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Windows Mobile Marches Forward

A few weeks back, I wrote that I had recently begun using the Motorola Q, a Windows Mobile 5.0-based smart phone that's sold via Verizon in the US. The Moto Q is pretty close to that perfect all-in-one portable device I've wondered about for years, and now that I've used it for a few weeks, I'm surprised to report that it's had precious few problems. Here are a few notes from my experiences with the Q, which will be especially helpful if you've not looked into Windows Mobile recently.

It's a smart phone. This means that the Q runs a version of the Windows Mobile 5.0 operating system that does not feature a touch-sensitive screen. Since most of my experience with Windows Mobile and its Pocket PC predecessors was on touch-screen-based PDAs, I found this initially confusing: My attempts at tapping the screen with my finger, naturally, were unsuccessful. After a while, however, I grew to appreciate and even enjoy the device's control pad and side-mounted scroll wheel, either of which can be used to navigate through the onscreen items and initiate applications and shortcuts.

It's a phone. Because the device is primarily used as a phone, and because of its integrated Blackberry-like "thumb" keyboard, the Q features a small screen, at least compared to full-featured Windows Mobile PCs. The home screen--analogous to the Windows Start Menu--is also not truly configurable in ways that would be useful. For example, if I miss a call, the line of text that notes this issue is below the bottom edge of the default home screen. And there's no way to bump that up, say, to the top of the display. That seems like a major oversight. You also can't remove home screen items, at least that I've seen. I don't care that I have no Text Messages, for example. I'll never send a Text Message, as I'm older than 17.

With Windows Vista, synchronization is easier than ever. Because I've switched almost entirely over to Windows Vista, I was able to download and use the beta version of Microsoft's Windows Mobile Device Center (WMDC), a replacement for the miserable ActiveSync application that Microsoft has been foisting on users since its first Pocket PCs. WMDC is a wonderful, almost laughably simple application that interacts with Outlook-based email and PIM data as you'd expect, documents and other data files, as well as multimedia content such as pictures, music, and video. Neat.

Synchronization is faster than ever. WMDC is also amazingly efficient. Within seconds of plugging in the Q to my Vista-based PC for the first time, it was completely loaded up with all of my Outlook data. That's amazing. Less sophisticated, however, is Windows Mobile's inability to automatically configure the user name (and related phone, address, and email information), the time, date, and time zone, and other information that should automatically get picked up from the synching PC.

What happened to Office? Though the Q includes Pocket Outlook components such as email, contacts, calendar, and tasks, it doesn't ship (out of the box at least) with Pocket versions of PowerPoint, Word, or Excel, which would be quite handy. (OneNote 2007 does install a Windows Mobile application that helps you sync device-based audio recordings with the PC version of the application, however.) If these Pocket apps are available separately, it's not obvious, and I'd like to have them.

Battery charging is iffy. The Q has a standard min-USB port, into which you can plug a USB charge/sync cable (for a PC) or a dedicated wall charger. (Or, if you purchase it separately, a car charger.) On a recent week-long trip to Seattle, I brought only the USB cable as part of my never-ending bid to travel lightly, but I had mixed results charging that way. In fact, sometimes, it seems like the device didn't charge at all. You can see where this could be problematic.

High-speed Internet access is wasted on smart phones. While accessing Internet-based services from a smart phone or other intelligent portable device is interesting and even useful, the current pricing for these services is too expensive. Verizon's EV-DO, for example, is $44.95 a month for device-only access. For an additional $15 a month, however, you can use the smart phone as portable high-speed wireless interface for your notebook computer. And this is where things get really interesting. You can now access the Internet on the go in places where there is normally no access, though speeds can go up or down based on the signal. It's never really as good as a decent Wi-Fi signal, but it's quite a bit better than nothing and it works pretty well. Just remember that your phone can't sync while it's in external modem mode, an issue that wasted 30 minutes of my life last before I figured it out.

Well, that's it for now, but of course, there's so much more, including Windows Mobile's support for Exchange. I'll look at that support, and more Windows Mobile issues, in an upcoming commentary.

This article originally appeared in the December 26, 2006 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE.

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