FCC, Savvy Shopper, Handwriting Mail, and More

I really do enjoy my iPhone 3G, but there are things I wish it did better. Many items on my iPhone wish list will be checked off when I finally upgrade to whatever iPhone Apple offers next. My two-year contract with AT&T is up, but I’m waiting for the the latest and greatest.

My wish list includes things already available on the 3GS like a compass (check), faster processor (check), brighter screen (check), and some minor cosmetic updates. Another item on that list that the 3GS can’t deliever yet is a better user interface that takes into account folks with more than a few apps. The current icon interface gets old after flipping through the first 5 screens to find an app. There has to be a better way.

I believe Apple has the answer to this dilemma already, and it can be seen in its photo app on the iPad. If we can arrange the icons into user definable categories and hide them behind a category icon, users can then use that cool partial-expand gesture, as seen in the iPad introduction, to see whats behind the icon and select what they want. Folks can then get to any app in as few as three gestures (touch the category icon, partial-expand it, touch the app to open it). Less flippy, more happy.

Multitasking is not on my wish list becuase I don’t much care about it on my iPhone, at least not to the extent some pundits think we should be. I can take a call and give directions to the caller at the same time, I can also listen to music and read The New York Times simultaneously on my iPhone. When IM, email, or other apps needs my attention I get alerts and pop-ups that automagically pause what I’m doing at the time and lets me decide if I care to act on it now or later. That’s multitasking enough for me and anything else is gravy. If Apple expands multitasking I’m sure I’ll find it useful, but not needed.

Regardless of what new features on the new and improved iPhone Apple decides to grant us, one thing will remain the same, for now at least, and that is AT&T. Apple does not appear to be in a hurry to open its wunder-phone to other U.S. carriers though is seems that by doing so they’d stand to make a ton of tens and twenties. They may not have a choice in the matter due to some sort of contractual agreement with AT&T that we don’t know about, or it could be that AT&T has something up its sleeve that Apple could leverage to make the iPhone even more attractive.

It certainly isn’t the AT&T data plans. We pay US$30 a month on top of a voice plan, then iPad 3G users can add to that another US$15 to $30 a month for another data plan. I already feel like I’m getting screwed because I’m paying for broadband and landline phones already. In fact, if I add up my monthly charge to stay connected it makes me wonder if I really have that much to say.

I’m paying well over $120 a month for communication services (all phone and data services). That’s almost as much as my electric bill! It’s no wonder people complain about the service.

Apparently, the Federal Communications Commission feels the same way because they’ve recently released an app that tests data speeds to various places and may collect that data to determine service levels and quality. I assume the app will appear on other platforms, but for now it’s iPhone only and, by inference, AT&T only. That kind of data could be a sizable stick to whack AT&T with.

The app, FCC Mobile Broadband Test, is in beta, but there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t continue to be free once testing is done. After all, this is your tax dollars at work.

The interface a simple, just the way I like it. Press the big green button to start a test and in seconds, depending on your connection to the Internet, you know just how fast it’ll take you to download and upload a file and the latency (the time it take for data to get from one spot to another). The smaller the numbers the better your connection. You can choose one of many servers to test against, and review past tests stored on your phone.

OK, there’s not a lot the FCC app has over other bandwidth testers for the iPhone, but it’s the FCC! The friggin U.S. government for crying out loud! That’s gotta count for something, right? Besides, anything I can do to help them keep tabs on AT&T and other service providers is not only good consumerism, it’s a civic duty as well.

Get the FCC Mobile Broadband Test and start doing your part today! (Cut to an American flag waving in the background while America, The Beautiful plays. Stirring!)

And speaking of consumerism, I like being able to know as much about a product as possible before I buy. This is especially true of large ticket items like TVs and game consoles and such. Not that I buy that kind of stuff daily, but when I’m out and about and happen upon what looks to be a good deal, I’d like to be able to find out just how good a deal it really is.

Here’s an example: I was roaming a local mall one recent Saturday afternoon when I happened to wind up in Macy’s. I fancy myself a fair hand with pots and pans, I can turn out a tasty meal that actually looks edible. That’s not an easy thing, I gotta tell you. (Don’t snicker guys, women find guys who know their way around a kitchen sexy.)

Anyway, as I was browsing the kitchen area I happened upon an “open box” deal; a 10 piece Cuisinart stainless steel cookware set with one of the tops missing (so it was 9 pieces really) was marked down to $99. The original price was $299.

I’ve wanted a decent stainless cookware set for quite some time, but you really have to be careful when buying any cookware because manufacturers will cut all sorts of corners to save a few pennies per set. I had done my homework and knew about the different types of stainless cookware (triple-ply and core-based) and knew that quality varied greatly, even from the same maker. I have other Cuisinart kitchen appliances and have been satisfied with then, but I had no clue how good their cookware was and if it was worth even the $99.

Luckily I had my trusty iPhone. I did a little online research, checked some reviews and prices and found that, while the set wasn’t the best $299 could buy, it was a steal at $99 even with the one cover missing. Of course, I bought the set, and have been pretty happy with it.

The problem with this scenario was that it took me a better part of half an hour to get that info. I had to type in the make and model, then search for relevant hits in Google, then read the info, then search some more, and so on. What would have made the task a tad easier would be a way to simply scan the bar code on the box with my phone, which would then search for me using that scanned data.

As it happens, there are apps like that for the iPhone and some are free, like Shop Savvy Barcode Scanner.

Hold your phone’s camera over a barcode while the app is running and it will read the code then search the Net for hits in online stores like Target and Amazon. It’s simple, and it works.

I bought a barcode reader a while back (RedLaser) and found it to be useful. Shop Savvy is free and just as useful. Check it out.

And speaking of useful, this next app isn’t very, but I like the idea. Handwriting Mail is an interesting app that lets you use your finger as a pen and write out small messages that can then be sent to others via email.

The app turns the written page into a photo before sending, so it appears just as you’ve scratched written it on the virtual parchment screen.

As I’ve said, I like the idea of this app though it is not executed well. The input space is only big enough to accommodate smaller words, the fatter your finger the smaller the words. There no landscape mode, which would likely help input. I’m also not a fan of the obnoxious ads, they are distracting.

Still, scribbling out a note when you could easily type it has a certain charm and says something about you. I’m not sure what it says about you, but you get my drift.

Handwriting Mail. It’s free and it’s cute. What more could one ask?

That’s a wrap for this week. More free stuff below with direct links.