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Smartphone Touch Screens

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

Is it me? Probably

I’ve put it off for long enough, the time has come to upgrade my mobile phone.  My contract expired 9 months ago (it was an 18 month contract), therefore since then I’ve been making a monthly payment towards the cost of a handset which is fully paid for.  I therefore feel I deserve the latest and best phone to justify my monthly expenditure, whether I need it or not.  So why haven’t I upgraded sooner?  Well, my existing phone does what I want and just keeps on working.

An Electronic Swiss Army Knife

Smartphones are excellent. With a single compact device in my pocket, a Nokia N95, I have access to:

  • a good quality camera with flash and an excellent macro (close-up) capability
  • email
  • Internet web browsing
  • sat nav
  • mp3 player
  • video player
  • personal organiser

and, of course, a mobile phone with good hands-free capability

The Years BB & BI (Before Blackberry & Before iPhone)

Sadly, most people don’t realise that smartphones have been around for years – they aren’t the new invention of Blackberry or Apple or any other kind of fruit.  The first effective incarnations were proprietary – custom developments by each phone manufacturer – then in 2001 along came the first device using the Symbian operating system, and Microsoft has been providing Windows Mobile since 2003.

My first real smartphone was a Nokia 7610.  “What do I want a phone with a camera for?”.  Well, I had no choice.  The other features I wanted came in a phone which had a camera, and actually, it was quite useful but dire quality.  Before the 7610 I’d had a Nokia 7110  which with its WAP browser (anybody remember WAP? Fish.Net used to have a WAP site) could possibly be described as having ambitions of smartphone.  So when I came to upgrade the 7610 its increasing unreliability meant I didn’t really hesitate and the Nokia N95 provided all the features I wanted, apart from, perhaps, battery life and being noticeably thicker than its predecessor.

So I’ve been reading my email, browsing the web and taking acceptable quality photos (camera, not photographer) for years.

What Next?  Bad Ergonomics – everything you touch turns to iPhone

Recently it’s been time for a mobile phone upgrade and the new kids on the block are Apple’s iPhone and Android from Google.  Android is now appearing on phones from virtually every manufacturer apart from Apple (no surprise) and Nokia who is still the proud parent of Symbian.  What the iPhone and Android have done is shown just how good and effective a touch screen interface can be.  So much so, that they’ve thrown away the keypad.

And that’s the problem – they’ve thrown away the keypad.  They’ve made you believe that buttons are bad – and they’re wrong.

The touch screens and user interfaces on both the iPhone and Android phones are a delight to use.  The creation of a pinch gesture to zoom is a piece of genius.  But often I want to use my phone without giving it my full attention, and most of the time the prime role for my smartphone is to simply make phone calls.

I need buttons I can feel, with a tactile response to let me know I’ve successfully pressed them.  This is particularly important when simply making a call or hanging up the phone, or when using the SatNav.  My phone sits in a cradle in my car and I can handle most of the call and SatNav functions without ever taking my hands off the road – I don’t need to look at the screen to work out which button to press.  When I’m not driving I can even text blind most of the time.  And all because I know the pattern of the buttons and can feel exactly where they are.  The same argument applies to the camera.  The N95, among others, has a dedicated shutter button which falls exactly in the right (handed) place when I want to take a photo.

And the touch-screen phones all have a lock button to prevent you accidentally ‘pressing’ buttons with the side of your face while you’re making a call!

My Choice

So what did I look at?

I spent a lot of time looking at the latest Nokias, Sony Ericssons, Samsungs and LGs and the Android phones from most of the above.  I decided an acceptable compromise would possibly be to have separate call and hang up buttons and leave the rest to the touch-sensitive screen.  But only the early Android phones – the HTC Tattoo and HTC Hero – have these buttons, and neither of these has a flash for the camera.  From the other perspective I looked at the Sony Satio and Vivaz as these both have good cameras.  Even the impending Nokia N8 unticks too many boxes.  Other compromises could have been the Sony Experia X10 Mini Pro or the Nokia N97 both with slide out keyboards.  But the latter is now relatively old for a ‘new’ (and expensive) phone and neither provide the call buttons particularly well

So what did i choose?

I realised that in every case I was compromising my choice of phone just to achieve an upgrade, none of the options ticked all the boxes that my current phone does.  Yes I would like a bigger screen and a thinner case and longer battery life, but…

So I’m moving over to a SIM-only contract.  I’m paying less, I’m getting loads more bundled minutes and texts and at last I’m getting bundled data.  For my phone I’m going to use a couple of cast-offs from around the office – primarily an N85, but I also have my old N95 and access to another N95.

I’m going to watch and wait.  Hopefully in the next 12 months or so phones will come along which put ergonomics back above fashion.  An Android with a keypad?.  I’m not sure if anything will actually appear.  In the mean time I’ll save money and step aside from the upgrade rat-race.