Thursday, August 19, 2010

My Vacation With My iPhone

rh_iphone_upright_2For the last week and a half or so, I’ve been on vacation in Japan. If you have spoken to me in the last two months, you probably knew that already.

During my day job as a computer tech and my night job as the editor of that hot new millennium culture blog, I am pretty well shackled to my computer screen. Flurries of emails, Facebook updates, news items, and other communiqu├ęs would completely pass me by if I shut the thing off for even a day, which is an unfortunate but inevitable reality in today’s always-on culture.

But, dammit, I was going to be on vacation. I blanched at the thought of taking along another bag just for my computer, of the additional hassles at airport security and at customs. I wasn’t going to be writing, I wasn’t going to be editing podcasts, I wasn’t going to be downloading drivers or diagnosing obscure Microsoft Access problems. I decided, correctly, to leave my computer screen behind, but I still wanted to be connected in case anyone needed to get in touch with me, or in case I had some downtime on a train or plane or bus and wanted to catch up on all the stuff I was missing.

This is where the iPhone comes in. It and its siblings propose to bring about a sea change in computing, to take people away from their desktops and laptops and give them everything they need in one handheld device. I got a glimpse of this future last week, and my results were generally good, if sometimes mixed. Read on to see what worked, what didn’t work, and what made me want to throw the thing against the wall.

Background

People who have read my iPhone-related posts before (see my review of iOS 4 and my look at the iPhone 4 antenna problem) will know that I use an iPhone 3GS that’s just about a year old. At the time of my vacation, it was running iOS 4.0.1, and I needed to use it for a few primary tasks: email checking, texting people who were interested in knowing I was still alive after flights or mountain climbs, reading a couple of books, keeping up with news both pop culture and national, and Skyping in for a podcast with Robert and Craigford. Given Apple’s advertising, I’d put this workload somewhere above casual, but not quite at the extreme-power-user-road-warrior level either.

The Good

iphone_emailThe good is that the experiment was mostly a success, and I was able to accomplish most of the tasks I had hoped I would. I was able to keep up with my personal email (my work email account was, of course, disabled), browse the Web, keep abreast of national news, and have a pretty clear Skype conversation without too much trouble. For most basic tasks, I found that I didn’t need a computer at all.

It’s true that the podcast we had intended to record didn’t go up, but this wasn’t the phone’s fault or Skype’s – amazingly, my call from Japan was crystal clear, but Rob’s Internet chose that day to give us nothing but trouble. Craig and I still had a good half-hour conversation without a hitch. Our writers’ thread also chose the time of my vacation to literally explode with activity and ideas, so I was very thankful for the opportunity to keep up with that and offer my own feedback.

It also served its time as an entertainment device on the plane, letting me listen to music and read some eBook’s via Amazon’s serviceable Kindle app. I don’t think I’ll be giving up “dead tree books” anytime soon, but reading on the phone’s screen is surprisingly comfortable and eyestrain-free.

If you asked me whether the phone did almost everything I needed it to do over the course of my trip, the answer would be yes – this is a vast improvement over what was available on the market just a few years ago.

The Bad

iphone_4_spell_check_suggestionMaybe I could check emails and send text messages, but I was definitely missing my full-sized keyboard by the end of the trip. Reading a five paragraph email or a book on the iPhone’s screen is completely different from writing an email of the same length, especially when its spellchecker flatly refuses to stop replacing every instance of “shit” with “shot” and “its” with “it’s.” Grammar Nazism is easily undermined by a phone that loves its contractions.

By the same token, serious content creation on the iPhone is currently impossible. This isn’t something that the iPad’s bigger screen is going to fix, either – you can’t download or upload files, typing even something as long as a blog post is excruciating and error-prone, and editing audio or video is just not possible – this is as much a problem of form factor as it is app availability. Getting serious work done on the iDevice is either impossible, or so difficult that you’d choose to do the same work on a computer every time. Even a netbook, with its standard operating system and applications, is more capable of content creation. The same email thread that spawned so many ideas for the site exasperated me to no end because I can’t dig around in HTML code on my phone.

And, speaking of form factor, my last gripe is with the layout of many of the apps (with a special focus on the free, ad-supported ones) – especially in IM-type apps, screen real estate is extremely limited. When 50% of the screen is taken up by the keyboard and another 25% is taken up by ads and the iPhone’s UI, the remaining space can barely be used for two lines of text. It’s a nasty situation, and while it could be ameliorated somewhat by the paid, ad-free version of the app, that’s not a leap that the cramped layout of the free version inspires one to make.

The Ugly

iphone-battery-life-300x281In my time with the phone, I came to truly hate iOS 4, truly hate it, with a smoldering passion that lingers days after my return. Minor annoyances like the occasional app crash or hang are tolerable when Internet access is unlimited and computers are close at hand, but in the jungle of for-pay Internet in airports and hostels, the amount of time I spent waiting for the Mail app to hang, crash, hang, crash, and reload was truly obnoxious. Third party apps did their fair amount of crashing, too – hopefully app writers and Apple can deliver us from this mess with the forthcoming iOS 4.1.

Also fairly inexcusable in a device this size was its battery life, which (in my wholly unscientific estimation) was somewhere between three and four hours when being used heavily at medium screen brightness – laptops nowadays are regularly reamed in reviews for turning in such poor battery life figures. For something which is, purportedly, mobile, it’s hard to recommend a device which usually needs a bit of a charge late in the day so it isn’t dead by bedtime. Note that my phone is approaching its first birthday and that the iPhone 4’s battery is allegedly bigger, but the iPhone has always struggled with battery life especially when under the heavy workload presented by a game or by intense Web browsing.

Conclusion

Did I survive my time abroad with just my iPhone as a companion? Sure! It’s a great device for consumers who are just looking to read or to listen or to watch. The instant you get to the point where you need to make something, though, watch out – the device just isn’t that well suited. Those going on a business trip or a longer vacation are still going to want to pack up their laptops.