Four smartphones lead four different OSes into the battle for mobile supremacy. Android versus iOS versus BlackBerry versus Maemo. Fight!
You know times have changed when your Mom announces that she’s an Apple fanboy.
We’re witnessing remarkable disruptions in mobile tech, and the competitive currents are swirling so violently, even non-geek consumers have pledged fealty to one platform or another. The competition has also created a surprising field of winners and losers. Five years ago, we never would have predicted that in 2010 Palm would be out action, Google would be ascendant, Microsoft would be on the run, and Apple would be the incumbent.
BlackBerry is still a consistent favorite among its platform faithful, and we probably would have predicted that correctly. But even BlackBerry’s foothold among business customers is looking less certain every day.
The truth about mobile warfare is that the fighting actually occurs in a series of two-year battles. That’s the length of the standard wireless contract (at least the length of one that will get you a $500 smartphone for $200). The next two years will be crucial, however. How high will Android soar? Will BlackBerry be able to maintain its position? And what will happen when Apple finally opens the non-exclusive floodgates, allowing customers to use a carrier other than AT&T?
And hello, Microsoft? The Windows Mobile OS (last seen at version 6.5) has been a perennial loser, and even if Microsoft releases the intriguing Windows Phone 7 this holiday season, it will still be playing catch-up until 2014.
With all this turmoil as backdrop, we set out to test the representative handsets of the OS platforms that interest us the most. We were immediately struck by their hardware similarities: Most use a variant of the ARM A8 system-on-chip (SoC) as their foundation. Most have 512MB of system/application memory. All have touchscreens and built-in Wi-Fi support. Most have 5MP cameras. Thanks to this relative consistency in hardware power, the phones’ pivot points shift to more subjective criteria—namely, form factor, functionality, and (most importantly) interface.
In the following pages, you’ll find reviews of four different phones: the iPhone 4, BlackBerry Torch, HTC Incredible, and Nokia N900, a Linux-based outlier representing a brazenly unconventional, non-standard alternative. We attempted to test these devices in as close to real-world conditions as possible. That meant loading them up with four different email accounts—two POP, one IMAP, and one Microsoft Exchange account—and pounding away.
It also meant extended two- to three-week testing periods (we believe there’s no way anyone can review a phone in two days). At the end of our testing period, we asked ourselves two simple questions: Which operating system made us the happiest? And which phone would we want to keep if we had our druthers?
After all, even two-year contracts have end dates. Let’s prepare to pick and choose from the spoils of war.
Apple iPhone 4
Spectacular as a smartphone, but lacking as a phone
The original review of this phone, published June 25, 2010, can be read here.
Physically, with its flat, glass-covered back surface, the iPhone 4 is a big aesthetic departure from its predecessor. The edges of the phone are described by a flat metal band (also the phone’s antenna) that connects the front and back planes. The new model is a bit more boxy and “functional looking” than older iPhone versions, but is exquisitely designed all the same.
By now you’ve probably heard about the infamous iPhone 4 antenna issue: The phone loses bars—sometimes to the point of dropping calls—when you grip a certain part of the antenna band. Apple insists that it’s not as big of an issue as people claim, citing statistics that say the iPhone 4 has only a 1 percent higher rate of dropped calls than the iPhone 3GS. Nonetheless, the issue is real and easily replicated. Our advice? If you want the phone, plan to use it with a case. It fixes the problem, and Apple now offers one for free with the iPhone 4.
The phone’s most killer feature is its screen—by far the nicest screen you can get on any current smartphone. The 3.5-inch so-called “retina display” manages to produce a maximum resolution of 940×640 pixels for a pixel density of 326ppi. That handily beats the Droid Incredible’s (already fabulous-looking) 252ppi screen, and makes the iPhone 3GS’s 163ppi screen look like garbage.
The iPhone 4 comes with the same 1GHz A4 ARM Cortex chip found in the iPad, and 512MB of system memory—double that of either the iPhone 3GS or the iPad. The internal hardware is pretty much the same as other top smartphones, but Apple leverages it to provide a completely smooth UI experience. The newest version of the iPhone OS (now called iOS 4) provides a limited form of multitasking. Other new OS features include folders for organizing apps, and customizable home-screen backgrounds. This said, iOS 4 does cede some ground to the Android OS because it can’t display interactive widgets on the home screen.
The metal band makes for great industrial design, but introduces problems as an antenna.
The camera in the iPhone has received an upgrade, as well. It’s now 5MP, takes pictures much faster, and is capable of recording 720p HD video, using the same touch-to-focus functionality used when taking photos.
The phone also features a front-facing camera. It’s there to fulfill the top new feature in the iPhone 4: FaceTime, a built-in video chat app that lets you talk, face to face, with anyone else using an iPhone 4. The feature only works if both parties are on Wi-Fi, but the quality is surprisingly good. We’ve never really been into video conferencing, but it’s hard not to have fun the first time you try FaceTime.
With the iPhone 4, Apple has taken care of most of the lingering criticisms about the iPhone (such as lack of multitasking) and added a couple of features that people have been clamoring for (like the front-facing camera for video chat, for example). The problem with dropped calls is a real one, and Apple’s heavy-handed app policies and AT&T’s shoddy network are still issues. But if you can get past those hurdles, the iPhone 4 is an incredible piece of hardware that raises the bar for the rest of the industry.
Unparalleled screen quality; high quality camera; (sort of) multitasking
Needs a case to function properly; can only run approved apps; stuck with AT&T
HTC Droid Incredible
Android realizes its full, heart-warming potential
Aesthetically, HTC’s Droid Incredible lacks the neo-industrial panache of the iPhone 4, but it does have a sturdy, almost ruggedized feel. The brain is a 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon SoC, which, in conjunction with 8GB of storage and 512MB of RAM, provides for peppy multitasking. We tried to saturate the Incredible’s CPU and memory by simultaneously running and downloading apps and web pages, and it never broke a sweat.
The display is a vibrant, 3.7-inch, 480×800 AMOLED touch screen that will please just about everyone—except iPhone 4 owners. HTC’s 252ppi pixel density comes close to matching Apple’s 326ppi, but when you place the two screens next to each other, the disparity is clear.
One of the Incredible’s finest attributes is its 8MP camera, which out-pixels every other phone in this round-up. Like most smartphone cameras, it’s particularly well-suited for daylight, and it has a fast shutter response and some fairly flexible focusing options. Like all tasks within the Android OS, sharing photos is easily accomplished through a few simple button presses.
The Incredible lacks a front-facing camera, which shuts down the video-chat option. Our hunch is that while most of us won’t miss it now, we’ll all wish we had front-facing cameras in about a year when they’re a standard feature and software support is ubiquitous. Ironically, the only other “pure” smartphone we’ve seen that does have a front-facing camera is Nokia’s N900 outlier. (The Dell Streak? Not a pure smartphone!)
Much has been made of Android’s multi-tasking environment. While we appreciate it—particularly the ability to download data while performing other tasks—where the Android OS really trumps the competition is on the home screen. In addition to directory shortcuts, you can place functioning widgets for everything from applications to data feeds to settings screens directly on your desktop.
Furthermore, if you don’t like the way your home screen, keyboard, or virtually any other element of your phone looks or feels, you can change it by either modifying the settings or downloading alternatives from the Android Market. The Incredible currently runs Android 2.1, but HTC has implemented a modified version of the standard Android interface known as HTC Sense, which works quite well. Key differences include several customized apps and widgets for mail, social networking, and more. We particularly appreciate the Backup Assistant, which we set to automatically back up our contacts to Verizon’s servers every evening.
The default touch-screen keyboard is squarely average and offers up useful, intuitive and customizable auto-correct options. Nonetheless, you’ll be happier downloading a third-party keyboard, such as Better Keyboard or Swype. If you’ve been using a BlackBerry for years, expect a fairly significant learning curve, and know that you probably won’t ever type as fast as you did on a BlackBerry QWERTY.
Our biggest concern with the HTC Incredible is its meager battery life. With mostly default settings (except display time-out, which we always reduce to the minimum) and four email accounts running, we found ourselves draining the battery in less than 24 hours. That’s unacceptable, but at least we were able to extend battery life to close to 36 hours by reducing the frequency of email checks, downloading a third-party power manager app, and turning down screen brightness.
And let’s not forget how much network service matters: Verizon’s speedy network data rates give the Incredible a huge advantage over AT&T and the iPhone. We consistently, unfailingly, found the Incredible pulling down web pages and other data at rates up to three times faster than the iPhone.
Snappy performance; great camera; Android OS provides for intuitive and customizable interface
Poor battery life; mediocre default keyboard
Next Page: Nokia N900 and BlackBerry Torch Reviews »
Linux on a smartphone? That’s just the beginning of the weirdness
In many ways, Nokia’s oddball device matches every other phone in this story, feature for feature. It’s kind of like a Swiss Army Phone made by Finns. Front-facing camera? Check. Rear-facing camera with Carl Zeiss Tessar lens? Check. Touch screen and a physical QWERTY keyboard? Check and check. Stylus? Roger that. FM transmitter?
Wait, FM transmitter? WTF?
Yep, this phone can transmit audio to your car radio and home hi-fi.
Nokia released the N900—which the company officially calls a tablet—earlier in 2010, and the initial reaction from critics was decidedly meh-ish. We decided to catch up with the device now that it’s had time to mature. At the very least, its open-ended architecture makes it an interesting counterpoint to Android, BlackBerry, and iOS smartphones.
Similar to the BlackBerry Torch reviewed on page 65, the N900 features a 600MHz Texas Instruments OMAP 3430 system-on-chip, which is based on the ARM Cortex A8 microarchitecture. A full-sized QWERTY keyboard slides out from under the 3.5-inch, 800×480 touch screen, allowing you the luxury of both interfaces.
The screen boasts a pixel density of 267ppi. It looks great, and its touch-screen functionality, despite being based on resistive technology, works well, too. We found the keyboard comfortable and responsive, and in many ways close in quality to what you’d find on a BlackBerry, although the slightly awkward reach to the top keys slowed us down. It’s a fast, responsive keyboard, to be sure, and will please anyone who’s ever used a slider before. However, it lacks many of the shortcuts and accelerants that BlackBerry keyboards possess.
One of the N900’s biggest weaknesses is performance. In all regards, the 600MHz processor and 256MB of system memory feel inadequate when you compare the N900’s speed to that of other phones in our round-up. This isn’t surprising given the phone’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink design. We were consistently thwarted by processor stuttering when we switched between applications and our four email accounts. That said, the open-ended architecture did allow us to easily overclock the CPU with surprisingly minimal impact upon battery life. One nice touch is the standard 32GB of NAND eMMC storage memory.
Thanks to its slide-out physical keyboard, the N900 is the thickest phone in our roundup.
The N900’s OS is a Linux derivative named Maemo that offers a surprising amount of developer support online. As far as user interfaces go, the default package is a nice combination of power and flexibility. The closest comparison is Android. You swipe left or right to move between screens, and you can place all kinds of widgets and buttons on these desktops. Maemo’s open-source underpinnings allow for a wide variety of clever hacks, tweaks, and applications available for download from Maemo.org.
Besides the performance issues, this smartphone has two startling deficiencies that hobble it further. You’ll find no built-in MMS support (you have to download an app for this), and no 3G support on AT&T’s network. All that said, if you’re the kind of person who wants a device that will make people ask, “What is that thing?” then the N900 might be appealing. If it had a peppier processor, this would be the ideal device for nonconformists.
Great keyboard; Linux environment is…interesting; storage capacity
Pokey performance; no native SMS support; no 3G on AT&T
RIM dips its toe into the modern age
The Torch 9800 is simultaneously a departure from, and a clinging embrace of, the form and function that has helped make BlackBerry the most popular smartphone platform over the last five years.
The phone’s biggest innovation is a 3.5-inch capacitive touch screen display that shares hands-on interface duties with RIM’s familiar slider keyboard. BlackBerry loyalists who’ve come to appreciate the speed and tactile comfort of this signature keyboard will appreciate that it hasn’t changed. As a general rule, we too like sliders because they enable speedy long-form prose.
The Torch is also the first BlackBerry to include RIM’s just-released BlackBerry 6 OS. Unfortunately, the new software is paired with old hardware, and the marriage leaves something to be desired. Simply put, we would have liked increased performance to go with RIM’s efforts toward increased usability.
The CPU is the same 3-year-old 624MHz Marvell PXA310 that was in the BlackBerry Bold, and it feels overmatched by the new OS. During testing, our phone consistently exhibited sluggish screen refreshes, stuttering transitions between apps, and lag between actions. The slowdowns weren’t so bad that we wanted to toss the phone into a drink blender, but compared to the speed of the iPhone and Incredible interfaces, the Torch’s performance pretty much sucks. We expect performance to improve over time as the OS is updated, but still.
Like most phones, the Torch comes with 512MB of system memory. That’s dandy, but perhaps the most damning evidence of the phone’s old-school design is that it comes with just 4GB of onboard storage memory—in the form of a micro SD card.
Now, there is an upside to old hardware: outstanding battery life. We were able to get close to 48 hours without a charge. We also found this smartphone to perform admirably as, well, just a basic phone. It has a nice, solid feel when you hold it, and provides excellent call quality. The extended battery life only cements the Torch’s utility as something you primarily use for phone calls and texting.
With the addition of new top-level functionality, RIM’s BlackBerry 6 interface feels quite foreign at first. You can now scroll laterally through various home screens, and quickly access Wi-Fi settings, your clock, and more by clicking at the top of the screen. Best of all, you can access a comprehensive stream of email, SMS texts, and social networking updates with one finger.
As you get closer to the operational level of the OS, however, the interface feels more familiar. This might actually suit existing users, who by now have become inured to the Byzantine logic of changing notifications, profile settings, app settings, and more. Nonetheless, Apple’s and Android’s settings are still much easier to navigate, and it’s not like RIM’s confusing interface gives you deeper layers of customization.
We were frustrated to discover that many incompatibilities and glitches continue to haunt the platform. No matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t install either the Amazon Marketplace or Kindle apps, and the GPS remains notoriously slow to initialize. Then there are the sluggish data transfer rates caused by AT&T. It’s funny: We accepted problems like these for years until Android and non-AT&T carriers showed us otherwise.
On the plus side, we love BB6’s new media player, which is so easy to use, the Torch becomes a viable iPod replacement. We also dig the 5MP camera. It takes excellent photographs, even in low-light situations, and makes sharing photos a very simple process. Finally, like all BlackBerry phones, the Torch offers the best personal security, thoroughly encrypting all data that goes to and from BlackBerry servers. If you already love BlackBerry phones, keyboards, and security, and if you don’t care about apps and gaming, the Torch 9800 is a great choice. But in an era of faster, easier, and more well-rounded devices, it feels antiquated.
Great keyboard; above-average battery life; refined interface
Sluggish performance; limited versatility; sub-par app store
Next Page: The Hardware Specs »
Hardware Specs (For Those Keeping Count)
Smartphones aren’t like high-end notebooks: Performance specs aren’t as important as usability features, or, say, the robustness of a platform’s SDK for creating apps. Nonetheless, a glance at this chart shows that Apple is providing a lot of hardware for its $199 sticker price.
The iPhone 4’s processor and RAM match that of the equally priced Droid Incredible, but the iPhone smokes all of the competition in screen resolution and baseline storage. We can’t help but harp on the 854×480 screen resolution limit of all Android phones. This won’t be fixed until Google’s next big OS update. We do appreciate the Incredible’s 8MP camera (the iPhone’s is 5MP), but the iPhone also has a front-facing camera for video chat.
At first blush, it appears RIM and Nokia have blown it with underpowered hardware configs. Both the BlackBerry Torch and N900 use older CPU architectures, which explains both devices’ pokey performance. In BlackBerry’s case, however, there is an upside. While the iPhone 4 and Droid Incredible need a charge every 24 hours, the Torch can go for almost 48 hours without being plugged in.
The Torch has the smallest screen of any phone in the round-up, and this too can be a power-saver. But while RIM’s shiny new touch screen may seem like a big deal to long-time BlackBerry users, it only looks impressive if you’ve never seen the Droid Incredible or the iPhone 4. This should concern RIM, which wants to retain (and gain) non-enterprise users. We’ll say it again: the iPhone 4’s screen is vastly superior, and when BlackBerry users see it, they begin to understand what they’ve been missing.
|iPhone 4||HTC Droid Incredible||BlackBerry Torch||Nokia N900|
|CPU||1GHz Apple A4 (ARM Cortex-A8)||1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon||624MHz Marvell PXA310||600MHz TI OMAP 3430 (ARM Cortex-A8)|
|OS||iOS 4||Android 2.1||BlackBerry 6 OS||Maemo 5|
|System RAM||512MB||512MB||512MB||256MB + 768MB virtual swap space|
|Storage RAM||16GB or 32GB||8GB||4GB micro SD (included)||32GB|
|Screen||LED backlit IPS; 3.5 inches; 640×960||AMOLED; 3.7 inches; 480×800||TFT; 3.2 inches; 480×320||TFT; 3.5 inches; 800×480|
|Camera||5.0MP (back); 0.3MP (front)||8.0MP||5.0MP||5.0MP Zeiss Tessar lens (back); 0.3MP (front)|
|Input||Capacitive touch screen with MultiTouch gestures||Optical joystick; capacitive touch screen||Trackpad; backlit slider keyboard; capacitive touch screen||Backlit slider keyboard; resistive touch screen|
|Size in Inches||4.54 x 2.31 x 0.37||4.63 x 2.30 x 0.47||4.37 x 2.33 x 0.57||4.37 x 2.35 x 0.71|
|Price||16GB: $199; 32GB: $299 (both require 2-year contract)||$199 with 2-year contract; $529 unlocked||$199 with 2-year contract; $499 unlocked||$400 (always unlocked!)|
Next Page: Which OS Rocks Hardest? »
Platform Prizefighting: Which OS Rocks Hardest?
A smartphone doesn’t necessarily need to be fast—it just needs to be demonstrably never slow. And not only should UI navigation be completely fluid, the UI itself should be full of features and easy to use. With that, let’s see which OS platforms perform best in five key areas.
Ease of Use
Nokia falls out of this battle immediately. Its Linux-based desktop environment is visually impressive, but it’s no walk in the park to use. Neither is the BlackBerry UI. On the surface, BlackBerry 6 is RIM’s best OS, but performing even basic tasks remains fairly unintuitive. Ultimately, the ease-of-use battle comes down to Apple and Android. Apple’s iOS offers the simplest, most straightforward package. Its Multi-Touch gestures are world-class, and the multi-tasking scheme of the newest iOS makes it even easier to use. Android is close behind, which is admirable given the extra flexibility and power of its operating system, as increased options can lead to increased UI confusion. Winner: iOS
Email & Messaging
Unfortunately, Nokia loses again here. Its email app is incredibly slow under load, and the N900 doesn’t even support MMS out of the box. Apple’s email is straightforward and easy enough to use, but it’s not very powerful. With Android, Google offers instant synchronization with Gmail. It used to be that BlackBerry was the only push email client in town, but these days, if you or your employer use Gmail or Microsoft exchange, you’ll get the same functionality. Regardless, BlackBerry’s encryption and physical keyboard make RIM’s platform a must-have if messaging is most important to you. Winner: BlackBerry
BlackBerry 6′s “View All” stream allows you to see all your calls, appointments, and social network activity at a glance.
Flexibility & Customization
Not surprisingly, neither BlackBerry nor Apple offer a high level of customization beyond color schemes and app icon arrangement. Neither permit the use of live widgets on the desktop, which is a glaring omission—why should you have to launch an app to pull down news headlines when you can view them live on the home screen? BlackBerry does permit some fairly unique notification/ring-tone profiling, however.
The N900’s open-source Maemo environment offers the widest range of OS/interface configuration, and also allows a flexible desktop environment. Android is similarly malleable, but much easier to customize. It’s clear that Google is encouraging indie developers and mobile operators to push the envelope here, and this will result in a more rapid evolution of the OS. HTC’s proprietary “Sense” modification of the Android environment is a great example of the operating system’s flexibility. Winner: Android
Like all Android phones, the Incredible’s desktop can display widgets showing time, weather, and so, so, so much more.
Media Storage and Playback
All four OSes feature above-average media functionality, which is the death knell for the standalone MP3 player category. The newest version of RIM’s stock media player is surprisingly polished, making the BlackBerry a bona fide portable music device. The N900 has one advantage we’ve never seen in a mobile phone: a built-in FM transmitter that make it possible to listen to music in a car without any accessories.
Android allows for easy syncing and playback via Windows Media Player, and you can easily drag and drop MP3 files from your computer, or download DRM-free MP3 files from the Amazon MP3 Store app (which, strangely, doesn’t come pre-loaded). Apple, of course, includes an iTunes app, and while its software interface is simple and buying songs wirelessly is easy, syncing with the frustrating, DRM-laden desktop client is always a huge PITA. Winner: Android
Application & Developer Support
On the surface, Apple’s App Store has a massive advantage, with almost three times the apps available for download. It also offers the best games (Scrabble, Tiger Woods, and Pinball HD, to name just three). Android, however, is catching on fast, and offers less-restrictive terms for developers. And as the Android OS spreads across all wireless carriers, we expect that the number of quality apps will begin to rival that of the iPhone’s.
Also, for the time being, all the “essential” apps are already in the Android Market, and the signal-to-noise ratio in the Market is less annoying than in Apple’s App Store (a nice side benefit of hosting fewer apps). Despite Rim’s 2.0 release of the BlackBerry App World, its library is surprisingly deficient in both quality and quantity, confirming BlackBerry’s reputation as a no-fun, no-frills device. Tie: Android and iOS
As evidenced by this screen from Pinball HD, the iPhone’s App Store is a spectacular marketplace for mobile games.
The Bottom Line
OK, back to the original two questions posed at the top of this story: Which operating system did we like the best, and which device did we want to keep as our primary smartphone?
Answering the OS question is easy. At this point in time, Android is the more flexible and powerful operating system. It combines the snap and vibrancy of iOS with a more dynamic desktop. Not only can you place live feeds of email, news, and social networks directly on the desktop, you can also add on/off switches for key features and functions. It’s a very welcome evolution. Google’s open attitude and willingness to embrace OS modification bodes well.
The second question—which phone to keep?—is tougher. Our quick answer is HTC’s Incredible. We love the Android OS, particularly with HTC’s Sense modification. And thanks to Verizon’s superior network (and AT&T’s inferior one), the Droid Incredible is so much faster than the iPhone 4 and Torch in pulling down network data, it’s funny. Seriously, the speed differences made us laugh. HTC’s 8MP camera is pretty cool, also.
On the flipside, the iPhone 4’s superior screen, wide variety of apps, category-leading touch interface and dual cameras are hard to top. We doubt any Android users would want to switch to the alien environment of iOS, but the sheer depth of the Apple App Store and iOS navigation might well trump Android widget support for those who haven’t yet picked sides.
For what it’s worth, a number of compelling Android-based phones weren’t yet available when we started our extended testing periods for this article. So please look forward to reviews of Motorola’s Droid 2 and Droid X, and HTC’s Evo 4G in the future.