The View Up Here

Random scribblings about kites, photography, machining, and anything else

My First Week with an iPhone

Posted by Tom Benedict on 21/10/2009

I finally broke down and got an iPhone.

To be fair this has been in the works for a while.  I’ve been following the development of the iPhone since the first one came out, and have a theory that it will play a fairly pivotal role in the future of personal computing and computing in general, but that’s a topic for another post.  Some time ago I made a deal with myself that if I could come up with five applications on the iPhone that would significantly change how I do KAP in the field, I would be in the market for one.  That happened a while ago, but I still held out.  When looking at something like this, it’s hard to know if the decision is being made for legitimate reasons, or simply because it’s a cool gadget.  I erred on the side of cool gadget, and waited.  It was finally a combination of three things that convinced me to get one:

  1. I was due for an upgrade on my existing cell pone
  2. The ATT website had refurbished 16GB 3G iPhones listed for $99
  3. One of my co-workers let me play with her iPhone long enough to completely fall in love with it

Ok, so in the end it’s still probably the cool gadget factor that pushed me over the top, but I did have five applications that I will use when I’m out KAPing:

  1. GPS – Prior to this, I was in the market for a small handheld GPS.  I was looking long and hard at the DeLorme PN-40 for some time, but the price tag kept me from taking that plunge.  That the iPhone comes with a GPS that applications can actually access went a long way toward convincing me that this was a viable route.  The performance of the DeLorme likely exceeds what the iPhone will do, but if I was after the ultimate in accuracy I would be looking at the higher end Trimble hardware, all of which is seriously out of my price range.  And from the testing I’ve done the iPhone GPS is plenty accurate for my needs.
  2. Google Earth – When the iPhone first came out, a fellow KAPer named Cris Benton picked one up.  Shortly after, he described a particularly difficult session where he needed to fly over a rail yard in order to get his camera in position over a particular subject.  The rail yard was in use, so there was no way to walk through it.  Instead he pulled up his location on Google Earth, visually determined the direction of the wind, and given his kite’s line angle he calculated how much line he needed to let out to get his camera in the correct position.  It worked like a charm.  With the addition of the integrated GPS in the iPhone 3G, this becomes even easier.
  3. Anemometer – Yes, there is an anemometer for the iPhone.  It’s a $0.99 application, and is limited to a 0-25mph wind range, but at the cost it’s well worth it as a backup for my Kestrel 2000 anemometer.  I have yet to test this in the field, but from what other people have said it’s typically good to +/- 1 knot, and switching units is trivial.  Before trusting it I plan to run it in side-by-side trials against my Kestrel.
  4. Inclinometer – The iPhone 3G has a 3-axis accelerometer built into it.  This has set the stage for a number of apps that replicate the behavior of a carpenter’s bubble level.  But for kiting I was after an inclinometer that would tell me the angle of my kite line.  Turns out there are a whole host of these as well.  The one I got was free off the iPhone App site.
  5. Safari Web Browser – The pre-paid data plan on the iPhone makes using the integrated web browser a real no-brainer.  You can’t rack up data charges by using it, so there’s no reason not to.  Also, since the Safari browser on the iPhone is a full-blown browser, you can hit practically any web site and view it the same way you would on a full-blown computer.  This lets me bring up the local wind forecast while I’m in the field, and to check current conditions at a number of weather stations to see if conditions are changing.  I can also use this to cruise Flickr when I fly at a new location to see if there are any interesting subjects nearby.

In addition, there are a number of non-KAP applications I’m using for other reasons.  The notepad and alarm clock are particularly nice.  The iPhone will also take voice memos, which is great for taking notes while KAPing since writing while managing a radio and kite winder is asking for trouble.  I also installed issh, which is an inexpensive combination ssh, telnet, and VNC client.  I’m no longer in the UNIX sysadmin line of work, but I still do run machines at home and at work.  Now I can get to them from practically anywhere.  I also find I’m using the iPod functionality more than I thought I would, since all my music will fit on my iPhone.  The photo gallery application also makes it easy to pack a large number of KAP images on my iPhone so I can show them to people when they ask what I’m doing. Oh, and it’s also a pretty good phone.

All in all I’m more than pleased with it.  I’ve already taken the small portfolio out of my KAP bag, which saves a fair bit of weight and space.  If the anemometer works out well, I may start keeping my Kestrel at home on longer KAP hikes.  The inclinometer, GPS, Google Earth, and readily available wind forecasts are all new, and I haven’t really had a chance to see how much I will use them, or what effect they will have on my work flow in the field.  But already it’s an improvement.  Can’t beat that.

– Tom

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