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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Blackberry: The Smartphone for Wilderness Survival

Several years ago, while skiing at Whistler, a member of our party broke her leg in the most remote (but still in-bounds) glacier (Blackcomb Glacier) with only one route in and out. Having cell phone access resulted in having the ski patrol on the scene within about five minutes and timely removal from the mountain to the hospital. It was critical that the cell phone rf sensitivity in this somewhat remote location was sufficient to make a call.

The past couple of weekends has found me in Ontario's summer cottage areas north of Toronto where distance, remoteness and low population density can provide significant challenges to a mobile phone's usefulness and service availability in emergencies. With no landline Internet connections available I left my laptop at home and tested the bounds of what I could follow simply using mobile devices. Amongst the issues I encountered were:

  • Battery: how long is battery life and how easily can you replace a battery?
  • Rf sensitivity: can I make a phone call with weak connectivity (<1 bar)?
  • Real time navigation: can I follow my progress in a boat as the boat moves along?
In my case I was traveling with both a Blackberry 8820 and iPhone 3G, each connected to the Rogers GSM 3G/EDGE network. The 8820 could only use EDGE for data but the voice channel was the same for both. My experiences:
  • Battery Life: the Blackberry was the clear winner requiring much less frequent charging (if at all) in a 2- to 3-day trip. But Blackberry is reknown for its battery management features; if desired as backup, you can take along charged replacement batteries.
  • Rf sensitivity: this one really surprised me but also says a lot about the iPhone 3G connection problems being reported. I was at a location on a small lake 6 km by air southwest of Gravenhurst, Ontario (location of the nearest tower) with less that one bar of reception and attempted to make phone calls. The iPhone came up with a screen announcing that it could not make a voice call while, sitting in the same seat, the Blackberry had no problems making a voice call - all over the same Rogers network via the same Rogers cell tower. Amongst the group I was visiting two other Verizon-enabled Blackberries could make calls through the local equidistant Telus cell tower while another person with an iPhone also could not make calls through the Rogers tower. As further affirmation of the Blackberry's superior rf sensitivity, when I drove into this location, the Blackberry was receiving updated Google Maps data (over EDGE) right up until I reached my destination.
  • Real time marine navigation: We also experienced some boat trips on Muskoka Lake, which is laden with many islands, bays and inlets, both large and small. On this popular lake with many cottagers there is good-to-excellent Rogers 3G coverage. Let's just say that on our first trip the boat's driver did not know the exact location of a marina we were seeking out. What I found was that while the satellite view of Google Maps on the Blackberry could provide very helpful location and direction information in real time, Google Maps on the iPhone could only provide occasional "static" information but not effectively track one's progress. On the other hand it has been known that iPhone is not capable of the real time navigation critical to the resolution of our situation. Asking a local cottager got us headed in the right direction towards the location of the marina but having real time navigation in Google Maps made it a significantly easier to reach our destination. As would be expected Google Maps does not provide complete marine navigation information such as depth isobars, underwater rock locations, etc. but, knowing the main channels, it became a critical support tool as we found our way.

My conclusions:

  • The 3G connectivity issues being reported for the iPhone probably involve both the rf sensitivity issue I experienced as well as carrier issues. By maintaining internal design control of the Blackberry's rf circuitry, RIM has brought into play 11 years of experience in developing wireless products. Contrary to other reports that attempt to lay the blame for iPhone 3G connectivity problems solely on the networks, the iPhone's device engineering, reportedly using a third party 3G chip, is a contributing issue to the problem. (During my time as a research physicist involving the design of rf detection circuitry, the rf sensitivity issue was a critical factor in detecting 13C signals using magnetic resonance spectroscopy for determining the molecular structure of drugs and other chemical formulations.)
  • Real time navigation is just not viable on the iPhone. Pretty Google Maps but if they cannot track your progress in real time, not a big help. Especially when you're lost on a lake with as many islands and inlets as Muskoka Lake. iPhone's GPS can find me the nearest five Tim Hortons locations but combine my boating experience with the repeatedly reported inability of the iPhone to multi-task effectively and you have to come to the conclusion the iPhone is simply lacking in processing speed to perform true on-the-go navigation.
  • And on long trips, away from a source for recharging, take along a couple of spare batteries.

Before every iPhone defender jumps on the bandwagon, I appreciate many of the iPhone's features. It's a great device for personal voice communications and and one way information delivery such as browsing activity and even receiving email (via GMail). But, it's not up to the capabilities and standards of the Blackberry line when it comes to needing robust communications and processing horsepower.

Bottom line: everybody worries about 911 access for providing emergency communications. But when you travel into more remote, weakly serviced areas you want the most robust mobile device for maintaining reliably effective voice and data communications when emergencies arise. In this case I want a Blackberry, thank you.

(Note: Nokia N95 testing is yet to occur due to limitations on the number of SIM's immediately available.)

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1 Comments:

At August 26, 2008 at 11:28 AM , Anonymous saunderslog.com said...

Great real world testing Jim. I have to say that my experience with the iPhone GPS differed from yours. I've ridden in cars, walked on the street -- gone all sorts of places with it -- and had it track me perfectly.

 

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