Round Robin: Windows Mobile Fond Farewell

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Of all the smartphones we test during the Smartphone Round Robin, the constraints of our phone exchange is felt most with the Windows Mobile 6 AT&T Tilt. One week is just not enough to get a full grasp on what Windows Mobile can do. If you've read some of my other reviews, you'll hopefully recognize that as a compliment-dig.

INFINITE POWER

The thing about Windows Mobile that I came to appreciate is that it's ridiculously powerful. If I want to check my mail, I can do it. If I want to browse the web, I can do it. If I don't like the default app that ships with Windows Mobile, I can replace it with a better one. The system is admittedly a tweaker's paradise. If you like getting gadgets and playing with them and they're like toys for you, than Windows Mobile is basically an infinite playground.

All of the user interface metaphors are pretty much the same as Windows, good or bad. If a person is familiar with Windows, they'll be fairly familiar with Windows Mobile.

Cloud Is The Internet

I spent most of the week untethered to a desktop with the Tilt. I'm not sure there's really any huge need to sync it to a desktop, which is a real breath of fresh breath of air coming from the activate-jailbreak-unlock world of the iPhone. I installed programs online, I checked all of the email that I wanted to -- I can really see why Microsoft thinks that Windows Mobile could replace the computer in some parts of the world. If I could plug in a keyboard and add a decent sized-screen, there isn't much that it can't do in terms of simple computing tasks -- edit documents, spreadsheets, powerpoint presentations, play games, browse the web, work with calendars, to-do, shared calendars... the whole shebang, and you don't even really need to interact with a computer to do any of it. It's an obscenely powerful mobile platform, and that I respect.

The other thing that I respect is that Microsoft has made their system easy to expand upon -- if I don't like the Today screen, I can replace it with something better (and I did -- SPB Mobile Shell). If I don't like the default browser (and I don't), I can replace it with something better (usually Opera Mini, but I decided to give Opera Mobile a shot this time, since I could). If I don't like the default keyboards (and I didn't), I could replace them with myriad other keyboards, many of them iPhone-like. I think I've even got an old iPhone theme that I could install on Windows Mobile from way back in the day, before the lawyers dragged it off the internet. I didn't think of it until after I sent the Tilt on to Jennifer, which is a bummer.

ITTY BITTY LIVING SPACE

It would probably take me a few weeks to get used to Windows Mobile. Maybe more, maybe a few months. But I could get used to it. It would probably be second nature after a while, I wouldn't have to think about it. But you definitely have to think about it at first: the out-of-box experience on the Tilt isn't so great. I had to install a bunch of programs to get to the point where I wasn't constantly snarling at it. Some other Windows Mobile might ship with those programs pre-installed. Or maybe someone works at a business where they pre-install those applications for you.

It would be better if it wouldn't take a few weeks, though -- one of the things that I really like about using the iPhone is that I never had to figure "the platform" out. I could just start using it. I didn't have to dig through a new style of control panel, I didn't have to try all of the different screen input methods to figure out if there was one that was usable.

Wm5 240X240
what you get with 240x240. Not to scale. Not representative. Not from Windows Mobile 6. Windows Mobile 5. Not ideal

There are reasons that I was hoping to skip over Windows Mobile 6. I've heard a lot about Photon, the successor to Windows Mobile 6. It supposedly is a drastic rewrite of the general interface to Windows Mobile. I'm glad that the Tilt had a 320x240 screen, because using WM6 on the Treo 750 with its 240x240 always bugged me. And those omnipresent menu bars at the top and bottom of the screen, I was never sure that they were necessary. And the scroll bar on the right, it eats up so much space. I wish they were some of the theme-able bits of Windows Mobile, because I hate wasting that much screen space. It's one of the reasons that I purchased a 680 instead of a 750, honestly. One thing that I've learned from using the Tilt is this: the more pixels Windows Mobile has, the less it bugs me. One other thing: the Windows Mobile Start Menu is too dang small for my fingers.

Though I wasn't especially a fan of the Tilt's form factor, it's pretty close to my current ideal: a flat brick with a full touchscreen. The tilting screen and slider form factor felt kind of gimmicky after a while. I'd be happier if it was a full touchscreen device with no hardware keyboard, but still: it's close to what I like best, and that definitely made my week with the Tilt more pleasant. I am fond of the iPhone form factor (and I'll admit that I've made fun of the LG KS720, also called the LG Prada 2), and the Tilt was close enough that the odd stylings of the device didn't bug me. The Tilt is a big device, which is probably why Dieter shipped it out with a belt holster. It's almost too big to be pocketable -- almost.

And Windows Mobile could ship with a better software keyboard. Something my fingers could use would be awesome, the iPhone really opened up that world to me. I didn't know how much I hated styluses until I didn't have to use one anymore, and if they were able to tune Windows Mobile to the point where it didn't need a stylus, they'd be able to ship devices that were thinner. Ditto for that sliding keyboard gimmick, but that's not Windows Mobile's fault. There are so many Windows Mobile phones of different shapes, sizes, and functionalities, odds are good that I could find one that fit me better.

WINDOWS ALL OVER AGAIN

The developer community around Windows Mobile is immense and vibrant -- there's so many different apps out there, it's practically bewildering. I didn't know where to start. Not only does Windows Mobile ship with an office suite, but if it doesn't cut the mustard for you, there's a better one available. If you miss having a BlackBerry around, you can get their BlackBerry Connect software installed, which I'm pretty sure saved Kevin's life.

It's a great mobile gadget platform, and there are a lot of things to like about it. It might be the most advanced smartphone OS that I've ever used (I won't be able to say definitively until there are 3rd party apps for the iPhone), but there are downsides to using it.

Interoperability

Windows Monopoly

The biggest downside to using Windows Mobile is that, well, it's Windows all over again. You take the good, you take the bad, right?. If you're already using Windows and Office and Outlook and Exchange, Windows Mobile is (or should be) a no-brainer for you. You're already sucked in 80% of the way, you might as well collect all 5. That's the way Microsoft designs their software, to keep you inside the ecosystem. The more you stray outside of the Microsoft ecosystem, the more isolated Windows Mobile seems to be.

Shot Ms Wm Main

As it ships, Windows Mobile doesn't have any way to sync information over from a Macintosh. There is software available that does it: Mark/Space's Missing Sync for Windows Mobile ($40). Usually though, Mark/Space's deal has been to add extra features to syncing, so you get more than what the generic handset sync software will give you, instead of being the only possible solution.

I'm used to living in a Windows world, though -- I tend to keep all of my contacts and calendars online if I can, in Google or Yahoo! or .Mac or whatever so I can keep my data portable; I don't like putting all of my eggs in one basket in case of some sort of computer catastrophe. I figured I could import some contacts from one of those very popular online services. I was wrong.

As it turns out, the recommended way to really move data over into Windows Mobile would be to Outlook or Outlook Express... via a CSV file. If you don't know what a CSV file is, it's an ancient primitive text spreadsheet. The copy of Outlook Express on my Windows box doesn't have a field for Mobile phones, which -- as you might well assume -- is a dealbreaker in terms of categorization. The situation might be different with Outlook, but that's another $110. Even then, I'm probably still looking at hacking my way through a CSV file.

Isync

There's an easy answer to this: provide iSync conduits for the Mac, or some software to sync with the big online services. I have no idea why Microsoft doesn't do this anyway. They'd be able to sell Windows Mobile phones to a lot more customers if they did that one simple thing. Another option would be to sync with one of the online services. It's frustrating to see all of my contacts in the Yahoo! Go app on the Tilt, knowing that there's no simple way to get them into the Tilt's contact system. If they fix that, everybody wins! It's not like someone is going to pick an email address or a computer based on what mobile phone they can sync it with. I don't think it will threaten their monopoly on the desktop. It's all pretty simple: you put the horse in front of the cart.

HAVE YOU BEEN DOING THE MATH?

If you've been adding up the cost of software that I'd need to buy to use the Tilt as my permanent main brain, you realize that there's a real cost of acquisition to Windows Mobile. It takes time to get it to work in a way that makes sense, it costs a lot of money to get software for some basic functionality, and if you're on a Mac or not using one of the Microsoft services for anything you're in a special world of hurt.

If you're running a standard Microsoft shop though, there's less cost involved.

TECHNOLOGY RISEN FROM THE GRAVE

It seems that Windows Mobile is still very much a work in progress, like they haven't fully figured out how to make it friendly for use, and occasionally the curse of MS-DOS pokes its head out. They're trying, you can tell they're trying to remove the cruft. That's why they gave me the choice of "Intermediate GPS Driver" and my choice of 20 or so COM ports. COM Ports! What is this, the eighties?

Did I mention CSV spreadsheet files already? Why yes, I did. Let's see, did I use the words "ancient" and "primitive?" Yes on both counts. I believed I mentioned them just 4 paragraphs ago. And here they are again.

Some of the experiences in using Windows Mobile are really jarring. Here is this incredibly advanced mobile operating system, but due to these weird compatibility or interoperability decisions that Microsoft has made, you get lurched back in time to do some things that should be very easy and simple. It really doesn't make sense to me. I'm sure they'll update Pocket IE one of these days. Maybe this stuff will be less transparent in Photon. Maybe then I won't be able to see the old man behind the curtain.

LAST THOUGHTS

It's powerful. I spent many hours customizing everything. I was able to do anything that I could do on the other platforms and more. "Where do you want to go tomorrow" and stuff. It's still not friendly to use. It required a lot of tweakery and extra apps to get it to work in a decent way. The user interface, though I think it's better than the BlackBerry's cluttered featurephone interface, is still kind of a mess. It's a powerful mess, but I'd rather not have to memorize all of these arcane things just to do some simple things on my mobile phone. There's a real complexity problem with Windows Mobile, much more so than with the other smartphones. In a lot of senses, the crown of "most powerful smartphone is a pyrrhic victory, achieved at great cost.

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There are 14 comments. Add yours.

Cascade says:

Thanks, Mike. Now you've made a decision on whether or not to go to WM even tougher. Ugh! Great write-up, just leaves me scratching my head about whether or not it's worth it.
What are the absolutely critical 3rd party add-ons in your opinion?

Overthrow says:

which platform are you coming from, cascade?
update eh, I guess it doesn't really matter. here's my list
[list]
[*]pick any 3 SPB software house programs. make sure one of them is SPB mobile shell. If you can replace the start menu and/or programs, that would be best. There are many users on the forums that know better than me on this one.
[*]a finger-able keyboard so you don't have to pull out a stylus or kick out the keyboard (or enable voice command) to start typing the first few letters of a contact.
[*]missing sync for WM by mark/space if you have a mac
[*]opera mini or opera mobile, your choice. mini is free, mobile is $40 or so? pocket IE isn't great by any stretch.
[*]windows live search is actually pretty good
[*]yahoo go! is good if you have a yahoo account
[*]google maps is good, though not necessarily as important if you already have WLS
[*]documents2go would be a killer app if you need to do office editing. as dieter says, it's better than microsoft's mobile office software.
[*]any IM software. I'm a big AIM user, mostly for work.
[*]really liked the gcalsync for syncing google calendars. free version only does 1, so I chose work, but it's better than nothing. there's also oggsync though I didn't try that one.
[/list]

JGold says:

You guys are missing a device like an Nokia N95. I would have love to hear the opinions of WM, Palm, and iPhoner's on that one. I have been really giving that device a good hard look as a replacement for WM.

Overthrow says:

Yeah, the N95 is an interesting one. Without U.S. carrier support tho...

Dieter Bohn says:

You guys are missing a device like an Nokia N95. I would have love to hear the opinions of WM, Palm, and iPhoner's on that one. I have been really giving that device a good hard look as a replacement for WM.
There's been a lot of interest in the n95 around here in the Round Robin forums. I'm definitely going to do a "bonus round" with the n95 (and will send it off to anybody else that's interested) - but I can't really say when I'll get to it. probably mid december.

gadgetluva says:

"The thing about Windows Mobile that I came to appreciate is that it's ridiculously powerful." "Tweaker's paradise."
Yep, that's basically how I think of WM. Of course, the power and customizability comes at the cost of ease-of-use and overall system speed. Of course there are always tradeoffs, but I can live with the cons for all of the pros. Great writeup, I was actually surprised to see that you weren't too harsh on WM.

Overthrow says:

"The thing about Windows Mobile that I came to appreciate is that it's ridiculously powerful." "Tweaker's paradise."
Yep, that's basically how I think of WM. Of course, the power and customizability comes at the cost of ease-of-use and overall system speed. Of course there are always tradeoffs, but I can live with the cons for all of the pros. Great writeup, I was actually surprised to see that you weren't too harsh on WM.
Yes, there comes a point where I need to stop "optimizing" my devices and just start using them. I do wish the iPhone had more features (and we'll see how iPhone features expand as the SDK becomes available).
Not being harsh on WM is my goal -- it's a powerful OS, and though using it frustrates me, it doesn't do anyone (including me) any good for me to spew wrath for 1500 words. Which was pretty much my first 2 drafts of the final review. :eek:

Cascade says:

I'm on a 680 - always considering whether or not I should go WM since I have little faith a long term investment in Palm OS is wise.
- Seems everyone uses the SPB stuff. Better go check into them a little closer.
- Did you use Yahoo! Go? What are the main benefits? Does it sync a Yahoo! calendar?
- Is Pocket IE really that bad? I better get over to a store and check it out. Not many nice things said about it. It's got to be better than Blazer, though, right??
Thanks for the response,
-Curt
which platform are you coming from, cascade?
update eh, I guess it doesn't really matter. here's my list
[list]
[*]pick any 3 SPB software house programs. make sure one of them is SPB mobile shell. If you can replace the start menu and/or programs, that would be best. There are many users on the forums that know better than me on this one.
[*]a finger-able keyboard so you don't have to pull out a stylus or kick out the keyboard (or enable voice command) to start typing the first few letters of a contact.
[*]missing sync for WM by mark/space if you have a mac
[*]opera mini or opera mobile, your choice. mini is free, mobile is $40 or so? pocket IE isn't great by any stretch.
[*]windows live search is actually pretty good
[*]yahoo go! is good if you have a yahoo account
[*]google maps is good, though not necessarily as important if you already have WLS
[*]documents2go would be a killer app if you need to do office editing. as dieter says, it's better than microsoft's mobile office software.
[*]any IM software. I'm a big AIM user, mostly for work.
[*]really liked the gcalsync for syncing google calendars. free version only does 1, so I chose work, but it's better than nothing. there's also oggsync though I didn't try that one.
[/list]

Bla1ze says:

Nice to see an iPhone users take on WinMob thats for sure, I cant agree with you more on th complexity of it and the need for customization rules all in the WinMob world, not a "average" user friendly OS at all, and many hours will be spent on "getting it just right"...sadly as I stated in previous comments on WinMob throughout the SPRR, average users could go the whole time working on WinMob, never being happy with it, and never unleashing it's full power.

Stig says:

It's a shame that Pocket IE is still rubbish on WM6. I'm using a Nokia E61 which has a great browser, and although my head tells me my next phone should be WM (like a Treo 800w maybe?) my heart says stick with a Nokia, or try an iPhone.

dstrauss says:

As a former Tilt (and 8125) owner, I'll attest to it's "ultimate power" but that's not good enough aymore. The Tilt is just too big, too cumbersome, and too disjointed to use effectively. What I mean by dsijointed is that after all these iterations, WM6 still feels like a telephone bolted onto a late 90's PDA. Also, as a professed former "believer" in the smartphone as a notebook replacement, I have trtuly come to learn that almost NO ONE ever really edits substantial documents on that "itty bitty living space" called Windows Mobile. If you have any need for edting docs or spreadsheets, get an ultralight notebook and tether if you have to.
Having spent 3 weeks with the Curve 8310, I have found it to be the best productivity converged device I've ever used. Its communication based focus is readily apparent in all the software, and isn't that what it's really all about? I've had nearly every brand/OS from Samsung i500 to a half-dozen WM devices, to iPhone, to the Curve 8310 (only missing the Nokia/Symbian bus) and I can truthfully say the BB experience has been the best all round fit.
Now, if we could just bolt together iPhone hardware and base OS with BB email and phone control...ah, heaven.

Stig says:

I've not used a Tilt, but I had the previous TyTN incarnation. I agree with dstrauss that although the feature set is impressive, the form factor sucks.
Maybe I should try a Blackberry. Do you want to swap your Curve for my Nokia? ;)

Antoine of MMM says:

Yeah, the N95 is an interesting one. Without U.S. carrier support tho...
There's been a lot of interest in the n95 around here in the Round Robin forums. I'm definitely going to do a "bonus round" with the n95 (and will send it off to anybody else that's interested) - but I can't really say when I'll get to it. probably mid december.
N95-3 is US 3G supported, and available now.
I'd love to take that off your hands when the Round Robin bonus round is all done :D
back on topic, kinda:
The Tilt is just too big, too cumbersome, and too disjointed to use effectively. What I mean by dsijointed is that after all these iterations, WM6 still feels like a telephone bolted onto a late 90's PDA. Also, as a professed former "believer" in the smartphone as a notebook replacement, I have trtuly come to learn that almost NO ONE ever really edits substantial documents on that "itty bitty living space" called Windows Mobile.
This is a conclusion that some people have come to. Its one of thsoe things where the device just kinda reaches too far (for now). Much of it isn't even in the ability, but the flow of the software. It a lot of things tacked on, and not a lot of consistancy throughout. That comment about there being so many ways to do things; its great in theory, but causes a brain fart in practice (before additonal software comes to simplify that).

Geo-Treo says:

Fine review that tells me everything I need to know about the Tilt and WinMo: a capable smart phone but clumsy, unfriendly and with hidden costs. It won't be my choice when I win. ;)