[This review is being co-written by Doug, Lauren, and Sue. Doug's comments will appear in normal text, Lauren's will appear in bold text, Sue's will appear in italicized text. This is also being jointly posted on Gear Diary.]and
Doug: One of the reasons I was so excited to review the HTC Touch Pro was the new interface HTC put together for it. Their TouchFlo 3D interface was the first in a new generation of built-in graphical interfaces for Windows Mobile. And boy did it look slick, with tabs running across the bottom of the screen, and instant access to everything on your device. This was going to be great… or was it.
Lauren: I was also eager to see TouchFlo 3D in action. It’s probably the most-hyped non-Microsoft enhancement to Windows Mobile ever — I remember my jaw literally dropping the first time I saw the demonstration videos. TouchFlo 3D looked amazing, and I couldn’t wait to get my finger on it.
Doug: Almost immediately upon firing up the HTC Touch Pro, I started finding problems with the TouchFlo 3D interface. Sure, it is slick, and takes full advantage of the VGA screen and graphics processors. But slick graphics only get you so far before you need to answer the question, “how well does it work?” And that is where the breakdown came for me.
Lauren: When I first started using TouchFlo 3D, I had a very different reaction than Doug’s doom-and-gloom. This thing wasn’t just gorgeous, it was revolutionary! I loved it. Well, after having my Touch Pro for over a month, TouchFlo 3D and I have settled into a post-honeymoon relationship. It leaves its socks on the bathroom floor and can’t cook worth a darn, but for all its faults I still like having it around.
Doug: Nice an analogy. And I think i will stick with the bedroom as well. I liken TouchFlo 3D to a new comforter on an old mattress. When the bed is made, it looks great. The new comforter makes the bed look so inviting, you just want to dive right in. But when you get there, you find all of the same lumps and problems you have always had with that old mattress.
So… what did we really think? Read on to find out.
Doug: Ever since the iPhone came out, the Windows Mobile community has been clamoring for more accessibility, finger friendliness, and just a generally improved user experience. Microsoft did not respond, which left it to the developer community to answer the call. This started with third party programs likefrom Spb, Vito’s , and many more. Now, the OEMs are starting to get into the game. The big three (for now) are the Sony Xperia X1, Samsung Omnia, and HTC TouchFlo 3D, all of which promise a vastly improved user experience.
The TouchFlo 3D interface lives up to this promise, offering a unique and accessible user interface. So, I really have to give HTC a lot of credit for stepping in to fix what has been a significant failing of Windows Mobile for many users.
Lauren: Right here is the root of 99% of the problems we’re going to talk about with TouchFlo 3D. Huge kudos to HTC, but they should not have had to take such drastic steps. They ended up stuck in the awkward position of overhauling the interface of someone else’s operating system.
Doug: I agree completely. The problem with Touch Flo3D is that it does not integrate well into Windows Mobile. It is not a part of the ROM. Instead, it is nothing more than a highly complex overlay, a Today Screen Plug-in. This means that the standard Windows Mobile interface lurks only one or two levels beneath the interface.
Lauren: I’m actually slightly shocked that they managed as much integration as they did. TouchFlo 3D is not part of the ROM, but HTC definitely has tentacles reaching pretty deep. For example, touch scrolling works in all of the Microsoft-controlled areas, such as inside the Settings screens. The Phone app is HTC-designed, as is the Communications Manager that turns the phone, Internet, and other radios on and off. Not all of these modifications are part of TouchFlo 3D, strictly speaking, but they work so smoothly with it that in places you can go a couple of layers deep without running into regular Windows Mobile.
Doug: And don’t think about trying to replace the default Windows Mobile applications with third party apps. That won’t work. Unlike most Windows Mobile shells, TouchFlo 3D does not offer an API which would allow third party apps to integrate. This means that even if you purchase and install a third party PIM application, like Agenda One, TouchFlo would not be able to see it. Touching an appointment will still take you to the built-in application. The same holds true for email, Internet browsing, weather, and more. In short, I hope you like what comes on the Touch Pro by default, because you are pretty much stuck with it.
Lauren: If you ask me, a lot of what comes on the Touch Pro by default is pretty darn good. HTC definitely messed up by not sharing the API, but I think Doug is slightly overstating the case. The only time you are taken to the built-in application is tapping the big icon in TouchFlo 3D. Yes, this is seriously annoying. However, softkeys take you to the application you have designated as default, whether that’s the built-in one or a 3rd party program like Agenda One. In my opinion, this is only a major problem with the PIM — Microsoft has greatly improved their SMS and email programs, and HTC ditched Mobile IE in favor of the much better Opera Mobile. Still, this issue ought to be fixed on principle.
Doug: OK, so let’s take a look at what this interface actually does. TouchFlo 3D is a tabbed user interface. It includes 11 tabs, which (in theory) offer you access to everything you would ever need from a Windows Mobile phone.
Lauren: Sorry, let me break in for a second here. I view TouchFlo 3D as being designed to give easy access to what most users need most of the time. If you’re looking for everything, you’re going to be disappointed. That’s the price of a streamlined interface. Anyway, you were saying…
Doug: OK. Fair enough. Not everything. But for most of you, it will be pretty darn close to everything you use on a regular basis. And I was pretty impressed by the functionality here. The graphics were fantastic, and I really liked the large icon which appeared as you slid through the tabs to show you what tab you were about to open.
I did feel, however, that 11 tabs were just a bit too many. The truth is that only five or six tabs can be displayed at a time. This means that at least half of the tabs are off screen at any time. This was problematic for me, as I never really remembered the order of the tabs, and was constantly zipping right past the one I meant to open. That being said, navigating the tabs worked extremely well, with an easy slider along the bottom taking you from one tab to the next.
Lauren: The tabs seem to be roughly arranged so that the most-accessed tabs are easy to get to, which helps with navigation. In addition to sliding your finger along the tab ribbon, you can simply poke a tab to open that screen. You can also sideswipe across a screen to open the tab immediately to the left or right. My trick for dealing with the off-screen tabs was to swipe left from the first screen, which took me to the last screen so I could see the second half of the available tabs. Eleven is still too many, but I wouldn’t insist on all tabs being visible all the time.
Doug: The other oddity I noted in the interface was the lack of a lock screen. Sure, the traditional Windows Mobile lock screen is still there, but there is no real way to access it from the TouchFlo 3D interface. Many current shell applications include a customized lock screen, or incorporate the standard Windows Mobile one. Many users might not miss this lock screen function, but I have to admit that I have grown quite accustomed to the lock screen on my iPod Touch, so it felt strange not to have one included. Then again, this also raises a concern with not being able to password protect your device. There is a lot of sensitive and personal data which could find its way to my device. So, a password lock is a handy feature.
Most glaring, however, was the inability to exit the TouchFlo 3D interface. Every shell program I have used, including the original Touch interface, offered a means of exiting to the Today Screen and reentering the shell. A good one, like the Touch interface, made this easy with a quick swipe of the screen. Because there is no way to add functionality to the tabs, it is critical to be able to access the Today screen for things like detailed PIM data and other Today Screen plugins which may not overlap with TouchFlo 3D’s interface. I was disappointed that there was no way to add a plugin like Diary or PocketBreeze and no way to exit the interface to access this information on my Today Screen.
Lauren: Doug and I have agreed to disagree on this one. My view is that if you need that much PIM detail, why not just open the application? I generally find those plugins cluttered and difficult to interact with. This is another area where we have a philosophical difference on TouchFlo 3D’s purpose. Doug thinks of it as a shell. I see it as a Today Screen replacement that is stuck technically being a shell because that’s the only way HTC could program it. If it could make the Today Screen completely go away, it would.
Doug: OK, so let’s take a look at the tabs which are included in the TouchFlo 3D interface. Like I said, there are 11 tabs total, which I thought was far too many. The tabs do not really seem to be arranged in any particular order, so we’ll go in the same order as the phone. Starting with the Home tab on the left and ending with the programs tab.
Lauren: Hey, there is an order! I make more phone calls than I send emails than I send texts than I use Opera, and don’t tell me the tabs are arranged in that exact order by coincidence. Programs and weather are easy to get to from the back side (with a left swipe from Home), and the “fun” tabs are in the middle where they’re less easy for busy professionals to access.
Doug: I disagree. I check more email than anything else. And I almost never use text messages. Frankly, if it was up to me, the Weather tab would have been among the first, and Text Messages would have been near the end.
Lauren: Fair enough. I have a feeling you may be in a minority, though.
Doug: The first tab we come to is the Home tab. This is the pretty much what you might expect. It includes a large clock, with information relating to your phone and schedule beneath it. I really liked this large clock, but I found that it left little space for additional information. TouchFlo can tell you whether you have an upcoming appointment or whether you have missed any calls, but only if that clock were out of the way. Well, it turns out this was not going to be a problem for HTC. A simple flick will collapse the size of the clock, giving you more room for status messages.
The truth is that I love the concept behind this one. The Home Screen, in theory, would provide me all of the information I need, at a quick glance. The execution, however, was not nearly as perfect as the design intended.
The first problem is that there is simply not enough room. Even with the clock collapsed, you have have space for three or four lines of information (two lines with the large clock). Second, phone messages take priority over appointments. This means that if you miss a call, the reminder about your upcoming appointment may not be displayed with the large clock showing. Finally, rather than showing everything upcoming for that day, the Home tab can show only one or two appointments.
Lauren: I’m a little confused as to why HTC limits you to only two or three appointments even in the collapsed clock view. There’s plenty of room on the screen for a few more. One option that would have helped a lot here would be the ability to not display all-day appointments. Most of mine are more for organizational purposes than for actually dictating my time. I mean, I generally know when I’m on a business trip without having to constantly check my phone.
Doug: Finally, as I mentioned earlier, the calendar reminders are tied to the default Windows Mobile calendar. Tapping them will only open that calendar, even if you have set a third party calendar or PIM as the default calendar.
All was not lost, however, because I thought HTC did a nice job with the softkeys on the bottom of the screen. From the Home tab, you can jump straight into the phone interface or all the way to the programs tab. Since these are the two most likely places you will need to go on your phone, this made perfect sense.
Lauren: I also liked the functionality of the Missed Calls and New Voicemail lines. They’re impossible to miss and easy to read, and tapping on them does exactly what you would expect: open the Call Log or immediately call your voicemail.
The People tab allows you to access your most frequently used contacts for quick and easy dialing or text messaging. Your photo contacts are arranged in a slick coverflow-like display, which allows you to page through from one to the next, displaying only one at a time. To flip from one to the next, you can just flick your finger up or down the screen, or scroll through the slider on the right to move through them quicker.
Beneath the picture is your contact’s name and primary phone number. Tap the primary phone number to automatically dial it. Tap the photo to open the full contact card and choose which number to use. Again, this will only open to the default Outlook contacts, even if you have another program loaded.
I thought the People tabbed looked fantastic. It was a great graphical interface, and the picture flipping was really cool. The problem I had was that it was completely not functional. If you have more than a few contacts then it gets really difficult to flip through and find the one you need quickly. I much prefer a grid display, in which all of your photo contacts are displayed at once so you can quickly scan your favorites. Additionally, the more contacts you have, the longer this tab will take to load. So, get ready for some lag time if you want to have quick access to more than a few contacts.
Sue: I thought the addition of the “Favorites” feature was an excellent idea.
Lauren: That’s a good point, because the People tab is not meant to be a full contact manager. Its purpose is quick (and pretty) access to your Favorites. I was fairly impressed by the slider to the right, which even pops out a banner with the contact’s name so you won’t often accidentally select the wrong one. The coverflow-style photo flipping, on the other hand, looked great but is only practical if you have three or fewer favorite people (in which case you might consider getting out more). I used the photo-flipping when I was showing off my phone to friends, but when I actually wanted to call someone I used the slider.
Doug: Mail was probably my most used tab in the entire interface. I really liked the graphical representation which shows the most recent message in your inbox coming out of an envelope. Like your photo contacts, just flick your finger up or down to scroll through your messages. Along the right hand side are your accounts, each displaying the number of unread messages. Tap any of the envelopes to switch to that account.
Once you are displaying the account you want to view, you can either flick through the messages or tap the Inbox softkey to open the full inbox. Again, and say it with me here, this will only open the default Windows Mobile email client, which I have to say is one area which has seen significant improvement lately.
Sue: Doug, I’m not sure if it’s just a Sprint thing, but picture messages are displayed within the Mail tab. In my opinion, they should be incorporated into the Messages tab.
Lauren: I agree with Sue — it seemed weird to have Sprint Picture Mail here and not in Messages because it’s always seemed to me like a cousin of SMS. But amen to how much the built-in email client has improved. I’m using it by choice now.
The Mail tab was one of my most-used tabs, and one of my favorites. One slight issue I had was performance. Mail has been fairly solid for me, but I have had a few crashes and dumps to Home (mainly when I ask one account to do something while another account is still busy). Overall, though, I really enjoyed using this tab. It almost made checking email fun again.
Doug: I agree. Picture messaging really is more similar to SMS text messaging, not email. It did not make much sense at all to separate the two like this.
Doug: The Messages tab gives you a really nice interface for your text messages. As you can see, it uses the full screen to display your message. There is even a slick 3D animation when you flip from one message to the next.
What I could not understand was why Messages required its own tab. This could have and should have been combined with the Mail tab. Additionally, I found it odd that the Mail and Messages tabs were laid out so differently. While I thought both tabs worked, they did not work well together. They felt like different programs. HTC would have done well to select one format or the other and use the same for both. This could have been easily accomplished by combining them into a single tab.
Lauren: That’s because you don’t use text messaging very much. I feel strongly that Mail and Messages should be separate tabs. The way you use them to communicate with people is completely different. New message notifications are easier to process if SMS and email aren’t all mixed up together in one tab (especially if you have push email through an Exchange server). They jump to different programs. Also, there are a bunch of people in the world (including my teenage cousins) who use text messages a whole lot more than they email, and they would be very unhappy at having to take an extra step to get to their texts.
You do have a point about the interfaces, though.
Doug: Speaking of functions which really did not require their own tabs, let’s take a look at the Internet tab. Basically, this is an entire tab which does nothing but launch the web browser. Sure, you can save some Internet favorites there, but really all you are doing with this tab is launching the browser. A whole tab for a single application makes almost no sense to me.
Lauren: How is that different from having a whole tab for contacts or email? Those are single applications too! For me, the great thing about the Internet tab was the way bookmarks are stored at the bottom. Instead of opening Opera to your home page, opening the bookmarks menu, selecting the bookmark you want, and waiting for that page to load, you can simply launch Opera straight to that page.
Sue: The web browser tab also includes Facebook and YouTube.
Doug: Of course, while we are on the subject, I should point out the browser. Most Windows Mobile phones default to Mobile Internet Explorer. HTC made a bold move here, by incorporating the powerful Opera browser as your main avenue to the Internet. I really have to give them credit for that one. Great move. It did not require its own tab, but a great move, nonetheless.
Lauren: If you keep in mind that most people don’t buy ANY third party applications, giving the Internet (which as applications go is kind of a big deal) its own tab instead of making people hunt for it in a programs list makes more sense. Besides, Opera is such an improvement over MIE that I wouldn’t mind if they built a statue to it, much less a tab.
Doug: The Sprint Music tab was one of the most frustrating parts of the interface for me. The first unit I tested was broken. The Music tab did not work at all. I could not add music or do much of anything with it. I then bought my own Touch Pro, and almost immediately started playing with this tab. I tinkered with the tab for over an hour and I was just starting to figure out how to load my own music onto it. Now, I am pretty tech savvy….and it took me over an hour to figure out this tab. Not exactly the quick and easy interface I was expecting here.
That being said, I did really like the Library sub-menus, which made it easy to scroll through your music sorted by artist, album, or song. I thought these sub-tabs worked great and could have provided a pretty good model for providing more complex information in some of the other tabs as well…without complicating the delivery of the information.
Lauren: Wouldn’t it be great if your calendar and tasks got sub-tabs? I don’t have a terribly strong opinion on this tab since I prefer listening to music from my iPod instead of my phone. However, I did like the way the Music Library was set up using the sub-tabs, and it was nice to be able to play and manage music without having to leave TouchFlo 3D. Most of the other tabs make you jump out to a program to do anything complicated.
Photos and Videos
Doug: Here is another one of my favorite tabs. I thought the photo tab was among the most functional tabs in the program. The main part of the tab displays your photos and video. Like the People tab, just flick the screen to scroll through your photos and videos. This tab really worked well for me. You can use the icons on the side to access the camera and video camera. Use the softkeys to view your photos organized by album or in a slideshow.
Lauren: You can also tap an picture to view it fullscreen. This is another tab I used to show off my phone because it’s so nice-looking. However, if I was looking for a specific photo it was much faster to launch the album.
I thought the integration with the camera and the album was excellent. Neither is technically part of TouchFlo 3D, but the visual style and controls could almost make you forget you’re in a separate application.
Doug: I have never been one to watch TV on such a small screen. I think the Sprint TV is kind of a neat feature, but really it is not terribly appealing to me. Plus, for whatever reason the implementation of Sprint TV on the Touch Pro is just terrible. It is slow and frequently lags while downloading or playing video. Nonetheless, if you were interested in the Sprint TV feature, you have an entire tab here which will allow you to access it.
Lauren: I think the review unit may be rearing its ugly head again, because it worked just fine for me. What I don’t like about this tab is that it’s basically a gigantic advertisement for a paid service — there are only a handful of free channels and most of them didn’t sound very interesting. If I ruled the world, I would combine this tab with Music into one big happy media-playing tab.
Doug: I agree with you about combining this with another tab.
The problems I experienced were not related to the review unit. The problem, as it turns out, is that TV is just a high bandwidth hog. It requires a lot more bandwidth than a standard data connection. I just did not have a good enough signal at my house.
Lauren: Aha. I get a very strong signal at home. With a good signal, it does perform well. I still don’t appreciate Sprint’s bait-and-switch with the subscription channels.
Doug: This brings us to another of the real highlights of the Touch Flo 3D interface. I absolutely loved the Weather tab. It gives you a fantastic animation displaying the current weather. Some people may not like slick animations in a screen like this. I do. I thought it was a lot of fun to watch the rain fall on your screen and then get wiped away by a windshield wiper. You can use this main screen to view the current conditions, or toggle over to the 5-day forecast for a more expansive forecast.
One of the most important aspects of a weather program, however, is not the slick animation; it is the accuracy of the forecast. If the forecast is not accurate, then all the animation in the world will not make it a useful program. The Weather tab did pretty well in this department, and always gave me a relatively accurate forecast. The only thing I did not like here was that the list of available cities was far too limited. I was forced to check the weather in Washington, DC, which is the closest large city. It is still nearly 30 miles away. Other weather programs allow you to set your location by zip code or, even better, by GPS. It would be nice if HTC would allow this as well.
Lauren: For a quick-and-dirty rundown, the Weather tab will give you a reasonable idea of what to expect — when you’re only looking at current/high/low temperatures and whether it’s sunny or cloudy, you can probably travel 30 miles without it making a huge difference. You can get by like this, but you shouldn’t have to. There is a tweak program that allows you to add new cities, which I’ll discuss in a future tweaks article, but why was this not standard? One thing I do like (in addition to the absolutely stunning animations) is the More softkey from the 5-Day forecast, which opens Opera to AccuWeather where you can check severe weather alerts, radar, and more.
Doug: This tab allows you to access some of the settings from the settings menu. It gives you access to those settings which may be the most frequently accessed settings. But you cannot customize this menu at all. So, these settings may not be your most necessary settings. I had no problem with most of these settings remaining under the settings menu. I really did not feel this needed its own tab.
Sue: I found it to be redundant and other than the initial “play” with it, I’ve never used this tab.
Lauren: There is exactly one useful setting in this tab that I could not find anywhere else, and that is the ability to automatically put the phone on vibrate during appointments. That’s the extent of the built-in support for phone profiles, and I was disappointed by how weak it is.
If I ruled the world (or at least HTC), here are some of the things that would be in this tab: Tab Order. Set PIM Links. Screen Lock. Phone Profiles. View Traditional Today Screen (Doug, that one’s for you). Maybe even Change Theme Color. Oddly enough, a lot of the things I think should be in the Settings tab aren’t even possible to set.
Doug: Any Windows Mobile user knows that other than your contacts, quick and easy access to your programs is among the most critical functions of any device. The TouchFlo 3D Programs tab eschews the finger friendly flicking of the email and photos tabs, opting instead for a nice, simple grid display. I am a huge fan of this design. It is clean and easy to navigate. The best part here is that each of the 18 boxes in the grid can are fully customizable, allowing you to insert the programs you access most frequently. I thought this tab worked great, and I wish it had been the model for some of the other tabs which felt unnecessarily complicated.
Lauren: I’m not sure what you mean by unnecessarily complicated. Programs has the most complexity in terms of how many things there are to select of any tab, and I thought HTC did a nice job of avoiding the danger of clutter here. I like this tab, but I have two minor complaints. I have to ration my 18 shortcuts — I wish you could add more. There’s also no way to reorder them on the fly. You have to delete the shortcut then re-add it in the box you want, which is a slight pain. Overall, though, it’s very convenient and easy to use. A program launcher is something else we’ve been waiting for years on Microsoft to include standard, and I’m glad HTC again picked up the slack.
Doug: I don’t know about anyone else, but I really went into this expecting to love TouchFlo 3D. I had seen the videos, read the reviews, and it looked really slick. Unfortunately, the emphasis in that last sentence is looked. This is a slick looking interface, with a ton of cool animations. Once you get past that pretty exterior, however, things diminish quickly as you land right back in Windows Mobile. In fact, it is almost worse than just using the default Windows Mobile interface, because there is no way to integrate third party programs into the TouchFlo 3D interface. In the end, I found that what TouchFlo 3D offered in slick graphics and animation, it lacked in usability and integration. I would have organized the interface as follows:
- Messaging and Web (including links to your email accounts, messaging, and web browser)
- Media (including links to your photos, videos, music, and Sprint TV.
Six tabs total. Enough to fit them all on a single screen for even easier navigation.
Sue: I like TouchFlo 3D for its look. Personally, I don’t find it too finger friendly and find I use the stylus more and more with the exception of a few apps.
Lauren: Yikes! While I definitely think there’s room for improvement, I don’t want to do that much overhauling. Combining different functions on one tab would probably mean you’d have to go through extra steps to get to what you really want to do. Besides, I like the gratuitous graphical effects. I spend enough time doing soul-crunchingly boring things, so a little flair is a relief.
My wishlist is more modest.
- Combine the TV and Music tabs into one media player tab.
- Either put something useful on the Settings tab or get rid of it. Right now, it’s a redundant waste of space.
- Handle my calendar better — seeing more than three appointments would be nice — and show some love to tasks.
- Give me a little more control: let me link to the PIM program I want to use, add more than 18 programs to the launcher tab, and reorder and hide tabs if I want.
Overall, I like TouchFlo 3D a lot. It gives me a ton of the information I need most often in a gorgeous, intuitive, and fun-to-use way. It has completely changed the way I think about my device: it’s not only something I use because I have to anymore. Sure, TouchFlo 3D has some problems, but it’s quantum leaps past anything else I’ve seen for Windows Mobile in making me feel good about using it.