Smart phones are becoming an increasingly common choice even for casual users, but the whole area can seem confusing and overwhelming for new buyers. Lifehacker 101 guides you through the main platforms available.
I spend a fair chunk of every week writing about smart phones and the applications which run on them, which makes it easy to forget that not everyone is quite as obsessed with the whole market. A reader letter this week served as a useful wakeup:
I have been looking to get a new mobile phone (as my 3-4yr old one is dying), preferably one with apps and mobile internet features - and immediately thought of an iPhone, but I can't afford one (I'd want prepaid, so would have to pay $800 for the phone - yikes!) But I am seriously confused about what else is out there that is somewhat similar. I keep hearing about something called a Nexus/Android that apparently isn't out here yet, and when I am on the websites for Optus/Telstra/Virgin etc I see BlackBerries and other brands of phones that look like they have some app like features but I really have no idea if they are similar or how they compare to iPhones (aside from being a lot cheaper lol). I'm at the point where I'm going to go out and buy a $40 mobile with an 8GB ipod touch, but there must be a better solution!
Depending on your needs, a cheap phone and an iPod Touch might actually be an excellent solution, but it does help to consider the alternatives. So that's what we'll look at here, examining the main smart phone OS options on sale in Australia.
Note that I'm not going to talk about specific models (as much as possible), and I'm not going to compare specific plans and prices (that's another set of articles for another time). The aim is just to look at the main smart phone operating systems and understand their strengths and weaknesses.
The division between smart phones and simple 'call only' phones is arguably a somewhat artificial one these days - even the cheapest entry-level phone will probably have some capacity to add extra applications, and many will support limited email and Internet access.
For our purposes, a smart phone is designed from the outset to do much more than calls, text messages and photos. In particular, it should allow the installation of extra applications (which might be anything from a game to a photo retoucher to software to access and update Twitter), and be able to share data with other devices such as PCs.
A smart phone will need many computer-like hardware features to achieve that goal, including a reasonable processor, some form of onboard storage, a useful input method (some form of keypad or a touch screen interface) and extra communications options such as Wi-Fi or USB ports. However, no matter what kind of phone you fancy, what will really drive it is the smart phone software running on it. That market is dominated by five main players: Android, BlackBerry, iPhone, Symbian and Windows Mobile.
Open platforms and closed platforms
BlackBerry and iPhone are closed platforms: if you want to use them, you can only purchase phones from their respective manufacturers (Research In Motion and Apple). Android, Symbian and Windows Mobile are (at least in theory) available to be licensed by anyone who wants to manufacture a phone, meaning there's a large number of different devices available to run them. In many cases, manufacturers will customise the software so that the phone is distinctive (meaning two phones ostensibly running the same underlying OS may present very different interfaces).
There are pros and cons to both approaches. Exercising tight hardware control should lead to more reliable phones, though bugs certainly aren't unkown on either BlackBerry or iPhone platforms. The licensed model should lead to more competition and more choice, but in reality doesn't always seem to deliver on either front. (Our list of pros and cons is longer for the two closed platforms because the hardware comments apply to most users, while on open platforms the range of hardware is much wider.)
Android is an open source platform (meaning it can be adapted by anyone), but in practice remains tightly connected to Google, its original developer.
Pros: Solid integration with Google applications such as Gmail and Docs. Has recently added multi-touch support.
Cons: Relatively small range of phones actually offer Android in Australia (and some of the best-known such as the Nexus One are notable by their absence). If you're not a heavy Google applications user, the appeal of the platform can be diminished.
The dominant OS for corporate smart phone use, BlackBerry has become more visible with the appearance of prepaid plans from several carriers.
Pros: Email support and client remains the best in the market, with no-brainer push email and good compression technology for low signal areas. Reasonable range of applications in App World. Battery life generally good. Can easily swap between multiple applications.
Cons: Native browser has improved in recent years but still mangles some sites (using an alternate browser may eliminate any 'free Web browsing' element in your plan). App World in Australia currently limited to free apps (you can install paid apps but the process is more convoluted). Screen size is relatively small. Music playback is possible, but media software is fiddly. Synching via USB cable can be painfully slow.
We've seen two generations of Apple's touch screen phone so far, and essentially the same OS will also be used in the forthcoming iPad tablet.
Pros: Design and ease of use widely acclaimed (and not just by Apple zealots). Thousands of useful apps to choose from, many free. Doubles as an iPod, eliminating need for two gadgets. Large screen useful for video and browsing. Easily handles automatic switching between Wi-Fi and 3G, which helps reduce costs. If you don't want it as a phone, an iPod Touch can be upgraded to run the iPhone OS.
Cons: No real multi-tasking (you can play music and accept incoming calls while doing other things, but not switch between other apps). Heavily dependent on cabled connection to PC for backup and upgrades. Touch-screen implementation is unarguably best on the market, but still not as fast as a keypad for text entry. Apple monopoly tends to mean long-term contracts or high-ish hardware prices. Apple tightly controls the App Store, which sometimes results in useful apps being rejected for entirely spurious reasons. No support for Flash in browser, and some sites will require endless zooming to read. Battery life only average for most users.
Symbian is largely associated with Nokia, but the open source platform is also supported by LG, Samsung, Sony Ericsson and others.
Pros: Available on a huge range of devices, Long development history means it's a stable platform and has a large developer base. Ovi Store (for Nokia models) has simplified the process of adding applications. Good support for multi-tasking.
Cons: Long familiarity means Symbian often seems to lack the "wow" factor of newer operating systems, despite being in use on more of them than other rivals.
Microsoft's mobile phone OS aims to emulate the Windows experience on phones, which leads to a fairly predictable list of strengths and flaws.
Pros: Solid integration with the Office suite and with Exchange-based mail systems. Good multi-tasking.
Cons: Stylus input model can be fiddly. Windows Mobile is often unstable. The familiarity of the Windows metaphor might sound tempting, but it's not necessarily a great way to run a phone. Upgrading from one version to another can be fiddly (when it's even possible). Battery life hugely variable depending on your device.
The bottom line
There's no way any single smart phone OS can be sensibly recommended to everyone: the range of options available means that there's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution (and the market is large enough that there shouldn't need to be). At Lifehacker, we do tend to run far more coverage of Android, BlackBerry and iPhone applications than for Windows Mobile and Symbian, which is a rough index of how much innovation is happening in each space.
Lifehacker 101 is a weekly feature covering fundamental technologies that Lifehacker constantly refers to, explaining them step-by-step. Hey, we were all newbies once, right?