[This is an official Smartphone Experts Round Robin post! Every day you reply here, you're automatically entered for a chance to win an iPhone 3G, Case-Mate Naked Case, and Motorola H9 Bluetooth Headset! Full contest rules here!]
I thought my review last week for the Palm Treo Pro would be my toughest, little did I suspect Dieter would double up on my HTC and Windows Mobile experience (actually, triple up on HTC as I had the Android G1 for the first review). That's a LOT of Windows Mobile, especially for someone who abandoned the platform a long time ago, first for Palm OS, and now for the iPhone.
Reviewing the same OS two weeks in a row is a challenge. I originally focused on the PIM apps last week, including calendar, tasks, and notes, and through in email and web for good measure. This week I planned on focusing more on Windows Mobile from a media and "under the hood" perspective. However, something changed that: TouchFlo 3D. Turns out, not only was the FUZE's slider keyboard a big old hardware differentiator, their "skin" running on top of Windows Mobile was a fairly compelling software differentiator as well. So, instead of doing a poor job rehashing tech-specs that any writer over at WMExperts could run circles around, I'm going to go with the TouchFlo.
Just remember: I'm not coming at this device from a neutral point of view. That's not my job here. My job is to give you an iPhone user's opinion. So, consider me bias, a n00b, an iFanboy, a complete idiot, but consider this as well: my final, full review... after the break!
Never had an intro on one of these before. Never needed it. Do now. I don't run Gentoo Linux as my primary, secondary, tertiary -- my any-ary -- OS. I'm sure it's powerful, configurable, and Stalman et al could give me a thousand reasons why I should. I only have one reason why I don't: user experience. I just don't want to work that hard. I've talked about this before, and I will again (fair warning, that!) but my smartphone should work for me, not the other way around. The WMExperts forum gave me tons of useful tweaks (thanks for those!) but I really don't want to tweak. I'm too tired of tweaking. I don't want to have to edit registries, tinker with ROMS, remember shortcut keys, or do any of the winzillion things I need to do to make a Windows Mobile device "just work" for 90% of what I want it to do. The barrier for entry is too high.
I'm in the process of deciding there are several segments of the smartphone market. BlackBerry hits productivity/business. Android hits early adapters/enthusiasts. Windows Mobile hits tinkerers. It hits people who want exactly what they want, and enjoy working at it almost as much as using it. Rather than tricking out the ultimate drag racer in their garage or building a robot in their basement, they're going to make their Windows Mobile smartphone do exactly what they want down to the 3rd alt-shortcut key in the 4th tabbed option screen (skinned, of course).
It's for those who enjoy the journey as much as the destination. (I suspect that's why Dieter has enough Windows Mobile devices to make a manwhich out of!) There are several cases where I'm exactly that guy. This isn't one of them. I want my smartphone to work pretty much effortlessly right out of the box, and I want it to perform as well or better than the best smartphones available in 2008. That's what I want.
Yes it's creaky. I'll get that out of the way right at the beginning. The iPhone is a solid slab. Anything made out of plastic that includes a slider hinge that moves half of the device half the way off the device will be, decidedly, not so solid. Still, HTC makes really good plastic hardware, and much like the Android G1, the individual pieces of the slider by themselves are solid.
When the device is closed, the front is very clean. There is a large central button. At first I thought this was just a big "okay" button, but commenters told me it had some gesture ability and was also a d-pad. The gestures were too inconsistent for me to really get into, an it's quite emphatically not a d-pad... however, the area around the large central button IS a d-pad. The integration is awesome -- so awesome I initially missed it, but if you press the entire facade on any side, it will tilt down and register a button click. Very nice!
But they're not done! The facade also holds 4 buttons. The first, "home" sorta brings you home. I'm not sure what "home" means to this device, as it doesn't bring you back to the Today Screen the way an iPhone does the Home screen, at least not consistently. Sometimes it brought me "back" instead, which is strange given that the next button is "back".
Since the Android G1, I've really liked the idea of a "back" button. It works well here, especially when you're new and you sometimes take a wrong turn, or when you're moving in a rush and hit a wrong app or function.
The last two buttons are an upside down, and downside up phone. These are what, on other devices, are usually the green and red "phone" buttons. I like the minimalism of the HTC design, if not the penetrability of the iconography. Like other Windows Mobile handsets, the left "phone" button sends you to the call app, and the right "phone" button ends a call... and takes you to the Today screen (memo to Redmond: the home button is a great idea, and a better usability experience).
Strangely, none of these buttons turned (woke) the device for me. None of them. Only the top "power" button did that. I'm not sure if I prefer this to the Treo Pro's seemingly random "every button but center and okay" with "center to unlock" arrangement. Like many things, there are some advantages, some drawbacks.
Oh, and it has volume and PTT (push to talk). I miss the Treo Pro (and iPhone) mute button.
Star Destroyer class. I'll say it again, this keyboard has everything imaginable on it. I'm not a fan of sliders. The way I type, the less "travel" the better, so the traditional Treo (i.e. 650) keyboard is more to my liking, but it's hard to hate the FUZE when it's almost as full as a Netbook!
Compared to the G1, the feel of the FUZE keyboard felt better to me, and the lack of a "chin" was a huge plus. Again, since hard keyboard can't change to reflect state (i.e. when you hit shift or alt, the key doesn't change to show you exactly what you'll be typing) it did cause some self-doubt in password fields, but that's an uncommon enough situation. Also, since the keyboard slides in and out, it can be hidden when you don't need it. That's an advantage over the front-facing Qwerty's, but it comes at the price of making a really thick phone. I found it a bit chunky, but it won't be a deal breaker for most.
Bright and beautiful, it reminds of the G1's absent the capacitive touch. Since it's a touch screen device, that means it makes you really want to touch it, but resistive technology is outdated enough to make it a less than premium experience. Instead of tapping and flicking like on an iPhone or G1, you have to press hard enough to smush the layers together, or press and drag hard enough for them to register movement. After the iPhone and G1 experience, it's like touch in quicksand. This is something we'll revisit when you meet TouchFlo 3D.
Fit and Finish
The fit an finish isn't quite up there with the Treo Pro in that I think Palm looking over their shoulder made HTC sweat the details more. Yet it remains a solid device with an interesting faceted back plate (identical, far as I could tell, to the its eponymous "diamond" cousin). One interesting addition, however, is that the stylus on this device is magnetic, so when you pull it out, the FUZE automagically turns on, as it does when you slide out the keyboard. Given the paucity of buttons with which to wake it, these are both excellent touches.
Windows Mobile TouchFlo 3D
I joked in my video that TouchFlo 3D should more properly be named "Press Really Hard and Stammer 2D" and I stand by that. As a user experience goes, it mixes brilliant animation with resistively-challenging control and inconsistent gestures to truly confusing ends.
I love the visuals. The visuals are killer. Introduced after the iPhone, it's obvious HTC decided to take the fight to Apple on the iCandy front, and when you consider the bright, vivid animations, the results are just gorgeous. Mad props to HTC's design firm (which I think they recently bought out -- smart move!)
Taken as set pieces alone, I'll go so far as to say that in some cases they look even better than the iPhone's older alternatives. For example, I love the weather app. The animating clouds and rain -- or snow in Montreal's case now -- are stupendous and I'd love nothing more than for Apple (or a 3rd party weather app) to steal them immediately.
The picture and contact apps are likewise beautiful.
The music app would garner similar praise if not for the downright awkward integration of the control buttons along the right side. Surely something more fitting the rest of the design could be worked up?
Bringing it all home, literally, we have the Today screen which I must admit is a bit of a let down. It's still very pretty, but the huge clock means there's not as much room for the actual "today" content I've always loved from Windows Mobile. I'm sure it, like everything else, can be tweaked, but it's a strange choice for the default.
Since the iPhone has no built-in Today app, the programs tab for the FUZE is the closest match for the iPhone's Home screen. (I am ignoring the entire secondary program tab AT&T injected into the experience -- and WMExperts will give you helpful instructions for defenestrating it entirely if you so choose). Opera is where my focus was -- though it turns out it wouldn't run off AT&T. Bummer.
Now for the negatives. As previously stated, touch on a resistive devices is like moving in quicksand after you've had a chance at a capacitive device. WMExperts will also tell you how to tweak preferences to speed this up, but check out my introduction for why I won't bother with that. Given the technology, that's understandable. What's unforgivable, however, is the poor usability chosen for TouchFlo 3D. My video shows this off better, but basically there's no consistency from one interface to the next. For mail, you have to start by swiping down. For photos, you have to start by swiping up. For music, even though the album art is presented horizontally, you need to swipe vertically. Going back to photos, once you swipe up and press really hard to choose your photo (yes, I know, use my nail, not my finger -- fine!), you then have to swipe sideways to move between photos.
And the tab bar itself? Don't get me started. It's stroke-inducing to use from a pure touch point of view. Not only is it more random application generator than launcher, compounded by the above inconsistency, if you ever gesture in a way incorrect for the exact application you're on at the time, the tab bar will gleefully decide you meant to engage said random app generator, and send you on a quick journey to precisely somewhere else.
Also frustrating, just when you're getting used to the fresh, modern, 2008 UI of TouchFlo 3D, it will dump you back out into the cold, archaic, 1999 UI of Windows Mobile 6.1. It's an entirely different user experience and frankly, it's jarring. It's bait-and-switch. It's "she ain't pretty she just looks that way" gone wired.
I previously said HTC should take TouchFlo and rather than slap it over Windows Mobile, turn it into a complete Samsung Instinct-type OS. I was only half joking. If they could get more consistent with the gestures, add a capacitive screen, and get rid of the Windows Mobile sword of Damocles, they could have a really compelling offering on their hands.
Windows Mobile Redux
Here are some screen shots. Tweak your hearts out.
See introduction. I wasn't sure how many would actually make it this far, so I pulled a little bait and switch of my own.
But there's more: After two devices in so many weeks, Windows Mobile has failed to win me over. It's powerful, yes, and configurable, bless it's kernel, but it's just not for me, not any more. Maybe Windows 7 will change my mind, but I think Microsoft's mind needs changing first. Ballmer says (in between monkey boy dances, no doubt), that Microsoft "just keeps coming and coming and coming" and that's certainly true, but they need to get there soon or the smartphone train will have left the station.
I think I'm going to officially toss my hat into the ring of those who think a ZunePhone (Xphone?) wouldn't be a bad idea, but I'm going to throw an even bigger hat into an even bigger ring and say Microsoft needs to leverage Microsoft.
Apple provides a 360 degree ecosystem for the iPhone. If Microsoft could just get their multi-marketplace'd ducks in a row and offer seamless integration from Azure Cloud to Server backend to Windows Desktop to Xbox console to Zune mobile (with consistent branding to go with it, b'okay?)... well, I'd be very worried for their competitors.
As it currently stands, however, it's old gen tech that doesn't play nice even with it's own. Great if you're anticipating Cylon invasion, not so great if you're a smartphone platform in 2008.