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.

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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.