Thursday, March 7th 2013
In my post of February 28th (see I love my Blackberry but…) I had some criticisms of my new Blackberry Bold 9900. In the five days since, how have we been getting on together and am I any happier with it than I was then?
On the iPod I have installed a BBC news app and often use this to catch up with the news, perhaps at bedtime or at other odd moments. The app is fairly well designed – not perfect, of course, for none ever are – but fit for purpose. It therefore seemed a good idea to check whether there was an analogous BBC app available for the 9900. There was, so I downloaded and installed it. It very soon became the very symbol of everything that I felt was wrong with the Blackberry’s operating system.
The Blackberry version of the app is a little different from the iPod version. When it opens, you are presented with a vertical list of news stories. For each there is just the title, a picture and a little descriptive text. To read the article, you need to click on the title (using the track pad) or tap it (with a finger tip or stylus). To scroll down the list of articles, you either wipe your finger up the screen or slide your finger down over the track pad. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? But the problem is that the whole surface of the screen is “live” (i.e. clickable) and there are no dead spots where you can place your finger to wipe the screen. I became extremely frustrated because every time I tried to scroll down (or up), I would keep triggering the display of an article. If I tried to scroll to the bottom of the page, it would take me ten or so attempts before I succeeded. Using the track pad wasn’t much better because it takes very little extra pressure from your finger for it to detect a click.
I became so angry and frustrated with this that I summarily deleted the BBC app. Unfortunately, the same problem was affecting my use of the 9900′s built-in features and they, of course, could not be deleted.
In one of my calmer moments, I explained this problem to Tigger. Her answer rocked me in my slippers: “You need to reduce the screen’s sensitivity,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone. When I had recovered my composure, I enquired “How do you do that, then?” Tigger showed me. The gradations are not very subtle and there are only five levels of sensitivity (discrete values, not a sliding or percentage scale) but we reduced the screen sensitivity to “Medium” and I gave the Blackberry a run to try it out.
I was impressed. Changing the setting made a noticeable difference. For a good test, I reinstalled the BBC app and, yes, it was now manageable, still a little frisky, but definitely more manageable.
One of the problems of the Blackberry’s touchscreen derives from the fact that one is working in a small space or, putting it the other way around, a lot of options are jostling to be visible on the screen and reducing their size helps to cram more in. However, making the clickable areas small also makes it harder to hit the one you want and easier to hit one you don’t want.
I don’t have particularly large hands. My fingers are long and shapely. Why then do I have so much difficulty clicking on the item I want? Because they are so small and it is sometimes impossible to touch one with a finger tip without touching a neighbouring one.
This is particularly true of the small menus that come up inside applications. For example, suppose you are reading an email and want to reply to it. You can, as in the older models, click the menu button and select the Reply function from the list that appears, using the track pad to scroll up or down the list. Alternatively, you can click the track pad on the message text (making sure that your cursor isn’t on a active area such as an URL) and a tiny menu will pop up containing 9 items. The middle one is Reply and it is active by default, so you can simply click the track pad to start your reply. On the other hand, you can also touch it with your finger tip. Similarly, you can touch any one of the other 8 choices if you wish. The trouble is that they are so small that you continually risk hitting the wrong one and having to correct. The alternative is to use the track pad to move around the menu and click but if you are using the track pad then you might as well do things the old fashioned way, making the touchscreen superfluous.
The result of all this is that I find myself alternating between the track pad and the touchscreen instead of using predominantly one or the other, as would be logically obvious and ergonomically desirable. Are we to believe that the only people who use touchscreen Blackberry smartphones are children with tiny fingers? Surely not. I therefore return to my previous contention that the interface is badly designed. A device this small does not need a touchscreen or at least does not need one that hinders as much as it helps you do your work.
Is it perhaps my fault? Am I a clumsy galoot with fingers like pork sausages, the equivalent of an amateur balleteuse wearing hobnailed boots? I also have an iPod and this too has a touchscreen and no equivalent of the track pad, so how do I get on with that? I have never had a minute’s trouble with it. However, there is a crucial difference between the two devices: because the iPod has an on-screen keyboard and no track pad, I nearly always operate it with a stylus, not with my fingers.
I therefore tried using the stylus with the Blackberry. First impressions were not favourable. I am not used to having to fish out a stylus every time I want to do something with my phone so using a stylus seems something of an imposition, a clumsy distraction. It works well enough but you still have to revert to the track pad from time to time and when you want to type something, you have to put the stylus down and then look for it to use it again afterwards. No, the stylus is not the ideal solution.
If the foregoing sounds sounds completely negative, I should say that despite our disagreements, I quite like the new phone. I still have a Blackberry Curve 8900 in working order and I got it out yesterday. It’s really a very nice little device and demonstrates perfectly why you do not need a touch screen. I have enjoyed my time with the 8900. Ignoring the waste of money this would imply, I could still go back to the Curve 8900, were I so minded. If I found the 9900 impossible to use I would do so without compunction. The fact is, though, that the 9900, despite its twitchy screen, has more to offer than its older sibling and that I like these extra features.
I therefore expect to be continuing with the 9900 for the foreseeable future, though with the occasional expletive thrown in for good measure.