As a 'power user' of smarthphones since the Nokia Communicators I've now moved over to the iPhone. However, I am often asked which is the best smartphone to choose. Of course, it's never that simple.
Firstly, let's clarify what a smartphone is. Effectively it is the convergence of multiple functions into one device. This is usually a decent camera/video recorder, calendar, contact manager, music player, email and web access and the ability to run 'apps'. (Oh, and make phone calls).
Many people believe that Apple created apps. While it's true that they kick-started the market it's simply not true, as there were websites such as Handango selling apps for phones like the Sony Ericsson P series and various Nokia (and other) handsets running the Symbian operating system. Microsoft also launched their Windows Mobile OS. All of these could install and download apps, but it was Apple that got the user experience right. Anyone that used Nokia's Ovi store to buy an app, even on an up to date high speed handset, had to wade through treacle-like slow screens with a poorly laid out interface in order to download anything. Apple maintained a vice-like grip on the user experience by only allowing approved apps onto their store, and taking 30% for the privilege. Google then entered the fray with their Android OS, offering a similar user experience without the 'walled garden' of Apple. Unfortunately with that openness comes vulnerability, and there have been several high profile cases of malware making its way onto the Android Marketplace.
Before we get back to the OS we should also discuss the different types of handset layout. If you are looking for alternatives for the iPhone then you are going to be simply looking for touch screen devices, but there are other main types of smartphone form factor:
- Flip phones. Although more rare than they were on the early/mid 2000's, there are still some flips out there. The keyboard and screen are well protected in a pocket or bag, but they will generally have a small screen
- Bar phones. As the name suggests these are just long rectangles. They are great for texting single-handed, but again may suffer from a smaller than average screen
- Slider phones (both horizontal and vertical). A vertical slider is one where the numerical keypad slides vertically below the phone when operated. The overall form factor of the phone is reduced when the phone is closed, keeping it small. Some phones (such as the Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini Pro) have a full querty keyboard that slides out to the left of the screen, so the phone can be used in 'landscape mode'. Again, these are great for texting or typing emails and the sliding form factor makes for a smaller footprint, but will add to the depth of the phone.
The benefit of a touch screen over all of the above is of course the ability to view much more information. with the 3.5" and above screens found on most touch screens you can full full-screen web pages, comfortably read emails and even watch a movie. There are compromises - many prefer the tactile feedback that a real keyboard offers, and the more accident-prone are possibly more likely to need a replacement touch screen phone over any other form factor.
The Operating System
There are three main operating systems at present. Symbian, Windows 7 Mobile and Apple's iOS. To be honest, from a general user's perspect there is little to choose between them in terms of navigating around menus and standard functionality. So what are the strengths of each one?
Microsoft's Windows 7 mobile was a complete re-write of their previous mobile OS, which was stylus driven. It comes with mobile versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint as standard, and offers tight integration into many of their corporate products such as Exchange. For many this last point would be the 'killer app' for them to select a Windows-powered device.
Apple iOS. When Apple initially launched the iPhone iOS was relatively basic. It had no multitasking, its notification capabilities were poor and there was no App Store at launch - that came later. (The phone itself was also underpowered by the standards of others at the time - no camera, no 3G, no Bluetooth). But the user interface was (and still is) superb. With iOS 5 users now have a powerful mobile OS and access to the largest app store in the world. The caveat is that being a closed system Apple does not allow some apps to be approved (generally if it poses a security risk or if there can be a loss of revenue to them - an app called iTether, which is also available on Android was published and then pulled within 24 hours from the App Store, as most carriers charge a monthly rate to allow mobile tethering.) Other functionality is also crippled. I remember being able to transfer files (such as photos or mp3s) via Bluetooth 10 years ago, but Apple removed this functionality so that people could not swap music.
Google Android was released a couple of years after the iPhone was launched (causing a spat between Steve Jobs and Google's CEO - Jobs threatened to go 'thermonuclear' on them for copying the iPhone.) Android is open source, and is more open than either iOS or Windows. Unfortunately that can lead to security vulnerabilities. Although it does have a vibrant marketplace for apps it has nowhere near as many as Apple's App Store. That said, most major apps are available on both platforms.
Summary: What do you want to do?
It really boils down to what you want to do with a phone, and perhaps what other technology you've already invested in. Windows is worth looking into if you have to connect into various MS products within your corporate network. Having said that, if you just need Exchange support you may find that both Android and iOS support it well enough. If you want a smartphone that is simplicity to use then the iPhone is probably for you. And if you are a real power user and do not want (or indeed cannot work within) the restrictions that Apple place upon iOS then Android may be the tool for you, but make sure that you read up on security issues before downloading any old app. As a friend of mine put it, he'd buy an iPhone for his mother and an Android device for his son. I'd regard myself as a power user, but I still went down the iPhone route as none of the restrictions I mentioned above (and others I'm aware of) are show-stoppers to me.
The bottom line is that whichever smartphone you buy today you probably won't be disappointed. Many phone sport multi-core processors, 8 megapixel cameras (or above) capable of 1080p video recording and a couple of days of battery life (which for a smartphone is pretty good) - but nowadays it's the apps that make a difference.
Written by Martin Bailey.