Phones to Challenge iPhone

August 24, 2009 - by grassonthefield

For the past month I've been using four different cell phones behind the excellent Google Voice service. One phone number, four phones. The four phones are the Apple iPhone 3G (iPhone OS), the Nokia N97 (Symbian), the HTC G1 (Android), and the Palm Pre (Web OS). I use the iPhone on the AT&T network, the Nokia and the G1 on the T-Mobile network, and the Palm Pre on Sprint's network. Each phone has a slide-out physical keyboard except for the iPhone. Bottom line: it is pretty clear to me, having used alternatives to the iPhone, that the iPhone platform is threatened by the good-enough of the Android platform, the design of the Nokia phone, and the superiority of the Palm Pre. Yes, the Palm Pre is a better phone and platform. I realize fewer people expressed satisfaction with the Pre, recently. It can be a frustrating phone because it out-Apples Apple in its design consistency and minimalism (strange to say). Like a small black pearl with a gorgeous screen and graphics, and crappy battery life, the Palm Pre is the phone I find myself picking up the most, though I've worked with each exclusively for a week. HTC G1 (Android) I realize I'm not using the latest and great Android-based phone. Frankly, this phone is downright ugly, clunky, but a pleasure to use. Google Voice takes over all the functions of the voice and SMS on the phone, if used. When the phone first boots, enter in your Google Apps credentials and everything else "just works". The marketplace for apps is surprisingly robust and many of the applications I use on the iPhone are available for Android. This is an open platform without "approvers". The Android platform is "real time" meaning applications continue to work in the background. How does this affect battery life? Well, the batter life of this first generation Android phone reminds me of the battery life of the first generation iPhone. It's gets through the work day, barely, and improved, it seems to me, with the "cupcake" update. If "open" wins, the Android platform is well positioned. The HTC G1 offers a slide out screen that reveals a physical keyboard. Physical or Virtual Keyboard An excursus on keyboards is in order. I've become pretty proficient using the iPhone's virtual keyboard. The way in which spelling suggestions are offered on the iPhone is backwords, in my opinion. One should have to accept a suggestion, not reject it. In fact, I think suggestions are mostly a waste. However, one can become very quick with the virtual keyboard if one just dives in and learns to just accept the suggestions. They are correct much of the time. Without the suggestions, the virtual keyboard is practically unusable for me. I regularly, mistakenly, double-type a character, for example. This doesn't happen on a physical keyboard. The advantages of a virtual keyboard are many. It is configurable by software. It can present different keys for different contexts. Example: when entering a URL a handy ".com" key is available, but, ultimately for the user, the experience isn't consistent. If I type a URL in mobile Safari, I get the ".com" key. If I type a URL in an email message, for example, I have to type out the ".com" with four keystrokes. Besides, lets be clear, why don't Macintoshes have virtual keyboards? Nokia N97 This is the best hardware platform I've ever used in a phone. It is roughly the length of the iPhone but slightly narrower and a bit thicker. The phone includes a 5 megapixel camera with a Carl Zeiss lens. One squeezes the top surfact of the phone to reveal, horizontally, a beautiful and very well designed physical keyboard and control pad. The phone is simply magnificent to hold. The touch screen vibrates slightly when used. The Symbian OS on the phone is simply dreadful. There's very little to like. If Android is Windows 7 (apeing the iPhone, but not exactly), Symbian is Windows 3.1. It is a real time operating system, or so it seems, but the behavior of applications is different when put in the background. There is very little user experience consistency except for the parts that are annoying. Every command is buried beneath an "Options" button, except when it really means "Options". Palm Pre This is the second best phone hardware platform I've ever used, and combined with the gorgeous Web OS, it is the best phone I've used, though the keyboard on this phone is small and takes some getting used to. When unboxing, booting up, using this phone, you swear it is an Apple product but better. The user experience is delightfully consistent. Deleting items always happens in the same way, for example. Upon booting the phone one is able to enter one's Google credentials and everything just works. Nokia should adopt this platform, if possible. The Palm Pre is a slider phone. One presses on the bottom of the phone to extend the phone vertically revealing a curious little keyoard that is all of a piece the keys represented by rubbery protrusions from the whole. It isn't easy to get used to the keyboard. Is Web OS the BeOS of the phone world? It is beautiful, and very well thought out. Applications launch in the context of "cards" that sit in the phones interface from left to right. One simply flicks on the touch screen to move between cards. Want to get rid of a card, flick it upwards and it disappears. Flicking offscreen consistently destroys items. Don't want an email message, flick it aside, for example. The operating system is very responsive. The web browsing is on par with the iPhone including multi-touch. Somewhere along the line, my iPhone 3G has slowed down. The interface will freeze up, from time-to-time. The Palm Pre interface is very responsive. There are flaws. The menu area on the top and the messaging area on the bottom of the interface is too slim. I regularly mis-touch. Certain functionality is so minimally addressed in the user experience of the phone it can be frustrating. How do I log off my AIM account? Is that a squiggly flick? But when discovered, it is always consistent. I feel like the Palm Pre is a rich language to be learned. Much of it is intuitive, some of it is like English. Google Voice The real phone I've been using is Google Voice. It's integration with the Android device should have me carrying that phone more often. I use the phone to call, receive calls, text, receive texts, but it is all through the Google Voice number. No other phone has that level of integration with Google Voice. Just my thoughts.

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