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Sunday
Jul042010

My Thoughts on the Smartphone Triad

I've finally got my mitts on all three platforms, and came to a conclusion: all three are in various stages of completion.  Every one of them is lacking something to make it ideal for me.  Steve Jobs said it best when he said "Things are packages of emphasis" at the 2010 D8 Conference.  Each of these mobile platforms emphasize certain features and strengths the others are lacking.

In that sense, it is apparent that each of the software designer has their own vision of the perfect smartphone OS.

Honestly, I value my smartphone more than any other gadgets.  It has become an Swiss Army Knife that does almost everything I'd need or want, and just as portable so I'd have it with me almost all the time.  Communications is licked by the basic phone, SMS, and MMS, but also extended with VoIP, Facebook, Twitter, and IM.  There's entertainment in the form of games, YouTube, music, and videos.  And of course, with internet access, you get all the information you want at your fingertips.

The smartphone is one of those devices that Steve Jobs would refer to as "post PC devices".  The standard computer form factor is still going to be around for heavy duty work, but when you're out and about, you wouldn't want to carry a laptop with you if you have most of the functionality on a device that fits in your pocket.

That makes the smartphone a very personal device, and of course, it's personal preference as to which phone and OS you'd like.  There are no wrong answers or choices.

That said, I there are still no platform that satisfies me 100%.  All three of the platforms presented here does something I like.  They also do things the ways I didn't like, either.


Apple iPhone and the iOS
Let me start with the Apple iPhone and the newly named iOS since I've been using it for the longest time.

What I Like
From the original iPhone 2G to the new iPhone 4, the build quality of each model is superb.  Forgoing the need for a battery cover and the use of glass instead of plastic for the screen, every phone felt rock solid.  There were no phones that were built like this before.

The size of the screen has remained unchanged at 3.5", and why not?  It seems to strike a good balance between screen size and the overall size of a handheld phone.  Apple also seem to get the minimalist design down, with very little buttons and switches.  Having nothing but a glass screen that just disappears into the black front have a very sexy appeal to it.

The OS is completely touch and gesture-based, which made it very natural to use.  Apple have some kind of secret sauce (apple sauce?) that make animations and transitions fluid.  Even after 3 years, no other mobile operating system comes close to this kind of fluidity.  Neither Android or WebOS can do this, although Android comes close.

After using it in my daily routine, I've come to get spoiled on the little details that makes the iPhone so natural to use. Having the home button to also wake up the phone makes it easy to use one-handed, as well as mounted in a car dock.  Hitting it with your thumb, then using the same thumb to slide the lock slider is a very fluid thing to do.  I never gave this much thought until I tried out the EVO 4G.  None of the buttons below the screen will wake it up.  Instead, you'll have to reach over to the top to hit the wake button, then unlock the slider at the bottom, which is the opposite end of the phone.  Come on!

I also like that you can control your music player on the lock screen. Granted, it was only for the native music app until iOS 4 came out, but now it is available for any audio app that uses the background audio API.  WebOS does this, but not the stock Android OS.  HTC does add this with their Sense UI, however.  Still, if I wanted the Google Experience (which I do - I like Sense's lock screen, but I don't like a few of their native apps that replaces Google's).

Jailbroken, the phone is in a class of its own.  Customizations can be as high as or over what you can do on an Android platform.  You can customize your lockscreen to have notifications, upcoming appointments, real multitasking, etc.

What I Dislike
No amount of software customization will fix one hardware issue: the neclect of a notification light.  Since there is no such light, you're forced to check the phone every once in a while.

Not to mention, without jailbreaking, you don't have much of a software notification system either.  Small red badges will show up on the app's icon when they have something for you to look at (new text message, missed call, or voice mail), but that's it.  When you get an incomming text, the screen comes on to show you the text, but then goes away.  If you're not there to catch it, you won't find out until the next time you turn on the phone.  If you're doing something else in another app, a new text message will pop up and distrupt you until you close the notification pop up or address it.

Lets not forget that we have to deal with iTunes.  You have no real way of putting music and videos into the phone without iTunes, at least if you want to use the built-in iPod app.  This makes podcast listeners a slave to iTunes.  While there are a handful of apps starting to crop up to address this issue (downloading podcasts from the phone itself), it's not perfect, nor a polished experience.

Also, multitasking isn't real.  With iOS 4, you get fast app switching, which pauses the app so you can switch to another.  However, if you really do want an app like YouTube to continue to load or stream because your connection is slow and you can do something else, tough luck.  When jailbroken, you can do this, but you can't do this even on iOS 4, which touts multitaskking.

Then there are hardware issues with the newest phones.  iPhone 4 has issues with signal drops when held the "wrong" way, as you may have read by now.  What they say is true.  I have experienced this.  When holding with my left hand, which covers the bottom lower part of the phone, my signal can drop until it says "Searching".

I've also have a problem with their proximity sensor as well.  The screen comes on sometimes when I'm on a call, and I'd accidently hang up, mute, dial numbers, or initiate FaceTime with my cheeks.

It's hard not to lump the hardware with the software when I'm talking about the iOS because with Apple, you can't have one without the other, unlike Android.  Even Palm's WebOS isn't safe from this.

 

Palm Pre/Pixi and the WebOS
Like Apple, Palm (now HP) made their own hardware with their software, so it's going to hard to just evaluate just WebOS itself.  This is because this is one of my favorite mobile OS, but it's saddled on hardware I dislike.

What I Like
The WebOS is as perfect as it comes.  Like the Android OS, it's open for developers to do anything they want.  Sure there's an app store called "Catalog", but you can also write programs for it and side load it without needing to go through the app store at all.  It reminds me of how the old Palm OS was like.  Just copy the app to the phone in the right folder, and you can just run it!

There are also custom ROMs available that allow you to do things like overclock the CPU, which gives a breath of fresh air to the phone.  It makes the whole thing runs snappier, which was one of the downfalls of the WebOS: it was saddled with a slow phone.

The interface is more natural to use than the iOS.  I found myself taking to it much quicker.  It's quicker and more efficent to navigate around, close apps, open apps, etc.  Multitasking is real, unlike the iOS.  Things are still running and loading when in the background.

The notification is top notch out of the three mobile OSes.  Any new text messages that come in while you're in another app shows at the bottom of the screen so it won't disturb you while you're doing something else, unlike the iOS.  You can choose to address it, or dismiss it without leaving your app.  Even when playing music in the background is nicely done.  The same notification area is where you can pull up the controls to manipulate the player, all without leaving your current app.

Even on the hardware side, there is a soft blinking LED for notification, so if you miss it as something came in, you'll know you missed something just by looking at the phone without having to turn it on first.

What I Dislike
The most glaring is the slow hardware.  Animations and transistions seem slow and clunky.  It takes it a good while to load apps and web pages.  Also, the screen is too small!  A higher resolution with even an small uptick in size (matching the iPhone's 3.5" screen) would be nice.  Heck, it's 2010, make it a 3.7" with 800x480 resolution.

A virtual keyboard would be nice as well.  I really hate having to slide the keyboard out just to type in a single word or enter my login credentials.  It's also awkward to open.  The most natrual way of opening it is to mash your thumb in the middle of the screen and push up.  However, this will probably activate something on the screen since it's touch sensitive after all.  If you try to avoid touching the screen when sliding the keyboard out, it makes things really hard.

Besides, a lot of people are now used to a virtual keyboard.  If Palm can bring us a non-physical keyboard version, there is a market for it.  I, for one, don't like how flimsy a phone with a slide out keyboard feels.  Because of the way the are, they will feel like they are going to fall apart.  Palm Pre users ave complained of the "Oreo" effect.  Like the cookie, it feels like it slides and twists easily.  The only phone I know that has a physical keyboard and still feel relatively solid is the Motorola Droid.  Other than that, people love thin solid phones like the (gasp) iPhone.

While you can control the built-in music player from the lockscreen like on the iOS and Adroid with SenseUI, thrid party apps like Pandora and Slacker aren't so blessed.  You'll have to unlock the phone, switch to app (if it's not showing up on the small notification area on the bottom), and control it from there.  It's not the best way to do things when driving.  Apple has a leg up in this area.

 

Android OS
Android OS is unique in a way that it's not saddled with hardware at all.  In fact, it is what makes deciding on an Android phone hard.  There's so many formfactors, large (EVO 4G) and small (HTC Aria), and everything in between.  There's ones with hardware keyboards, and ones without.  There's some that are so highly customized, you can't even tell it's an Android phone (T-Mobile's Garmin phone).

So in this case I find talking just about the OS easy.

What I Like
The first time you use Android, you'll see that it is much more like a computer OS than a mobile one.  I'd like to see it as a good upgrade for Windows Mobile users.  It's fast, it's modern, and it has all of the nomenclatures that makes a Windows Mobile user comfortable.  Things like managing tasks, and the ability to access the file system with a file manager.

Unlike Windows Mobile, it's not sluggish, and the interface is much more polished for a mobile experience.  I mean, a Start button on a phone.  Really, Microsoft?

It's an open platform, so you can side load programs.  Andorid also have it's own apps marketplace so it the OS is accessable to non-techie users, too.

The interface is straight foward, and allows for you to add widgets on the home screens.  These widgets expand the functionality and it make a few things easier.

 

Neutral

There are things about the Android OS that cancels each other out.  It's the only mobile OS that seem to have things that are half-baked.  Again, it's very much like a desktop OS this way.

The notification system is better than the iOS, but still not as good as the WebOS.  You have to slide out a window pane to access them, but they don't ever get in your way.  In this manner, it's better than the iOS.  However, you need to pull down the pane to do anything with them, which is not as good as the WebOS.

Multitasking is real.  Backgrounded apps continue to run as if they are in the foreground, so if something needs their numbers crunched, or uploaded, or streamed, you it can be done while you do something else.  However, switching betweens multitasked apps isn't as good as the WebOS.  It's more or less like the iOS.  You have to hold down the home button to bring up the last 6 (last 8 in Froyo) opened apps.  To really see all backgrounded apps, you need a third party manager like Advanced Task Killer.  You can manage them without one, you that requires you to dig into the Settings area under Manage Applications, whichi s tedious.

Also, multitasking is so much like a desktop OS, it's actually a fault in some cases.  For example, if you have a music app running in the background, and you start a different music app, both will play at the same time!  In both WebOS and iOS, if you start another audio application, it will pause or stop the other one.

What I Dislike
Because it's a free mobile OS, everyone is having a free-for-all.  While in practice, it's a good thing, but it's also what prevented Linux from becoming more mainstream.  For a platform to be sucessful, it has to have a united front.  Ubuntu is bringing this to Linux, being the most popular and most consumer-friendly Linux distrubution yet.

With HTC creating SenseUI (also very popular and easy to use, thus the most liked), Motorola with the MotoBlur, and Samsung with the TouchWiz, Android just isn't really Android anymore.  These custom interfaces not only changes the Android experience for the user, but also slows down upgrading when a new version of Android comes out.

There is only one true Google Experience phone: the Nexus One.  Google needs to push this phone in retail stores.  It doesn't have to be with carriers, but what about places like Best Buy, Radio Shack, Walmart, and Fry's Electronics?  Places where people can grab the phone and play with it.  This phone wasn't just a nice piece of hardware, it was Google's official Android phone that didn't have any added sweeteners like SenseUI.  It was also sold unlocked.  We need more phones like this, and not just an Android, either.

 

The Upshot
I've decided to stay with the iPhone 4, but only because I can sell my old 3GS for a decent price, as well as apps I've previously bought.  I'd like to see how the other camps develop in the future.  Hopefully HP will give WebOS the hardware it needs, and Google gives us some indication that they are still interested in making and selling their own Google Experience phones in the future.

It's truly the marriage of hardware and software that helped seal the deal.  The iPhone 4 is extrenely well built, and the materials Apple used felt good and solid.  The OS is familar, so while it's kind of boring now, it fits like an old glove.  I find the little things Apple did to the OS and hardware makes it easy to use in a car, while I fumble a bit on the EVO 4G and on the Palm Pre (though a bit less so than the EVO).

I still can't help but keep looking at the other side to see what I'm missing, though.

 

Related Epinion Reviews

Apple iPhone 4

HTC EVO 4G

Palm Pre Plus

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