Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The iThing

THE iTHING             Feb 2009

I have been thinking about getting an iPhone, or something similar. But I have put it off for the moment, partly because of cost, but also because I want to figure out the whole business of portable devices.

While I think of it, the business of cost is also relevant. Now you can get an iPhone for free – isn’t that great? Of course you have to commit to paying (in the UK) £40 per month for the next two years. That’s about £1000. So not quite free, then is it? To be fair, this gives you phone calls and data access included, which then raises the whole issue of mobile versus land line, and mobile broadband and Wimax and…. But I don’t want to get into all that, at least not yet. I just want to think about mobile devices.

I currently have about four small mobile electronic devices:

a mobile phone (old and basic)
an iPod
an old HP IPAQ pocket pc (aka PDA)
a Minolta digital camera

And that is not counting my video camera (because it is bulky), or my satnav (because that goes in my car).

I also have chargers for each of these devices, because of course they all have batteries that are incompatible. This is something I may return to later.

I actually still use my old PDA quite a lot, which might amuse up to the minute gadget geeks. It is quite powerful as it can play MP3s, display photos, record sound, display PDF files, hold a multi language dictionary, use a shopping list program, and let me read books, and edit and view Word and Excel files. I even have some (very crude) street maps on it which have been extracted from MS Autoroute, and contain details of POIs (points of interest).If it had WiFi (I couldn’t afford it at the time), I could also access emails. But the battery life is pretty bad, and the screen isn’t really good enough in any amount of sunlight.

I find using the stylus and on screen keyboard is quite easy and quick, it seems to me to be to be preferable to iPhone type touch screen key entry, especially if you have chunky fingers. A stylus is a pretty good device which seems to have vanished in the frenzy of multi-touch screens now enveloping the mobile phone world. I have even managed to read a book on the PDA (mainly indoors); it is surprising how little problem is caused by a small screen. After all, you can only actually read a few words in a few seconds, though your eye does hop a round a bit while reading. If you have a paragraph (which is about what you get on my PDA screen), it seems quite enough. I expect some people would not like it, and screens are better now anyway, but it shows how you can use new devices in ways that would not appear to be viable at first sight.

Now let us list all the things I might want to do with a pocket mobile device:

            Play music or podcasts
            Make or receive a phone call (with option for video link)
            Show photographs
            Send or receive a text message (could be TXT or email)
            Access web sites
            See where I am on a map, and navigate to locations
            Take photos or small videos
            Record sound scenes or notes
            Make and view text notes, or longer documents (incl. PDF)
            Do simple calculations, or simple spread sheets
            Keep todo list(s)
            Look at a calendar and record appointments
            Read a book, or listen to one (human or synthesised)
            Listen to radio (broadcast or net stream)
            Watch TV or a movie (broadcast, net stream, or stored)

And naturally, I expect to be able to synch this device with a laptop, network, or cloud web site, if for no other reason than backup security. Though I suppose this could be done using a flash drive or similar.

Now you can just about do all of these things with a modern smart phone like the iPhone, with some caveats.

Firstly, the screen is still rather small for watching videos or reading a book, or even for web browsing. They do a good job with what there is, but it is a limiting factor. It is also not as good as a book reader, unlike Amazon’s Kindle with e-ink.

Of course, it is hard to make one device that is suitable for book reading, watching videos and making phone calls. Or at least, it is if you want to hold it to your ear and mouth. Something like the Kindle is great for reading books, but a bit on the large size for putting in your pocket, unless you have big pockets.

Secondly, battery life is still not good enough on small devices to let you do all the above for any extended length of time.

Thirdly, although smart phones are getting better cameras (at least in pixel count), they still are not as good for taking photos as dedicated digital cameras. Its hard to fit a zoom lens into a smart phone in any sensible way, tho digital zoom with 12 megapixels may be getting close.

Fourthly, entering text on smart phones is still somewhat problematical, at least for a document of any length. Even those with slide out keyboards are only really intended for short text messages. The most successful is possibly the Blackberry, though even that is definitely targeted at just emails.

Fifthly, memory on iPhones is still a bit small for a full size music collection, photos, some videos and documents. Still, this should be overcome fairly soon with 32GB or 64GB memory options.

So, where does that leave us.

Well, if you just want one pocket mobile device, then an iPhone, or similar is the best bet, but it would make sense to wait a bit until 32GB+ is available for a reasonable price. I know you can always say ‘wait’, but at present, the iPhone is just not a good replacement for my 30GB iPod. And if I have to keep my iPod, then an iPhone is overkill, and expensive.

Kindles and the Sony ebook reader are still in their infancy, and don’t do a lot except let you read books (and download them).

So if you want something big enough to read books comfortably, and do other things, then the best bet is a netbook, though it has to have a really good screen. This would, at present, have to be supplemented by a smart phone with GPS etc.

Now the ideal solution could be along these lines. A netbook with a good colour screen, plenty of memory and built in GPS, WiFi, G3. It would of course have the ability to play audio and video and have simple apps for word processing, spreadsheet, calendar, to do lists, email and web browsing. Built in radio and TV tuners could be nice, but arguably the ability to stream over the web could make these redundant.

Now comes the tricky bit. Making phone calls could be handled by a wireless (Bluetooth probably) headset, though the ability to use the basic device as a speaker phone would be nice.

But what about taking photos or video? Recording sound would be OK, but twirling a netbook around to take photos just doesn’t sound reasonable.

And a netbook is not really a pocket device, though readily portable.

So we are left with the fact that seemingly one device just can’t do it all – as yet. Maybe it could be possible with flexible, roll up screens, and virtual keyboards, or near perfect speech recognition, but these are some way off.

So, final conclusions (for today):

1. Wait for iPhone or other smart phone (Nokia, Palm?, HTC Android..) to be reasonable cost with 32GB or better. If it had stylus text entry, so much the better for me. And I really want WiFi so I can access the web (admittedly from limited locations) without paying an expensive monthly contract.

2. Possibly add a netbook for better word processing and email handling, but again it could be better to wait until someone produces a netbook/ebook reader combo.

3. An ebook reader at present is an expensive luxury with not enough functionality.

Oh, and hang on to the digital camera.


Update March 2011

Well, things have changed a bit, but perhaps not all that much.

I now have a Nokia 5800 – not too expensive, no monthly contract, and GPS with free world wide maps and turn by turn sat nav. It has a decent camera (2 actually), plays MP3s and videos, shows photos, and can browse the web – but not very well. It’s really too small for book reading, and I need extra software to be able to handle Word and Excel files – but its probably not worth it for me.

And yes I also have an iPad (Wifi) – just because it does some things so very well, but I don’t see it as an alternative to my other devices. And why anyone should want to actually take a photo with an iPad is beyond me. I guess the front facing camera makes sense for video calling, but I would tend to use Skype for that on my netbook.

And my wife now has a Kindle – but only because the price came down to a no brain decision.

So the conclusion is roughly the same – I need several devices to cover all the requirements, though I have almost stopped using my digital camera.

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