It’s time for a new phone. After repeated drops on concrete and tile floors, my Palm Treo is starting to act up a bit. I haven’t been able to surf the web in a reasonable fashion since Palm and IBM had a falling out over the Java program the Treo needs to run Opera Mini. And with my AT&T contract up next month, it was time to figure out what my next phone would be.
After spending hours online and after playing with the available smartphones at both the Verizon and AT&T stores, I’ve concluded that the best touchscreen smartphone available, at least for my needs and wants, is not the iPhone. It’s the Palm Pre Plus.
In order to understand my reasoning, you need to something about me and why I bought my Treo in the first place.
I’m a trained electrical engineer with an advanced degree. That should suggest a number of stereotypes – nerdy, overweight, socially inept, and so on. While not all of the stereotypes apply, a couple of them do, and one more so than most. The stereotypical engineer is known for being able to focus on a task at hand to the exclusion of all external stimuli, a condition generally referred to as “tunnel vision” (and entirely distinct from the medical condition of the same name). I generally consider my tunnel vision as an asset because it enables me to focus and work very efficiently on one thing at at time. Tunnel vision makes multitasking more difficult, however, and so I rely on external stimuli to break into my concentration when I need to break out of my tunnel vision. So when I have to get to a meeting, I rely on my pop-up reminders on my Outlook calendar.
But sometimes I’m not at work when I have a meeting I need to remember, and after missing a critical 8 AM training session and another 8:30 AM meeting, I concluded that I needed a phone that would remind me sufficiently in advance of my early morning meetings that I could make it to my meeting from home even if I’d forgotten about the meeting entirely. So I needed a phone that would synch up to my Outlook at work.
When I went shopping for that phone, I couldn’t afford an iPhone (and didn’t really want one anyway) and the two main choices were manufactured by Palm and Blackberry. However, I figured that I’d be pressured by some of my coworkers to hook a Blackberry into my work email account, and as I actually like to turn off work when I leave my desk at the end of the day, I specifically chose a phone that I didn’t think could link into my employer’s email system. So I went with a Palm Treo.
Since buying my Treo, however, I’ve discovered why the Blackberry earned the moniker “Crackberry.” Sure, I don’t have a Blackberry, but my Treo has enough features that I now use it for my personal email, for meeting notes (via a Bluetooth keyboard), for keeping track of my errands and the grocery list, for texting my wife that I’m finally done at work and will pick up some beer on the way home, and so on. So all those features that were incidental when I bought my Treo have since become necessary features in my next phone. Oh, and I’ve got to have a touch screen – the damn little Blackberry trackballs and quasi-mice are just too much hassle.
The only feature that my Treo doesn’t have that I must have in my next phone is a decent web browser. Palm relied on IBM for their Treo Java engine, and then Palm and IBM had a falling out – right before I tried to upgrade to Opera Mini using a Java engine that was no longer available. So I’ve been dealing with a really crappy broswer on my phone for the last two years.
Luckily for me, however, all the Treo features that I use on a daily basis are standard in nearly all smartphones today, either built in or as an app I can purchase for a nominal one time fee. Except for the web browser, anyway – there are many phones out there that have a built-in browser that is only slightly better than the one on the Treo.
When I went into the Verizon store, I went in hoping that I’d be left along to fiddle with the smartphones, and that I’d be able to play with all of the touchscreen phones enough to decide whether any of them were any good. Forty-five minutes later I left the Verizon store having experimented with the Pre Plus, all the HTC phones, the Blackberry Storm, and the Motorola Droid. When I left the AT&T store 30 minutes after that, I’d experimented with the iPhone, a Garmin phone, and two more HTC phones. After playing with phones for nearly an hour and a half, I chose the Pre Plus even though it meant the hassle of porting phone numbers from one provider to another. Here’s why.
First off, I couldn’t get the handle of any of the five different HTC phones I used. The default screens were hard to read and the navigation screens were not intuitive to me. I couldn’t figure out how to switch the Garmin phone from road navigation mode to phone mode, so that meant it was pretty much out. That left the Droid, Storm, iPhone, and Pre Plus.
What did in the Motorola Droid is a usability problem. Because I use the physical keyboard on my Treo a lot, I need a decent physical keyboard or a usable touchscreen keyboard. The touchscreen keyboard on the Droid was hard for me to use, either because my fingers are too large or for some other reason. But the slide out physical keyboard was even worse. Look at the Droid image at right – see that little rectangle between the right side and the keyboard? It’s a navigation panel, and while I’m sure it’s hand to have there for moving around websites, it seriously impeded my right hand when I was thumbing out text on the keyboard. Sure, I wasn’t entirely thrilled with how the Droid’s user interface, and the web browser was just OK, but it was the keyboard that was the Droid killer.
The Blackberry Storm was much better than the Droid in nearly all ways. It didn’t have a physical keyboard, but the screen keyboard was pretty good. The user interface was clean and reasonably intuitive for me. I’d even go so far as to say that I think the user interface is better than the iPhone’s. And I was pretty sure that I was going to end up going for a Storm – until another customer had taken the Storm I’d been using and I was forced to use a different display Storm. That’s when I discovered that the second Storm’s screen was much more responsive than the first Storm’s screen. The web browser was just OK, but I knew that I could download at least one decent browser for the phone off the web, but it was questions about the long-term reliability of the Storm screen that did in this phone.
That left just two phones, the iPhone and the Pre Plus. Both are reasonably user friendly and both have multitouch screens, but that’s about where the comparison ends. A number of things pushed me away from the iPhone and toward the Pre Plus – the user interface, multitasking, and Apple. First my problems with Apple.
I’m not a fan of Apple products. I use iTunes not because I want to, but because, much to my personal chagrin, there’s really no better options out there for managing my music collection. Similarly, I use an iPod largely because it interfaces cleanly to iTunes. And yes, iPad branding jokes aside, Apple does make high quality, usable products. Apple has also earned a place right below Microsoft on my list of “tech companies to avoid because of borderline unethical business behavior.” Their products are expensive, they aggressively don’t permit Mac clones, and they jealously product iTunes in a fashion that is, in my inexpert opinion, monopolistic. So I don’t buy or use Apple products whenever I have a chance to avoid doing so. But I do own and grudgingly use Apple products sometimes when there are no better options, just as I own and grudgingly use Microsoft products.
The iPhone user interface appears to be a screen full of icons that you scroll through to find the thing you’re looking for. The problem is that I can’t stand the visual clutter of that kind of user interface – just look at my PC’s desktop. I don’t let myself have any more than two columns of icons on the left side of my screen because any more than that and I start losing track of where everything is that I need to use. I’m not looking forward to discussing with my wife what shortcuts to delete from the shared family computer now that it’s got three columns of icons instead of just two. This is why, in my time experimenting with the iPhone, I spent some time trying to figure out how to hide all those pages and pages of scrollable icons. I couldn’t figure it out, though, resulting in a strike against the iPhone. By contrast, the Pre Plus hides the icons by default and they’re easy to call up – and to dismiss – whenever you want them.
Another interface difference between the Pre Plus and the iPhone is the fact that the Pre Plus has a physical keyboard that I can use in addition to the touchscreen keybaord – the iPhone has only the touchscreen. And while the iPhone screen keyboard was the best of the screen keyboards I tried (I didn’t think to try the one on the Pre), it’s not as good as the physical slide-out keyboard on the Pre Plus.
I didn’t bother to check the iPhone’s default web browser, however – I’ve got enough friends and family who have iPhones already to know that the browser is just fine. But the default browser on the Pre Plus was just beautiful – I could zoom in and out using the Pre’s multitouch screen easily, and it was easy to scroll around on big pages.
But perhaps the biggest advantage that the Pre Plus has over the iPhone is the Pre’s ability to multitask. I bounce back and forth between email, web, meeting notes on my current Treo, but it takes the phone a long time to shut down one task and to open up another. When I experimented with the iPhone, it responded faster than my Treo, but it still shut one task down before it opened up another, and that takes time. In contrast, the Pre Plus has the ability to multitask different programs on different “cards” (think of them almost as tabs) that you can scroll through. Not only that, but you can have at least three cards partly visible on the screen at the same time – one to the right, one centered (the one you’re using), and one off to the left. So I could have my email, my browser, and my memos up and running at the same time with just a quick drag on the touchscreen between them. Not so the iPhone.
I didn’t know what phone I’d find was “perfect” for me. I figured it would probably be the Droid or the Storm when I started. But after it was all said and done, the best phone out there for my needs and wants at present is the Palm Pre Plus.