My smartphone conundrum


— 10:46 AM on October 12, 2012

We're on the outs, my iPhone 4 and I.

Oh, we had a long and beautiful honeymoon. The iPhone 4 was my first proper smartphone ever, and I was immediately in love. The effortless sliding of icons on the home screen, the silky smoothness of the inertial scrolling, and the razor sharpness of fonts at 326 PPI... it was dizzying. I loved the iPhone for its brains, too. Anywhere, anytime, it gave me instant access to everything—maps, e-mail, navigation, music, Twitter, Facebook, news, weather, e-books, you name it. The list went on and on, and the convenience factor was off the charts.

But time started to take its toll on my beloved. The iPhone 4 began to feel more sluggish than before. I started to notice more hitching in the user interface. My usage patterns hadn't changed—I still mostly checked my e-mail, kept up on my RSS feeds, found my way around in the Maps app, and wasted time on Facebook. However, Apple kept piling on new feature after new feature in successive iOS releases, and each one seemed to make my iPhone 4 feel slower and more dated.

So I started itching for an upgrade. I patiently waited for Apple to introduce the iPhone 5. I mean, what else was I going to get? My girlfriend made the mistake of buying an Android phone a few months after I got my iPhone 4, and I saw first-hand the problems with that device: mediocre industrial design, a low-quality camera, and worst of all, no support for software updates past Android 2.2. My few, short brushes with Android 4.0 on other phones weren't too encouraging, either. As for Windows phones, as much as I like Metro in a mobile context, I wasn't thrilled with any of the devices out there—or the integration with Bing.

Alas, my desire for an iPhone 5 instantly vanished as soon as I saw the mess Apple made with iOS 6. Apple's new Maps app was the biggest and most appalling mistake from that release. It stripped away two major features upon which I relied heavily: public transit directions and Google Street View. And that's not even the worst part. Some information was just plain missing. Some places were mislabeled. And the satellite imagery was awful, at least for my city. Folks in other places have had no better luck.

To replace the missing public transit functionality, I had to buy a third-party app, TransitTimes+, which set me back $3.99. To its credit, TransitTimes+ offered me a lot of things the Google-powered Maps app didn't, like individual bus routes and nearby departure times. But it also didn't do some of what the Google app used to do, and I found it a chore to launch from the neutered Maps app. After spending a fair amount of time with it, I still longed for the old, Google-powered experience.

I thought about toughing it out for a few months until the Google Maps app comes out for iOS. If that turns out to be any good, then I can grab the iPhone 5. But thinking about that option, I realized something.


Left: Samsung Galaxy Nexus. Right: Apple iPhone 5. Sources: Google and Apple.

Google clearly has the better mapping software. I also think there's no question that Chrome is a better browser than Safari on the iPhone. Chrome handles tabbed browsing more elegantly, and it syncs with my PC, while Safari on iOS can only sync with Safari on OS X (the Windows version isn't available anymore) and Internet Explorer (which I don't use). Meanwhile, I use GMail for both personal and work e-mail, and the iOS Mail app still doesn't have proper support for all of GMail's features, like push notifications and Priority Inbox.

So, if the Google apps and services are better, then why even bother with iOS? Why not just get a Google phone?

I've been keeping an eye on Android, and with version 4.1 (a.k.a. Jelly Bean), the operating system finally seems to have received the polish and responsiveness that prior releases so sorely lacked. Android reminds me a little of Windows in its early days. It feels like Google iterated and iterated until, through sheer brute force, it started outclassing the previously superior solution. Mac OS began looking dated next to Windows in the late 90s, and it feels like iOS is starting to look a little crummy next to Android nowadays. Apple has excellent hardware, but I keep watching demos of Android 4.1 and thinking, why doesn't my iPhone do that?

Of course, the Android handset market is a veritable minefield of mediocrity—much like the PC clone market in the late 90s. Perhaps the best Android phone out there right now is Samsung's Galaxy S III, but like most Android smartphones from major manufacturers, it has a custom user interface and custom apps layered on top of the Google OS. Samsung calls those customizations TouchWiz, and I'm not a fan of them. I think TouchWiz icons and UI widgets looks cheap, and what I've seen of Samsung's custom apps hasn't impressed me. Custom software layers also increase the potential for security vulnerabilities—like the recent TouchWiz exploit that allowed Galaxy phones to be wiped remotely.

What I want, then, is a good, solid phone that runs the stock version of Android 4.1.

My friends tell me I can root the Galaxy S III and install a TouchWiz-free version of Android on it. I considered that option, but you know what? I don't want to do that. I don't want to have to jeopardize my warranty, spend hours digging through guides and downloading custom firmware, hoping throughout the whole process that I don't brick my phone. I don't want to have to worry about reinstalling the default firmware and resetting flash counters if I need to return the device for warranty service. I want a handset that, out of the box, looks and works just the way I want it to—like my iPhone 4 back in 2010.

That requirement leaves me with pretty much only one option: get a Google Nexus phone. Problem is, the Galaxy Nexus is already about a year old, and its replacement hasn't arrived yet. There have been leaked pictures of an LG Nexus handset purportedly due out in the near future, and I may well get that one. However, I'm not in love with the industrial design portrayed in the leaked shots, and I have no idea if the camera or the display are any good. I like the feel of the Galaxy Nexus' curved, textured back, but the LG Nexus' back will apparently be flat and smooth. Too bad.

My indecision has left me idly wondering if, maybe, I shouldn't get a Windows Phone 8 device. I'm probably going to upgrade my desktop PC to Windows 8, and I like the idea of running a scaled-down version of it on my phone. Microsoft has said the two operating systems will have a lot of common code, and porting apps between the two should be feasible with very little work. If all goes as planned, I might be able to run downscaled versions of desktop apps on my phone, and vice versa. I expect there would be some amount of synchronization going on, as well, so my settings and preferences would carry over from my PC to my phone.

Unfortunately, I don't really like the few Windows Phone 8 devices that have been announced so far. The Lumia 920 looks too fat, and as with the HTC 8X, garb choices include "black" and "several garish colors you're going to get sick of within six months." Beyond that, I worry about the software. Bing Maps and Internet Explorer 10 may work just fine, but if I'm ditching Apple because its apps aren't as good as Google's, then why would I even bother with Microsoft? Plus, even if I stopped worrying and learned to love Bing Maps, I'd still be using an underdog platform with fewer third-party apps than Android or iOS.

That, folks, is my smartphone conundrum for 2012.

I hate being in this situation. Back in 2010, the iPhone 4 was clearly the best phone to get. Sure, there were hiccups with the antenna, but I never experienced those—and I got a free bumper out of the resulting scandal. Today, I'm left scratching my head and wondering what the heck to buy. Maybe that's a reflection on the smartphone market's maturity. Maybe it just means there are too many good phones to choose from. But I'm a little more pessimistic; I think it means Apple has gotten too complacent, and because of that, there are no clear winners anymore.

   
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