In our third part of the “Choosing a Smartphone” series, we’re going to take on the 300lb gorilla that is the iPhone. I fully expect that our readers will get a little hot under the collar about this one.
In our first post, we incurred the ire of the Windows Loyal, our last post made the Palmaniacs get their torches and pitchforks, and this time, we’re going to anger quite possibly everyone! We’ll call the iPhone platform a Smartphone OS, which offends many. For the iPhone loyal–and I don’t want to spoil the surprise ending, but–we’re going to say that Android is a viable alternative to the iPhone. Shocking, I know, but this
isn’t Engadget is an Android blog.
We’re going to structure this post a little different, too. We’ll cover iPhone OS 3.1.3, but there are essentially two classes of devices running it: iPhone 3GS’s and iPod Touch 3rd Gen’s, and other outdated hardware. Apple’s hardware is at least as important as the OS, because their older hardware provides a distinctly different experience from new hardware. Then there’s a third variable, the ever-present “what’s next” factor with Apple. By taking a look at each situation, we’ll try to cover iPhone vs. Android buying decisions pretty comprehensively. Also, for the sake of space, I won’t cover individual apps on either platform in detail, but will focus on the core OS. Let’s start with an overview of iPhone OS 3.
Disclaimer: Even though I am a diehard Mac user, you’ll find I’m qualified to look neutrally at both sides of this issue. I just sold my iPhone 3G, and have extensively used the 3GS. My Nexus One just arrived. On the other hand, my (beautiful, brilliant, tech-savvy) wife is sticking with her iPhone 3G, and may upgrade to a 3GS soon. I completely sympathize with both sides of this issue.
iPhone OS 3
The iPhone OS is an extremely well designed piece of software. And let’s be clear about what the iPhone has accomplished since June 2007. Apple has put a smartphone in the hands of literally tens of millions of people. Before the release of the 3GS, there were over 6 million active iPhone subscribers in the United States alone. Since that date, Apple has sold 25 million more iPhones. That’s a truly staggering number. With its ubiquity, the iPhone has transformed the internet-connected smartphone from a luxury only mobile businessmen could justify into something everyone wanted.
iPhone OS focuses on strong experiences in 3 areas: Messaging, Browsing, and Media. The original iPhone was billed as “a mobile phone, an iPod, and an internet device.” It delivers richly in all those areas, and seeks to mimic “the Mac experience” in a smaller format. On iPhone OS, the mail, photo, calendar, and browser apps all very closely mirror the look and functionality of their OS X counterparts. The SMS/MMS app closely mirrors the threaded interface of iChat.
The Mac Experience means that the iPhone’s interface embodies slickness. Apple is famous for crafting an interface with a unified aesthetic, and the iPhone is no exception. With Apple’s core apps, there’s never a screen change that isn’t accompanied by a smooth animation, and there’s very little that isn’t self-explanatory. The sacrifice you make for this kind of packaging, as with anything, is flexibility. For those core apps, you pretty much have to do thing’s Apple’s way, or not at all. For example, web browsing on Mobile Safari is smooth and easy, but the lack of Flash has been well publicized. Suffice it to say that you won’t be watching Hulu on your iPhone anytime soon. Unlike a computer, you can’t choose a different browser, either. Apple has consistently rejected 3rd-Party browsers.
Text messaging on the iPhone is threaded, so it appears like an IM conversation, and makes it easy to keep up with who you’re texting, and who you’ve texted. With iPhone OS 3.x, MMS finally came to the iPhone, making the actual messaging part of Texting on the iPhone one of the best around. One weakness of iPhone messaging is that you must quit any app you’re in to reply to a text message, and if that app is a game, your progress may not be saved. Also, each message pops up a dialog box that you must acknowledge. An example of this being annoying is when you’re trying to hang up the phone. If you’re on a phone call with someone and you’ve received a text during that call, you must clear the text first before mashing the big red End Call button. It doesn’t sound like much of a hassle, but after the 15th time it happens, you start to wonder how Apple could’ve not implemented a notification tray instead of modal dialogs.
Apple’s on-screen qwerty keyboard is actually really, really great. Given how patent-protected the keyboard is, I doubt you’ll find another on-screen keyboard that beats it for guessing what your fat fingers meant to mash on a flat screen.
That said, I can honestly say from personal experience that the “learning” aspect of the iPhone keyboard gets to be a pain in the neck after a while. The keyboard works by taking what you’ve already typed, guessing what letters you’re more likely to hit next, and making the “target areas” of those letters invisibly bigger on the screen so you’re more likely to hit the “right letter”. This can be annoying because after a while, the iPhone might think that you really like the letter N instead of the spacebar, or vice versa. The only way to reset this behavior is to restore your phone, and NOT restore a backup of your phone with all your settings, including settings and data for the apps you have installed. There is a reset for the keyboard dictionary, but this only works for the actual words the iPhone substitutes, not the way it interprets your typing.
The iPhone has the capability to sync calendars and contacts over the air. And setting it up is super easy . . . if you subscribe to MobileMe. You simply enter your user name and password, and like magic, your contacts and calendar are synced to the cloud. It’s just as easy to set it up on your computer, be it Mac or PC. But at $99 a year, that’s fairly expensive magic. (FYI, if you’re going to use MobileMe, buy it from Amazon, you’ll the $99 single package for $65, or the $150 family pack for $103) But what if you use Google Calendar? There are a number of ways to sync your Google Calendar with an iDevice, but the best one is also the most complicated. In short, you have to turn on sync on Google’s end, set up an exchange account (only one per device is supported, so I hope you didn’t have an actual Exchange account you needed to use with that), then go to http://m.google.com/sync, sign in, and register which calendars you’d like to sync.
GMail support in iPhone OS is also not optimal. If you follow the prompts to set up your account as a “GMail” account, it will be set up as an IMAP account, and you will not get your GMails pushed to you as they come in. To enable that functionality, you’ll need to use the Exchange account mentioned above, or an add-on app like GPush. Additionally, GMail labels and archiving aren’t possible within the iPhone Mail App. MobileMe and Yahoo Mail (and many AT&T ISP email accounts by extension) feature instant mail notification and work very well. GMail notwithstanding, the mail app is very nice, and with the addition of multiple attachments in iPhone OS 3.x, there’s really nothing lacking from Apple’s mobile email experience.
For all its faults, the iPhone OS provides a powerful, easy to use smartphone experience. It truly can replace your cell phone, and iPod, and provides a web surfing experience that is good enough to make you use it all the time. Version 3.x also added a lot of industry-standard features that I didn’t cover:
- Universal Phone Search (does not include web search)
- Copy & Paste
- MMS Picture & Video Messaging (finally)
- Tethering (for everyone but AT&T customers)
- Landscape keyboard mode in (almost) all core apps
- Support for Genius Mixes in the iPod app
- Email Search
- Remote Lock, Find my iPhone for lost phones (MobileMe subscribers only)
That’s the core of the iPhone OS, but it’s not the whole story.
Rotten Vintage Apples (iPhone 2G, 3G et al)
When the iPhone was released in 2007, it was amazing that a single device could do all those things so well. It did what was advertised, and it was amazing. Back then, the number of apps on the iPhone didn’t even fill the home screen. The hardware specs were irrelevant. And so you bought one. And a year later, you were chafing under the super slow speed of EDGE. So you bought an iPhone 3G, because it was amazing, and it had GPS, and it had 3G. But Apple didn’t upgrade the Processor or the RAM. So if you have an iPhone 3G, you are still running a 2007-vintage 412MHz RISC processor with 128MB of RAM. Even the G1 beats those specs. Of course, when the 3GS came out, 600MHz and 256MB of RAM seemed like a lot, but it’s 2010, the year of the Gigahertz phone.
Back to the vintage devices, though. It’s really admirable that Apple has made its iPhone 3.x OS available to every iPhone ever made, the previous generation of devices is struggling to run it. Primarily, you notice the slowness when you launch apps. If I have more than 5 threads of SMS messages saved, the SMS app may take over 15 seconds to load. Web pages don’t load as quickly on older iPhones, and it’s not because of the network speed. As you scroll down on pages, often there is a noticeable lag in rendering, and it really brings the browsing experience down.
And then there are the App Store apps. The App Store is probably iPhone OS’s greatest asset, but it’s also the battleground for the fragmentation of the platform. Most apps are now developed with the 3GS in mind, and feature more intense graphics and more robust processes. This is great for those using a 3GS, they get more powerful programs. For users of the 3G and older, however, it means long load times. I routinely wait 15-30 seconds for a simple 3D game to load, and then another 5-10 seconds after I press the “Touch to Start” button before I get to the game menu. Even games developed for the original iPhone, like Rolando, have been updated and now load very slowly on the iPhone 3G. Simple RSS readers like ABC News and AP News often crash on the iPhone 3G, either while loading a simple text-and-images story, or just while launching.
For this user, the iPhone 3G paired with OS 3.X broke the iPhone experience for me.
The Bleeding Edge (iPhone 3GS)
So, just buy a 3GS and quit whining, you might say. And for some, that is an option. I’ll get to why I didn’t (and won’t) buy a 3GS later. Let’s talk about the phone itself.
The iPhone 3GS is, quite simply, the only iPhone that currently delivers the iPhone experience, as featured in Apple’s ads. Having used my friends’ 3GS’s a number of times, it reminds me of using the iPhone for the first time. The snappiness of everything is noticeable, and apps load with minimal wait times. Apple’s core apps load instantly, as they should. Safari is much more capable of browsing entire pages without making you wait as you scroll. In Google Maps, the map rotates with you, which is extremely useful if you’re using it to navigate on foot. The 3D graphics chip makes games more immersive, less laggy, smoother, and overall more fun.
For me, it just wasn’t enough to sign a new 2-year contract and spend $200. When the 3GS first came out, I didn’t think it would be THAT much faster than my 3G. Not to mention, not everyone was eligible for an upgrade. On launch day, I could have upgraded for $200, but my wife could not, even though we are on the same account. She had to wait until this month to be eligible.
And then there’s the obsolescence of the whole thing. Apple touted the Cortex A8 processor at the heart of the 3GS, but at release, the multicore A9 was already showing up in devices like the Zune HD. The thought at the time was that iPhone 4G (or whatever it would be called) would come out in Summer 2010, and if you upgraded in 2009, you wouldn’t be eligible for an upgrade in 2010 (as you typically have to wait 20/24 months on your contract with AT&T).
For many, the 3GS was a great buy when it was released, and even for the first 6 months of its release. But now, it’s aging in Apple’s product cycle, and it’s fallen far behind the new, higher standard for smartphone hardware. I’m sure it can be expected that iPhone OS 4.0 will bring a measure of lag and slowness to the 3GS, and that may be coming in a matter of 3 or 4 months. Speaking of which . . .
iPhone OS v4?
Not much is known about iPhone’s 4th iteration of hardware and software, but the iPad gives us some glimpses into what we can and can’t expect to see. These are my official predictions for iPhone 4G, based on current rumors and my personal take on Apple’s strategy.
Modal computing (one-program-at-a-time) will still be king. Don’t expect Apple to make a 180º on multi-tasking any time soon. They’ve invested too much time and money into the Push Notification workaround to abandon it so soon. Another reason for this is fragmentation. Apple wants even its original iPhone to be able to run the latest iPhone OS, and if they implemented multi-tasking, iPhones and iPhone 3G’s worldwide would grind to a halt.
If you’re looking for Flash 10 on an iDevice, I would hold your breath. Maybe, just maybe, Adobe and Apple’s schoolyard scrap will be finished by iPhone v5. However, we can expect that Apple will continue to dominate the mobile gaming space in 2010. Their SDK, based on Objective-C, allows easy access to the device’s hardware, something that Android has lagged behind in. And the App Store economy continues to grow. Despite the backlash that Apple has faced over banning various categories of apps from its store, people will continue to flock to the App Store because of sheer volume. In case you missed it before, App Store developers have an audience of tens of millions of people, and that is only growing by the day.
iPhone users have pined for a higher-resolution version of the iPhone, and I believe Apple may deliver it in 2010. What is needed is Resolution Independence. Currently, the iPhone OS is not fully resolution independent, but the advent of the iPad gives users a glimmer of hope. Currently the iPad can display iPhone apps by either displaying them in the center of the screen, or by scaling them up to fit the screen. However, what if the iPad could rearrange screen elements automatically to better fit on the big screen, instead of re-scaling them? The smart thing for Apple to do for iPhone/Pad OS 4.0 would be to create a framework for reorganizing the interface based on resolution, giving developers the ability to have their apps scale properly between devices of different resolutions. This would allow the same app to look good on the low-res iPhone 3GS, a high-res iPhone 4G, and the iPad. Apple hasn’t even hinted that they WILL do this, but it would certainly make sense.
My prediction for the release date for iPhone 4G is early 2011. I know this would buck the trend of yearly summer releases, but with the iPad overshadowing everything, I doubt they could have a new iPhone ready in time for summer. I could be wrong, but I agree with this report.http://blog.gadgethelpline.com/iphone-4g-release-date-expected-for-q2-2011-due-to-4g-chip-delay/ I don’t think the next hardware release will hit until 4G is widely available. I see iPhone/iPad OS 4.0 being launched at the Worldwide Developers Conference this summer, and the LTE-enabled, high-res Super-AMOLED packing, Apple A4 chip having iPhone 4G being announced at a fall event like this year’s “Let’s Rock” event, with hardware being available just in time for Christmas or early 2011.
Android vs. iPhone
Probably the primary strength that the iPhone can boast over Android is the App Store. Android Market is catching up fast, but still has a long way to go in at least one category: games. The limitations of Android’s SDK (Java vs. Objective-C) are diminishing but it will take some time before high-end corporate developers recognize Android as a viable market to develop for.
Another key strength for Apple the intuitiveness and quality of the Mobile Safari browser. Mobile Safari renders very well (it gets an 100/100 on the Acid3 web browser test vs 93% for Android’s browser), but loses major points for not supporting Flash. Flash will be available on newer Android phones before the summer. It’s a tie here, as the iPhone trades Flash and regular updates for speed, accuracy, and ease of use.
Apple also benefits from a strong media interface, and linkage to the largest music and content store anywhere. The slickness of iPhone’s sync on Mac and PC is also very attractive. That’s not to say that Android can’t compete in this space, however. Doubletwist is a great alternative to syncing media to your Android device. It coverts non-protected iTunes content (even video) for your device, and syncs it automatically. Doubletwist even allows you to purchase music from the DRM-free Amazon MP3 store and subsequently sync that music to your device.
The same strengths of Android that make it competitive with Windows Phone 7, make it superior in certain ways to Apple’s OS. For example, the multitasking, unified messaging tray, and customizable widgets all far surpass Apple’s devices. Even the simple widget that allows you to turn off wifi, Bluetooth, and data services trounces Apple for ease of use. One of my favorite jailbreak-only apps for iPhone was a background app that allowed you to swipe the top of the screen, and turn 3G, WiFi, and other settings on and off without launching the Settings app. Android has also already successfully dealt with a variety of different screen resolutions, from the lowly 320×240 QVGA on the Pulse Mini to the beautiful WVGA of the Nexus One and Sprint EVO.
Another key strength of Android is its tight integration with Google’s free services. This is to be expected. With Apple, their MobileMe service works easily and with little setup. The same is true of Android with Google’s services. Android “just works” out of the box, as it were. GMail, Google Tasks, Talk, Voice, and Goggles. These services all integrate tightly into the Android OS, whereas they are halfway supported, if at all, on the iPhone. Moreover, the fact that each Google service is a separate app, it can be added, deleted, or updated individually without needing an entire operating system update.
To Buy or Not To Buy
So now we get to the heart of why you read 3200 words of this article so far. You want to buy a Smartphone, and you’re torn between an iPhone 3GS and an Android device. I would say, first, decide what kind of device you’d like to have. Are you an iPhone person? Do you have to have an iPod in your phone? Do you use MobileMe? Is there an App on the App Store that you absolutely need to use? Are you an Apple fanboy (why are you reading this article)? Are you stuck on AT&T and don’t want to front the $530 for a Nexus One? Then you might be an iPhone person.
If that’s the case, I urge you not to buy a 3GS now. At least wait until the summer, or you may feel you wasted your money, and your chance at subsidized pricing with AT&T. In 2010, a 600MHz processor and 256MB RAM is way behind the curve. An updated iPhone may be released, or at least announced in June or July, but even if not, the 3GS is aging, and unless you buy it without a contract ($599 and up for a 3GS), you’re locked into AT&T for 2 years, and may not be eligible to upgrade once the 3GS’s successor is released.
If you’re an Android person and want an iPhone-like experience, I’d suggest something with Sense UI from HTC. On Verizon, I would wait for the Incredible to be released shortly, as the Droid Eris is a little long in the tooth. The same goes for Sprint; the EVO is the phone to beat this year, and will be available this summer. Sprint will also likely get the HTC Legend, the successor to the Hero, so avoid a Hero purchase at this point. HTC doesn’t make any phones for T-Mobile with Sense UI, so I would go with a Nexus One. It’s the best Android phone that’s currently available in the States. On AT&T, I would recommend the Nexus One again, even though it means spending $530. The Backflip is a woefully crippled Android device, and the Dell Mini 3 Aero similarly looks like it’s dumbing down Android, taking the smart out of smartphone. Both run outdated versions of Android. You can wait and see if the HTC Desire is released on AT&T, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
If you do go with Android, I would highly recommend getting GMail if you don’t already have it, and migrating your calendaring over to Google Calendar, and investigating Google’s other services. Android will provide you with tight integration with these services that you won’t find on any other platform.
This wouldn’t be a “Choosing a Smartphone” post without a table, would it?
|Web Browsing||Mobile Safari, somewhat laggy (3G)||Webkit, Proprietary & Dolphin, speed is handset-dependent, good overall|
|Apple Mail||Android Mail|
|GMail Support||Exchange Support, Stock GMail account is IMAP||Full Integration|
|Exchange Support||Mail, Contacts, Calendars||Mail, Contacts, Calendars (2.0+ only)|
|Contacts||Synced w/MobileMe or Exchange||Synced to Google Account or Exchange (2.0+)|
|Information Aggregation||None||MotoBLUR on some devices, Google Calendar, Facebook Calendar, Notification Area|
|Notifications||Pop-Up Push Notifications||Unified notification area for Email, SMS, Calendar, Social|
3.2 MP Touch Focus, VGA Video (3GS)
Likely 5MP+ (4G)
|Avail. 5MP w/Dual Flash, Autofocus, 720p Video (EVO only)|
|Media Sync||iTunes Sync||Doubletwist (Mac or PC)|
|Media Organization & Playback||iPod||Proprietary|
|Multitasking Performance||iPod and Mail only||Excellent, controllable|
|App Store||>130K Apps||>35k Apps|
|Interface Customization||Jailbreak Only||Widgets, Wallpaper, Icons, Sense UI|
|Handset Choice||8GB 3G, 16 or 32GB 3GS||Many|
|U.S. Carrier Availability||AT&T||T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon, AT&T
Final Note: I want you to know that, to preserve my credibility, I finished this article with my Nexus One box sitting next to me, unopened.
Expect a two-faced review of that at some point this week!
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