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The Gearhead's 2007 Holiday Gadget-Buying Guide

Published: Tuesday, Feb 12, 2008
On a hot June afternoon in Palo Alto, more than 100 people stood in line outside the Apple store for a much-anticipated new release. The mood was festive. While children got their faces painted and watched balloons twist into animal shapes, the adults were getting antsy. They were impatient to get their hands on the Next Greatest Thing.

A 20-something guy in cargo shorts and a Green Day t-shirt who works in the IT department of an airline told me he flew “jumpseat” from Arizona to stand in this line. Further up, a middle-aged Silicon Valley marketing exec named Susan explained she’d been waiting since noon. Behind her, a pencil-thin 19-year-old fashonista, carrying an expensive looking bag with “Duchess” spelled in rhinestones, yapped on her Motorola Sidekick, telling her boyfriend that the crowd was “ridiculous.” I was there sweltering in my blue hospital scrubs, and when a store employee offered a bottle of water, I gratefully accepted. A young Asian woman, identifying herself as a CNN reporter, asked me who I was, and why I was there. “I’m a physician, and I work at a hospital nearby. I took the afternoon off to buy an iPhone,” I replied.

“Why do you need an iPhone?” she asked. Caught off -guard by the notion that anyone would ask such an outlandish question, I tried to explain. “Well…um…I don’t actually need one, but I want one.”

“He’s a gearhead, he can’t help himself,” said the IT guy, blithely.

“Actually, we all are,” Susan added, making a point to include “Duchess” in the “we” (ostensibly to mitigate the geek factor). “We are gadget freaks, and this is the next greatest thing!” I was saved by Susan’s words. Yes, we were shameless gearheads, and we spanned the spectrum in age, income, and “coolness.” Beauties and geeks alike stood side by side in line. That is the genius of Apple’s iPhone: a gadget that unites us all.

The Apple iPhone

You, too, will be seduced by the iPhone this holiday season. If the bleeding-edge technology and sleek design don’t grab you, then the recent, dramatic price reduction should. Th e iPhone, a combination iPod, telephone, and Internet device, manages the first two functions very well, and the last with reasonable aplomb. As an early adopter, my expectations were sensibly low. I expected some problems, but hoped they would not be deal breakers. As a physician, I needed the phone to work flawlessly. I worried that software problems might interfere with my ability to return pages and make important calls, but not for long. In my area, AT&T cellular coverage is head-and-shoulders above my previous carrier. Now I can receive calls and cellular data via the EDGE network in our operating rooms at Stanford, and residents can reach me directly when they have urgent questions. In this respect, the timing of my new iPhone purchase, shortly after the new residents arrived at Stanford, could not have been better.

There is of course, a plethora of other functions that make this my choice gadget for the season. Google maps; gorgeous video playback on the 320 x 480-pixel screen; instant, “anywhere” e-mail access; device convergence (I love being able to bike to work in my scrubs without carrying a separate cellphone and iPod); and, of course, the famous Apple user interface and innovative multi-touch screen. Steve Jobs should not rest too long on his laurels, however. The iPhone does have a serious Achilles’ heal: AT&T. As an Internet device, the iPhone relies predominantly on AT&T’s EDGE network to provide data access. Th is network is s-l-o-w. Envision AOL-circa-1997-dial-upmodem slow and you will have a sense of what it’s like browsing the Web on the iPhone with EDGE. Jobs acknowledges this drawback, citing conservation of battery power as the reason Apple avoided using much faster 3G network chips. He claims that wi-fi access should make this a non-issue for many users. However, if other hospitals are similar to Stanford, wi-fi access is locked down tighter than Fort Knox, and restricted to hospital equipment. Fortunately, IM texting, e-mail, Google maps, and many lower-bandwidth functions work very well on EDGE.

There are other issues for Apple to address. Durability and build quality are generally excellent, yet I managed to push the phone to its limits. My touch screen stopped working after I dropped my iPhone for the 20th time (more on this in a minute). Fortunately, the Apple store offered a hassle-free exchange. The Safari browser on the iPhone doesn’t support common media files like Flash, degrading the browsing experience when visiting certain sites (and causing crashes with others). As iPhone-haters like to point out, the iPhone lacks memory-card expansion, a video camera, and an unlocked SIM card. But, at the end of the day, none of these are deal-breakers for me. The iPhone is a revolutionary communications device. Gearheads unite!

iPhone Accessories


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