This week I've been playing with the HTC Touch phone, retiring (perhaps temporarily my Samsung SGH-i600). The Touch, as it's name might suggest, is a lot like an iphone, but one that runs Windows Mobile 6. After a few minutes use it's clear that it is, in fact, nothing like an iphone but that doesn't mean it's not a good phone. I've lamented how poor recent phone releases have been and how they lack important, nay essential features resulting in much frustration.
First thoughts on holding the Touch relate to its slimness and the good size of the screen, despite the device being very small. There are 4 buttons in total (answer call, hang up call, power on/off and a volume rocker - that also allows you to switch it to silent/vibrate). The power button wakes it from sleep and shows you the home screen - the famous one with the weather icons (showing 16C and rainy in London, which would have been pretty accurate for nearly all of May and most of June). The proper "touch" interface comes alive if you sweep your finger from bottom to top and then from left to right (or vice versa). It's nice, but not great. You get access to your most frequent contacts and most frequent functions (mail, text, tasks etc) and then music/photo/videos.
I searched far and wide on the web before I got hold of the phone to see how it handled text/SMS entry. There are 101 video demos of the touch screen interface but none of day to day text entry. It turns out that the standard Windows interface is used - you can stab at a tiny onscreen keyboard using a tiny stylus (that brings back terrible memories of the iPaq), poke at the screen to make scribbles (in palmOS or Sony 800 style) or use that strange Transcriber tool (which actually works pretty well but is slow; and, for it to be effective, you have to write pretty much a whole sentence and then let it transcribe that). I tried downloading a couple of "soft" keyboards to use instead - hoping to find something that would work with two thumbs, blackberry style. There are a few that attempt this, but none are much good. One even lets you rotate the screen to landscape with a full keyboard (unlike the iphone), but even that isn't much help. Without tangible feedback and the ability to locate your fingers over keys with raised ridges, it just doesn't feel right and any speed increase is quickly cancelled out by increased mistakes.
I also downloaded a threaded text application, Textr, on trial for the next 3 weeks. It looks to work the same way as the Treo's but seems much, much slower, despite an apparently zippy processor in the Touch. That might go the way of the dodo in 3 weeks if I can't find a way to make it go quicker. I'm intrigued why Palm's threaded text application seems to perform so much faster than those written by 3rd parties. Someone even hacked the one off the Treo 750 and made it available for other Windows phones, but that looks to have been squashed now.
Overall though, there's much to like about the Touch. Windows Mobile on a full screen with touch input is better than WM on a smaller screen with no touch. Battery life is good - 3 days standby seems reasonable, with maybe a day and half if you make a couple of hours calls a day. It's slim and elegant and does all the things you need it to do. It suffers, in fact, few of the flaws that I've ranted about recently - and it even charges (and uses headphones) via a mini-USB. It's not, however, a 3g phone so web browsing is average, but there is WiFi if you really need to browse. The Vodafone Business Email client doesn't work on WM6 so there's no using that yet.
So wither the iphone? This phone is a good glance at what the iphone will be like when it launches in a few days. And my instincts say that it's not going to be what everyone wants it to be. Much as I want one, mostly for the "best ipod ever" functionality (and the sooner Apple release an ipod without the phone, the better), it doesn't look like I'll be rushing to get one, preferring to wait until the end of the year when they come here in native UK version. I'm hoping that by then, Apple will have implemented a landscape keyboard with wider spaced keys to help improve text entry. In the meantime, I'm thinking that the best way of paying for one may well be to short the stock on the day the iphone comes out - there's no way that the hype can be justified on release and once "normal" people have them in their hands and see that whilst the ads weren't dishonest, they weren't quite telling the truth about, say, browsing speeds or ease of searching for contacts, we'll see a bit of a backlash that should whack the stock for a short while. Until Apple updates the software and fixes the things that people don't like and then drops Leopard into the sales channel, sometime in October.