Weekend Tech Scan: Oh, the iPhone 4S indecision

Apple's iPhone 4S is available but should I buy?  Also, check out a hot news reader and a remarkable Adobe photo "deblurring" experiment.

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Apple's iPhone 4, coming soon to Verizon Wireless subscribers.

Apple's iPhone 4S is available but should I buy?  Also, check out a hot news reader and a remarkable Adobe photo "deblurring" experiment.

Several article since the death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs have noted that many people are buying the new iPhone 4S in tribute to his memory.  That’s certainly one indication how deeply people are experiencing an almost unheard-of personal regard for Jobs, the company he built, and a testimonial to the marketing genius that he will also be remembered for.

What brings this to mind is the official release Friday (Oct. 14) of the 4S, which is lining up to be one of the most successful phone launches in the brief history of smartphones.  Several media sources (here’s the New York Daily News’ take) are reporting that Apple may sell roughly 3 million phones this weekend, including pre-orders, and could sell 25 million by Christmas.  The hugely popular iPad, by comparison, sold 500,000 in preorders on its initial outing.  The Daily News is not alone in pointing out that Jobs’ death may be responsible for the huge surge in sales.

Not to diminish in any way the deep feelings that people around the world have shown for Jobs, but buying a $200 phone and a two-year contract in his memory that will run you more than $1,900 over its lifespan (taxes included) is not what I would consider a terribly bright idea. 

The bigger question is whether you want or need a new phone. If you’re already an iPhone 3GS or iPhone 4 owner, wanting the iPhone S upgrade is, at best, even more problematic. Depending on which end of the fanboy seesaw you’re on, it’s either more Apple genius at work or a relatively unimpressive upgrade. 

The iPhone 4S’ release coincides with Apple’s release of a full-featured upgrade to its mobile operating system, iOS 5, which can be applied to iPads, the 3GS and 4 iPhones, and the newer-generation iPad Touch.  Apple claims there are 200 separate new features; I’ll leave others to prove them right or wrong.

I’ve now applied it to my original iPad and 3GS phone, and some of the improvements are worthwhile.  The iCloud, essentially moving the phone’s tether to Apple servers (e.g., “the cloud”) eliminates the need to have a computer as the base station for your iPhone.  Short version: All your information, email, recent photos, and Apple-purchased downloads are stored on an Apple server. The iPhone version specifically has a new pull-down notifications feature on its front page (a direct steal from Android smartphones). 

There are also goodies such as iMessage, that lets you text any other Apple owner without needing an extra phone company texting plan.  And for iPhone 4/4S users (not 3GS owners), the phone’s front page now has a camera app that lets you use your camera as soon as you turn it on.

So the big question is whether buying the phone hardware upgrade is worth it.  I’m still on the fence.  The new phone features a faster processor, a hot camera upgrade, an improved antenna, and it’s a world phone (CMDFA and GSM).  The new Siri voice activation system lets you control your phone, access its services, and intuitively interact with the Internet.  Here’s more on the Siri feature.

Now the other side. I’ve had a voice activation feature on my Android phone for the last few years and I’ve rarely if ever used it. Speaking in my car or in my office might work; talking to my phone in public to make it work, and having it talk back to me, somehow seems intrusive in an already-noisy public environment.  The improved camera does beckon me, and the idea of a phone that operates twice as fast as my current 3GS would be nice. 

But these are improvements, not breakthroughs. And the phone aren’t built for today’s state of the art 4G LTE networks that all carriers are installing.  AT&T claims that buying a new phone from them rather than from competitors Verizon and Sprint will allow you to take advantage of their fast HSPA+ network, which nearly puts users into the 4G speed lane and allows people to talk and surf the network at the same time. PC Magazine supports their claim.

But am I responding more to the hype than the reality of the machinery? I don’t find the features terribly compelling, and I’ve boosted the performance of my existing iPhone via the operating system upgrade.  The fact that wanting this phone, and spending far more time thinking about it when my existing Apple phone is perfectly good is both testament to the marketing genius that Steve Jobs and Company created, and to the grip that I allow Apple to have on me . . . and must resist.

(But that new phone! That speed! That camera!)

Speaking of smartphones, Amazon.com is having a truly major Verizon bargain sale for new customers: this weekend: Verizon phones are now on sale for  —get this — 1 cent, with a 2-year contract. That includes winners like the Motorola Droid Bionic, a phone I reviewed here and purchased about 3 weeks ago for $300. The sale ends next Monday (Oct. 17).  Hmmm.  Could this be a competitive move against the iPhone 4S release, also this weekend?  The website also adds the ominous words “…while supplies last.”   One more thing: the sale does not include any iPhones.

News readers or news aggregators, whichever name you attach to them, are changing the way I look at news.  But I just found one that has an interesting twist.  It’s called Taptu.  It’s been around for nearly a year, but is now available for both Apple and Android users.  It allows you to put together a mix of online news sites, social networks (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.), and specific topics of interest.  I found the compiling of information to be fast, easy to read, and free. Not all topics can be added, but it’s a good addition to the news aggregating world.

When I first get up, I still turn to several national and local news sites, but then I turn to a variety of news readers that pull together my many interests by topics.  So if I’m interested in, let’s say, Google TV, the Syrian uprising, the Seahawks, and Lindsay Lohan (not so sure about the latter), I can go to Google Reader, SkyGridmy6sense, Pulse, or News360 on either Apple or Android devices and set up my range of interests.  (Each platform also has its own dedicated aggregator: for instance, the iPad has Feeddler Pro, Reeder,  Early Edition, Flipboard, and Zite.)

Every system has its quirks. For example Sky Grid is the easiest to set up to look for topics; my6sense “reads” your selections while you browse topics and eventually “pushes” stories to you that mirror your interests. Flipboard does much of what Taptu does but in a magazine format. 

No one news reader will do it all, but it’s worth experimenting and seeing what works for you.

Blurry photos are a problem near and hardly dear to us; however, efforts underway by Adobe may begin to rectify our shaky hands when we snap a photo. As reported by Betanews.com, Adobe revealed at its early October Los Angeles-based MAX developers conference a prototype deblurring feature for Photoshop that tries to decipher the movement that produced the blur, then correcting for that movement. It even has an element that corrects for blurred text. The implications of this are enormous, both for consumers and security agencies, law enforcement, etc. who might be able to reconstruct blurred photos of a wide variety of nefarious deeds. 

For that matter, imagine what could happen if the algorithm was applied to frame by frame video restoration. Everything from motion picture production to the Department of Homeland Security might want a piece of this technology. Watch the video from the conference and see it for yourself.

Whether the feature will become part of Photoshop is unknown, according to the unidentified spokesman on the video, but the idea is one that anyone in any industry that captures still or moving images should watch carefully. Very carefully.


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