Saturday, January 31, 2009

Another new toy - I suppose I say "Welcome" to iPhone

OK, I'm too lazy to bother going back and finding the different posts - suffice it to say that, while Apple is an "enemy" of Microsoft, which makes Apple a friend of mine, I'm not entirely enthused with them as well.  As I mentioned in one of this month's reverse posts, I would have liked to get a MacBook.  Part of that though is to have the ability to triple-boot into OS X, Linux, and Windows.  So now I just dual-boot, mostly into Linux with the occassional boot into Windows Vista.  OS X just misses out on my getting to play around with it (and play is all I would do as Linux is my "real" OS for getting anything real done).

Likewise, I've never been impressed with my wife's iPod (and yes, I did get it for her as a present).  I have much prefered my mp3 players because of their ability to play both ogg and mp3 files.  They also did not require iTunes to be loaded just to get music on them.  The DRM infested iTunes files my wife would buy were always a source of annoyance as well and when her desktop died, they were lost to that.

Despite all the things to not like about Apple products, I still decided to consider an iPhone for a smartphone purchase.  But I should back up a bit.  Almost three years ago we switched our cell phone service to Verizon.  Two factors went into that - coverage where we live and the discount my wife could get through a workplace affinity program.  Even at that, coverage here at the house has always been spotty and weak.

I'd been looking into smartphones for probably a year now since we had reached a point where we could upgrade with significant discounts.  Alas, Verizon's web site did not work with Firefox (much less Firefox on Linux) so, trying to get anything done was always a challenge and probably contributed to my not having done anything sooner.  Nevertheless, I had about decided to get a Blackberry Curve at some point when I had the money (and could afford to slap a data plan on the account as well).  Interestingly enough, the price reached a low point last fall and had been going back up.  And here I've been reading the country is in a recession.

So I got some unexpected Christmas money and decided the time was right.  But given how much the Curves had increased in price and with the release of the Blackberry Storm, I decided to investigate a Storm vs. iPhone.  It helped that we figured we could scale back on our calling plan, which made affording a data plan a little easier.

After Christmas I was on the AT&T web site (which does work with Firefox) and discovered they had refurbished iPhone's available for $99.  I didn't realize at the time what a deal this was.  Compared to the $199 price tag for a Storm, the iPhone was quite a deal.  After some research, one of the factors that pushed me to the iPhone was the wifi feature.  That was important for when I was at home so I could just connect to our wireless network, especially without knowing what kind of coverage AT&T would have here (which turns out to be better than Verizon, but data-wise we only have E network coverage, not 3G).

I was hesitant about switching to AT&T, but decided to take the plunge.  I was also hesitant about ordering a phone on-line instead of handling it at a local store.  This would be the first time I got a phone on-line.  And it turned out to be two phones as I had to get a new one for my wife as well.  The results were mixed.

The ordering process went pretty smoothly.  The on-line forms got all my info, did the credit check, and I was able to submit the phone numbers to be ported over.  But apparently that form's info didn't get to the right divisions with AT&T.  After not getting any kind of shipping notice, I called the support number at AT&T.  The person I spoke with had to virtually redo everything.  Later it would appear as if I had placed two orders.

Over the course of the next week, I had to call every day, only to learn of new problems - the number didn't port over, then they were out of the phones my wife wanted.  Except for one person (whose call I escalated to a supervisor) everyone was very helpful and nice even if they were unable to bring about the results that had been promised.  I had predicted to my wife that even though AT&T's web site promised I would have a phone within 1-2 days (actually, 24-48 hours), I figured it would be more like 10 days.  I was right.  And they barely made 10 days - I had to threaten cancelling the order to get everything finally sent to me.

Upon receiving the phones, the activation did not work and that was another 2-hour call to support.  Once I got to the right person though, he knew exactly what to do and had me up and running.  After a day though, my Internet access on the iPhone stopped working, so it was time for another call to support.  This time I was informed that I needed the $30 data plan that goes with an iPhone.  Duh, that was on my order.  Anyway, support was able to get it activated during the call.

Meanwhile, my wife decided she didn't like the phone she got, so we did an exchange.  Then AT&T sent the wrong phone (and charged me for it).  We finally did get the right phone, but my wife had a problem getting ringtones to download to her phone.  She loves to have a different song for the people in her contact list.  She spent one evening with support for about three hours before AT&T gave up and had to create a ticket for their  engineers.  We think that is finally working (two weeks later).  I just received e-mail notices that they received the returned phones.  They promise to reverse the charges within five days.  We'll see.

So overall, the whole order process has been mess and we've spent far too much time on the phone with AT&T support.  Everyone has been very nice and tried to help.  Still, the overall impression is one of dealing with some mom&pop shop that can't get their act together.

Screen 1So what about the iPhone?  So far, I am enjoying it and I'm glad I went with it.  All the e-mail servers I access are imap, so I can get my e-mail anywhere.  The Safari browser is pretty good though the small screen is limiting.  One of the big reasons for getting a smartphone was to improve my productivity and connectedness with different information like my calendar.

After trying out different apps, the screenshots show the current configuration for two of my three screens.

The Maps application is pretty good.  It can gps locate where I am (most of the time) and can even track me as I move.  You can also lay out simple routes (it is built on Google Maps which is my preferred map service anyway, so that was good).  On the downside though, you can't really edit the maps.  For example, last week I had to travel from Durham over to Fuquay-Varina and the Maps app wanted me to take I-40.  There was no way to tell it I wanted to take Hwy. 55 instead (the on-line Google Maps will let you adjust routes).  The other problem is it can only handle A to B routes.  You can add other waypoints or stops.  So when the THMMC went to Stone Mountain, I couldn't load the route.  In a pinch it may be good for helping me get my bearings, but I don't think it could substitute as a dedicated GPS.

The Calendar app took some work, but it is one of the apps I am most pleased with.  I had to do some research and finally discovered a service called NeuvaSync.  It let me set up a connector with Google calendar, so the Calendar app stays in sync with that.  And it is two-way.  With my Google calendars as the base, I was able to load both the Lightning plug-in and a Google Calendar Update plug-in into Thunderbird on both my home PC and work PC.  So now my calendar stays in sync and up-to-date no matter which one I am looking at - home PC, work PC, iPhone, or online at Google.  Very sweet!!!

Contacts goes without saying.  I can keep extensive data on everyone.  Might be nice if I could sync it with my PCs - may have to look into that.  One thing was trying to setup groups, which required me to get a little app called "GroupHug".  Still not happy with that though as it only pulls the "first" e-mail for a contact and my BSC Academy mailing list requires several e-mails be included for any given player (think mom, dad, work, home - you get the idea).

The Car Care app lets me record things like gas fill-ups and services.  Nice to go to an electronic solution for that, it instantly calculates my gas mileage for me, and now I have historical data and stats.  A worthy app indeed.

The next row includes three basic apps - calculator, clock and notes.  All work as you would expect.  I also grabbed the Habits app.  It is supposed to help you track your progress toward implementing new habits.  I have not had much success so far, but the app is worth a download.

The next row includes the iBlueSky app which is a mindmapping app for the iPhone.  There are a few out there, but I have been very pleased with this one.  You can quickly create a basic mind map with topics and subtopics and move the topics around some.  But there is no ability to add things like notes, or links, or pics or cross-link items.  It will let you e-mail yourself several files of the mind map - including pdf and png versions along with several mind map files like a FreeMind format.  I'm working on getting the PC end of that up to speed now (yes, you may have figured I have been a little slack with mind maps based on that).

The ToDo app is just that - an app for managing your ToDo list.  I like it as I am able to implement the GTD methodology with contexts and projects.  I did decide to link it up with the ToodleDo.com on-line service so I can access the to do list from a PC and it makes it a little easier to enter long task descriptions or notes.  This proved to be a much cheaper solution than OmniFocus, which I might have considered if their desktop component had been available for Linux.

Weatherbug is just an app for getting weather information.  I like it better than the "stock" weather app that came on the iPhone as I can access radar data and forecasts.

Finally I have the PocketMoney lite app which is basically a checkbook type app.  It is ok in and of itself and I'm using to keep track of my money for now.  But it would be nice to link it with something on my PC.  Alas, as I am now in Linux almost all the time, I have not had much luck in finding a good desktop replacement for QuickBooks.  One of the weak areas for Linux apps.

Next is The Bible.  The only problem with that app is the ESV version is on-line which makes it a little slow to load.  I'm looking at another version that would let me not only download and install the ESV version, I can actually get the new ESV Study Bible version.  That would be really cool to supplement my other Bible materials with (which includes the big honkin' ESV Study Bible that just came out from Crossway).

Finally is Shazam, which you may have seen a commercial for.  If music is playing, I can "tag" it by letting the iPhone record a snippet, then it will tell me what it is.  Very cool little app.  Then there is Sportacular which I use to pull down sports scores.

Screen 2The "second" screen includes a few useful or notable apps.  First up is Lifehack which is really just a newsreader of productivity and technology articles.  Some cool ideas to find there.

I downloaded a WordPress blog that I could use to post to the blog.  It is kind of basic though, so not sure how useful it will be.  Will probably come in handy if I need to post something to my BSC Academy blog real quick.

The OneTap Movies app is pretty cool.  It will show you movie theaters close to your location (or you can enter a location) and you can look and see what is playing, times, etc.  You can even drill down to read reviews, see previews, etc.  A nice, handy app.

The WRAL news and BBC news apps are just news readers.  The TouchTerm app lets me ssh into my home server or I could connect to my web server, so a handy little tool to have available.

Obviously I won't be using the iTunes app.  But I did get my music organized and loaded my mp3s onto the iPhone and access them with the iPod app.  I need some better earphones, but it works really good in my Mini, albeit via the auxiliary audio which means I cannot use my MFSW to control song selection.  The nice thing is I can fit my whole library on the device.

Finally, UrbanSpoon is the app you've seen on TV where they shake the iPhone to figure out where to eat.  We have not yet made practical use of it.

The third screen is just full of apps that I've moved out of the way.  Overall, the interface is pretty effective and easy to use.  Took a couple days to get used to the typing, but I'm getting better at it.

Overall I'm enjoying use of the iPhone and the apps I've found thus far.  Still need to grab the Dynolicious app to use in the Mini and I'm still trying to figure out a "checkbook" application (though I may still end up sticking with PocketMoney).

AT&T coverage has been fine for me.  The iPhone has been fine.  The ordering process was clearly botched up and AT&T hasn't been impressive as far as getting things working properly, though I think we have things stabilized.  I have a friend who opted for the Storm as his Christmas present.  I'll have to trade notes with him sometime in the next few months after we both have time to live with our new toys!

And yes, I know this post could (and should) be full of links.  That's what the Internet is for.  But I'm opting to be a lazy blogger.  Sorry.

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