Monday, November 22, 2010

Seeking tech advice: smartphones for geologists

I currently have what I fondly refer to as a "stupidphone." It makes calls. It receives text messages. It stores phone numbers from some of my contacts. I can set it to "silent" mode during class. And... well, that's about all I do with it.

But that's going to change soon.

I'm thinking hard about getting a smartphone. My current cell carrier is being acquired (locally) by AT&T, which means that iPhones are finally an option in Durango. But Verizon also has good service here, which means that the various Android phones are also possibilities. I'm going to upgrade to one or the other, but I'm not sure which. I've talked to my local salespeople, but I'm not sure they quite understand what I want from a phone. In my ideal world, I would get a phone that would allow me to do the following on the road from Durango to Albuquerque or Denver: find my location from GPS, plot it on a map, look up the geology on a geologic map, figure out the direction to a mountain peak in the distance, take a picture of an interesting outcrop, and show it to the world on Twitter. (In my dream world, I would be able to do this while driving through the Navajo reservation, but I don't think any carrier has decent service through much of it.)

So, Internet: what's your experience with smartphones? I'm interested in hearing what you like and don't like about your current phone (especially the iPhone, Droid X, and Samsung Fascinate, though if you love another Android phone, I'd like to hear about it, too.) I'm also hearing about what apps you like as a geologist (or as a non-geologist who knows the kinds of things that I like).

(I know that Android vs iPhone can be a near-religious preference, so I guess I should also say that I'm agnostic. I like Apple products (I've got a Mac at home and I love the iPod Nano I won from my local NPR station), I like Google (Google Earth, the search engine, gmail, blogger...), and I use a PC at work. I could work with any of the operating systems.)

Edit: Given that the first comment gets into the Apple vs Android preference immediately, here's some more ground rules: I want to know what YOU like about YOUR phone. If you're an Android fan, don't tell me what's wrong with the iPhone; if you like iPhones, don't tell me what's wrong with Android. I've kept one comment, but will not publish any others that bash the other operating system.


Leszek Pawlowicz said...

iPhone has the more elegant hardware and software design, but locks you into the Apple ecosystem. Android is rougher around the edges, but is more open; you can even create your owns apps graphically with AppInventor. I voted for Android in July (Droid X), and don't regret it; like it so much I even started a website about geography-related apps ( But either OS will do everything you want, and much more.

While everyone blames ATT for the iPhone's reception problems, people using ATT Android and Windows 7 phones haven't seen those problems, so they may be iPhone-related. So don't be scared of keeping ATT but switching to Android.

Slightly_Rifted said...

I have a Samsung Galaxy S smartphone, same model/different carrier as the Fascinate. It will do all you are asking of it. I really like that I can add memory easily, which is huge for me (I take a lot of pictures). I think over all it is a better phone than the iphone, but I think the iphone is slightly more intuitive.
I also like that the phone has a journaling function, so I can have a diary while out in the field.
I really think most smartphones are great and will meet your needs. I know that there are some apps that iphone has that android doesn't yet, but android phones are more open-sourced and thus open for innovation.
I can't say that I dislike any part of my phone.

Brian Romans said...

I have an iPhone and absolutely love the thing. The only bad thing I've heard about it is that AT&T coverage can be crap in some places. But, it's really good where I live and where I go so I haven't had many issues.

As for geo apps ... there are a bunch that are fun and educational, but nothing that I use in a real way. I use my iPhone for e-mail, texts w/ my spouse, keeping up w/ blogs, twitter, and, oh yeah, some actual phone calls from time to time.

Mihaela said...

I am an "agnostic" too, but have an iPhone for now and I like it; my SO may get an Android soon for comparison. How I use the iPhone as a geoscientist: I use MotionX-GPS for all my location and map needs; I can track my travel, record position of outcrop stops, get statistics on elevation, distance, speed (I use it while running or biking too), I can take photos and link them to a certain location. I can use this even without phone connection, as long as I download the necessary maps in advance. I have access to Google Earth and a compass. For photography the camera is nice, I use a lot an app for photo stitching (AutoStitch), which allows me to create photomosaics (stitch the photos on the spot). Photo editing is easy, I use PhotoShop express, which allows me to post directly on Twitter or FB. I use Pro HDR for high dynamic range photography (I am a big fan of HDR). I use an app called Lambert for quick angle-dip measurement of strata, preview the data on a projection diagram and transfer it to a computer. Integrity Logic has an app with geologic maps for most states, but I am not very enthused with it, it is pretty rough (I used the maps for TX and WA). TSA Geology has a handy geologic timescale app. A lot of other non-geo apps, but my comment is long enough as it is.

Unknown said...

My 1st gen iPhone lasted until about 2 months ago when I picked up an iPhone 4. It's fast, easy to use and has a number of apps that, as a geology student, I find useful.

Regarding pertinent apps: Being in CA, I have the Geograph CA app by Integrity Logic which is pretty quick and has a number of interesting layers (They offer a version for CO as well). I use the default twitter iPhone app because I don't really need anything but the most basic of features but I've also tried tweetdeck with makes it really easy to post pics to twitter. If you're a reader, the ibooks app is nice and there are a number of other

I haven't tried peak identifying software (Haven't been near any real mountains since upgrading to the gps-capable iPhone 4) but there seems to be at least a couple apps available. I also check the USGS earthquake report app on a daily basis.

I can't really say there's anything I do not like about the iPhone. Coverage has been great here in San Diego. It syncs up easily with my mac. I've also found it to be really durable as it's made the trip to the top of Mt. Whitney and been dropped more times than I'd like to admit.

Anyway, just my two cents.

Ron Schott said...

I suspect that many of the things on your wish list will best be fulfilled via the web browser on each phone, rather than apps. Thus, to me the biggest concern would be how much data coverage each carrier offers in the areas you want to go. I was surprised how much of the trip I took last spring from Death Valley thru southern Utah and the Four Corners region didn't have data coverage. This may be carrier related or it may be that my path was just more remote than any data plan covers - not sure how you'll test this before buying, though. No data coverage means no searching Google (web search, maps, etc.), which I think will be a lot of what you'd want to do.

I'm very happy with my Motorola Droid (the original Droid). It can currently do just about everything on your list, except looking up the geology of an arbitrary area (I doubt you'll find this request satisfied to the level of detail you'd like by either platform at this point - it is something I'd like to work on fixing, though ;-) ). Android growth & development is currently out pacing that of all other platforms, so I suspect this is a platform that will grow with your needs. I wouldn't hesitate to buy a Droid X if I were in the market today. Let me know if you've got any more Droid and/or Android OS-specific questions.

Kim said...

Ron - about data coverage: AT&T's acquiring Alltel (which had good cell coverage around here for a long time; Verizon's the only other company that has had decent coverage). I know that some areas (especially the reservations, including the shortest route from here to Flagstaff) have poor coverage. I've seen people get data service from both iPhones and Verizon smartphones near town, though, and I expect that data coverage from AT&T will improve as Alltel's network is assimilated. That's why I'm not asking the data coverage question. (I've been asking my students, though, and they tell me it's improving here. May not be at the level that lots of people expect, though.)

Anonymous said...

I've got a Nexus One on ATT. No real connection issues, I love that I can find a free app for just about everything and I love that I can install software from anywhere, not just some censored app store. Email & navigation work great. The speech to text feature is becoming a favorite, quickly, and the way my phone can use its data connection to provide a wireless access point for my laptop has come in real handy many times.

Anonymous said...

Been in both religions. Had an iphone 2g,3g and now a SE X10 pro. Bottom line: for geology, they are good only as a reference scale in a picture.
Yes, you can take measurements like dip, strike with them (all of them), but why bother, you also have an inclinometer and a compass when you work.
Frankly, my waterproof field trip notebook never let me down. Maybe it's old fashion but there is no need for batteries!!! Even a GPS is not necessary, i can read a map and know where I am. For my work, all these are technology "noise". Carry less, go further.
What i really need in the field: good coverage and good battery life. Everything else is just irrelevant.

Elli said...

Disclaimer: I don't own either an iPhone or any other form of smartphone. I'm still using a standard cell that won't even take pictures, however, the other electronics item I carry everywhere is my iTouch, so I do have some thoughts.

Apple vs. non-apple: the benefit of using someone else's system is that there is an open realm of apps with no one giving thumbs up or down on them. but this can also be a downside, since Apple is supposedly weeding out apps that might cause your system to crash, erase data, release random information into the ether and whatnot. there have only been a few apps mentioned by friends & relatives that I haven't been able to find on my iThingy, but there will also be a gap between the two. I don't think its a huge issue, but its something to give a bit of thought to.

That said, there are definitely some geology apps that I find extremely useful: the Integrity line of state by state geomaps is wonderful and has layers for bedrock, watersheds, surficial material, and so on--worth the few dollars per state & I've been using it to learn about what's in various locales in MN; the free Tasa timescale is exactly as advertised; Iapetus, which uses the paleo plate reconstructions of Blakey, is simply fascinating to play with; there are a variety of free math / physics formulas & conversions apps that are useful as well as calculators. The GPS on the iThingy works well enough to walk / drive by.

For photos, there are a number of people who have spent considerable time figuring out exactly how to push the envelope on the quality of images you can produce. But I've watched Callan live-blog on a fieldtrip with his iPhone and the resultant pictures were good enough for webviewing without any strange contortions on his side.

I haven't tried doing structural measurements because I simply like my Brunton and its always with me in the field anyways.