My Windows Mobile experience
Since the mid 90s, a mobile device of some sort has always been part of my life – from an ancient Apple Newton MessagePad 110 to the mountains of Blackberries I used to use at work at my previous employer RIM, to the latest in MS Windows Mobile phone. Yet I’ve never felt impelled to write about any of them, until now.
In 2007, going through my Crackberry withdrawal, I spent USD $420 on an HTC “Vox” (Dopod C500) Windows Mobile Smartphone in Hong Kong. 3G networks did not exist in Ontario back then, so I was opting for an EDGE phone, in the spirit of not spending money on unused features. Also, coming from a Blackberry at the time, a real keyboard with tactile feedback was a must, so I chose this phone because it’s among the handful of EDGE-only smart phones with a hardware keyboard. On specifications-alone the Vox looked plenty good. The CNet review was downright astonishing.
Little did I know, that my years at RIM spent with various incarnations of the Blackberry made me a mobile phone snob – in the first two months of owning this new phone I swore by it (while trying to figure out ways to work around numerous annoyances), but by the third, I swore at it – which was unfortunately already too late because I couldn’t sell the phone at even 1/2 of the original price. The processor was slow, the home screen required an ugly hack just to display the day of week, flapping rubber lids that could never stay closed, battery life gradually dwindled to minutes when EDGE was used, a light sensor that made the screen dimmer under sunlight (which is totally backwards), a keyboard that always skipped the first key that was typed and delayed half a second for every subsequent keypress, a crappy browser, buggy sync, the keyboard “rails” that also functioned as an extremely efficient dirt magnet – I can go on and on – its only redeeming quality seemed to be the availability of Opera Mini – this application singlehandedly gave me the resolve to not spend, and possibly waste, another pile of cash on a phone. “Give it two years, at least wait for 3G”, I kept telling myself.
It turned out, for a snob, I could tolerate a lot of phone torture. I’m either extremely patient or masochistic, or both.
Mini-review of the HTC Magic
Two years came and went, HSDPA finally arrives in Canada, and I had an Android-powered phone squarely in my cross-hair. Although my faith in HTC waned during my Vox ownership, the newer HTC hardware seemed to be okay, so why not give it another chance. A trip to Pacific Mall landed me a SIM unlocked, contract-free, Rogers-branded HTC Magic, for quite steep a discount at CAD $400, tax-included (thanks Danny!). To put things in perspective, it’s cheaper than the Vox, the phone that has inflicted excruciating misery upon my well-being for the past two years.
The HTC Magic is the second Android phone. Its touch screen interface some say is an iPhone wannabe, and I don’t dispute that. What I like is its tight integration with Google’s services, and its open architecture with a Linux kernel and a development kit that runs on the JDK. It’s essentially a breeding ground for a hacker community. Not to mention universal rave reviews (this time, real phone review sites instead of CNet are consulted).
Feature-wise, it has all the usual features standard on 2009 phones, and more: touch screen, camera, WiFi, 3G, Bluetooth, GPS, Compass (having a compass is very important, as it allows applications that does Augmented Reality, such as Google Streetview and Layar), and a central application repository, a la Apple’s AppStore – only less Draconian.
Although it does not have a hardware keyboard, it does not seem a necessity anymore. My Blackberry withdrawal was complete. Perhaps I should thank my horrid HTC Vox experience for a speedy withdrawal. Anyhow, software keyboards nowadays can give tactile feedbacks via vibrations, which work sufficiently well enough. I can live without no-look typing and the shortcut keys.
In actual use, it reminds me a lot of my previous handhelds – mostly features that I’m fond of. Palm III’s navigability and form factor (and Dopewars and Bejeweled!!), Blackberry’s push-based email, HP 200LX’s RPN graphing calculator that I can install from an app, and a normal phone’s battery life.
Here are a few screenshots of the HTC Magic after minimal customization (mainly involving screen widgets and application launchers):
(before you ask why I installed the Tube map, I believe it should be on everyone’s handheld just in case, even for those who don’t visit London frequently)
After owning the new phone for a month, I’ve learnt about its quirks and annoyances – relatively very minor compared to those of the Vox, mind you. Maybe it doesn’t have a standard headphone jack and does not support sending iCalendar invitations, but I don’t listen to music on phones much and can always use the browser to send invites. It does not yet work with Flash (some consider it a blessing!), but it has just been included Android 2.0 and the rumour is it’ll be backported.
Overall, I have difficulty finding fault with the Magic. There are some, but I’ve worked around them through installing a custom ROM, which as a bonus also delivers various enhancements. Read on.
Obtaining “root” access (or “Quirks, and an easy way to fix ’em”)
Around a third of my time spent of a “smart” mobile device revolves around one application – the “Notepad”, regardless whether it was the Newton, the Palm, the Blackberry or the Windows Mobile phone. (the HP LX was an exception as I used its Lotus-123 as a glorified notepad). It follows quite naturally that good text input is an important functionality. Unfortunately, auto-correct is integral to text input with a software keyboard, it’s the nature of the beast.
Often, I need to enter unusual words or acronyms into my notes and the Magic unfailingly insists on adding them to the dictionary, which is bad because over time, the dictionary will be full of words that are only meaningful the first time they were used, making auto-correct inefficient. Adding insult to the injury, the user dictionary can only be emptied but not modified. Simply asinine.
It turned out it’s not Android’s keyboard that’s at fault but rather, it’s HTC’s custom software. To fix this, I decided to obtain “root access” to the phone so that I can perform deeper customizations impossible on a stock phone – such as replacing HTC’s software keyboard with Google’s.
After setting up the Android SDK and following these very simple instructions on xda-developers’s Android forum, I obtained root access. I played around with the “rooted” Magic by performing the following customizations previous impossible:
- Remove all Roger’s
applications rubbish (“Home”, “My Account”, “Ringback”, “Ringtone”, “Shop”)
- Add a Silent.mp3 ring tone to the phone (which does not play anything) to silent the spammers and the fax machines (without root access, custom tones can only be put on an SD card)
- Sym-link the phone’s start-up sound effect to Silent.mp3, so the phone can be turned on in stealth
- Enable the root prompt on the device
- Download an application to adjust CPU frequency to achieve better performance and battery life
- Enable Android Market for paid applications
All seemed to work well, and completed within 30 minutes. I was ready to perform the ultimate customization: flashing to a “community-enhanced” Google stock ROM “Ion” with the Android keyboard, that cherry-picks desirable HTC features. After a bit of research, the Ion Hofo ROM appeared to fit the bill.
After wiping of my user data plus about 10 minutes, my Magic was running the enhanced Ion ROM! I was flabbergasted by how smoothly it went, how well all the hardware worked, and very pleasantly surprised by some unanticipated enhancements. In short, it’s everything in a mobile phone that I wanted, and then some.
- Android keyboard and a customizable auto-correct dictionary! Yay.
- Multi-touch zooming/unzooming in browser!
- The camera app now can geo-tag the pictures!
- Google Voice search. Although its practical value is yet to be seen, it’s very fun to use!
- A myriad of languages instead of only English and French. It’s more for resale value than anything.
- HTC features – QuickOffice, Exchange sync, PDF viewer, boot logo, even its keyboard that I dislike – but it can be switched off, and may come in handy.
- HTC Hero ring tones!
- Android Market Enabler included!
- Slicker icons!
- A built-in widget to toggle Wifi, Bluetooth, GPS, Wireless Sync, and screen brightness!
- The built-in Google apps (e.g Gmail, Gtalk, Calendar, camera) expose a lot more settings in their customization menus!
- ip-table-enabled kernel to support tethering with the Wifi tethering application already included! (but with a phone this good, I doubt I’ll tether much unless I have to use a full keyboard)
Despite all these new features, the Ion ROM made the phone run both faster and with a longer battery life, thanks to some smart CPU frequency management. Kudos to the hackers who created this piece of telecommunication art.
- Camera seems to only operate under auto white balance. It mostly works okay so it’s what I can live with, especially when I get geo-tagging in return.
- Lost the ability to “Use only 3G networks”, but I haven’t run into a situation where the phone would revert to 2G on its own, so who needs that?
- The default Rogers Access Point setting is erased so there’s no wireless data. I panicked for a minute, did a quick search and then entered the following to make everything work again:
MMS Proxy: 10.128.1.69
MMS port: 80
Here are some screenshots taken with the Android SDK after installing the community Ion ROM. They look very similar to the “before” shots because it’s the way I arrange my launchers and widgets and after all, Roger’s ROM is just a
customization bastardisation of the original Ion ROM made by HTC.
Note the Microphone button on the Search Widget. It’s for Voice Search:
I’m very pleased with the phone now and it should keep any phone buying urge at bay for at least the next 3 years. You read it here.