Review: T-Mobile Dash 3G

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dash3g_1
The short version: A solid, compact WinMo smartphone that’s capable of a lot, but can’t really compete with the others on the market.

The Dash 3g is the successor to the Dash (obviously), which was a good phone back in the day, though limited by Windows Mobile as many phones are. The Dash 3G has its strengths, and shares some of its predecessor’s weaknesses, but more importantly, it doesn’t seem to offer any value compared with a Blackberry or G1 if you’re on T-Mobile — to say nothing of an iPhone or Pre.

Form

The “general feel” is very good on the Dash 3G. It has iPhone-ish dimensions, but is significantly lighter. It’s a bit bottom-heavy (that is to say, the keyboard half of the phone weighs more), which is good. Construction is extremely solid, almost rugged in feel.

It’s also an attractive phone, and while it doesn’t have the gravity of a chunky BlackBerry (like the Curve 8900 on T-Mo) or the mystique of a big touchscreen phone, it looks like pretty much what it is: a “lite” smartphone.

dash3g_2

The keyboard is a paradox. While the keys themselves feel great to me (rather close together, but not bad), the layout is questionable. Obviously when you’ve only got so much space, compromises have to be made, but this is unnatural. For an example, look at your keyboard: QWER is up and to the left from ASDF. On the Dash 3G, it’s up and to the right. This will lead to lots of typos, and it’s hard to un-learn such a basic orientational lesson. It’s crooked all over. Why isn’t it like its twin, the Snap on Sprint? Why would you shift things over like that?

comparison

There’s also a nub, like the ones keyboards have on F and J, but now it’s on the D. Why? Because that’s the center of the numeric keypad. Once again they’ve tricked you.

The top row of buttons looks fine, and they feel fine when you press them, but I can’t fathom the layout. Having all these round things in a row when there’s clearly room to organize them using the vertical space… not good. The soft keys, which you’ll be using a lot, are in the middle, but you’d have to have a pretty fine touch to tell which one you’re hitting, since the “home” and “back” buttons are really one double button that your thumb covers completely.

Navigation is mostly done using the trackball, which I recommend setting to “fast” unless you like it acting more like a directional pad. Once I turned up the sensitivity, it was much easier to use. The trackball button, however, remained accessible due to the fact that I have the strength of ten men. It’s very hard to push with the soft part of your thumb, which is what you would be using to roll it around.

dash3g_3Flava faves

The home screen on the device is really quite decent. The main part of the screen lets you scroll through various common functions, and thankfully it shows snippets or whole messages when you get something new. You’ll have to learn how many “jumps” it is to whatever you need to check, though. If text message lights up, it’s four down. Email is five. Since you can’t count on the trackball to scroll precisely however many steps in one roll, you’ll have to swipe it several times, which is kind of a pain. Why can’t you assign shortcuts to rolling left and right?

Unfortunately, the prettiness of the home screen disappears when you enter almost any application or function screen. The skin, while nice, really is only skin deep, and as soon as you go to set up your email or delete an application, it’s back to plain ol’ WinMo 6.1.

Functions

The browser, IE6, is not too bad — it starts quick and the home page has your favorites available. Our page looked fine but for font differences, although I felt that the default view was too far zoomed. Reading some articles here and there showed few serious problems other than layout crushing. Still, the virtual cursor and limited field of view is increasingly inadequate for today’s rich web pages, and this one was no exception. And why can’t the cursor be more like a mouse? Why do i have to move it around in little steps? I’m using a trackball, not a D-pad! You’d think they would have locked down virtual cursor technology some time in the last decade.

Browser download speed was nice and fast, but the browser tended to paralyze the cursor until most of the page was loaded, unlike, say, the G1. It, while not loading any faster, did load top-down and allow me to navigate the page when it was about half-done.

Other applications were present — nothing fancy, the usual WinMo office fare that is the bread and butter of business phones. GPS looks good, but signal was pretty bad. Inside, I had my location within 10 seconds or so on the G1 (off by about a block), while repeated tries on the Dash 3G yielded no results. Indeed, even outside it had trouble finding itself.

Email was easy to set up and customize. My GMail address worked perfectly well, and the interface was simple and quick.

Media

The media player is functional but quite ugly. The ability to play and pause from the main screen is nice, but you still have to scroll like seven times to get to that function. It came with some really awful music on it, not sure whether that was T-Mobile, HTC, or PR that stuck those in there, but no thank you.

The camera is pretty much what you’d expect. I actually found it quite easy to use and the pictures, while far from good, are just fine for putting on the web or sending to a friend. The quick send feature where photos have a default recipient is really handy; I’m not sure if that’s new or not, but it makes sharing your mobile shots really simple. Here are two sample shots with 100% crops.

dash_sample sample2

I wouldn’t bother with video. Only for world-changing events where you’re the only witness, please.

Startup was relatively quick, at 23 seconds for a cold startup, and waking from sleep was instantaneous.

Hello!

Oh yeah, it’s a phone. How does that fare? Very well. Sound was loud and clear through the big speaker at the top of the phone, and my own voice was sexy and sonorous as usual on the Wednesday podcast. Your myFaves are front and center on the home screen, and contacts are easy to work, though the interface is butt-ugly.

The breakdown

The Dash 3G is far from being a bad phone, but it has some serious problems that could have been fixed. The keyboard and button layouts are both troublesome, which contrasts starkly with the build quality, which is excellent all around. The custom interface is nice, but really it’s just a thin layer on top of the usual nasty Windows Mobile stuff. The real question is, what does this phone offer that the G1 (or even an EDGE BlackBerry) doesn’t, especially when the G1 costs less up front and less per month? Nothing but Windows Mobile. If that’s worth it to you, great. But if not, you should probably look at the G1 or Sidekick LX (which now supports Exchange).

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