iPhone 4S

Apple‘s loss last week was enormous. I wrote all that I felt I could in the blog farewell on this website to a man I was lucky enough to know a little and admire a great deal. Most are probably now profoundly sick of hearing either how much he was under or overestimated as a man and as a figure of his times. I never knew of any human beings whose achievements were exactly estimated.

The word “estimate” is the clue here. I only know that if I had grandchildren and they heard me tell of my meetings with him they would feel as I might if my grandfather had told me about meeting Henry Ford, Rockefeller or Irving Thalberg. It might be, after all, that Aldous Huxley overestimated Henry Ford by making the dystopian future in his Brave New World name its calendar after him.

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This blog was posted in Guardian column and Techblog

iPhone 4: a Welcome and a Warning

Welcome The hooplah that surrounds the release of a new Apple product is enough to make many otherwise calm and balanced adults froth and jigger. That some froth with excited happiness and others with outraged contempt is almost irrelevant, it is the intensity of the response that is so fascinating. For the angry frothers all are fair game for their fury – the newspapers, the blogosphere, the BBC and most certainly people like me for acting, in their eyes, as slavish Apple PR operatives. Why should these iPads and iPhones be front page news when, the frothers froth, there are plenty of other manufacturers out there making products that are as good, if not better, for less money? And isn’t there something creepy about Apple’s cultiness and the closed ecosystem of their apps and stores? The anti-Applers see pretension and folly everywhere and they want the world to know it. The enthusiastic frothers don’t really mind, they just want to get their hands on what they perceive as hugely desirable objects that make them happy. The two sides will never agree, the whole thing has become an ideological stand-off: the anti-Apple side has too much pride invested in their point of view to be able to unbend, while Apple lovers have too much money invested in their toys to back down. It is an absorbing phenomenon and one which seems to get hotter every week.

I almost always go out with an iPhone in one pocket, a BlackBerry in another and an Android device in a third. But then I am peculiar. If I had to keep only one, yes, I confess I would choose the iPhone, but I could cope happily if I were left with just a BlackBerry Bold or an HTC Desire. At least so I would have said until last week when Apple gave me an iPhone 4 to play with. For just as the frenzy of iPad launch has subsided (3 million sold in 8 weeks) it is now time for Apple haters to have a new device waved in their angry faces and time for Apple lovers to get verbally bitch-slapped for falling once more for Steve Jobs’s huckstering blandishments. iPhone 4 is here. It is only a year since many will have taken advantage of incentives to upgrade from iPhone 3G to iPhone 3GS and their deals may still be active, denying them the chance to leap to the newest phone without eye-watering financial penalties. Much as 3GS was released simultaneously with OS 3.0, so iPhone 4 arrives with iOS (as all Apple mobile device operating systems will now be designated) 4.0, which will be able to bring some, but not all of its new functions and features to older phones (but not the iPhone 2G). The phone will be available unlocked here in the United Kingdom, so your existing SIM (so long as it is cut down to the new mini-SIM shape) will work without having to jailbreak and unlock.

iPhone 4

iPhone 4 is an object of rare beauty (even when badly photographed using an iPhone 3GS). Noticeably slimmer but a trifle heavier than predecessors, its new heft only adds to the profound feeling of quality and precision that the device exudes. Sharper edged, it is girt by a stainless steel band which cleverly houses all the antennas required by a modern smartphone. Jobs himself made a comparison between iPhone 4 and a classic Leica. With this device in my hand I feel that I am holding its designer Jonathan Ive’s personal prototype, hand-machined as a proof-of-concept model. Ive is surely one of the most influential and gifted designers Britain has ever produced and iPhone 4 may well be his masterpiece.

Apple have produced, and third parties will doubtless emulate and improve, rubberised wrap-around belts called Bumpers that easily slip round the edges of the handset affording what will probably be regarded as much needed protection. They come in all kinds of colours and give the device great resilience (I saw an Apple executive gleefully hurling his bumpered iPhone 4 across the room). Bumpers may diminish the perfect lines of the profile, but it’s a compromise many will make, as the sharp edges are bound to make one a little nervous about chipping and denting.

This blog was posted in General, Guardian column and Techblog

A suitcase of cables

Stephen Fry explains the suitcase of cables he takes with him when travelling

Column “Dork Talk” published on Saturday 18th October 2008 in The Guardian “Dork Talk” – The Guardian headline.

It’s farewell for quite a few months, I fear, as I head off to Africa, Mauritius, Indonesia, New Zealand and the Sea of Cortez to make a documentary about disappearing species. I shall be out of reach of broadband, mobile phone and even landlines for much of the time. That will not stop me from taking a suitcase full of cables, chargers, memory cards and connectors, however, and I thought I might, by way of valediction, give you an inventory of what this particular dork packs when he travels.

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Photograph: Alamy

First of all, should all else fail, I will make sure that there’s at least one of Trevor Baylis’s products in my bag. Baylis, you may remember, pioneered the wind-up radio. On the eco-gadget site biggreensmile.com you can find his company’s practical and hardy hand-crankable media players, the latest (the Eco Media Revolution) offering radio, video, music, photo, text, phone-charging, memo recording and storage in most of the useful formats and codecs, all for £129.99. One minute of winding makes for 45 minutes of play, that’s the promise: a big British bargain. The same site has a Freeloader solar charger for £24.95 that will help with juicing up all my gadgets when I’m too hot and knackered to crank.

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This blog was posted in Guardian column

Listen to this

Stephen Fry explores the high-end of digital music technology

Column “Dork Talk” published on Saturday 11th October 2008 in The Guardian “Dork Talk Listen to this” – The Guardian headline.

Mankind’s hunger for what Emerson called “a better mousetrap” is unquenchable. I can think of few technological solutions perfect enough to force inventors and innovators to proclaim, “Right, that’s it. Problem solved. Let’s move on.” The Screwpull came along in the 80s and was declared the last word in corkscrews, yet innovations continue to stream from the world’s drawing-boards. Coffee makers: I could hymn on coffee makers until you begged for mercy. Pencil sharpeners, umbrellas, cigarette lighters: mankind will never cease from reaching ever upwards towards the paradigmatically perfect implement. Actually, you might argue that in the last category Zippo reached the sunlit uplands decades ago: wind-proof, reliable, a design classic that works every time and comes with a lifetime guarantee. Pity no one smokes any more.

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Katie Melua listening to her iPod. Photograph: Linda Nylind

There is surely no climb to perfection more impossible of completion than that of the ascent towards the ultimate high-end sound system. How can we hope to recapture the first fine careless rapture with which music originally smote us amidships and enslaved us for ever? The rainbow we chase is to make music sound new again. Hi-fi is like wine: dangerously expensive as taste refines and jolly enthusiasm turns to pernickety connoisseurship. Audio shops still exist where twins of the Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy sell valve amplifiers, record decks and styli as if the digital revolution never happened. They’re probably right: nothing matches vinyl and analogue for audio range and richness. I want, however, to consider users who are hunting high-quality portable, digital music.

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This blog was posted in Guardian column

URC: Universal Remote Control or Useless Rotten Crud

Stephen Fry on one of the most frustrating and useless gadgets devised by man, the so-called Universal Remote Control

Column “Dork Talk” published on Saturday 27th September 2008 in The Guardian “URC: Universal Remote Control or Useless Rotten Crud” – The Guardian headline.

I yield to few in my love of gadgets: let a new gizmo arrive in the post or be brought back from the shops and you will see me fall on it like a lion on an antelope – I will savage the hard, clear, welded plastic packaging with my teeth and let out growls of drooling hunger and mews of pleasure. Out tumbles the doodad and straight away I will plug it in, install its drivers, power it up and connect it, and to hell with the manual. No matter how gimcrack or futile the toy might be, the adrenaline will surge, the lips part and the breathing come in shallow stertorous pants of ecstasy.

Actually, there’s a rider to that – aside from apologising for using the phrase “pants of ecstasy”, I ought to make it clear that there is one genre of gadget that over the years has proved so preternaturally disappointing, so remorselessly useless, that I receive it with dread. I am talking about the so-called Universal Remote Control. I have drawers full of them. Over the years I have bought more than 50, and not one was any use. Someone gave me a cheap market stall giant URC as a joke and that – oddly enough – is the only one I use, but it is configured only for the TV, which brings me to the principles underlying these wastes of plastic.

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