Portable computing — smartphone or not?

Anthony Caruana
21 April, 2008
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When Australian Macworld launched its web site on 11 January 2008 I knew that my interaction with readers would change. I figured that any mistakes I’ve made would be laid bare and that questions about things I’ve reviewed or news I’d covered would come rolling in. As it turns out, the interaction with readers through the forums has been interesting and educational, and the sense of community is sensational. However, one of my favourite exchanges has been with a reader via e-mail. Fred’s an older guy, about to embark on an overseas trip and he asked me for some advice. This is the story of Fred.

My first e-mail from Fred came two months ago. Fred had visited a number of stores in his hometown looking to find a smartphone that would allow him to retrieve e-mail, browse the internet (mainly for internet banking) and view PDFs and photos received by e-mail while travelling overseas. Now, those who have used a mobile phone over the internet would know that the browsing experience is mixed at best. Some things work well whereas others aren’t worth trying. Internet banking, unless your bank has a specific mobile site, is not phone-friendly.

So, I started helping Fred make some technology decisions. Our biggest challenge was that there are so many choices. Should he get a really basic mobile phone for making calls? A simple phone has a couple of benefits. First, there’s price. If a cheap phone is lost or damaged while travelling then there’s not much financial loss in getting a replacement. Also, if the phone’s not carrier locked, then you can by cheap, pre-paid SIMs as you travel to save on global roaming charges.

Internet browsing is the tricky part. At the end, we looked at the choice between a smartphone, an Asus Eee PC or Fred carrying his existing MacBook and using internet cafes while travelling.

After several e-mails back and forth Fred made a savvy decision. He purchased an unlocked Nokia N95 that can use Telstra’s NextG network but also run on any other network so he can switch SIMs. The N95 has another advantage — it’s also a GPS receiver and Nokia provides free mapping software and maps for most of the world. If you want navigation (the ability to get directions to a destination) you’l need to pay extra but at least you’ll know where you are. Mac users will need a friend running Windows to load the maps onto their phone or use some virtualisation software like Parallels or VMWare to run Windows on their Mac.

Fred gave the Eee PC much consideration. At the end, he decided to bring his MacBook and use it whenever he can find a WiFi hotspot. Where that’s not practical, he’ll rely on internet cafes. Fred’s issue was that the Eee PC would have become another item to carry whilst touring. If it was going to stay in the hotel then he may as well just bring the laptop he already owns. Also, if he’s in an area where mobile coverage is patchy, he has WiFi on the N95 as a Plan B.

What this experience shows is that trying to stay connected with the folks back home is not easy. Fred’s first challenges came from poor advice from sales staff and a market that includes so many phones that it’s incredibly confusing to make an informed purchase. His next one came from wanting to essentially have, as close as possible, the same connectivity experience while travelling as at home. I’m not sure that’s possible yet. I travel interstate regularly and have settled on staying in the same hotels and carrying my own mobile internet solution.

What do the frequent travellers amongst us do? What do you carry? Let us know in the discussion forums.

Disclosure: Fred offered, very kindly, to pay me for the time I spent helping him. I declined a formal payment but accepted a gift voucher for a book shop as a gift.

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