HTC Hero review

23 11 2009

One of the best Android handsets yet

What: HTC Hero

How much: Varies, but Orange and T-Mobile both have the Hero for free on a £30/24-month contract (rebranded as the G2 Touch on T-Mobile). Or you can buy it outright (SIM-free) for about £370 from a number of online retailers.

To my long-suffering Aussie friends: you should be able to buy it outright from an online retailer for about A$580 (seeing as no carriers have picked it up).

In the US there are two CDMA versions of the Hero platform: Sprint offers it in a different (blander) shell, and Verizon offers yet another mild variant renamed the Droid Eris.

The good: HTC Sense UI adds a lot of polish to Android OS; excellent usability; access to thousands of Android applications; solid hardware design; aggregation of contacts and linking to Web services is good; build quality is excellent.

The bad: The launch firmware was buggy and slow (make sure you update to the latest version from HTC); same basic hardware platform as the cheaper Magic; no Mac OS support for HTC desktop software; contact aggregation doesn’t give enough options for managing contacts or choosing which to sync; the customised version of Android means HTC takes longer to keep up with “official” Android platform updates.

Buy it if: You want one of the most polished Android devices on the market, or one of the best smartphones.

Don’t buy it if: There’s no real deal-breaker here, unless you want to wait for one of the new Snapdragon-based Android handsets, or you prefer a proper keyboard.

Summary: HTC has been steadily improving its Android handsets with each iteration, and the Hero is easily the best so far, eliminating most of my quibbles with the Magic and adding a huge amount of polish through its Sense UI. The software is the highlight, offering loads of customisation options, excellent usability and expandability through the Android Market. As I write this, with the latest firmware version the Hero offers one of the best smartphone experiences available. In fact, I was really sad when HTC asked for the loan version I was using back. However, you’ll need an unlimited data plan, because like all Android handsets it’s constantly transferring information over the network.

Software

There has been a real proliferation of Android handsets since I reviewed the HTC Magic a few months ago, and it’s become much more difficult for manufacturers to differentiate their devices from their competitors’. HTC has done so by customising the Android UI with its own Sense UI, which I think is a significant improvement on the standard Android build (as seen on the Magic). The Hero I reviewed is running on HTC’s modified version of Android 1.5, but the work HTC has done is a really impressive demonstration of how much Android can be improved: it’s very pretty and the extra functionality really makes the Hero stand out from its competitors.

Sense ties all of your Google contacts and Facebook contacts together, and can link to Flickr profiles. What this means is that you can easily see all of your interactions with a person, check their status, contact them or view their photos all from one place. It’s a good idea and works well for the most part, although it does take some time initially matching some contacts with their Facebook profiles. I would really like to see better control of which contacts are imported from Google: the Hero insisted on downloading all of my Google contacts, resulting in dozens of random email addresses in my phone contact list – it would be better if I could select a group of contacts to download to the phone.

I also had trouble when adding new contacts to the phone: the Hero saved them as “phone contacts” on the handset and wouldn’t sync them to Google. You can select this when creating a new contact, but you can’t change them after the fact. There is also no ability to merge duplicates on the device, so contact management is all done on the web.

These are my main complaints about the Hero’s software. Otherwise the experience is almost seamless, whether it’s downloading and installing apps from the Android Market; taking and uploading photos to Facebook, Twitter or Flickr; setting up email addresses; using the Calendar; Google Maps; installing widgets on one of the seven (!!) homescreens… it all just works.

In fact, it’s pretty much the smoothest phone user experience I can think of (bearing in mind I am not an iPhone user). It’s won a few awards from gadget magazines and industry groups, so it seems I’m not alone in thinking so.

The Hero is slightly larger than a BlackBerry Curve 8900

Hardware.

The Hero has all the standard specs you would expect on a phone at this price point: Qualcomm 528MHz CPU; A-GPS; HSDPA; WiFi; 5.0MP camera with autofocus; capacitive touchscreen; 3.5mm headphone jack (yay!!). It doesn’t stand out from the crowd in terms of specifications, and in fact the Qualcomm MSM7200 chipset is starting to look a little long in the tooth compared to the Snapdragon and Cortex A8 chips starting to appear (HTC’s flagship WinMo device, the HD2, runs a 1GHz Snapdragon chipset). But the hardware does the job, running nice and smoothly for the most part.

The industrial design and build quality are both rock solid. I really like the angular shape of the Hero, and the form factor sits comfortably in the hand or in the pocket. The screen is not huge, or especially bright and colourful, but it does the job.

The 3.5mm audio jack is a really welcome addition, as it means you can use the Hero as a media player without fumbling around with a pointless adaptor. The music playback software is excellent on the Hero, and sound quality to my ears was adequate (though not mind-blowing, it is good enough to stop you carrying a dedicated media player in most situations).

The camera is… ummm… well, it’s useless in low light because it lacks even an LED flash. In broad daylight it’s good enough to snap the odd pic, but not replace a dedicated camera (there are many better camera phones on the market).

Images taken with the Hero are usable on the web, but dynamic range, colour and sharpness could all be better.

Battery life is quite respectable compared to equivalent handsets. you will still need to recharge every 24 hours, but that’s not bad considering how much data the Hero sends and receives.

I guess that’s about all there is to say… I really like the Hero and have recommended it to a few friends who have also been very happy with it. By no means is it perfect, but it’s definitely one of my favourites at the moment.





Palm Pre review

20 10 2009

pre-black-sprint-02-main

What: Palm Pre

How much: Available exclusively through O2 in the UK (also Germany, Ireland and Telefonica in Spain). UK prices start at £96.90 on an 18-month/£29 contract, or free on a 24-month/£34 tariff.

The good: Slim and sleek like a river stone; neat “deck of cards” user interface; excellent email client; Synergy contacts management/aggregation.

The bad: Lack of decent applications; weak battery life; keyboard is cramped; 8GB of memory is a bit stingy without an expansion slot. It just feels a bit bland compared to its competition.

Buy it if: You want a smartphone but don’t want to carry a brick.

Don’t buy it if: You want to play games or download stacks of third-party applications. The Pre isn’t yet a “fun” phone, and it hasn’t proven that it can attract enough application developers to change this.

Summary: The Pre generated an unbelievable amount of hype before its launch in the US in June 2009, and the European launch finally gives us a chance to compare it to some of the heavy hitters available in GSM markets. Unfortunately for Palm, much of the Pre’s thunder has been stolen by competitors with better hardware, equally innovative software and stronger applications. While I found the Pre to be mostly pleasant enough to use, it’s a phone that seems to be waiting for something.  I also found the constant hand-holding of the UI too often led to frustrating usability failures which undermine the experience. It’s not a bad phone, but it’s just not that exciting to use, and I often found myself holding it and desperately trying to think of something interesting to do with it.

Software

The Pre is the first handset to run Palm’s new generation webOS, which is exciting for a couple of reasons, not least because it means Palm can stop producing boring Windows Mobile handsets and start making interesting products. The Pre is certainly interesting, with its applications all written in standard Web technologies (CSS, JavaScript and HTML) which is intended to make it easy for Web developers to design webOS apps without too much difficulty.

In use, webOS is simple and fairly intuitive. There are very few on-screen distractions, and the use of swiping gestures is clever. One of the coolest features is multitasking: you can have heaps of applications open at once and by pressing the single button at the bottom of the screen they all slide into the middle of the screen presented as a series of cards. You can swipe between them, re-order them and flick them off the screen to close the application. Closing applications has never been this fun!

Syncing my contacts and email with my Google accounts and Facebook was fairly painless, but not quite as easy as on Android. The Pre made a valiant attempt at reconciling my Google and Facebook contacts to avoid duplicate entries, but there was still a significant amount of manual tidying to do. Palm calls this ‘Synergy’, and when it was announced at CES it was a new idea, but using it now it just doesn’t go as far in integrating web services with your contacts as I would like. HTC and INQ have both managed to do more impressive things with contacts and web services: to be honest Synergy is a bit of a letdown. It also occasionally stuffs up: while trying to call a colleague the Pre refused to dial his number (he has it entered in Facebook as ’44…’ rather than ‘+44…’, which confused the network) and I simply couldn’t work out how to dial the number stored in my Google contacts entry for him.

The Pre’s email client is almost great. It handled my two Gmail accounts easily, displaying mail in full HTML with images and wrapping the text to make it easy to read. My only gripe – and it’s not a minor one – is that it doesn’t group messages into discussion threads. This feature is especially important on a mobile client as you really don’t want to be going back and forth to follow a conversation, and even the generic Gmail Java app can do this, so it’s a frustrating omission from the Pre.

The Webkit-based browser is good, and has the multitouch pinch-to-zoom gestures that people seem to love. It reflows text to fit the screen width, which makes it easier to read without having to scroll horizontally (as does the excellent Opera Mini 5). The browser doesn’t support Flash, which means web video is out, but the Pre does have a built-in YouTube app which works beautifully over a WiFi connection. Overall, the Pre’s browser is on par with its main smartphone competitors.

The built-in Google Maps application is – as with most features of the Pre – good but nothing we haven’t seen on other platforms.

The Pre does have a preloaded app store client, but to be honest it needs to grow incredibly quickly, because at the moment there are very few interesting apps. This is a major weakness of the Pre, as it is well below par (if we consider the Android Market, BlackBerry App World or Nokia Ovi Store as roughly scoring par). Compared to the all-you-can-eat buffet that is the iPhone App Store (perhaps unfairly, but this is what consumers are choosing from) the Pre’s selection of apps is like a bread queue in Soviet Russia. Hopefully Palm can conscript a few legions of web developers to improve things, and quickly.

Hardware

pre-black-sprint-15-main

As soon as you pick up the Pre, you notice it is significantly smaller than an iPhone, Magic or BlackBerry Bold. It’s sleek and black and shiny. It has a very nice and responsive capacitive touchscreen, a sliding qwerty keyboard and all the standard features that you expect from a handset at this price point. The specs aren’t amazing, but they are good enough to compete with the likes of HTC’s Android line-up and Apple, for the most part.

The Pre has GPS, WiFi, 8GB of built-in storage (but no slot for an expansion card). It has a 3MP camera with LED Flash. It charges and syncs via micro-USB. All thoroughly standard. It has a 600MHz ARM Cortex A8 processor, which is one of the fastest currently on the market.

I don’t like the Pre’s qwerty keyboard. The keys are tiny, and difficult to press accurately. Coming from a BlackBerry to the Pre is a significant backward step in typing usability. The keyboard also has an uncomfortably sharp ridge around its rim, which was pointed out in very early US reviews, but Palm hasn’t resolved in the GSM version of the hardware.

Conclusion

What else is there to say? The Pre meets expectations? It provides a decent browser, a good email experience and some neat UI tricks? It’s worth a look if you’re in the market for a new smartphone? This is all true, but if it sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise, you’re understanding my feelings about the Pre. It’s inoffensive but unexciting, and when it’s competing at the same price point as much more exciting phones like the iPhone 3GS and a fleet of handsets from HTC, Samsung, Acer, RIM and others, unfortunately it’s difficult to see it rocking too many European or Asian customers’ worlds.

Disclosure: Palm loaned my team a Pre for a limited-time trial duration.





HTC Magic review

29 04 2009

The HTC Magic is the second phone to be released with Google’s Android mobile OS, and I was lucky enough to have a few days to play with one just before its launch, supplied by Vodafone UK. The Magic uses the latest version of Android (1.5) which adds support for an onscreen keyboard, better video handling and a bunch of other tweaks and improvements. There is plenty of interest in Android, both from geeky consumers and from industry people. This is partly because anything Google does is pretty interesting (and potentially game-changing and scary) and partly because it looks like a genuine challenger to the iPhone, but with a more open philosophy. I found the Magic to be a real joy to use, and I think it does a great job of showing Android’s potential as a consumer mobile OS.

Slimmer and prettier than the BlackBerry Storm

Slimmer and prettier than the BlackBerry Storm

What: HTC Magic
How much: Vodafone UK is initially offering it for “free” on a two-year, £35 a month contract (including data), with a variety of other more expensive options available. It is also on other European carriers at launch, including in France, Spain, Italy and Germany, so check your local market.
The good: Awesome integration with Google applications; easy set-up; great user interface is very fast and intuitive; web browser is the best I’ve seen on a mobile; form factor is slim and feels good in the hand.
The bad: Lacks a 3.5mm stereo jack (requires a separate adaptor); camera pretty much sucks.
Buy it if: you’re a Google fan and already use Google apps; you want a web-centric phone with plenty of third-party apps; you want a touchscreen phone that isn’t an iPhone but offers a comparable user experience.
Don’t buy it if: you think Google is evil; the thought of carrying a headphone adaptor fills you with rage; you’re using it for corporate stuff.
Summary: I liked the Magic more than any phone I’ve used lately, and I think that Android is really exciting from a consumer point of view. The Magic is the best Android phone currently available, but you might want to wait until Samsung launches its first Android device in June 2009 (it has a headphone jack AND a 5MP camera!) for comparison. Apple will also have a new version of the iPhone out, probably around July (educated guess, not inside information). The Magic goes to the top of my “most wanted” list… for now.

Software

Home screen is pretty basic, but effective

Home screen is pretty basic, but effective

Android 1.5 is pretty awesome to use, especially if all your stuff is already on Google. I use Gmail, Calendar and use Google Sync to sync my contacts so they are all already in Google’s system (being able to sync contacts to the web is pretty handy when you change phones as often as I do). I use Google Maps most days (GPS + gmaps = cycling around London without getting lost). So being able to type in my Google password and have the phone automatically sync all my information with a couple of button presses is, well, ace. This is nothing new to Android users and those who have been paying attention, but for the people up the back it’s worth pointing out that it really is very, very easy to set up.

Using it is also a breeze, flicking through menus is intuitive and applications all launch fast. This is the easiest phone I’ve used for ages, possibly ever (I don’t have an iPhone). I had fun playing with it, and found myself using it for things that are awkward and off-putting on other phones. I wanted to use the web, to send email, to check the weather… all of these things that “smartphones” are supposed to enable are executed really well in Android 1.5.

The web browser is stonkingly good – I would say it is the best mobile web browser I have seen, because it renders pages perfectly and really quickly, scrolls around like butter on greased teflon, and doesn’t actually feel much like a mobile browser at all, more like a desktop browser on a really tiny screen.

The Gmail application is similarly impressive, rendering full html email beautifully. It actually made me want to send emails.

The media player looks nice, and works well

The media player looks nice, and works well

The media player is good, if not as pretty as Apple’s version, and apart from the headphone jack thing (not the software’s fault) the Magic is a competent music player. It picked up all the album art, and seems to support playlists (but I ran out of time to test this properly). It does support AD2P stereo Bluetooth, so if you have a set of Bluetooth headphones you may not care about the audio jack (in case you haven’t noticed, I do care).

The Android Market is picking up momentum and there are plenty of cool apps available on it (also plenty of crap, but that’s not exclusively Android’s problem). I particularly liked the Shazam app, but I didn’t have time to download and test a huge range of apps.

Android will continue to improve as the development team chips away at adding features and polishing the UI, but with this release it has gone from an impressive novelty to being a genuine alternative for many people. Of course, owners of the G1/Dream will also reap the benefits of Android 1.5 when the software upgrade is pushed out to them, but the Magic is a much prettier and smaller phone, so I’m sure it will prove popular.

Hardware

Yep, I even switched it on!

Yep, I even switched it on!

The critical change that HTC has made to its line of Android devices is the lack of the physical keyboard on the Magic, which makes it slimmer and sleeker than the G1. Version 1.5 of the Android OS is the reason, as it has support for a soft onscreen keyboard. So the form factor of the Magic is really the main reason to favour a Magic over the G1 (which will receive the 1.5 software update and have all the same software features as the Magic).

The onscreen keyboard, luckily, is damn good. It is accurate and provides haptic feedback (vibrates) when you press it, and it works in portrait or landscape view (although landscape is much easier to type on). I like physical keyboards, and after using a BlackBerry Bold swore that I would always prefer real buttons over virtual ones (the Bold is a great device, btw). The Magic nearly changes my mind – it really is excellent.

You might ask why a touchscreen device needs a trackball as well. The answer is because some things really benefit from the extra precision a trackball provides – things like hitting small links in web pages not designed for a mobile screen and touchscreen interface, and editing typing errors (RIM, are you listening? The next Storm should have a trackball, we both know you do trackballs well).

Err... where do I plug my headphones?

Err... where do I plug my headphones?

The only port on the device is the proprietary HTC extUSB jack on the bottom, which combines all the normal things that a mini-USB jack is used for, but makes it a slightly different shape (although you can still plug a standard mini-USB cable into it) and adds a couple of pins for audio output. To use headphones with the Magic you need to purchase a special adaptor that plugs into the extUSB jack, and then plug your headphones into the adaptor (for the sake of argument I’ve ignored the bundled headphones, as bundled headphones are generally not worth the effort of unwrapping them). I think it’s a terrible omission to not have a standard audio jack, and if HTC is going to insist on doing it then the box really should include an adaptor.

The camera, well the less said the better, but it’s pretty ordinary. It has autofocus, but the images are soft and noisy. There are no real options for adjusting settings like white balance or night mode, and there is not even an LED flash. The good news is Android 1.5 supports video recording, but if you really want a phone with a half-decent camera, get a Nokia N-Series.

So that’s about it. As you can probably tell I’m a big fan of the HTC Magic, and I would probably buy one if I wasn’t allergic to long contracts. Thanks for reading, and please ask any questions in the comments.





INQ1 review

9 03 2009
INQ1. I like it.

INQ1. I like it.

In my job we often get sent devices to try out, to understand the products and technology and see how it all works, and hopefully form good impressions. While we obviously write about these products, we’re really not in the business of writing reviews. However, it would seem a shame not to write the odd review of interesting gadgets that come across my path, and so here I have a review of one of the most interesting mobile handsets of the year so far, the INQ1.

The INQ1 is the first handset from INQ, an independent handset company wholly owned by the giant Hutchison Whampoa telecoms corporation. It has created quite a splash already, winning “Best Mobile Handset” at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona at the beginning of February. I’ve been using an INQ1 supplied by the 3 network (which has exclusive rights to the INQ1 in the UK) for several weeks, and while I certainly don’t think it’s perfect, I am very impressed by what it can do. It takes a unique approach, bringing popular social networks, messaging and web services to a cheap handset available on a cheap tariff. The whole idea is to attract mass market users to the idea of using their mobiles for Internet and mobile data use, and I think it’s a good idea.

General performance

The INQ1 is a fairly conventional slider handset, but it feels good in the hand. It’s compact and solidly built, but not too heavy. The brushed metal finish gives a sense of durability, and the sliding number pad is satisfying, sliding positively and with big, well-spaced keys that are easy to press. The screen is smaller than I’m used to (but I’ve been spoilt by a succession of high-end handsets).

You can take pictures with the 3.2MP camera and with a couple of button presses upload them straight to your Facebook profile page over the 3G network, and go and write an email while the image uploads in the background, which I really like.

One of the key applications installed on the INQ1 is Skype, and calls work perfectly well, as does the webmail client (it works with all the major services: Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail, as well as POP3 mailboxes). The software is reasonably fast, it looks nice and colourful (if a little bright) and is mostly fairly simple to navigate using the application carousel at the bottom of the home screen. Occasionally there are awkward UI incidents, where a button press produces unexpected results, but these are not too jarring.

The web browser works, but it looks a bit dated and doesn’t render all pages properly. But for a phone this cheap and with relatively limited hardware grunt, it’s a good enough effort. It’s unfair to compare the browser with an iPhone, because the hardware is much cheaper and less powerful. The browser-based Facebook application is as good as the Facebook application for Nokia’s S60 handsets (although I don’t think as good as the BlackBerry or iPhone versions). It does have some excellent Facebook integration though, which I will explain shortly.

It has simple widgets on the home screen, displaying weather information, BBC news feeds and a world clock.

You can plug the INQ1 into a Mac or PC using a standard mini-USB cable, and use it as a USB modem for mobile broadband over the 3G network. This worked really easily with my Macbook, as the drivers for the modem are stored on the device itself, requiring nothing more complex than dragging the connection launcher application into the “Applications” folder. Then it was a matter of a couple of clicks, and I was online. The supplied software is simple but effective.

Social web makes the INQ1 special

Now that I’ve done the mechanical review bits for the people with a short attention span, we can get onto a more detailed description of why I think the INQ1 is interesting.

I think it won the MWC award because it was designed from the outset to deliver web content and services to mobile users, and to do this at low cost. The software has been built from scratch with the intention of integrating the most popular social networking and communication applications at a deep level into the handset. What this means in practice is that the INQ1 does Facebook, Skype, email and instant messaging far better than it has any right to do; in fact it does some of these things far better than any other phone on the market, at any price.

The integration of all of these services is focused primarily around the phone’s contacts list. The INQ1 ties all of your various ways of contacting a person together neatly, and integrates them with your Facebook contacts list. When you first activate the handset, you enter your Facebook login details and the phone automatically downloads all of your Facebook friends into the phone’s contact list, displaying their profile picture and current status message. Cool, huh?

Well the next bit is even cooler. You then log in to Skype by selecting the icon on the side-scrolling carousel menu at the bottom of the screen, and your Skype contacts are added to your contacts list. Now email: you click on the mail icon, and the handset lets you choose between a standard POP3 mailbox, Hotmail, Yahoo mail or Googlemail. You enter your login details, the handset activates the account, and you’re away. The same goes for your MSN or AIM accounts.

The next step is to merge your contacts, so that you have a single contact for each person, containing the person’s phone numbers, Facebook profile, Skype ID, email address and IM accounts. This can be fiddly if you have a lot of friends, but when it’s done you’ve got the greatest mobile phone contact list ever!

You can open a contact in the contact list, and from a single menu you have the following options for contacting them:
– Call: voice or video
– Send message (brings up an SMS panel which lets you insert pictures or sounds, making it an MMS)
– Facebook: view profile, poke, message, write on wall
– Windows Live Messenger: initiate a chat
– Skype: voice call or text chat
– Email: from any activated account.

That’s a lot of ways to get in touch with someone! I’ve played with plenty of handsets, but I’ve never seen anything that has this sort of powerful integration out of the box. It’s great!

Things I don’t like

I would really like to be able to easily add new applications to the INQ1, such as a Twitter client or a Flickr uploader. But perhaps this is an unreasonable expectation, and I’ve just become too used to using Symbian or BlackBerry phones which specialise in this.

The quality of the camera is disappointing – corners have been cut here – but photos are adequate in broad daylight. There is no LED flash for low light snaps.

Not the greatest phone cam ever made.

Not the greatest phone cam ever made.

Poor colour balance and dynamic range makes for flat pictures

Poor colour balance and dynamic range makes for flat pictures

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is a music player application which includes scrobbling to Last.fm, but as the INQ1 commits the cardinal sin of not having a 3.5mm stereo jack I didn’t bother testing it – this phone is not quite ready to be a serious music player.

It would be a killer device if if had a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, given how many of its key applications rely on heavy text input. I think INQ is well aware of this, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the next release from the company adds a slide-out QWERTY keypad.

Conclusion

This is not a handset for everyone but it does a lot of things far better than you would expect from a phone at this price point, and I think it shows how much you can achieve on relatively low-end hardware, with some clever software integration. If you want a cheap handset that gives you really good Facebook and email access and lets you make cheap Skype calls, the INQ1 is definitely worth checking out. I’m really looking forward to seeing what INQ comes up with next.





Bad touchscreens and me

16 12 2008

Looks great, until you switch it on.

Looks great, until you switch it on.

Yesterday I tried to test a Samsung Omnia, to get a feel for this “iPhone killer” (uggghhh) and its interface. I haven’t had much experience using Windows Mobile touchscreen handsets, so I thought it would be a useful exercise when comparing to handsets running other OSes.

I aborted the test when I nearly threw the thing at the wall in frustration at such an unintuitive mess of an operating system and UI. Samsung has thrown some excellent features into the Omnia, and the industrial design is clean and attractive (if a little sterile). On paper the Omnia looks excellent: it has all the high-end bells and whistles – in fact it flays the iPhone and BlackBerry Storm for hardware features – 5MP camera; A-GPS; WiFi; HSDPA; plays DivX files, has a resistive touchscreen and Windows Mobile 6.1…. *pause*

**Rewind**

Resistive touchscreen and Windows Mobile 6.1.

This non-responsive resistive touchscreen (as opposed to the capacitive type used on the iPhone), when combined with an operating system that wasn’t designed for finger inputs (the touch areas are often too small), is simply diabolical. Scrolling through menus using a finger resulted in a sequence of ignored touches, followed by accidentally launching random applications, followed by hunting around for one of the several randomly chosen methods of closing said application, then repeating.

Using a stylus was hardly any better, because it didn’t seem to scroll properly (although typing required the stylus because the on-screen keyboard is too small for fingers). So you have to guess whether to use your fingers or grope around for the stylus. Guesswork and frustration? Lost touches and hunting for the right way to close an app? Being unsure whether I’d sent an SMS or dialled the person’s number by accident? These are not the makings of a close bond between user and device.

Gentle reader, I was hating it.

The whole user experience is destroyed by the frustrating touchscreen response and inconsistent interface design, and any positive features of the hardware are disrupted by the awful time you’ll have trying to perform common tasks. When simple tasks become a mild form of torture, it’s time to admit that perhaps this device is not for me. This device demonstrates the importance of executing a good user experience, which goes beyond hardware features, in the overall usability of a device.

Within 8 hours of swapping my SIM into the Omnia, I gave up in frustration and went back to my BlackBerry Bold with a new-found respect. Maybe I could learn the quirks of the Omnia’s user interface and dodge the suckitude, but frankly I can’t be bothered. There are much better mobile platforms out there, so I’ll use one of them instead.





BlackBerry Storm – a damp squib?

27 11 2008
BlackBerry Storm looks good on paper, but early reviews have been disappointing

BlackBerry Storm looks good on paper, but early reviews have been disappointing

At the beginning of November I wrote a comment piece for Ovum’s Straight Talk daily email bulletin, discussing RIM’s hot new Storm touchscreen handset. At the time, I hadn’t had a chance to play with the handset first hand, but I was careful to emphasise that a quality user experience would be vital for the Storm. The Storm has now launched in the UK and US (on Vodafone and Verizon networks respectively), and early reviews have slammed the handset for sluggish software, poor battery life and shoddy touchscreen performance. These are not good things for users’ experiences! Whispers of rushed firmware contributing to the problems have been circulating around the Intarwebz, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the carriers have pushed RIM to release the Storm before it was truly ready.

Anyway, I thought it would be a good time to look back at my comments, now that I’ve seen the Storm and other people have had a chance to play with it and review it properly. I’ve copied some of my initial comments in red, my new responses are in black below.

“RIM is particularly excited about the Storm’s clickable user interface, which features a capacitive touch screen under a mildly dome-shaped glass layer, allowing the user to press the screen like a button to make menu selections or when typing text. RIM claims that the technology gives the user better feedback and reduces errors common to other types of touch screen. As with any new UI technology, we will reserve judgment until we’ve had a chance to try out the device first-hand.”

Well, it looks like the news isn’t good for RIM on this one. When I was playing with the Storm, I didn’t have too many problems with it, but obviously it takes longer than a few minutes to find issues. Most reviewers don’t like the new screen, which is the central selling point of the device. I think a clickable screen is a good idea for menu selections and low-frequency presses, and in my brief test I found the clicking motion to be quite satisfying. But many reviews complain that typing long emails is tiring, slow and no more accurate than using a conventional capacitive screen. Given that typing emails is the main reason for owning a BlackBerry, this is not a good look.

“The Storm has the usual feature set for current mid- to high-end handsets: GPS, a 3.2MP camera with LED flash, an accelerometer for rotating the display, and expandable storage through a microSD card slot. The lack of WiFi support may deter some buyers, although if the device is offered with unlimited data plans this will soak up some of the complaints.”

This is what happens when device manufacturers let network operators design handsets: features get left out. There is no technical reason why the Storm doesn’t include WiFi, it’s a commercial decision designed to increase data traffic (and revenues) on carrier networks. Frustrating for power users and roamers, and for those who live or work underground (or out of network range). The other features are resoundingly bog standard.

“On the software front, Storm has an updated version of the BlackBerry software (4.7), which adds support for the touch screen and accelerometer, and adds on-the-fly spellchecking and correction – to iron out typing errors caused by the touch screen. All the standard BlackBerry features are present: email, messaging, social networking, web browsing – and the all-important enterprise support that will make business users and IT managers sit up and take notice.”

From the reviews I’ve read, and from talking to people using the Storm, the new software sounds half-baked. Bugs, poor accelerometer calibration, slow reactions and – unbelievably for a BlackBerry – no “all-important enterprise support” for BES servers (the BlackBerry server technology that sits behind the company firewall in enterprise deployments). This means that many enterprise users, the bread and butter of RIM’s business, simply can’t use the Storm on their office mail servers.

This tells me two things: the Storm is definitely pitched at consumers (duh!); and it was definitely rushed out before it was ready. RIM is usually so careful to support enterprise users, it beggars belief that they’ve failed on this one!

Releasing buggy software might be ok if it’s a new PC browser or media player, but for a critical device like a BlackBerry handset there are really no excuses.

“With the Storm, RIM is now realistically competing for similar demographics to the iPhone, at least in the consumer space: youngish, tech-savvy ‘Gen-Y’ or ‘transitioners’ who want the latest gadgets and have the discretionary income to afford them. This segment is as much about technology as fashion, but success also requires advanced functionality and an outstanding user experience. These users need multimedia features, ‘connectedness’, social networking, expandability and the ability to customise their devices.”

The multimedia features of the Storm are strong, there’s no doubt. One thing I really like about RIM is the company’s willingness to support popular codecs like Xvid, on top of the standard MPEG4 and H.264 that Apple supports. The ability to play back the most popular video formats on the Internet without messing around transcoding and wasting time really is good, and contrasts with Apple’s insistence on only supporting video codecs that it sells through iTunes. The Storm’s screen looks great for video, the music player is good and displays album art very nicely, all in all this is solid.

The Storm also has integration with Vodafone’s music store. I’ll be honest, I’m unlikely to ever use such a feature (I’m not a fan of low bitrate DRMed pop music and most mobile carriers are not fans of un-DRMed high bitrate niche music), but some people will be desperate to get the latest Leona Lewis single quickly on the bus home, so fair enough.

As for social networking, I haven’t experienced RIM’s Facebook app or the IM clients, but this isn’t rocket surgery, so I hope they work as expected.

“This segment is becoming crowded with powerful multimedia touch-screen handsets… The Storm looks like a solid competitor to these devices, but the overall user experience will be critical if it is to be a real success in this market, as its ‘enterprise qualities’ will be less of a factor.”

A bad user experience is just about the worst mistake a handset manufacturer can make, especially in a competitive market. This means having good reception, decent battery life, applications that don’t freeze, responsive handling and intuitive design (both software and hardware). A big part of Motorola’s problem now is that millions of people bought a RAZR when RAZRs were cool, and the user experience was so shockingly bad that they swore never to buy a Moto again and ran straight back to Nokia. The iPhone (love it or hate it) has raised the bar on user experience, and the G1 doesn’t do a bad job of it either (even though it’s really a beta OS). Poor user experience is an EPIC fail.

If people hate using their phone, they will come to hate the company that made it. RIM needs to sort out its software problems very quickly, before millions of people buy Storms and decide that they’re a pile of steaming shit (read the reviews, or ask Steven Fry) while running off to trade for an iPhone or G1. If the Storm doesn’t yet work with a BES, most of the device sales are going to be consumers, whose handset choices are a lot more flexible than enterprise users.

If business customers are going to have to carry a work handset, they are increasingly likely to insist on a device they actually enjoy using… The Storm is a good compromise for business people who want a touch-screen device (like an iPhone), but need a BlackBerry (for all the reasons BlackBerry is ubiquitous in enterprise markets).

We wouldn’t want to bet that the Storm will blow away the (healthy) competition, but it is positioned nicely on the intersection of consumer and enterprise devices – this is potentially a device that can go from boardroom to nightclub – and this is perhaps where the Storm’s success will be.”

As I said weeks ago, I didn’t want to bet that the Storm will be a killer device, but I did have high hopes for it. I have a soft spot for the plucky Canadians at RIM, but it looks like this time they’ve bitten off a little bit too much and might be choking on the networks’… ummm… demands. Apparently the Storm is selling well so far, despite the negative reviews, but I really think that releasing unfinished products is a quick way to destroy any credibility RIM has.

Hopefully a swift software update improves the situation, because at the moment it looks like the Storm is seriously under-delivering on its potential.





Mobile developers’ choice: money or flexibility

25 11 2008

One of the really exciting things that’s happening at the moment in the world of mobile handsets is the growth of several key platforms for mobile application development. Recently I had a chance to chat to the developer of a third-party email application for the iPhone, Android and Symbian. I thought I’d share some of the issues that he raised which affect the way developers choose which platforms to work on, and his comments about two of the most popular mobile application stores. Developers of mobile apps balance risk and reward when deciding where to invest their time and effort. If they want to make money, they’ll need to balance their chance of making a profit with the difficulty of producing an app and getting it onto users’ devices.

In this little post I’m just going to discuss two of the most headline-friendly platforms, the iPhone and Android, which take very different approaches to getting applications onto handsets.

Apple

Apple is well known for tightly controlling what gets onto its App Store, with no apps that compete with Apple’s own core apps or anything being sold by Apple’s carrier partners allowed (along with numerous other tough conditions). For example, a developer could spend months on an application, only to see it rejected because Apple has been developing a competing product in secret. The process for approving and publishing applications is slow (two weeks) and opaque (apps can be refused or removed without explanation, despite complying with the stated terms of the SDK Agreement). Pushing updates and bug fixes to end users is frustratingly slow.

Our contact admitted that if the iPhone wasn’t so successful at making money for developers (100 million apps downloaded in the first two months of the App Store is phenomenal), he probably wouldn’t bother with the iPhone at all – the process really is a headache. From an end-user point of view, Apple has nailed the App Store, and the ease of downloading, installation and billing is what drives the high volume of app downloads and makes the headaches worthwhile for developers.

Google

In contrast, Google’s approach with Android is much more open – as long as developers don’t violate the basic terms of the Android agreement (generally no scams, pr0n or illegal stuff) they’re good to go. Uploading apps to the Android Market is practically instant, and developers know they won’t be wasting their time as long as they adhere to the clearly stated conditions of the Android Distribution Agreement. So what’s the downside? Android hasn’t yet proven itself capable of making money for developers, it hasn’t got the market traction that Apple has, and there is uncertainty around the potential for device fragmentation. But with a company as big as Google backing the platform, I think a lot of developers will be happy to take the bet, even if only to keep Apple honest.

Anyway, I drew a diagram. If Android can prove itself and developers see they can make money producing applications for it, it will be interesting to see if Apple is forced to loosen the shackles. But Apple has a large and growing captive audience, is a proven money-maker and has its developers by the short and curlies, to some extent. Of course, I haven’t even mentioned the others: the platform with the largest market share in North America, RIM (also launching an App Store in early 2009); or the Symbian/S60 platform which has by far the largest global deployed base (several hundred million handsets worldwide) and widespread industry support; or the creaking Windows Mobile OS. Everyone’s getting in on the game, so I think it’s going to be interesting watching where the consumers, handset manufacturers and developers go over the next couple of years.

Mobile developers choosing between the iPhone and Android platforms have a tough decision between a proven revenue winner with tight restrictions, or an unproven platform with far fewer constraints.

Mobile developers choosing between the iPhone and Android platforms have a tough decision between a proven revenue winner with tight restrictions, or an unproven platform with far fewer constraints.