As of today, I have some of the latest smartphones available. I have the iPhone 4S and Galaxy Nexus. Both are good phones with even better software. But have we reached the point where reporters no longer need to sit at a computer an type up their articles?
At this year’s CES, I tested just that, using both of these devices in all of their glory to cover the show as best I can, without reverting to my laptop. In fact, I even decided to forgo using a full DSLR to boot. The only hardware I have available are the phones and a single Bluetooth headset. No extra batteries or cases, no external keyboards, just the phones and an earpiece.
Do you think it’s possible? Keep an eye on this page because as the days go by I’ll update my findings to see if, in fact, all you need these days is a good smartphone.
Now that CES is over and I’m driving back home for the long haul, I have an answer: no, but maybe yes. I faltered within a few hours and reverted to my laptop, but not for the reason I expected. It’s not that I wasn’t capable of covering the show with just my iPhone or Galaxy Nexus. The sole reason I couldn’t possibly cover CES with a smartphone was because of the lack of a keyboard.
It may be obvious, but there’s a reason the keyboard has been around for several hundred years. It’s optimized for putting words down, be it on paper through a typewriter or on a computer. Steve Jobs famously said that it would take a generation to die out for touchscreen-only devices to completely take over, but I disagree. The speed of typing even for seasoned hands on a touchscreen just doesn’t match the speed anyone can get with a physical keyboard, and that’s for a few reasons. The most important one is the feedback we receive from the press of a button. After all, we are human, and require constant physical feedback for our senses to properly work. We don’t need the generation to die out to adjust to touchscreen typing, we need an evolutionary change.
The second problem I started to run into was the limited capabilities of smartphone cameras. For solid photography in relatively poor conditions, you can’t use a smartphone. The iPhone 4S, HTC Vivid, Samsung Epic 4G Touch, and Samsung Galaxy Nexus all have fairly decent cameras (with the Nexus having the worst of the bunch), but with the artificial lighting of the convention center and further low-light conditions within booths, taking decent shots is next to impossible. See my hands-on of the Razer Fiona, which I used my iPhone 4S to shoot instead of my far more powerful Nikon D7000.
Furthermore, for professional grade shots I believe there are two major components to consider nowadays: being able to set manual controls and post processing. None of the smartphones I tested had significant manual controls, if any, for exposure settings, light aperture, color quality, sharpness, etc. The Vivid does, but it would have taken far too long just to make those adjustments prior to the shot to be worthwhile. Even then the ISO would be too low to shoot properly in the darker conditions. As for editing, I think any professional should shoot in RAW for the best possible picture quality (and the simplest editing), and that simply isn’t available on smartphones, and likely won’t be for several years. Heck, it’s only available on the highest-end point and shoot cameras currently.
The final and perhaps most pertinent problem for most users is battery life. None of the phones I used individually would have the battery life to not only remain powered on, but to be constantly connected to the internet, accepting emails every few minutes from PR firms and marketers, all while typing away furiously. I regularly had to recharge my phones or switch between them when one died, and that was just walking about using the phones for calls and emails.
One additional problem I had was that I simply couldn’t type on the keyboard fast enough, with the clarity I needed, to take notes. I carried a pen and paper for notes on products, and with a pen it is easy to write in shorthand or full-form and do so quickly. On any of the smartphones I used the constant problem was that I couldn’t type fast enough without making too many mistakes (and autocorrect putting the wrong words in), nor could I express what I needed for myself for note taking. As someone who has done tremendous note-taking in school (on rare occasion) both by typing and writing, there is a very strong reason why writing notes is better: it’s less rigid. For simply writing, yes, using a laptop is better but if you need to draw a line from one point to another, or have a picture, or any of a million things that can simply be drawn out in a second instead of 5-10 minutes of software manipulation to achieve…paper wins every time.
What does it mean? It means that for smartphones to really take the place of other devices like cameras, laptops, and even the pen, there needs to be a significant jump in the performance of the miniature cameras built into them, some way for typing to be made easier (possibly through voice dictation, though as I discussed with colleagues at the show, that may require a generation to die out before it can be accomplished…why do you think Star Trek characters all needed to be trained theater actors? They knew how to speak well). Battery life may not need the improvements anymore, as we’ve already seen with the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx. However, the combination of these things just makes it highly improbable.
There is one thing I can, and will, do next time, and that is bring a keyboard, and potentially lighting equipment. With a physical keyboard it would be far easier to get articles written and published, and applications like Pages or WordPress make it very easy to add pictures and video. The bigger problem on that front is having a solid data connection (something that can’t be controlled by phones as of yet). But I’ll have to save that for next time.