|Touch phone round-up|
Wednesday, 21 October 2009 02:00
Touch screen technology is actually not a new thing. We have seen it being used in large format devices for a good few years already. The trusted old PDA first piqued our interest in this technology, but the iPhone took it to a whole new level. And now there`s no stopping it, as numerous cellphone manufacturers busily try to score a touchdown.
Let's get technical
When talking about touch technology, the screen of the device is obviously a very important aspect, as this is the tactile input method of operation. There are basically two types of screen technologies used in today`s touch phones - capacitive and resistive screens (see sidebar on page 31 for an explanation).
Most phones on the market have resistive screens that require a more stern touch, whereas capacitive screens require a softer touch.
According to Brett Loubser, product technical and support manager at Samsung South Africa, `the capacitive screen is a stronger and harder screen than the resistive screen`, despite it requiring no hard touch input. On a capacitive screen, you can only use your fingers, whereas with a resistive screen, a stylus or anything else may be used to activate functions and input data.
"Resistive screens are cheaper to make, which is why we see more phones with this technology. But it`s also a softer screen and more prone to damage. And because one can use other things, like a stylus, we see a lot of resistive screen phones being sent in for repairs," adds Loubser.
He notes that resistive screens also have more problems with regard to calibration and need to be calibrated more often than capacitive screens.
Resistive screens are, however, easier and cheaper to replace. The iPhone`s capacitive screen, for instance, can`t be replaced, and a new unit is needed.
Says Gartner analyst Nick Jones: "Some applications are still difficult to use with a touch screen, like the onscreen keyboard. Typing e-mails or creating documents is very uncomfortable with an onscreen keyboard. Short messages, such as SMSes, are fine with some onscreen keyboards, like the iPhone`s, but it`s a bit more difficult with the Nokia N97 or the BlackBerry Bold," he adds.
Jones says people will make different sacrifices when it comes to touch phones. "Adding a keyboard makes the phone bigger, but some people will accept the bigger size if they tend to type longer documents and find a physical keyboard better for the task." He also notes that with a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, one-handed operation is impossible, and that some people prefer the ease of only having to use one hand.
Word on the street
Lawyer Brett Tate admits that he doesn`t like touch phones. "The screen eventually gives trouble or has to be recalibrated and they often need a stylus, which I keep losing. The screens also tend to freeze up and there is a lot of inaccuracy when pushing in digits," he says.
"I like touch phones," says Khensani Masondo, who works in the media industry. "I find them a bit more convenient and easy to navigate." Her biggest gripe with touch phones is that some phones either have a delayed response time or are highly sensitive to even the lightest touch which, she says, can be "really frustrating".
On the issue of choosing a full touch phone or one with an extra input method, Masondo says: "It`s great that we have a choice. I prefer a touch phone with another form of input. While touch technology is great, it`s not perfect."
Touch the future
According to Gartner`s Nick Jones, the touch screen cellphone is here to stay. He says we will be seeing more and more touch screen devices entering the market, each focussing on a more user-friendly interface and response time.
"The iPhone is still the clear leader in this race, with its multi-touch interface that allows for zooming into and stretching images. Nokia is a late entrant to the game and lags a bit behind, but I understand they will be updating their touch phone devices soon," adds Jones.
Samsung`s Loubser agrees: "Last year, the smart phone sector showed the largest growth in mobile phone sales and of that, full touch phones saw the strongest growth." According to him, Samsung is so positive about the future of touch phones that it has brought out an entire range of full touch phones that makes up 30% of their total phone offerings.
Jones says the touch phone`s popularity is all about personal preferences. "Some people like a full touch screen phone, while others like to have another input method, like a slide-out QWERTY keyboard. Whatever your preference, I can predict that touch phone technology is going to evolve and will be a part of our future."
The iPhone - or Jesus phone as it has been called since it first saw the light - seems to be a firm touch phone favourite among consumers we spoke to. The multi-touch input is the only we have seen so far and makes for a great user experience. It`s easy to use and works from the get-go. The functionality in terms of using fingers to rotate, zoom in and out of documents or pictures, by either pinching your fingers together or opening them up, is brilliant.
The entire touch experience and responsiveness of the screen and its underlying software (which, by the way, is Apple proprietary technology) is super-smooth.
The onscreen QWERTY keyboard takes some getting used to, but we think that`s the case with all full touch phone options. Once we got accustomed to the onscreen keyboard, we found it to be very good, and the biggest all-round, in terms of overall size. It`s good for typing short messages, but not for anything remotely moving into the three-paragraph area.
Browsing on the iPhone is fantastic, running the mobile version of Safari. The pinch gestures for zooming, automatic landscape view, fast loading and tabbed browsing make for a pleasant web experience.
Digital Life says: The best touch screen and interface and the only multi-touch capability on a cellphone.
The BlackBerry Storm features a SurePress touch screen, which takes some getting used to. On first use, if you don`t know that you need to really press the screen in (providing real tactile feedback), you would think the screen isn`t working. So after pressing the screen so hard that you feel it might crack, you figure out that it needs to be pressed like a button. From then on, things get better, but not much.
The widgets and icons on the screen are large enough to find and it would be easy to use your fingers, if it was a normal touch screen and not the press-down kind. We think BlackBerry might have made a mistake on this one and should have followed the masses and designed a normal touch screen. Another disadvantage is that there is no other input method, so get used to this `other` way of touch interface, or get another phone.
When typing SMSes or e-mail messages, type in portrait mode using the SureType technology with its super-predictive text/word functionality, the usual multi-tap method, or turn the phone on its side for the QWERTY keyboard. We struggled to decide which method was the best, but tend to lean towards QWERTY.
We found there to be a problem with the accuracy of the Storm and weren`t sure whether it was due to our inaccurate aim when pressing keys on the screen or whether the tactile button-pressing requirements had something to do with it. We have to admit that we thought it was the latter.
Furthermore, the web browsing experience left a lot to be desired. Scrolling was difficult with this kind of touch interface and, in general, it did not function as we would have liked it to.
Don`t get us wrong, the usual BlackBerry functionality is great, but with the wrong user interface and debilitating input method of the Storm, it takes away from a good experience.
Digital Life says: The screen is horrible and the user interface is not the greatest on a touch phone, but the BlackBerry functions and capabilities are still good.
First off, the KP500 touch phone is not a smartphone, even though it features a touch screen. It`s more of a mid-level phone without 3G or WiFi capability.
The handset is sleek, slim, small and light, which is what people are looking for in handheld devices nowadays. But due to the size of the phone, the screen is only three inches big, not at all suitable for a touch screen. So we have a catch 22 situation - small device, too small screen.
However, we were pleasantly surprised by the touch interface. It`s simple to use, but there is a bit of a lag when changing a setting and saving it. A saved big white window almost filling the screen pops up after anything is saved and it takes about 2 to 2.5 seconds to disappear again, preventing you from doing anything else.
Web browsing is average, not because of the touch interface, but rather due to the lack of sufficient bandwidth and connection speeds. If it was a 3G phone, we think that the web browsing experience would have been better.
All in all, the KP500 is good in terms of price vs. functionality.
Digital Life says: For the price and the overall touch experience, which is average, it could give users a good "test" device to experience what touch is about.
We were completely blown away by the Jet touch phone`s lightning-fast processing speed. The AMOLED screen, although not huge, is crisp, bright and clear and a great addition to any touch phone.
The user interface is simple and effective, with three home screens that can be customised with widgets, with a tab on the side housing the icons for the various applications, which simply requires a drag-and-drop action to activate.
Flicking between the screens and menus is quick and easy, but we would have enjoyed it more if the Jet had a capacitive screen instead of a resistive one. The resistive screen means you have to be careful of too light prods, pokes and flicks as the actions won`t register.
The 3D cube menu system on the Jet is also perfect for the touch screen interface. It`s easy to rotate with a finger to switch between various applications that are already running. And did we mention this is fast? Very.
Tilting the phone on its side automatically converts the keypad to a fully-fledged on-screen QWERTY keyboard. When in portrait mode, you, unfortunately, can`t choose between alpha-numeric keypad or QWERTY keypad. The only choice is between alpha-numeric or handwriting recognition. The landscape mode houses the full QWERTY keyboard.
Not falling in the price range of high-end phones, the Jet is a "lekker" phone to have.
Digital Life says: Good touch screen despite being a resistive one, with a clever user interface and super-fast processing speeds. Nice!
SONY ERICSSON XPERIA X1
The Xperia X1 has a resistive touch screen that needs some getting used to after using and loving capacitive touch screens. The X1`s touch screen isn`t bad and gets the job done with enough pressure, but the icons and some onscreen activation keys are very small as a result of running Windows Mobile.
Most of the time you need to use a stylus if really wanting to use the full functionality of the phone and what the operating system and applications can offer. Using a finger to comfortably navigate and type text is not an option.
Luckily, the X1 also features a rather nice, full slide-out QWERTY keyboard, which is a pleasure to operate. The keyboard`s tactile feedback is pleasing and the keys feel like they`re just the right size. Typing longer e-mails and SMS messages is a breeze. The only problem is that the top row of keys is too close to the screen`s edge for comfort.
We also found the phone`s response rather lagging and at times had to wait about five seconds for changes to be affected and applications to kick into operation. That`s a pity as the phone looks and feels great.
Internet Explorer Mobile and Opera Web Browser 9.5 come standard with the X1, but Opera was our favourite. Accompanied by the full QWERTY keyboard and the touch-sensitive touchpad, navigating the web wasn`t too bad, but as mentioned before, there was some lag on the phone.
The X1 also features numerous home screens or panels for various applications, which can be customised. It`s a nifty idea and the panel`s user interface holds some promise, but until the problem with the lag has been addressed and it offers a more seamless integration, it`s more of an irritation than a value-add.
Digital Life says: Not the best experience, from a touch perspective, and it is rather sluggish at times. The slide-out QWERTY keyboard is good, though.
HTC - TOUCH PRO2
The upgrade of the Touch Pro, the Touch Pro2, now features an enhanced TouchFLO 3D interface, which we enjoyed. Sometimes you find yourself in the familiar Windows Mobile user interface, where you have to get out the stylus to activate some of the smaller onscreen buttons, but this is seldom and really only when making settings changes.
However, as part of this improved Windows Mobile integration, most of the touch focus areas have been enlarged to be more finger-friendly, making navigation much easier.
The TouchFLO 3D interface is smooth and not as slow as in the previous version, but still not close to the speeds of the iPhone or Samsung Jet.
The touch screen is responsive and might just be the best resistive touch screen we`ve seen. It`s closer to a capacitive touch screen than any of the other phones we checked out. We liked the zoom strip just below the screen, which means you can easily enlarge images, maps and web pages by sliding a finger across the strip.
Due to the better resistive screen, typing on the onscreen keyboard is easy and comfortable. The slide-out QWERTY keyboard is great, with its layout similar to that of a normal PC keyboard, with the spacebar where it should be. The tilt of the screen also makes for a far better typing experience.
Digital Life says: We liked the hardware and the user interface, and the QWERTY keyboard layout is pleasant to use.
We really hoped the Nokia N97 would make a good impression on us, and it did - sort of.
The resistive touch screen is not overly bad or overly good. One must simply remember to use a bit of pressure. The Symbian user interface is intuitive, easy to manoeuvre and ultimately very user-friendly.
The desktop Symbian widgets look nice and are not too small, but because of the resistive touch screen, dragging widgets around the desktop becomes a bit of an issue, because you have to press down to register an action and keep it down while sliding the widget. It`s simply not as reactive as a capacitive screen.
We like the intuitive interface and home screen that can be populated with whatever widgets you want and RSS feeds, activated by just pressing on them.
Typing on the onscreen QWERTY keyboard was acceptable, but not mind-blowing. Typing short messages is fine, but when it comes to the longer e-mails or documents, use the full slide-out physical QWERTY keyboard, which is average. The spacebar is to the far left and it will take while to reorganise your brain to remember that.
Digital Life says: Very user-friendly and simple to understand, presenting an above-average touch experience and a good all-round option.
Digital Life recommends
We must admit that in terms of touch screen technology in phones, nobody beats the iPhone`s multi-touch interface - yet. The iPhone also integrates beautifully with other Apple products.
However, if you`re not big on Apple, we would recommend the Samsung Jet. We`re impressed by its processing speed, ease of use and functionality, and would seriously consider this phone when opting for a full touch phone that is not the iPhone.
When thinking of a touch phone device with an extra input method, like a full slide-out QWERTY keyboard, which we strongly support at present, it`s difficult to decide between the Nokia N97 and the HTC Touch Pro 2. If we really have to go with either one, we`d favour the Touch Pro2 over the N97, even though it runs Windows Mobile and is more expensive. We`d still recommend it because the touch screen is much more responsive and easy to use and the physical QWERTY keyboard does not look completely different than that of a normal PC keyboard.
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