Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Nokia N97 mini: SlideIT and LightNotePad

(Prescriptus: I finally fixed Blogger's formatting bizareness: There is a button for "remove formatting", which finally returns things to nice, simple HTML. I have no idea why, after I copied the text from a plain text file, it was messy, complicated and wrong HTML in the first place.)

Part of the challenge faced by smartphone manufacturers is how to get text from the user's mind onto the screen. The N97 mini has a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, but it's only really average in quality and sometimes you just can't be bothered.

There may also be better options.

So let's look at this, shall we: How do we get text into the phone, and where do we put it?

Text entry

Take the very shiny SlideIT keyboard.

Like the somehow more famous Swype, you draw a line connecting the letters of the word you want - in order, obviously - and the software works out what the word is. It's like supercharged predictive text. You can also tap out words and then add them to the dictionary from the keyboard instead of having to drop into another dialogue first.

And it works really well and I'm not sorry I paid for it - although I wish it had dropped in price before I paid up. There are paths that cover quite a lot of words and there are subtleties of usage which you learn over time to improve prediction, but you can also tap out letter-by-letter and be offered predictive suggestions as well as the option to add or delete that word from the dictionary. These blog posts were mostly written using SlideIt.

It is, indeed, very shiny and quite the most relaxed way of entering text I've ever used on a small screen. But its integration with the system leaves something to be desired.

When called it doesn't resize the window you're entering text into but floats over it instead, which inevitably means that it's going to end up covering the text, and quite quickly.

Luckily, there's a button to switch it between top and bottom of the screen, which is a functioning workaround but still feels like a last minute "Oops, we really should fix that!" kludge.

However when you switch the phone to landscape mode the SlideIT interface changes to have its own entry area and replaces the application itself in the same way the system keyboard does.

Unfortunately, although the keys are nice and big in this mode, it introduces an extremely annoying performance bug. The screen has a visible refresh rate. You have to wait for words to be drawn on screen before entering the next one, and gods help you if you want to change the system's selection - it deletes the old word one. Letter. At. A. Time, then draws the new one in.

The grammar model could also do with some work: it automatically capitalises the first word after a full stop, but not after exclamation marks. At least, not always. Generally, when it feels like it. 

It also insists upon capitalising the first letter of some text fields but not all, and refuses to let you capitalise in the middle of a word, both of which make entering decent passwords impossible. You have to disable it, even on the N97 family where the hardware keyboards don't work, by launching a separate application - you can't do it from within the keyboard interface itself.

It would have been nice if they had put the word "Symbian" in the dictionary for the Symbian version.

And one more thing - I CANNOT get it to give me "this". At first I thought I was just being a victim of a particularly common path, but then I found out that said word wasn't in the dictionary. "This," wasn't in the dictionary.

So, of course, I added it.

The next time I needed it, it had disappeared. I had to add it again. And again. It has become a saga in its own right.

The final problem is that it doesn't work with the two programs I most often need text entry in - Gravity the uber Twitter/Facebook/Google Reader client, and LightNotepad the barely-adequate-but-best-choice text editor (see below). Which leaves me at the T9 entry. And that's really, really annoying.

On the the whole however it really is a very cool system, and really would make the difference between me living with a touch only device and me throttling someone.

Text Editors

As far as I'm concerned, every computing device needs a text editor. It's the ultimate basic tool. With a basic text editor you can write letters or emails away from a word processor or an email client, replace a note book, take phone numbers or addresses or other contact details easier and usually faster than using the device's contacts application, and even use it as an ebook reader for device agnostic formats like pain text or html.

So what's available on Symbian? Stuff all, actually.

The built-in Notes application can handle large quantities of text, but that's about it. There's no find, no undo (which has already made my life unpleasant) and this is how you get files in or out to work on them: 

  • In: open in the built-in file manager (or select "Open with system" in Xplore), which thinks it's dealing with an email attachment and asks if you want to save it to Notes.
  • Out: you can't "export", you have to "send". Yes, send via bluetooth, MMS or email, but not actually dump it to a text file on the phone's file system. Yes, you have to email it to yourself.
The only reason I am using Notes at all is that SlideIT doesn't work with most non-system software - when I've finished a chunk of text, I select the text on screen and copy it across to LightNotePad. Unless it's too much, and it doesn't all get copied at once. I have a sneaking suspicion this is due to SlideIt not a system limitation, but I keep forgetting to check.

Then there's DEdit. If you have a non-touch Symbian device, stop looking now. Jbak's text editor is incredibly powerful and has more features, keyboard shortcuts and options than I got close to using.

And it has one very, very useful feature. It can remember your location in a file, and go back there when you next open it.

This makes it an almost complete basic ebook reader if you're desperate, and is invaluable if you have large files.

And it doesn't work in Symbian with touch. Jbak's other invaluable tool the TaskMan task manager does but DEdit hasn't been updated in a while and I'm afraid he may have lost interest in it.

Or, probably more likely, it would be a huge effort to make all the keyboard hotkey combinations work on touch and he hasn't, or hasn't finished, or won't.

I was most upset when I found out I would have to search for a replacement.

Without paying slightly stupid sums of money for a mobile office suite, which would be complete overkill not to mention potentially less actually useful, I only really found one alternative - LightNotePad. The "light" part may refer to its inability to handle files greater than 200kb, which goes beyond short story territory into small novel.

It's fairly basic. It has a find function, a page down button but page up using the green key (which launches the phone dialer at the same time, whoops) and, very useful, the ability to set a bookmark for the file.

No undo, however, which is slightly annoying.

You may think I'm being a bit obsessive with this bookmarking feature but navigating through a file on a small screen can become tedious in the extreme and you can save yourself an enormous amount of time by not having to do so.

And besides: there's ebooks. (quick note to say; on Symbian, if you do want an ebook reader: ZXreader. It's a Russian site, so use Google Translate or something. I use Google Chrome or Chromium, which detect the non-English and offers to translate it for you, very seamless).

I started off being astonished there was such a small selection, but I'm forced to concede I shouldn't be. The number of people who want a text editor on a handheld device and don't want it to read Microsoft formats is, in all honesty, very, very limited.


No comments:

Search This Blog