Friday, November 9, 2012

My Future Phone

Edit: I will begin this post the exact same way I have chosen to end it. Your choice of phone is a big part of who you are, especially for those of you who use a phone for several hours every single day. I do not take choosing a new phone lightly, and for those of you who ask my advice on phone purchases, the following is a pretty good condensed version of what goes through my head before answering you. I have done extensive research and reading on all of this material, hopefully so you don't have to. Alright, now back to the story...

Hey guys, this is a question I get pretty commonly, and I've essentially devoted the last 2-3 years of my life to answering this question, among other more important questions. I am often asked "I'm in the market for a new phone, which is the best for me?". This question comes in many, MANY variations, the most frequent being "I want to get the [insert new Android phone here], what do you think of it?". If you are one of those people who really only has any intentions of using a cell phone to make phone calls and send SMS messages, then this article is not for you. I will hopefully get around to doing another story entitled "Cost/Benefit Analysis (aka how to spend your money smartly)" in which I intend to validate the additional costs incurred in the everyday use of a smartphone by what that piece of technology can do for you. Coming up to the end of 2012, with smartphones having been on the market for about half a decade, if you can afford a smartphone (which you can), by not having one you are really just being a hipster. Anyhow, I am getting off topic, this is a very important subject to me, one I reflect on every single day.

In the smartphone market, there are many, MANY players right now, but your choices boil down to three real options (BlackBerry notwithstanding, as the new set of BB handsets are due out in about 6 months, and no informed person in their right mind would buy a BlackBerry today). Your choices in smartphone today are actually very, very limited if you are an informed person making a good decision. There are three really wonderful mobile operating systems (OSes) which have been released as of today, November 9, 2012: iOS 6 (Apple), Android 4.2 "Jelly Bean" (Google), and Windows Phone 8 (Microsoft). Of these three, you would be hard pressed to find two of them on shelves today, because all three have only been released in the last 6 weeks or so. If you were to buy a phone today, and couldn't wait the weekend, I would unequivocally point you in the direction of iOS, be it on the just-released iPhone 5 ($199 for a 2-3 year contract), the iPhone 4S (can be found for $99 on 2-3 year contract) or even (if you don't need to be on the cutting edge) the 2 year old iPhone 4 ($0 on 2-3 year contract). This is because even though the two competing OSes have been released, there are no phones which can be purchased and used today on either Android or Windows Phone 8 (at least to my knowledge). That being said, let us move about a week into the future, when several phones from each of these competitors will be unleashing these phones on carriers in Canada. This will give a fair assessment of the competition and will allow me to provide my thoughts on all three systems and how different users will fare given their choice.

Pre-publication edit: This thing, as I assumed it would be, is rather long. If you don't feel like reading all of this (though if you're buying a phone and wish to be informed, you should), please feel free to scroll to the bottom and read my final recommendations.

I would like to break this down and discuss each operating system one at a time, starting with the most promising:

Windows Phone 8

This operating system, while seeming like a minor upgrade from the existing, and very similar looking Windows Phone 7, it is actually a complete overhaul of the platform. You'd be hard pressed to find too many visual differences between the Nokia Lumia 900 (Windows Phone 7) and its new counterpart the Nokia Lumia 920 (Windows Phone 8).


To the unassuming eye, this seems like a minor upgrade (like you would get in an iPhone update), but in fact everything about the system has been completely overhauled. In fact, the old system, even the Lumia 900, which by all accounts is a new phone (released on April 8, 2012 with Windows Phone 7.5 software) is completely different from the new Windows Phone 8. This phone will never be able to upgrade to Windows Phone 8 because it is programmed more like a computer than a Nokia phone. These (old) new phones were updated to what was called Windows Phone 7.8, which visually mimics Windows Phone 8, but in fact cannot hold a candle to it. If you are going to buy a Windows Phone, wait until you can get one of the new phones.

Essentially, with Windows Phone 8, the desktop and mobile versions of Windows are finally going to be unified. Windows Phone is a very simple interface which cuts through having to use separate apps to see what is going on, and really takes a phone interface down to the bare essentials. With their so-called "live tiles" you can see messages and emails and phone calls without leaving the home screen of your phone. The interface is very minimal and aesthetically pleasing, and doesn't get in your way. While the system doesn't have the ease of use and quick learning curve of the iPhone, it is fairly easy to understand and can be picked up quickly based on its simplicity.

There are going to be two choices for the foreseeable future here, with the HTC Windows Phone 8X, and the Nokia Lumia 920 scheduled to go on sale next week in Canada. I will discuss the differences between those two phones in a moment, because having to choose between those phones is a cakewalk compared to the next category.

Bearing that in mind, here's a side-note for anyone in the market for a new phone who claims that they want "an Android phone". I give this information, not as an "Apple fanboy", but as a rational, technologically inclined person who has done extensive research and testing on many Android phones, I can assure you that I am not at all biased in these opinions, they come from a place of love for the truth.

Caveat*

Now, the most important thing you have to understand about phone manufacturing is that there are many different manufacturers, many different phone carriers and only a handful of mobile operating systems to choose from. Now, in 2005, for example, you could choose a Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Samsung, etc. phone, and you really wouldn't notice any difference in usability or functionality. There were differences, and in fact each phone was quite different, but usually in minimal ways that no one user would ever notice. If you had a contract with Rogers, your phone would usually have Rogers stamped on it in one or two places, and probably say it on the screen, but that's really all you would have to deal with. The performance of the phone, and its functionality, could only really be impaired if your network was of lower quality (see ATT circa 2007). Looking at the situation today, you have major manufacturers like Nokia, Apple, HTC, LG, Samsung, BlackBerry, Motorola (now owned by Google), etc., and the problems which appeared 10 years ago have only gotten worse. This growing problem is most noticeable on the Android platform, in what is referred to as fragmentation. Let's go for a little ride...

Android 4.2 "Jelly Bean"

I would like to start off right away by saying that of all the operating systems discussed here today, Android is by far my favourite. My friends will probably scoff at that, but those who know me best also know that I am a big fan of customization. I have spent many sleepless nights working on perfecting the look and feel of my jailbroken iPhone, even dedicating days at a time downloading custom skins to make it look like an Android phone. Without question, Android is best known of all the mobile operating systems for the ability to make it your own. That being said, in general it is several generations behind the other platforms simply because every hardware manufacturer, and cellular carrier, has its own view of what "the best" looks and feels like. This is going to be a long explanation, but I am going to do my absolute best to make it readable, and break it down in bite-sized chunks.

1. Manufacturers have the ability to work with raw Android code to make the operating system look and function the way they want it to (actually, anybody can do this, as almost all Android code is open source, for those who wish to do that themselves, however, it would be a very time-consuming undertaking). This is done with a so-called "skin" or user interface (UI) which is used by phone manufacturers to distinguish their phones from the others. While this in principle, and marketing-wise, seems like a great idea, in essence what it does is take up valuable computer resources which have been finely tuned by Google engineers to run smoothly, and throws virtual wrenches into all of the tiny machines in the phone. Each manufacturer does it, with HTC's Sense UI, Motorola's MotoBlur, and Samsung's TouchWiz interface, and they are all just (sometimes) nice looking ribbons which get in the way of the phones actual function. Now, there is a Android experience to be had which is as pure as it can get, and it is called the Nexus line. What Google has done is taken a phone manufacturer, worked with them to create the best blend at the time between hardware and software, and released it under the "Nexus" moniker. First, the Nexus One (HTC), then the Nexus S, followed by the Galaxy Nexus (both from Samsung), and most recently the Nexus 4 (LG), were all made in collaboration with Google to create what they say is the purest form of Android at the time. This phone is always going to be the best showing of Android in any generation, even ignoring the next point.

2. Android phones, generally speaking, do not get updates. Yes, the Nexus line is almost always the first to be considered for updates, but even those have their problems and delays. Because the manufacturers get to determine the release of updates, and those manufacturers are concerned with selling their best and brightest phones, generally speaking you will not see any major software upgrades once you have purchased your Android phone. There is a small exception in the Nexus line, as those tend to keep up with updates, but anything else, if it will get an upgrade at all, it will get it six months after it has been shown to the world, and will generally only happen if the phone is quite a bit less than a year old.

3. All of this has been done without even having the carriers (Rogers, Bell, Telus) involved in the discussion yet. Generally, when you buy a phone through a carrier, it will come stamped with the name of the carrier, but the carriers will also determine a few other things about phones, especially in the Android ecosystem. In general, on the Android platform, each carrier will get the same 2-3 phones, and you can decide which carrier you would like to use and purchase your phone. In reality, however, the phones which are released to each carrier are very different, with a few differences in each meaning you really have to do your homework if you want to be sure you know what you are getting. In some cases, you can have differences as large as 3G/4G connectivity, different processors, different camera specifications, and even different designs completely, to the point that I have seen phones which are allegedly the same which look totally different and whose cases are not even close to interchangeable. There are also a few carriers which add unremovable apps (bloatware) to the system and slow it down even more, which is something they will never write press released about and are basically free advertising for their partners.

4. Yes, Android phones do get some of the latest and greatest features first, but this is in general a bigger deterrent to adoption than it is a help. Features like 4G/LTE (fast data speeds), new screen technologies promising better contrast and less reflection, near-field communication (NFC, similar to the chip in your VISA which allows for things like making payments at select retailers with your phone), and inductive charging (which lets you put your phone onto a charging pad and wirelessly charges the battery. All of these features have been put into Android phones over the last year, and all have had their (sometimes severe) drawbacks. These are essentially experimental technologies in their implementations in these phones, and are not reasons to get the phones. The simplest way to show that is that the newest (about 2 weeks old) Nexus 4, which is so new it hasn't hit shelves yet, doesn't contain any of this technology. Google and LG put their heads together and designed the best phone they possibly could (and, without having used it, I am certain it is a great phone) and it doesn't include any of these technologies which Android purists have been raving about. The fact is that the technologies simply aren't ready for the big time yet, and on a budget (the Nexus 4 will be released in Canada starting at $309) they are not feasible. 4G/LTE on Android generally wreaks havoc on battery life, NFC and wireless charging take up room in and add weight to the phone without adding much usefulness, and the newest screen technologies are still not generally as good as the exacted versions of regular old LCD screens.

5. Now, before I go ahead and dismiss Android altogether, their saving grace could, and hopefully is, the new version of their operating system, Jelly Bean. This update, along with a systematic overhaul of the programming in the phone, called Project Butter, make Android 4.2 a very interesting proposition. Having only used one phone with Jelly Bean installed, I can say that the difference between it and Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0), even on a phone like the Galaxy Nexus, is absolutely night and day. For anybody that has used Android, no matter how die-hard a fan you are, you much concede that dealing with systematic lagginess on even superphones like the Samsung Galaxy SIII is a pretty hard pill to swallow, and has actually been a deal-breaker for me. Before Android 4.2, this was just a price to pay for using Android, and it was a very high price for those of us who know that better is out there. However, even though I have only used Jelly Bean for approximately 3 seconds, I can easily say that I can recommend it for anybody looking for a good, solid Android operating system. The lag inherent in previous versions is completely gone, and though I cannot speak for phones with a slower Android skin like the SIII, I would love for the smoothness I saw to still be there on those phones running Jelly Bean. The propagation of Jelly Bean, though, is going a little slower than would have been hoped. I have done considerable looking and actually cannot find any phones which have gotten the Jelly Bean update natively yet (Galaxy Nexus does seem to have some permeation, but official carrier updates are extremely sparse), though it was announced in July 2012 and released shortly thereafter. This is the upgrade cycle of Android, and something its users just have to deal with. There is, after some research, actually one phone which HAS been released with Jelly Bean on it already, the Galaxy Note II, a massive 5.5" screened phone with a stylus running Samsung's skin. It will be interesting to see how that TouchWiz skin interacts with Android 4.1, to see if the inherent smoothness remains.

6. The last issue with Android deals not with version fragmentation, but with apps and screen size fragmentation. Because every manufacturer has to build phones that are different and fill all screen and price points, you end up with a very strange predicament for developers trying to make apps for the platform. With thousands of different possible screen sizes, and a variety of shapes and features, developing for Android is enough to drive someone crazy.

I hope I have shown you some of the reasons why I have stayed away from Android so far, getting to my favourite part of this article in the present.

iPhone

This is by far the easiest part of this article to write, because everybody already knows pretty much all of the basics of the iPhone. There are many virtues to controlling your own software and hardware, the first being that you get to control every step of the process. You will not see a Rogers stamp on any iPhone, in fact (in general) the only indication you are tied to a carrier at all is the name of the carrier on the top left of the screen in the header bar. As far as fragmentation goes, after 5 years of iPhone, they have just recently announced their third phone resolution, and second screen size ever. Its no wonder developers flock to the Apple app store like no other, even though the price of admission is fairly steep for new developers ($99/year).

It's not to say there aren't problems with the iOS operating systems. I have my own qualms with it from time to time. But these problems generally are reconcilable by developers in their own apps. In essence, if you want something simple to use, and which is beautifully manufactured, and will generally be updated well past its warranty, I always recommend iPhone.

To put this in a little perspective, at last count, around 2% of Android deviced on the market today have 4.1 or 4.2 Jelly Bean (most of this is tablets, I would not be at all surprised if that number is more like 0.1%, if you only consider phones). This operating system was finalized in July. Compare that to iOS 6, which within 24 hours of release had about 15% adoption, and after one month had 60% of people on board. With bilateral control of the whole phone, Apple can pass along updates to all of its customer base at once, seamlessly and without too much effort or knowledge on the part of the consumer.

If you want a phone that is easy to use, has all of the newest features, and in hardware tests demolishes phones with much higher specifications, you should really buy an iPhone. That being said, if you wish to go with something else, I will offer one recommended alternative from both the Android family, and the Windows Phone family.


LG Nexus 4


This phone is the absolute best and brightest in terms of Android today, and it is affordable to boot. It is the first phone to come with Jelly Bean 4.2 natively, and will probably be the only phone to have it for a while. If you want an Android phone, this one is the one to wait for. It is expected to be released in Canada next week.

HTC Windows Phone 8X

Between the Nokia Lumia 920, which has wireless charging (making it weigh almost a half-pound) and a very fancy low-light camera, and this phone, I have to choose this phone. After reading extensive reviews of Windows Phone 8, this would be the phone to buy if you are looking for a sleek, nice Windows Phone 8 experience. And with the coming union of the just-released Windows 8 for desktop/tablet, Windows fans should rejoice at the release of this platform. This phone is expected to be announced on Rogers next week as well.


iPhone 5

This phone is my current top recommendation. The reason is simple, it gives the best overall phone experience you can ask for, in comparison to all of the reasons given above in terms of what to expect from other phones. I have not yet tried out the two phones shown directly above, as they may yet reign over this phone in my mind and in reality. I have very high hopes, because iOS does have a few well-documented issues which need rectifying, but as for the overall package I am happy to provide extensive reasoning for this choice.







To anybody who has ever asked me for phone advice, if you wonder why I hesitate before answering you, this is the reason. As for those of you looking to buy phones in the near future, please think about what I have discussed here. You should REALLY either buy an iPhone, or wait a week. I guarantee either of those options are well worth your while.