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!