This spring has seen a flood of new smartphone models, many of them with larger, more Web-friendly screens. At the same time, mobile service providers are aggressively marketing expanded second- and third-generation data networks. So does this mean that the experience of browsing the Web on a smartphone has been dramatically improved?
Palm Treo 755p
RIM BlackBerry Curve
I surveyed the Web-browsing capabilities of three new phones -- the Palm Treo 755p, the RIM BlackBerry Curve, and the HTC Wing -- and compared them to the current favorite, the Apple iPhone. They were chosen because, like the iPhone, each is the newest model in a distinct product line, and they're readily available from one or another of the major mobile service providers in the United States. There are other great phones, like the Nokia E61i, for example, that may give good browse but don't meet these two criteria. (One major smartphone OS isn't represented on the list, either: Symbian, once a front-runner, doesn't have a pony in the current race -- although it's got one comer, the Samsung SGH-i400, announced in April, but not currently scheduled to make it to the United States.)
Along the way, I found three rules that govern how well a smartphone handles Web browsing:
- Rule #1: Does it have a full keyboard?
- Rule #2: The more pixels, the better.
- Rule #3: Browser features matter -- a lot.
Rule #1: Does it have a full keyboard?
To browse the Web you have to enter URLs into the browser, which can be difficult enough on a normal keyboard. As a result, any phone that requires you to hit the same key three times to type a single letter is worthless for Web browsing. The keyboard can be real or virtual -- that is, implemented as hardware buttons or spots on a touchscreen .
There's not really much difference between the two -- whether real or virtual -- they're both difficult to use because of the small size of the keys, and the need to overlay the punctuation and number characters on the alpha keys. But either is better than a 12-key pad.
Most current smartphones offer QWERTY keyboards, which arrange the keys in standard keyboard order (the top row of letters reads "qwerty," hence the name). While most smartphones make a big deal of their QWERTY layouts, they shouldn't, because they're promising standardization they don't deliver. For example, the placement of necessary symbols like "@" and "/" seems to be entirely random (like the placement of the backspace key on laptops).
Key size makes a major difference in usability. As smartphones have gotten smaller, they've become more difficult to enter text on. The original BlackBerrys, which were about the size of a piece of toast, had keyboards and keys significantly bigger than the current generation of devices like the BlackBerry Curve, which is more the size of a biscotti. Fortunately, we're seeing a reversal of the trend with smartphonesthat have slide-out keyboards like the T-Mobile's HTC Wing and AT&T's 8525. Because the keyboards run long-ways on the devices, the extra width allows for much wider key spacing, and better usability.
Rule #2: The more pixels, the better.
For browsing the Web on a phone, bigger screens and higher screen resolutions are both better, but there's a practical limit to both -- the phone has to be small enough to be a phone. The result has been a design point for smartphones that borrows from earlier PDAs like the Palm -- a square screen with a 240 x 240 pixel resolution and measuring two inches or less on a side.
To maximize usability of these tiny screens, manufacturers have traveled two well-trod paths. One way is to increase the resolution of the display while keeping it the same size -- the Palm Treo 700 series, for example, has a 320 x 320 screen.
The other way is to keep the resolution the same but increase the size of the screen. The HTC Wing and similar smartphones turn their 320x240 displays sideways to create more real estate. That's 76,800 pixels versus the 57,600 offered by the typical square 240 x 240 phone display. While that's not a staggering difference, it is quantifiably better (33% better, to be exact). And because it makes room for a wider keyboard, the browsing experience feels easier.
The iPhone's 320 x 480 screen puts it in a class by itself. With 153,600 pixels to light up, images look better. Text renders better, too -- and this is one key to the breathtaking clarity of the iPhone screen. With all that resolution, and a rendering engine empowered to make use of it, the iPhone can present visuals no other phone can touch.
But Web pages are mostly designed to be presented in 1,310,720 pixels (that's 1280 x 1024) and 225 square inches of screen real estate (that's a 15-inch monitor) or more, rather than the 7.84 square inches of a 2.8-inch PDA screen. There are efforts to fix this, such as the .mobi domain, a top-level domain dedicated to sites that adhere to a set of standards for presenting Web sites well on handhelds. However, for the most part, it mean redesigning Web sites that work on desktop browsers, and not every site makes the effort.
Ultra-mobile PCs may eventually fill a niche in the PC ecology between smartphones and laptops, making Web browsing work better by providing bigger keyboards and bigger screens, but they won't be as portable as smartphones. The winning devices will be those that squeeze more resolution and better features into that 8 to 10 square inches of a screen a smartphone can put in your hand.
Rule #3: Browser features matter -- a lot.
Certain features of the browser become more important as the screen gets smaller -- and, all too often, those features go missing. Multiple browser windows, bookmarks, browser add-ins, Java and Flash support, even simple onscreen controls for Stop, Back, and Reload, are all basic to the experience of browsing the Web, yet they can be hard to find on handhelds.
On a desktop computer, you probably navigate the Web by choosing bookmarks, keying in URLs, and clicking on links in pages. All those things are much harder to do on a handheld than a desktop. Because of the limitations of the keyboards, typing URLs becomes something to be avoided, but where you might set up a toolbar row of links in a desktop browser, that's not an option on a handheld. There are bookmarks or "favorites" in both Windows Mobile and Palm OSes, at least, but you can't pick from a drop-down list -- you have to leave the browser screen to see the bookmarks screen.
And how many browser windows do you typically have open at once? If you're like me, it can be anywhere from three or four to a dozen. On Windows Mobile and Palm phones, however, there's no multiple windows and no tabbed browsing. It's amazing how constricting that feels -- and its one of the primary reasons to go to the trouble of installing a third-party browser like Opera that does tabbed windows.
The limited processing power and memory of handheld devices plays as much of a role here as limited screen real estate. Flash and Java support is available for some phone OSes, at least in theory, but more often they cause "Out of Memory" warnings than real enjoyment.
Most conspicuous in their absence from cell phone browsers are effective controls for manipulating the partial view of the current Web page on the screen. If the Web page is 1280 x 1024 pixels and you can only see 320 x 240 pixels of that at a time - the view through the keyhole, as it were -- you need some good controls for moving that keyhole around the page and zooming in and out. For the most part smartphones and their browsers don't provide them.