Hardcore Smartphones: Epic 4G and iPhone 4 on the road

Noah Kravitz
 from Oakland, CA
Published: September 27, 2010

Last week I hit the road. I traveled up to Seattle, WA - and then across the bay and up a tiny bit further north along the peninsula. My purpose was mainly to get away, to visit Seattle and that part of the Pacific Northwest for the first time and spend time with some family and friends. But given that I'd travel with a smartphone even if I didn't make a living talking about smartphones, I mixed a bit of business in with my pleasure simply by virtue of using my phone on the road for a week and taking note of a few things. 

Well, that and the fact that I brought a second smartphone along with me. That's what makes me a pro, see - bringing TWO phones on vacation.

First I had the iPhone 4 as my personal daily use phone. Why? Mainly because the camera and camcorder are so good - and because even the low-end 16GB model I have packs enough onboard storage to save all of the images and video I wound up capturing while still leaving room for music and apps. I did not bring a laptop with me on the trip (more on that later) so offloading photos/video wasn't an option save for emailing copies to myself. 

A few things I found out about iPhone and me in using it during laptop-free travel - and not in the course of my usual, always near a computer, lifestyle:

- Typing on the touchscreen is fine in landscape orientation, annoying in portrait mode, and just not suited to writing lengthy emails - for me, anyway. I managed to tap out two messages of any substantive length, but both required a fair amount of going back to edit for typos and incorrect auto-correct word replacements. On the one hand this was good, as I was on vacation and didn't need to be sending emails anyway. On the other hand, if I was relying on a smartphone for heavy daily Email use I'd think twice before buying an iPhone - or any touch-only device.

- Apps are cooler than I thought they were. This may seem obvious to you, but I haven't really been all that into apps for awhile now. Most of the time I use my smartphone (iPhone or any other) for Email/messaging, Web, media consumption and photo/video capture. ESPN's mobile site does me much better than any sports app I've ever tried, and while I'm currently quite interested in subscription music services like MOG, they don't offer the ease of use and playlist functionality of iOS' integrated iPod. But while on the road I probably fired up Yelp! four times a day. And I played a ton of games here and there just for fun, all of them apps. And weather apps made it easy to track conditions and forecasts across multiple locations, which is great while traveling. 

You know all of this because you use apps and love them. Me? Well, I tend to spend most of my time focusing on hardware, not software, reviewing all of the new devices coming out (and there've been a ton lately, thanks to Android). So it was cool to be reminded of how handy a good app can be.

- The camera rules. Forget megapixels. iPhone 4's camera is the best I've tried, for both still and moving pictures. Yes there are white balance issues, but in general it's great. 

- AT&T's network is slightly faster and more stable in Discovery Bay, WA than it is in Oakland or San Francisco, CA. That's based on my totally unscientific testing. Bear in mind that I was super relaxed while on vacation in Discovery Bay and so may well have been moving slow enough to think that the network was going faster than it really was. But still, it seemed faster!

Second, I brought along Samsung's Epic 4G Android phone for Sprint. A few things I found out about Samsung's Epic 4G while using it on vacation:

- Mobile hotspots rule. I brought Epic along mainly to use as a mobile hotspot in case WiFi was unavailable or overpriced in either of our hotels. Turns out the latter was true, and a few days using Epic to get my iPad and a family member's laptop onto Sprint's data network more than paid for itself based on what the hotel would have charged us for in-room WiFi. Forget USB/Bluetooth tethering: Mobile hostpots are where it's at.

- 4G ain't no big deal, at least not on Sprint's Epic in Seattle. Using Epic 4G in Seattle gave me my first taste of Sprint's 4G network. Yawn. I got about 2MBps downstream, which is faster than 3G in the San Francisco Bay Area, but not really faster enough to matter. T-Mobile's HSPA+ network is noticeably faster. I hear tell there are issues with 4G on Epic, in particular. I will investigate.

- Google Nav let me down enough that I stopped using it and went back to iPhone's static directions feature in Maps. Seriously, relying on Google Nav for two trips during which it was consistently late in telling me when to turn, I turned Nav mode off and went back to mapping out the route ahead of time and memorizing the directions (or having a passenger read them aloud as we went). I'm not sure if it was a matter of the network conditions and/or weather in Seattle at the time or what, but for real-world practical purposes, Google Nav totally failed me.

- Epic's keyboard is great. Typing on Epic 4G's hard QWERTY was much preferable to the touch-only iPhone experience I detailed above. That said, at that point I'd decided that two long emails during vacation was already two too many, and so I put the keyboard away. But like I said, if I suddenly needed a road-worthy smartphone for serious email use I'd definitely be looking at Epic or another device with a physical thumbboard.

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