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).