Living on the EDGE

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I recently spent some time getting away from the daily grind—we took our kids to Destin, Florida for a week of fun and sun (and high temps and humidity, but that’s what the ocean’s for, right?). What I didn’t realize when we booked the trip was that I’d also be getting away from 3G networks as well—Destin and the surrounding area is strictly EDGE network territory. I didn’t intend to work during our vacation week, but my iPhone clearly had a role to play—I was going to use it as a GPS tool for a couple rounds of golf, and as a mapping assistant for navigating about, and for, well, all those other little things the iPhone just does so well.

I’ll admit I’ve been very spoiled by life with 3G network access. My home base of Portland has been 3G since before the iPhone’s launch, and my two most-visited travel destinations—Denver and San Francisco—are also both well covered by 3G. Prior to the trip to Destin, I can only recall occasional EDGE use (such as when visiting some Alaskan cities during MacMania VI) on my iPhone. Destin marked my first extended EDGE-only use…and when we landed in Portland at the end of the week, I’ll admit that I was quite happy to see the little 3G icon return to its rightful spot at the top of the iPhone’s display.

Don’t get me wrong, the iPhone isn’t unusable with EDGE…but it certainly changes the user experience. As an example, I used Maps to get driving directions to a friend’s house; they live only about five miles from where we were staying. The route line (purple) and textual directions appeared instantly, but the map’s background was all-black. I checked the settings to make sure Hybrid was checked; it was (unfortunately, I didn’t think to switch to Map view mode to see if it solved the problem). As we started driving, the black background slowly began to be replaced by satellite imagery. However, we were more than halfway there before all the black spots vanished.

I also used Flixter’s Movies app to find nearby theaters (in the hopes we might have time to grab a movie; it didn’t work out that way, though). While the app worked quite well, I forgot about the EDGE network and asked Movies to show us a trailer. After a couple minutes with nothing really happening onscreen, though, I gave up on that idea. The lack of speed is also noticeable in simple Web browsing, where the more-complex sites take notably longer to load than they do when on a 3G network.

Some days, EDGE seemed to do better than others, but it was never anywhere near the speeds I’ve become used to on the 3G network. While the slow speeds didn’t turn my iPhone into an unusable device, they did alter the ways in which I used it. Anything that required speed was done in our rented home, where we had a nice fast wireless cable modem connection to the Internet. When out and about, I tried to remember not to do anything data-intensive, as the waiting time could be painful. (The friends we went to visit say that there are rumors of 3G arriving this fall; they are hoping these rumors turn out to be true!)

I never really considered just how much of a role the 3G network plays in the iPhone’s usability as an always-there Internet device. It seems obvious in hindsight, but living and working in 3G-only areas, I’d just never had much experience with EDGE. Now that I’ve spent a week “on edge,” so to speak, I’m quite happy to have my 3G network back. For those of you living in EDGE-only areas, I can only hope that AT&T rolls out the 3G network as quickly as practical. While an iPhone on the EDGE network is a very good always-there internet device, an iPhone on the 3G network is a great always-there Internet device.

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