Penman No. 27: One for the 5

Penman for Monday, Dec. 31, 2012

WITH ALL the literary reportage I’ve been doing lately, I haven’t found the time and opportunity to indulge in my favorite pastimes (aside from poker, which I really can’t promote too much in this family-friendly corner), so let me use these holidays as an excuse to talk about my preferred stocking-stuffers.

Yes, you guessed right—they have to do with gadgets both digital and analog, namely phones and pens. If these things don’t excite you even half as much as they do me, you can turn the page now—or you can forget who you are and forget who I am and just join me these next few minutes as I transform into a 58-year-old boy taking out his tractors for a spin on the living-room floor. I’ll save the pens for another time, and focus on that object of desire that my undergrad students swore they couldn’t live without (as their professor quietly agreed), the cellular phone.

The phone on my mind and in my hand is, of course, the iPhone 5, and I’m writing this piece partly to answer the question that many friends who know me as an Apple fanboy have been asking lately: “How’s the iPhone 5 and do I need to upgrade it to it now?”

Let’s answer the easy part of that question first, which is the second part, and the quick answer is “No.” To be brutally honest—something that won’t come easy to those terminally ill with gadget lust—nobody really needs to upgrade to anything now or almost anytime. Seriously. That phone or that laptop or that camera that served you so well this past year or even longer should be able to do the same thing for you for a few more years, with reasonable care.

What we might call “upgraditis” is a terrible affliction that makes old useful objects—once sparkling with charm and oozing with sex appeal—suddenly look dumpy and inutile, leaving you with little option but to dig into your meager savings or even go into credit-card debt for something newer and shinier. Solid-state hard drives? More gigabytes. Digital cameras? More megapixels. Batteries? More mAh (milliampere-hours to the uninitiated). Upgraditis also leads to a state of mind that equates “want” with “need,” and makes a P35,000 phone or P70,000 laptop look not only a reasonable but an irresistible buy.

So, knowing all these nuggets of wisdom so well and dispensing them so liberally, why did I upgrade my iPhone 4S, barely a year old, to the IP5? To be honest (I make that sound easy), because I’m 58—59 in a couple of weeks—and I don’t need an excuse to get anything new, with my profound awareness that I don’t have too many more sentient years ahead of me to enjoy all the wonderful gadgets that they’ll design in Cupertino and manufacture in Shenzen; I’d be lucky to be around when the iPhone 12 rolls out of the factory, so I’ll take the 5 right now, thank you.

That was actually easier said than done, given the traditional lag time between a product rollout in the US and its appearance on Philippine shelves. The IP5 was released in the US, with the usual fanfare, last September 21, and it didn’t have an official Philippine launch until two weeks ago, on December 14, when Globe and Smart released their stocks (Smart slightly ahead of Globe, at a midnight bash). I couldn’t wait that long, and like a few hardcore Pinoy techies, I got mine in the US when I was there last October for a conference. Other members of our Apple users group (www.philmug.ph) got theirs in Singapore, Hong Kong, the UK, Australia, and even France. Why these countries? Because iPhones are sold factory-unlocked (often by law) in these places, so you can use them with any GSM network worldwide, unlike in the Philippines, where most network-supplied cellphones will require a touch of Greenhills magic to set free.

The US iPhones come in several varieties (Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint), and to spare you a long discussion about 4G or Long Term Evolution (LTE) networks and what will work here, let me tell you that the most compatible, factory-unlocked iPhone 5 version to get in the US for Philippine use is the Verizon one (yes, it’s a CDMA phone, but has a GSM capability as well) that you can now get contract-free from places like Best Buy. That’s what I got off eBay last October, and at the December 14 Philippine launch I got Beng a white IP5 for not too much under a retention plan, so now her iPhone 4 goes to my mom, who’d been using an iPod Touch. Why are we all on iPhones—us here, and my mom, daughter, sister, brother-in-law, and sister-in-law in the US? Because of what I think is the iPhone’s true killer feature, for binational Pinoy families: FaceTime, the free, limitless videoconferencing app that’s even easier to use than Skype and virtually pays for the cost of the phone over time.

So what’s so great about the IP5? Frankly, for me, nothing too earth-shaking; it’s just nice to have if you can cough up the cash. If I wanted to rationalize the hit on my Amex card (minimized by the quick sale of my 4S to my happy sister), I’d say that the IP5 is narrower, thinner, and lighter in the hand; the screen is bigger because of the phone’s extended length, the already-good camera is even sharper, the processor is faster, and the phone is LTE/4G capable, meaning that it’s good to go for the faster networks our telcos have promised to build. (I tested LTE on Verizon in New York, and it was blazingly fast.)

On the downside, the iPhone’s uninspiring battery life hasn’t really improved, at least in my own field tests, so that I’ve taken to carrying a power bank—a rechargeable battery—in my bag or glove compartment just to get through the day and my all-night poker binges. (I use my phone as a business machine rather than a toy—I check my email, surf, and even do school work and write articles like this on it—so I can’t afford to employ battery-saving tricks like turning 3G or Wi-Fi off.) Also, unlike the hard glass and tough plastic of the 4/4S, the anodized aluminum back and sides of the IP5 have been reportedly prone to scuffing in both the black and white models. (Another problem may be network-related; what’s the use of a 4G capability if your network is so slow, even on 3G?)

So what’s my bottomline on the IP5? Five million people apparently felt that they just had to have it within three days of its first release, but if you’re happy with your iPhone 4/4S or even your Samsung (and if you’re not 58 and bothered by your mortality), stick with what you have; it should serve you well for another year or so.

Otherwise, bite the bullet, sell the farm, and queue up for the iPhone 5 at your nearest Globe or Smart branch. Remember all the tedious routines and forms you’re going to have to fill out (there was much tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth at the December 14 launch over the four-hour queues, messed-up reservations, and unactivated nano-SIMs). Why? Because I’ll bet you my black 32-gig iPhone 5 that—for all the moaning and groaning and the buyer’s remorse that you’ll be going through now—you’ll be doing it all over again for the iPhone 5S, 6, 7, and 8.

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