So I spent about 2 months looking at phones-Verizon phones that is since that is the network that our family uses (Sorry Sprint). So I was reading the reviews and also spending a number of Saturdays at the local Verizon store comparing phones-asking arcane questions and just in general driving the sales people crazy. I hung out on the forums reading about the joys of owning- or all too often it seems the frustrations of owning- this phone or that phone. And I began reading about upcoming phones. I gave up paying a lot of attention to that when I read one post in a prominent tech blog about a rumored phone for which the blog seemed to have all kinds of technical details. If the phone is rumored, I thought, why the heck are you publishing these specs? What is the point? Well it turns out lots of people seem to enjoy looking for the NEXT BIG THING in phones. That plus probably a bit of subtle information placement and misdirection by manufacturers to build up anticipation seems to drive most of the digital slathering one sees on phone related blogs.
Well one of the Next Big Things was this Motorola phone called the Bionic and since it was coming out on September 8, I decided to wait and look at it when it came out. The other phones being considered were the HTC Thunderbolt, Motorola D3, Droid Incredible 2, Samsung Charge and of course the iPhone 4. As you can guess I am not a partisan of one operating system or another. But there are some things I wanted. First (or so I thought) was a physical keyboard. My Eris was lots of fun but typing on the little screen was not quite my idea of fun. I did it because I would rather text than talk any day. I wanted a decent phone camera. I found with my previous phones that I really get a lot of use out of my cell phone's camera as an adjunct to my SLR or as in today when I went out with my SLR bereft of its SD card.
So I put it through its paces as best as I could. No physical keyboard-so I matched it up against the D3 and discovered that I could type faster on the Bionic's screen than I could on the D3's physical keyboard. The D3 was cheaper $199 as opposed to $299 but that camera really bugged me. The Bionic's display is a bit bigger and brighter and it runs on the LTE network so as Verizon extends service this way I will hopefully get some benefit. Plus bigger storage capacity gave the Bionic the edge. What made me hesitate was the camera-color rendition seemed fine but it was obvious that the auto focus was sluggish and there didn't seem to be a way to turn it off. But the display is stunning-excellent color fidelity without over saturation- to me a winner. The phone is big but it just felt solid and the screen is really responsive and the UI which is suspiciously like Motorola's stock android skin that must not be named-had lots of fun visuals that made HTC sense seem, well boring, even if the weather widget makes it rain and lightening in my Eris.
When I called the sales person over, I could hear that sigh of relief-no arcane questions-I'll take the Bionic and oh by the way do you have the Otterbox Defender? I am a firm believer in protecting my phones. What about accessories- a media dock or the Webtop adapter for your HD TV? Nope just the Otterbox, oh yes, and a car charger. By the time I was done though I was almost $400 poorer and had joined the ranks of Early Adapters NOT my usual position. I am technologically comfortable but normally wait a bit and let every one else have the ulcers of putting up with glitches in new devices. Remember antenna gate?
By the next day it became apparent that people had serious issues with the phone. The first issue was with the diplay-Motorola uses a pentile display which has an extra white pixel that makes the display brighter to the eye without using more power-at least that is my understanding of what this display does. I may enjoy technology and be trained as a scientist but an engineer I am not. I had heard about this controversy and had carefully compared the display to the competition and decided that the display is fine in a side by side comparisons. Not perfect but very nice. There is a sort of diagonal grid work what one commenter on the Android forums called a half tone effect. Yup I saw it-but to me it was only obvious when I looked for it. Besides, in a perverse sense it actually made the display visually interesting. Last time I checked the world -you know that area outside the computer screen-is a many textured place. But to this day one month after the phone's introduction there are whole threads telling Motorola never to use a pentile display again!
So this is the first cost of being an early adapter. Not that there are issues and bugs- there are. The cost is that people get obsessed with what they see as imperfections in a device that really represents design compromises required to get a working phone. And well if you don't see what 's wrong with the display you must be a dolt. The next big issue is audio-some users began to report a high pitched whine that at least by some reports was quite loud when the user did certain things with their phone. Nope my phone was and is fine, makes sounds at all the appropriate spots though after a couple of days reading the discussions about this issue I began to get paranoid at every stray sound-maybe my phone has caught the whine because some arcane grounding issue or interference from flying saucers or electric eels. Or maybe my hearing is just bad so I even tested my hearing threshold- just under 13,000 Hertz- above which any sounds get lost in my own rarefied high frequency tinnitus. Some discussants even insisted that all Bionics had this issue those few of us who claimed not to have this whine were deluded and just not listening. One forum participant polled readers if they did or did not have this whine and 95% said yes and 5% including poor deluded me said no. Now personally I think some phones did and do have a serious audio issue-but I think that that 95% represents a load of self selection. If the problem were really widespread then the issue would be a big one mentioned in the Verizon reviews of this phone. It is not. So either Verizon is pulling negative comments off their site or the audio issues are much less ubiquitous than one might think by reading some forums.
Is the Bionic perfect? Certainly not. First in my mind is the camera-or to be more precise the user interface Motorola provides. I have less control over the camera settings than I have with my Droid Eris. Now that said, since I am a photographer I know that stock settings are not the way to go and if you must you figure out a way of working around the limitations of your equipment. Besides specialize in macro shots which require lots of patience so I am predisposed to put up with cameras that aren't ideal. So I took the settings I had and experimented. Then bough several third party camera apps from the market and worked the camera with those and showed along with a few other people that the camera is fine (for a small camera) and that with a little work you can get some nice creative shots. The sensor is small-representing another compromise the engineers had to make. This is not a point and shoot let along a single lens reflex-but since I always have my phone with me I can get some really spontaneous shots-again working the limitations of the camera.
Other issues keep cropping up to such as how come my social networks stopped syncing with the phone the other day (solved) or how come I cannot share photos from my gallery directly to my Flickr account (not solved but there is a work around) but I get a little emotional reward when I figure something out or am surprised over some image that reminds me that its not really what our technology can do which is important but what we do with our technology. I suppose it is just a phone-but it is really more than that that. After all a recent article (http://articles.cnn.com/2011-05-19/tech/apple.religion_1_apple-store-apple-employees-brains?_s=PM:TECH) suggests that Apple products can incite almost a religious experience.
Now I am NOT suggesting that our technology can replace religion but these new phones are very physical-think about touch screens and the feeling of pinching in and pinching out to contract or expand an image. Typing directly on the screen or doodling with our fingers on the screen gives a physicality to using these devices that was missing before with keyboards and even mice. These devices (phone is so 20th century) be they iPhones or iPADS or Bionics or the NEXT BEST THING allow us to do so much so easily that for some of us it is easy to get overly caught up in debates about the merits of our respective phones or magnify what really are relatively minor flaws that hopefully will be fixed in the next update. I like to see these devices as tools for good but it seems that there is a danger that they will trap us into a desire for technological perfection where we forget that these devices are tools represent different sorts of compromises and thus keep searching for that NEXT BEST THING.
Oh and my old Droid Eris? She sits by my computer in case she is needed as a phone or an extra Wi-Fi device. Call me anthropomorphic but the Eris is still useful like a hand tool superseded by a newer electric tool only this is the 21 first century where the pace of obsolescence is such that today's NEXT BEST THING becomes just another old thing to be thrown away.