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: Samsung Moment
November 23, 2009, 3:59 pm
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The Samsung Moment wasn’t a phone I’d originally intended on test-driving, but it was on display immediately next to the Pre and it runs Android, so I decided to give it a go.  Software-wise it seemed pretty similar to the CLIQ I tried at T-Mobile, though it is a slightly older version (1.5 “Cupcake” instead of 1.6 “Donut”) so there are some small differences.  After my hands-on I learned that the Moment has an 800MHz processor that is supposedly much faster than its competitors, but I couldn’t tell while using it.  The keyboard was a bit laggy and scrolling was sometimes a bit herky-jerky, putting its performance merely on par with the other phones I’ve tried.

Build-wise I was unimpressed.  While it didn’t feel shoddy, it also didn’t feel as solid as I’d like.  There was a bit of give in the body when twisted and buttons wiggled a little more than I’d like them to, but overall there was nothing that gave me serious concern.  I’m beginning to suspect I’m simply spoiled by the iPhone’s rigidity, but regardless it’s the standard I’ve come to expect in that department.  Also, the headphone and USB jacks had those annoying little rubber covers you have to pick at to get off, which I really didn’t like.  Related to the build, the phone felt kind of big.  In terms of raw measurements it actually isn’t much bigger than my iPhone and isn’t dramatically heavier, but something about it just felt kind of clunky.  It might be its less-than-slick design, or the presence of the massive keyboard, but whatever it is it does make the phone seem a little hefty regardless of whether or not it actually is.

The keyboard is indeed huge, and it really set this phone apart from the others I’ve seen.  The numbers get their own row (unlike the Pre and the CLIQ), the keys aren’t in perfect, vertical, un-keyboard-like rows (unlike the Pre and the CLIQ), and the keys are big enough and have enough space between them to be usable by my big hands.  I found it one of the more comfortable hard keyboards I’ve used, and a big improvement over the Pre’s.  The keyboard layout, however, really wrecks what otherwise could have been my favorite keyboard so far.  The space bar is annoyingly inserted between the V and B keys, and the letters on the bottom row are aligned with the letters above them differently than a normal keyboard layout.  So you basically have to learn a new keyboard layout to type on this keyboard.  While I’m sure that could be accomplished with time, it was maddening to try to use it initially because my fingers kept going to the wrong places.  While I understand the placement of the space key is made tricky by the welcome addition of a dedicated row of number keys, I felt it was simply unwise to put the function and shift keys on the left where they bump the top and middle rows of letters out of place.

The phone seems like it has some advantage over the others on paper, but the real-world implementation really left me underwhelmed.  I’d be willing to overlook the dull design and obnoxious port covers if there weren’t any functional problems (e.g. the keyboard was improved), but as it is it’s just another point against the Moment.  Hopefully Samsung’s future Android efforts will improve.



Smartphone impressions: Palm Pre
November 19, 2009, 3:10 pm
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As a former Palm OS user, the Palm Pre is a phone I’ve been really looking forward to using. Years ago I had a Handspring Visor, then a Sony CLIÉ.  Even once I usurped them with a cell phone that could sync all my organizer data, I lusted after the Palm Treo 600 and 650.  After a few years of Palm’s wheel-spinning the iPhone came along and their anemic offerings lost their appeal, but I’ve still kept a soft spot for Palm-related things.  So when in January Palm revealed webOS, I was stoked.  The multitasking, web-based app development and iPhone-like multitouch gestures all hooked me, and I was ready to get it into my grubby little hands.

Holding it in said grubby hands at the Sprint store last night, I was pleased with the build of the phone.  It felt more solid than the CLIQ, and it seemed to have fewer little bits of plastic joined together, thus resulting in a more rigid feel.  It’s still a slider, which I’m not a big fan of build-wise, but it was still an improvement over my last experience in that regard.

The screen was very impressive.  It’s definitely the brightest of any phone I’ve seen so far, easily outperforming the one in my iPhone and any of the other phones on display there in the Sprint store.  Pictures and video looked great on it, better than on my iPhone.  Even though the display is the same resolution (320×480), it’s a good bit smaller dimension-wise so I have to squint a little harder at it if I’m not wearing my glasses (which I don’t 90% of the time).  For this reason I wish the screen were a little bigger, but it’s certainly not a dealbreaker.

I liked webOS a lot.  Any degree of multitasking is welcome, and webOS delivers in spades.  I’ve always been curious how other mobile operating systems handle opening all these different things when they only have ~256MB of memory at their disposal, so I put it through its paces by opening lots of apps and browser windows simultaneously and switching between them.  I opened about 8 different “cards” and didn’t notice any significant performance hit, so webOS’s ingenious method of having all apps being nothing more than a window in a browser seems to pay off in terms of performance.  One thing that always irks me on the iPhone is that while you can open multiple windows in Safari, the phone won’t keep the page in more than one loaded for very long.  I assume this is due to memory constraints, and if window number two needs more memory it will forget the content of window number one so that two can do what it needs.  I understand the technical practicality of this, but it’s still frustrating when you’re trying to flip back and forth between two windows and it will have to reload the first one because it forgot its content.  I did try having several browser windows open on the Pre, each displaying a page with a large number of individual pictures (the sort of page the iPhone is prone to forget) and it did maintain the content of each page for several minutes of testing.  After I’d opened a bunch of other apps and gotten up to about 8 different cards it finally forgot the content of the first browser card I opened (I assume for the same reason the iPhone does), but it definitely fared better than the iPhone in that regard.

The interface wasn’t as responsive as the CLIQ’s was.  Like my iPhone 3G there was a slight, fraction-of-a-second delay on a lot of taps, but I didn’t experience any of the frustratingly long (e.g. 1+ second) pauses like I do regularly on my iPhone.  I experienced a complete phone crash while watching the demo video that was on the phone.  It was playing for several seconds, then the frame abruptly froze and the phone became unresponsive.  Tapping the button to go back to the home screen did nothing, and after a few seconds the phone simply restarted itself, presenting me with the Palm boot screen.  While it could totally be a one-off glitch, I can’t say that webOS’s built-in media player crashing the whole device while playing Palm-supplied content left me with a flawless impression of the Pre’s stability.

I did the same network tests that I did on the CLIQ, trying to get a feel for Sprint’s EV-DO network.  Pings were startlingly low, averaging about 140ms.  This was really impressive for someone used to the 240+ ms pings on UMTS networks.  However, Sprint’s actual transfer speed wasn’t impressive.  I did about ten tests and got widely divergent results.  While two were in the 800kbps range, most were down around 500kbps, two even lower.  It definitely wasn’t as consistent as T-Mobile, or even as consistent as AT&T.  But AT&T definitely has bad days, and maybe I just caught Sprint at an off moment.  Not a great impression in terms of bandwidth, though.  Real-world testing in the browser yielded average results, more or less on par with my iPhone 3G.  It loaded pages well without any noticeable hiccups (it got the page the CLIQ didn’t) but wasn’t as snappy as the CLIQ had been.  The presence of multitouch was very welcome in the browser, though, as I forgot to mention in my CLIQ review that the absence of it on that device was a bit frustrating.  Obviously as an iPhone user pinching to zoom and double-tapping to zoom on a particular element are second nature, and much simpler and more precise solutions than the zoom slider the CLIQ tried to pass off instead.  I was happy to see those gestures implemented on the Pre.

Palm Pre keyboard
Image from precentral.net

The keyboard was a huge disappointment.  At least on the CLIQ there was a soft keyboard I could fall back to if I didn’t like the hard one, but on the Pre no such option exists.  Which is unfortunate, because I really disliked the Pre’s keyboard.  First off, it is tiny.  Far and away the smallest I’ve seen.  I’ve got big hands and already find normal mobile keyboards a bit cumbersome because of this, but this really took it to the extreme.  The keys are simply too cramped together for me to type on comfortably.  When I tried to type with the pads of my fingers, as I do on my iPhone and have done on all other mobile keyboards, the pad of each finger touches three or four different keys simultaneously.  As long as I’m careful about where I’m directing my finger’s pressure I was usually able to depress only the desired key, but this required extra care and made typing a less than comfortable experience.  I found I could type much more precisely and with less uncertainty if I bent down my thumbs and used their tips and my nails, but this quickly made my hands really uncomfortable so that was no good.  Additionally, the keys were made of some sort of soft rubber material that kept the keys from having the sort of firm assurance I’d like from a hard keyboard.  I’m sure typing on the Pre would get easier with time, but no amount of time is going to make the keyboard a more reasonable size.  I expect that even after months of practice, typing on the Pre’s keyboard would still be less than ideal.

So while in my head I was definitely expecting the Pre to be a final contender, it actually got knocked out pretty quickly entirely because of having a disappointing keyboard.  I liked the software, it was reasonably responsive and the phone seemed reasonably well-built, but given how much I disliked the only way the device allows you to type, that pretty much ruins everything else.  Maybe Palm will put out a device in the future with a better keyboard (the brand new Pixi sitting next to the Pre I tried wasn’t significantly better), but until then I’m sadly going to have to steer clear of their offerings.



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.



My iPhone experience: too much trouble, not enough paradise.
November 18, 2009, 3:53 pm
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I’ve had an iPhone since it came out.  It’s a great phone that does a ton of things very, very well.  I love its browser, its iPod functionality and its over-the-air synchronization with my Mac’s calendar and contacts.  The app store ushered in with the 2.0 software opened the gates on a torrent of really useful apps I use on a daily, sometimes even hourly, basis.  It improves my life in many ways and I can’t imagine going about my day without it.

That said, there aren’t many days that go by where I don’t want to throw the damn thing out a window.

My first problem is the device itself.  It clearly has neither the processing power nor the memory necessary to run its operating system smoothly.  Many times a day I will try to scroll the browser window or tap a button and it will sit frozen for an indeterminate period before it responds to my input.  Sometimes it’s only half a second, but sometimes it’s longer than ten seconds.  This problem persists across all apps on the phone, be they built-in Apple apps or third-party ones from the app store.  Some apps also take an irritatingly long amount of time to launch and become usable.  The worst offenders are Apple’s own Messages and Maps apps.  Messages (formerly known as “SMS”) has had a long, long, long history of being slow to open (which is bizarre given how simple the app is technically) and I recently counted 14 seconds pass as I waited for the app to load and show me anything beyond a blank, gray screen.  Maps is similar but will actually draw out the map before stalling a while, leaving me tapping at the search box over and over as I wait for it to respond.  Conversations with customers and peers revealed that these problems weren’t isolated to my own phone.

I’ve spent countless hours over the past year trying to suss this issue out, having restored and even replaced the phone multiple times.  I’ve done split-half searches, I’ve tried installing no 3rd party apps, I’ve tried restarting the phone regularly, I’ve tried keeping WiFi disabled, basically everything I could think of I’ve tried.  After each restore it would seem like the latency had disappeared, but after a week or two of use it’d be right back to its old tricks.  But when the iPhone 3GS came out and starting running the same software on a faster processor with twice the memory, all of a sudden the software ran much more smoothly.  This confirmed my suspicion that I wasn’t doing something wrong, the pre-3GS phones just weren’t powerful enough to run their software well.

Obviously upgrading to a 3Gs would alleviate this complaint, but I’m not upgrade-eligible until next year.  But even if I shelled out the extra $200 to do it now, bringing my total to $400, it would do nothing to solve my other problem:

The network.  AT&T has done a remarkable job of earning themselves a very nasty reputation over the past year as their network (at least in urban areas) has crumbled under the onslaught of heavy 3G activity.  I’ve been a customer of AT&T’s for over 6 years and had no complaints until about a year ago, whereupon the problem developed very quickly.  Apple customer service itself acknowledges that dropped calls are frequent and normal here in New York, and the reports I hear from other major cities in the US don’t paint a much rosier picture.  It is normal for iPhones in major cities to lose their 3G connections and fall back to EDGE, only to drop that connection for a new 3G one a few minutes later.  The speed of the network has been deteriorating steadily and frequently tests below 200kbps.  While all of these are issues I experience regularly at home in New York and while traveling to other cities, they are also widely corroborated online by other users in the same locales.

Where does the blame for AT&T’s poor network performance lay?  Well, of course a great deal of it lies at the feet of AT&T, the one responsible for maintaining and expanding the network in question.  But I’m often surprised by how frequently Apple’s role in the fiasco is overlooked.  After all, it’s widely accepted that the iPhone’s popularity and typical data-guzzling use are the main contributors to AT&T’s network overload.  So why is this taxing phone only on one of the four major wireless carriers in the U.S.?  Normally a hot new phone will get an exclusive launch on a single carrier, but usually once the launch hype has subsided it will get released on other carriers as well.  Not so with the iPhone.  Apple’s decision to keep the iPhone on AT&T has meant that the millions of iPhone users in the United States, who consume up to ten times more data than the average smartphone user, are all stuck sharing the same 3G network instead of being spread amongst as many as four.  I’ve seen no evidence that any of the other networks could handle the sort of load AT&T has abruptly assumed any better, leading me to believe managing all iPhone subscribers on any single network is, at present, an impossible task.  I thus believe Apple’s repeated insistence on AT&T exclusivity is the real problem here, not AT&T’s network.

So it’s after two and a half years of being frustrated with the device and one year of the device being limited by a slow, unreliable network that I’m starting to look at other phones.  Android launched a little over a year ago, and Palm stepped back from the brink with the launch of webOS, so there are a lot more choices out there since the iPhone first appeared three summers ago.  I’m going to spend the next few days researching various offerings in an effort to find the most interesting one on another network, then I’ll be taking it home for a month-long test-drive.  I’ll post my hands-on impressions with each contender here, then have regular, more in-depth posts on the device I take home.  At the end I’ll decide how it stacks up against my iPhone 3G, and if I like the challenger better I’ll jump ship from Apple and AT&T.

The contenders have their work cut out for them.  For all of my complaints with the iPhone and AT&T’s service, the iPhone is a powerful device and AT&T’s network still works most of the time.  Apple has been typically stubborn in delivering many things that its customers have asked for since day one of the iPhone (copy and paste, MMS, tethering, etc.) but after two years it’s delivered most of them.  Android and webOS, by contrast, are much younger and still sorting out many of their shortcomings, so they’re operating at a disadvantage there.  Additionally, as someone who relies heavily on the iPhone’s multimedia capabilities, I’m already worried about them not matching the formidable example set by the iPhone in that department.  That said, I absolutely want them to.  If something can match or even exceed the capabilities of my iPhone, I’ll be thrilled.

I’ll be indexing everything at The Search for a Better Smartphone, so check back there periodically for updates.  In the meantime, I’m off to the T-Mobile store!