Friday, September 12, 2008

Considering upgrading to a touch-screen smartphone

Believe nothing you read (especially this blog post!) In particular, if you are considering buying a mobile phone or other gadget, base your decision on technical specifications and online reviews at your peril. It may seem self-evident, but go into a shop and try before you buy.

I have had two mobile phones in the last fortnight. The first went back to the shop with much ranting after four days and a lot of frustration. I am delighted with the second. However, to read numerous mobile phone reviews, you'd think there was some sort of contest.

I didn't believe the hype over the iPhone, especially since I loved having a Nokia N73 with a 3.2MP camera and a Carl Zeiss lens, and was concerned about the iPhone's underpowered 2MP attempt. I also didn't fancy paying £100 on top of my existing contract.

After reading a number of reviews, I picked up a Samsung Omnia last Friday. In less than a week, I returned it to the shop. There is no point having 'everything', if getting to it makes you scream.

User interface

I found the user interface and controls on the Samsung i900 Omnia worse than the Nokia N73, something I would have previously believed impossible. There were several different home screens, which I could navigate between:
  • Apple iPhone-like screen with large buttons, which could be selected with my fingers
  • Standard Windows Pocket PC screen with a clock in the centre and tasks/calendar on the bottom
  • 'Widget' screen. This is shown on adverts for the Omnia. There was a limited choice of 'widgets', which could be pulled from a dock on one side of the screen using fingers
Navigating around these three menus to find what I wanted was confusing, and the 'widget' screen had so few widgets that it seemed to be merely a gadget.

The main problem, however, was that the finger-operated menus were just cosmetic. If I wanted to change settings or access folders, for example, I was thrown back to a standard Windows Mobile interface. This didn't seem to have changed since Cedric, the HP iPAQ Pocket PC I bought in 2000. The Windows Mobile menus had very small text and scroll bars, which needed a mouse or a stylus to operate.

Unlike Cedric, who had a sleek, silvery, in-built stylus, Samsung had included a stylus as an afterthought. It was a lipstick-like, telescopic thing that hung off the phone like a charm. In just two days, I had almost lost it twice.

Some of the scrollbars were so close to the edge of the touchscreen that they were hard to select with the stylus. Thoughtfully, Samsung had provided yet another control method for these occasions. The Omnia has a small, square optical mouse pad that I could use to control an onscreen cursor.

So, to recap, everytime I wanted to change a setting or access a file I had to use: 1) my finger, 2) a stylus and 3) a tiny optical mouse pad, in quick succession.

Screen

In bright sunlight, the screen became so faded it was almost unreadable. However, it seemed quite bright indoors and comparable with most portable devices I've owned, so I was reasonably happy with it until I put it side-by-side with a colleague's iPhone. Apple have a reputation for producing beautiful screens and, unfortunately for the Omnia, the quality bar is now much higher than it used to be.

Camera

Compared to my Nokia N73, photographs looked slightly blurred and washed out. I was disappointed because the Omnia's camera was 5MP. I suspect the lens wasn't as good quality as the Nokia.

Unfortunately, I can't show any example photographs because I didn't transfer the ones I took to my PC before taking the Omnia back.

Functions and software

Fans of Windows Mobile smartphones boast that there are hundreds of thousands of programs available for the operating system.

Unfortunately, as I found out, this isn't much use if they don't work. I spent most of Sunday attempting to a) sync the Omnia with my PC, b) change the background image to one I had created, c) download the Pocket Informant diary programme, d) change my ringtone and e) download some games.

This took around six hours, of which half an hour was spent looking for the stylus. Part of the problem was that syncing and changing settings was immensely frustrating due to the user interface problems.

The main problem, however, was that the Omnia has a non-standard sized screen (240 x 400, if you care about such things) and a confusing set of control options. When I downloaded one of my favourite Pocket PC games, Marble Worlds, for example, it didn't use the full screen and I couldn't control the ball. I could get the ball to bounce up and down on the spot but I couldn't move the ball despite pressing every button, wiggling the optical mouse, and prodding the screen with my fingers and the stylus.

Conclusion

I spent much of the summer of 1990 trying to install a 3-button mouse on MS-DOS. Admittedly, I might have been more successful if I wasn't aged 10 at the time. But, as the holder of a PhD in geoinformatics, I'm significantly more technical than the man in the street.

So, if I found this mobile phone virtually impossible to use, why are mobile phone pundits comparing it favourably to the iPhone? How can a 5MP camera, or the ability to prod and squint at MS Word documents, make up for the hours of time wasted trying to do the simplest thing?

It may be because the sort of people who write about mobile phones are also the kind of people who choose a mobile phone on its technical specifications and want to spend six hours of their weekend configuring it. It's a hobby, just like assembling a PC from scratch or building airfix kits, and it's not enjoyable unless it's a challenge. Alternatively, perhaps 'mastering' the Omnia is a status symbol, demonstrating technical prowess that resorting to an iPhone with its big, childishly coloured buttons does not.

For the rest of us, it's not surprising the iPhone has attracted so much praise if the Omnia really is the competition. Since I grew out of programming MS-DOS many years ago, I now have an iPhone.

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