Which Smartphone OS Works Best?
Once only within reach for executives and the well-heeled, smart phones are now at the center of many road warriors' lives. But their popularity has led to a problem: With so many smart phones available now, it's hard to know which one is right for you.
The answer depends on what you most need your smart phone for. Do you need a device that excels at e-mail or one that's optimized for browsing the Web? And will the best smart phone for e-mailing or browsing also keep you entertained on a long flight?
A smart phone's power comes as much from its operating system as it does from the capabilities the vendor builds in. To help you at least narrow down your choices, we tested four smart phones, each based on a different operating system, to find out which platform is better for particular tasks.
To represent their different platforms, we tested Apple's iPhone 3G, based on a mobile version of OSX; the HTC Touch Dual, based on Microsoft's Windows Mobile 6.1; Nokia 's E71, based on the S60 variant of the Symbian platform; and Research In Motion's BlackBerry Curve 8310, based on, of course, BlackBerry's proprietary operating system. (For more specific information about the phones themselves, see "About the phones.")
We compared how well these phones performed four common road-warrior tasks: browsing the Web, sending and receiving e-mail, taking a photo and e-mailing it, and playing music and streaming video. We felt these tasks were typical of what most smart phone users need to do, and would also test the power and usability of both the devices and their operating systems.
Here's what we found.
Browsing the Web
Browsing the Web is much more of a challenge on a small-screen device than on a laptop or desktop. This task tests, among other things, the usability of a smart phone's built-in browser, how simple it is to navigate a Web page without a mouse and the clarity of the device's display. We looked for how readable Web pages were, particularly Web pages that haven't been optimized for small-screen devices. We also looked for browsing aids like full-screen mode and zoom capabilities to make the page easier to read. And we examined how the device handled links to e-mail addresses and to PDF files.
The Browsing Experience
Browsing, using the iPhone's version of Apple's Safari, is very similar to browsing on a desktop, a claim none of the other smart phones in this group can make. Pages rendered accurately and quickly (the exception being pages with embedded Flash content or Java applets, which aren't supported by the iPhone's Safari browser).
Thanks to the iPhone's touch screen, opening links and scrolling were as simple as tapping or dragging with a single finger. Zooming in and out was equally easy using the two-fingered pinch motion. Since Safari uses the entire screen and automatically rotates to landscape mode when the phone is turned 90 degrees, many Web pages were readable without the need to zoom at all.
The Nokia E71's Symbian-based browser also did an excellent job of displaying nonoptimized pages so they looked like the originals. Unlike the iPhone, with its ability to zoom in and out with pinching motions, the E71 required a trip to the menus for zooming and it didn't have a landscape mode. But like the iPhone, thumbnails of open pages were readily available via a simple menu option, making it easy to switch to an already-open page. Its full-screen mode was also helpful, particularly given the E71's modest 2.36-in. display.
The BlackBerry Curve 8310 was slightly less adept at browsing. With nonoptimized Web pages, its browser wrapped text to help with readability, but page elements such as frames were stacked one on top of the other instead of placing them in their original positions. A zoom mode was available via the menus, but zooming in on a page that's already improperly rendered page won't do anyone much good.
Like the Curve, the HTC Touch Dual's browser stacked Web page elements on top of each other, which made them confusing to read. Also, the HTC's keypad was particularly trying for typing URLs.
Mail Links and PDFs
Besides links to other pages, many Web pages have links to PDF files and "mailto" links to e-mail addresses. All four phones were equally adept at handling "mailto" links, automatically loading an e-mail message window that was addressed with the proper e-mail address. And the iPhone, E71 and Touch Dual were equally adept at handling links to PDFs, automatically launching a viewer. However, the BlackBerry Curve 8310 does not have built-in support for PDF files -- you'll have to acquire third-party software for that.
Many of us simply can't be away from e-mail for very long. We tested how easy it is to add a personal POP3 account and to send and receive e-mail messages using the device's default e-mail program.
Setting Up an Account
All four of the devices in this group provided wizard-like interfaces to gather basic e-mail information such as username and password. Using those interfaces, we were able to set up Gmail accounts quickly on all the devices.
Adding a new account for another service went equally well with the iPhone; after adding our e-mail address and password for the other service provider, it validated our account and affixed the proper SMTP server. Things weren't as simple, though, with the other three smart phones, which required us to dive into the interface for issues such as setting up the SMTP server.
This task was particularly trying on the HTC Touch Dual because those settings were buried many layers deep in the Windows Mobile interface. By contrast, these settings were just a single layer deep in the Nokia's menus, with the BlackBerry's settings being a bit deeper than that in the menus.
Typing and Sending a Message
All four devices have an option on their home screen that takes you to the built-in e-mail program. Once you are in the e-mail application, starting a new e-mail message requires either pressing an icon or selecting a menu option. All except the Nokia auto-suggest names when typing in the To: text box. However, the Nokia required us to use the menus to select a name, a minor but constantly recurring annoyance.
Creating an e-mail message on a smart phone will be satisfying only if you're comfortable with the keypad. Keypad preferences are always subjective, but we found the Nokia E71's 37-key QWERTY keypad to have a clear advantage. The keys are easily distinguishable one from the other, which speeds typing. In addition, it and the iPhone are the only devices with separate keys for the "@" symbol and ".", which are used commonly in browsing the Web and e-mail.
Like all iPhone applications, typing an e-mail on the iPhone relies on the onscreen keyboard, which takes more than a little getting used to. While the auto-correct feature compensates a little, the process wasn't as fast and easy (or as accurate) as using a button-style keypad.
Not all button keypads are created equally, however. The BlackBerry Curve's keypad was not quite as satisfying as that of the Nokia or the iPhone. Its 35 keys were smaller than the E71's and a bit harder to find.
As befitting the only "slider" in this group, the HTC Touch Dual's 20-key keypad is a hybrid of a QWERTY keypad and a typical cell phone keypad. Letters are assigned to each key but, unlike most basic cell phones, they are assigned in QWERTY order so that, for instance, the top, left key is QW. If you want to type W, you must press the QW key twice, which becomes time consuming even using the device's predictive text capabilities that suggest words as you type.
You're at the Grand Canyon and you want to e-mail a picture to grandma. Or you're an architect and you need to send an image of an in-progress building to your client. Either way, the combination of e-mail and a built-in camera has become increasingly important. For this test, we looked for simplicity and convenience -- how easy it is to get the picture from here to there? And besides sending images via e-mail, what else can you do with the pictures you take?
Taking Photos and Sending Images
While the four phones we covered varied in the quality of their cameras (the BlackBerry Curve 8310, the HTC Touch Dual and the iPhone include a 2-megapixel camera, while the Nokia E71 offers a 3.2-megapixel camera), we were mainly interested in the capabilities and interface of the operating system and applications.
When you want to launch the camera, both the Nokia E71 and the HTC Touch Dual have physical buttons you press, making it easier to get quick access. The iPhone is nearly as fast: You simply touch the camera icon on the home screen. The BlackBerry Curve requires a tad more work; you scroll through the icons until you get to the one for the camera.
After you take a picture, on-screen icons appear on all four devices; one of those icons is for sending the image via e-mail.
All four phones allow you to assign an image to a contact or e-mail it. Besides e-mail, the Nokia E71 has icons for posting your image online with photo services such as Nokia's Ovi or Flickr, and send it using MMS.
The iPhone includes the option to post the image to Apple's MobileMe gallery, but it lacks the option to send an image via MMS. In fact, it's the only phone among the four reviewed here that doesn't. Both the BlackBerry and the HTC Touch Dual support MMS, but neither has any links to a photo services. The HTC, by the way, is the only phone that doesn't let you use a photo as wallpaper.
Features aren't much good unless you can access them. Three of the four smart phones made the process of e-mailing a photo relatively simple. Unfortunately, the HTC Touch was the exception.
For example, while the other three devices have text to tell you the purpose of each icon, the HTC Touch Dual does not. To make matters worse, not only are the icons not marked, but they disappear about five seconds after you've taken a picture.
After that, if you want to e-mail your photo via the HTC, you must tap the screen to make another set of icons appear. Then you must press an arrow icon to display the photo gallery from which you can select the image you want. Once you select the image, you tap the screen yet again and, finally, icons appear for tasks like e-mailing the image. At least this time, the icons stay on-screen until you use them.
Most of us experience a lot of downtime when traveling, so it's a real advantage if our smart phones are capable of keeping us entertained. The first part of this test compared storage capabilities and how easy it was to get media to the phones. We then played our music collection to test audio playback quality. Finally, we viewed a YouTube video to determine video playback quality.
Acquiring and Storing Music
Undoubtedly because it is part iPod, the iPhone has a lot of storage -- it comes with either 8GB or 16GB of built-in memory, although it doesn't have a slot for add-on memory cards. By contrast, as is more typical with smart phones, the other three devices have only nominal on-board storage -- 128MB was the most any of the three devices had.
However, those devices all have slots for microSD cards, which have storage capacities of up to 8GB (and which typically cost between US$25 and $40). The HTC Touch Dual and the Nokia E71 have easy-to-access slots on the sides of the devices, but the BlackBerry Curve's slot required taking off the battery cover and removing the battery before inserting the expansion card.
The iPhone was best designed for acquiring media; you can sync with iTunes or even download music directly to the iPhone from iTunes over the air using the built-in iTunes application. Both the Nokia E71 and the HTC Touch Dual can sync media files with your Windows PC using Windows Media Player (the Nokia also comes with PC software that can sync music). Both also play music from subscription music services such as Rhapsody and Napster, which use Digital Rights Management developed by Microsoft. The Curve 8310 can't sync music with a PC -- you'll need to copy music directly to the storage card -- and it doesn't support playback of subscription music.
Note that these phones reflect the division in the digital music world. All support the MP3 format, but the iPhone won't play music from online subscription services such as Napster and Rhapsody. By contrast, the other three phones can't play music downloaded from iTunes.
Music Playback Quality
The iPhone's sound quality was notably crisper and cleaner than the other three smart phones. It also has a built-in 3.5mm headphone jack, which is the standard size for stereo headphones, so you can enjoy your music using your favorite set of headsets.
The Nokia E71 also has bright, crisp audio playback quality that was just a hair lower in quality than the iPod. However, its headphone jack was the smaller 2.5mm size. It came with a set of in-ear headphones that sounded better than the headphones included with the other phones, but that's not saying much. If you want better sound quality with the E71, you'll need to buy a Bluetooth stereo headset.
The BlackBerry Curve has a standard 3.5mm jack, but its playback quality was not quite as crisp as that the E71's or the iPhone's. The HTC Touch Dual had serviceable audio playback quality but, strangely, it doesn't have a jack of any size for plugging in a headset. Rather, it comes with in-ear headphones that plug into the device's mini-USB port. The quality of those headphones isn't very good, so music fans will have to depend on Bluetooth stereo headphones.
With its built-in application for YouTube, the iPhone was clearly the champ in this test. Playback quality was flawlessly crisp and smooth. And it was the only device that could play back the video in landscape mode, providing a more spacious viewing experience.
Video playback on the Nokia E71 was strong, with crisp clear image quality and no distortion or jerkiness, although the screen is smaller than the iPhone's. The HTC's playback was poor, however. Images were distorted and sometimes were halting and jerky.
The BlackBerry Curve 8310 does not support playback of YouTube videos, although the higher-end Curve 8330 does have that capability.