The Hottest Smartphones of Summer Battle It Out

We delved into four of the hottest phones available this summer--the Apple iPhone 3GS, the Nokia N97, the Palm Pre, and the T-Mobile myTouch 3G--to see how their hardware and software stacked up.

The Four Contenders

Apple iPhone 3GS. Nokia N97. Palm Pre. T-Mobile myTouch 3G. Of all the smartphones recently launched and soon to be released, these four are the most closely matched--and the most desired. Which one comes out on top?

All four smartphones have large touch displays, slim and pocketable designs, and updated operating systems (in the Pre’s case, a brand-new OS). The N97 has a matte backing and a sturdy body, but it's a bit bulky due to its slide-out QWERTY keyboard. I love the Pre’s glossy (albeit easily smudged) back cover and its curved ergonomic shape, but its construction feels a little cheap. The iPhone 3GS retains the same elegant design as the 3G model--the only difference is that the text on the 3GS’s backing is silver rather than gray. The HTC-manufactured T-Mobile myTouch 3G has a pronounced curve at the bottom, which makes for a comfortable thumb grip.

Overall winner: Tie between Apple iPhone 3GS and T-Mobile myTouch 3G

Under the Hood

As on the previous-generation iPhone, the Apple logo graces the back cover of the iPhone 3GS. In fact, the entire external design of the new handset is the same as that of the iPhone 3G, save for the more prominent labeling at the rear. The real changes are inside: The juiced-up processor and additional memory truly make for a speedier iPhone experience. Apple hasn’t disclosed the exact specs, but according to Aaron Vronko, CEO of Michigan-based Rapid Repair, a teardown of the iPhone 3GS showed an ARM Cortex A8 microprocessor running at 600MHz. Rapid Repair also found that the RAM had been boosted to 256MB. Last year's iPhone 3G sported an ARM 11 CPU running at 412MHz, and it carried 128MB of RAM.

How do the others compare? The N97 has an ARM 11 processor running at 434MHz with 128MB of RAM, the myTouch has a 528MHz processor and 192MB of RAM, and the Pre has a TI processor running at 600MHz with 256MB of RAM. It’s hard to gauge those specs side by side, given the phones' very different operating systems and their varying processor classifications. In my usage, though, I found the iPhone 3GS and the myTouch 3G the most responsive of the bunch.

Winner: Tie between Apple iPhone 3GS and T-Mobile myTouch 3G

Hardware Keyboard: Nokia N97 vs. Palm Pre

The Pre’s vertical slide-out QWERTY keyboard disappoints: The keys are slightly recessed, and the bezel lip on the sides and bottom often interferes with typing. Furthermore, the top row is a few millimeters too close to the edge of the slider screen, so you have to angle your fingers to press those keys. The keys also feel gummy (as those on the Palm Centro do), and they lack the clickable quality you find on RIM BlackBerry devices.

The N97’s horizontal keyboard is superior, though it isn’t perfect. The edge of the display is too close to the top row of keys, and you can't adjust the display's angle or make it lie flat. I found pressing the keys difficult; they're simply not raised enough for comfortable typing. The keyboard's layout is somewhat counterintuitive, too, with the spacebar placed in the lower-right corner. Even with all of those gripes, however, overall I preferred the N97’s keyboard over the Pre’s.

Winner: Nokia N97

Touch Keyboards: Apple iPhone 3GS vs. T-Mobile myTouch 3G

While I missed having a physical keyboard, as on the T-Mobile G1, I got used to the myTouch 3G’s software keyboard fairly quickly. It was a bit too tightly packed, however, making it occasionally difficult to type on. The iPhone’s portrait-oriented keyboard is slightly bigger, though it can still be hard to use. One benefit: The iPhone keyboard shows you the key you pressed; this takes a lot of the guesswork out, and makes typing (and catching errors) easier overall. Previously restricted to use in Safari, the landscape keyboard is now available in all text-heavy applications, such as Mail, Notes, and Messages--a boon to the majority of users, who prefer that orientation's more widely spaced keys.

Winner: Apple iPhone 3GS

Home Screens: Apple iPhone 3GS vs. Palm Pre

The iPhone 3GS has a more traditional smartphone home screen, with icons for the various applications in a grid. The Pre, on the other hand, has a completely different setup: A Quick Launch bar runs along the bottom of the screen, giving you fast access to frequently used functions such as e-mail, contacts, the calendar, or any shortcut of your choosing. You can see your wallpaper on the Pre’s home screen, too; we have this small, albeit important, detail on our iPhone OS 4.0 wish list.

Winner: Tie between Apple iPhone 3GS and Palm Pre

Home Screens: Nokia N97 vs. T-Mobile myTouch 3G

The Nokia N97 has widgets that update your personal Internet feeds in real time on your home screen so that you don't have to open another app to access them. My favorite, the Accuweather widget, takes advantage of the N97's built-in Assisted GPS. When I traveled from San Francisco to the slightly different microclimate of the East Bay, for example, the outdoor temperature on my home screen updated accordingly. Other widgets include Facebook, MySpace, your personal e-mail, the music player, favorite contacts, and the date and time.

The T-Mobile myTouch 3G, which runs the Android OS 1.5 update (aka “Cupcake”), also has a widget-based home screen. The myTouch 3G includes media-player, calendar, analog-clock, search, and picture-frame widgets. You can also pull up the full menu (pictured here) from the home screen. While the N97’s live-feed widgets are useful, I like the overall look and customization abilities of the myTouch 3G.

Winner: T-Mobile myTouch 3G

Card View (Palm Pre) vs. Push Notifications (Apple iPhone 3GS)

The Pre’s deck-of-cards visualization makes multitasking simple and engaging: You can view each of your open applications at once, shuffle them any way you choose, and then discard the ones you want to close. I noticed a slight drain on the Palm Pre's battery life in my hands-on tests, but not much more than on the iPhone.

Multitasking has been a hot issue for the iPhone: During the iPhone OS 3.0 announcement, Apple said multitasking is a drain on battery life and performance. In response, the company is allowing third-party apps to utilize a push-notification system. In this setup, AIM, for example, can alert you to an instant message without your having to exit out of your current open app. While push notifications are a step in the right direction, it just isn’t the same as true multitasking, and therefore the Pre comes out on top.

Winner: Palm Pre

Multitasking: Nokia N97 vs. T-Mobile myTouch 3G

Both the T-Mobile myTouch 3G and the Nokia N97 handle true multitasking in a simple and unobtrusive way, and very differently than the Palm Pre's WebOS does. Notifications pop up along the top of the myTouch’s display, alerting you to a new IM, e-mail, app update, or the like. To view all of your notifications, you simply tap and pull down the notifications menu. The Nokia handset doesn’t have a notification system (though some of your info, such as your Facebook account, does get updated in real time via the home screen’s live-feed widgets). You can manage all of your open applications by pressing 'Options' in the lower-left corner and selecting 'Show open apps'.

Winner: T-Mobile myTouch 3G

Calendar Apps: Apple iPhone 3GS vs. T-Mobile myTouch 3G

While the iPhone calendar application doesn’t receive a huge makeover in OS 3.0, it does get some more flexibility in terms of which calendars you can use. iPhone users can now add subscription calendars as well as those that support CalDAV servers, such as Google Calendar. The myTouch natively supports Google Calendar (obviously) and allows you to set up reminders that will pop up on your status bar via the notification system.

Winner: Tie between Apple iPhone 3GS and T-Mobile myTouch 3G

Digital Compass: Apple iPhone 3GS vs. Nokia N97

I haven’t tested the digital compasses on the N97 and the iPhone 3GS side by side yet, but based on aesthetics alone, I like Apple’s better. Why? Well, for one thing, the N97’s compass is a tiny blip in the corner of the Nokia Maps application (which is actually very well done). I love the iPhone compass’s elegant interface--and its integration into Google Maps on the iPhone 3GS.

Winner: Apple iPhone 3GS

For more information:

Read our smartphone forecast for 2009.

Take a tour of the brand-new iPhone 3GS.

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