Apr 7, 2010

Gadget Love

Saturday evening we had a few folks out for dinner, and the topic of internet access in the boonies came up. Much like Marko, we live a bit off the beaten path. Limited neighbors means less noise, but it also means fewer amenities... like high-speed internet. No cable. No DSL. Satellite is an option but seems to be VERY troublesome for a lot of people and is expensive for what it is. Cell coverage is spotty but not zero.

After talking with folks at dinner and comparing signal on a few phones (my RAZR-style non-smart phone, an iPhone, and a Verizon smart-something-or-other), the clear winner was the Verizon smart phone. Voice signal remained iffy, but data was pretty steady.

Then someone else piped up with two interesting tidbits: Verizon had dropped the price on the Palm Pre Plus and Palm Pixi Plus phones ($49.99 and $29.99, respectively) AND now allows free HotSpotting from those two models. HotSpotting is using the phones 3G connection to provide a local wireless (802.11) hot spot... normally it's $40/mo and has a 5GB limit. The 5GB/mo limit remains, but the service is now free on these phones. Interesting. (Additional data is $0.05/MB, so I'll be VERY careful to stay under 5GB!)

I did some more research over the remainder of the weekend, and the phones have gotten generally good reviews, especially the Pre Plus. MrsZ and I discussed it a fair bit, and while it means an additional $30/mo on the phone bill (all smart phones require an "unlimited" data plan), if the 3G coverage is adequate it means we can nix the $20/mo for slow-as-hell dialup. I'd been toying with the idea of mobile data anyways, so we decided to try it out.

I was due for my "new every two" phone as of a week ago, so we went down to Verizon today and talked to them. Fortunately, a guy who grew up down the street from me works down there, so it's never a high-pressure sales schtick with him. Went in, looked at the Pixi and the Pre, decided the Pre was the right one for me. He grabbed one from the back and programmed it, swapped my contacts, and asked if I needed anything else with it. I almost said no...

... But then I asked how much they wanted for the Touchstone base. This is Palm's fancy inductive charging technology, and it is Slick. As. Hell. The battery cover gets replaced (already included with the Pre), and the wall-wart charger gets plugged into a base that's about the size of a hockey puck. To charge the phone, just drop it on the base. No wires to fumble, no micro-USB to try to line up. There's a magnet in the base to line up the induction coils, and off you go. Even better, the phone is "smart" about it. If you answer a call while it's on the base, it automatically switches to speaker phone. Brilliant. The base is about $40-50 depending on where you get it, and worth every penny.

I charged the phone while I napped before work, and it also downloaded the WebOS 1.4 update, then installed it while I showered. I've got unlimited data so I've been playing with downloads and web tonight. Already downloaded a few games (checkers, Reversi, an asteroids-esque game, Paratrooper, SpeedBrain), Accuweather, NYTimes, a recipe program (looks interesting, haven't played yet), the "Elizabethan Insult Generator"*, and Pandora Radio. All of these are free apps.

So far, my impressions are overwhelmingly favorable. Texting while driving is now impossible - too many little buttons instead of 12 bigger buttons. So be it, that's dangerous anyways. The camera (3MP) is amazingly responsive but not anything particularly special. 3G browsing is VERY fast. It multi-tasks. For real. I can browse the web while listening to MP3s or Pandora. I can run email, news, web, etc - all at once. Switching back and forth is a simple flick of the finger. The whole OS is very intuitive after you've got the basics. Pinch to zoom, touch-scroll, etc. Palm and Adobe are in beta right now with FlashPlayer 10.x for WebOS. SMS (text) messages are displayed in an iChat-esque format so conversations are easy to follow. If contacts are synced (merged?) (I haven't yet) a contact that also has AIM or Yahoo info will switch seamlessly between the different engines. VERY slick.

I tested the mobile HotSpot here at work, and my XP laptop linked right up with it (WPA2 security is the default, but an open network can be created). Speeds seemed to be a hair slower than the cable/802.11 connection we have available here, but definitely faster than dialup. I'll be testing again with MacOS X 10.4 when I get home.

The only gripe I have so far is (and this was expected, and therefore minor) battery life. I left for work with the battery around 95% full. By 5:30am it was down to 25% and I plugged it in (standard MicroUSB chargers work fine). Admittedly, this is with fairly heavy use of a new toy, but general consensus in the world is, "Plan to charge it at least once a day, and get a second battery if you're going to be a real heavy user."

If Palm had beat the iPhone to market, WebOS would be the market leader now, I think. It's that nice.

Edited to add: At home, Mobile Hotsport works like a champ. 2-3 bars (of 5) of 3G service results in a very acceptable 250-275k connection. Not cable-fast by any means, but just fine for our intended home use... and about 15 times faster than the usual dialup connection. I am pleased!

* - "Ye saucy milk-livered barnacle!" Translation: "You lustful, timid moocher!" (It's random and entertaining. Expect to see more of these!)

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