Verdict: iPhone Alternatives Don’t Measure Up



Several hundred thousand people across the country are now happy iPhone users. They’re also all AT&T users, whether they wanted to be or not. Until Apple shipped their wonder-phone, I was never that interested in phones focused on e-mail and web browsing — then it all changed. However, as a T-Mobile user, my options are limited. Much as I would like to say I’m glad that my service agreement will force me to wait until at least the second-generation iPhone, I’m not. I want a great phone. And so I headed to the T-Mobile store yesterday, in search of hope. And I found none. To read the gory details, hit the jump.


Up first was the T-Mobile Dash, also known as the HTC Excalibur. Though bargains can be had here with a two-year contract extension, the whole point is to ride out my contract in mediocrity, so we’re talking a cool $350. It’s very thin and fairly attractive on the whole. It runs Windows Mobile, which totally sucks, but that’s not a definite deal-breaker. To be honest, I think Windows Mobile is nicer than the BlackBerry OS. What doesn’t work about the Dash is that its creators tried to stick with an interface similar to what works on a fairly standard cell phone: a four-way control and a couple of action buttons. Fine for limited scrolling and simple functions. Almost unusable when you’re working with a device aspiring to stand in for a laptop.

The web browser wouldn’t work correctly in the store, and, much worse, I couldn’t actually figure out how to enter a new URL. Not that I would have been able to, anyway. Why? Because the keyboard on the Dash is horrible. How horrible? Put it this way: Working with both thumbs, I ended up with way more typos than the first time I used an iPhone. And the latter was not a joyous occasion, to put it mildly. Either way, the Dash proved once and for all to me that it is entirely possible to make a physical QWERTY keyboard that is too small to use. Or too small for my 7-year-old niece Sasha to use, either.

My next thought was the BlackBerry 8800, which is the current top of the line of the original e-mail addiction device. The guys up in Toronto’s Research in Motion also have the BlackBerry Curve out, but if I can’t have an iPhone I would much rather have a device focused on work than on sadly emulating the media features of the real deal. There are problems with the 8800, however. It’s huge — I think a good three feet wide. It’s also pricey — $400 without a contract.

It’s not for me. The graphic interface is odd and inconsistent, as I’ve always found to be the case with BlackBerry. The tiny scrollball isn’t as bad as I remember from using my fiancee’s BlackBerry Pearl (a $350 device whose bizarre combination of a phone keypad and QWERTY keyboard drives me crazy), but the keyboard is much worse than I anticipated. The designers apparently decided that an undifferentiated mass of keys at equal level with no spaces between them was the way to go. The inner edges are turned up, which I imagine is supposed to make typing easier, but my results were barely better than what I found with the Dash, and my fingers hurt. Not worth $400.

The Sidekick 3 is the baby of the smartphone family. From its magnet-latched, swing-out screen to its cartoonish interface, everything about it screams “teenager.” But, I kind of love it. The keyboard is phenomenal: Soft, responsive, large and intuitive. The screen is nice enough. The trackball is used better here than on the BlackBerry models, and the large buttons are set up to perform repetitive tasks simply. To be honest, I kind of love it — for everything except making phone calls. Then, I feel about is normal as if I were holding up a Nintendo DS to my head. It’s too thick, too large and too generally designed for features that have nothing to do with the simple task of taking and making calls.

If I were 15 and had a data-only plan, though. I would be all over this thing. Even for $300.

The very last option carried officially on T-Mobile is the brand-new Wing, also known as the HTC Herald. It’s an attractive-enough shade of blue, it squishes down to a tolerable size for making calls in your phone book, the touch screen works well enough for precision clicking, and the keyboard — my lord, the keyboard! This is a single-slider focused on typing out e-mails, texts and even editing documents, and it’s pretty killer. The keys are large and responsive, and my typing speed was by far the best of any mobile device I’ve ever used. The overall action is nice, Windows Mobile PocketPC isn’t horrible, and I was all-around fairly impressed. Except that it costs $500, and at that price, I would only buy an iPhone. I walked out of the store, disappointed by the slim pickings.

So there you have it. I know there are a bunch of good and sophisticated Nokia models out there, particularly the n70 and e61i, but it just doesn’t seem worth the fuss. How are other folks getting by in the mean time?


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18 responses to “Verdict: iPhone Alternatives Don’t Measure Up”

  1. infoshaman says:

    I have used an e61 for 6 months, and my 15-year-old daughter owns an iPhone, so I know the differences. I find the e61 a little easier for typing long messages (though I got better with the iPhone after only 15 minutes…and I loved watching the iPhone ‘learn’ my typing style), and I like being able to swap out the battery.

    The advantage of the iPhone is usability: The iPhone makes every application so easy to access and use. I still cannot remember how to cut-and-paste on the e61–what good is a feature if it’s not intuitive?

  2. TLeeds says:

    You should really try the curve.

    Smaller, More features, and WAY WAY WAY better keyboard than the 8800.

  3. Caleb says:

    Just as an fyi RIM is from Waterloo, Ontario. Not Toronto.

  4. Underhead says:

    After picking up a Nokia N800 tablet, I’m stunned that people are still buying the iPhone. First and foremost, the N800 runs Maemo Linux; not only can you run ssh, vi, kismet, several terminals, and directly interact with the file system, but several excellent open source apps have popped up. My favorite is uktube, an integrated media center that lets you rip YouTube videos and play them on demand from one of the N800’s SD card slots. The N800 has a surprisingly robust web browser with at least three different input types (although I prefer the iPhone-like thumb interface, which is a breeze to use), a package manager with a huge catalog, built-in video camera and messaging client (that’s IM and SMS along with video conferencing), Bluetooth capabilities that actually work, a few games (not counting the GBA, NES, and MAME emulators which are available on the package manager), support for nearly every major audio and video codec with smooth streaming, Flash 9 capabilities (that’s YouTube and Pandora on the go), and the reason I bought the N800: fully-featured Skype with all the bells and whistles.

    Only problem with the N800 is, it doesn’t have the wireless coverage that the iPhone does, as it only has WLAN and Bluetooth capabilities. So if you wanted EDGE-like browsing or even cell phone coverage, you’d need to tether to a Bluetooth phone and dial via VoIP. This isn’t a problem for me, as I work and live in a wireless saturated area (and on the road, of course, there is almost always the almighty linksys ISP standing by).

    Otherwise I couldn’t be happier. An open-source, powerful, wireless touchscreen device with every possible web and phone function I could ask for, all run on my Skype plan with a camera, FM tuner, internet radio, removable media storage for my music, movies, photos, games, contacts, and video clips. $350.

  5. spinpapi says:

    Interesting that the top-selling (and best) alternative, the Treo, isn’t even mentioned here. Palm is definitely in need of a real customer-oriented overhaul, but I’ve played with an iPhone and still prefer my Treo.

    I’d recommend iPhone to new-to-smartphone users. But a fair comparison really should include the Treo.

  6. bob Scranton says:

    try for japanese and european phones

  7. MediaJolt says:

    I’m on a month-to-month with T-Mobile and have no desire to enter into another long-term contract while I wait for iPhone 2.0. So I bought an unlocked RAZR, swapped out my SIM card, and I’m just gonna wait it out…

  8. Bob S. says:

    If it helps, I’m 49, I’ve had every Sidekick model since the original B&W, and I have yet to see anything as good. As you say, the keyboard is wonderful. (I’ve only tried the iPhone’s virtual keyboard twice, but I’d never use anything that awful.)

    Frankly, I find the phone’s UI more intrusive than the physical form factor. It’s a true pain in the ass to dig through to the contacts list if the phone’s folded up. Speed dial’s two menus away. And if you go into the contact list, you’re going to forget that the dial and end call keys’ page up and page down assignments don’t work in that list, because they’re used to dial.

    I also find the old scroll wheel far better than the trackball, which is too small to have any accuracy. There’s always a little bit of a gamble which direction it thinks I actually want the cursor to go in.

    All that said, it’s reliable enough for me to feel comfortable giving up my landline. (For a while, while I lived in the suburbs, it was my only Internet connection.) The mail and Web clients work pretty well, and Danger’s slow but dedicated about fixing problems when CSS goes wrong with the proxy. It doesn’t have YouTube, but I’ve seen the five YouTube videos worth seeing. The keyboard has five real rows; none of the four-row-plus-fn-key-for-number compromises of the other phones. I say get over your self-consciousness about its popularity with younger people and jump in.

  9. james says:

    Anyone who as actually owned and used a BlackBerry knows the addiction that cannot be achieved with any other device. When mobile, you do 85% e-mail/messaging, 10% calling, and 5% ‘everything else’. The iPhone does ‘everything else’ well. But 85% of the time you want an awesome, real-time mail experience, that only BlackBerry can deliver. 95% of the people in this world that do things that really matter know this, and use, and will continue to use, BlackBerry. The author of this needs to get a real job :)