22 Apr Hi-tech Phones

I dropped my digital camera this week and now it’s stuck in “error message” mode. It’s a pricey piece of machinery — so pricey that I can’t afford NOT to have it fixed, even though I might be able to buy a reasonably good replacement for the same amount the repair would cost me. Though I really like taking photos, I don’t know much about cameras, which is why I bought this ultra-automatic one. But it doesn’t do everything I want a camera to do. It’s slow between shots, for example, which prevents me from capturing the flight of a bird or the sudden gesture of a friend.

When I bought the camera, I should have done more research. I’ve noticed that, as the so-called digital revolution has brought us cheaper and more surprising technology, it has also brought a numbing array of variations in consumer electronics. It used to be that all cameras pretty much did the same thing the same way. One camera wasn’t much faster, say, than another. Now that everything is electronic and digital, you have to be careful about what you buy because the variations from product to product can make a big difference.

Nowhere is this variation more daunting than in the purchase of a cell phone. I like the idea of a cell phone. That is, I like being able to phone from almost anywhere. But I don’t like the idea of being (literally) at the beck and call of anybody and everybody. Which is why I seldom use a cell phone. But when I need one (traveling, for example), I really need one. Otherwise, I throw it into my knapsack and forget about it, rarely turning it on. Recent advances in smart phone technology, however, have changed my mind about the place of cell phones in my life.

Smart phones, as you know, are micro-computers that allow you access to the internet nearly anywhere: riding a train, standing atop a mountain, waiting in line at the grocery store. The choice is yours. And that’s precisely what it’s about – choice. Also independence. I travel enough that I’m at the mercy of hotel internet charges, which can run as much as $20 a day. If you want your laptop to work, you pay the fee. However, if I owned a smart phone, I would be liberated from that burden. Same thing when I’m traveling in the car. As it is, if I need to check email when car-traveling, I have to find a public library or wi-fi cafe, pull out my laptop computer, then plug in. A smart phone would relieve me of this burden too.

Mind you, I remember the days when most of us would make fun of those with Blackberries, one of the first smart phones. Blackberries were emblematic of the enslaved office drone – or the obsessive who could not leave work alone. But that was when the computer was mostly a business machine and pocket communication was mostly for business. The internet has matured so much that it is now the nexus of information, entertainment, and communication for a large group of people (certainly everyone I know). It simply can’t be ignored, and why would you want to ignore it?
Now smart phones pull up You Tube videos and clever games (that keep children quiet on long airplane trips) and social-networking messages (read my blog. The internet is a blast.

And it’s mostly free. Except for the access—somebody’s got to pay for the electricity and maintenance of receivers and transponders. Which is where the smart phone comes in. Do an online search for cell phones and you will come up with hundreds. Smart phones are at the high end but they’re so various, it’s confusing. Consider the I-phone, for example. It’s a cool machine. But it’s a “locked” phone, meaning you can use it only with one carrier, AT&T. And, if you buy the phone from AT&T at its irresistible discounted price (about $200 less than retail), you’re locked into a 2-year contract with AT&T. Also, the I-Phone doesn’t have a video camera. Most smart phones do. Which raises a question: should the smart phone be the Swiss Army Knife of communication media?

Virtually all phones now come with digital cameras, as if phone users were irrepressible photo bugs. I suspect that the camera came to be associated with phones because phone-manufacturers wanted to make the cell phone indespensible. The more gadgets they stuck inside the phone, the more indespensible the phone became. Or so it seemed. This year, the Queen Bee of all smart phones is the eagerly awaited and soon-to-be-released Nokia N97, which will cost about $1000 and contain everything but a coffee maker in a package not much larger than a big candy bar.

I want an unlocked smart phone that has a fairly wide screen (2.5” or more), has touch-screen technology, and also a qwerty keyboard (a miniature full keyboard that mimics the one on every computer). I’m pretty sure I won’t use it every day, since I have really good PC work stations both at home and at work. But when I’m elsewhere and need internet access, I don’t want to go begging or searching for it.

Still, I haven’t figured out what I’ll do with my new phone’s digital camera—which won’t be as good as the camera I’m repairing—or the phone’s video cam (my camera has a better one) or the MP3 player, which I have in separate tidy machine. Oh, and my new phone will come with an FM receiver. And a GPS locater, which will plot your every move on a map of the world. There might be a can opener in there too; I’ll have to check.

Here’s a website dedicated to cell-phone news: switched.com