Time for a new smartphone — and the winner is…

David Braue
8 July, 2009
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A fortnight ago, I mentioned that my BlackBerry Curve was starting to flake out on me – and fortuitously so, as it turns out. After all, what better time could there be to consider an upgrade than with a new iPhone around the corner, the Palm Pre on the conceptual radar if still not expected in Australia, and Google Android-based mobiles available from your corner shop?

I made the point that since I already had an iPod touch, I didn’t need to get an iPhone to get access to the many wonderful things in the App Store (except, of course, for those that need a camera or mobile data connectivity). With this factor removed, would the iPhone 3GS still have the same appeal compared with the quite-respectable competition of the new Android-based HTC Magic?

The answer, as you would probably have already guessed, is ‘yes’. This may not surprise you at all, and perhaps it didn’t really surprise me either. But I was determined not to rush into things.

In the end, however, the deal-breaker was not the App Store, but Address Book.

Yes, iCal. You see, we are a two-smartphone family, and one of the biggest problems with the previous configuration was that the use of third-party syncing software meant it wasn’t possible to manage their configurations separately. When I wanted to let my wife sync only her contacts without having to wade through hundreds of mine, the old plug-it-in-and-sync model went down the sync; our solution was simply to never sync her phone.

Because it is so tightly integrated with iTunes, the iPhone is a different matter altogether. iTunes already has built-in support for multiple iPhones and iPods; by creating a Smart Group for her contacts, and ticking the box in iTunes so that only her contacts are synced, we have been able to become a two-iPhone family and have data work the way it’s supposed to. Ditto iCal, through which it’s easy to maintain multiple calendars.

With its links to online resources, Android could probably do something like this too. You know, separate Google Contacts accounts, separate Gmail, separate Google Calendars. I get it, and I know that sort of thing is part of living in the clouds. Yet while I’m happy with my experiment moving email into the Google cloud, sometimes it’s nice to have the option. And not even Mark/Space, makers of quite capable syncing software for pretty much any smartphone you’re likely to have, have released a product for Android yet.

That’s not to say Android isn’t a worthy contender; I’ll soon be publishing a side-by-side comparison from my hands-on testing and in many respects – especially in its phone capabilities – it is functionally equal to the iPhone. But when all the little bits are added up, there are still some things missing from the Android experience – and no small amount of polish in the iPhone experience.

In all the ways that matter, Apple has succeeded in making the iPhone a seamless extension of the desktop PC. Calendar and contact syncing are two examples, but there are numerous others: podcasts flow smoothly onto the device, as do videos. Photos are automatically resized, synced to the iPhone, and updated. Photos and voice notes taken on the iPhone flow smoothly into iPhoto and iTunes. A growing number of iPhone companion applications allow data entry on the mobile device, and syncing directly into their desktop counterparts.

That having been said, there are many people for whom the smartphone is their desktop – and for whom these functions need to work just as well without links to a computer. Apple is also moving in this direction, albeit slowly: witness iPhone 3.0 functionality such as direct downloads from the App Store to the phone. Android was designed from the start to work this way, instead leveraging the model of still-emerging online applications – but it lacks a mature content management app on which to anchor it; the net result is that it comes off as a capable but, dare I say, soulless alternative to the iPhone.

Honestly, the BlackBerry is also looking a bit soulless now that I can see what the iPhone offers. It’s probably good as a seamless corporate messenger and its email is still OK, but as a general-purpose smartphone I don’t think the BlackBerry has kept up with consumers’ desire for simplicity and broad functionality. In comparison with the touch interface on the iPhone (and, to be fair, on the Dream), the BlackBerry now seems overly fussy and complicated.

My initial fears about the lack of a physical keyboard were quickly allayed by the reality of onscreen typing, which is not so bad as you’d think but still causes me to make many annoying errors and deletions that would be unnecessary if the iPhone had proper word completion capabilities. But that can be saved for iPhone 3.1 or beyond. In the meantime, I’ll put up with the onscreen keyboard, which I have gotten reasonably adept at using.

Despite my desire to at least consider the underdog, the iPhone 3GS won out in the end (as did Optus, although that was as much by weight of inertia as anything else). I would still recommend the Dream for people who Just. Want. A. Phone, and who don’t have particular ties to a desktop PC or an investment in massive DRM-protected music catalogues or similarly restrictive things.

Google has made Android something that does not pale in the face of the iPhone like so many other so-called contenders. The platform is definitely the one to watch – as is the Palm Pre, which has yet to show its face in Australia but which I look forward to taking for a spin when it appears. Yet for all their innovation, they do not have the rich maturity that only comes with time – and this is what you’re buying, as much as the platform, when you choose the iPhone.

I know I’m not alone in this line of thought. As I was signing my life away at the local Optus World store (I chose the great-value $99 Timeless plan, by the way) I asked the guy whether anybody was still buying anything but the iPhone anymore.

“Nope,” he said, and wistfully scanned the racks of non-iPhone options. “Not really.”

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