Geek Foibles

Smartphone impressions: HTC Hero
January 3, 2010, 4:12 am
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Sprint’s HTC Hero is where things began to get interesting.  The Hero is the first phone I tried that lacks a hard keyboard, making it physically more similar to the iPhone that I’m used to.  I’m fond of hard keyboards, but I’m also comfortable relying exclusively on a soft keyboard, so that issue didn’t bother me.  And as I’ve said in my impressions of other phones, I don’t like moving parts, so the lack of a sliding mechanism pleases me.  The build quality was fine: while the bottom button assembly felt a bit plastic-y, it didn’t feel cheap to the point of concern.

The arrangement of buttons at the bottom was a little odd, with the menu, search, home and back buttons forming a square around the trackball, then with the start and end call buttons hanging off either side.  It’s a lot of buttons, and I feel like the four grouped in a square would serve better as a horizontal row above the trackball and call buttons.  Also, the center area of the button cluster is strangely raised.  I’d prefer a simpler design where it’s just flat with the trackball in the middle.  The buttons aren’t delineated at all by the gradual raising of the surface, so I couldn’t discern any benefit from the raising.  I’m sure I’d get used to both the button placement and elevation quickly enough, but the layout was still a bit odd off the bat.

Where things start to heat up, however, is in the software.  This is the first HTC phone to bear their “HTC Sense” user interface, and the changes to Android that come with it are really nice.  There are a lot of little visual tweaks about the place, most visibly being the tabs at the bottom of the home screen for accessing the phone and apps are redesigned as a single crescent and now features an “add” button for more easily adding widgets and shortcuts to the home screens.  While I find most of these visual changes appealing, they don’t affect function significantly.  What does are Sense’s “scenes” concept and a new soft keyboard.

“Scenes” is a new feature that HTC has brought to Android.  One of the great features of Android is how heavily customizable the home screens are.  You can add shortcuts to as many or few apps as you want, wherever you want, and you can add widgets, contacts and so on in addition to that.  This is already one of Android’s greatest advantages over the iPhone in my book, but HTC takes it even further.  Once you’ve set up your home screens the way you like, you can save that setup as a “scene”, and then start all over and create another.  Once you’ve got multiple scenes (and the phone comes preloaded with several), you can switch between them on the fly.  The most immediate use for this would seem to be having a work-oriented scene (with the e-mail widget, business contacts and so on) that you use during work and then a play-oriented scene (with Facebook, friend contacts and so on) that you switch to when you leave the office.

They keyboard has also gotten some significant reworking at HTC’s hands.  The rows of keys are spaced apart a little more, making things a little less cramped.  The list of auto-corrections now floats semi-transparently over the text field you’re typing into (rather than in an opaque bar above the keyboard), allowing the Sense keyboard to consume less space than the standard Android keyboard.  The Sense keyboard also indicates what alternate character you can get if you hold down on the key (for example, holding down on the “A” key will give you an explanation point).  Between the roominess, smaller footprint and increased functionality, the Hero’s new keyboard struck me as a big step up from the simpler soft keyboards I’d used on the Motorola CLIQ and Samsung Moment.

Speed was reasonable.  It wasn’t lightning-quick, but even with a few apps running and a couple of windows open in the browser, things remained responsive.  I didn’t get any notable delays when switching apps, tapping buttons, scrolling, etc.  Also welcome was the inclusion of iPhone-style pinch-to-zoom multitouch in the browser, something missing from the CLIQ and Moment.

Overall, I was pleased with the Hero.  After the lackluster (or outright disappointing) performances of the other phones, this was a nice discovery.  It’s not perfect, but it’s the first phone I’ve played with that I’d consider taking home.  We’ll see how the next few fare in the shadow of the Hero.


Smartphone impressions: Motorola CLIQ
November 18, 2009, 4:01 pm
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I’ve been interested in Android since it first appeared on the market, and T-Mobile was its first champion with the G1.  They now offer three Android phones, so I swung by their shop near my apartment and looked around.  Their sales staff was friendly and helpful, and they quickly pointed me to the sole Motorola CLIQ they had on display.  I’d also wanted to check out the myTouch 3G, but surprisingly, despite being branded with T-Mobile’s own name, they didn’t have any working models on display there in the store.  (While on that note, why on earth do cell phone stores insist on displaying non-working models of phones?  How can they expect customers to make informed decisions about their products if they can’t even see them?  Gah.)  So, lacking any other choices, Motorola CLIQ it was.

It was nice getting re-acquainted with a hard keyboard.  As much as I like the iPhone’s soft keyboard, I find it impossible to be totally confident that the key I’m trying to press is the key I’m actually pressing.  You quickly learn to just do your best and trust the auto-correction, but situations where it doesn’t determine the correct word happen frequently with normal use.  Being able to feel each individual key and thus be assured I’m hitting the right key is a welcome relief.  I’m so out of practice with hard keyboards that it was slow going, but I imagine I’d get back up to speed again pretty quickly.  My only real complaint with the CLIQ’s hard keyboard is that it seemed like the top row of keys were too close to the other half of the phone (the part housing the screen).  I found my thumbs bumping against it whenever I tried to use those keys.  It could just be my big hands, but it was annoying regardless.

One thing that I realized while using the hard keyboard was how spoiled I’d become by soft keyboards’ ability to use different key layouts in different contexts.  For example, when I went to type a URL in the browser, I instinctively looked for the “.com” button the iPhone’s soft keyboard gives you in the address box.  Similarly, when typing an e-mail address in the mail app, I had to go and alt-click for an @, whereas on the iPhone that key is one tap away in Mail’s “to” fields.  So there’s a significant advantage of soft over hard keyboards, there.

I thought the CLIQ’s soft keyboard was excellent.  The thing that really stood out to me as a major improvement over the iPhone’s soft keyboard was the way it shows a list of words it thinks you might be trying to type, rather than the iPhone which only shows you one.  This would be very useful in situations where the iPhone’s first (and only) guess isn’t the right one, but there’s another legit guess that the CLIQ would show you and you could select.  On the iPhone you’d have to stop and correct it manually, which after two and a half years I still find annoying.

I didn’t think the build quality of the phone was very good.  Granted, I was using a display model, so it’s quite possible that the phone has seen a rough life and everything isn’t quite as tight as it was originally, but at the same time that may be a good indicator of how the phone will feel after a few months of use.  There wasn’t really anything specifically wrong with it, the body just had a bit of flex and give when you’d apply pressure to it from different directions.  It seemed like it could be a bit more rigid and solid-feeling.  I’m also fundamentally concerned with the sliding aspect of slider phones for the same reason I’m concerned with the hinge in flip phones.  Joints are points of structural weakness, and they tend to wear more than other parts due to their constant opening and closing.  I avoided flip phones for this reason for many years, and my fears were realized less than a year after getting a Motorola RAZR when its hinge literally fell apart and broke the phone in half.

I ran a few speed tests to see how T-Mobile’s 3G network compared to AT&T’s.  While I found the pings to be a little higher than on my iPhone (avg. 280ms vs. 230ms), the transfer speed was much faster, averaging about 750kbps, much better than the 400kbps I average on AT&T.  I noticed a very noticeable increase in browsing speed, though some of that could be attributable to a faster browser.  Either way, big win for T-Mobile on this point.

The apps seemed nice, though they didn’t feel as consistent design-wise (both in terms of UI and function) as Apple’s do.  Appealing design has never really been Google’s strength, so that’s not exactly a surprise, but it was still something I noticed.  I didn’t have time to get too deeply into them, but I had enough to come away feeling like the software was much more responsive than the software on my iPhone 3G.  Apps loaded faster on the CLIQ, and once they were open I didn’t experience any inexplicable pauses between a tap and the software’s reaction as happens regularly on my iPhone.  I liked the browser, it seemed to be pretty capable and displayed most pages as I expected.  There was one page that I know displays properly on an iPhone but didn’t here, so it seems to fall at least a little short of Safari, but only more thorough testing could tell how much of a discrepancy there really is.  The mail app was fine, no surprises there.  I set up my Gmail account on Google Talk without a problem and had a good experience with that until I tried to figure out how to remove my account.  There was nothing in the app’s settings for doing this, and while there is an “Accounts” app on the device that did indeed list my Gmail account, it had a little padlock by it and wouldn’t let me delete it.  Since there was no explanation of what this padlock meant, I speculated that perhaps you always have to have at least one Google account set up, so I tried to set up another so that I could remove the first, but it told me I could only have one account.  It took me 10 minutes of tinkering before I finally did a search on Google and found someone explaining that you had to go into the phone’s general settings, manage the apps, find Google Talk and clear its data.  While it’s cool that on the CLIQ there’s a standard way to remove an app’s data without removing the app itself, the relatively simple task of removing a Google Talk account turned out to be a frustratingly unintuitive experience.

One thing Android offers that I really liked was the widget system.  Being able to sprinkle your home screen with things that are actually useful (unlike the iPhone, which only allows app icons) and can save you a trip into an app struck me as a huge advantage.  While several looked very useful, I especially liked the weather widget, which gives you a snapshot of the current weather, and then when tapped it can show you a day-by-day forecast or an hourly forecast, the latter being something I wished a hundred times Apple’s weather app could do and ultimately led to me ditching it for the Weather Channel’s app.  Widgets are something I’m going to look more closely at on the next Android phone I try out.

So overall the Motorola CLIQ seems a pretty decent phone.  It’s snappy, has some really nice software features and is on a better 3G network than the one I am now.  That said, the build quality is unimpressive, the keyboard seems a little cramped and the Android OS could use some improvement in terms of polish and usability.  If I can find an Android phone that solves some of these issues, I may have found something I’d take home for more exhaustive testing.  The CLIQ is close, but not quite there.