Phone Wars: Choosing your next phone

Some perspective:

When I was growing up, I remember the big day our family spent over $2,000 on a top-of-the-line desktop comptuer. It’s processing power and speed seemed almost magical compared to the clunkers my school was using. It was the size of two bread-boxes (for those of you that remember bread-boxes) and when pushed, its processor topped out at 300Mhz. It’s monitor was massive and could heat the room after a few hours of computing. The back-end of the tower was a nest of tangled wires.

Fast forward 10 years and the self-contained mobile device in my pocket runs almost twice as fast without breaking a sweat.

Never before in history has the general public had access to such powerful handheld computers. Born of a strange confluence of cellular phones and laptop computers, smartphones have finally come into their own as near-essential devices to our modern world. These devices (the word “phone” is too limiting) can connect across a wide range of electromagnetic frequencies from the short range Bluetooth bandwidth to the planet-encompassing GPS satellite network. They can capture, digitize, transmit, and receive almost any form of digital media we can create. It’s like the tricorder from Star Trek has finally been realized.

These ‘smartphone’ mobile devices now make up between 30%-50% of the global mobile market, and that number is expected to rise over the coming years. By 2013, the total mobile market could be worth as much as $200 billion USD.

With that much money at stake, there is a vicious competition going on right now between companies that want you using their devices. For the non-technophiles, this presents a daunting pile of options when you go out to make your purchase.

To help, here’s a quick comparison of the top 3 players in the Canadian market, and the kind of devices they’re creating.

RIM – Blackberry

Blackberry Torch
Blackberry Torch

RIM is the Canadian company that practically invented the smartphone market. Their line of Blackberry devices were originally designed as enterprise (business-people) products. The ability to write and respond to emails while on the road was a game-changer. Employees, for better of worse, could do business where-ever they were. Owning one became a sign of being a well-off and cutting edge business person.

In the last few years, RIM has been struggling to rebrand themselves, or at least some of their models, as more fun and social devices. Their devices can now usually be split between enterprise models and consumer ones.

Because of the enterprise roots, Blackberrys today are great for someone looking for an efficient, well-built phone without too much flash.

Pros:

  • Best physical keyboard on the market
  • Very efficient and powerful messaging tools, including proprietary Blackberry Messenger (BBM) and fastest email system on the market.
  • Generally most secure phone to use.
  • President Obama uses one (specially designed by RIM and the NSA)

Cons:

  • Has taken a while to catch up to the multimedia developments made standard with the iPhone and Android devices.
  • Up until OS (operating system) 6.0, which is rolling out now, it had the most archaic user interface of any of the current devices.
  • Limited access to 3rd-party applications due to its smaller application market

Flagship Model:

  • Blackberry Torch, a combines a touchscreen with a physical keyboard slider. Runs RIM’s new OS 6.0.

Apple – iPhone

iPhone 4
iPhone 4

Just as Apple changed mp3 player market with the iPod, they tried to change the smartphone market with the iPhone.

The goal with the iPhone (and Apple in general) is to take powerful technologies and make them usable to the large middle portion of society that don’t want to learn high-end technology.

The device isn’t complicated. It uses as few physical buttons as possible, and its user-interface is brilliantly intuitive. Apple has one way of using its products and expects users to live within that framework. This applies to the main interface, 3rd party applications, and everything in between. Some people love the seamless user experience. Others find the lack of customization options chafing.

The iPhone is the only brand on the market that uses touchscreens exclusively across the entire line.

As a result of their elegant engineering, and piggy-backing on the successful iPod marketing plan, the iPhone was catapulted into success. Another important factor is the massive 3rd party application market they’ve developed. They claim that they have an application in the market that can do almost anything. Apple has even gone so far to copyright the phrase “There’s an app for that.” The claim is mostly true, except for applications that ‘change the user experience’. This distinction has gotten Apple into more than one lawsuit from major players like Google Inc. in the past.

Every release of a new iPhone has been a success financially.

iPhones are great for someone who wants a powerful phone, but has no interest in learning too much about what makes it work.

Pros:

  • Best touchscreens on the market
  • Very pretty user interface on an elegantly built device
  • Massive application marketplace “There’s an app for that”
  • Near-zero learning curve for a high-end device

Cons:

  • Lack of customization in comparison with other devices.
  • Lack of open source software. It must be Apple approved.
  • Touchscreens not as fast or accurate as physical keyboards
  • No Flash support, resulting in ‘Jobs-Holes’ on websites.

Flagship Model:

  • iPhone 4. Same design as always, but with a better screen, faster components, and a front facing camera for video calls.

Google – Android

Motorola Droid 2
Motorola Droid 2

The newest major player to enter the mobile market. Android is different from iPhone or Blackberry because an ‘Android phone’ is any phone running the Android operating system produced by Google.

Unlike Apple and RIM, who make their own handsets, Android phones are produced by a range of manufactures. You’ll find Android phones being made by HTC, Motorola, Samsung and a few others. Each one these manufactures bring their own strengths and weaknesses to the table.

Samsung for example has been producing a series of impressive touchscreen models that rival the iPhone. HTC recently released the massive EVO 4G that has a 4.3 inch touchscreen (almost 1 inch larger than the iPhone) and a kickstand. Motorola produces the very successful Droid line, which feature a slide-out physical keyboard and the revolutionary Swype digital keyboard for your choice in data entry.

What stays the same is the general operating system. It’s a powerful and flexible system that allows for a wide range of customization. Integration with Google’s online applications like Gmail, Google Calendar, Search, Google Maps, and even the Chrome web-browser is a wonderful feature if you’re committed to using Google for all those things. And if you want to venture outside the Google-created software, you won’t be stopped.

The Android OS is theoretically built as an ‘open source’ project. The source code is available freely online for any developers to use in their creating of new applications or modifications. A whole community has developed around the creating of custom versions of Android for different devices, though most regular users will stick to the Google-approved releases.

With the wide range of different handsets and OS versions available, Google’s biggest problem seems to be fragmentation. With so many variations available, it’s hard for application designers and technical support to keep track. There are literally hundreds of different devices running Android, and hundreds of versions of Android to run on them.

The ‘current’ official OS version 2.2 (also known as Froyo), and is running on only half of all handsets.

You should consider an Android phone if you want the most possible customization of your phone. Their devices generally offer a good mix of the flashy functionality of iPhones, and the efficient tools of the Blackberry.

Pros:

  • Customize anything from OS, to your animated background, to what desktop widgets are on your screens, to your battery.
  • Very deep integration with some of the best Internet applications through Google.
  • Large application market (but smaller than Apple’s), plus you can install and run un-approved applications.
  • Lots of options means you can choose the form-factor you like.

Cons:

  • Device/OS fragmentation means tonnes of options, not all of them good. Shop with someone who’s done their homework.
  • Build quality on cheaper devices suffers.
  • Doesn’t compete well with multimedia features of the iPhone, or the keyboard of the Blackberry.

Flagship Model:

  • Either the EVO 4G of the Droid 2 depending on the form-factor you prefer.

But what does it all mean, Basil?

Overall, none of these choices are bad, and none of them is flat out better than the others. Anyone professing overall superiority of a particular device either doesn’t understand the market, or they just spent a lot of money on one of them. They are all excellent at a few things, and suffer at others as a result. This is the nature of technology.

If you’re selecting a device to purchase in the near future, you must first decide what’s important to you: efficiency, elegance, or control. Then go out and hold all of the options. Play with them. See how they feel. This is a device that’s going to spend more time close to you than any other object in your world (even underwear gets changed). So it’s important that it feels right.

If you have any questions about mobile devices, feel free to contact theAQ’s resident technophile Alex Solak on Twitter or Facebook.

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