Friday, October 29, 2010

Phones: First Impressions of My New Android Phone

First off, this was an open box purchase of a Motorola XT701 from Newegg. As far as purchasing open-box and refurbished gear (Thinkpads and iPods, mainly) goes, I've always had good experiences. This is the first open-box item that I have purchased from Newegg, but I've always had good experiences with them.

There wasn't much in the box: the phone, a wall charger and adapter for US outlets, a USB to mini-USB cable, the battery, the battery cover and a couple of small pamphlets/manuals. There was a 8 GB SD card already in the phone. Removing it to insert my own 8 GB SD card seemed more trouble than it was worth, so I'll be transferring my old files over via USB. The box seemed like it had been tossed around a little bit, but nothing seemed to be damaged in any way.

The phones' screen is easily bigger and has better image quality than my old Nokia E71.

Initially, I had problems getting the phone to take my Gmail and GAFYD credentials. I was chalking this up to being an "open box purchase" issue, but this seems to be a fairly common problem. Googling found that the issue is generally solved by doing a "hard-reset" of the phone, which wipes all of your data and returns the phone to its' factory defaults.

Resetting the phone lead me to my biggest "uh-oh" moment. It happened when I powered the phone up after the hard reset. Everything was in Chinese! (I believe that the main market for this phone is in China, so this makes some sense.) After some blind poking around by using the "Settings" page, I found that lower right button on the initial, power-up "home" page allows for changing the phone to other languages, including US English.

After getting through that, I could enter credentials for both my personal and corporate (GAFYD) accounts without any further problem.

I've been toying with the phone for a couple of hours. I've never even tried an Android for a significant period of time before now and I'm still feeling my way around. It is like going from Windows to MacOS or Ubuntu. I know what I want to do, but I'm not quite sure how to do it, or if I am doing it in the best or most efficient way. I'm not sure what options are open to me; I need to check out some articles for newbs and maybe subscribe to some Android blogs.

I don't think that functions are as discoverable on Android as I would like. Some items are touchable/clickable, others are simply display-only items. I don’t know which is which until I finger them, and even then I might not get a response because my fingers are too fat. I can't say that iOS, WP7 or WebOS are any better or worse in this, but I do have a new respect for the ability to hover a cursor over a control on my Windows laptop and get a ToolTip-style hint.

My open questions/issues are:
  • My calendar items have a few Chinese characters in the header. I don't know why.
  • I have Android version 2.1 on the phone. I don't know if 2.2 is available (or even appropriate) for my phone. Since I have an unlocked phone, I presume that ATTs' network isn't going to prompt me to update the OS.
  • I haven't even tried the camera yet. The phone has linked up with my stuff on Picasa, though.
  • I like to use my wifi network when I am at home, even though I have decent 3G coverage there. I don't know how to tell if the XT701 is sending data over the wifi or 3G networks. My old E71 made this very easy.
  • I still need to identify apps would be useful to me. Other than calendaring and email, which seem to be adequately covered with what is shipped in the phone, I'm primarily interested in to-do lists, punch lists, and grocery lists, which are often scribbled on scraps of paper. Everyone seems to love Evernote, but I don't want to have to learn a new product if I can make do with what I have. It is also possible that something specific (a grocery list management app) might be better than something more free form (like Evernote, or even just a Word or gDoc file) would be.
  • I would like a countdown/timer app. Which one is best for me?
  • I need to choose better alarm and ring tones. Waking up this morning was a little too exciting, with the default alarm noise.
  • I need to decide if I want to add Evernote to my repertoire and what I would do about OneNote in that case.
  • I'm disappointed that I can't directly edit Google Docs files (yet). I had hoped to upload the few tiny Word files that I update with any frequency to gDocs and edit them there, via the phone or via any web browser. Since the phone can't edit gDocs yet, I will need to stick my Word files on the SD card and use QuickOffice, or migrate the data to something else, like Evernote.

Phones: What Drove My Selection

OK, so I needed a new phone. What drove me to choose the phone I did choose?

Primarily, I use a phone as an internet device/PDA and not so much as a phone. I'm not a talker, and it irks me when I have to burn two minutes to retrieve a voicemail. I'm not worried about call quality or anything like that.

I do love email.

I am not interested in playing games, so processor speed isn't a big worry as long as it lets me type as fast as I can. I am not interested in streaming HD movies over 3G, or anything similarly bandwidth-intensive. I have 35/35 FIOS at home, two laptops and a HTPC for anything 'heavy'.

My main consideration for hardware was whether I should get a phone with a physical keyboard or not. I have mixed emotions about physical keyboards. They make the phone thicker, and I'm not always keen on the keyboard layout. I've never used a virtual keyboard long enough to get used to it. I have had a few people with Droids tell me that they use the virtual keyboard, even though they have a physical keyboard. In the end, I decided that I would go with a phone without a physical keyboard.

As far as OS goes, we have Symbian, WebOS, iOS, Windows Phone 7 and Android.
It seems obvious that Symbian has been totally outmaneuvered by iOS and Android and they are now trying to play catch-up with more modern OS designs. I suspect that Windows Phone 7 will also gain share mainly at the expense of Symbian. Nokia seems to have lost their way with smartphones, and my last two Nokia phones didn't stand up to my use very well, so I didn't even look at Nokia hardware.

When it launched, I was very hopeful for WebOS, but I was disappointed. (I've been disappointed by Palm for years and years, but that is a a topic for another blog post.) WebOS was too little, too late. I don't see Palm being purchased by HP as a very positive thing. WebOS might have a bigger future in printers than phones, and phones are where all the action is these days. If HP wants to sell a tablet with no developer support (because the developers are all busy writing for iOS, Android and Windows Phone 7), they can go ahead and try. WebOS will be a niche OS at best.

For me, Windows Phone 7 is too new to rely on. I have been using Microsoft products for over 20 years and the "wait until version 3" strategy is deeply engrained in me. Worse, I was very disappointed to read that OneNote Mobile, which ships with Windows Phone 7, does not fully support OneNote 2010. I use OneNote more than any other piece of software from the Microsoft Office suite. I already have a good deal of OneNote data up on my SkyDrive, and I'm not sure if what I have there is compatible. It is as if Microsoft is telling me to use Evernote.

(I don't want to have to wonder about what OneNote features I can use and what features I can't use. Additionally, this makes me feel like I'm paying Microsoft to use beta software. I can get weird, buggy software for free from lots of folks.)

I do not want to jump on the iPhone bandwagon. I think that Apple is the new Microsoft, or maybe AOL, but they keep pretending that they are not. (Microsoft is the new IBM. That's a topic for another day.) I don't think that Google is as hypocritical as Apple.

Android seems to have a good deal of momentum, as evidenced by Motorola's latest quarterly results. Android seems to have all of the important application categories covered as does iOS, perhaps without the same depth as iOS.

Android has the best integration for any of the data that I have which is hosted on Googles' servers.

I have been on ATT (and before that, Cingular) for many years. I talked to Verizon about switching carriers and I was disappointed with the monthly pricing, and on top of that I'd be paying $200 for a phone. Swapping carriers would have increased my costs by a $200-$300 a year.

Since I'm grandfathered into a reasonable monthly rate, I want to stick with ATT. The Android selection for ATT is anemic, so I went for an unlocked phone rather than locking into a contract in exchange for a mediocre but subsidized phone.

I spent quite a while looking over phones, capabilities, radio frequencies, etc. Eventually, I settled on a Motorola XT701. This is not a cutting-edge phone but, based on comments from Newegg and elsewhere, it should be sufficient for my needs and work well on the ATT 3G network. The XT701 does not have a physical keyboard, so I am making a bit of a leap.

Phones: What I had

For the last 1.5 to 2 years, I have been using an unlocked Nokia E71 as my only phone. I used it heavily, often for two or more hours a day. My primary uses were email, calendaring, contact lists and to-do lists, generally done through Gmail, GAFYD and Exchange servers. I also used it for alarms and Google Maps and Google Reader.

Starting over the summer, the E71 would go through periods where it would reboot itself a dozen times a day. Sometimes the E71 would reboot when I was using it, sometimes when it was in my pocket and sometimes when it was laying on a table. Sometimes I would be at the office, sometimes at home, sometimes in a car. There would be periods of rebooting, and then the phone would be fine for a few days, or a couple of weeks. The battery always had plenty of juice. There seemed to be no reason to the behavior, it just seems like a disease that E71 phones can contract. I presume that I simply dropped the phone one too many times. Back in May, I dropped the phone at a SEPTA station and it landed hard enough to put a small crack the screen.

Looking back, I am slightly disappointed with the E71. I had a simple Nokia "candy bar" WAP phone before the E71. I only used that phone for very infrequent calls (I'm not really a talker), extremely rare WAP sessions (it was just too painful) and a couple of dozen texts (via a T9 predictive keyboard) a month. I carried the phone wherever I went for about five years, but mainly I used the phone as a pocket watch and countdown timer more than anything else. I had plenty of access to web-based email through desktop and laptop computers all day long, and carrying email access in my pocket didn't seem very valuable. I might have stuck with that old phone indefinitely, but rubber covering over the on/off switch disintegrated and I couldn't reliably silence the phone, or turn the phone on or off.

With the E71, I took a leap of faith and went with a smart phone. I graduated to email, calendaring and a more reasonable web experience and better texting software as well as a monthly bill for a data plan. The Google Maps Symbian app was revolutionary. These are clear improvements (except for the higher bill). The amount of time I spent with the new phone was probably two orders of magnitude higher than with the old phone.

Even so, I feel like the E71 never reached its' full potential. Mostly, it's little things, but there were some major annoyances/bugs:

  • The version of Symbian S60 that shipped with the E71 was missing my prized countdown timer, which my several-years-old S40-based phone had.
  • The "chrome plating" on the D pad wore off in spots, and now simply looks shoddy. Most of the body of the phone is made out of metal, but the spot that gets the most frictional wear isn't. That seems a like a poor engineering choice.
  • Finding, downloading and installing 3rd party applications was a hassle. Nokia has since tried to copy Apples' App store.
  • Sometimes, browsing to certain web sites would cause the browser to unexpectedly quit, or reboot the phone.
  • The mail program didn't support threaded, Gmail-style conversations or support Gmail-style archive/delete. There is a Gmail for Symbian app, but it feels cramped on the small screen of the E71.
  • QuickOffice was OK for quick notes, but you couldn't really write with it due to the screen and keyboard size.
  • It is widely known that the camera on the E71 is poor. Whatever megapixels it might have, the pictures are frequently blurry and/or have an odd tint to them. This was supposedly fixed on the E72. In two years, I have taken only three dozen or so still pictures and a few videos, mostly for kicks. I suspect that I would have taken more pictures if I had a better camera.
  • The Nokia firmware was only updated once the entire time I used the phone. Another firmware update, allegedly improving the camera situation, seems to only be available for certain European versions of the phone.
  • The 2.5 mm headphone jack only makes things difficult when it comes to headsets and headphones.
  • I experimented with other uses for the phone, trying out YouTube, Twitter, music and podcatcher apps. I never spent very much time with them, and they quickly fell into disuse.
  • I had hoped that I could stop carrying around my iPod, but the podcast experience on the E71 was much worse and the iPod simply sounds better when playing music.