Monday, June 26, 2006

Graffiti 2

My previous Palm was a Tungsten C. When it started to die, and I looked at replacement options, I was despondent because none of them included that wonderful thumbboard. In fact, none of them even had a snap-on thumbboard available.

The Palm T|X I ended up getting has a number of advantages over the Tungsten C. Bigger screen, landscape mode, better WiFi range, integral BlueTooth, improved system software. But no thumbboard, and that makes all the difference. I'd trade it all in in a heartbeat for that thumbboard.

And the reason is Graffiti 2. The Tungsten C had Graffiti 2 as well, but since it had the thumbboard, I never had to use it. Now, I've had Palms since the days of the PalmPilot Pro; I learned Graffiti years ago and got very fluent in it. But the thumbboard was better in almost every way. I could thumbtype far faster than anyone could Graffiti, more reliably, and in more situations. The only time the thumbboard wasn't better was writing in the dark, and even then I could do pretty darn good.

The T|X made me finally face Graffiti 2, and I was astonished at what a backwards step it was. It's not just that it's hard to transition -- remember, I haven't been using Graffiti for a year anyway. It's that it's just less reliable. In the interest of making it easier to learn, they use characters that look more "natural" -- i.e., more similar to normal writing. But the differences in letter shape back in original Graffiti were there for a good reason. It's far easier for the computer to distinguish between those strokes, and that makes it more reliable. No matter how much I retrain myself, I can't get Graffiti 2 to be half as reliable or quick as I got with old Graffiti. It's a matter of mediocrity triumphing in the name of marketing.

At first I tried Graffiti 2 in the name of trying to roll with the changes, but after a week or less, I gave up and went to switch back to Graffiti Classic. And was stunned to find that... they don't offer a way to switch back.

Unfortunately, this turns out to be due to a lawsuit by Xerox that prevents them from providing Graffiti Classic. But I don't think Palm would include it even if they could -- they're gung-ho about the idea of making it "easier to get started" in order to lure in a new customer base. Who cares if it isn't actually easier, but just seems that way from the outside of the box? Those new customers will never know what they're missing. The lower level of reliability, accuracy, and speed they get from Graffiti 2 will just be the new baseline of expectations; they'll never know it could have been better, and are likely to dismiss the "old fogeys" who claim otherwise as simply being full of sour grapes, unwilling to adjust.

But we old fogeys are precisely the folks willing to adjust; that's how we got to Graffiti in the first place. I have had no trouble retraining myself in different strokes when those proved more reliable in Graffiti 2 (for instance, changing from the mountain-peak shape of Graffiti's "A" to the lowercase loop-with-tail shape in Graffiti 2). I simply decide to change and within a few minutes I'm doing the new shape every time. But no matter how many letters I retrain myself in, it's never as good.

Some letters are just poised on too narrow a margin between other letters (N, for instance, too similar to H and R). The two-stroke letters are always a problem: T, in particular, is way too often mixed up with L followed by a space. Every version of E I try is too close to something; I'm currently using the looped lowercase E because what it gets mixed up with (the Palm shortcut symbol) is less damaging. And even after years of Graffiti 2, there are still easily reproducible bugs; write an uppercase L followed by a lowercase letter, for instance, and since the L doesn't appear until the lowercase letter does (in case it wasn't really an L but the first part of a T), it ends up lowercased. Punctuation symbols are particularly pernicious; the complex ones like &, @, and % are not bad, but the simple and important ones like apostrophe and comma are far too easy to mix up with letters or backspace, or to miss entirely.

Graffiti 2 is also far more sensitive to the fact that the touchscreen's calibration is imperfect; a little off calibration and it goes to pot entirely. And it's impossible not to be a little off calibration, particularly on these bigger screens, but which are still calibrated on the smaller screen size. I had to abandon the "simplified" Graffiti entry area (that eliminates the no-longer-necessary side buttons in favor of more writing area) simply because the miscalibration in the lower left extreme of the screen was beyond redemption, no matter how many times I recalibrated. But even with the narrower area to work in, my results are still touch-and-go.

With the looming possible demise of PalmOS, plus this, next time it's time for a new Palm, I may seriously have to consider the unimaginable, going over to (gasp!) Windows Mobile, assuming I can find substitutes for my must-have software. Palm still beats Windows Mobile hands down, even not counting the key software availability factor; but while Windows Mobile seems to slowly get better, Palm feels like it's getting slowly worse. There's a breakeven point coming. Palm, we will mourn you for a long time.

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