Last week I was at a conference in Madrid. As soon as I got on the plane and I had to switch off my phone it felt like I’d stepped back in time several years. Since mobile data costs a fortune while abroad, obviously I had that turned off on my phone. It turns out that my hotel had no free WiFi, and that even the paid-for WiFi was next to useless in my room (which thankfully I discovered before paying for it). There was free WiFi in the conference venue, and that worked surprisingly well considering I was sharing it with about 10,000 other people, but still there were times when I couldn’t get a working connection. Overall, getting online was more than a little frustrating.

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A few weeks ago I was contemplating swapping my iPhone 3G for a dumb phone. My iPhone had, over the course of several iOS 4 upgrades, become so slow that most apps didn’t work anyway. With some patience it was possible to check twitter and check-in on foursquare. Email was ok, but surfing was painful. Instead I used my iPod Touch to run apps, so all I really needed was an actual phone.

But then I got an email. An email offering an Android phone at bargain price. There are some things I don’t really like about Android, and if this was to be my only smart device I don’t think I’d have done it, but since I still have my iPod it was hard to resist. And now I have the opportunity to properly compare Android and iOS by using two devices side by side, day by day.

So now I’m the owner of an Acer Stream. It is last year’s model, with a spec similar to the iPhone 4 (1GHz single core CPU, 512MB RAM, 800×480 screen). It runs Android 2.2 (Froyo). I’ve had it now for a couple of weeks and I’m collecting a list of likes and dislikes which I’ll write up soon. For now, though, it is very interesting using both an Android phone and an iOS iPod Touch on a daily basis, using them both for all of my mobile tasks (apart from making calls, obviously). To be honest, in day to day use there isn’t really much to choose between them…

On the eve of the next big iPhone announcement I thought I’d think aloud about what I’m looking for in my next phone purchase, to replace my ageing iPhone 3G, and whether it will be a smart phone at all.

I bought the iPhone 3G on its release day in the UK and it has since revolutionised many things for me, not least my use of social media. Twitter and friends made little sense to me when I could only access them when sat in front of a laptop. Having access to Twitter everywhere suddenly made it make sense. I have acquired many other apps on my 3G over the years I’ve had it and they’ve all been useful and/or fun.

A year later the 3GS was released. It wasn’t a huge leap forward from my 3G, and not worth upgrading to. 12 months further on the iPhone 4 was released and I still didn’t see the new iPhone as a worthwhile upgrade from my 3G. The along came the the iPod Touch 4G. It was very nearly an iPhone 4 without the phone, and at a _hugely_ reduced price. At time of release a 32GB iPod Touch was £249 while a 32GB iPhone 4 was £599. My mind was made up. An iPod Touch and a MiFi combined to provide my smartphone needs and my iPhone 3G was reduced to being just a phone. I continued to look at new smartphones, mostly Android phones, as they were released, on the assumption that eventually I’d go back to a single device.

Now, though, I’m not so sure. My iPod Touch continues to do a great job as a smartphone. At home and at work, and many other places too, I have WiFi, and where there is no WiFi my MiFi fills in. The Touch runs all my iOS apps perfectly. There are a few iPhone features missing – the one I miss most being a decent camera. All in all, though, I’m very happy with it. I could replace my iPhone 3G with an Android phone, or with whatever new iPhone Apple announce tomorrow, but if my iPod Touch is doing a good enough job do I need to? Why don’t I just buy a, well, a phone…?

Right now, I can’t think of a good reason not to do just that. If the phone could do basic Twitter that would be great. If it could run something like JoikuSpot to replace my MiFi that would be better. I’m sure there’s something out there that will do the job, and that costs much, much less that the current crop of smartphones. Any suggestions? A Nokia “feature phone”, perhaps?

I will watch the Apple announcement tomorrow evening with some interest, but I’m currently not expecting to place an iPhone order any time soon…

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Spending a week in a tent can be tricky when electronic gadgets are involved. In previous years, the only power-hungry gadget in the family has been my iPhone. I’ve been able to get by for a week by turning off WiFi, Bluetooth, etc. rationing my access to the internet, and using a Freeloader for an occasional top-up. A week is about the limit, though, because the iPhone consumes electrons slightly faster than a Freeloader can generate them on a typical British summer’s day! This summer the problem is a little bigger. My kids are older and they have power hungry devices of their own – between us we have my iPhone, two iPod Touches, and an Android phone, and will probably take a MiFi too. How is that going to work…?

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This is the second of my unusual reviews of Nokia kit. This one is even of a mobile phone! So what’s unusual about it? It is a review of a phone that’s already obsolete even though it was released barely more than 6 months ago – the Nokia N8. It is obsolete because it is a Symbian phone and Nokia have abandoned Symbian as a smartphone platform, in favour of Windows Phone. At first I wasn’t sure there was a point in reviewing the N8 at all, but in the end I was sorry to see it go.

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I’ve had my iPhone 3G since day 1. Back in July this year when the iPhone 4 came out I was looking forward to getting something a little better, but ended up being disappointed by how little better the iPhone 4 was compared to its asking price. That started me on a process of looking at alternatives, mostly various Android phones. As I looked, I kept comparing them to my iPhone 3G and coming to the same conclusion. None of them was enough better to justify the cost. Time for some serious thought – what is it my iPhone 3G doesn’t do that means it needs replacing?

I’ve eventually come to the conclusion that there are just two things. First, the iPhone 3G is too slow. Maybe it has always been this slow and I’m just noticing when it is compared to newer devices, or maybe OS upgrades over its 2+ year lifespan have slowed it down? Certainly iOS 4.0 and 4.0.1 had performance issues, but 4.1 is much better. Either way, waiting for apps to open is getting quite frustrating. Waiting for web pages to load is equally frustrating, and that’s down to CPU not network. Some apps just don’t work at all, which I imagine is down to lack of RAM.

The second thing is the lack of storage. I bought the 8GB version, not the 16GB one. 8GB seemed plenty at the time, but now I find myself having to cut back more and more on the music on the device in order to make room for apps and their data.

And that’s it. Everything else about the device, from the lowly 2MP fixed-focus, no-flash camera to the display is fine for me as it is. Yes, better would be, well, better, but I don’t need better. While the various possible replacement phones I have looked at, or would like to look at – HTC Desire, HTC Desire HD, Samsung Galaxy S, Nokia N8 – are all good devices, they are all expensive ways of addressing the problems I actually have.

This is all leading me slowly but surely to the conclusion that what I need is an iPod Touch, combined a MiFi. I liked the Mifi so much when I had one on loan that I might just get one anyway for use with laptops while travelling. That would reduce my iPhone to, well, a phone most of the time, with a few apps still on it for those times I don’t want to carry the touch too. And for things the Touch doesn’t do, like GPS.

A decision is getting close, I think…

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Writing about web page http://www.three.co.uk/Mobile_Broadband/MiFi

3 MiFiI’ve just been on holiday – a week in Centerparcs. The village has WiFi in all the central areas, and some of the more expensive lodges have it, but not our lodge. Co-incidentally I was offered the option of trialling a MiFi by Three Mobile Buzz. Now normally I wouldn’t be bothered at the lack of WiFi. I have an iPhone which has all the connectivity I need, and the other members of the family aren’t so addicted to being online as I am. Except that a few of them have recently discovered Farmville and didn’t want to leave their farms unattended for a week. Anyway, when you are holiday with kids, you have to spend the evenings in and having internet access gives you another entertainment option.

The MiFi is basically a WiFi hotspot with a mobile data connection. Turn it on and it connects, via the Three mobile network in this case, to the internet and advertises the connection via WiFi. It allows up to 5 simultaneous WiFi connections so you can share your connectivity with friends. The hotspot is fully configurable for encryption and passwords, but the defaults are reasonable and mean that you can be up and running with it very quickly.

Anyway, I got the MiFi a few days before we set off. The first thing I did, obviously, was try it out at home. I seem to have a decent Three signal at home, the MiFi connected via HSDPA (aka “3.5 G”) and my usual broadband speed checker rated it at 4Mbps. Since my home ADSL line only runs at 5-6Mbps, that’s pretty good. Obviously this is signal strength dependent, though. I also tried out the battery life before we went. From fully charged to completely empty took 6 hours with light usage. Use it heavily and it lasts nearer 5 hours.

So, with everyone eagerly anticipating access to Facebook and Farmville through the week, we arrived at Centerparcs and discovered that my iPhone, on O2, just about managed a voice connection, at least some of the time, but couldn’t manage a data connection at all. Other phones on Orange where just as bad. As I turned on the MiFi in our lodge I was preparing people for the worst, but it turns out that Three’s signal was pretty good. The MiFi got a decent 3G signal in most of the lodge and could manage 3.5G in one corner. Throughput varied between 1Mbps and 3Mbps. Sighs of relief all around…!

And it worked flawlessly all week. Everyone was happy – the Farmvillers and the iPhoners with no native data connection. One nice feature of the current MiFi, compared to the previous version, is that it does work while being charged. There were a couple of days when I had it running all day, permanently powered, and it didn’t skip a beat. A gadget that just works. Perfect…

A quick note about costs. You can get the MiFi on a rolling monthly contract, £15/month for 5GB/month with the device costing £40, or £17/month for 18 months again with 5GB/month and the device for free. You can also get it on PAYG for £50, with 1GB of data costing £10. The MiFi is also available on Vodafone.

Overall, I love the MiFi device. It just works. Simple. And, depending on mobile signal strength, it provides a decent throughput. Certainly enough, potentially anyway, to use as your only broadband connection. The only problem with that would be cost. If you use lots of data it could get expensive, although there’s a 15GB for £22/month package with should do for most people. That said, my “unlimited” ADSL costs me just £7.50/month, and I have pushed over 70GB through that in the last couple of months with no complaints form the ISP.

Summary – If you need broadband on the move, the MiFi is hard to fault. Just get one…

Pretty much ever since I’ve had my iPhone I’ve had a problem I’ve been looking for a solution for. Having lots of music on the phone is great for personal use – earphones on one sort or another work fine for that. Sometimes, though, I want to share the music (or podcasts, or…) with others, and in several different situations. I’ve found the built-in speaker to be surprisingly loud, and is usable in smallish rooms with a few people so long as there isn’t too much background noise. But sometimes something else is needed and I haven’t really found an ideal solution.

At home I can just connect the iPhone to my existing hi-fi via a cable and that works fine from an audio point of view. Having a cable trailing across the room is less than ideal, though. I’ve tried the Jabra BT3030 as a solution to that. It is a stereo bluetooth headset designed for mobiles, but with a 3.5mm socket for connecting headphones, meaning I can also feed it to my hi-fi. As a wireless headset for an iPhone it has some shortcomings, but for this application the main problem is that the audio quality isn’t quite good enough.

I’ve also tried the Griffin iTrip (thanks, Santa!). This is a much better solution all around, apart from one little detail. The range is irritatingly short. More than a couple of metres away and the signal starts to break up. The Griffin website claims a range of 9m. I don’t get anywhere near that. And anyway, it seems that not everywhere I want to do this has a conveniently located FM radio capable device. A decent enough portable FM radio isn’t hard to come by, though, so this is my current best solution to the problem.

Does anyone else have the need to play audio from an iPhone/iPod in a portable way without spending a fortune? There must be a better solution out there somewhere. Do decent bluetooth speakers exist? Bluetooth appears to have a longer range than the iTrip…

Writing about web page http://www.nokia.co.uk/find-products/all-phones/nokia-n900

Nokia N900Once again the folks at WOMWorld have been kind enough to lend me a shiny new phone for a few weeks. This time it was the Nokia N900. I was really looking forward to getting my hands on this. When I tried out this device’s predecessor, the N810, almost two years ago I liked almost everything about it. The main issue was that it only had a WiFi connection and so much of its functionality disappeared when you were out of range of a wireless network. The N900 is a phone as well as in “internet tablet” and so doesn’t suffer from that problem. It should be the perfect device for me…

Of course, in the last two years things have moved on. In particular the iPhone, which all new smartphones are inevitably compared to, has changed people’s expectations of what such a device should provide. Has the N900 developed enough to keep pace? I’m pleased to say it has. There are a few shortcomings still, not all of them with the device itself, and those mean that I still prefer my iphone to the N900. It was close, though. I do think that for me this is the best N-series device I’ve used. And so to the details…

The N900 is a Maemo-based device. This is a Linux-dervied OS built by Nokia specifically for their “internat tablet” range, starting with the N700. The N900 has the latest version, Maemo 5. I really like this OS and the UI. It isn’t quite as intuitive as the iPhone but after just a few minutes I had found everything I needed without having to resort to the manual. And one of the major issues I have with all Symbian-based phones, the way they deal with network selection on a per-app basis, is dealt with nicely. The OS chooses the appropriate network connection (WiFi or cellular) and everything just uses it. Perfect. It did feel like the UI needed just a little more horsepower from the CPU, though. Inertial scrolling wasn’t quite as smooth as you’d like, and nor was opening windows. To be fair, though, the same is true of my iPhone 3G (but not the 3GS).

Running multiple apps worked flawlessly, and switching between them was straightforward. All apps continued running in the background and could provide notifications where appropriate – new IM conversations, emails, SMS, etc… I so wish the iPhone worked this way. That said, I once had to reboot the machine because a background app was causing it all sorts of grief. Speaking of apps, there’s a default link to the “Ovi Store” for downloading new apps but that just took me to a “coming soon” page. That was a bit of a disappointment. One of the expectations that the iPhone changed was the “app” ecosystem, and shipping without a working app store these days is not a good thing. Without an app store you could make an argument that this isn’t really a smartphone. The Palm Pre has a similar problem, but it at least has some useful apps in its app store…

I did have two surprising issues with the software on the phone. I couldn’t get it to sync to our Exchange server. This is apparently because we are running Exchange 2003, and that isn’t supported (yet) by Maemo 5. Apparently it will be supported in the next update. That makes the device useless to me, and presumably many others, until the update is released. Next, and possible more surprising, the N900 doesn’t support MMS! How can a device released in 2009 not let you send MMS messages? Yes, I know the iPhone didn’t either, and Apple were rightly criticised for it. It isn’t like Nokia don’t know how to do MMS – they’ve got one or two other devices that support it. I’ve not heard when MMS support is coming along.

The touchscreen is resistive, which is a bit of a shame. It is the best resistive touch screen I’ve used, though, and most of the time it worked as well as the capacitive screen on my iPhone. It doesn’t support multi-touch, of course. Most of the time that wasn’t an issue but when you need it there’s no real substitute. The camera is Nokia’s usual 5MP device with auto-focus, Carl-Zeiss lens and LED “flash”, and it does its usual very, good job. I’d be more than happy for this to be my “carry anywhere” camera, even for indoor and low light situations.

Back when I tried the N810 I was really looking forward to a device with a physical keyboard, but was quite disappointed by that one. I also didn’t really take to the one on the N97 I tried earlier this year. I suppose I was expecting the N900 keyboard to be the same, but it wasn’t. I can’t quite put my finger on what is different, but I did like the N900 keyboard a lot. It worked a lot better for me that the others. I think I still slightly prefer the on-screen keyboard on the iPhone, but then I’ve had almost 18 months of practice on that and I’m sure I’d like the N900 keyboard more as I got used to it.

As far as the device goes, then, pretty much everything is good. The keyboard and resistive touch screen work better than I expected, the OS and UI are good, the camera is excellent. The major problems with this device are actually not with the device! I’ve already mentioned the app store, or lack of one. The PC software for communicating with the phone is also a bit of a disappointment. Getting music onto the phone is just too hard. iTunes for the iPhone just works. Nokia’s PC Suite is too much of a pain. It does the job, but it is too awkward to use. Maybe when you get used to it it is fine, but these days you shouldn’t have to “get used to it”. More work needed here, Nokia.

So, in summary, the device is pretty good. Definitely the best N-series device I’ve use, at least for my purposes. There are a few surprising problems (Exchange support and MMS), though, and they need sorting out. As does the PC software. Linking the N900 to a PC to swap data should not be as hard as it is. Overall, though, this was the hardest device to send back. Somebody asked me if I’d have sent the iPhone back and kept the N900 if given the chance. For previous Nokia devices I’ve tested, the answer would always have been a resounding “No”. This was much, much closer. I still sent back the right device, but when the N910 (or whatever it is called) comes along I might just be tempted! Keep up the good work Nokia – you’re definitely getting there…

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Writing about web page http://shop.o2.co.uk/promo/o2mobilebroadband/tab/Pay_and_Go

Just before I went on holiday last week I noticed that O2 were selling their pay-as-you-go mobile broadband dongles at half price – £15 instead of £30. £30 is over my threshold for “just in case” purchases but at £15 it was hard to refuse. And as I was going to be away from home for a week and I was planning on having a laptop with me anyway, I thought it might be useful. So I got one.

An initial test at home suggested that it got a stronger 3G signal than my iPhone did, which was very encouraging. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out that way in practice. I was staying just outside of Ashford in Kent. The mobile signal wasn’t great, but my iPhone would happily maintain an EDGE connection most of the time, occasionally dropping to GPRS indoors. No 3G, sadly. The dongle, though, had a much harder time. Indoors it couldn’t connect at all. Oh, except once for about 5 minutes. All of my laptop-based surfing had to be outdoors. Fortunately the weather was good.

Even outside, though, things were very flakey. Sometimes I couldn’t get a connection at all. Sometimes the connection would stay up for 5 minutes or so before dropping. Sometimes the connection would stay up but stop passing data. Once I got a connection for 30 minutes or so. And all the time, just feet away, the iPhone, talking to the same network, would keep a constant, working EDGE connection.

The O2 coverage checker does say it won’t work well where I was. That’s not the problem. What I’m disappointed at is that it did less well than the iPhone, on the same network, and I guess talking to the same cell? Others have told me the iPhone isn’t the most sensitive receiver, compared to other phones, so I was expecting the opposite.

At least it was only £15, and it might come in useful some day. Somewhere else…

And it is funny how you get used to high speed connectivity. Everything felt soooooo sloooooow at EDGE speeds. Like taking the Internet back several years to the days of dial-up modems. Most frustrating.

Still, other members of my family have Orange phones and they had no signal at all, not even for calls, so things could have been much worse:-)