How I’m Retooling My Mobile Toolkit


My house is like a mini gadget store. One day, I could be using a Windows netbook and the next day finds me pecking on a MacBook. When I get a phone call, multiple handsets often ring at the same time — up until last week, there were three active phones, along with several lonely handsets without service sitting on shelves. And if you need a spare USB cable, I’ve got just the thing — dozens of times over. Part of the pile is due to my full-time role and there’s no lack of evaluation products coming and going. But I’m a consumer, too. And the devices I use all day, every day are the ones that I purchase out of pocket. Any monthly service bills come out of my budget, too. Since I didn’t hit another jackpot in Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, I’m paring down my personal use items — not just to save money, but to reduce clutter and complication.

Hanging up on some phones

From a phone perspective, I’ve used an Apple iPhone since July of 2007. I turned over the original iPhone 8GB unit to the kids and bought an iPhone 3GS when the device hit market. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed using it and the only network issues I’ve experienced were when traveling. All in all, it’s been a very positive ride. But I haven’t touched the device in nearly six weeks, which is when I bought an unsubsidized Google Nexus One for $529. I’ve never spent this much on a phone — aside from the original, $599 iPhone — but the contract-free aspect won me over. And while the device isn’t perfect, it comes pretty close to replicating my iPhone experience.

That’s likely not a true statement for everyone. Some are perfectly content, overjoyed even, with their iPhone and the iTunes ecosystem. And I’ve been one of those people for a few years. The overall experience that Apple brings is unparalleled right now, in my opinion. But Google is making changes to Android far faster than Apple is to the iPhone OS these days. The obvious argument is that Apple doesn’t have as much to fix — I’d agree with that sentiment. Android is catching up, however, and I believe that is has more momentum. That’s not to say it’s better or more popular – outside of the physics world, momentum is a rate of movement or energy. I think Google arguably has it right now with Android.

Regardless of  market share and sales numbers, I find that Android simply works better for the tasks I do the most. I embraced Google services early on and the native Android apps for mail, calendar — and even for the phone itself with Google Voice — exceed the software on other platforms. To say Android is “best” for me and the way I work would be an accurate statement at this time. We all work differently and use various tools, so what’s “best” for me may not be “best” for you. So I’m dropping my iPhone 3GS, just as I recently did with the Palm Pre. That reduces my handset bills from three to one and leaves me with an evolving platform currently meeting my handset needs.

(Related GigaOM Pro Research: Google’s Mobile Strategy: Understanding the Nexus One – sub required)

3G on the run

For connectivity, I’m still relying on two solutions — a monthly $10 Wi-Fi plan with Boingo and a Mobile Broadband account with Verizon Wireless. I use Boingo whenever possible — at bookstores, airports and coffee shops. I find the throughput generally faster than 3G and the data transfer amount doesn’t count against the 5 GB monthly cap of my Mobile Broadband plan. In the nearly five years I’ve used 3G, I’ve never come close to bumping against the cap, but I find the $10 Boingo plan to be cheap insurance while offering fast speeds.

While I’m keeping my Mobile Broadband plan, I have made a recent change to the hardware I’m using with it. Since December of 2007, I’ve used a USB adapter — this allows flexibility to use 3G with any of my computers, regardless of the operating system: Windows, Mac and even Linux. My 2-year contract expired a few months ago but I’ve kept the USB 727 device and the plan, which is now a month-to-month deal. Verizon was willing to sell me a MiFi device (see our review here) for $50, but that would have required a new 2-year commitment on my part. While I fully expect I’ll use the 3G plan for the next 24 months, I’d rather have the month-to-month flexibility in case something that better suits my needs appears. Instead of buying a subsidized MiFi, I purchased a barely used one for about half the price of a brand new unit. Once it arrived, I activated the unit and swapped it on my account through the Verizon Wireless website. The process was simple, took less than five minutes and I’m still on a month-to-month plan. And now I can share my 3G signal over Wi-Fi with up to five devices. That’s important because I’m likely going to purchase at least one new device that only has Wi-Fi.

(Related GigaOM Pro Research: Metered Mobile Data Is Coming and Here’s How – sub required)

iPad or no?

As someone using slate devices since 2006, the iPad has caught my eye. I’ve owned three slate UMPCs and each of them was at one point my primary mobile computer. I’ve toted them around as my traveling office, so it’s possible that I could do the same with Apple’s iPad. It’s not likely that most readers could or would take this approach — many folks still want or need a full desktop operating system environment and the software that comes with it. By and large, I don’t. I spend nearly all of my day in a web browser for basic activities — email, social networking, reading RSS and creating content for the site. I bypassed third-party apps for nearly two months during an experiment in 2008 and it’s even easier with today’s more mature web. But there’s still a huge question in my mind about the iPad — two, actually.

First, all of my current mobile solutions offer multitasking and apart from the native Apple apps, there’s no indication that the iPad will support multitasking. Second, and probably more important, is how usable Safari will be on the iPad for the way I work and for the tasks I need to do. I’m hoping that as the iPhone OS platform is revised, the browser becomes a little more desktop-like. The current browser isn’t great for writing posts or reading feeds, for example. Part of the issue is the screen size of the iPhone, which of course, will be addressed by the larger iPad display. But using the mobile browser on sites designed for desktops might be a bigger challenge due browser limitations. I could mitigate these challenges with third-party apps, but that raises the multitasking question again. At this point, I’ll have to play with the device to evaluate its usage against my requirements.

There’s also the “what will an iPad replace?” thought, since I’m ultimately trying to simplify. Although I love my Amazon Kindle2, I may sell it. The eInk experience is good but suffers in low light. There’s the valid argument about eInk is far easier on the eyes than an LCD screen and I’m not going to argue that point — everyone’s eyes are different. All I’ll say is: I read content on backlit LCD displays for at least 60 hours a week now and it obviously doesn’t bother me. And of course, my purchased Amazon content will still be usable in the Kindle for iPhone software.

At the moment, I also have two netbooks that I’ve purchased — the MSI Wind and the Toshiba NB205. At least one of them can go away and, depending on how well the iPad works for my activities, possibly both. I don’t use either netbook as a primary device at home, but I do use them around the house, and of course, while out and about. Examples would be to supplement watching a NASCAR race on television — I often follow the in-car telemetry and race radio of some drivers through a paid NASCAR subscription. The netbook is perfect for that. Or I might do some basic surfing or online shopping at the kitchen table. Again, the netbook is superb here. Most often these at-home scenarios are content consumption activities in a browser. That’s a key use case for the iPad in a lighter, thinner package with a longer run time. For content creation, I could do what I did with the UMPCs — add a Bluetooth keyboard. Pending the browsing environment and capabilities, the iPad could conceivably replace both of my netbooks, simply because my needs are meager.

There’s an added benefit too — the form factor. What I haven’t described is all of those times where I wanted to hold a computing device and not rest it on my lap. Or the scenarios where it made more sense to touch and interact with content. I used to do that with my UMPCs, but when I moved to the netbooks, I lost that ability. It’s one that enjoy with my Amazon Kindle and miss with the small laptop form factor of a netbook. It’s just not the same. Could I still do that with my UMPCs? Sure I could, but I expect that the experience will be better for me on the iPad for a few reasons. The device is thinner, lighter and easier to hold. The user interface is designed for touch. There’s far less “overhead” to slow things down — there’s a ton of great functions in Windows, but I simply don’t need them for this use case and they tend to slow things up when I need “bite sized” computing.

So the “What does an iPad replace?” question is answered by at least one netbook, and possibly two. Perhaps my Kindle and for sure, my iPhone. After three years of iPhone ownership, the phone function is the least used one for me. And that’s replaced by the Nexus One. The iPad will still run the iPhone apps I bought and allow me to try new ones, so there’s a replacement factor right there. Again, I’ll have to see the iPad in person to make the final purchase and replacement decisions.

(Related GigaOM Pro Research: Web Tablet Survey: Apple’s iPad Hits Right Notes – sub required)

What extras go in the bag?

Regardless of the main devices I run around with, there’s always a group of extras I take with me. I don’t foresee any major changes in this area, but I’ll run through what I carry and why. For any devices that can take them, I carry an extra battery and make sure it’s fully charged. That goes for netbooks, notebooks, and phones. I don’t yet have a second battery for the MiFi, but I see that they run about $40, so I’ll pick one up soon. I don’t carry AC adapters, so second batteries are like insurance. Could I charge the MiFi — or any other USB-powered device — with a computer? Of course I could, but then I’m simply draining the computer battery faster which is a net power loss. The other option is a small external battery that can recharge over USB — the NuPower unit I reviewed in December is a perfect example. These work with multiple devices, which is key.

I also bring a USB cable and USB flash drive because you never know when you’re going to need one of those. Headphones are also a must in my bag. I find occasions where a mobile work environment is simply too noisy and some quiet background music can help alleviate that issue. I used to bring the Kodak Zi6 high-def USB camcorder with me, but phones are gaining higher quality video capability all the time. Both the still and video camera mode in my Nexus One is more than adequate in a pinch and reduces the need to carry a dedicated camera.

(Related GigaOM Pro Research: Does Connectivity Have Us Diverging From Convergence?)

What can’t I do with my mobile toolkit?

I’ve always said that all things being equal, mobile technology involves trade offs. Add more processing power and you give up some battery life. Increase a device’s screen size and you add weight or lose some portability. There are exceptions of course, and the trade off gaps are diminishing over time — I remember when a small or nearly pocketable computer meant spending $2,000 or more. It wasn’t that long ago.

Trade offs still exist though and in my kit, some still remain. I won’t be able to watch Flash video on the iPad. If I give up my netbooks, I’m giving up the vast collection of software available for the Windows ecosystem. And that NASCAR experience will still require a desktop operating experience. So yes, there will be activities I can’t do with my mobile toolkit. But I think looking at what I can’t do is the wrong approach. It’s what I can do while on the run that matters to me. If my gear meets my requirements for work and a little fun, isn’t that a win?

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