Learning To Love Windows Mobile

Faithful readers know that I have been a Palm, and specifically Treo, fan for a very long time. And while I think that Palm software still has by far the best designed user interface of any smartphone, my recent experiences with an AT&T Treo 680—crashes, freezes, lousy voice quality, and barely adequate battery life—have me casting about for an alternative.

There are lots of good BlackBerry choices from Research in Motion, but for the moment I’m focusing on Windows Mobile devices. I’ve been using Windows Mobile smartphones since the days the software was called Pocket PC Phone Edition, but I have always found the Microsoft-based products, including the Windows Mobile Treos, much clunkier than the Palm equivalent.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been playing with a Motorola Q9h from AT&T ($199 after mail-in rebate with two-year contract). The smartphone, which runs the latest Windows Mobile 6.0 software, is less clunky that earlier versions but, for a die hard Palm user, still takes some getting used to. (Note: Everything that follows applies specifically to the Q9h and not to other Q or Q9 models; they’re different.)

I use Motorola's Good Mobile Messaging for corporate email, contacts, and calendar on my Treo so to keep things as even as possible, I ran the same software on the Q. The only real difference: The Q's smaller screen has room for only eight lines of text, versus 10 on the Treo.

Moto's redesign of the Q has fixed a couple of the most annoying features of Windows Mobile phones. For example, switching to speakerphone mode used to require burrowing through menus. some folks probably never realized that Windows Mobile phones could be used as speakerphones. The Q9h has a button on the keyboard that turns the speakerphone on or off. There are also dedicated buttons to bring up email, contacts, calendar, and the camera software. I do wish these buttons were all grouped together like they are on the Treo; the mail button is just below the screen, while the others flank the spacebar at the bottom of the keyboard. My other keyboard complaint is that the backspace key, which does double duty as the back key when dealing with menus, is located to the lower right of the five-way navigation control; it should be part of the main typing keyboard.

Motorola has taken advantage of Microsoft's loosening of its once iron-bound control of software on Windows Mobile products. The most dramatic change was the choice of Opera, rather than Mobile Internet Explorer, as the default Web browser. Opera is better in just about every respect, but especially in the rendering of big Web pages on a small screen. It does it better than any browser but Safari on the iPhone, and is especially impressive when AT&T's spotty 3G network lets you take advantage of the Q9h's high-speed data capabilities. Moto also includes Documents to Go, which does a better job of handling Microsoft Office files than Microsoft's own software.

One of the weakest points of the original Q was its poor battery life. This is improved dramatically on the Q9h.The standard battery easily got me through a day of heavy email and light voice use, and the extended life battery, which adds a few millimeters of thickness to the Q's slender profile, stretched that out to two days.

I'm still not as comfortable with the Q9h as I am with my Treo, but at this point, I think that may be due more to lack of familiarity than any inherent deficiencies. Oddly enough,. one thing I don't miss at all on the Q is the touch screen; it;s there on the Treo, but I rarely use it anyway.

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