Europe is easier with Apple's MacBook Air, iPhone 4
Road Trip 2011: CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman road-tested three Apple products during two months in Europe this summer--the iPhone 4, the MacBook Air, and the iPad 2, and found each to be easy and fun to use, and worth recommending.
ZURICH, Switzerland--There's nothing quite like the confidence that you've got the tools to help you keep from getting lost in a strange city.
This summer, I spend two months in Europe as part of Road Trip 2011, and just about every day of the project, I found myself in some sort of situation where I had to figure out how to get from point A to point B.
For many people who travel abroad, tackling such situations is tricky because they don't have access to a mobile device that can help them with directions--or, say, information about museums, hotel prices, or restaurant reviews--on the fly. It's an expensive proposition to have such a device with full Internet access when abroad, since it requires paying substantial data roaming fees.
Fortunately for my purposes, Apple had agreed to provide me with an activated AT&T iPhone 4--and, crucially, to pick up the roaming charges I'd incur during the trip--an offer that allowed me mobile Internet access just about everywhere I went. In retrospect, it's hard for me to articulate how important that was to the success of the project, not to mention my ability to keep from going hungry or having to eat horrid tourist-trap food.
Before I left for Europe, Apple asked me gently to be careful about how much I used the iPhone. And I took that request to heart. For the first few weeks of the trip, I tried very hard not to make phone call and only for very short durations and only in urgent situations. But while in Amsterdam, I found myself facing dual crises at home, both of which required several lengthy phone calls. I felt guilty making them, but it was a huge relief to be able to do so, especially since the Wi-Fi signal I had access to there wasn't good enough to make Skype calls.
For the duration of the trip, though, I did my best not to download video on the device and to minimize how many photographs I viewed. But day in and day out, I found myself unable to avoid using it to find directions, to check e-mail, and to do minor amounts of research. In short, the iPhone allowed me to have more or less the access to information that I have on a daily basis at home--a dynamic that was critical as I went from interview to interview, site visit to site visit, and as I had to coordinate many of these stops while out and about.
For all these purposes, the iPhone 4 is a terrific and dependable device. As I've written about it previously, it's simple and fast, has an intuitive user interface, a great screen, and even better, it fits nicely in my pocket. While there are clearly many thousands of travel-related apps available for the device, though, I used very few of them, mainly sticking instead to standard built-in apps like Google Maps, Email, and Safari. From time to time, Yelp helped me locate a great dinner, such as a wonderful Peruvian place in Cologne, Germany.
Back at home, I am an iPhone user and have been for three years. So, what this road test offered me was not so much an introduction to the device, but rather a chance to see what a business traveler would experience with it while abroad if he or she was willing to pay for the roaming charges that would pile up during day after day of using it. I'm not sure I want to know what those charges added up to, but I do know that I couldn't have made it through seven countries and dozens of different reporting stops without the easy access to information that it provided me.
I've never made any secret of the fact that I use Apple's products in my every day work, and my Road Trip projects have traditionally given me the opportunity to try out the company's latest offerings. This year was no different.
In addition to the iPhone 4, I also spent countless hours using (and reviewing) a brand-new 13-inch MacBook Air. I'm more than familiar with Apple's computers, but because my work machine is a (heavy) 3-year-old 15-inch MacBook Pro, being able to carry around the comparatively light Air--and tucking it each time I was done with it into an Incase neoprene sleeve--was a treat.
While the Air Apple lent me wasn't the most powerful model--this one has a 1.86 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor and 2 Gigabytes of RAM--it still was powerful enough for my needs: processing photos, writing stories, uploading videos, e-mail, and Web surfing.
I'd used a first-generation MacBook Air on Road Trip 2008 and enjoyed it, but I also struggled with some hardware problems that caused the machine (and a replacement) to seize up. This year's version was much smoother. Though it occasionally slowed down due to only having the 2 gigabytes of RAM--and rebooted itself unexpectedly a few times--it was a great computer, and I would happily consider buying one the next time I'm in the market. Its light weight, its clear screen, and its full keyboard make it a great on-the-go computer for someone able to do most things on the Web.
To be sure, the Air is capable of doing far more than I asked it to do. The demands of Road Trip are nonstop, and I never had time to do much more than the kinds of things I mentioned above. But except for serious multimedia processing, I would have felt comfortable tackling almost any task with this computer. And my back would have hurt a lot less than it would have had I been carrying my normal computer with me.
In addition to the MacBook Air and the iPhone 4, I also road-tested the iPad 2 during Road Trip. Unfortunately, the demands of the project limited the amount of time I had to devote to testing Apple's new tablet. After reviewing an original iPad last year, I almost immediately went out and bought one--so I have a fair amount of familiarity with the platform. And based on the limited experience I now have with the iPad 2, I can easily say that if I hadn't bought last summer, I'd march out right now and buy the new device.
What did stand out in my limited testing is that the iPad 2 has a much sharper and brighter screen than its predecessor and is a lot faster. The camera--and its ability to shoot video--is quite impressive, and I have lasting memories of seeing someone shooting video with the iPad 2 at the Paris Air Show and being amazed at the quality of the picture taking up the entire screen. And then, of course, the Smart Cover, which turns into a stand and shuts the device off when closed, is a fantastic innovation.
In the end, the question I have to answer when I road-test something is whether I would recommend it to other people. And with each of the Apple devices I had with me on Road Trip this summer, the answer is definitely yes. As always, Apple makes easy to use, innovative hardware bolstered by simple, striking software. And if I was in the market myself, I would happily buy any of these devices. Though, I must admit, I might stick it out and wait for an iPhone 5.