To 3GS or not to 3GS? That is the question.

David Braue
24 June, 2009
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In the scheme of all things serendipitous, this one certainly ranks up there: over the past week, my trusty BlackBerry Curve – to which I have been wedded by contract more than some strange desire not to have an iPhone – is giving up the ghost. Constant buzzing and unpredictable shutdowns are driving me (and the people I talk with) crazy, and it is clear the time has come to retire the phones.

No, I have not been hitting it with a hammer, although numerous times I have wanted to. Aspersions aside, however, I have come to the conclusion that now is as good a time as any to shed my ailing GPRS-based 2.5G “smartphone” and get with the program, so to speak.

But what to buy as a replacement? Yes, I am serious: despite the seemingly obvious conclusion – and the forces of serendipity, which sent my Curve pear-shaped just days before the launch of the iPhone 3GS – I am considering all options before simply blindly jumping in to get an iPhone.

There are two reasons for this. First, I’m a sucker for the underdog, because there are often especially interesting stories in the way underdogs try to climb to the top of the pile. The second reason is that I already have a 2G iPod touch (thanks again, Santa!) – and so already have a more than adequate platform on which to experience the tens of thousands of apps out there in that candy shop known as the App Store.

If I didn’t already have a touch, the iPhone might be a no-brainer, and I would be joining the throngs at the Optus city store camping out from the wee hours on Friday to get my paws on one of these sweet devices. Yet since I already have a way to satisfy most of my application lust on that platform, I’m not necessarily buying a smartphone for the apps.
I am mostly concerned at having what the BlackBerry used to be: a flexible, reliable phone that’s available when I need it, good at email and testing, and syncs easily with my computer. And since this isn’t my first smartphone – it will actually be my third, after the BlackBerry Curve and the HTC Atom I adopted back in 2006 – I am not in it just for the wow factor.

Serendipity hasn’t only been working in Apple’s favour this week: I also this week received for evaluation an HTC Magic handset, courtesy of the lovely folks at Vodafone, which is launching the Magic into the market this month. I’ve been curious about how the much-discussed Google Android operating system actually performs and, after playing around with it for a bit, I’m not ashamed to say that it’s actually a pretty nice handset.

If you haven’t seen the Magic, it’s like a white version of most of HTC’s other smartphones, with the BlackBerry-styled trackball front and centre, four control buttons and green and red call control buttons (interestingly, one of the buttons activates the phone’s built-in search feature). It is lightweight, has a very nice, bright screen, and a well-designed phone interface. Downloading apps from the Android Market, and it is a simple process that works over the air – which the iPhone couldn’t do until the recent release of iPhone 3.0 software.

Indeed, when I consider its features versus those of the iPhone 3GS, it stacks up pretty well: Bluetooth, WiFi, accelerometer, onscreen keyboard with what is, frankly, a better word-completion feature than on the iPhone. Photos, movies, and so on are supported, and while they cannot be synced with the desktop as easily as the iPhone 3GS can with iTunes, I have no question that the inevitable Missing Link for Android application will resolve that issue, as Missing Link for BlackBerry did with my previous smartphone. Data apparently has to be funnelled through Google’s Gmail, Google Calendar and so on, but I’m likely to do this no matter what smartphone I get.

Now, I won’t pretend for a moment that there aren’t better games, and more of them, on the App Store than the Android Market. But I’m not buying this phone to play games – I get more than enough casual gaming through the iPod touch.

The only apps I will likely add to this phone are productivity and communications tools – a Twitter client, for example, instant messaging system, newsreader, and the like. These are available on Android, as are versions of Google Maps, a prominent Google search bar, MMS, video recording, and pretty much everything else the iPhone does.

There are other new smartphones, like the feature-packed Nokia N97 or the Palm Pre, which sadly hasn’t yet been brought to Australia. And, of course, there’s always the option of sticking with BlackBerry but going to the 3G-capable and very popular BlackBerry Bold.

The Bold, in particular, would address a niggling concern about the iPhone: I have been practicing typing emails with the touch-sensitive keyboard on the iPod touch, and I am honestly not totally convinced: as a touch typist, I prefer the tactile sensation a keyboard provides and find tapping on the screen with a finger clumsy and over-difficult. This need could just as easily be satisfied with a BlackBerry Bold or an HTC Dream, the Optus-only Android-based smartphone with a built-in keyboard.

I may be overcomplicating a decision that will ultimately end with simply caving in and getting the iPhone 3GS, but I thought its imminent release was a good occasion to ask the question: if it weren’t for the App Store, would you still buy the iPhone over the dozen other suitable contenders in the smartphone market? If not, what would you go for? And if you would still get it – why? And what carrier offers the best value and performance?

I look forward to reading your thoughts in the AMW Forums.

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