2008 was, to say the least, a banner year for Windows Mobile hardware. Windows Mobile software... well, that's another story; we're still patiently waiting for the same thorough overhaul we'd hoped for years ago, but in the meantime, manufacturers have done an absolutely stellar job of taking the platform to its limits and packaging it in ways that could make any smartphone envious. For this first time, VGA screens (and beyond) have come to market en masse, and -- unlike the 8525s, Tilts, Moguls, and XV6800s of yesteryear, the latest batch of QWERTY sliders look like they've actually got a lick of intelligent industrial design in their DNA.
We're not going to spend any time on the software here for several reasons. First, TouchFLO 3D and Sony Ericsson's panel interface have both been thoroughly explored at this point. Two, although Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T have all added their own tweaks, cripples, and nuances, cooked ROMs are readily dropped on any of these devices to juice them to your taste. And three, Windows Mobile is... well, Windows Mobile. What more can be said that hasn't already been said? Instead, what we want to do here is take an intimate look at the hardware differences among each of the foursome. Three -- the two Touch Pros and the Fuze -- are theoretically the same device, so it's really amazing to us how a carrier's whims can influence the physical design of the end result.
Verizon's Touch Pro is the squarest (and arguably the most businesslike) of the bunch, but for whatever reason it's also the largest by a noticeable margin, so you end up with this huge border around the display. We were totally cool with the squareness, but the size difference is inexcusable -- especially considering that it has no appreciable bump in any key spec against its competitors. Hell, it actually has 96MB less RAM than its contemporary from Sprint.
The AT&T Fuze is the funkiest phone here, carrying over One & Co's original vision for how this device is supposed to look. You know what we mean -- that controversial "diamond" faceted back. Other than the fact that it has a tendency to collect fingerprints and miscellaneous oily garbage, we really didn't mind it, and we don't think that it'd be a problem in a stiff corporate environment (in fact, we'd go so far to say that you don't want to work with people who do have a problem with it).
We think the Touch Pro looks just great in black, but Sprint apparently wanted to stand out a bit, speccing its own model with an unstyled back and a rounded chrome and matte silver finish. It's not bad -- and it'd also have no problem flying in a heated boardroom meeting -- but we prefer the look of the Fuze (and we'd also prefer the Verizon Touch Pro if only it wasn't so dang big).
Finally, we have the superstar of the bunch: the mighty (and mighty expensive) X1 from Sony Ericsson. It's simply a stunning phone to look at; it's beautifully constructed, made mostly of metal, and the slide mechanism is addictively perfect (seriously, we'd be concerned about wearing it out from needlessly sliding it ad infinitum).
Appearances aside, let's turn our attention to comfort and usability. Our initial thought going into this was that the Fuze and the two Touch Pros would be virtually identical in this regard, but we were proven very, very wrong.
First off, the keyboards are night and day -- yes, even among Touch Pros. Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T have each selected very different layouts, and naturally, the layout has a marked effect on usability. Verizon's unit has two fewer columns of keys than either Sprint's or AT&T's, lacking dedicated caps lock and tab keys and trimming the shift and enter keys down from double-wides to single-wides. AT&T's is the only keyboard with a dedicated Windows key -- and it's also the only one to go with a function key-activated numeric keypad pattern for the digits instead of a dedicated row across the top. The net effect of this is that Verizon's keyboard is the most spacious -- but at the cost of functionality. Of the three, we personally prefer AT&T's layout the best (and we also found that the Fuze's keys had slightly better tactile response for whatever reason), but ultimately it's a matter of personal opinion -- and we're sure we could adapt to any of the three if we had to.
The X1, of course, is a different story altogether. While the keyboards on the Touch Pros are clearly designed for function, the X1 puts an emphasis on form -- and takes a hit in the usability department for it. The keys have surprisingly little feel considering that they're spaced apart, they're angled in bizarre, nonsensical ways, and the top row is too close to the screen for comfort. Ultimately, we were able to adapt a style that made our typing sufficiently quick and accurate, but if we had a choice, we'd take a Touch Pro keyboard ten times out of ten.
In terms of navigation, the Touch Pros all have essentially the same questionably-designed directional pad. It's impossible to know exactly where you're supposed to press the raised ring to actuate a direction, and when you do press it, there's an almost disconcerting creaking sensation (and sound, sometimes) that accompanies the press. It's cool that the whole surface is touch-sensitive, but at the end of the day, left, right, up, and down are your four most important commands, and the ring makes it more difficult than it should be. Interestingly, all three Touch Pros felt slightly different here, with the Fuze having the most satisfying actuation (though it still sucked). The X1 had a better d-pad, but we found the inner optical mouse difficult to use -- Samsung seems to be better at mastering this technology -- and the softkeys up above are almost painful to press because the silver bars stick way out from the surface of the phone for no particularly good reason.
And what of the displays? All four of these screens are humming along at a minimum of VGA resolution, which feels great to finally be able to say. Anecodotal evidence suggests that the X1 was the dimmest of the four, but just by a hair; the bottom line is that you're going to be really satisfied feasting your eyes on any of them. Combined with Opera Mobile, it's an dream come true for interwebs addicts (read: every last one of us). We were bummed when we realized that the X1's screen -- though higher-res than the Touch Pros at WVGA -- is inset with a metal lip surrounding it, which significantly hampers usability with a finger alone. We'd almost call it a deal-breaker, actually; Sony Ericsson should know by now that flush screens are where the action's at these days.
The bottom line is this: with the exception of the X1, the phone you ultimately choose from this group is more likely to be determined by your current carrier than by your personal preference. Fortunately, we found that the differences between the three were minor enough so that you really shouldn't be too bummed out by that realization -- they all have their niggles, and we'd vote that the Fuze is just barely the best of the bunch -- but they're ultimately variations on the same damn theme. The X1, on the other hand, is in a league all its own; crazy pricey, crazy beautiful, and moderately more tricked-out than its brethren, it's the cream of the crop as WinMo goes. Would we pay $800 for it over a $300 subsidized Touch Pro, though? Without a stratospheric salary, that's a tough sale.
*Verizon has acquired AOL, Engadget's parent company. However, Engadget maintains full editorial control, and Verizon will have to pry it from our cold, dead hands.