3g? Or not.

I spent some time today playing around with a 3g phone, the NEC 606. I reserved one a few weeks ago and today was the day to put the money on the table. Rather than do that blindly, I thought I’d have a fiddle first. First impressions are not that great (I’m ok with the size of the phone, after all I have a P800). The interface is a bit strange – the opening screen is a grid of icons, but the 4 way navigation button only lets you move horizontally between them, forcing you to click 9 times to get to the last one. Pretty much everything that you do after that seems to involve a download. Click on the “Find” button and you’ll see the little flashing envelope icon that says it’s getting data. And you’ll see it, and see it still and see it some more for quite a while. After several menus I finally got the restaurant I wanted (no T9 typing in the input fields that I could see) and off it went to download the map. Except it didn’t. After 20 seconds or so, it popped up with an error. A strikingly Windows-esque error as it happens. The same error appeared a few more times whilst I was trying to get Alien Storm (or was it Swam?) downloaded.

It struck me that the virtue of having fast download speeds has meant that the coders have opted either not to cache too much locally, not to store programme code locally or to write without thinking about the consumer. It may be a while ago, but I still remember squeezing out unnecessary code to save space in 16k ZX81s (and even the 1k version for a while). Website coders learnt that too (see Amazon and Google). So with only ISDN-like speeds to play with (and irregularly available ones at that), have the 3g service providers gone and written bloated applications that have to page in and out across the ether regularly? I like my phones fast – if I want to know where a place is, it had better tell me when I want to and not cause me more pain that it would take to phone a friend who probably knows.

The next thing to put me off was the queue of people, 3 deep, at the counter returning phones. One guy was complaining that the software crashed five times a day. I don’t know that it’s the case or not, certainly the one that I was looking at didn’t overtly crash, but maybe I didn’t try any of the hard functions.

So, I opted not to flash the cash and went home without a 3g phone. I am sure that more will become available later in the year and I’ll take a second look then. It might be a while before we’re using 3g phones to get help from our tax adviser on how to fill in the Self Assessment form.

3g is not ready for mainstream, the phones so far available are big with poor battery life and a clunk interface. If you want a good phone for now, buy a P800 and wait a bit for 3g. Once there’s a bit of competition in the market with the other providers in there and a few new phones, things will start to shakeout. Alternatively, it could all go horribly wrong and a lot of people could lose a lot of money. If you think that’s the case, then buying Vodafone shares now could be a good thing as they’ve wiped a chunk of the 3g debt off their balance sheet so there’s room for upside. Not that I know a lot about shares, and you shouldn’t take that as a recommendation.

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