OpenMoko Usability Review

[Dave Fayram] has put out two videos covering the interface of the FreeRunner from OpenMoko. For those unfamiliar, we’ve covered it a few times before. It is an opensource mobile platform that includes a full X server. They encourage people to make their own software and even release the CAD files for chassis modification.

He points out some glaring faults and compares it to his iPhone. Some of the major faults he has listed and shown are:

  • Bezel around screen makes input difficult.
  • Extremely slow interface
  • Can’t play mp3s.
  • On screen keyboard is tiny.

It is marketed at around $400 so the comparison to an iPhone seems legitimate. We do need to keep in mind, however, that the FreeRunner is opensource. The more support we show to them, the better it will get. The thought of an opensource handheld platform, comparable to an iPhone is quite enticing. At this point though, the comparison is pretty one sided. Hopefully more software development and support from the community will make this device something to get very excited about.

[via Daring Fireball]

20 thoughts on “OpenMoko Usability Review

  1. It’s worth noting, since folks are commenting on the current UI efforts on the FreeRunner, that there is an enormous hardware difference between it and the iPhone in the graphics department.

    The FreeRunner uses a separate GPU/LCD driver chip, which also hosts the mass storage interface. This chip is connected to the main SoC via a very slow (the OpenMoko wiki says 7MiB/sec) interface.

    By contrast, the iPhone GPU and LCD driver are integrated inside the SoC. There are no public details on the interface between these components and the rest of the system, but you can bet that it’s *much* faster.

    The speed of the memory/GPU pipe has a major impact on how quickly you can update objects on the screen, which in turn translates to overall UI feel and may constrain what you want to do in the UI.

    FIC’s choice of SoC for the FreeRunner was pretty disappointing. I’m sure they are getting the S3C2442B for a song (it’s a fairly old device), but it substantially limits the potential of the platform in a wide variety of ways.

  2. The Freerunner also doesn’t even have EDGE, much less HSPDA. All you get is dial-up GPRS, at 5 kilobytes per second. The power management doesn’t work. There’s no working bluetooth driver, much less userspace support. GPS takes 10 minutes to lock on if it works.

    The CPU has twice the clockrate (and power usage) of it’s predecessor in the ‘Neo1973’, but it gets half the performance because of the poor design where *all* of the devices are on a separate chip connected on a super slow bus. Basically everything runs in the slowest possible PIO mode, and absolutely nothing is accelerated in hardware.

    It’s so bad you’d think it was intentional, like this whole thing is an investment scam — a freetard version of “The Producers”

  3. It’s important to remember how young this device is. It’s been released at a stage that most closed companies would consider beta or perhaps even alpha. Just in the past week or so since the release massive strides have been made in the software department. I’m confident that many of the issues (even those that are seemingly hardware) can be resolved through improved software, especially kernel drivers. Also, the review videos were done using the default (factory shipped) software stack. There are at least 2 other stacks under development in various stages of completion. The Qtopia/ASU stack is reportedly very nice graphically.

  4. So, fix it! That’s why it’s open. Nothing compares to the design and feature set of the iPhone because it was designed to be revolutionary by a bunch of dreamers. Open Moco is a follow up device that needs the support of hackers, dreamers, and inventors like us.

  5. The concept is great, but the thing fails to impress on just about every level. Yes, it’s young. Yes, it could get better.

    Personally, I’d rather grab an old iphone and have an open source firmware for it to play with as the hardware is clearly already top notch.

    Plus at $400, it’s not exactly something cheap enough to warrant that many faults. It needs to be usable.

  6. I think that it is important to note that most people who are going to buy this phone are probably going to already be running linux. This would mean that the lack of support for mp3 is almost a non-issue due to the fact that linux has so much support for the ogg format, and most of the people I know who have been using linux for a while, myself included, have most of their music collection in an ogg format. (ogg vorbis, FLAC)
    It is disappointing to see that the display is so slow, and that they chose to implement the keyboard in such a poor fashion. Due to the fact that this is an open source phone (in terms of hardware, not software) we can expect many of the software issues, especially useability issues such as the keyboard and the scroll rate to be improved at a fairly steady rate.

  7. I think that what most people don’t realize is that the price of the Freerunner is not for the phone as a package, it’s for the platform. You’re merely getting the software as a bonus. The 400 dollars is entirely for the platform with which to build on.

  8. I don’t quite see why everybody is comparing this device to an iphone (apart from wanting to make an ad for it), should you not compare it to a more comparable device like a nokia smartphone, or a treo or something? I think the iphone had enough PR already and you can stop about the freaking thing.
    As for some of the remarks in the video, they seem strange ‘you must use a stylus’ well yeah it’s meant to be more complex and precise than a device that can’t detect anything smaller than a finger, and sure the keyboard is small but how hard is that to fix on an open source platform? But I do appreciate that it has some disappointing shortcomings though, a bezel IS annoying, that’s true, and if it’s really that slow that’s saddening, but most GPS devices use the same ARM CPU don’t they? and they respond fast enough so it’s not the CPU that’s the issue.
    But the rest is valid, no camera (even though the arm has an inbuilt interface for it!) But I guess you could in a pinch connect one to the USB since it’s capable to run USB device, but that’s not the same, slow cellphone network, but you can use wireless LAN/BT, GPS it can/is-meant to speed up using AGPS, and the ARM also has its own support for a lcd screen of upto 640×480 but they decided to add an accelerator for the freerunner it seems, so it’s meant to be way way faster than it now seems.
    As for the bus-speed, I see that the speed and width of the bus is optional in the samsung pdf, so it doesn’t have to be as bad as it seems.
    And mp3 playing should be dead simple to add, in fact it should be able to play most any audio format, FLAC/OGG/APE/MP3 even AAC if they can escape the sony lawyers’s claws.
    So it does start to seem like it’s apple fanboys being afraid of competition after all, which is a bit odd since the people using either are extremely unlikely to be overlapping groups.

  9. Obviously everyone reviewing this and everyone commenting here has a huge blind spot for the multiple DEVELOPER RELEASE warnings. This isn’t meant to be even remotely close to usable, it’s a short run prototype! Apple probably has dozens of iPhone miscarriages^H^H^H^H prototypes lying around in some vault that we’ll never, ever see. This isn’t for people to play around with and write a cute python app that automatically e-mails your favorite lolcats once a day.

  10. Open hardware and open software don’t necessarily make for a better user experience, especially with a bunch of hackers working on it. The point isn’t to match the slickness of apple (which cannot be matched, sorry) but rather that… it’s open. There are so many possibilities. The hardware foibles will be solved later.

  11. People saying that the iPhone to FR comparisons are unfair are absolutely correct. It does a huge disservice to the OpenMoko project to do it.

    So why did the FSF open that can of worms in:

    Why would they use the OpenMoko as a reason to wait? It’s at least 18 months and a few more hardware revisions from getting anywhere good. I might be more amenable to this if the hardware was great and the software was bad, but that’s just not the case, and even with the planned revs they aren’t going to have a great platform to base a phone on, they’ll need to iterate the hardware again.

  12. to kirindave:

    I’ve never been to that page before, but the article you linked REEKS of open source elitism. Especially their firm stance against DRM, which isn’t a bad thing.

  13. Yes that page is elitist, but not only is it the FSF (and to be expected), its a parady of Apple’s website. None the less, they make a lot of good points.

    As far as DRM being, bad. Yes, it is. There is no reason for DRM. Does DRM stop piracy? No. All DRM does it make it harder for legal users to do anything and let content providers nickel and dime us to death.

    As proof that DRM doesn’t stop piracy, look at any track on iTunes or any TV show / movie, etc. A simple google search for $item torrent will likely work, let alone searching P2P networks and specialty websites. However, DRM does stop me from putting .wmv/.wma files I legally purchased on an ipod or FairPlay .aacs on my ProcketPC without jumping through hoops and possibly lowering the quality even further. The worst DRM is on cell phones. $2 for a ringtone + data charges (for not even the whole song) because the provider locks out syncing with a computer? No syncing for pictures too, because they want the $0.15 / KB for wireless data transfer.

    I challenge you to find one reason we need DRM besides the content providers don’t want to play ball without it.

  14. without drm, hackers would get bored?
    hmm, a valid use/implementation of drm…
    the only thing i can think of is hardware based copy protection in video games to prevent people from playing burnt copies
    but even that has it’s drawbacks, it sevearly limits the number of player deved content and effectivly makes the big companies that produce games the only 1s out there

  15. Every review I have seen so far of the FreeRunner tries to compare it with the iPhone. What you’re comparing is a recent consumer device born of years worth of HW development, decades worth of SW development and millions of dollars worth of investment against an essentially pre-beta version of an open-source development platform that doesn’t even pretend to be consumer-ready, with almost zero financial backing. Anyone trying to compare these two devices has no idea what they’re doing.

    I could have purchased an iPhone for less than I paid for my FreeRunner and probably got it sooner too – but I didn’t, and not because it’s a better phone to use. I could also go through and list the glaring faults with the device, from the MicroSD card interferring with the GPS antenna because it sits to close, to the annoying bevel, to the shortcomings of the current software, however that would not make me a journalist. If you *must* compare the two devices then why not review them in the context of the device which the review purports to be about, and discuss things like the ability to program your own applications or the freedom to use any provider you like without being locked into ludicrous contracts?

  16. I began following the mailing lists for this device about two years ago and just couldn’t stand watching anymore after about a year. I was so excited at the beginning because of the potential of this project. But after seeing all the setbacks and everything this project has been through, I believe it was mismanaged. I think this device has suffered from the “Too many cooks in the kitchen” syndrome as many open source projects have. And now it is left as a crippled deformed unusable pile. I wish them the best of luck with making this the best phone in the world, but I am not holding my breath.

  17. the reviewer left out a big issue here, the fact that the openmoko contains a package manager, which allows you to install applications written and updated everyday. For example, since the keyboard is so small, you could replace the keyboard with a larger one. Perhaps he was so used to being stuck with no customization, that is the case with most (read all) apple software.

    I have to point out, he’s wrong about the landscape view in this. If he would have read a little more on the device (aside from the obvious poor comparison to a proprietary mass consumer device ..for a completely different market group), he would have read that the button on the top left of the device can be used to bring up a menu, where the option to switch viewing modes can be found.

    I find it rather frustrating to see stuff like this. Its a development platform, meant to expand the horizons of what a device like this can do, not what Steve Jobs wants to do, and more what a community wants to do.

    Also lacking in this short fail of a review, is that the device contains some valuable hardware. the VGA screen resolution makes it suitable for the PMP crowd (no it doesn’t have mp3, but that doesn’t mean its impossible to play). The device also contains 2d/3d accelerometers, which means developers can write apps that utilize this, beyond having to wait for a company to release it. (see here: ).

    The point is, stop comparing it to the iphone. I’m surprised to see such responses from a hacker community I’ve been reading for sometime.. sad.. just sad.. A device thats made for techno geeks with the lust for solder frown on it? a device begging for mods, solder and code, and its a “fail”? come on!!1

  18. DRM IS bad and that fact has nothing to do with open-source elitism or whatnot. If you think otherwise, read Cory Doctorow’s speech on it, freely available via a quick Google search.

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