one for $50 or so from your wireless carrier, in exchange for giving them another two year’s of your business.

Yes, you expect a cheap phone — even if it’s cheap because of your service provider’s subsidy — not to last terribly long. It’s part of our disposable society. Electronic gadgets work all right for a time, but they age so quickly you’re ready to buy replacements before you know it.

Into this environment comes the iPhone. So will paying $499 or $599 — plus whatever fees Cingular exacts from you for a bucket of minutes and Internet access for two years — afford you any greater degree of reliability? If you’re paying that much for a phone, it ought to survive a few years before it needs to be replaced, right?

Well, I suppose you could look at the iPod as an example. How does the number one music player on the planet manage after a few hard years? Well, my son has gone through a pair of these since the product was originally introduced. Both were hard drive versions and they stopped working after a year or two. One was consigned to the recycle bin, while I got a break on a hard drive replacement for the other. It hung on for another year before it bit the dust.

Finally, I gave my son an iPod nano, hoping its Flash-based memory configuration would make it more robust, but he has no idea where it went during the move from the dorm, to the home and to the apartment he now shares with two other students. So he wants another iPod for his 21st birthday.

But Grayson Steinberg is no isolated example here. He isn’t that careless with his stuff. In fact, his Canon i860 inkjet printer just keeps going and going like the infamous “Energizer Bunny.” His 17-inch PowerBook G4, one of the early versions, has a couple of dents on its aluminum case, but otherwise runs perfectly.

In general, the iPod’s track record is no better than those tiny cell phones. The batteries go, but you have to send yours to a repair center — or risk ruining it by doing it yourself — to install a replacement. The same is true for the iPhone, unlike most other wireless communications devices that I know about..

But even before the battery stops taking a charge, consider the typical scratch-prone case of the iPod. Now consider taking your greasy fingers — and they will often be greasy even if you take hand cleaner with you — and typing away at the iPhone day after day. Just how robust is the screen and how long will it survive normal wear and tear before it’s filled with deep scratches?

And surely you wouldn’t dare drop the thing? But it does happen. It’s small, and I can see where you are fumbling for the keys to your car or home with the iPhone in the other hand and the juggling competition ends in failure. Something drops, and you just hope it’s the keys and not the iPhone. Or maybe not. You see, those key fobs on new cars can cost a few hundred dollars to replace if they’re damaged, so it’s a wash.

Now we really don’t know whether Apple has taken all this into account. Certainly the high price they’re charging ought to cover a more resilient case that’s able to withstand the rigors of intense use without breaking apart. We’re six months away from the product’s release, and the only samples were prototypes under the watchful eyes of Apple during the Macworld Expo and various press briefings.

Yes, it may well be true that I’m an alarmist and I’m expecting the worst, and that the iPhone will somehow be more reliable and more resistant to damage than every single wireless phone I’ve ever used.

But there is one more thing: How well does it handle phone calls? I mean, isn’t that the main reason you buy a wireless phone, even if it has loads of other gadgets and/or playthings to use? How many of the people who had face time with an iPhone got to try it out to see how well it fares as a phone, its most basic task?

Yes, we know that Cingular claims to have the fewest dropped calls in the industry. Maybe they do, and maybe all those reports of its service shortcomings are ancient history. But the reliability of mobile phone connections in the U.S. is nothing short of miserable. Don’t expect the iPhone to make it any better.

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10 Responses to “The Apple Hardware Report: Is the iPhone a Disposable Piece of Junk?”

  1. woz says:

    Would it be a smart move to make the screen replaceable?
    When it’s full of scraches, just bring it over to an Apple Store and they’ll flip it open and replace the plastic screen with a brand new one.

  2. Chris Huse says:

    I gave both my son and daughter an iPod for Christmas in 2002 and they are still going strong, with the original batteries, through 4 years of college.

  3. Dan says:

    Gotta say that I don’t really agree with you on this one. I think that on the whole these things last as long as you let them.

    I’ve had my current phone for nearly 5 years. Yes, it’s a bit worn now, especially where some of the paint has rubbed off from being in my pocket. I removed the stub antenna cos it was too big. It’s got a very slight dent on one edge because I did indeed drop it. But it still works. Calls are as clear as they ever were. The screen is fine. The battery life is down a bit, but not much. I keep on thinking about replacing it, but then I think “Why bother” it’s just another expense (I’m on PAYG).

    The same is true of my 3G iPod. It still plays. The screen is a bit scuffed, but it’s perfectly readable with the backlight on. The batttery is down to about 5 hours at a charge, oh woe. When the battery hits 4 hours I’ll probably replace that, as that’s about the longest journey I usually do. I’ll keep it until it’s uneconomical to repair.

    I don’t have a case for either of these. They usually cohabit a pocket in my jeans. These things don’t have to be replaced every 18 – 24 months. Just take care of them.

  4. Jeff says:

    I still have my original iPod, purchased on the day it came out. Still works perfect. I have scratched the screen over time, but buffing it out takes about 20 min, once a year.

    The only cell phone I have ever used that broke was a flip phone. That is due to the moving parts.

    PS, I am very rough on things. No cases!

  5. ja says:

    My cheapo Samsung clamshell has survived several drops on to pavement with no probs – doubt an iPhone will be as durable, but that’s not the biggest problem.

    Very unlikely you’ll be able to one hand operate this thing with your thumb and together with lack of VR makes it a non-starter for me – even before the sticker shock. I don’t want to have to interface *more* with my cell phone to make a phone call – I want to interact *less*. No way will I put down my coffee to two-hand monkey with a cell phone – that’s a step backwards in utility.

  6. jbelkin says:

    Isn’t everything?

  7. Tero says:

    My Nokia is still going strong after six years of use. I doubt the modern phones are even made to last long, as they’re replaced yearly or so these days.

  8. My Nokia is still going strong after six years of use. I doubt the modern phones are even made to last long, as they’re replaced yearly or so these days.

    I suppose there’s something to be said about the good old days, even if those days were six years ago 🙂


  9. Andrew says:

    I miss my old Nokia 6190, best phone I ever had. Everything I’ve had since (a few Motorolas, a Samsung) hasn’t measured up in quality, and while my BlackBerry is still going strong after a little over a year, the Nokia was better at being a phone.

  10. gopher says:

    I haven’t had a cellphone in 11 years. But then again, I haven’t needed one. I’ve waited patiently for phone service to get cheap enough that I can dump my land line. But so far, it hasn’t. And if I knew of a cell phone that cost $25 a month and let you keep your existing phone number, and give you unlimited long distance, caller ID, user customizable voice mail greeting with voice mail, I’d jump for it in an instant. I had hoped Apple would come with such a service, but no, no one gets it. Until land line is more expensive than cellphones, there will always be those who prefer landline who don’t need a cellphone for their business.

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