Vodafone V640i with Netfront, one of the worst mobile browsing experiences

This summer I had the opportunity of getting a new phone for free (or for a small fee on some models) included in a new contract that dotMobi got for me. I thought it would be a good idea to get my hands on one of those phones that every normal customer get with their contract. Having loved my Sony Ericsson W810i I thought it would be wise to get another Sony Ericsson, so I chose the V640i, Vodafone exclusive. The phone is not exactly the lowest end on the market in fact it features a very good media player (including a good music player and playlist manager), bluetooth, stereo headphones included and a few more things. The camera is really cheap, very far from the now really old one included in my W810i. Per my personal tastes, the keys are a bit small and the green and red ones are too close to the accesskeys, but overall (and considering it was free) it’s a good phone and does all you would expect from a basic phone and more.

What I was most curious, of course, is the browser. The experience has been very poor and even if the device has the right accesskey configured to connect to Vodafone Live, the NetFront browser is really really bad. While the browser is capable of rendering WML, XHTML Basic and some basic HTML pages, I really do not see any reason why a user or customer would ever use this more than twice. I have a few screenshots that will prove my points, but let’s start saying that while I was browsing I often had no clue if the browser was retrieving content or not, in fact it was often stuck “loading”, but stopping and reloading the page would make it appear instantly, the browser really seems stalled from time to time. Initially I was in doubt if it was the phone, the network or the browser, but once I installed Opera Mini I was sure it was the browser.

My first test site is Metajam, a site about movies, TV shows and Music. I recommend that you click and see how the page is normally presented so that you get an idea. (Note: the side design has slightly changed since these screenshots were taken)

This is the first thing that I am presented when visiting the site:

At first I thought the site did not work on the V640i.

Clicking on the options accesskey (the left one), I see this item-list where the first item is “accept” (sorry for the poor quality):

I assume this does not tell anything to anyone, but to me, it immediately reminded of the form wizards in some WAP 1 browsers, so I clicked it (and wished I was not accepting something strange such as transferring 1 million dollars to a Nigerian bank).

This is what I saw once clicked, the real page body. Notice how each link is on an individual line, SO 1999:

Clicking again “options” and “accept” I get this very helpful page that I have no clue where it comes from and how it would be of any use:

Later I was looking for a mobie and did not want to browse movies by title, I rather wanted to search by keyword, but I could not find a search menu even though I knew on the iPhone version I had seen one! I took me quite a few pages before I thought about the “options” key. Again, “options” and “accept” was the unexpected solution. Here is another form wizard that you can see only using the “accept” menu. Clicking on the two square brakets opens a blank page where you can type the text and confirm and then be back here, not even automatically go to search.

Again very poor usability!

Enough with forms, let’s see how unordered lists look like. This time I am visiting ta-da.mobi, the test site of DeviceAtlas. Once logged in I go in the “Display” section to test the display size. As you can see the section has two tests and there is a bulleted list:

This is another page in TA-DA, with another bulleted list. The markup is EXACTLY the same, but we have no clue why the browser is displaying a broken image instead of the bullet:

If you are curious, this is the markup of the first page (the one that works):
<div class="item-list">
<ul>
<li><a href="/link1">Usable Display Width</a> (-)</li>
<li><a href="/link2">Usable Display Height</a> (-)</li>
</ul>
</div>

And this is the code of the second page:
<div class="item-list">
<ul>
<li><a href="/link/180">Bigger</a> (180)</li>
<li><a href="/link/60">Smaller</a> (60)</li>
<li><a href="/link/reset">Reset</a> (reset)</li>
</ul>
</div>

Again, the user will have no clue what’s happening and will think that this is a poor site that doesn’t even have the images in the right paths.

Browsing experience is really poor and some features such as landscape browsing are completely useless and the usability is even worse than with the normal browser. Developer efforts would have been better spent on making the browser work properly. 😉

On the bright side, Opera Mini 4.1 (I have not tested 4.2, yet) works like a charm, it is fast and reliable and both mobile and desktop sites work as expected. A must have for all V640i owners (and maybe all NetFront browser owners).

5 thoughts on “Vodafone V640i with Netfront, one of the worst mobile browsing experiences”

  1. Clearly this browser is terrible and needs work for the future. And I’m sure this applies to browsers on other phones too. But given it’s now deployed and in user’s hands, and that isn’t going to change, if we want to make things that work for those users (we do), rather than wait for them to change their phones at some point in the future, then we (developers) HAVE to work with what we’ve got.

    At the same time, we can’t test on all phones out there, and I for one want to not just target the top selling handsets but rather allow as many users as possible to benefit from my software.

    I see live adaptation as the only way around the above problems. My question – is Luca Passani’s WALL-NG (Wireless Abstraction Library Next Generation) the only realistic game in town, or are there other options? Note, I am not talking about device databases, but rather page generators (that obviously sit on top of device DBs). Luca’s earlier WALL is now superseded by NG, and I heard HawHaw has faded out, so it seems there is not much choice! I’m not saying there needs to be though if WALL-NG fits the bill (as I suspect it does).

    I would love to know if Metajam is using WALL. I’d guess not (and I know WALL is not perfect). Given the fact we need to work with what’s out there in user’s hands, I’m afraid I’d actually shift blame for the poor site functionality to Metajam, and indeed to dotmobi. I know that appears unfair, but idealism is one thing, and reality is another :)

    Alex
    phonething.com

  2. Hi Alex,
    WALL and WALL-NG are not the only solution out there, there are companies working in this space, Volantis is one, MobileAware is another and then there are some smaller players such as former 7val and iconMobile. There are different services also, such as netbiscuits, 5th finger and more.

    If you want to restrict to open-source, then I’d say WALL and Volantis, but there might be more that I can’t think of, just now.

    Metajam is James Pearce’s personal project and although it’s a mobile site and resides on a .mobi domain it’s not an official “dotMobi” product. It’ll be up to him to explain if and how he is WALL or not (if he wants).

    Metajam has a template for simple devices and if you took the effort of looking at it, it is so simple that it should work on any device, it’s the NetFront browser that does funny things.
    I agree with you that developers and designers have to try and live with what is on the market now and it will be up to James to decide if the V640i or other devices running the NetFront are worth the effort or not, that surely does not justify strange behaviours.

    If you have a web form that you built with WALL or WNG, I’ll be happy to give it a go with the V640i and see if it works equally well.

    I am anyway surprised of your attack to dotMobi, I don’t understand if you just don’t like metajam, my article or you expected dotMobi to solve some problems that are not being solved.

  3. Sorry Andrea, I’m not attacking metajam or .dotmobi specifically, I’m using them as examples of a general mindset that needs to change amongst mobile web developers – i.e. that we’ve got to work with what we’ve got, and if one interprets that strictly as one must, then unfortunately by default it means if something is not working and it’s only the developer who can fix it, and it’s possible to fix, then it’s the developer’s responsibility. Unless one can somehow magic up a fix to the on device firmware.

    Sorry if I didn’t put my point across very well. I’m sure anything I make will break equally badly on your phone, but my point is if I care about users of that phone, the responsibility lies with me making changes to my site to make it work on the broken netfront browser. It’s the only solution available.

    As you know better than me WALL’s intention to an extent is to route around these problems as much as possible. If there’s something better, I’ll try that too :)

  4. What is out there is out there, that should not stop me from noting things, registering and commenting. If I see a device with a good browser that works well, I can cheer up and dance, if I see something that does not work well, I can complain and maybe whine a little bit.

    Many things can happen in the life of a developer and of a company. I can decide that I want to support any possible device, I work hard and try to find a solution to many different issues, on another hand I might decide that the market share of a given device is too small and focus on some other device, in fact, many-many companies are making an iPhone-specific site and that’s perfectly fine, but if we look at install-base numbers, it is more likely that there are more V640i and the like out there. Nothing stops me from developing a V640i-specific version, right? It’s a business decision.

    Still, independently from what I like, what is out there and what I’d like to achieve, the overall user experience is the result of many factors, of which the browser is one (and just one). I think it is fair for me to go back to Sony Ericsson and point out that the V640i is a GREAT media device that supports many high-framerate video formats, but has a very poor browser experience and that if the user will not be able to navigate to the media content, there is no point in providing a great media player. Maybe, maybe, in the next device they will do a better job for the browser. We are all hoping for improvement, aren’t we?

    With regards to WALL, it is a shame that today there are only 2 options, very basic and like Volantis enterprise. Maybe there’s space for another player. Maybe you already have ideas of how to do something new and disruptive.

  5. MetaJam is my personal project, so there’s no relationship to dotMobi. It has two or three simple templates and doesn’t use WALL (although it’s organically growing its own abstraction layer as and when I have time 😉 ). The main point of Andrea’s post that I take away is that you can never test too much but that the world still needs a good debate on where the cut off should be for catering for downright bad browsers.

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