Two Weeks Touching It (The Sprint Touch)


Six months ago I got a sneek peek at the iPhone.  A beautiful piece of machinery lacking only in 3 critical places:  It is a 21st century network device tied to a stone-age cellular network.  Its on-screen keyboard is clumsy (though far better than others up to that point).  It is a new OS and has little 3rd party dev support (partly because it’s new, but mostly because Apple has willfully denied developers the tools needed to create apps for it).  As a full time media player and part time PDA/Phone, it really does shine.  Though not quite as obscenely successful as predicted, it certainly hasn’t been a flop.

TouchStill, it wasn’t for me.  I do a large number of things with my phone that simply aren’t possible with an iPhone.  Things like real Exchange synchronization, turn by Turn directions, remote management, even having a decent scientific calculator on hand.  The iPhone is a technological marvel, but just doesn’t have the software to do what I want.

Six months ago, I was still pretty happy with my Windows Mobile 5-based Treo 700wx.  Certainly less beauty and more utility, the Treo has definitely my favorite phone to date.

Six months ago, I also alluded to the HTC 6800 "Mogul" and HTC 6900 "Touch".  Having previously owned the Sprint 6600 and 6700, I had already been soured by the poor performance of HTC’s Windows Mobile based phones, as well as the slide out keyboards which I find annoying.  The Mogul, a large, heavy, side-keyboard-sliding brick, reminiscent of the 6700 was just not going to cut it.  But what about the Touch?  Here’s what I said about the Touch six months ago:

"HTC has also launched the “Touch” phone, which is a bit more marketing than functionality. It’s not a multitouch display, but it plays one on TV. Really, it appears to be little more than a Today screen enhancement for Windows Mobile 6, IMHO.

HTC does a lot of great work, but they just seem to miss the boat when pulling it all together into a consumer device."

Turns out the early call on the Touch was accurate, but incomplete.  That is to say, it is a good device, but I’m more impressed with what doesn’t come with the phone than what does. With that, here’s my thinking:

Physically, the Touch is a well designed device, lightweight but solid.  It feels better in the hand and on the ear than the Treo, which is bulky, or iPhone, which is absolutely flat.  Far smaller than I expected it to be, it is about half as thick as my Treo, and does not have the protruding antenna, which is a big plus.  In fact, it is so slim I can very comfortably and unnoticeably carry it in a pants pocket instead of a holster.  Yes, geeks, you no longer have to leave your phone in the car to avoid looking like a looser on Saturday night at the clubs.

The surface mount screen is a subtle but important difference from all other Windows Mobile based phones, and something that the industry should simply adopt universally.  The Treo, and every other device I have owned, has a raised bezel around the screen that makes touching scroll bars, the OK button, the Start Menu, or any other items on the screen edge a major hassle.  But, not only can you hit corner-lying pixels with ease on the Touch, HTC was forward thinking enough to extend the touch sensitivity out past the pixels a little bit, making it that much easier.  I have found myself, almost intuitively, using the netherzone outside the pixels almost every time I use the device.

This past-the-edge sensitivity was designed to support HTC’s TouchFLO interface, which, getting back to my pre-release commentary on the Touch, really is little more than marketing.  You flick your finger from the bottom edge of the screen upward, and up pops your picture-dialer… slide your finger from the edge across the device and you get panels of launchable applications.  Big whoopdeedoo.  Sure, it looks cool, but it is still far more efficient to launch apps from other launchers, including the start menu, which HTC has thoughtfully super-sized for finger friendliness, as well as the HTC Home plugin for the Windows Mobile Today Screen.  So the TouchFLO in it’s current form is a bit useless to me, but the idea of launching applications with a finger gesture IS a solid idea that I think would be extremely useful. Imagine, for example, dragging your finger across the top 3rd of the screen for one app, across the center for another, and across the lower third for another.  Maybe left to right vs right to left, etc.  You could have a good 10 or so "quick launch" gestures with simple horizontal and vertical strokes.

The Touch’s screen, while not nearly as "mushy" as other WM devices, does not even come close to the sensitivity of the iPhone’s multi touch display.  The Touch should really be called the Press.  The Touch likes it rough, baby, no pansy fingering here.

Screen_03 The Touch does not come with an automatic touch/key/screen gaurd like the Treo, and The Treo’s keyguard is about perfect.  For Touch users, however, there is an iPhone rip-off called s2u2 or "Slide to Unlock" which, despite being completely unoriginal, is a necessary, and free, add-on.

Internet Explorer on WM6 sucks.  This is something MS claims to be working on for WM7-8.  However, Opera Mini is a pretty nice rip off of the iPhone’s Safari browser, with zooming and touch-panning, DIV based resizing, etc.  It runs on Java, which HTC included on the Touch, but I’ve switched to JBED Java instead, because it loads a lot faster and works better, IMHO.  The full version of Opera Mobile 9, when it releases, will have the same features the java-based Mini and more, but will cost $.

I also use a free package called PocketCM as a Contacts manager.  This is another iPhone rip-off with finger scrolling, a threaded SMS application (that doesn’t work too well yet) and filtering contacts by favorites or SMS conversations.  Stll, it is sexier than HTC’s default contacts manager, even if it is finger-scroll friendly.

Screen_01 Now, the big item, keyboarding.  Phones and keyboards have a love hate relationship like no other.  Keyboards take up real estate you’d rather save for the screen, but physical keyboards, as tiny and crappy as they may be, still make keyboarding feel more secure due to tactile feedback.  But I’m beginning to see signs of hope for the death of physical keyboards – and it’s NOT because of the Touch’s built in on-screen keyboard.

The Touch comes with 4 keyboard layouts, and tries to anticipate which one you need.  For example, at a password prompt, you are likely to get the typical QWERTY keyboard.  But most of the time, you get the 20 key keyboard which does XT9 predictive wording, or standard T9-style multi-tapping for desired letters.  The 20 key, XT9 prediction works great for typing typical words, as you can see in the picture, the large keys of the 20 key keyboard are much easier to hit than the iPhone’s QWERTY keyboard.  In fact, once you get used to the predictive text, the 20-key can be faster than typing on a physical keyboard like the Treo.  However, as soon as you type a name, a password, a website URL, anything with punctuation, etc. everything changes and you will find yourself hating HTC’s keyboard.

Screen_04 But unlike the iPhone, you actually have options, and the one I like is called TouchPal (YouTube video).  It is a 20-key keyboard that does predictive text OR character accurate input using normal touches OR finger gestures.  It works far, far better than HTC’s keyboard and is so far the best input method I have found for the Touch.  It has a couple glitches, but things which are easily handled in future upgrades.

Still, those switching from a physical keyboard will likely find that they use more garden variety words, for the sake of word prediction.  I, personally, like using non-words… "Bush-izations", if you will.  But have found that I have to stick to plain english when using a predictive keyboard because it barks at you when it doesn’t know what you’re typing, or will try to substitute its own words.  Also, you may notice some thumb cramping.  With a physical keyboard you can rest on the keyboard, moving the thumb and pressing.  On an on-screen keyboard, you have to lift the thumb and direct it to the next button in a more careful and deliberate action.  This exercises muscles in the thumb you otherwise wouldn’t use.

But still, entering passwords, email addresses and such still sucks without a keybaord.  So enter TapText and Pocket IE Form Filler.  TapText maintains a list of frequently used strings of text you can hit whenever you like.  This is great for your usernames and other frequently used strings.  Pocket IE Form Filler, however, is something that Windows Mobile users have been begging for.  This is like RoboForm on regular PC’s, you go to a website, you fill out your information, and Form Filler remembers it so you don’t have to enter it again, even after your cookies expire.  Sadly, it only works with IE, so us Opera users are SOL.

Screen_02 But what about the death of keyboards all together?  Let’s take city and local searching.  Entering Search information, just like logins and passwords, is a real pain without a physical keyboard because few words you type can be predicted.  But my hat is off to Microsoft (for once) for releasing the latest version of Live Search, which includes VOICE RECOGNITION!  And it works pretty damn well, I might add.  So you say "Wal-Mart near Lafayette, Indiana" and up pops a list of Wal-Marts near Lafayette Indiana.  With two clicks you can call it, map it, or get directions based on your current GPS location (The Touch has a GPS in it, but won’t be turned on until Q1 of 2008 via a Sprint Firmware update).  Before now, it hasn’t been very wise to try to find a location and directions while driving… there was just too much to type.  But with voice recognition, it’s a far less distracting process than, say, having a back seat driver along for the trip.  This is where having a keyboard would be entirely superfluous, and this is one of those applications that makes you feel good about ditching the keyboard.

So, why can’t I do voice dictation instead of keyboarding?  Well… this video… errr… well the video that existed last week, mentioned in engadget, from last year showed Nuance’s Dragon Dictation software being used on a Treo with good success.  Why hasn’t it shipped as a product?  I don’t know… but I want it… now.  I believe that having a good voice dictation interface would finally make me feel alright about not having a physical keyboard.

The original HTC Touch, which was released on GSM networks in Europe, had a much slower processor.  The Sprint Touch runs on the highly touted Qualcomm 400 Mhz processor, has twice the memory (much nicer than my Treo) and takes SDHC microSD cards (but it is hard to swap, so buy one card, insert it, and keep it that way).  Even with all this power, my Treo actually felt just as responsive, sometimes moreso.  This is HTC’s real deficit.  They simply don’t do enough to tweak Windows Mobile performance.  I can’t imagine how slow the GSM Touch was.

The Touch also has EV-DO rev A capability which has not yet been activated by Sprint.  This will come as an update to the phone in Q1 2008, along with the GPS support.  I do find network performance to be a tiny bit improved over the Treo, probably due to the faster processor.  Signal reception is about the same.

By the way, what do we have against buttons… really?  The iPhone has one button, the Touch has 4, plus a 4-way navigator and slider for volume.  It’s not enough.  Even if you don’t have a keyboard, having a few extra programmable buttons for things you do every day would be nice.  There’s plenty of space for them.

So after two weeks Touching myself, I’ll go back to my original statement.  The Touch that comes in the box IS more marketing than functionality.  However, the device itself is quite significant in ways that only become obvious as developers build interfaces and functionality that really speak to the realities of relying solely on a touch screen.  I have no doubt the same will soon be said of the iPhone.  At the end of two weeks, most of my interaction with the device goes through 3rd party applications.  At the risk of being repetitive, i’ll sum it up with, I like the Touch, but I’m more impressed with what doesn’t come on it, than what does.

What would I like to see? 

- A real voice dictation interface OR a physical keyboard while keeping the same form factor.

- A higher resolution screen (640×480… it may be tiny, but that’s OK!)

- More programmable hardware buttons

- Gesture-based device control that is always awaiting input, regardless what application you are in.

- Better low-light sensitivity on the camera.

By the way, I know this isn’t a traditional device review.  If you liked this review format, please take a moment and Digg it or Reddit it, or leave some feedback and I’ll write more reviews like this.

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[...] Here’s another interesting post I read today by Tech Op/Ed [...]

Jeff – Great review and very well written. I’ve had the Touch for about 5 days now and you’ve hit on the all the major strengths and shortcomings of the phone. The Touchflo is fantastic, but the lack of deep integration into the underlying Mobile 6 OS does make it a bit gimmicky. I am happy with the phone and I’m going to keep it, but that is mainly due to the high speed network and the 3rd party apps that I can use to alleviate its various shortcomings.

Keep up with the well written reviews.