Thursday, June 11, 2009

TouchWIZ vs. TouchFLO

Years ago, I bought my first Windows Mobile device, a Dell Axim x51. It was an interesting little device that I carried around with me for one main reason: before the Sony Reader, before the Kindle, I was reading ebooks in the .lit format on my Axim via Microsoft Reader for PocketPC.

In the years since (and before, actually), a handful of smartphones running Windows Mobile had been released, but they were all large, clunky phones that were geared mostly towards business folks. Until Apple came along with a little gizmo you might have heard of, the iPhone, and suddenly smartphones are cool. And different companies started releasing different smartphones with different operating systems, and now it's almost impossible to get a decent new phone that doesn't require a mandatory extra data plan.

This put me at sort of an impasse. I knew I was going to wind up getting a touchscreen smartphone, but which one? A part of me did want an iPhone. I'd even bought a first-gen iPod touch, and I will concede that, for all it's flaws (the iPhone's been out for two years, and it's just now getting MMS?) the iPhone's OS is still probably the best smartphone OS available (though I'd like to run Android or webOS in an emulator or virtual machine). But I also didn't feel like switching carriers just to have an iPhone.

The deciding factor for me went back to my collection of ebooks. I wasn't looking for a phone with an app store to charge me for yet another copy of Bejeweled to play. But I did want to read my books. Getting the books onto an iPhone would be a royal pain, as I'd already experimented with it on my iPod touch. Even if it were a little easier, my .lit books would still need to be converted, unless I stuck with Windows Mobile. So I decided to stick with my carrier, and stick with Windows Mobile.

When it came time to buy, I'd narrowed it down to two choices: the HTC Touch Diamond, and the Samsung Omnia. Loyal readers will know that I picked the Omnia from my earlier review. It really came down to the fact that I liked the physical design of the phone better, and the fact that it cost less than half of the Touch Diamond.

You might think that's the only real differences between the phones, since they both run Windows Mobile 6.1 Professional. But see, there's one major issue with Windows Mobile that has most tech bloggers trashing it for not even being in the same league as the iPhone OS, webOS, or Android. Windows Mobile is ancient, by tech standards. Sure, Windows Mobile 6.1 is only about a year old, but the truth is Microsoft's really just been tacking new features or updated apps onto the same basic OS since PocketPC 2002. Even with Windows Mobile 6.1, a lot of the underlying Windows Mobile stuff looks the same, expects a stylus, and expects resistive instead of capacitive touchscreens (which means no support for multitouch).

To make up for Windows Mobile's ancient, boring, and stylus-driven interface, different manufacturers have taken to making their own shiny, slick, finger-friendly applications and interfaces to replace the stock Windows Mobile Today screen. Samsung uses what they call TouchWIZ, which I mentioned before. It's basically a virtual shelf full of widgets. The widgets are slid off the shelf where they expand with some limited functionality, or opened to a Samsung-specific, finger-friendly app like Touch Player. TouchWIZ is a huge improvement over the stock Windows Mobile Today screen, but it's not perfect. For one, the widgets on the shelf can't be customized. For another, it's kind of a pain to scroll to the app you want, drag it off the shelf, open it, do want you wanted, close it, and put it away.

The best thing about HTC's Windows Mobile smartphones wasn't the design of the phone, but its interface. HTC uses an interface they call TouchFLO 3D. Like TouchWIZ, TouchFLO 3D replaces the Today screen with a finger-friendly interface that puts most of what you need from the phone up front, sparing you from going deeper into Windows Mobile. Unlike TouchWIZ, TouchFLO uses tabs. For example, there's the Home tab, which displays the time and date, and gives quick access to your call history and calendar. There's the People Tab, where you can set up speed dial buttons for your most frequent contacts. There's the Programs tab, where you can set up one-touch access to your favorite applications. The Music tab is a portal to Audio Manager, HTC's music player. There's also tabs for your texts, emails, photos, the internet, the weather, etc. You can switch between tabs with a band at the bottom of the screen. If an icon for a tab you want is showing, tapping it will bring it up. If it's not, sliding your finger along the band will scroll it. An icon will tell you what tab you've scrolled to, and releasing the band will switch over to that tab.

Now, I really do like my Omnia. I've had several Samsung phones, and all of them have been great save one (and that one was replaced for free). The Omnia is much more sleek than any phone HTC makes. But TouchFLO is better by miles than TouchWIZ. Audio Manager is a better music player than Touch Player. Everything is easier to access with TouchFLO, and TouchFLO has a more sophisticated, slick look than a simple shelf of cartoony widgets. The only thing I really like better about TouchWIZ is that Samsung included a clock widget with it's own alarm clock app that's much easier to use with your fingers than the default one. The clock on the Home tab in TouchFLO seems to go to the Windows Mobile alarm, which is difficult to operate without a stylus, and is limited to system sounds instead of ringtones for alarms.

Luckily, thanks to some entreprenuering individuals on the internet, it's possible to install TouchFLO onto the Omnia. I get the easy access to everything TouchFLO offers, and the TouchWIZ apps (like the clock) can still be used. I put it on one of the quick buttons on the Programs tab.

For update reasons, if I was going to consider a Windows Mobile smartphone in the future, I'd definitely take a long look at HTC's phones. Still, it's hard to argue with the Omnia's much lower price and sleeker form. If you do have or go with an Omnia, you might want to start googling how to get TouchFLO on it, though, because TouchFLO beats TouchWIZ hands down.

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