Can you hear me now?

I recently found myself in the biennial* position of needing a new cell phone, and that reminded me of an aggravating fact: buying a cell phone is not easy. And I’m not even referring to most US carriers’ draconian contracts and activation processes. No, I’m talking about the fact that despite the light-years of progress we’ve made since I got my last phone in 2006, I still could not find a perfect device. I realize this is a smaller issue for mainstream consumers: they want something that can send and receive texts, make phone calls, and has good battery life. Premium features like mobile web and GPS are becoming more prevalent, but most people still get by without them. For what I call mobile power users however, the decision is a bit more difficult. I spent some time with all of the major mobile operating systems before finally landing on a winner, and here are my thoughts on each:

Windows Mobile

I’ve been a Windows Mobile user since I got my first Pocket PC in 2002, before later migrating to a Windows Mobile smartphone (an HTC Apache/Verizon XV6700) in 2006. If my many years with the OS have taught me anything, it’s that Windows Mobile’s time has come and gone, and it’s time to put the old girl out to pasture. To put it simply, Windows does not make for a good mobile user interface. A large computer monitor works great for multitasking with a windowed user interface (especially when you’re using a mouse) but a low-resolution mobile display with a stylus? Absolutely not. Having a tiny Start menu list to launch programs is an equally absurd UI choice that should have been ditched five years ago. I understand what Microsoft set out to do in the beginning: bring the familiarity and branding of Windows to mobile devices. It’s a noble cause, but their reluctance to adapt to the needs of mobile users has ultimately left them in last place in terms of UI functionality. Thankfully, third-party apps can enhance the UI, and some phone manufacturers like HTC even produce their own touch-driven shells to get Windows Mobile up to snuff. Without standardization, however, the task of choosing a device becomes a crapshoot. Maybe with the release of Windows Mobile 7 in 2009 we’ll finally get a new user interface that isn’t designed around stylus input.

Spending all my time complaining about it wouldn’t be entirely fair, though, since Windows Mobile does have several strong suits. It’s stable, probably because seemingly little has changed under the hood in the eight or more years since the first Pocket PC came out. There’s also a plethora of software available ranging from games to media players. If you can find a third-party shell that’s stable and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, Windows Mobile actually becomes a decent choice.

RIM’s BlackBerry

What an interesting position RIM finds itself in with the BlackBerry. Though it made a name for itself in the enterprise world thanks to its push-email technology, the BlackBerry is fast becoming a serious a competitor for other premium handsets thanks to its other web features. I found the user interface functional enough on the BlackBerry phones I tested, and having a full keyboard is always great for communicating on the go. However, RIM failed to impress me with other premium handset features like GPS, multimedia, and built-in cameras. The GPS seemed less responsive than on other phones I’ve used, and the low-resolution screens on BlackBerry devices left a lot to be desired in multimedia applications. The fact that most carriers charge a "BlackBerry tax" simply for owning one—even if you’re not using any of the enterprise functions—was also very off-putting.

Perhaps the upcoming BlackBerry Storm (you know, the one with that frustratingly short teaser ad) can complete the BlackBerry transition from enterprise to prosumer when it debuts in November. Interestingly enough, the Storm ditches the full keyboard in favor of a much larger touch-screen a la iPhone and LG Prada/Vu/Dare. If the Storm has the multimedia capabilities to bring it in line with other premium handsets, it could become an extremely compelling phone.

Apple’s iPhone

One can’t deny the iPhone’s impact on the mobile phone market, which is a bit like what the iPod did for MP3 players. Though most people already had a cell phone before the iPhone’s appearance, few realized the advantages of a full-featured handset. While you can stick to calling and texting if that’s all you need, the iPhone’s fantastic Safari browser gets you full access to the web. Sites like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and of course The Tech Report become easily accessible from just about anywhere, and you don’t need to put up with a gimped, "mobile" version of the web. The iPhone also has a fantastic user interface, which Apple designed from the ground up for mobile use. You don’t need a stylus, and the layout seems to take both visibility and use with fingers into account. Put simply, the iPhone is a joy to use and navigate. The .Mac/MobileMe synchronization was also appealing to me, since I already had a subscription to the service.

So, why don’t I own an iPhone, especially since the iPhone 3G came out around the same time my hunt began? It’s actually because of a combination of issues. For starters, I found the camera decidedly lackluster on the original iPhone, and I was incredibly disappointed when Apple didn’t update it for the iPhone 3G. I suppose my biggest problem with the iPhone was the degree to which the device is locked down, and I wasn’t interested in exploring the homebrew/hacking route on my own cell phone. I’m a fan of unlocked phones. I like being able to use my handset on just about provider, in just about any country, based on my needs. The iPhone just left too many question marks and grey areas with regard to universal use. And like the BlackBerry, the surcharge for simply owning the device (which is what I’d call a plan that starts at $70 per month with no texts) meant a cost far above the competition’s. Sorry Apple, maybe you’ll get me with the iPhone 3G-2 next year.

Google’s Android

Android obviously wasn’t an option for me a couple of months ago, considering its debut with the T-Mobile G1 just this week. However, I’ve spent some time with the SDK and more recently a G1, and I came away impressed albeit still unsure about the future of the platform. Right away, it feels a lot like an iPhone, which is a good thing based on my previous praise of the iPhone’s UI. The touch-screen interface is generally well thought out, giving off a polished feel despite this being the initial release. As you would expect, the integration of Google services is top notch, too, and the multimedia features are surprisingly good despite the absence of a headphone jack. Actually, most of my hang-ups with the G1 have to do with hardware: poor cell reception, poor GPS reception, and poor speakerphone performance.

Considering its Linux pedigree, Android is most likely in for a battle similar to what Linux distros have been fighting on the desktop for several years now. Like its desktop brethren, Android is an open platform that can run on a multitude of devices, and it has the support of several large companies pushing for its success. What remains to be seen is the level of commitment third-party programmers will exhibit and whether Android can appeal to the masses in the same way as iPhone. Like many other Apple products, the iPhone "just works," and only by bringing an equal level of accessibility will Android make a serious dent in the mobile market. Thankfully, the premium handset market isn’t as well established as the desktop PC stage, and with the support of large marketing efforts, Android could very easily become a top contender in the mobile space. Now, let’s just get some more handsets out there.

Symbian’s S60 3rd Edition

If you haven’t guessed by now, I saved the platform I picked for last. So, how did I end up with Symbian’s S60? The biggest benefit I saw in S60 was its platform-agnostic approach to PC connectivity. It connects to Windows PCs just as well as it does to Macs—something not all non-S60-based handsets do—so I can synchronize my contacts, calendars, and other data easily regardless of which PC operating system I’m using that day. S60 has also been around for several years, so it’s stable and has a decently large software library (though it still doesn’t compare to Windows Mobile’s). Google has been a large supporter of S60 applications, creating YouTube, Google Maps, and Gmail apps that seemed to serve as test runs for Android. The built-in web browser is based on WebKit, the same rendering engine that drives the browsers for Android and the iPhone. However, the experience is less robust due to the lower resolution of S60 devices and their simpler input schemes. Opera Mini remains as a compelling option for an alternative browser. Thanks to my phone’s support for SDHC memory cards and the ability to plug in a 3.5mm headphones without an adapter, my phone has replaced my MP3 player, as well.

Compared to other premium handset offerings, S60’s UI could be considered the most conservative. You won’t find touch-screen support, and menu navigation is similar to the classic Nokia UI users have known for over a decade. While it’s not the best solution for mobile devices anymore, it’s at least functional, and it still offers a quick way to navigate through the phone’s menus. This will all change with the release of S60 5th Edition (four apparently means bad luck in Asia, so Nokia skipped it out of respect), since that will bring touch-screen control to the S60 platform, but it may take some time before its capabilities are fully exploited.

One of the biggest benefits I’ve found to choosing S60 is the newer technology in the handsets. I constantly hear complaints about how far ahead Asian and European phones are compared to what’s available in America, and buying S60 means you’ll most likely be importing much more recent technology than what’s available at your provider’s local brick-and-mortar store. Rather than an annual phone refresh, Nokia, Sony, and Samsung (among other S60 licensees) usually release new phones quarterly, making it easy to buy a handset with the latest and greatest technology at any time. For example, my phone sports a 5.0-megapixel camera, with Carl Zeiss optics and a true xenon flash. Walk into a Verizon, AT&T, or T-Mobile store, and you’ll still find 2.0- or even 1.3-megapixel cameras with LED flashes. The secondary camera on the face of my phone is better than most of them.

Importing foreign phones does have its drawbacks, however—and S60-sporting phones are generally not American phones, so you’ll have to know what GSM, UTMS, HSDPA, GPRS, and EDGE all mean before you can buy one. Most S60 phones come from Asia or Europe, and though they may launch here, Nokia (Symbian’s parent company) treats American users as second-class citizens. Firmware updates are few and far between, and many of Nokia’s official applications are designed for use specifically in Europe.

S60 also has an extremely odd development system, from what I can tell. New features are tested as standalone apps before making their way into a proper firmware release, which often causes redundancy in the OS and a lack of consistency between official apps. The general absence of standardization is the biggest issue facing S60, but that will hopefully change thanks to Nokia’s recent acquisition of Symbian. The entire platform should go open-source within the next couple of years, but it may be too late for anyone to care by then. For now, I’ve found a platform to get me through the next couple of years—at least until Android matures, iPhones get less expensive, or RIM comes out with a multimedia beast.

* You know, I always thought biannual meant occurring once every two years, while semiannual meant occurring once every six months. It turns out I was wrong, and that biannual shares the same usage as semiannual. The correct word to describe something that occurs every two years is biennial, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen used before. And that my friends, is TR’s Word of the Week. You’re welcome.

Comments closed
    • YvonneJean
    • 11 years ago

    From the article: “transition from enterprise to prosumer when it debuts in November.”

    Prosumer? I looked it up and it is supposed to be a combination of producer and consumer, but I don’t understand the meaning of what the author used it for.

      • cygnus1
      • 11 years ago

      in electronics it means a combo of professional and consumer.

      to describe a user, think power user, or high demand user, someone that knows how to use, needs or wants better, more useful features

      to describe actual electronics, it means mid level. both by features and price usually. with professional being the best/most expensive, and consumer being the low end, every day/cheapest electronics.

    • indeego
    • 11 years ago

    I guess I’m strange in that I look at the network *[

    • continuum
    • 11 years ago

    Hmm, no CDMA phones on Symbian. I guess Verizon and Sprint users are out in the cold.

    I’m glad to see Symbian has evolved considerably since I last used it on a Nokia 7610 (was it a 7610? somewhere in that era)… at the time the experience was not entirely pleasant due to stability and huge performance issues– it was ok but “quirky” and as soon as quirky hit, you were screwed…

    • bhtooefr
    • 11 years ago

    Is it scary that I found my own balance at Palm OS? (With the Centro…)

    Although the browser sucks horribly. Maybe Palm will give us a Nova refla… oh, wait, this is Palm we’re talking about. 🙁

      • A_Pickle
      • 11 years ago

      I thought about getting the Centro — and frankly, now that my HTC Apache’s mini-USB port is dead, I’m thinking a non Windows Mobile device is in my future. Android would be nice, but I’m not going T-Mobile…

        • Nitrodist
        • 11 years ago

        Isn’t Android for any phone, and not just T-Mobile?

          • A_Pickle
          • 11 years ago

          Of course, but… my phone is dead /[

    • Voldenuit
    • 11 years ago

    I’m a symbian S60 user myself, sporting a venerable Nokia N80 that I’ve been lugging around for nearly 2 years now.

    While the apps are sometimes handy, I find myself using the phone purely as a, gasp!, phone. Internet connection is a pain to configure, and with no 3G support in my local town, slow as molasses, so irrelevant to me.

    As a phone, it is more sluggish than other Nokias I have used in the past, no doubt because of higher OS overhead.

    It’s ironic though that my 2 year old piece of junk is more advanced than many American phones, truly we need to crack open the carrier monopoly here to stimulate the market via good old competition and free market enterprise.

    • The Swamp
    • 11 years ago

    I’m at two years now with my Samsung SYNC from AT&T. It’s a nice phone with what has to be the best screen I have ever seen on a phone. Battery life is okay, although the battery seems to be holding less of a charge now. It does, however, not have push mail, which would make the phone complete for me.

    The Samsung Epix looks interesting, with a touch screen and all of the features you can get right now in a cell phone. I don’t want to pay a premium for iPhone or Blackberry ownership. Matt’s right. Trying to choose a phone that’s right for you is a lot harder than it would seem first-blush. But I am leaning towards the Epix, unless someone can talk me out of it…

      • DancinJack
      • 11 years ago

      l[

        • mbutrovich
        • 11 years ago

        l[

    • lycium
    • 11 years ago

    i <3 my n82 but i’m getting a free work iphone and so will be selling it.

    gonna miss the videocalling, 5mpix cam (hate the flash), 6 day battery life etc.

    • Jigar
    • 11 years ago

    I am currently using a cooked Windows 6.1 (20275.1.3.3 build) Rom in my O2 Atom. It works like a charm and has the Wisbar desktop advance installed in it . Those who have used Wisbar will know it makes Windows mobile interface just like Vista (Depends upon the theme) desktop.

    • DrDillyBar
    • 11 years ago

    Nice article. I enjoyed that one.
    Have I mentioned in the last 4 days I have a Blackberry?
    🙂

      • A_Pickle
      • 11 years ago

      Er, but… you concurred with Meadows about how “the rest is what you have a computer for.” What’s a Blackberry, if not one of the most feature-packed smartphones on the market?

    • moog
    • 11 years ago

    It’s not too difficult to figure out a European phone.

    GSM/GPRS/EDGE is second gen radio tech.
    UMTS/HSDPA is third gen radio tech.

    Handsets that operate on UMTS will also operate on GSM/GPRS/EDGE, they have both radios.

    UMTS is somewhat underwhelming from a radio tech point of view. While the max transfer rate of EDGE won’t match UMTS, UMTS has a ramp up phase before utilizing it’s max bandwidth. Chances are UMTS will not show a benefit unless you are transferring large amounts of data at a time or browsing rich sites. As a matter of fact I wish I could disable UMTS on my phone because it drains the battery faster.

    But UMTS’s sidekick HSDPA is fast and makes a 3G phone worth it if you have a data plan that allows you to use it (I don’t know what the carriers offer or if they charge separately). If you don’t plan on using much data, keep your 2G phone or disable the UMTS radio if you can.

    Buying a European phone will mean you are limited to carriers like AT&T, TMobile, and other carriers that offer GSM. Verizon, Sprint, Alltel and other CDMA carriers will not support your phone unless the phone has a CDMA radio as well.

      • adisor19
      • 11 years ago

      Another advantage of UMTS that you are probably not aware of is that it eliminates the dreaded GSM interference buzzz that affects radios and speakers around you. When using UMTS, there is no more buzzing sound 🙂

      Adi

        • vdreadz
        • 11 years ago

        Thank you for that info. I get that a lot with my cell phones.

    • Flying Fox
    • 11 years ago

    So I take it you picked the N82. How is the not-supported-in-US 3G band treating you? EDGE surfing is good enough for you?

    BTW what’s your TR forum handle again, if not asked already?

      • mbutrovich
      • 11 years ago

      The lack of North American 3G was the only real sacrifice I saw with the N82, but I rarely use my EDGE anyway. The only thing that gets regular EDGE use is Google Maps, which feels snappy enough living in a metro area with dense network coverage. Browsing on Wi-Fi seems only slightly faster, which makes me think that the phone can’t render pages much faster than EDGE can feed them anyway. I don’t feel like I’m missing too much without 3G – there were too many other benefits to the N82 to pass up.

        • Flying Fox
        • 11 years ago

        The only real knock against the N82 is the less than typical 369MHz CPU it uses compared to its other brethren in the family. However, it has a 3D chip if it matters to you.

          • vdreadz
          • 11 years ago

          I fancy & I’m fond of the N82. All round it’s got NEARLY everything that you could possibly want in a phone. My next buy soon!

    • A_Pickle
    • 11 years ago

    g[

      • moog
      • 11 years ago

      WinMo 7 will bring it back to feature parity with competitors.

        • A_Pickle
        • 11 years ago

        What bothers me is Microsoft’s continual put-off of Windows Mobile. It’s very typical of them, because they ONLY look at the present. This is why Google/Apple are continually able to make damn near everything Microsoft comes up with look like a complete joke: Because they focus on what currently makes them profits (which is important, don’t get me wrong) rather than what will make them profits in the future.

        Windows Mobile could have been the iPhone (it had all the features the iPhone had to offer and potentially more, years before the iPhone), but it took the iPhone for Microsoft to realize that. I really think that it’s patently obvious that the “next big thing” is cellphones, specifically the fact that they too, are computing devices. But rather than gun for it, and code up a good, solid, version of Windows Mobile 7…

        …Microsoft has decided that their priorities lie in coding Windows 7 which… has… what to bring to the table? What does Windows 7 bring to the table? Ribbons in WordPad and Paint? That’s… retarded.

          • Flying Fox
          • 11 years ago

          Pragmatism is not a crime, and they have been very successful with the strategy for years. On the desktop/server where their most important customers are the corporate types, incremental changes are good for them.

            • A_Pickle
            • 11 years ago

            I’m not suggesting it is a crime… nor am I even suggesting that they should shelve Windows and Office. I’m not an idiot, I know that those are the cash crops of the company, but what does (and will continue to) piss me off is their complete bumbling with regards to the consumer segment of information technology.

            Microsoft is really hit-or-miss (with far more misses than hits, mind you) with their consumer stuff — more often than not, their applications and services ALWAYS need Internet Explorer or some other Microsoft software title and simply WON’T work with the competitor. They have no sense of integration, and with everything but gaming (and gaming on Windows is not without it’s faults, don’t we know) their solution often pales in comparison to Google’s or Apple’s, often with little explanation.

            Why is network sharing in Windows Media Player 11 so flaky? Why does it STILL have no podcast support? Why is Internet Explorer 7 so damn slow? Why does it STILL not yet have a download manager? Why do Windows Mobile users have no cloud-sync like MobileMe? Why does Windows Live Hotmail’s spam filter… not exist? Why does Microsoft not bitch-slap OEMs who make the Windows experience (desktop, laptop & mobile) garbage through bloatware and other garbage? Why does Movie Maker STILL have no easy upload to YouTube feature? Why is it that, when I go to download a skin for Windows Media Player, I can’t filter by Media Player version at that website, and none of the skins even work with the new version of WMP? Why is Vista’s interface, in many, many cases, extremely weak?

            I could go on and on about these little nitpicks in goddamn near every single product Microsoft has released that, quite frankly, /[

            • Flying Fox
            • 11 years ago

            It’s called protecting the monopoly. With Balmer still at the helm he’s still adopting the old school approach.

            The “Cloud” is coming, but they have to roll their own. Actually they threw out the cloud stuff before the word “cloud” even made it to the buzzword list. It’s called Hailstorm.

            The problem is, if you change your stuff too much, your existing customers are bound to complain. Just look at what happens when they decide that a big change is needed: you get 36+ pages of bitching in the forum at the very least. Microsoft’s huge customer base is a strength, but in this case it is a hindrance.

    • UberGerbil
    • 11 years ago

    So you’d never heard of the Venice Biennial, or the Whitney Biennial, or any of the other arts biennials? You philistine! 😉

    It’s funny how far away from the typical geek I am when it comes to phones.

      • mbutrovich
      • 11 years ago

      I am but an uncouth nerd.

      • Meadows
      • 11 years ago

      I still use a Nokia 3310 and I’m proud of it.
      Must be sort of like some people with their Model Ms.

        • Flying Fox
        • 11 years ago

        It depends, can you beat a man to death with that phone?

          • Meadows
          • 11 years ago

          You could, it’s quite a sturdy phone and heavy compared to these newfangled models that don’t function right past 6 months. This Nokia has been serving more than one family member in the past half a decade. It can send texts and you can telephone with it – thus, it does what a phone should, nothing more (the rest is what I have computers for).

            • DrDillyBar
            • 11 years ago

            l[<(the rest is what I have computers for)<]l Exactly.

            • A_Pickle
            • 11 years ago

            Er, most standardized smartphone platforms (Blackberry, iPhone, Palm, Symbian, S60, Windows Mobile) all work pretty well past a year, from what I understand. Windows Mobile has been working great for over two years for me. It’s these knockoff dumbphones-in-smartphones-clothing that don’t function past six months (Instinct, Glyde, Dare, Envy, etc).

            g[

            • Meadows
            • 11 years ago

            My first spreadsheet /[

            • A_Pickle
            • 11 years ago

            Part of me agrees with you, but… I really don’t mind the use of the cellphone as… a computer platform. I really think that the cellphone manufacturers/service providers who don’t see the cellphone in that light are the ones who are really damaging the adoption and improvement of the cellphone platform. I pretty much hate any phone that isn’t based on a standardized smartphone OS — that’s the really big feature that needs to happen to pretty much every phone. The sooner your “free with contract” phones can sync with your PC (or even cloud sync) without any additional fees, the better.

        • asdsa
        • 11 years ago

        It was a very popular model which I also had. Now I’m satisfied with my N82 except the battery life could be better.

      • Richie_G
      • 11 years ago

      I don’t get it either. I am more than happy with a simple phone that allows me to speak to people, even SMS I could and would happily do without. It’s quite liberating to not have all this G3, internet and whatever else there is. When you have less, people expect less from you.

      Drives me crazy when I’m with friends and they’re texting or playing games on their phone.

    • eitje
    • 11 years ago

    sounds like you played price-is-right with your list of wants and needs, finding a phone that was the closest to what you wanted without going over on any particular feature. “a series of trade-offs”, as they say these days.

    still, i appreciated the overview. 🙂

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