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technology

A Tappy Kind of Life, Re-Examined

I did a really dumb thing a few days ago: I was hosing off the pool deck, and fell in. With the water at 83 degrees and outside temps at 106 that would ordinarily have been a welcome break…except that my Samsung Note 4 smartphone was in my gym shorts pocket.

I tried hard not to hit the water, and bruised up my left arm a little in the process. However, the phone was underwater for a few seconds (more than five, less than ten) and has not yet come back to life, even after several days in a ziplock bag with all the dessicant packs I could scrounge around the house. This is a serious bummer. I liked that phone. Carol has one too, and in a number of ways, it changed the way we live.

We bought the Note 4s in November 2015, and came to love them almost immediately. They were part of the process of moving from Colorado Springs to Phoenix. We’d had Droid X2 phones since 2011, and used them as…phones. They were good workaday phones, granting that we had a landline in Colorado and used it for talking to relatives or any time a conversation was expected to take longer than a couple of minutes. Although we’d expected to get a landline in Phoenix, a few weeks of using the Note 4s showed them to be so effective that we just didn’t bother. Carol bought a Bluetooth headset for long conversations with her sister, and mostly I just put it on speaker. The fidelity was superb, and there was a lot less packet-loss than with the Droids.

What startled me about the Note 4s was how much else they could do. I’d tried texting on the DroidX, but the screen was too small and my fingers too big. On the phablet-sized, stylus-equipped Note 4, no problem. I had tried reading ebooks on the DroidX, and again, it just wasn’t big enough to be comfortable. I marvel at how well the Note 4 handles the Kindle app. I have a Kindle Paperwhite with a bigger display, but because it’s another slab, I mostly use it at home. If I’m waiting in a doctor’s office or somewhere, the Note 4 serves spectacularly.

Then we started trying some apps. Two that we use a lot are Raindar and Weather Underground. Raindar shows where the rain is, how hard it’s falling, and which way it’s moving. Period. That’s all we wanted, and that’s all we got. Win! Weather Underground is more complicated: It’s a formerly independent weather geek site (founded in 1995) that was bought by The Weather Channel and somehow hasn’t yet been turned into a global warming shill operation. Its magic lies in its architecture, as a network of “hyperlocal” weather stations. The app can determine which one is closest to your house, and when you bring up the app, it will show you data from that station. Phoenix alone has thirty or forty such stations, a couple within a mile of our house. I was a bit surprised at how different the readings were from one station to another, but I tested the closest stations against my own thermometers, and chose the one that was the best match. We use it to find out when to open the windows on summer nights, and when to close them again in the morning. We use Raindar to see when there’s a lull in a thunderstorm long enough to let the Pack out to potty. Weather matters.

After getting stuck in traffic once too often in Denver, I searched for and discovered Waze, which crowdsources data on traffic conditions and lays it all out on a map. It knows (from the phone’s GPS logic) how fast you’re going, and it plots bad traffic in different colors. Users report construction, accidents, vehicles on the shoulder, and speed traps, all of which also appear on the map. We did a lot of driving between here and Colorado Springs from 2015 to 2017, and Waze was surprisingly helpful.

The local classical music station, KBAQ, has an app that will stream their audio if you have an Internet connection. That’s useful. However, what’s even more useful (especially since we listen to KBAQ on a real stereo system when we’re at home) is that they tell you what’s currently playing, so if an unfamiliar piece comes on, I can yank out the phone, tap up the app, and see what it is, following the links on the composers if they’re new to me. I’ve had no better education in classical music since the course I took with Dr. Raymond Wilding-White in 1973.

The Note 4s came with Flipboard, a news aggregator app that I doubt I would have sought out on my own. We don’t have cable TV anymore, and although I’m not a news hound, I generally like to know how close the fires and riots are. Alas, Flipboard seems to emphasize UK news sources, and has an almost inexplicable obsession with celebrity trivia, particularly celebrity women showing off their baby bumps or going topless somewhere. Most of these celebrities are people I’ve never heard of, and even when a genuine celebrity appears, the context is, as often as not, banal. There have been a few reasonable science and tech stories on Flipboard, but mostly it’s catch as catch can. I check it most mornings to make sure that the world still exists. (Given the stuff they post, sometimes it’s a little hard to tell.)

Samsung’s S-Health app does a lot of different things, the most useful of which is to track steps, pedometer-style, and present step data in various reports. It also uses the camera to test blood oxygen levels, but the software is fussy and my cheapo pulsox does the job much better. As a pedometer, though, it’s first-rate.

I like GPS Test, especially since it can tell me my current altitude. It also works as a compass. The SoundHound app is much less useful, and I’m being charitable. I tried and generally dumped a number of games, most of them puzzle games. The screen is a little small for Mah Jongg, given the complexity of the patterns on the tiles. However, Ultimate Jewel (a Bejeweled clone) is a sort of software fidget-spinner that handily gets my mind off of vexatious people and their damfool drama.

I have a flashlight app that’s been useful a time or two. The camera is decent, though it has nothing on my Canon G-16. It’s a reasonable photo viewer, especially with a 128GB Micro SD card inside to hold my photobase. (The lack of an SD slot is primarily what kept us from buying Note 5s.)

However, all that said, the biggest single use that Carol and I put the Note 4s to is voice search. We had voice search on the Droid X2s, but somehow it just didn’t comprehend us as cleanly as the Notes. Now, if we’re sitting around talking about something and an unfamiliar concept or person comes up, one or both of us grabs our phones, taps “Google Voice Search” and speaks the search terms. It’s still a little astonishing how reliably the app understands spoken search terms. Granted, a 5 1/4″ diagonal display is on the small side for doing research, but for quick orientation, well, it’s like nothing else.

Five days since I went swimming with my Note 4, I miss it terribly. This has nothing to do with Facebook or Twitter, which by agreement with myself I only use on my desktop. The strange part of the adventure is that I integrated the Note 4 with my life so slowly that I never fully grasped how important it had become. Some things come at you fast. Others sneak up on you when you aren’t looking. A very few just have this talent of dissolving into the background noise of ordinary life, where you never miss them until they go away. So it was with the Samsung Note 4.

I ordered a new Note 4 from Amazon a few days ago, and it should be here by Monday or before. It’s white, which is a feature, since the two phones Carol and I bought are both black and physically identical. To know which it is, you have to hit the button and parse the wallpaper. Now we can tell from across the great room.

There are rumors that Samsung is preparing a Note 8 for release later this year, with an SD card socket if not a replaceable battery. I’ll give it a fair hearing, but in truth, if it has no strong advantage over the Note 4, I may give it a pass, especially if the rumors are true that it will cost $800. I promised Carol I would no longer skim the pool with a $400 phone in my pocket. An $800 phone? No promise necessary.