iPhone Buyer's Guide
(Contributor: Ryan Kuo)
Nobody expected this from Apple. With a smaller percentage of users than Windows, Mac computers have never been a hotbed of videogame activity, and they've tended to be closed systems -- meaning that it's nearly impossible to swap out and customize components like graphics and sound cards.
Naturally, people assumed the same level of game unfriendliness would apply to the iPhone. And, though a few games were part of the App Store's launch, it seemed like games would be an afterthought to productivity software. Now, game content, which still feels like a missed opportunity on Apple computers, has made the iPhone and iPod Touch feel like vital platforms that developers have to address.
- Scads of inexpensive new content on a regular basis
- Slick design; excellent touch-screen interface
- More and more games let you play to music from your own library
- Ability to purchase content on the go and back it up on your computer
- Great multimedia player and organizational tool
- No good way to sift through the tons of game apps
- Gaming on the iPhone or iPod Touch drains the battery drastically.
- Sync process is still confusing.
- No Flash support for the devices' browser means incompatibility for many Web-based games.
Ever since it helped start the personal computer revolution in the 1980s, Apple's been infamous for the cultish fanaticism of its devotees. It wasn't first-to-market with an MP3 player, but the iPod's emphasis on aesthetics and ease-of-use made the device synonymous with a portable media lifestyle. Rumors of a full-screen, touch-sensitive device joining the iPod family brewed for years; and the iPhone launch in 2007 set a new standard for technolust -- with lines snaking around Apple stores in the days leading up to release. The iPod Touch -- bearing the same features as the iPhone without the telephony elements -- debuted later that year, and both devices have had storage updates and redesigns since then. Most recently, the iPhone 3GS debuted in 2009 with a number of hardware and performance improvements.
From advertising to packaging, Apple's a company known for its design sensibilities, and its portables don't disappoint on that front. The one-button design keeps things simple and elegant. iPhone and iPod Touch sport impressively scratch-resistant glass for their touch-screens, too. The latest redesigns keep the chrome frame around the screen, but, with the iPhone 3G's plastic enclosure, only the newest Touch sports a shiny metal backside.
The occasional processing hitches that prevent your finger taps and drags from registering. It's one thing to lose a Tetris game when you plan poorly, but a block not going where you want it go because of flaky response just isn't cool.
Apple's approval process for the App Store seems to operate by mysterious, seemingly arbitrary guidelines. iPhone and iPod Touch users eagerly awaiting the latest game or app from their favorite developer will have to get used to being in the dark -- submitted apps can hang in limbo for months before being released in the App Store, and apps already in the Store can be removed without warning.
Recent updates to iTunes have made it easier to back up your apps, but this is still more confusing than it could be. It's way too easy to attempt to "sync" your iPhone or Touch to your computer and find that swathes of your library have been erased and must be re-downloaded.
And the Touch still doesn't have a camera! (Cue the snickering from Nintendo DSi owners?)
You've got the touch
iPhone/iPod Touch games
The key element that makes the iPhone an exciting game platform is the low barrier to entry for developers. Enrolling in the iPhone Development Program can be as inexpensive as $99, so anyone with the cash and the will to code can submit their applications for approval. This creates an environment where innovative, idiosyncratic gameplay ideas can gestate without the interference of a corporate committee, harking back to the plucky garage-coders of the early PC gaming era. Unfortunately, this also means any hack can poop his/her shovelware onto the system, too, and there are a lot of craptastic games clogging the App Store pipeline.
Pocket power player
By now, even the casual techie knows about the intuitive pinch, swipe and tap controls on Apple's handhelds. (And yes, all the dirty jokes have been made.) They also offer a first-rate mobile Web-browsing experience, closely mimicking that of a desktop computer and hampered only by the above-mentioned lack of support for Adobe's Flash protocol. With iTunes functionality, the iPod Touch and iPhone benefit from all the cross-platform support Apple offers. Whether you download music, television shows or movies to your computer or directly to the device, you'll be able to transfer them back and forth via wired sync. Some third-party applications (like Simplify Media) let you connect remotely to content on your computer, so you won't have to worry about trying to cram 80 GB of Depeche Mode music videos onto your 16 GB iPhone.
YouTube support's a big selling point for iPhone and iPod Touch, but videos need to be specially compressed in order to be viewed on the devices. So, you may have to wait until you're back in front of a computer to watch that chubby lightsaber kid for the zillionth time.
Last but not least, potential purchasers will thrill to the hundreds of thousands of applications in the App Store. Those "There's an App for That" commercials may be annoyingly smug, but they're right. Damn them. Some of those apps -- like the 1337pwn app for tracking Xbox Live friends -- will even support the hardest of hardcore gaming habits. Damn them again!
Price drops and lightning sales are rampant on the App Store. It's not uncommon to purchase a game for $4.99 only to find that it has temporarily dropped to $0.99 the following week. Many games launch at $0.99 only to never again go on sale.
Currently, the best solution for tracking App Store sales -- besides keeping up with gaming news sites -- is a free app called PandoraBox. The app notifies you of price drops on games you're watching, and provides an browsable list of apps that have recently dropped in price.
The "99-cent dilemma" is still up in the air. While many developers buckle under the pressure to sell their games for a scant dollar, some are beginning to combat this trend by going no lower than $1.99. Still others are offering games for free now that Apple has enabled in-app purchases (this releases developers from having to put out a separate, free "Lite" version of their app for the sole purpose of hooking curious but cautious players). But the bottom line's the same: Compared to the PSP and Nintendo DS libraries, the App Store overflows with bargains.
A case. These sleek gadgets have a pretty good drop-test rating, but they're not indestructible. If you've got butterfingers, invest in some kind of enclosure, like the Contour HardSkin. Of course, there's all kinds of ooh-ahh colors and patterns, too, so feel free to indulge your inner fashionista. Just get ready for the teasing, especially if you're rocking this thing.
AppleCare Protection Plan (iPhone, $69; iPod Touch, $59). Unlike the shady boondoggles that stores like GameStop try to push on you when you buy new hardware, Apple's service plan is actually pretty good. In many cases, it'll replace a malfunctioning iPod or iPhone, so ponying up for the plan is cheaper than, y'know, actually buying a new phone.
Any screen covers. As we said before, the touch-screen is already pretty durable, and the various films and overlays being hustled on electronics store shelves will only come between your fingertips and your precious. Go au naturel for gaming, because even the ones that say they'll work will not.
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