Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Will The iPhone be MyPhone?

With the release date of the iPhone quickly approaching, I'm feeling as though I need to decide whether or not to get one. I go back and forth between "gotta have it" and "I'll wait for the iPod version." So this post will be my vocalization of the various considerations, and maybe it will help me determine what I'm going to do.

I have three mobile devices that I use pretty much daily, and in order of hours/day usage they are:
  1. 40GB iPod (4G? not color screen)

  2. Sony Clie PEG-TJ37

  3. Motorola RAZR

I was really late to the iPod party. I've had laptops for years, and for a while I had an external drive capable of holding most of my CD collection. I figured that at home I could grab whatever CD I would want to listen to at any particular point in time. I would take my laptop to work, so I could listen to MP3's there. In the car, I would listen to a radio show during the morning commute, and then either the radio or some CDs on the way home. The cars I've owned in the last 5 years have all had 6-disc CD changers, which is more than enough music capacity for the vast majority of my driving needs. So I felt I had my needs covered. I just couldn't see spending $300+ for a music player. Not to mention that the first ones didn't have the capacity to handle my music collection - I had to trim out a lot of crap to make it all fit on a 20GB Peerless drive - so I didn't try very hard to justify the purchase.

A number of things conspired over a couple of years to help change my mind. A new job that had a 45-minute commute made me realize that the content:commercial ratio in an average radio show is not so good. Also, the show in question - the Bob & Tom Show - lasts for 4 hours, so I wasn't getting the entire thing anyway. That took a while to grind on me, but I still had more than enough CD capacity in the car to keep me occupied. I finally hit a moment of weakness when my wife and I decided to honeymoon at Disneyworld, and drive to get there. Yeah, I suppose we could have brought along dozens of CDs, but it seemed like a good enough reason to justify a mobile device that could contain all of the music I have. Plus, we got some audiobooks. I believe at the time you had the choice between a 20GB and 40GB iPod. I went with the 40GB because I already knew I could fill 20GB, and wanted to make sure that I didn't need to buy another device for a while.

Two and half years later, I've used this iPod just about every single week day. I get ~90 minutes a day of a commute time to listen to it, plus I typically get in a few extra hours at work. I don't often listen to it on weekends (I'm usually watching TV instead). Aside from a handful of random freezes/crashes, plus an obscure bug with the Battlestar Galactica podcast, it has been trouble-free. I really don't have any complaints about battery life. If you spend all day just randomly zipping through tracks, then sure that sucks down the juice. But if you just let it play, I can easily get 8 hours of playtime, sometimes more. I think my record is up close to 12 hours. Maybe I'm just lucky, but on the whole I've been extremely satisfied with it.

Between podcasts and Smart Playlists, the way I listen to stuff has been dramatically changed. Bob & Tom eventually provided a podcast of their show, and each hour of live radio winds up being ~40 minutes of actual show time. So I get to listen to it commercial-free, in a shorter period of time, and I get to listen to the entire show whenever I want. Sure, I'm usually a day behind, but I'm ok with that. That was my only podcast for a long time, but I gradually started working my way into other topics. First it was TV shows; Scrubs, BSG, Eureka. Then I poked around for Mac stuff; Mac OS Ken, MacBreak Weekly, etc. I almost don't listen to music anymore, because I just don't have time. Bob & Tom alone is 3 hours/day of content. By the time I get through that, depending on how much listening time I was able to get in at work, that barely lets me take a crack at the other podcasts.

The point of all of this is to demonstrate how the iPod changed the way I listen to stuff, and also point out how much I use it. I love having my entire music library in my hand. And this brings me to my first problem with the iPhone: disk space. If the iPhone came with a 20GB drive, that would probably be close enough that I would call it even and just go with it. But with a current maximum of 8GB, it can't even hold half of my library - indeed barely a third - and that's just for audio! As I build a collection of videos, that further eats away at available space, and further complicates my decision making process regarding which audio content to have on hand.

Sony Clie PEG-TJ37
For as much of a technology geek as I consider myself to be, as I type this I'm realizing that I've been behind the curve with all three of these devices. I wasn't completely late to the handheld market; I did own the last model of Newton ever made: the MessagePad 2100. I used it to take notes in senior year of college almost 10 years ago, and was my primary mobile computer for a year or two after that. Eventually I got a full-fledged laptop, and the Newton gradually stopped being used. I wound up selling it on eBay a few years ago, and I was without handheld for quite some time. I would see Palm devices, but just couldn't justify doing anything on a screen that small. Web browsing was tough on the Newton, and its screen alone was much larger than most Palm devices. I attended a software conference one year, and the gift was a basic Palm Pilot. I don't even remember the model. It was a cute toy, and I would play solitaire on it pretty regularly, but that was about it. I used it for a while, and then wound up buying a newer model that had higher resolution, but was still gray scale. It might have been my wife's, now that I think about it. A few years ago, in a fit of weakness, I wound up buying Clies for the wife and I. She doesn't really use hers that much, but mine has been in my pocket ever since. A month or two later, Sony announced they were exiting the PalmOS market. It's too bad, because this Clie is really nice, and I have to wonder what Sony could have done with additional development.

I can't say that I need everything the Clie does. But I have used just about every feature at some point in time, and it has been extremely useful. I guess its primary purpose is to provide a means for me to sync contacts and calender info between my home Mac and my work PC. The process could be better, but it actually does work reasonably well. The alarms help me remember meetings when I'm away from my desk. It is handy when I need to take quick notes (I type on the virtual keyboard, I've never bothered with the handwriting recognition on a PalmOS device). The camera isn't fancy, but when I need to quickly convey something to someone, it has been very useful. I don't need professional-quality pictures from this type of device. Heck, I'm not that good with my real camera. But there have been numerous occasions where I needed to snap a quick picture of something, and my trusty Clie is in my pocket. I have a few games on it, and it is a great time-passer when I'm waiting in line somewhere, or in airports, etc. It can play MP3s, but I haven't had much reason to use that. It does do WiFi, and although I don't have a burning need for that (at home, I'll just use my computer, and at work we don't have much WiFi anyway, and what little we do have is password protected against my usage) it does occasionally come in handy. Battery life is a bit of an issue; WiFi and some games really drain it fast, but as long as I remember to charge it while I'm sitting at my desk, it has been fine.

I love my Clie, but I could certainly use some better sync capabilities, and while I do have spreadsheet and word processing capabilities, this form factor (small screen, awkward text entry) really doesn't lend itself to such use. However, of all three devices mentioned here, it is the only one that is in my pocket every time I leave the house. I've finally worn the surface of my screen protector off in one corner (one of my games requires a lot of dragging in that area), and it is a little annoying. So I either need to find another screen protector, or just move on to a different PDA.

Motorola RAZR
I'm usually behind the curve on cell phones too, but the reality is that I just don't make or receive that many calls. I mostly have it for emergencies, or the occasional "honey, I'm going to be late getting home, would you like me to grab something for dinner?" phone call. If I'm going to talk to someone for an extended period of time, I'd much rather do so from a landline for the superior quality and greatly reduced chance of a dropped call. Because the reception inside my workplace sucks, I will generally turn the phone off and leave it in my car in the morning, then turn it on again after work. I try not to use the phone while I'm driving, but my wife will call me on the way home from work sometimes. I drive a stick, so it can be challenging to do so while talking on the phone. I tried using a wired earphone for a little while, but that was annoying. So I decided to break down and look for something with Bluetooth capability so that I could have a wireless ear piece. I settled on the RAZR, mostly due to perceived coolness, and also because at the time Cingular was offering a good deal if I renewed/extended my contract.

My RAZR experience has been a mixture of cool and incredibly annoying. Bluetooth earpiece, cool. Voice dialing, cool. Syncing contacts and dates with my laptop, cool, BUT. Ah, there's always a but. This RAZR is my first non-Nokia cell phone. The Nokia address book will show people, and then once you select a person you get to choose between phone numbers; work, cell, home, etc. And I like this. The RAZR lists every single number as a different contact. So for example, my own name appears in my contact list 3 times with each of my different numbers. Same for my wife. This makes my contact list three times longer than it needs to be, which makes it that much harder to scroll for someone that I don't have voice dialing set up for (or if the voice dialing didn't work :mad:). To combat this, I've started moving phone numbers into the notes area of my address book. So if I have a business contact that I never call with my cell, I'll remove their phone number but list it in the notes so that I have it. The next time I sync the phone, that contact disappears from the phone, thus shortening the list. So that works, but if I ever encounter a situation where I need to call someone who I have removed in this way, I better have my Clie handy because the RAZR doesn't keep the notes field of the contact info. This notes approach does help my syncing success between my Mac and PC, but it is still some major hoop jumping.

I've experienced some problems with the RAZR. Occasionally I'll pick it up, and it is dead. I don't recall turning it off beforehand, so that strikes me as odd. I'll attempt to turn it on, and it won't respond. Eventually I'll remove the battery and put it back in, and then it will start to work again. Sort of. Or, sometimes when I turn it on, it will have trouble booting up, and just quit and shut off. This again requires battery removal. I've never had any of these kinds of problems with my Nokia phones. Also, the RAZR has a nasty habit of deciding that its battery is dying at 2:00 AM. The mournful sound it makes as it is dying is rather funny, but I don't enjoy being awakened. I don't know what happens during the night, but more than once I have believed I had plenty of juice left, as confirmed by the indicator, only to be irritated in the middle of the night. Again, my Nokias have never done that.

My Nokias have always had great user interfaces. I seem to be able to figure out what I want to do relatively quickly. Granted, the RAZR being a camera phone has more capabilities than my Nokias, so it's not a perfectly fair comparison. Still, I almost never seem to be able to figure out what I want to do with the RAZR. If I want to change the ringtone, the place that makes the most sense to me to find that setting doesn't have it. This is not to say that the RAZR's interface is horrible, just that it could be better.

So will I get an iPhone? I still don't know. Here are what I see as some key decision makers.

  1. Disk space. For an audio-only device, I could probably get away with the small sizes. Even 4GB is plenty of music, and with some clever Smart Playlists, it can cover my needs. I want to have room for everything, but I'm willing to weed out some stuff. However, videos take up a lot more room than audio. And although I couldn't justify watching video on an iPod Video because of the small screen, looks like the iPhone becomes a more viable video player. I don't know what movie file sizes for an iPod/iPhone would be like, but considering how much music I want to haul around, I don't imagine having enough room for more than a video or two. Maybe that's moot since I wouldn't have enough battery life for more than a video or two, but still. I just saw an iPhone commercial last night, and it reminded me that the video iPods can also store and display pictures, so there's Yet Another media type vying for disk space. 20GB good, 40GB better, 60GB or more great. Make it thicker and put an actual hard drive in there. I'll gladly give up a few mm in thickness in exchange for greater capacity.

  2. Battery life. I've heard that approximately 5 hours of reasonable battery life can be expected from the iPhone. On an average day, I can usually get in that much time for listening to music or podcasts. If the iPhone will spend that entire time searching for a network, then I don't imagine the battery will last that long. If I can disable the phone part during the day (or on flights), then I'm ok with that. If not, that's going to be a problem. Right now my iPod winds up getting charged every day (overnight), although that's mostly because I'm syncing anyway. I could probably go 2 or 3 days between charges otherwise. My RAZR gets charged roughly every 4 or 5 days. The Clie either goes a long time between charges, or sits on the charger all day. So I suppose as long as I get the proper cabling, battery life may not be that much of an issue after all.

  3. Cost. The stated cost of the iPhone ($499 and $599) doesn't really bother me all that much. Yeah, it's a chunk of change. Amazon has iPod Videos, the lower capacity ones, for around $250. Relative to the iPod, the only thing you lose is capacity. You gain a larger screen, PDA capabilities, not to mention wireless capabilities. All of these things combine in my mind to say that the price is not unreasonable. I would pay that much for an Apple PDA alone, and I see the cell features as a bonus. I'm more worried about the monthly cost. My wife and I have 2 phones, more minutes than we could possibly use, and it runs around $70/mo. We don't currently do texting or any web browsing. So unless I can opt out of the data plan, that's going to be an additional monthly cost. I've heard anywhere from $20-$50/mo. Over the required 2 year contract period, that's an extra $480-$1200. Now we're talking full blown laptop prices. The reality is that I'm already paying ~$45/mo for a cable modem at home, work has broadband access (albeit access to many sites is blocked), and the amount of time I spend 1) away from home, 2) away from work, and 3) not driving is very small. Work has blocked access to external email, so there would be some value in being able to access home email from the phone, but I really don't have any particularly important home email; at least not enough to justify $20-$50/mo to read RIGHT NOW instead of waiting until I get home.

  4. All in one. Being able to replace 3 separate devices with a single one certainly has a lot of value, provided that you aren't sacrificing too much (or any) of what the specialist devices can do.
    Relative to the Clie, I would lose a couple of specific games, but I'm sure there will be other ways to waste time with the iPhone. I would gain almost certainly superior syncing with the Mac; although PC/Outlook syncing is currently a question mark. I would gain a usable keyboard, better camera, more storage space, larger screen, etc. I would also gain a device/OS that has a future, and lose one that a) isn't made anymore, and b) has an OS that is increasingly irrelevant. iPhone 1, Clie 0.
    Relative to the RAZR, I don't know that I would be losing anything. Battery life, reception, and those kinds of tech specs are things that will require actual usage to determine. I would guess they will be equivalent or better on the iPhone. Form factor is a different story. I don't think that rectangular phones make for very comfortable phones. One of the reasons I chose the RAZR is that it is a flip out design. But, my primary phone usage modes are the Bluetooth earpiece or the speaker phone, so maybe the shape of the actual phone is moot. User interface would appear to be a hands down winner for the iPhone. I would also have to give the hardware quality nod to Apple over Motorola. iPhone 1, RAZR 1/2.
    Relative to the iPod, I would lose disk capacity. I will gain a larger screen, a color screen, and arguably a nicer interface for finding music. I would lose tactile buttons. When I'm driving, I really don't look at the iPod much, but I can find the Forward/Back buttons by feel. I can see this being addressed with some sort of remote for the iPhone, but as-is I'm not aware of any remotes that still allow use of the dock port (that's how I connect to the car stereo). I would gain video capabilities, but that alone has not been a compelling reason for me to get an iPod Video. Like I said, I just don't have many opportunities while away from my TV to watch things. I can listen to stuff all of the time, but not watch. If I was spending more time on buses or airplanes, I might feel differently. Wireless syncing, if possible, would be nice, but I'll need to connect at some point to recharge anyway. So I'm going to lose some things I like, gain some things I don't necessarily value, but also gain some nice things. I'll call this a tie. iPhone 1/2, iPod 1/2.

    So on features alone, the iPhone looks pretty strong, and a viable candidate to replace all three of my existing devices.

So where does that leave me? I don't know. I would really rather have an iPod PDA. Make it thicker if necessary, but put a big disk in there. Drop the cellular capabilities, but leave in the WiFi. I would even like to see a stylus along with some kind of basic sketching program (I can't do everything I could possibly need/want to do with a keyboard) - call it "Napkin." The problem is, I don't see them making this device at all, or even if you leave the stylus off, making this device anytime soon. The overlap with the iPhone, not to mention the iPod's market dominance, really reduces Apple's motivation to sell such a creature.

The question I'll have to answer is whether I want to pay for the iPhone now in order to get the PDA capabilities, or wait and see if Apple adds them to the iPod.

I'm not known for my patience.

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