My iPhone goes on vacation

I wo rk at home. I have no daily commute (unless you count the stroll along the hallway from my bedroom to my office). Maybe I'm a stick-in-the-mud, or maybe it's just that I am fortunate to live in one of the best locations in the country (the San Francisco Bay area), but I rarely travel far from home.

As a result, while I use my iPhone every day, I don't usually get to test what it is like to depend on it for an extended time, without access to the technological "comforts" of home.

I got that chance earlier this month when I went on a two-week trip that took me to North Carolina and Michigan (which is also the reason for the recent interlude in my blog postings). I brought my MacBook Pro along as well. But, as a test of the power of the iPhone, I kept my use of the laptop to an absolute minimum, depending exclusively on the iPhone as much as possible.

While I had made a few such trips before, this was my first one since the release of the iPhone 2.0 software and the App Store. As such, it gave me an opportunity to assess the added value of third-party apps.

The iPhone did very well. Surprisingly well in some cases. Indeed, I found that, for certain tasks, I preferred using the iPhone over a laptop, even when in my hotel room with both devices easily available.

Here, in no particular order, are the highlights of my iPhone journey:

• Because I keep my iPhone synced to my desktop Mac, I did not want to sync the iPhone to my laptop while on the trip. This restriction gave me a different take on the value of MobileMe's "push" features. For example, I could add an appointment to iCal on my laptop and, within minutes, it would appear on my iPhone as well. No need to connect the iPhone to the computer, run iTunes, perform a sync and wait for it to complete. I didn't do this often (as I was trying to use only the iPhone), but I found it very convenient on the few times I did do it.

• With my excessive junk email now under control (see this previous entry), I used the iPhone as my primary tool for keeping up with my email. I checked my laptop only at the end of each day. This worked quite well. I confess that I even got a kick out of using the iPhone's Push/Fetch feature, automatically alerting me to new email even when the iPhone was in my pocket. In several cases, I was able to check messages and send time-sensitive replies, replies that might have been delayed by a day or more if I did not have my iPhone. Yes, there were times when it might have been preferable not to get "pinged" with email alerts, interrupting whatever else I was doing at the time. Still, I could always turn the checking off when I really did not want to be disturbed.

• I am a news junkie. That's why my most frequently accessed App Store software were the New York Times and AP Mobile News. These apps gave me access to a list of headlines (and the full stories if I wanted) faster and more conveniently than if I had used Safari instead. They were especially great for a quick check of breaking news. Again, I was probably not the model of social etiquette here, sneaking off to some corner to check the news whenever I was bored at a social gathering. But I absolutely loved being able to do this. I wound up preferring the iPhone for checking news, even when I had access to my laptop.

• I found Jott to be a superb To-Do list tool. All I had to do was speak into the iPhone, describing whatever I wanted to "jot down." A few minutes later, my spoken words appeared as a text item in the Jott app. With the iPhone variation of Jott, you don't have to call a phone number to make the transfer; it's all automatic. Very cool. And the accuracy of the speech-to-text conversion was much better than I had expected.

• The Showtimes app was my preferred tool for checking movie times. Just launch the application and it automatically detects your current location and provides the current day's start times for all near-by theaters. No other App Store competitor is faster or more convenient.

• And of course, there were the games. I most preferred the ones that I could pick up at a moment's notice and just as easily drop again if I was interrupted. I spent the most time with Apple's Texas Hold'em, where I eventually worked my way up to the Dubai sky casino.

• The iPhone's built-in apps got their share of a workout as well.

Maps proved to be invaluable on several occasions, quickly charting the route from our current location to some unfamiliar destination. It worked best when I was riding shotgun in the car, providing the driver with turn-by-turn instructions as needed.

The Weather app helped us avoid outdoor activities on days when rain was in the forecast.

On a few occasions, when I forgot to take my digital camera on an outing, the iPhone served as a adequate substitute for capturing a few "memory" shots that otherwise would have been missed altogether.

Oh, and I almost forgot. I sometimes used the iPhone as, of all things -- a phone! Imagine that.