The Big Bang Theory

This page written circa 6 June, 2011.

This weekend I got an iPhone 4 and Merinda got an Android-based Galaxy phone. Merinda had decided that she wanted a phone badly enough to pay for it herself, but Kay wanted her to have something that was reliable (the cheap carrier does not reach Bywater) and I wanted her to have one that does all the things she needs and encourages IT independence (meaning an Android platform), so we shelled out for the phone and she bequeathed her iPod to Edwin. My Palm is now 5 years old and was never up to the old Palm standard. Since the "standard platform" now has the works (compass, accelerometers, WiFi, Bluetooth, 3G, GPS, touchscreen, processing power, memory, etc.) and promises to be a ubiquitous mechanical-electronic interface, I wanted to explore what is actually possible with these devices (for professional as well as personal reasons).

So here is a report on the iPhone/Android experience, and it affords a few cringes. The iPhone costs over NZ$1100 including tax, Merinda's Android cost only $239, both excluding connectivity.

The iPhone will not let you do anything, even turn it on, without a SIM card. I had no intention of using any 3G since I rarely make mobile calls---I made about 3 in the 18 months the Palm had it---but Apple won't let you do that. Even when you have a SIM, you cannot browse or download any app, even free ones, without iTunes credit and without using iTunes. As software goes I find iTunes annoying and clumsy.

Next, I started setting up the apps I knew I wanted or wanted to test.

Calculator: After the calendar, I use an RPN calculator more than any other function on my PDA. HP have an iPhone app that replicates a 15C---wow---but it costs US$25 and reviews say it crashes and locks out, and of course for this iPhone app there is no support. For $20 I can have the same RPN calculator (Creative Creek's Math RPN) that I use on the Palm. Neither is anywhere near the common US 0.99c pricepoint. I wrote an HP15C equivalent with a CLI interface years ago, so I know what is involved. I expected a pricepoint closer to $10. MathU is coming for Android too, so the decision was easy and the result is as expected. Merinda has much more choice on Android ( and several quite acceptable free versions, but no really superb examples.

Camera: Next we compared our cameras. The iPhone boasts 5MP, twice that on M's Android. However I did not find the iPhone app as intuitive as the Android. I had to buy a 99c app to get auto-panorama, it came on the Android. In good light the photos are better than my Palm, but not hugely. This is an optical limitation, so no PDA camera is soon to displace a separate camera with larger optics. The front-facing camera on the iPhone is ridiculously welcome for video connection, not self-portraits. (The Palm solved the self-portrait alignment problem with a small convex mirror on the rear.) The situation has not changed in 5 years: The PDA camera is suitable for quick portraits or white-board captures when you do not have a real camera, but it will not replace devices with proper optics. [PS: The iPhone camera will focus very close up, about 50mm! This can be useful. The picture at right is cropped from a picture of N-scale track, the rail is about 1mm wide.]

Spacial/Information: One of the potentially revolutionary applications of this class of device is integrating spacial awareness (via compass, GPS and accelerometers), say to deliver augmented reality. I wanted to test out an app that uses this, and I decided to go with one that names stars in the sky as you look at them, Star Walk. The idea is that you hold up your iPhone to the night sky and you see on the screen the names of visible objects that you see in the sky. In other words, hyperlinked names become overlayed on the objects. This is the high-tech equivalent of getting out your star charts, figuring out where to look, associating the clusters of objects in the sky with ink on paper, and thus following the heavens. Costing a reasonable $5, Star Walk looks fantastic, but flunks rather when you discover that the iPhone camera has no chance of seeing a star. In fairness, I can see and photograph Crux with a Nikon D90, hand-held, but I cannot see anything on its LCD display, I have to use the real viewfinder. I can use Star Walk without the overlay capability, but I had real trouble, see Compass comments below. It will guide me towards a heavenly body with arrows on the screen as I pan in azimuth and elevation, but I would not call it reliable.
[PS: It turns out that the iPhone camera can detect the light of a larger star with sub-1-second exposure, but it does not show on the display. There is hope that this could be made to work.]

Spacial/Flight: The next interest springs from our experience with a Wii. We bought one of these for Edwin, and he likes it, but I hate it... it is too imprecise and "wobbly" to model reality. Good for getting exercise, useless with respect to skill that could be transferred to reality... I don't see you ever improving your tennis game with this sucker. Pointing to click "OK" is like using a stick of jelly. Do iPhones do better? I wanted to see how the iPhone handled a real situation, and I chose to use a Parrot AR Drone Quadricopter for this. We can now both fly it, and we achieved that without serious damage. We also bought an extra, non-free app to capture video from the drone and made a video. More than exposing the inherently wobbly precision limits, this experience exposed an aspect of PDA apps in general: They do not have decent manuals, but expect you to hack your way through. Once you know a little of what your problems are, you can often get help from blogs, forums, and YouTube. Via this I learnt how the Drone gets away with the iPhone interface: It effectively flies itself using ultrasonic terrain following and image-processing from its ground-facing camera to get X-Y position... the input is indeed pretty wobbly, but that is OK with most of the brains in the drone. You do have to do frequent "flat trims", you need the effect of various settings explained, and it would have been nice if you were told all this! This was barely more of a success than the Wii.
[PS: Most of the limitations of the AR Drone are inside it, not the iPhone interface. It is possible for their instructions "if in trouble just let go of the controls and the quadricopter will station-keep" to be fatally wrong.]

Compass and GPS: At this point I wanted to confirm for myself that the iPhone compass and GPS really were working. To cut a long story short the compass needs frequent calibration (see YouTube for instructions but damned if I can find or develop an explanation of why, even after reading the 3-axis magnetometer IC's data sheet). It can easily be 90 or more degrees out from a real compass. Not much use looking up the magnetic-true correction via the GPS if your errors are so large. To test the GPS I downloaded a speedometer and we tested it in a go-kart having used a wrist-Garmin, and against the speedos in our cars. It worked fine. (We did learn that the Toyota is 5--10% high on its speedo but the Benz is dead accurate.)

VOIP/Skype: Next comes Skype. No problem putting it on iPhone, iPod and Android. We have also discovered what I have long suspected but could not confirm on the web: The 8Gb iPod Touch, though supplied with headphones that do not incorporate a microphone, will work perfectly for voice in and out once you plug in a pair. It has no microphone in the body, but is a perfectly good Skype phone once you have headphones with the extra connection. All the electronics is there.
As with downloading apps, once you work out the symbology, you can check that you are on WiFi rather than 3G, a handy thing in case you burn a lot of bandwidth. It took a mistake or two for us to be aware of this risk. It will be interesting too see what happens when my SIM credit expires.

Importing Calendar and Contacts: Apple do not support importing contacts from the Palm Desktop. I solved this problem by exporting to CSV, scripting, and importing to the iPhone. If you are not computer literate this could prove to be quite a mission. The Calendar function is even worse: iPhone will export/import only to iCal on a Mac or Outlook/Entourage. The Palm will import a vCal file, but exports only a binary archive.

iCal is actually noticeably worse than its quivalent on a Palm. When I tried to duplicate my calendar entries in iCal, the app supplied by Apple, I rapidly discovered that it stinks. It is not possible, for instance, to have an event that occurs on the second Sunday of each month. The Calendar on iPhone is also less efficient and sensible than the Palm calendar. It requires more strokes to achieve the same end. Stupidly it seems to default to timing a new event at the current time but the date showing on the screen, instead of the time showing in the middle of the screen, or in the time slot you touch (nothing happens). The solution had to be yet another 3rd-party app, but choosing the right one was not easy. I have settled for CalenGoo that syncs with Google's browser calendar application and thus backs up into the cloud. Bang went another $10, and I grudge Apple getting any of that.
[PS: CalenGoo has a problem, fonts too small for me to read without glasses. The screen is too full of menus and bars and stuff you do not need, or in other words it does not make good use of the screen area. This is a global symptom of a problem with the iPhone/iPad model as distinct from the OSX one: The developers are contolled for safety but not quality!]

Music: Given the iPod heritage I expected the music player to be fine on iPhone and it is. I did have some issues. The controls on the headphones refuse to work occasionally, this seems to be a question of plugging them in before booting the iPod app (?). Some controls are not intuitive, even if they are easy to remember once you get it. For example, on the entry screen there is no "play" button, you must select shuffle or a song first. One could be forgiven for expecting to always see a "Play" symbol in a music player. The output volume can be quite loud enough and is limitable through a setting if you wish.

Sound Level: I tried several of the (free) sound level meters. Decibels agreed with my Extech meter, at least when it was set to C-weight and slow response. Others not only disagreed, but were high at low scales and low at high scales, so they were not linear. None talked about C- and A-weighting in their blurb, so I would not be quick to trust them. I did not bother looking at any of the number of apps that use the audio inputs to emulate an oscilloscope. Several are free, some cost as much as $125, which is pretty stiff considering that you are not buying any hardware in that. None seemed to talk about calibration (though one of the sound level meters did have that facility), and I know from experience that these might look cool but they will be a long way from being decent oscilloscopes that can withstand overloads. I an skeptical about DC response too. These are "gimmick" apps.

Summary: On the plus side the iPhone is neat hardware, and is as good as it gets in your pocket. It has or you can get applications that do most everything you can imagine. On the down side you take your chances buying a lot of programs, and some applications promise things they cannot deliver. I repeatedly found myself looking for some action to conjure up a menu for "under the hood" type jobs, and this is not there. The Apple reputation for sensible HMI is not tarnished but its reputation for having an arrogant and iron grip on your wallet is equally strong. The Android world offers much better value, and given a little more time I bet it will beat the iOS option.

I understand why iPhones and their Android competition are popular. You can cover many of life's needs, if not luxuriously. Perpetual phonability is fabulous for plumbers, travellers, and teenagers, but can be annoying for some of us. Music is tolerable and always with you, but not high fidelity, probably quite OK when one is out in a noisy environment. Browsing is pretty desperate on a small screen even with the slick pinch zoom, but having it in your pocket can save your ass (we checked reviews of phones in the shop looking for Merinda's Android and seem to have made a solid choice). The MMS (texting) is great for ad hoc social planning. The gadgetry and augmented reality is fascinating geek stuff, but I do not think it will come of age on this platform. The calendar-and-alarm-in-your-pocket remains the sole function bound to this platform, and without which I would have trouble functioning!

In the kids' favourite TV program---The Big Bang Theory of the title---Leonard must have to keep asking himself how this or that did not quite turn out as such a kind and clever person might have hoped. I get the same feeling here... it is all supposed to turn out just a bit better than it does. So much knowledge, so little perfection! The sad part is that it is good enough for the volume market.

PS: The SMH reports that Google's Android platform has for the first time overtaken Apple's iOS in smartphone sales in Australia. In the 12 weeks to August 7, 42.9 per cent of smartphones sold in Australia were Android phones compared to 37.2 per cent for Apple's offerings... The recent rapid rise of Android in Australia mirrors trends seen overseas... .

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