Round Robin: AT&T Tilt
For the past few days, I've been working with the AT&T Tilt, a Windows Mobile smartphone. I've used Windows Mobile before, so this isn't quite the new experience that the BlackBerry Curve was, but I haven't used the latest version of Windows Mobile (version 6) either. I used WM5 with a Treo 750 for a while, but I ended up dealing with a bad bug that prevented calls from ringing. That was pretty much a killer for the device, and I stopped using it.
And that would be the end of the story, but for the Smartphone Round Robin. And here we are again.
First, Some History
When I last used Windows Mobile, I was frustrated at the lack of real estate -- I was used to a 320x320 screen from the Treo 680 (which I'll be using again next week), and the 750's 240x240 screen felt really small. When the pixels are limited like that, the seemingly glaring excesses of the Windows Mobile interface... the bars across the bottom and top of the screen, plus the right scroll bar: I was not a happy camper with how the real estate was divided. Dieter of WMExperts told me that WM6 was basically WM5, but with less bugs. The user interface, the way that Windows Mobile presents itself to people using it, was pretty much unchanged, and I figured that maybe I'd check out Windows Mobile again once their new version, Photon, was available. This was all pre-iPhone, so my options of escape were a bit limited.
But, that was a different device, a different Windows Mobile, and a different time. Which leads us, finally, to the Tilt.
About the Tilt
The tilt is a Windows Mobile slider, meaning that it has an iPhone-like front, except that it slides up along the middle to reveal a full-sized keyboard along the front. The form factor, except for the sliding part, is a lot like the iPhone. Oh, and the double-thickness. The iPhone is perhaps a centimeter longer, but half the depth.
The Tilt is huge -- not a device that you can use with just one hand. And there are buttons all over the place -- one for the camera, one for power/sleep, one for push-to-talk, two OK buttons, and a scroll wheel. Then there are phone, hangup, mail, browser, start, left menu, right menu, and (another) OK key. Then there's the 5-way directional pad. Many, though not all, of these keys are present yet again in the slider keyboard.
The Size is Deceptive
The battery life on the Tilt is a bit of a disappointment. With the iPhone, I'm used to leaving wi-fi on pretty much all of the time. I recharge the phone about every two or three days. With the Tilt, battery life is great -- as long as that Wi-Fi is off, and I don't have any programs chewing up bandwidth in the background. I suppose this could be said of any phone, but given the size of the Tilt, I kind of expect more battery life out of it.
Given the size, I also kind of expect more speed... response on the Tilt is a bit sluggish, which kind of surprised me. I don't know if it's a RAM issue or a processor speed thing, all I know is that the Tilt is kind of pokey. Windows Mobile ships with its own special version of the spinny beach ball that indicates that something is going on. You can't do anything while the ball spins, the mobile is pretty much locked.
Those are the bad things about the Tilt, off the bat. I'm still not a fan of Windows Mobile, I still find myself lamenting that the UI is bad. The start menu is too small to be thumbable accurately, for example.
But there are good things about Windows Mobile, there always have been. One thing that I do like about Windows Mobile is the power of it all. Real multi-tasking is a boon. Of all of the smartphones that everyone has been using over the Smartphone Round Robin, the Tilt is the only one that really has it. If you want to have GPS mapping going while you browse the web whilst music plays in the background, have at it. The Tilt may not be especially responsive during that time, but it will work.
Windows Mobile also has "a real file system." With that real filesystem come a lot of benefits. For most things, it means "real apps." If you want to download something to your phone, have at it. If you want Outlook on your phone, it's there. If you want to make powerpoint documents or spreadsheets or word documents, it's all there, ready for you to use. It's a very powerful system.
For Every Gripe, an Equal and Opposite 3rd Party App
And though there are a lot of things that I don't like about the way Windows Mobile looks and behaves, there's a slew of programs out there that attempt to fix it.
I don't like the Today screen, for example. I miss having a useful background image, and I don't like the way that the standard information is presented to me. There are programs out there that fix that -- the most notable one is probably SPB Mobile Shell, which I use to replace the default 'Today' screen.
The browser is really bad, too. Pocket IE is pretty much a joke -- it's incredibly slow and absolutely offsets any speed gains you get from using the Tilt with a 3G network. Opera Mobile to the rescue! It's not as good as MobileSafari on the iPhone, but it's a sight better than Pocket IE. You can use it to replace pretty much everything that PIE does -- download files, the whole shebang. Opera Mobile is one of the reasons that I've been looking forward to using the Tilt.
p>I also think that the software keyboard on the Tilt is very bad -- it's tiny and requires frequent use of the stylus. I'm pretty certain that there's an iPhone-like keyboard available. One of the times that I tapped the keyboard with the stylus, though, I got a menu where I could pick and choose from several less-bad software keyboards. The keys are still infintesimal on most of them, but there's a choice. And some of the helpful forum users have pointed me to other software keyboards that might be better, and I'm pretty sure that there's an iPhone software keyboard clone floating around on the itnernet somewhere.
Nothing to Reference
One of the things that sets Windows Mobile apart from the other smartphones we're all testing is that Microsoft doesn't actually make the device -- they just make the software. The rest is all up to HTC, or Palm, or Motorola, or anyone who decides to ship a Windows Mobile smartphone.
This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It's a good thing because it's a platform -- it means that anyone that wants to build a smartphone and has the hardware know-how can build one, because they don't need nearly as many people to get the software side of things working. Since all of these hardware companies are using the same software platform, it means that it's a lot easier to get better apps to use and games to play with -- it gives Windows Mobile a lot of legs, in terms of what you can do with it.
The downside to all of this is that you don't necessarily get a strong design edge out of this method of doing things. It's a lot like Microsoft in the computer world -- maybe your average beige computer box is kind of ugly, but that's not Microsoft's fault, they just did the software.
And HTC's Tilt, though not by any means a bad-looking device, shows all the symptoms of this problem. There are huge buttons all over the place, but the hardest one to find and activate is the sleep button. The red phone button, which we've all been taught with countless featurephone designs, should turn the device on, or at least wake it up from sleep. Looks like someone missed that, as the red phone button does nothing. It may be that there's a way to swap those buttons in software -- if there is, please post.
One of the other things about Windows Mobile that struck me is that there's endless customizability. I'm willing to bet that many if not all of the things that I can find that I don't like, there's an app or tweak or registry edit that fixes it. All that matters is that you have the time, knowledge, and/or money to throw at the things you don't like about Windows Mobile. And that you have a parachute for the learning cliff.