The Joy of Webpads

Update: zealots, please read as well. And do try to have a nice day.

Months ago, in an attempt at making better use of the increasingly limited free time I have, I took to carrying an around in the hope that it would be a good device to jot down some notes, deal with some e-mail and keep track of industry news.

It’s been over three months now, and the results have been mixed at best. Especially since in the meantime my wife gifted me an 8GB , and all of a sudden I had something much smaller, lighter and with an almost infinitely better user experience – but that I couldn’t really use on the move.

I have had numerous interactions with the in the past (not that you about that), but, still, the effect was immediate.

Overnight, and despite a few constraints, I completely ditched the as my source for news. The is less than half its size, has an amazing screen (yes, it is roughly half the resolution of the , but the font rendering and fast graphics make physical resolution practically irrelevant), and it can be used single-handedly without any problems whatsoever.

And yet, the little black slab isn’t perfect. Although it is clearly the best device of the two (and has much wider mass-market appeal than the , which is doomed to be a niche – and maybe soon extinct – platform), there are a few things that keep it from being perfect.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. During the last few weeks, I’ve been doing more than just using the devices – which included drafting this piece on both of them.

First Touches

The is sturdy (I like the build quality very much, even if the design isn’t very appealing) has a pretty decent battery life, and a capable, high-resolution (if rather hard to read in sunlight) touch screen.

But the day after I got my , sometime during that first bowl of breakfast cereal as I thumbed and tapped my way through the news with the in my left hand while hunting tasty bits of muesli with the spoon on my right, it dawned on me that had the form factor completely wrong – webpads need to be usable with a single hand.

And the isn’t. Many people have complained bitterly regarding the positioning of its cursor pad and the menu structure, so I won’t bore you with that.

Suffice it to say that these days I hardly ever use the touch screen – after prolonged exposure to the devices, I find it frustrating and fiddly to use for anything but the simplest tap, and I prefer the (rather inconvenient, but responsive) hardware buttons and cursor pad to invoke and navigate menus.


I’m going to be brief regarding this bit, since it is one of the most hotly debated ones and I find that most people tend to get stuck on it and fail to discuss the other aspects.

In a nutshell, the killer application is . It is not speedy by any means, but you get the full desktop browser UI, and the keyboard accelerators work almost perfectly.

Where the is slow and pokey, the is lightning fast, and where the interaction is fiddly and hesitant (such as clicking and dragging), the is natural and responsive.

Since the browser shares core engine and has a few added features, you can go anywhere on the web without too much hassle – which includes being able to view some Flash content (a mixed blessing, to be sure).

But is so intuitive and easy to use that you forget you’re using an iPod. There’s just you and the page. And, to top it off, new sites work so well (other than a few niggles) that they make the desktop version of look bad.

Sure, you don’t have Flash. But I stopped caring about that a long time ago – after all, I have been up to my neck in mobile browsers for years.


One of the things I had to cope with was that both devices are, in practice, useless on the go by themselves.

Real world coverage outside home and office is, of course, a joke, and . So I used my E51 as an HSDPA modem for the , and had a go at running JoikuSpot on it to do the same for my .

JoikuSpot works OK, but it can only do and , and without better protocol support it is of very limited use to me. Plus my E51 would warm up considerably (and have a considerably shorter battery life) when acting as a proxy when compared to a connection, even if I manually set its output to 4mW.

Then there are practical considerations: Since doesn’t put a standard mini- plug on their devices (they prefer to have the dock connector to break out audio and video), I have to carry around an extra cable to charge the , whereas the uses precisely the same charger as my E51 – a minuscule thing the size of a matchbox moulded straight into the power plug, that occupies nearly as much room as the cable…

So the is, despite being much larger and heavier than the , a lot more practical to have mobile connectivity anywhere.

Sure, I can always get an , but that’s not my point. I’m not the only one griping about lack of decent mobile connectivity on the itself.


This one was a (very) short fight. Like many people before me, I found the built-in e-mail client to be completely unusable, and I use either Gmail or my corporate webmail, which renders in several degrees of ugliness but works well enough to keep track of things.

With the new firmware upgrade, the runs rings around it without even trying – I found myself reading mailing-lists and drafting short replies on the native e-mail client without a second thought, and now have four different IMAP accounts configured on it.

And I can’t wait until ActiveSync“com/microsoft/ActiveSync and attachment viewing arrive with firwmare 2.0 – from where I’m standing, the is the PDA replacement for the 00’s, and stands to become a much better personal device than just about anything else out there.


This is one field where things are changing pretty fast (what with the SDK being launched only a couple of days ago), but where I think that never really had a chance to compete.

I’m not going to go into the completely insane and whacky “hackware” arena – to me, “jailbreaking” devices has always been a dubious activity at best, and although I am aware of the insane amount of little applications that have popped up in the past few months, I openly regard them with something akin to bemused contempt, since they are merely a blip on AppStore windshield and will soon be brushed aside.

In general, my user experience with the when I tried using anything but the browser wasn’t stellar. In fact, it even prompted me to write .

Yes, I can install a bunch of applications of rather dubious usefulness through the overly geeky and mostly unsuitable-for-real-life package manager, but the only ones I could put up with (and bothered reinstalling after the second firmware update) were and vagalume.

You can do a lot of stuff with it, for sure, but I’m afraid you’ll achieve very little. For none of the built-in applications (RSS reader, e-mail client, media player, etc.) struck me as particularly good or usable, even though they were better than those on previous devices.

And yes, I should make it plain that I’ve upgraded the thing’s OS to the latest version. But the people who believe is “better” because it is open and need to have their heads examined – the quality of any given platform’s environment and applications has nothing to do with openness.

And, of course, Trolltech, which doesn’t bode well for this platform. From where I’m standing, it seems that misplaced their focus and doesn’t really know what to to with this device category – and have been treating it like a sort of experiment to see what the community could come up with.

So far, I’d have to say “nothing much”.

Text Input

This is a particularly dear topic for me, since I’ve been for years now, and one of my basic requirements was decent text input.

After all, I write one hell of a lot, and anything that helps me capture short notes or draft part of an e-mail at a moments’ notice is much more important to me (and vastly more useful) than anything else.

In fact, one of my gripes with the all-in-one smartphone format (or “multimedia computer”, as likes to say) is that it very seldom allows for actual input.

Sure, people’s needs (or perception thereof) change over time, and if I were to re-write my post again I would surely add a bit more emphasis on media, but the current trend of building devices for near-passive consumption of content and information is, in my opinion, a dead end – text input is a cardinal piece of the user experience (and ) of any device these days.

As to the , the note taking application does the job, but barely so. I soon found out two things:

  • A normal keyboard isn’t very useful without good tactile feedback, and the , despite being backlit, is flat, with hardly any relief or key feedback.
  • After more than a screenful of text the keyboard stopped being the bottleneck – the software started taking entirely too long to register a key press, and I found myself waiting for it to finish entire words.

But it will do in a pinch – especially if, like me, you tend to type away bits and pieces of text on the back seat of a cab late at night, a situation where its backlit keyboard and predictive text input bar made it quite possible to take down a few sentences without too much hassle.

It is, however, an inordinate pain to get your text out of it. Whereas the will whisk away your notes as e-mails at a single tap, the easiest way I found to get text out of the was to paste it into Docs (and even then, the browser crashed a couple of times).

As to the , my experience with it as an input device has been rather amusing, in the sense that its Notes application is more than merely infuriating – it is, rather, the subject of ongoing horrified fascination.

The utterly despicable Marker Felt font is readable, sure, and does an adequate job of fitting text within the ludicrously tight margins that Apple has seen fit to bestow upon us, but typing anything beyond a few sentences on what is essentially a third of the screen is a bit of a chore.

The predictive text input helpers make it feasible to achieve a pretty good tapping speed (and I personally find it much easier going if I switch off the distracting piezo clicker), but be prepared for quite a bit of typos – for instance, the thing insisted in replacing “helpers” with “hellers” in this paragraph.

Where it concerns input, however, it is dramatically frustrating – there is no input helper support to speak of, and whoever laid out the accented character palettes (which pop up when you hold down on a letter) clearly did not consider ordering accents according to frequency of use, with the result that common words like “não” (“no”, which has endless emphatic uses) are inordinately hard to type, because the “Ô requires you to slide your finger across the entire screen.

Still, the is surprisingly useful for taking down short notes in Engish (which is what I spend most of the day writing and speaking anyway), and as such is “good enough” for casual writing – provided, of course, that you can wrap your head around its utter lack of cut and paste, which can be tremendously frustrating at times.

And yes, it also passed my trademark “typing on the back seat of a cab” test with flying colors – the auto-correction feature was crucial in that regard, but, again, that is only usable in English.

The only high point of the Notes application is the ease with which it allows you to share your writing – a single tap will turn your note into an e-mail, ready to send anywhere.

The Other Stuff

I won’t go on about the , other than my having considered trading in small but significant bits of my anatomy for a client (and no, the geeky and crashy rdesktop port doesn’t cut it for me, I need access to our server farm). With its screen and keyboard, it would be an excellent thin client for corporate use.

In its current form, it is of limited use and unpolished, and I carry it around solely because it lets me run and a client in the background (something that devices are not likely to be able to do for a while). I don’t even use the GPS (or most native apps besides the browser).

The is not without its own shortcomings, however. Besides its lack of Bluetooth, there are also a few software flaws. For instance, has a newfound propensity for crashing every hour or so (one of the “features” of the recent 1.1.4 firmware update), and I still find it frustrating not to be able to sync with a over (something that becomes utterly ridiculous when you consider that support is now officially forthcoming).

Also, I found that (oddly) I seldom use it as a media player (just for the record, my four main apps are , Mail, Notes and Settings).

In fact, I have probably used it to listen to music or watch videos for altogether less than an hour in the weeks I’ve had it, and wish there was something else besides the piezo clicker to let me watch video podcasts without fishing for the headphones.

There’s a chance, of course, that things will change with the SDK. I fully expect to get their act together and code an official client for the device, or for someone else to do a free unofficial one – although I’m curious as to what stance will take regarding that, and to the device’s battery life when streaming music that way.

Final Thoughts

In the end, the is my favorite for pretty much everything, despite falling a bit short where it regards fitting my particular needs. It is supremely smooth and polished, and much easier to customize to my own needs: in less than a couple of days, I added around two screenfuls of webclip icons and enough bookmarklets to do anything I wanted.

And here’s the clincher: nearly all the links posted on this site since the beginning of February were added from it – something that I never managed to find an easy way to do on the .

So yes, the is eminently as a web device in its own right. And I’m pretty sure I haven’t even scratched the surface of what I can accomplish with it.

In closing, and for those of you who care about rankings and suchlike trivia, here’s a sort of scorecard for both devices:

Item Notes
Browsing !4.png! !5.png! The iPod wins in terms of raw speed and RSS viewing (either via or natively)
Mail !1.png! !4.png! The has very limited IMAP support, whereas the only lacks offline viewing of attached images
Notes !2.png! !3.png! The wins despite its ugly font and lack of syncing due to the neat e-mail integration
Text Input !4.png! !4.png! Lack of a dictionary is the only thing keeping the from winning this
Connectivity !4.png! !3.png! The iPod changes networks seamlessly and a vastly better UI for settings, but the has
Syncing !1.png! !4.png! The doesn’t really sync with anything, but the still doesn’t know how to sync with multiple music libraries or handle notes

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