Call me old-fashioned but when it comes to making phone calls, I like buttons. Not virtual buttons and preferably not teeny-weeny PDA-size buttons. I’m happiest with an honest-to-goodness dial pad. I say that because I’ve recently tried out three relatively new touch phones. One is the iPhone, which I borrowed from Apple when it first came out June 29, returned and then borrowed again so I could check out the new software. I also spent a couple of weeks using Verizon’s much hyped LG Voyager touch phone and a few minutes struggling with Sprint’s Touch by HTC.
What all of those phones have in common is that you use a touch screen to dial and perform many of the functions. The iPhone and HTC device are touch only – there are no physical buttons other than a few dedicated function keys. The Voyager, thankfully, also has a full QWERTY keyboard that you access by opening up its clamshell-like cover.
One problem with a touch screen is that you need hand-eye coordination to do anything. I know I’m not supposed to dial a phone while driving, but with a standard cell phone I can easily use the speed dial function without taking my eyes off the road. Trying to make a call using a touch screen while driving is a recipe for disaster.
I must admit that I was one of many columnists who gave a generally thumbs-up review to the iPhone and I’m still impressed with many of its features, including some that depend on touch. Apple’s multi-touch interface, which has
now been added to its notebook Macs and the iPod touch, is an incredibly useful way to resize a photograph, zoom in on a Web page or move from one page to another by flicking a finger. I have a feeling that Apple is going to get a great deal of mileage from that innovation, especially if it someday winds up making Macs with touch screens. Apple is to be congratulated for having created the most revolutionary phone on the planet and it’s hard to argue with its overall success, but I’m still not a big iPhone fan. While it’s a great way to look at photos, browse the Web and consume media, it’s just not that great when it comes to making phone calls.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve misdialed with the iPhone. Although I love its visual voice mail, sometimes instead of listening to a call, I accidentally press the call-back button. I’ve also found myself accidentally redialing someone I spoke with earlier. The iPhone’s contact list feature is great – I imported more than 1,000 contacts from Outlook, but there is no search feature. To find someone, you have to touch the first letter of the person’s last name, but those letters are so tiny that even people with small hands can easily touch the wrong one as I’ve done many times.
Verizon has made a big push for its touch phone, the LG Voyager, which sells for $299 after the usual two-year contract and rebates. The Voyager has some advantages and some disadvantages compared with the iPhone.
To its credit, its touch screen gives you some physical feedback in the form of a light vibration when you touch one of its on-screen virtual keys. Also, you can open it up to reveal a real PDA-like QWERTY keyboard. Although the virtual keys are a lot bigger than the number keys on the keyboard, I found myself dialing from the keyboard most of the time because I still made fewer mistakes than with the touch screen.
Using the Voyager in this mode is a lot like using a BlackBerry, Treo or other smart-phone, except that the Voyager doesn’t sync with Outlook, so there was no practical way to get my Outlook phone directory into the device. The phone also has a very slow and cumbersome e-mail program compared with the iPhone, BlackBerry and most other smart-phones. But at least you can use the real keyboard to type your messages.
I’m more impressed with Verizon’s eNv, also from LG that sells for $149 – half the price of Voyager. This “candy bar” style phone looks and works like a regular cell phone with a decent size standard dial pad. But when you open up its clam shell, you get a QWERTY keyboard for PDA-like functions.
I spent only a few minutes with Sprint’s Touch by HTC but it was long enough to frustrate me when I tried to make a simple phone call. It has its pluses. It’s a beautiful phone, it uses Sprint’s high-speed 3G network and it has a nice, bright 2.8-inch screen. But, again, you need to use your fingers or the stylus to dial or perform other functions. It uses Microsoft’s Windows Mobile 6 software, which is good, but it would be a lot easier to use as a smart-phone if it had a QWERTY keyboard and a lot easier to dial if it had a standard dial pad.
I’d be happy if my next phone had a touch screen, but I don’t want to sacrifice usability. If I got to design my phone, it would have Apple’s multi-touch with Voyager’s physical feedback, plus a full-size dial pad and a QWERTY keyboard. There would be versions for all the major carriers and the Verizon and Sprint versions would have an unlocked GSM SIM card option for overseas use as is now the case on some BlackBerry devices and Sprint’s new Samsung ACE.
My dream phone wouldn’t be the smallest phone on the market, but it would fit in my pocket and comfortably in my hand, and I wouldn’t need to refer to the manual for basic tasks like making phone calls. Is that too much to ask?