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First Smartphone

Posted: July 10, 2011 0:20:40 • 1729 words

After many, many years of holding out, I now have a smartphone. It's the HTC Evo Shift, an Android device from Sprint. The Evo was their flagship 4G (WiMax) phone, with every feature you can possibly think of, and it was intended to be the "iPhone killer". So, what could they possibly add in the Evo Shift to make it a different phone? A slide-out hardware keyboard, because not everyone likes typing on a touchscreen.

For all my techie-nerding and what-not, the main thing that held me back from getting a smartphone was that I prefer my phones to be pretty utilitarian. Beautiful designs are nice, but in a device that's going to see heavy use on a daily basis, in a wide variety of non-ideal environments, practicality is more important. Plus, I dislike conductive touchscreens, especially for typing (I have big fingers and shaky hands), so anything without a hardware keyboard was a big no-no. I would've preferred a hardware number pad too, but no company seems to have any intention to make a device like that, and to be honest, I'm not sure how something like that would work without being ungodly huge.

At Anthrocon this year, two factors played into my decision to go phone shopping. For starters, my old phone started having a lot of Java I/O errors while trying to use any applications to gain network access. Email worked, but none of the third-party apps could connect, ever. Not even the ones that came with it. So, being unable to even use Twitter was kind of a pain, especially since I kinda spend a lot of time on it. Additionally, it seemed I was pretty much the only person I spent time with at the con who didn't have a smartphone, and while trend-following isn't my thing, I started thinking it could be pretty handy. There were other factors, too, like the fact that no one develops apps for WinMo 6, rendering my PDA artificially obsolete.

I actually planned on getting a Windows Phone 7 device, because I've been using Windows Mobile on my PDA for so many years, and on the surface, I really liked a lot of the things they did with the new version of it. Until I started some in-depth research on it. I already knew that Microsoft completely re-built it from the ground up, but apparently, they decided to also go in a completely different direction with it. While Windows Mobile was never overly popular, it had a lot of really awesome features, like strong integration with Outlook, and natively posessed quite a few desktop features that were unheard of on early smartphones, like full multi-tasking and full cut/copy/paste support, just to name a few. The best part? It was always a fully-open development environment, to the point that I didn't even know Microsoft had an app store until about a year into owning my PDA.

So, I was actually pretty excited to see a new version of it, and Sprint happened to have a WinMo phone that looked pretty darn neat. Upon researching app compatibility, before making the mental commitment to buy it in the near future, I discovered that Microsoft essentially stripped out everything that WinMo 6 did right, and merged what was left with everything iOS did wrong. To name just a few of the issues I found:

  • WM7 has absolutely zero backward-compatibility with software for previous WinMo versions. While WM6 could run apps that were developed as far back as 2003, a big help for a lot of unique software, WM7 throws all that out the window.
  • WM7 apps run in a high-level sandbox, and can't even do something as simple as a network connection without going through the Silverlight environment. So, things like Remote Desktop are now impossible, and even something as widespread as Google Maps could only be accomplished through a clunky homebrew app. Microsoft apps, of course, can run at system-level and bypass all that BS.
  • WM7 has a completely closed development environment, Apple-style. There isn't even an option to install software from non-Microsoft sources.
  • WM7 has no multitasking. Instead, it emulates it, iOS-style, by allowing certain specific types of notifications/homescreen tiles to sync in the background.
  • WM7 is 100% reliant on cloud-computing, something I would've expected from Google more than from Microsoft. It's not even possible to synchronize data or files via direct-connection to a PC, other than pictures. I thought that sort of idiocy died with the era of the smartphone, but it gets worse, there's no removable memory. You're pretty much stuck with whatever's hard-wired into the device, and the internal memory can't be removed to copy files manually. The worst part, though, the absolute dealbreaker, was that they completely killed any sort of synchronization with Outlook. In order to sync my contacts, calendar, and what-not with the phone, I'd have to set up a Hotmail account and install an app on my PC to sync Outlook with that.

At that point, I was pretty bitter on the whole idea, but I did some research on Android, and found that a number of my preconceptions about it weren't quite right. For example, the aforementioned cloud-centric crap? While Android is set up to work that way as well, it's also set up so that you don't have to do it that way if you don't want to. And I don't want to, I've had semi-irrational trust issues with Google ever since they first launched Gmail, so I'm not in a hurry to hand over the contact info for every person I've ever met, or trust them with my email. Anyway, that's another post, the point is that I want to use my computers (or pocket-computers) the way I want to, not the way some company wants me to, and to my surprise, Android was the platform that fit the bill. And, oddly enough, the Evo Shift was significantly cheaper than the WinMo phone I looked at, despite being a vastly more capable device.

So, I now have a smartphone, yay! And, in the first couple of days since buying it, I've discovered what a huge leap it was from my PDA. The PDA was a step in the right direction, since it has all the capabilities of a smartphone, just without the "phone" part, but in retrospect, it was fundamentally different from the smartphone "experience". With the PDA, I was entirely reliant on wifi for any sort of internet capabilities, and without that, it was basically just a stupidly-heavy Palm Pilot. What I only realize in retrospect is that the freedom of a cellular network is what really makes a smartphone worth having, because without that, it's basically just a really tiny laptop. Granted, wifi is an important feature to have in a phone where I live, because Sprint's 3G coverage is pretty "meh", and I'm a hundred miles from the nearest 4G/wimax service (and you're screwed if you have a GSM carrier, AT&T has like two towers in the entire Shenandoah Valley). But, the fact that I can use the 3G for internet access anywhere is really awesome, in ways that I couldn't imagine before I got this.

There were a couple bumps in the road, though, like the bait-and-switch Sprint pulled with the pricing. They proudly advertise smartphone plans starting at $69.99/month (unlimited-everything, plus a bunch of extra fluff no one uses), and since I don't need a ton of weekday minutes, it's a pretty good deal. Plus, that's only about $15 more than my current voice + data plan. What they don't mention until the end of the purchase process is that there's an additional $10/month charge for smartphones, making the cheapest plan $79.99/month. Still cheaper than their competitors, but that's $25 more than my old plan, just for the privilege of having a smartphone, since that's really the only thing that changed. I actually almost walked out of the store because of it, but it occurred to me that I can get my revenge. This phone has the capability of acting as a wifi hotspot, something I've wanted for years, and considered getting as a separate data plan (before I decided to get a smartphone). It's an extra service, though, for an additional $25/month, and while I initially considered getting it in a couple months, Sprint's hidden fee solidified my decision to go with the other option: Gain root access to the phone and use it as a hotspot for free.

The best part, though? I can maintain connectivity to email and Twitter seamlessly when I leave the house, but I can also turn them off. Most of the time, it's really convenient to have access to my email on-the-go, and my old phone did such a poor job with it that I only kept one of my accounts on it. Now, I have a phone that's almost as capable with email as a desktop client, and that's pretty darn cool. But, I often like to have an escape from my computer, and it's a very simple affair to kill email and Twitter apps. In fact, I do it whenever I'm home, since there's no need for my phone to be anything but a phone when I'm in the same residence as my PC.

The other best part? The Google Voice app. I've been using GV since it launched, to get free SMS, but it was always a little clunky to use on the go. Mostly because my options were to get into it via the web interface over the world's slowest WAP browser, or use the email bridge, but that only worked if I was replying to an existing message. On an Android phone, however, I've effectively completely replaced the built-in text message capabilities with Google Voice, and it's as seamless as normal texting would be. It's even integrated with my on-phone contacts. And, while part of my aversion to texting was a protest against the obscene prices that American cell companies charge for it, the bigger issue was that I don't like having a communication medium that requires me to type on a phone, even when I'm at a computer. With Google Voice, it's super-easy to use from my PC (or any PC), and now it's equally easy to use from my phone, so I can text like a normal person.