Thursday, September 21, 2006

Why I like the Smartphone Platform, Part II

...or why I like the SDA better than the MDA. Part two.

Ok, in part one I described the difference between two leading HTC phones that have been released under T-Mobile's name here in the states: The MDA (a pocket PC phone) and the SDA (Windows Mobile Smartphone).
There are many variations of these phones from different companies and providers (Cingular has them as the Cingular 8125 and 2125, respectively), but since I'm T-Mobile fan myself, I'm going to refer to them as such.

Now, on to the reason I'm writing this...
It may be hard to understand at first, but I realize now that I prefer the Smartphone to the Pocket PC.
Why, after coming from years of touch-screen pocket PCs would I give it up?

Well, it started off as just an experiment... I had heard that these two devices, despite their looks, where almost indentical internally. So, I wondered, could a device that ditches the PocketPC's defining characteristic- namely, the touchscreen- still do the exact same task?
So, I bought one with the intention of reviewing it, playing with it and then selling it.
After carrying it around for a few weeks, I learned something that amazed me.
I hate touchscreens.

That's right, I don't like 'em.

As far as I'm concerned, a phone or a PDA is supposed to be a casual-use device. This means that I want to be able to pull it out on a whim and do something on it while also doing something else.
It never even occured to me that a touchscreen actually makes it HARDER to use as a casual-use device! You often need two hands to operate it properly, not to mention it requires you to look at the screen to make sure you're tapping the right point. This kind of involving user interface, while it looks cool and gimmicky to passerbys, actual adds very little function to the device. What it does do is make it difficult to use in situations such as conversing with someone else, while driving (without being really unsafe), or even while going out for a jog.

I've personally had many situations where it will suddenly occur to me that I need to remember to do something. Since this is the purpose of a PDA, I'll stop what I'm doing, take out my pocket pc, remove the stylus and start tapping away.
If I'm sitting down in a chair in front of my desk, this is just fine. However, if I'm standing in the middle of the supermarket aisle, this looks kind of akward.

Windows Mobile Smartphone is designed really well, contrary to what the smartphone haters out there would believe. The layout takes a bit of getting used to especially coming from a Pocket PC, but its similar enough that you recognize familiar features and menus, and once you get the hang of it, it really makes so much sense.

Everything is menu driven, with the help of the joystick/directional pad for navigation.
For example, instead of clicking on the icon you want from the start menu, you move from icon to icon with the joystick until the one you want is highlighted. Now, before you dismiss this as archaic and rediculous in comparison to a simple tap on the screen, allow me to explain the benefits of this method.
The icons are arranged in a 3x3 grid, giving you the ability to view 9 icons at a time. This is very similar to the layout of a phone's numeric keypad. So, instead of pushing the joystick until you get the right one, you can also hit the corresponding number on your phone and it will "click" that icon. The result is that if you already know where the icons exist, you can jump to things fairly quickly. For example, to change my homescreen, I know that "settings" is in the 9 position, and inside there, homescreen is option number 4. So, all I have to do is hit start-9-4 and I'm presented with my homescreen settings. This is actually faster and easier than click, look, click, look, click!

In general, I find that I can easily do things that I wasn't able to do "on the fly" with my Pocket PCs. This is especially useful in the car since I use my Windows Mobile devices as my GPS navigator along with a Bluetooth GPS receiver. You also don't have to be as careful as you do with a Pocket PC- I can put my Smartphone in my pocket without being concerned that I'm going to accidentally have unwanted screen-taps from the fabric of my pants, or that my baby will drop it and crack the delicate touch-panel (something that's happened before).

I feel that Windows Mobile is much more functional now than I ever felt before, because now it truly can be used casually!
Now, that doesn't answer my original question: Can you really do all the same things that a Pocket PC can?

The answer is YES! I don't feel like I've given up anything at all. Now, its true that Microsoft decided to make Smartphone edition less functional by leaving out some of the useful apps that Pocket PC edition has, such as Word and Excel. Why they did this? I'm assuming because of some sort of marketing gimmick- the Pocket PC phone is marketed as a PDA first with some phone functionality whereas the Smartphone is marketed as a Phone first with some PDA functionality.
However, the core OS is the same, which means that you can run the same software. Its really just an issue of installing applications to take the place of the missing MS ones!
I've already installed WordPad, a freeware word processor, as well as Ptab which is a spreadsheet application compatible with Excel. There's also Clearvue which came bundled with my device that displays all the common file types such as Powerpoint and Adobe PDF (it also lets you view Word and Excel files, but not edit them. That's why I installed those other apps as well).

"Aha, but what about applications that are written for the Pocket PC that NEED a touchscreen to operate?"
I was concerned about this as well. Programs like Skype for Pocket PC can be installed on a Smartphone, but you can't even sign in because it expects you to be able to tap to navigate the program. Well, thankfully there aren't too many programs like this that don't already have a Smartphone version using menus (its very easy for a developer to add Smartphone support to an existing Pocket PC app), but for the few that do, I found a solution:
SPHelper is a little application that simulates a touch screen. What it does is actually place a mouse-pointer on the screen that you can navigate using the joystick! All you have to do is run this little app before the program that needs touch-input, and then use your joystick as a make-shift trackball (if you've ever used an old IBM Thinkpad, this will feel very familiar)!

Bottom line:
I love my Smartphone, and I've sold all my Pocket PCs.
I don't even miss the touchscreen, and I don't plan on ever going back!

Monday, September 11, 2006

Why I love the SmartPhone...

...or, why I think the SDA is better than the MDA.
(Part 1)

I've been accused of being a mobile computing junkie. My collection of handheld devices that I've owned at some point dates all the way back to the Psion II from the mid-80's. Yet, they all shared the same problem: a portable computing device is only as good as it is convenient to carry.
The latest-and-greatest full-featured devices are generally larger than their cheaper and older versions (compare any Palm Treo with the Palm V), and were actually rather uncomfortable to carry around. I found myself taking it out and putting it down whenever possible, which led to it never being there when I needed it on a whim. How functional can such a device be?

Enter the convergence devices: The PDA/Cell Phone combo.
We're all familiar with the Palm Treos, and the handful of Pocket PC phones that have been released lately. This should have been a perfect option for me... I always have my phone with me, so why not have one device which I can keep track of?
The problem is that once you add the phone components to a PDA, you end up with an abnormally large unit that just makes my problem even worse. I tried a few, and I was generally unhappy with the results- they seemed to be part phone, part PDA, but not entirely good enough at either.
So I just accepted my fate and tried to just find the smallest PDA and smallest phone I could and carry them in separate pockets.
(To those that are interested, my research led me to the Ipaq 4150 as a PDA, and the Nokia 6230 as a phone).

That is, until my searching brought me upon the latest smartphone offerings from a Japanese company called HTC.
HTC doesn't actually sell any of their devices directly, but rather designs devices and then sells them to other companies for manufacturing.
Last year, T-mobile released 2 current HTC devices under their own brand name, as the MDA and the SDA.

The MDA, based on the HTC "Wizard" is a sidekick-style device, or in other words, it has a large screen that conceals a fold-away QWERTY keybard.
When closed, this device resembles the classic pocket-PC portrait orientation device. Since it is a true Pocket PC, it has a touch screen and runs the Pocket PC Phone Edition of Windows Mobile 5.
This phone really does everything:
  • 200Mhz omap CPU, overclockable
  • Mini-SD expansion slot
  • QVGA (240x320 pixels) resolution
  • WiFi
  • Bluetooth
  • Quad Band GSM (world phone, can be used pretty much all over the world)
  • Class 10 EDGE (while not quite 3G speeds, this is the fastest EDGE access possible, and it does perform quite well, in excess of 200kpbs even outside of major cities).
Now, the MDA is still quite a bit bigger than my Ipaq was, so while it was very tempting to try it out, I just couldn't justify using one on a regular basis. As a phone, its grossly over-sized. I mean, its better than holding up a blackberry to your head, but it still doesn't have the ease of use and form function of a regular phone. Not to mention the SIZE. Sometimes two seperate devices are better than one huge one bulging off your belt or pocket.

The SDA, based on the HTC Tornado, is a totally different beast.
Running the latest Smartphone platform, this device is designed to be "a Phone first, and a PDA second".
That means that while it shares almost all of the specs of the MDA, the focus on the design is to be used as a phone. This means no QWERTY keyboard, and a lack of touchscreen.
But here's the kicker... its much smaller than the MDA, but its still running Windows Mobile 5. So, what's the difference between the two devices? Let's look at the specs:
  • 200Mhz omap CPU, overclockable
  • Mini-SD expansion slot
  • QVGA (240x320 pixels) resolution
  • WiFi
  • Bluetooth
  • Quad Band GSM
  • Class 10 EDGE
Look familiar? Yup! Its the EXACT SAME SPECS as the MDA in half the size!

So, obviously I was intrigued, but the question was could you really do all the same things on the smartphone as you could on the Pocket PC phone?
I know the core OS is the same, but the device seems to be radically different, and the lack of touch screen made me doubt the functionality of any input. How annoying would it be to have to navigate a menu with the joystick instead of clicking on the touch screen?
Still, the idea was a good one, and I decided to try it out.

What were the results? Well, the name of this entry betrays my answer... but you'll have to wait for part 2 to read my explanation.

For now, lets just say I learned a lot of things from this experience that I never realized before...