Getcha Ass to Maahs

March 31, 2008

mars3.jpgThere’s a lot of stuff out there detailing the technical superiority of CDMA networks over GSM (or more accurately, the TDMA-based GSM standard), most of which is written by ex-Qualcomm engineers who still nurture a smoldering chubby for their former employer. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; I would lack both the tech savvy and the professional credibility to dispute any such claims if I even wanted to.

But as a consumer (my secondary arena of expertise), I could give less than a greasy speckled shit about which protocol is superior. Seriously.

While the development and deployment of the technology behind the CDMA air interface is fascinating, it offers little tangible benefit to the end-user; I don’t care if Verizon or Sprint or Alltel can squeeze eight times as many calls onto one channel as can AT&T or T-Mobile. I can roll up my shirt and enumerate on the fingers of my own freaky-ass Kuato twin the number of instances that my GSM phone has given me a “network unavailable” prompt while trying to make a call, or that someone has gotten a “user not in service area” message when attempting to reach me on AT&T. Each has occurred more than enough times with my CDMA provider (while I was unquestionably in a home service area) to color me perpetually disenchanted with Qualcomm’s nifty lil’ configuration.

Take into consideration the SIM, which allows a shameless telewhore like me to not only switch equipment on a whim, but to purchase either branded or unlocked handsets off the frikken’ rack and have them up and running in the parking lot. Instead of having to call customer service and wade through sixteen tedious prompts, then wait ten minutes for a rep, then explain that I want to change phones, then read off the ESN (and listen as they read it back to ensure accuracy), then program the phone, then perform not one but two test calls, what takes twenty minutes with a CDMA carrier takes thirty seconds on GSM. Swap SIM, done. Goodnight.

The dreaded for instance; Friday night I found a new GoPhone at Best Buy, the Nokia 6085, which I’d considered when signing a contract with AT&T the week before. Intoxicated by the overwhelming volume of choices, my own catpiss judgment prevented me from making a good decision, and instead I wound up with a dick-in-a-box. Whatever. The inherent versatility of the SIM allowed me to make a mistake like that without chaining me to a piece of ossified Velociraptor shit for the next two years.

The 6085 was an awesome deal. Not only did it come with a stereo headset, but with a data cable and a 512MB MicroSD card as well. It gets great reception, has great earpiece quality, and the housing and keypad feel tight and compact with no wiggles, rattles, or squeaks. The external display is next to useless, other than as a clock, and the main screen isn’t the finest you’ll ever ogle, but the latter contributed to an out-of-the-box battery time of two full days.

Who, then, benefits from the CDMA interface? No doubt the folks who developed the stuff will trumpet that everyone benefits, but as a heavy user, I just don’t see it. If I can make calls, deliver texts promptly (another area in which my CDMA provider supped with the plecostomus), and not have to recharge my phone every day, I’m happy. Most of those things can happen on a CDMA network, but rarely together, and never all at once.

The true winners with CDMA are the royalty-earning patent holder (Qualcomm), and the carriers who can increase network capacity without deploying more and more costly equipment. It’s a much more efficient system, but efficiency doesn’t always translate to a better experience on the user’s end.

What’s good for the corporation is very rarely also good for the consumer, as any potential savings will almost always be passed into the profit margin instead of your pocket.


Whey of the Samurai

March 26, 2008

samurai.jpgWhen it comes to technology, the Japanese sure know their stuff. This is why, when shopping for a new phone, I always take a look at the newest offerings from Nokia.

A few days ago I signed up for a contract plan with AT&T and came away with a spiffy new N75 for $50. After taking it home and fiddling with it for the better part of a day (six hours), I returned it and opted for a Samsung slider that gets slightly better reception than two Dixie cups tied together with bakery string. I knew this about Samsung, though, so I take this one on the chin and move on. At least it was free. Or closer to $2400 if you consider the cost of the contract over two years, but whatever.

The difference between Samsung’s CDMA handsets and their GSM handsets is like the difference between cannoli and dog shit. (For those of you in Tifton, cannoli are better.) I don’t know what the problem is, but any Samsung phone on AT&T or T-Mobile is bound to exhibit more charmingly antisocial personality quirks than Ed Gein at a church potluck; it’s not that they’re bad phones, specifically, but certain design choices leave me shaking my head and wondering with more than idle curiosity exactly why the ham salad tastes a little funny.

For instance; the A737 is the third consecutive Samsung handset that I’ve used on AT&T in which it is impossible, after thorough scrutiny of all documentation and phone menus, to save incoming text messages directly to the phone. All incoming texts are saved to the SIM, which has an average capacity of about 30 messages, making it necessary to move each individual message to the phone one at a time. My initial response to this is to chuckle a little, then seek out an irresistibly cuddly little woodland creature and step on his adorable little head.

Why? Why do they torment me with delectable CDMA morsels of Ghirardellian temptation like the Hue, which is only available ’round these parts on the Lenny Small of wireless networks? Why do seemingly capable phones like the A737 and the Sync begin to shake and piss on themselves as soon as they’re mated to a GSM provider? It seems as though certain manufacturers shine like Van Eyck when dabbling in one particular air interface medium, yet go all Van Gogh on your ass when working in the other.

Which brings me back, in a roundabout way, to the Nokia N75.

Nokia knows GSM like Oprah knows Ho-Hos, so it’s no surprise that the N75 is generally well-regarded by industry mavens. My biggest problem with it is that it’s larger than I like a phone to be, meaning you could use the thing to paddle your way across the Styx in case Phlegyas is on vacation in warmer climes (cough-Florida-wheeze) that week.

One of the more annoying facets of the N75’s design is that it’s covered with chromed buttons and keys, which collect fingerprints like Mr. Moose collected ping pong balls. I’m one of those ambulatory antiques who thinks that shiny things with fingerprints all over them look like, you know, shit, and I’d prefer not to publicly doucherize myself by wiping down my phone every fifteen seconds with a microfiber cloth. If it hadn’t been for its ungainly heft and cheesy, blinged-out keys, along with the odd rubbery skin that covers the outside, and a UI that’s slower than Paris Hilton completing the Sunday NYT Crossword, the N75 and I would have been a perfect match. It’s too bad that these things so often don’t work out, but like Captain McCluskey, the N75 hadda go. It was just business. Nothing personal.

Its replacement, the Samsung A737, is capable enough, though not without considerable shortcomings. It’s impossible to select a different color scheme for the UI, so unless you’re a big fan of Halloween or the Cincinnati Bengals, you might be disappointed. The phone automatically engages the keylock every time the slide is closed, whether you want it to or not, which must be manually removed by either a button combination or sliding the phone open. There’s no way to change this, and it’s as annoying as providing room and board to an alligator. In your pants.

There’s the previously mentioned text-to-SIM problem. There’s also no way to change the packet data connection without contacting Samsung’s customer service. And, as usual, the signal strength isn’t the best.

Just a little bit o’ control over my own communications experience would go a long way towards drawing me fully into the Samsung GSM compound, spotty RF reception and all.

I’ll even bring my own Krazy Straw.

LG Whiz

March 26, 2008

kayleefluffy_reference.jpgWhen it comes to innovation, the American mobile handset industry sits somewhere between Australopithecus and George “The Animal” Steele in the evolutionary metaphor. Sure, Qualcomm invented CDMA (sheh-sheh, Cap’n) but that’s an air interface technology and generally not likely to make consumers quiver in their knickers over the next slinky bit of hardware to come wriggling out of the pipe.

This is why, lately, I’ve cozied up to LG and Samsung. My very first cell phone was a Samsung SCH-1500 on Sprint prepaid, and though I can’t say that the experience approximated anything other than jamming an eight-inch serving fork into my groin, I do have a fondness for nostalgia. (To be fair, the 1500’s problems had more to do with Sprint’s then-spotty coverage in South Florida than anything else.) If I could, I’d project myself way back to the halcyon days of 1998 and revisit the Radio Shack in the Galleria Mall and gleefully bitchslap the nattering douchenozzle who pitched me a dual-band phone for use on a single-band network, unabashedly touting its dual-bandedness as a feature. But whatever. If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have thought the XFL was a great investment opportunity.

Where the Korean handset manufacturers shine is in their delivery of equipment that appeals to more than just headstrong practicality. The new LG Flare for Virgin Mobile (also of Sprint, as its mild-mannered alter ego, the LX-160) will set you back a scant $30, yet it’s as visually and aesthetically appealing as it is functional; from the thin silver band that traces its way around the front of the flip, to the tight rubbery keypad, to the vibrant screen and the smoky window that obscures the external display when not in use, the Flare is hardly pretentious, yet manages to please simply through thoughtful design and flawless implementation.

The Samsung Hue, otherwise known as the SCH-R500, is a mid-range handset that effortlessly pulls off every trick that leaves the V3a and its CDMA predecessors (the V3c and the V3m) writhing on the concrete like Nancy Kerrigan. A dynamite main screen, a legible and useful external screen, clear voice, no glaring glitches, and once again, an appealing design that indicates it might have, at some point during its development, come in contact with at least one phone-using human being. Too bad mine is tied to one particularly slack-jawed, mumbling-to-itself-on-the-subway network which shall remain nameless. (Cough-NotCricket-cough).


Which is not to say that Korean phones have always been without their share of problems. Reception issues come immediately to mind, more specifically among their GSM offerings, but even these have seemingly gone the way of good movies and common sense, which proves that many people are willing to trade at least a couple of degrees of functionality for a tighter hinge, an intuitive interface, and a pretty face.

And speaking of pretty faces, William “George the Animal” Myers has a master’s degree from Central Michigan University. Not just another hairy back, that guy.