Permanent Tourist

The personal website of Mark Howells-Mead

Pocket Rocket

I’ve long been a fan of Sony Ericsson mobile phones, ever since switching from Nokia over ten years ago. The interface and operation, not to mention the on-board Sony cameras, have been excellent for several years. The comparatively inexpensive “k” range, which accompanied me for four years in their two previous iterations (k710i and k810i), rode along on many trips both home and abroad. They helped me to update friends and family with photographic progress reports along the way and acted as a lifeline, so that I could check my emails without having to plan my journey around internet cafés. The latter of the two devices also posted one of the most momentous shots I’ve ever taken for me: this shot of Jo and myself taken and posted to Flickr as we were leaving the church after our wedding.

There is always a “however” in the technical world. Progress continues and pocket-sized devices which go along for the ride are frequently superseded. The Sony Ericsson models both proved that their weak point is the tiny joystick control. Prone to dust ingress and failure, it’s been the first part to fail in both instances. (The second, in the k810i, was the important shutter release, meaning that the photographic capability of the device was made pretty much inoperable.)

Choosing a new phone

With the time fast approaching when my mobile phone contract would be due for renewal, I began the geeky search for a successor, with which I could document my world as I plod around. Photographic quality, email and a data-light RSS reader were all on the list of desired features, alongside a reliable touch screen and a robust case. It was only when I went online and into phone shops that I realise what a daunting task lay ahead. After quite a lot of online reaearch and recommendation, I whittled down my shopping list to Apple’s iPhone, the Nokia N97, Sony Ericsson Satio, Samsung Pixon 8 (M8800) and Samsung Pixon 12 (M8910): the latter two additions based on the strong recommendation of well-known street photographer Nick Turpin, who took the earlier 8 megapixel model on a world trip to show the cameraphone’s capabilities. I was particularly impressed with Nick’s results and so the newer, 12 megapixel Samsung model ended up on the final shortlist. The other shortlisted contender became, of course, the iPhone from Apple.

Photography and the iPhone

I decided, after much to-ing and fro-ing, to elect for the iPhone for a number of personal reasons. Firstly, and putting aside concerns of an unprotected lens and fixed focal length, I appreciate the camera for what it is. True: there are cameraphones capable of taking photos at a much higher resolution and probably with better quality. But on balance, the comparatively low resolution of “only” 3 megapixels – for which I’d specifically waited, based on what seemed to be a good tip through insider channels – is offset by the wealth of free or very cheap programmes (or “apps“) which are available to download and install. From editing, cropping and re-sizing to a number of tools to directly upload your masterpieces to the photo sharing website of your choice, the iPhone’s photographic capabilities don’t end when you take your picture. Here are the photo apps I’ve installed on my iPhone so far, which I can highly recommend.

Video and the iPhone

Aside from the pretty useful photographic capabilities of the iPhone, Apple also decided to add a video recording feature to the latest model. I was sceptical of the camera’s capability at first but after trying it out, I’m now taking moving pictures pretty regularly. As with the regular camera, both focusing and exposure can be set on a specific point using the phone’s touch screen, which allows you to be more creative than even with many regular dedicated cameras. With the ability to upload directly to YouTube using built-in software and the very recent appearance of a video-sharing tool called TwitVid to post videos to Twitter, a video is now a feasible alternative to posting still photos when on the move. Though my first attempt is hardly a work of art, the 12 second video from Spiez harbour this evening was filmed and posted to the internet on the spot. It must also be said that videos posted in this way – via the TwitVid app (iTunes App Store link) – are compressed down from the native size of 640px x 480px to 480px x 360px. (This optimization process is a feature of sending all photos and videos from the iPhone and compression has reduced the video below from around 6 Mb to 1.2 Mb. Films and photos can be copied from the iPhone when connecting it to your home computer.)


Many people who read about the iPhone will grumble, “but it’s supposed to be a phone!” They’re right, of course, but it’s more than that: it’s a fully-fledged communications device. The phone is great: the newest model is capable (at last) of most of the modern functions: voice dialling, the assignment of photos to your contacts (who all look lovely at full size on the 3.5 inch screen), silent ring mode, call divert and MMS. For the more text-oriented user, there’s a clever interface for text messaging which works in much the same way as the text functions of Apple’s iChat programme on a larger device. Receive and reply to regular SMS text messages, and the iPhone automatically sorts and displays them according to sender, with a separate “thread” (or discussion) for each one. By showing messages in this way, the befuddled texter can more easily trace back through a conversation and keep up with who said what to whom. This may be excessive for some users, but even as someone who rarely sends text messages, I can appreciate being able to keep a conversation to hand.

As with sending a text message, sending email is a piece of cake using the touchscreen keyboard. Although it can be fiddly if you’re not used to it, with much mis-typing, the keyboard does become familiar after a while. The main hindrance to oddly-spelled words is the slightly erratic automatic spell checker; while intelligent in several languages, it seems to want to re-spell quite a few words I use regularly. Some apps are also lacking, in as far as their not taking advantage of the automatic orientation feature. In short, when you hold the device vertically and turn it through 90° to landscape orientation, the default action is to turn the interface to follow: enabling the individual keyboard keys to be wider and easier to use. The apps which don’t make use of this feature – Twitter programme Tweetdeck amongst many others – mean that the user still has to rotate the phone back to vertical for a while. A small concession, though, for such a vast range of possible uses.

Apps for everything

All of the apps which are available for the iPhone are pre-approved by Apple, the makers of the device. While a little restrictive for the app programmer, this restriction allows the end user to rest assured that the programmes they’re installing – often through a one-click command – are safe. There is a wealth of apps available, for all tastes and requirements. There are games available, which again take advantage of the built-in gyroscope and act on the movements of the phone; three dimensional maps; dating and DIY tools from mainstream suppliers like Stanley. Great advances in the hardware and software are even making detailed satellite navigation systems for the iPhone a reality; not just when travelling by car, but also going one step further to allow pedestrians to get where they want to be.

Multimedia on the move

The last section in this marathon of iPhone bloggery details the multimedia capabilities of the device. Alongside all of the other possibilities, the iPhone owner has a music and video player to hand, as the iPhone runs the massively popular iPod software. From MP3 music to podcasts and from music videos to TV shows and films, downloaded from the iTunes Store or elsewhere, the sizeable internal hard drive (16 Gb in my case) allows you to have a large repository of entertainment to hand. By purchasing a separate accessory cable – also compatible with the iPod I used until recently – I can even plug my iPhone into a regular television and watch the downloaded films or videos at full resolution. While I’m travelling around by train, I can catch up on recent episodes of my favourite t.v. shows on the small, but totally watchable, iPhone screen.

A Doctor Who cliffhanger on my iPhone: smaller but just as watchable as on T.V. at home.

There are few offers around at the moment which beat the Apple iPhone. What you get for your money is a computer, DVD player, sat. nav device, radio, phone and hard drive all in one. And it fits in your pocket.

Fanboy speech over. :-)

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