Tech Shakedown #8: Maybe system freezes & cold reboots make smartphones too PC-like

When you ask people what their top peeves are when it comes to their PCs, somewhere high on the list is how they sometimes lock up at the least opportune times. Regardless of their shipping status, all applications are fallible and, in many cases, we depend on the operating system to gracefully restore the system's delicate harmony that some misbehaving application (or attempted combination of applications) so rudely interrupted.

When you ask people what their top peeves are when it comes to their PCs, somewhere high on the list is how they sometimes lock up at the least opportune times. Regardless of their shipping status, all applications are fallible and, in many cases, we depend on the operating system to gracefully restore the system's delicate harmony that some misbehaving application (or attempted combination of applications) so rudely interrupted. Desktop operating systems have come a long long way when it comes to serving as that last line of defense that stands between system failure and resurrection.

There was a time not so long ago where Linux users boasted of "uptimes" that dwarfed those of Windows by orders of magnitude (this was often a "server" measure too). These days, instead of rebooting my Windows PC daily (as I once did... starting with a fresh boot in the morning that was imperative to making it through the day), I go weeks at a time without a reboot (in many cases, involving a string of contiguous "up-days" that includes several mode changes between stand-by and fully awakened states).

I wish I could say the same for the smartphone I'm still lugging around with me: a Windows Mobile 5-based Motorola Q connected to Verizon Wireless' service. As can be seen in the video above, it seems to require a reboot once if not twice daily and always, it seems (like with the PC), at the least opportune time. But is there ever really an opportune time? And it wouldn't be fair to single out the Q or the Windows Mobile operating system as the source of this woe. Every smartphone OS I've used in the past (eg: Palm, BlackBerry, etc.) and every one I know who has a smarthphone, regardless of the OS, reports that reboots are sometimes necessary and that it's one of the things they'd like to change if they could. Even some iPhone users get to enjoy this perk.

Having to reboot a phone, as I point out in the above video, wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't for the amount of time that sometimes passes before you can successfully dial a number. I've been in far too many situations -- thankfully none of them emergencies -- where I've needed to tap out a number right away, only to find out that my phone isn't in the mood at that point and won't be for at least another minute. A small portion of that minute is often spent removing and reinserting the battery because that's that fastest way to unfreeze the user interface and get the phone rebooted without losing any data.

Sometimes, another way to unfreeze a frozen phone and get it back to an operational state faster is to call it from another phone. For some reason, an inbound call is enough to dislodge whatever bit of code has caused the user interface to become unresponsive. But, not only does this solution vary in effectiveness from phone to phone and from lockup to lockup, ready access to another phone isn't always a given (or maybe we should all carry an extra phone as a tool for unlocking the first phone when it seizes up on us).

Have we been spoiled by the more reliable phones that we owned prior to our smartphones -- the ones that have us expecting that our phones will never go down on us unless every drop of power has been drained from their batteries? Are we wrong to expect the same thing from a smartphone? Or, because it's technically a computer, should we cut it the same slack that we barely offered to early PCs? One major difference between our PCs and our phones is that hardly anyone ever reaches for their PC in the case of an emergency. The phone? If you haven't yet been in emergency situation that required a functioning phone, knock on wood and pray that if that time ever comes (hopefully it won't), that the closest handset doesn't need a reboot before you can dial 911.

I don't know what the solution is (perhaps smartphones can have a phone-only fast reboot button). But in my video shakedown above, I make it clear that cell phone manufacturers and carriers need to take these factors into consideration when putting smartphones on the market. It's bad enough that I have to reboot my phone. It's even worse when it seems like forever until I can use it.

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