Being an user of both Windows Mobile Pocket PC and Smartphone devices, I was interested in finding more about the reactions of users of Palm based devices when put in front of a Pocket PC. How do they compare? What do they think of the interface, what does work and what doesn't cut for these users?
I then decided to ask a Palm user to try a high end Pocket PC. What better than the i-mate Pocket PC Phone Edition (read our review), a converged device with GSM/GPRS capabilities, Bluetooth, large memory and colour screen?
I asked my friend James, a power Palm OS user, to have the i-mate for a while and write his impressions on how these devices compare. Would it be possible to convert this Palm OS user to the Pocket PC side?
My Windows Mobile Experience by J Shiell
While chatting with Mauricio one day about the finer points of Pocket PC vs. PalmOS, he was kind enough to offer me the chance to have a play with the recently reviewed i-mate Pocket PC Phone Edition. Never one to turn down toys, and having never used a Pocket PC for more than a quick game of Solitaire, I jumped at the chance.
I should point out that this article is opinion only. The Pocket PC vs. PalmOS war is an ongoing saga, and I really don't want to get involved. And I'll admit straight up that I'm sure there are plenty of utilities to make Windows Mobile nicer, just as there are for PalmOS. Suggestions are always welcome.
I'll start by saying my hopes were high. After all, I'm always hearing how Pocket PC is superior to PalmOS. They certainly have better emulators and games, and I'm very impressed by Microsoft Voice Command. They had all the multimedia trimmings while Palm was discovering colour, and even now they pack out much better raw performance thanks to the overhead of PACE on PalmOS 5 (or Garnet). And this isn't going to change until we see PalmOS Cobalt.
Was I disappointed? A little. And perhaps for the wrong reasons.
Let's start with the device itself. It's about the same size as my Tungsten T3, with a markedly smaller screen, and a slightly cheap feeling plastic construction. I was also surprised to find the T3 comes out 5g lighter, as the Pocket PC certainly doesn't have the heavy feeling that the T3 does. It's slightly thicker as well, and the case on top makes it rather large. I found it quite a bit more comfortable while calling people if the device was out of the case, but did have some small problems with the buttons on the side getting in the way while pulling the device out. The good - I don't need to carry my T300 any more. The bad – the Pocket PC can't just be thrown in a bag without care (at least, not without doing nasty things to the screen), and you look rather distinctive holding a brick up to your head. Luckily, the designers are ahead of the game – bluetooth headset support in included.
It's also got a camera, which kept me amused briefly, and is certainly much more handy than my outdated Communicam. And gives somewhat better results – more than adequate for adorning notes. And there I'll comment on one feature I loved – the notepad application. The ability to create multimedia notes is fantastic, and beats the Palm Notepad application hands down. Very tempting feature, as I find the Notepad is one of the more often used applications.
Unfortunately I didn't feel so great about the OS in general. It sounded fantastic on paper – a real file system and multitasking. In reality, I found it somewhat clumsy. Bear with me a moment before flaming, please.
Outlook and ActiveSync started to annoy me first up. I've always despised Outlook (with the exception of Outlook 2003 – I think the new interface is great, even if the email quoting system drives me mad), and being forced to sync with Outlook is unpleasant, to say the least. And I had great hopes of ActiveSync – the idea is fantastic, and most of the time it did a great job. Shame I need it to work all of the time. (Mind, HotSync can go to hell with cryptic error messages on occasion, so it's not all roses on the other side). But the most vexatious thing – that damn ActiveSync windows. I hope to God there's a setting to keep it hidden, but I couldn't find it (Editor note: I told James where to find this option!).
On both a technical and usability basis, I think the Palm fake multitasking is fantastic. It's a lovely way to, with a little work from the developer, allow the user to bounce from application to application without loosing data. And it saves greatly on resources. The downside is that you needed McPhling or a similar task list application to take advantage of it, although PalmOne's newer models has this much needed functionality built in. Also, this approach is useless for programs requiring true multitasking, such as a background network client.
So the multitasking on the Pocket PC is a godsend. However, in my opinion, they've hashed it up. The reason? Not that things keep running in the background. There are better solutions, I believe, but it's not a big problem. Instead, I take issue with their changing of the cross paradigm. On Windows, on MacOS, on GNOME/KDE/CDE and even on the Amiga OS, a click on the cross closes the application. The only exceptions – Pocket PC, ActiveSync and MSN Messenger. It's just a basic usability flaw. Also, I'd prefer an easier way of closing applications than hiding it in the system settings panel. But I can't say I saw the system performance endlessly decreasing, as used to be the complaint, so either the task manager is smarter about killing processes when necessary, or I was just lucky. I'm going to give the benefit of the doubt on that one!
At this point I gave WisBar a try. It made things nicer, much nicer. But it didn't give the nice cellphone connection status icons. So I ended up having to uninstall it. Oh well.
The other usability item that ticked me off – menus. Again, in every OS known to man (with the exception of RISCOS, where they're hidden) the program menus are at the top of the window or screen. Yet Microsoft have decided to reverse the position of the start menu and menus on Windows Mobile – and I cannot imagine why. They've a great marketing pitch when they say that it's Windows on a handheld – so why change the behaviour? But now I'm just being picky.
The start menu – I'm undecided on this one. On one hand it nice to have a quick list, and I'm still in love with the Today screen. On a organiser, you should have an organisation-centric interface. I do think it would be nicer for it to list the most commonly used applications though, rather than a static list. On the other hand, I despise the shortcut system. I despise this on Windows as well, and see no reason for it to be on a handheld (Editor note: Windows Mobile Second Edition brings a dynamic Start menu with most recently used applications).
The file system idea is, in general, great. I do get vexed that I cannot copy an MP3 straight to my Palm. But it is so much easier to install applications to the Palm – double click, done. Whereas the Pocket PC, unless they came with an installer, I had to copy into a directory, then create links. It may be a small price to play Quake, but it's still annoying. I should also point out that I'm a fan of program-centric interfaces, such as MacOS X and RISCOS, rather than shortcut-centric interfaces such as Windows. It's much easier to delete a program or drag and drop a program that to have to muck around with (un)installation programs. So the Palm does win here, in my opinion.
I must mention at this point the shocking hacked SD card support in PalmOS. My SD card works great under Windows Mobile and is painless to use. Under PalmOS it feels 'stuck on'. And it is. There's little point in using SD cards with the Palm without a third party launcher. So full marks to the Pocket PC here.
Enough rambling – what's the result? Well, much as I like Age of Empires and Quake (and I do!) I'll be sticking with my Palm for the moment. And not only because SolFree is nicer than Pocket PC Solitaire! But I've learnt a valuable lesson – the grass isn't all green on either side, and I'm willing to bet that most normal users will be able to pick one or the other and get their work done all the same. I'll also bet that if has to use a Pocket PC permanently, I'd soon find all the hacks and utilities to get around the things that bug me and find it more than usable. But not today – I'm heading back to my T3 with a new appreciation, and I'll keep waiting for PalmOS Cobalt, a decent video player and removable batteries.