Pat Drummond :: life & technology

February 02, 2012

Smartphones & Tablets - do you need one?

Portable Devices offer much more than a Laptop

Portable devices, such as smartphones and tablets, have capabilities that your laptop just doesn't have. And it's these features that will be the reason you will buy one, not just as an alternative to a phone or laptop. E-readers are just simple tablets tied to a media retailer via WiFi or 3G strictly for buying media. On the other side, a computer with a keyboard is the best option for a lot of typing, graphics design or anything that requires complex software.

It's obvious that portable devices are smaller and lighter than laptops and their batteries usually last longer. They do not read CDs or DVDs, but some can read flash cards or you can install one inside. They do not have hard disk drives like most laptops but use solid-state drives - more expensive but tiny, silent and use little power. There are two common connections on the portable device itself for charging and transferring files - micro USB or mini USB. Most recharge batteries using a USB connection to a computer, 110-volt wall adapter, or a 12-volt car adapter.

Connecting in a Wireless World

Most portable devices have WiFi connections so you can connect to the Internet from a home wireless router or anywhere with a wireless Hotspot, which is often offered free. Since most portable devices operate on 3G mobile connections too, they can connect from almost anywhere with mobile service to make mobile calls (if you buy voice service) and access the Internet (if you buy data service).

Buying a Portable Device

In Canada, the sales model for portable phones ties them to mobile corporations and their service plans. Phones are usually bought from one of the mobile providers (Rogers, Bell, Virgin, Wind...) and offered at subsidized cost if you sign up for three years of 3G voice and optional data service. The other option is buy an "unlocked" phone (or have it unlocked) and shop around. Once unlocked, the phone will work with a SIM card from any of the mobile providers. You can buy any of the plans, but you will not get the same help with problems or software upgrades.

How they Work

Portable devices use an operating system just like computers, but use "apps" to do various functions. These are stand-alone programs that do many useful tasks such as reading e-mail, browsing the Web, checking Facebook, watching YouTube videos or movies, translating languages, calculating expenses, calling people on Skype (with video if your device has a front-facing camera), and thousands of other tasks. Many apps are free, but others you have to buy.

Restrictions Buying Apps and Media

Apple devices must get all their apps, music and movies from Apple Corp., iTunes, etc. Android devices usually include access to Google's Android Market, although you may also buy apps from "3rd party" stores or even buy using your computer and transfer the app to the phone for installation. Kobo readers buy their media from Canadian Chapters and Indigo. Kindle readers buy their media from in the United States. You can get around the buying restrictions in most devices, but most users don't bother and just buy from the store that is provided. It's a monopoly world once you choose a portable device so buyer beware.

Multi-use and Portabe too!

It's great to have multiple functions in a single device that fits in your pocket: camera, movie camera, mobile phone*, turn-by-turn instructions (GPS), golf course info (GPS), note-taker, calculator, voice recorder, music player, video player, alarm clock, timer, and Internet (email, web browser, Facebook), games, and lots more to come. WiFi connection to the Internet can be useful if you don't need a data plan for access on the road or cannot afford the high rates. Some mobile providers offer short term data service at daily or weekly rates, but read the details - it may be restricted to browser use only so you must use webmail instead of email apps.

Of course some devices have all the great features and some have only a few, usually reflected in the price.

Here are a few of the features that might be included in a portable device:
  • GPS - locates your geographical position to display maps, turn-by-turn driving directions (even without a data connection), geo-tracking (running, walking, parental monitoring), stolen device locator
  • Mobile wireless service - 3G voice (phone) or data (internet)
  • Camera - take digitial photos, videos (with sound), scans codes
  • Touch Controls - device controls and selection, "typing" on screen keyboards
  • Multi-Touch Controls - magnify/reduce (pinch), complex controls
  • WiFi - wireless connection to a router to access the Internet or connect to other devices on your network (control media, display screen, transfer files)
  • Bluetooth Connections - wireless connection to other bluetooth devices: speaker, headphone, headset, keyboard, mouse, computer (control. transfer files)
  • FM Radio - listen to local radio, requires a headphone cord as antenna
  • Accelerometer - detect motion for games, simulators, geo-tracking (GPS),
  • Magnetic Field Sensor - detects compass direction, used in geo-tracking and maps (GPS)
  • Orientation Sensor - detects if screen is horizontal or vertical. Used for display switching, game controller.
  • Proximity Sensor - detects your face close to the phone during calls - turns off display to prevent accidental 'touch' and turns back on when you're done so you can disconnect the call.
  • Light Sensor - can be used to control display brightness, camera exposure
My first smartphone was an HTC Tattoo running Android 1.6 and was "unlocked" - bought on eBay. It replaced a Palm IIIc. I was stunned to discover it did not have the android "Market" included in the operating system (it cannot be added), so had to locate 3rd party app stores. I used it for a while without mobile service and finally got a Rogers SIM card ($10) and pay-as-you-go plan ($100/yr.) It had many of the features above including the FM radio. I bought Ndrive, a stand-alone GPS, and bought a 16gb SD-card for the maps (and my music), with a 12-volt charger. The phone got a bit hot running like this but it worked fine. It wouldn't run the more interesting games, but I had a pile of great free apps to keep track of info and remind me of appointments. It actually had buttons at the bottom which were actually faster than touch buttons.

My second phone is a Galaxy S Captivate running Android 2.3 also unlocked. I managed to transfer Ndrive over to it and have the same voice service. It has all the features above except the FM-radio, which I miss a lot. I transferred the SIM card and activated it with Rogers and continued the pay-as-you-go plan. I can buy data service for a day or week "as required" from the phone - haven't tried that yet.

That's all folks!

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