Windows Phone 7 – In Focus

Samsung Focus

Samsung Focus (Windows Phone 7)

I picked up a Samsung Focus at the Microsoft Store in Bellevue on opening day. I had originally planned to stick with T-Mobile and the Dell Venue Pro, but after getting the runaround on the ETA for my pre-ordered device and some photo quality issues with the Dell, I decided to jump ship to AT&T and the Samsung Focus. After more than a year fiddling around with Windows Mobile 6.5 and then Android, I was itching for a phone that was a little simpler, and a bit more polished. I think I’ve found it in Windows Phone 7.

It’s still too early to pass final judgment on the hardware or software, but the core functions I need, great email, calendar, messaging, web browsing, and mapping, are all there. The device itself feels better than the ‘plasticky’ description I’d read in a couple reviews, which had initially scared me away from the Focus. It’s a thin, light device that slips into one’s pocket, unobtrusively.

Windows Phone 7 – North America!

I had a chance to see the AT&T offerings today, at the Windows Phone 7 launch on campus. The launch devices are pretty good, with the Focus coming out ahead in my opinion. Perhaps the most surprising thing was that the HTC Surround isn’t a complete write-off as I originally thought it to be. It feels really solid in-hand, and the design is great. Even if you never use the slide-out speaker, it still ends up being a pretty great device, and not horribly thick (13mm).

Return to BlackBerry – A Bold User Experience

Full Circle

My cellphone pants pocket has come full circle over the course of a year and a half. Back then, I was sporting an iPhone 3G, and got my hands on an early retail BlackBerry Bold. My comparison concluded with a preference for the iPhone, citing my consumer leanings, and some serious drawbacks to the mapping application and smaller display of the Bold.

BlackBerry

Over the course of the past year, I grew extremely frustrated with the iPhone’s touchscreen typing (I am atrocious at it, even with its great error correction), and moved on to a Nokia E71. I spent a good 9 months with that phone, before I swapped over to an HTC Touch Pro2. The Nokia provided me a return to the physical keypad and I loved it, but at the same time, I wasn’t very pleased with the lower resolution display. The TP2 had a fantastic 3.6″ WVGA touchscreen display (800×480) plus a giant physical keypad.

In a bout of prescience, I had commented in that iPhone – Bold comparison that HTC’s TouchFlo 3D looked great, but would be worthless if it came at the cost of a lot of performance. The TP2 was a dog of a performer, requiring regular reboots to keep in a good working state. Integration with Exchange was fantastic and MyPhone was a great feature, never leaving me worried about the synchronization state of my computer’s and phone’s contact lists.

My focus on a physical keypad was based on a significantly higher ratio of written communication than ever before. I get on average 10-15 emails per day and go through around 10 text messages in that same time-span. That reliance on email made me reconsider the BlackBerry once more (I had used a BlackBerry Curve for quite some time). A friend recently purchased a BlackBerry Bold 9000, and showed me how the platform was “just getting good when you left it“, as he put it.

So I bought a used BlackBerry Bold.

In Use

I’ve been using the Bold for the past two weeks, with a Rogers BIS data plan. Email has been much more reliable than the Touch Pro2 (I  now receive them on in prompt fashion) and the device itself is far, far more responsive. I immediately loaded BlackBerry OS5.0.411 (Swedish 3 network version, not the Bell version) onto the device, and combined with the Reverie D theme with transitions, the interface is sublime to use. Screens fade in and out without the least bit of hesitation. Things load faster than anything else I’ve used, and just as I noted even 1.5 years ago.

BlackBerry Bold 9000

The keyboard, while not nearly as large as the one on the TP2, is fantastic to use. The keys have positive action, and a nice soft click when depressed. The slight ridges on the keys make typing very accurate, despite the size. I’m finding myself belting out more emails and text messages on the go than ever before. I always needed to slide up the screen of the TP2 to expose the keypad before I could really use that device to write anything. The candy-bar format makes this more convenient.

Furthermore, the Bold 9000 is built like a tank. The fake leather backing feels great in the hand, yet at the same time resists normal day-to-day wear, unlike the iPhone’s scratch-prone surface. Not unlike the iPhone’s monolithic bulk, the Bold also has no creaks or groans during use. I popped in an 8GB microSD card, and with the included 3.5mm audio jack, I can listen to some music on the go too. The screen isn’t glass-covered, and there are a couple  hairline scratches on this used copy, but it seems like even moderate care should prevent any serious damage to it. The TP2’s resistive screen on the other hand seemed extremely delicate. Over the short while I used it, it developed several scratches on the screen. And I take care of my gadgets. All in all, a very positive feeling for the Bold’s durability. I have no worries using it anywhere.

BlackBerry Bold 9000

Browsing on the device is decent, not great. The browser that comes with OS5.0 seems capable of handling most any site I visit, with the exception of my university’s online course materials portal. Then again, an iPhone doesn’t do well on that site either. While the screen is far smaller than the iPhone or the TP2, the resolution is on par with the iPhone’s (480×320), and text looks extremely crisp on the Bold. Cramming that many pixels into this (relatively) small display creates a very vibrant, detailed experience. My previous experience with the Bold involved some frustrating time with BlackBerry Maps. I didn’t bother loading it up this time, instead opting for the free Google Maps application. On 3G, tile loading rates are good and GPS works just fine and dandy.

To top things off, I purchased a BlackBerry charging pod, which I now use as my alarm clock. It sits on my desk and I simply plop the Bold into it when I come home. It turns into a big digital clock, and I’m able to set as many different alarms as I want via the calendar. This works great as I have morning classes on Mon-Wed-Fri, but still want to wake up at a decent hour on the other days of the week. The dock looks fantastic, provides an extra bit of functionality, and ensures that my phone is always charged. Well worth the investment.

BlackBerry Bold 9000 in dock

Speaking of charged, battery life has been solid. Over the course of a normal day from 9am through 9pm, usage includes around 10 text messages, 10 minutes in calls, 20 minutes of web browsing, 20-30 minutes of Brick Breaker, some time on Google Talk, and 4 email accounts being pushed, with 3G and Wifi enabled, the phone runs down to about 70% battery. On another run over 3 days, with one day of heavier use (on par or more than the above scenario) and two of light use, always with the 4 push email accounts, the battery ran down to 15%, at which point I got a low battery indicator. Overall, very good.

But not all is hunky dory. With only BIS through Rogers, I am unable to sync my contacts and calendar over the air with my computers, without some crazy proxies in between (such as using Google Calendar). Furthermore, I have a hosted Exchange server, which syncs my desktop and laptop. With the Touch Pro2, that also meant I could use ActiveSync to sync my phone. Microsoft MyPhone also gave me a backup option, even if there was no Exchange. With the BlackBerry, neither of these options exist without BES. A real bummer. Perhaps Mike Lazaridis’ announcement on Tuesday will address this pretty key drawback.

Wrap

After 1.5 years, I find myself back with a Bold, except this time, it’s mine and I’m loving it. The level of importance I place upon reliable communications has risen over the years, and the BlackBerry platform just makes sense for me right now. The Bold 9000 is snappy and responsive and performs its key competencies, email and communications, just so very well. The QWERTY keypad is fantastic to use, the form factor is good, and BrickBreaker’s pretty darn entertaining. It’s not a multimedia powerhouse like the iPhone or other touchscreen devices, but all I need is a cursory music player, and it has that.

BlackBerry Bold 9000

If Research in Motion would go ahead and give me OTA sync of my calendar and contacts with an Exchange server or some other cloud service, without the need for BES, I’ll be very content indeed.

Windows Phone 7 will be shown off tomorrow morning, and I’ve been very impressed with what I’ve seen so far at Microsoft. I’ll be waiting with great anticipation for actual shipping hardware. Until then, the Bold will be in my pocket.

Telus BlackBerry Storm Hands-On

As I promised earlier this week, I did some more extended hands on time with the BlackBerry Storm, now that it has been released by Telus. The firmware installed on the device was 4.7.0.76, which seems to be one point ahead of Verizon’s recent firmware release.

BlackBerry Storm firmware 4.7.0.76

The device I played with at a Telus ‘roadshow’ was a preproduction unit; it even had the Research In Motion property sticker on the back. The retail device I used earlier this week probably had a newer firmware as it felt significantly faster and more responsive. The portrait-to-landscape rotations were very quick, far quicker than my iPhone, if I might say so. There was very little delay between clicking on an application and it actually opening. Scrolling through the main menu was smooth. I didn’t get a chance to check out the browser as the device wasn’t activated at the time. In general, the device felt pretty snappy, although the lack of animated transitions in some parts made the experience less polished than on the iPhone.

BlackBerry Storm versus Apple iPhone 3G

The device itself feels amazing in the hand. The combination of the rubbery sides and brushed metal back is luxurious and the heft of the device lends an air of robustness. It feels like an expensive device. It looks good, although when sitting next to the iPhone, it’s easy to see that it hasn’t quite matched it in terms of industrial design. I’m certain the iPhone will appeal to consumers more from an aesthetic point of view. On the other hand, the Storm still looks professional, despite being one of the more consumer-oriented devices from Research in Motion.

Now onto the input. A few of the people at the office hadn’t read much about the SurePress display and didn’t realize it was clickable. Others, who knew about some sort of click mechanism, thought it was a localized depression of the screen, so upon finding that the entire display moved, they were a bit disconcerted. There’s no tactile expectation for touchscreen devices and although the SurePress mechanism is a great idea, it may actually end up confusing some users.

BlackBerry Storm keyboard

This time, I was able to really analyze the typing characteristics of the Storm and boy, it’s tiring. Because the screen doesn’t rebound from a press very quickly, one automatically puts more force into the screen. In addition, to ensure all presses are registered, the typing on the Storm becomes very disjointed. There’s no flow. Normally with something like a Curve, the thumbs can press keys in rapid succession, with keypresses overlapping slightly. Here, that isn’t possible. Even with other touchscreen devices, such as the iPhone, because there is no distinct rebound of the screen, it’s relatively easy to type at a quick rate. It’s very difficult with the Storm.

BlackBerry Storm menu

I also noticed some ‘play’ in the screen itself. It was slightly loose and could be moved back and forth. That makes me worry about the longevity of the mechanism itself.

In terms of multimedia, while the user interface isn’t quite as slick as the iPhone’s, the media player is quite competent, with large album art displays and simply controls. Video playback is very fluid and clear. There’s no sign of artifacting or tearing on the 480×360 resolution display. Telus includes an 8GB microSD card in the retail package so you’re off to a good start for media storage.

BlackBerry Storm music interface

RIM also incorporated a 3.2MP camera with the Storm. This is the first auto-focusing camera module RIM has put in a BlackBerry, meaning pictures turn out significantly better than with previous devices.

BlackBerry Storm

Although I had plenty more time with the Storm this time around, my conclusions are much the same. With the shipping firmware, the device is snappy, looks great and has a big screen to rival the latest touchscreen devices. The idea behind SurePress is great, but in practice, the rebound speed of the screen is simply too slow, which makes the typing experience tiring. As a result, what had the potential to be a great competitor to the iPhone, turns out to have one of any BlackBerries’ most important features, the keyboard, compromised.

BlackBerry Bold and iPhone 3G Comparison

Introduction

First of all, let me be clear, this isn’t intended to be a full-blown review of every single little feature and function of the BlackBerry Bold. There are plenty of great, in-depth reviews of the Bold: CrackBerry, APC Mag, and more. Instead, I’m looking at this from a previous Curve and current iPhone user. I haven’t been very happy with the iPhone, especially its worse-than-mediocre wireless performance, and I wanted to see what else was out there that could replace it. After looking around, the Bold came out as the most probable candidate, given my happy history with the Curve.

BlackBerry Bold
What’s in that case?

I was lucky to get the opportunity to use a Bold for a day. This comparison tackles the larger usability points and looks at the fundamental differences between the iPhone and the Bold to see which is better suited for my use.

A Beautiful Device

BlackBerries may be traditionally thought of as ‘suit’ devices – very business-like and serious – but with Research in Motion focusing more and more on the vast consumer market, device design has vaulted up its list of priorities. The Bold is without a doubt the best-looking BlackBerry to date; I’ve used a Curve extensively and played with an 8830 on end. The chrome (plastic) ring around the device works well with the otherwise black design. The large menu and call/hang-up keys feel far more integrated into the design, as opposed to the chrome-y stubs that adorned the 8300 and 8800 series.

BlackBerry Bold

The fake leather back actually feels much harder than it might appear in photos. I half expected the soft touch of real leather (or at least some decent pleather). You certainly won’t mistake the feel of plastic for leather. It does however prevent the device from sliding around on a desk unlike the bulbous, glossy backed iPhone 3G. It also won’t show scratches, unlike other glossy phones. Great for business types who would rather worry about the meeting with the CEO rather than scratches on their phone.

BlackBerry Bold
It’s not as soft as it might look.

The Bold is a bit thicker than the iPhone 3G, but remains a pretty thin device. The chrome trim adds to overall width, but makes it feel far thinner than it actually is. The rest of the back curves in beneath the border, disappearing in the palm of your hand. The iPhone is definitely a bit easier to hold, simply due to the width differences. I still have a bit of muscle memory from the Curve and it’s a pretty big step up in width to the Bold. In comparison, the Bold feels a bit better than the 8800 series, which is just as wide, but doesn’t have the sloping back to make it feel thinner.

BlackBerry Bold and iPhone comparison

The Bold’s screen is beautiful. The Bold and iPhone both have 480×320 pixel resolution displays, but the Bold crams those pixels into a much smaller display, making it a bit crisper. A compromise had to be made to fit a hardware keyboard. It’s a trade-off between the larger, more usable display of the iPhone and the smaller, but sharper display of the Bold. Still, the iPhone’s display is still quite clear, so I’d go with the larger display in this case. Still, that doesn’t take anything away from the quality of the Bold’s screen.

BlackBerry Bold and iPhone comparison