Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Which smart phone should I buy?

As I predicted, Montanans are swiftly moving to smart phones. But I have to admit being surprised by some of the people I see with new iPhone 4s nowadays. I look and think to myself, really?

I think there are a lot of good reasons to buy an iPhone and I'll go into some of those below. But I really question buying one now. We're getting really close to the launch of their new model, whatever it is. The current iPhone 4 technology is over a year old. If you buy one today with a two year contract, you'll be stuck with 3 year old cell phone technology by the time you can upgrade. If that's a prospect that doesn't bother you, if you wait until the new model comes out, you can at least get an iPhone 4 with a significant mark down.

What do I think are the best features of iPhone?
  • If you're already an Apple fanboy/girl, it's a no brainer. It will work seamlessly with Macs, a number of the apps will run on both iPhones and iPads. You can lead a simple happy life in Apple's gated garden of eden community.
  • iPhone gets almost all the cool apps well ahead of its competitors in the smart phone market. So, if you're someone who hears about the latest trend and has to jump right on it, you'll want an iPhone.
  • iPhones also have all the cool accessories, from skins to cases to speakers... Just about all the major accessory manufacturers and their cheap knockoffs design for Apple products.
  • Simplicity - you've got one button that takes you back to the home screen. It doesn't get much simpler than that. And Apple determines when updates to its iOS system take place. When they announce it, you can get it.
  • I think iPhone 4 currently has the best camera on a smart phone. It's not just about megapixels. Apple seems to have a better grasp of what you need to take a good photo.
What are the downsides of the iPhone?
  • You're very much locked into the Apple corporate world and its mindset. Don't even think about getting an app from anyplace but the Apple app store. And Apple frowns on jail breaking and unlocking their devices. They'll do everything they can to make your life difficult if you should try to break out.
  • At the moment you have to do all of your syncing and updates by attaching your iPhone to a computer with iTunes.
  • App developers have determined that iPhone users are willing to pay for their apps via the iTunes stores. Often apps that are free on Android are not free for iPhone. In other words, it's going to cost you to have all the latest cool apps.
  • Since iPhone hardware is only updated about once a year, it's often lagging behind the latest processors, memory, cellular capability of its multiple competitors. For example, Android phones are now coming out with dual processors, increased memory, 4G compatibility. The year old iPhone 4 has none of it. And reports are the the new model won't have some of these features either. Apple tends to be a bit conservative.
  • Phone call quality - there was a joke for some time that iPhones were great as long as you didn't want to use one to make a phone call. And there was always finger pointing between AT&T and Apple as to whose fault it was that iPhones dropped so many calls. I haven't heard if this has gotten better or not with Verizon coming in as another carrier. But with the exterior antenna issues of the iPhone 4, I'd still assume that making phone calls is not Apple's biggest concern when it comes to iPhone design.
  • Fragility - iPhone is all about design not about practicality. The iPhone 4 is probably the most fragile smartphone out there with a glass front and back. It's not for those who tend to drop their phones a lot.
What are the best features of Android phones?
  • Diversity - there are several big manufacturers designing the hardware - HTC, Motorola, LG, Samsung... You can buy Android phones with slide out keyboards or without, with varying size screens, and differing hardware specs. You can even find some that will take and display 3D video or that offer a specialized gaming environment. Android phones are available to work on just about every cell phone carrier around.
  • If you're someone who uses and depends on a number of Google products, it's a no brainer. Android works well with just about all the Google products - search, Gmail, calendar, maps, Google+. Voice commands work great for search and dictation. And as Google rolls out new products, it will generally roll them out for Android first.
  • Buying apps from multiple sources. Amazon recently rolled out its own app store for Android. So you can choose to buy from the Android app store or from Amazon. You can also get apps from other sources as well with just a small settings change.
  • Since there are fewer restrictions on app developers, you'll find some really nice features created for Android that probably wouldn't meet Apple's criteria. For example, one of my favorite keyboard apps for Android is Swype. You don't have to try to type each letter on the tiny keyboard, you just swipe your finger between the letters of the word and the app figures out what you're trying to say. It's really very good and eases much of the frustration of trying to type on a small touch keyboard.
  • Back button - I know Apple is all about simplicity, but please. It's so nice to have the option to just go back a page rather than having to go back to the home screen and start over. A few little buttons are not going to confuse most people. I find them very helpful.
What are the downsides of Android?
  • Diversity - there are so many choices it's down right confusing. Do I want Samsung or HTC? Which model? And you'll know that the really great top of the line model you just bought will be superseded by another better faster phone in a month or so.
  • Lack of consistency in updates. The current Android OS is 2.3 (Gingerbread). There are some Android phones being sold that are still running Android 1.5 and are not capable of being updated. I have two Android phones - a Motorola Droid X and an HTC Incredible. Both are on Verizon. My Droid X got a 2.3 update over the air about a month ago. There's still no sign of an update for my Incredible. This fragmentation becomes an issue as new apps require the new OS and/or important security updates aren't available to all phones.
  • No quality control on apps. While developers complain about Apple's rigorous approval process and control of the app store, it does bring with it at least a modicum of quality control. And Apple is not going to allow anything it considers porn into the app store. With Android, there are no controls. So, you need to be a bit more cautious about what you're loading onto your device. There have been trojans and malware found among Android apps.
  • Battery life - there are times when its hard to get through an entire day on a charge. There are ways to improve this, e.g., by shutting down apps that run in the background and using airplane mode when you're in places with spotty cellular. But it requires a bit of tech savvy and willingness to get in and dig around to figure a lot of this out.
  • Android is really not a great operating system for the faint of heart or people who just want things to work.
Other phone options
  • Windows Phone 7 - this is the one that's most intrigued me since it came out last fall. I like the idea that they're taking a different approach to the user interface and seem to be focusing on function. However, I do have a couple of concerns which have kept me from getting one of their phones. My primary home computer is a Mac so I need a phone that will work in a Mac as well as Windows environment. I'm also concerned about Microsoft's slow update process. It's taken them about a year to come up with their first major OS update, Mango, which is due out this fall. But we'll see what comes out of their partnership with Nokia. There could be some really innovative hardware and software coming out in the near future.
  • Blackberry (RIM) - Blackberry is just not keeping up with the competition. When I've been traveling recently, I still see a lot of Blackberry phones in use. The problem is that when it comes time for an upgrade, few people are sticking with Blackberry's less than desirable hardware and software options, they're jumping ship for iPhones or Androids. I can see no reason whatsoever to choose Blackberry as a smartphone option at present. They really need to come up with something new and competitive to stay in the game.
  • HP/Palm/WebOS - The Palm Pre was a phone that everyone liked when it first came out but was widely regarded as too little too late to really compete in the iPhone - Android wars. When HP bought them, it was hoped that they'd pump some life into it but it looks like they're focusing on tablet/computer uses of WebOS. All reports say that it's a good platform but with few apps and little prospect for increased app development since it represents such a small piece of the smartphone market.
Personally, I think I'm sticking with Android but I am looking for a new phone to replace my HTC Incredible. It only has 8 GB of internal memory which can't be upgraded so I'm forever getting messages about low memory. I'd also like a better camera, particularly for flash/night photos. But I love Android for traveling. Google maps and navigation have saved my rear a number of times on recent trips and they're free! I also love the voice search and dictation capabilities. Plus, it works great with Gmail and Google calendar, etc. As someone who goes between the Mac and Windows world, Google provides a good way to steer between both platforms.

I think if I were shopping for a new smartphone for a teenager, I'd go with an iPhone. I think they'd appreciate the style, variety of apps (that are all prescreened by Apple), accessories, etc. I'd probably put a limit on their purchases through the app store/iTunes. The glass is a bit of concern but a good case should help protect it.

For everyone else, certainly take a look at Android and Windows Phone 7 smartphones. There are other and often better options available than iPhone for most people. CNET has a lot of great reviews of all the latest devices. And I'm happy to help interpret specs. Price should not be your only concern. Any smart phone you buy is going to end up costing you several hundred dollars over the course of a two year contract. It's not the up front price that should concern you as much as whether the device is going to be at all functional at the end of those two years.

Monday, August 1, 2011

July 2011 - The State of E-book Readers

Whenever I mention something about e-readers, I get some requests for advice on which product to buy so I thought I'd provide some updates on where some of the e-reader players are at this moment in time.

My preferred e-book reader at the moment is the Barnes and Noble Nook Touch or as their trademarked name reads: The All-New Nook The Simple Touch Reader. The name is bigger than the device. It's available for $139.99 from Barnes and Noble's website and stores as well as Best Buy and potentially other retail outlets. Walmart sells Nooks but didn't have the Touch available at least in its Billings West end store.

It's small and light and easy to use. The touch interface is intuitive and for everyday reading, the device disappears and you're left with just the content you're reading. My only negative is that I think the Nook navigation tends to be a bit clunky. It's sometimes difficult for me to figure out just where the book or magazine I want to read is located in the file structure. But I always manage to find it without too much frustration.

Very similar in design is the Kobo eReader Touch. This retails for $130 but if you live in a location like Billings with a closing Borders store, I'm watching the discounts on this device. When it reaches 30%, I think this will be a very nice device for that $100 price point. I haven't actually used this aside from playing around with it in the Borders store, but it's very light and seems responsive enough. A review on PCmag.com talked about the Kobo Touch lacking the finesse of the Nook. I think that's probably a fairly apt description. If we're talking about only a $10 price difference, I'd stick with the Nook but at going out of business discounts...

Most of the tech reviews are giving the nod to the new Nook Touch over the Amazon Kindle. But we're comparing different generations of devices. Amazon did start offering lower priced versions of its 3rd gen Kindles with special offers (limited ads) for $114 for wifi and $139 for the 3G version.

Amazon will no doubt be coming out with its next generation of Kindles sometime this fall. Rumors are flying that Amazon will be presenting a Kindle tablet that will enable you to view videos that you've purchased from Amazon, read books you've purchased from Amazon, and listen to music you've purchased from Amazon. And I expect you'll be able to use apps you've purchased from the Amazon app store. So, we're no doubt looking at an Android Kindle tablet designed to compete with the iPad.

They're also reportedly coming up with a software update that will enable you to read library books on existing Kindles. I wouldn't be surprised if they also offered a next gen e-ink reader to compete with the Nook and Kobo Touch readers.