iPhone on the Road
Much more than the sum of its parts
by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer
If you're like me, you shlep with you an assortment of electronic stuff whenever you leave the house, and a good deal more when you go on a trip. I mean, one does need a decent laptop, a digital camera or two, an iPod, one or more phones, and then all the power bricks and cables that go with it. So things can get a bit crowded and tangled in your bag, and then you need to keep track of what goes with what, which weapon to choose for what, and making sure the whole gaggle remains charged and ready to go. Well, on a trip over the recent holidays I found that often I really don't need more than just the iPhone.
Don't get me wrong. I've long learned that cramming multiple functions into one device rarely works. The compromises are just too great. I mean, there are probably tens of millions of cellphones out there with a camera built in. But the camera is so crappy and uploading pictures so cumbersome that hardly anyone ever uses them. And talk about browsing the web on a Windows Mobile device. No fun.
The iPhone is different. It does several functions well enough to make them useful. See, there is a huge difference between a device that can do something but does it so poorly that no one uses it, and a device that actually offers functionality. The former uses functions for marketing purposes but only masochists actually suffer through using them. My Motorola RAZR, for example, theoretically can browse the web, synchronize, take pictures, play games, keep my schedule and does a bunch of other stuff. I really like the RAZR, but I only use it as a phone whereas I use my iPhone for work.
Here are some examples of how I used my iPhone on the road.
Avoiding the Hotspot trap
So you sit in an airport, find out your flight is delayed, and decide to do some work. You extract your laptop from your gear, hope to find a power outlet somewhere closeby in case the thing craps out, hope it'll wake from its Windows XP or Vista sleep or hibernation, and then try to get to work. Once you're ready you crank up the browser as the airport promises WiFi internet access, just to find out that it's not free. If you don't have an account with T-Mobile or Boingo or whatever service is installed, you need to sign up, which means, if you're desperate enough to pay, wading through screens full of legalese. Very annoying. They should tell you upfront if they have free WiFi or whether it's one of the pay services so they're not wasting your time.
On my trip, Sacramento airport had free WiFi, but O'Hare and Dulles did not. Very annoying. Fotunately, I had my iPhone and EDGE did not let me down. I turned off WiFi and used the AT&T EDGE network for internet access. I know EDGE is getting bad press for being slow. I recently watched some CNET gurus discuss the iPhone on a vid clip and one said EDGE was worse than a 14.4kbps modem. I dont agree. While EDGE isn't as speedy as I'd like, it works well enough. I mean, modern websites are huge. An iPhone with EDGE internet access definitely beats putzing with a notebook just to find yourself confronted with yet another WiFi pay scheme.
Being able to check flight status and figuring alternate routes on the iPhone while stuck in an airport somewhere really gives you, well, an edge.
Getting email wherever
Email is dying under the ever-increasing morass of spam. And spam filters seem to be unable to reliably differentiate between crap and real email. We all know that. And there are ways to get around things, like a Blackberry. But I prefer the iPhone and I still rely on my two or three major email addresses. So if I land somewhere, or find myself in a lobby or restaurant or some other place where setting up a laptop is unfeasible, the iPhone lets me check my email without any problem at all. Say the plane just touched down and you're now allowed to use electronic devices. Following the usual herd instinct everyone stands up though they all know it'll be ten more minutes til things actually move. I whip out my iPhone and check email. Try that with a notebook.
Taking notes and writing
Some folks complain that the iPhone can't be used to enter data. Okay, maybe it's not the tool of choice to edit Word or Excel documents, but the Notes application works just fine. Maybe I am an exception as handwriting recognition on PDAs, going all the way back to the original Apple Newton MessagePad, always worked fine for me as well. I found I can use the Notes application to write down not only short clips of information, but entire articles. Yes, I've tapped in whole reviews. The iPhone's word prediction is terrific, and the little edit lupe works great. So I can't store stuff on a card as the iPhone doesn't have one. Big deal. I just email the notes to myself and then finish the job in a desktop or laptop word processor.
Digital cameras are small enough these days that you can easily slip an 8-megapixel Casio or Olympus into your pocket and take high-res, high quality shots everywhere. But that still mens an extra device to carry around, and I still have to load the pictures onto a computer. The iPhone's built-in 2-megapixel camera is just good enough to take real pictures that you don't have to be ashamed of. And sometimes they are a lot better than that. Plus you can email them to yourself or whoever. I found that I often take pictures of something and instantly email them to a friend or family. It's just so easy. You can truly share right when it happens, and not only after you loaded and processed the pictures.
Who needs GPS anyway?
Well, almost anyone. I love GPS devices and like to have one in my car when I go on a trip. But even the most sophisticated GPS devices are still a mixed blessing. I still often wait far too long until the device locks onto the satellites. The user interface of many devices is still often lacking. It's far too hard to get a decent overview map. And if I hear "Make a legal U-turn" or "Recalculating Route" one more time, I'll scream.
As far as I am concerned, the iPhone's Maps application is just as useful as a full GPS system, if not more so. On my recent trip I simply put in the start and destination address and the iPhone showed me the route, both on a map and as step-by-step direction. Sure, since it does not have a GPS receiver it did not show me exactly where I was, but that is not that difficult to figure out. Critics have cmplained that EDGE is not quick or available enough to redraw the maps. I rarely found that to be true. The iPhone Maps app really helped me a lot.
What do you do for fun?
The iPhone does not have any built-in games, but so what? It never made sense to me to waste time playing Solitaire on a Windows machine. If I do have internet access, which is almost always with the iPhone, I must admit I've spent an hour or two playing Bejeweled. And I watched a good number of YouTube videos. Early on people complained that only a small subset of YouTube videos are actually available on the iPhone. That's apparently changed as I usually see my uploaded videos on the iPhone almost instantly.
Another complaint has been that the iPhone's 8GB is not enough to load all of your pictures. True. I have some 11,000 or so on my Mac, but loaded "only" about 3,000 of them onto my iPhone. Well, that's a lot, and even that left me with plenty of space on the iPhone. And unlike the small screen of my video iPod, the larger screen of the iPhone really makes the pictures shine, and I can even zoom in. When I am stuck somewhere, I often play with the Photos app and get lost in happy memories looking at my photos.
The iPhone as a phone
What makes the iPhone so wonderful in my eyes is that it's not just a phone with some apps stuffed in, or a PDA with a phone grafted on. It truly is a whole new kind of device, one that combines different functions and somehow manages to be more than the sum of its parts. I am still not happy wit the telcos and their rip-off plans and 2-year service commitments, but I must say that AT&T offers a lot. Almost wherever I go, EDGE is available, and I have AT&T service even when T-Mobile craps out on me and Sprint drops calls like crazy. It's like Apple managed to make a pact with the telco devil without giving up too much. I do wish the iPhone had better voice quality; there is often just too much hiss and white noise (much more than in my RAZR), but it is good enough.
I am constantly afraid of getting scratches on my iPhone or dropping it. It's just so beautiful and perfect that I cannot stand the thought of seeing it marred by even the slighest scratch. But I also don't want to add to its size by putting it into a bulky case. My solution? I go back and forth between putting it into one of those colorful iPod "socks" and using Proporta's "Alu-Crystal" case.
What am I missing most?
Is there stuff that I'd really like to see added? Things that I wish the iPhone had almost every time I use it? Well, a GPS receiver probably would be nice IF it worked as seamlessly as everything else on the iPhone. If adding one would mean waiting for a satellite lock, I can do without.
Oddly, I miss a little flashlight or illuminator more than video. There are often situations where just a bit more light would come in handy, and one of those little illuminators that many digital cameras now have would be nice.
I wish Safari would let me have more than eight windows to pick from.
Do I miss storage cards and lots of apps? Well, that is a loaded question. In a way, this is a situation not unlike comparing a video game console with a PC. Consoles are closed systems and will therefore always work with any game. PCs are open and thus any number of things can go wrong. Likewise, by keeping the system closed, Apple made the iPhone essentially foolproof. It just always works. Yes, I know all about jailbreak and such. I have been very tempted to try it out, but I resisted the urge. I was once very tempted to load Linux onto my old iPaq back in the days when conventional PDAs ruled the handheld market. As is, I am certain there's lots of cool extra functionality that comes with being able to install third party apps. But the "legal" ones that run in Safari are already amazingly good. Si I am going to wait and use what Apple gave me.
Do I use the iPhone for music much? I don't. But that's mostly because I am not a music kind of guy. And I do hate headphones. The ones that come with the iPhone sound nice enough, but they hurt my ears. So I'd like better earphones and a louder, better speaker.
One fear I have is that Apple will quickly introduce new iPhone models that can do more. I'll want one, but will be stuck because I have that nasty 2-year commitment to AT&T. There likely will be (probably expensive) upgrade options, but then the old iPhone becomes useless, much more so than an old iPod that is not bound to a telco.
What do my colleagues think?
One of my colleagues who has recently joined the iPhone family has somewhat mixed feelings. As a diehard Apple fan, he likes the iPhone a lot, but bemoans the ongoing lack of Flash/Ajax, the inability to edit even Google documents, the lack of a voice recorder and a freeform notepad.
It would be an exaggeration to say that the iPhone has replaced all, or even most, of the usual assortment of electronics I carry with me. But it has replaced some, and it has made it possible for me to do things that I could not do before. Or things that I could do, but that were much more cumbersome and difficult before the iPhone. As is, I am just not going to leave home without the iPhone. And especially not when I go on trips.