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Road Trip puts iPhone 4 and iPad to the test

Road Trip 2010: Each year, CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman gets the chance to test out Apple's latest over several thousands of miles of driving. This year, that meant the iPhone 4, the iPad 3G, and the latest 13-inch MacBook Pro.

On Road Trip 2010, CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman got the chance to test out three of Apple's latest products, including the iPhone 4 and the iPad. Apple

The funniest thing to me about all the hoopla this summer over the iPhone 4's antenna problems is that everyone kicking and screaming about the situation seemed to overlook one small thing: pop a bumper on the device and it works absolutely fine.

Sure, when a company advertises the benefits of an all-new antenna design and the sleek metallic lines of a device like the iPhone 4--and charges $30 for a little plastic bumper--people develop expectations.

But throw in the bumper for free, which Apple was forced to do after Consumer Reports' damning review, and suddenly you've got yourself a really great smart phone--and nothing to complain about.

That was my reaction after picking up the iPhone 4 for the first time earlier this summer while on Road Trip 2010. I've owned an iPhone 3G for nearly two years, and though I loved it, I also found myself tempted to toss it in a lake nearly every day because it was slow and would sometimes just sit there and not do its job.

I've been an Apple user for years, and when I go on Road Trip each summer, I generally get review units of its latest gear to take with me and test out as I go. I don't try to hide the fact that I like the company's products, but I will say that I can't remember being more excited about getting my hands on a new piece of technology than I was in the few days before I picked up the new iPhone.

I knew from what I'd read that despite the public outcry over the antenna problems, they were easily solved: just cover up the antennas to keep your fingers from touching them. Some people were using duct tape, an admittedly inelegant solution, while others were buying the $30 bumper. In my case, Apple threw in a bumper, so I never had to try out the device without a solution--and so from the very beginning, all I got was the iPhone 4 at its best.

And its best is very good. While I have little to no experience with Android devices, or Palm's Pre, I feel comfortable saying that I think the iPhone 4 is the natural evolution of the iPhone line, and a strikingly good device. A colleague who has an iPhone 3GS was just asking me what the real selling points of the new version are, and it boils down to this: beautiful screen, terrific HD video, great photographs, faster processor, and, of course, FaceTime, Apple's two-way video chatting feature.

I had another smart phone with me on Road Trip this year, and the truth is, I never had the time to take it out and learn how to use it. Being already familiar with iPhone, it was a one-minute process for me to get used to the iPhone 4, and that's exactly what I needed during six weeks of nonstop work that usually afforded me little time for new tasks, let alone things like sleep, or eating.

The iPhone 4 feature that seems to get the most attention is FaceTime, the system that allows two of the device's owners to video chat with each other, so long as both are on a Wi-Fi network. It's too bad that it requires Wi-Fi--especially as other devices, like Sprint's HTC Evo, are said to offer a similar system over the cell network. But if you can get past that limitation, FaceTime is pretty cool.

FaceTime is a nice feature of the iPhone 4--though it does require Wi-Fi. For Mac users, the feature may not be as revolutionary, but many will find it very attractive--especially as a way to show traveling spouses what the cats are up to. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

I haven't used it that much, but my wife and I spent a little time playing with it recently and found that it's a very nice alternative to using iChat video on our Macs. In particular, she thought it was more intimate and obviously allowed either one of us to easily move around with the phone, continuing our conversation as we moved. Plus, she really liked the fact that either one of us could switch from one camera to the other and show each other what we were looking at. For example, we have cats, and being on Road Trip meant that I hadn't seen them for weeks. A little FaceTime, and I was looking at live video of them. They didn't seem all that interested.

To be honest, I'm not entirely sure how many people will find FaceTime to be the killer app that will make them decide to upgrade to the iPhone 4, especially since it's only available over Wi-Fi networks. If it worked over 3G, it would be a no-brainer, but AT&T is clearly not interested in having millions of iPhone users adding live video to the already impressive bandwidth demands on its network. Over time, I fear that AT&T's bandwidth limitations are going to be a big PR headache as more and more iPhone and iPad users discover their bills rising as their bandwidth usage goes beyond what they imagined it would.

As for the iPhone 4's other features--and there's plenty of them--it's clear that it is a big upgrade from the 3G I spent two years with. For one, adding multitasking, as Apple did with iOS 4, is a big, big thing. It's kind of silly, but I will always remember where I was the first time I multitasked on an iPhone--Chambersburg, Pa., with NPR's official app. There's still a ways to go with this, but it's a huge improvement.

As well, the camera is hugely improved. I had brought a Canon PowerShot with me on Road Trip, intending to use it when I was out and about and not wanting to lug around the great but rather heavy and bulky Nikon D300S I was mainly using. Within a week of getting the new iPhone, I had basically abandoned the Canon and was now using the iPhone as my basic camera and with no regrets. It takes crisp pictures, handles a multitude of lighting conditions, and even has a fairly impressive zoom. Its capabilities were frequently featured in the photos I published during the trip.

Still, my favorite element of the iPhone 4 was that it is simply fast. Things happen quickly. Apps refresh with dispatch. Web pages load. And yes, I'd say that all in all, I feel that its 3G reception is better than the 3G's, even when accounting for the signal bar inflation. I've been able to get online with it in places my iPhone 3G never could.

If I had one big complaint about the iPhone 4, it's that Apple didn't double the storage capacity of the 3GS, as it had with every previous iteration of the line. I had been eagerly anticipating a 64 GB iPhone, which would have allowed me to sell an old Video iPod I own. Instead, I'll be holding on to both for the next two years, it would seem.

Would I recommend the iPhone 4? Without hesitation. It is fast, has amazing display clarity, shoots HD video, offers FaceTime, and much more. And while there are certainly other smart phones with similar feature sets, I would venture to guess--I'd have to because, again, I haven't spent much time using them--that the overall user experience with them doesn't measure up. Plus, there's no way to overstate that the real value of a smart phone platform is the size of the application library, and while other platforms my put less restrictions on app developers, there are simply orders of magnitude more apps available for iPhone than for its competitors' devices. Until that changes, I'm an iPhone user all the way.

The iPad experiment
One of the things that I was excited about going into Road Trip 2010 was the idea of using an iPad as a major piece of my computing puzzle. I imagined using it for most of my Internet needs, for writing, for processing some photos, and that largely, I wouldn't need a laptop.

Sadly, I quickly realized that while much of that was possible, it was going to take a fair bit of preparation in order to be ready to use the device that way. And as I mentioned above, Road Trip simply kicked my butt, and I never had time to do that preparation. As a result, the iPad was relegated to much more pedestrian duty than I had planned.

That said, I really liked it. I had a 64 GB iPad 3G--provided by Apple for the trip--and it definitely came in handy. I used it a lot to get directions, or to find information about a store, a hotel, or a restaurant. As an Internet device, it is terrific--and a step up from the iPhone 4, due to its large screen. Plus, a lot of Web sites run full version on the iPad that only run scaled-down on the iPhone.

Terdiman had an iPad 3G on Road Trip 2010. Apple

What did surprise me, however, was that the iPad's larger size--plus the heft added by the rubberized case I was using--made it a little less than convenient to pull out of my bag for a quick search. I discovered that more often than not, if all I needed was something basic, I'd leave the iPad in my bag--on my back, of course--and pull the iPhone out of my back pocket.

I have a friend who has an iPad shoulder bag that seems quite handy, but that would only work if you're not carrying a huge back pack like I do when I'm working. So as a 3G device, I'm not sure how useful the iPad is. If I owned one, I could imagine using it regularly on the bus, or in a coffee shop, or any place where I was sitting for awhile, but I don't think I would be happy stopping and pulling it out of my bag every time I wanted to use it.

And of course, the 3G service isn't free. As someone who already pays $60 a month for a Verizon EVDO card, I'd have to think very seriously about whether it makes sense to pay two separate mobile broadband bills.

On the other hand, I'd love to have a Wi-Fi iPad lying around the house to use when I need to search the Web or watch a Netflix movie, and since I'm eligible to upgrade my Verizon service, I suppose I could get a Mi-Fi and use a Wi-Fi iPad on the go. All told, while I like the iPad a lot, I'm not 100 percent sold on it, and I'm not really sure yet if I'll buy one. If I owned one, I know I'd use it a lot, especially around the house. But not owning one, I don't feel like I'm going to miss that much after I send the one I have back to Apple.

MacBook Pro
The last piece of review Apple equipment I had with me on Road Trip 2010 was a 13-inch MacBook Pro. With a 2.66 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor and 4 GB of RAM, it was a very good road computer. My work computer is a three-year-old 15-inch MacBook Pro, so adjusting to the smaller display took a bit, but once I did, I learned to love its bright glossy screen.

The other thing I loved was the long battery life. While it was not entirely consistent, I would say I could always count on a minimum of three hours of battery, even if I was doing some heavy-duty tasks, like watching movies, processing photos, or the like. I had wondered last year about whether the inability to have a second battery--because of the computer's unibody design--would be inconvenient. But after weeks of experimenting, I think that the battery on the new MacBook Pro is good enough for almost every situation I put it through.

There's not that much else to say about the MacBook Pro, as I didn't get around to using many of its best--and newest--features. Still, it's worth noting that the machine is fairly light, has a very comfortable keyboard, a terrific SD media card slot (though that was available on the 2009 models, as well) and just seems like a good, solid computer. If I was buying a new Mac, would I choose this model instead of, say, a 15-inch MacBook Pro? Or a 13-inch MacBook? It's hard to say. I've bought two MacBooks for relatives recently, and they're terrific machines. And clearly, the 15-inch MacBook Pros are even better. But as someone who travels a lot, I'm not sure I'd want the bulk and the additional weight of the larger computer. But the MacBook Pro line offers faster speeds and better components, so in the end, if I was in the market, I'd have to seriously consider it.

Apple fan
It's hard to know how to characterize my road-testing of Apple products. As I've said above, I have long been an owner and user of many of the different devices and machines the company makes--and I'm pretty well versed in their advantages and disadvantages. I know they tend to be a bit more expensive than comparable products from other companies, yet myself and many others keep on choosing Apple because our user experience tends to be so much better.

I know many will vehemently challenge that contention and that's fair enough. But that's been my experience. I'd like to see that continue to be the case, and it's not something I'm too worried about changing any time soon.

As a reviewer--even someone who doesn't do it very often, like myself--our ultimate challenge is to try to get enough of a sense of a product to know whether we'd recommend it. With the three Apple devices I had with me this summer on Road Trip, I'd have little trouble doing so. The iPhone 4 is a no-brainer, I think, with the caveat that it's worth reality testing your local AT&T service. And I'd caution anyone wanting to get an iPad to ask themselves how they really plan to use it before plunking down the cash. And finally, with the MacBook Pro, it's really a more philosophical question--Mac or PC. If you have already decided to go Mac, then it's really a question of which model to get. And if you're still on the fence about with platform to choose, well, that's not something for this space to address.

Since June 23, Geek Gestalt has been on Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last four years, I drove 5,266 miles this summer looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more throughout the American northeast. You can follow me on Twitter at @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip and find the project on Facebook. And you can also test your knowledge of the U.S. and try to win a prize in the Road Trip Photo challenge.