(Updated on Oct 17th, 2009)
The last personal cell phone story on this blog was written over three years ago. We (the wife and I) still have those cell phones, believe it or not, something which is about to change. For the past few months–ever since we moved to Land O’Butter, Florida, really–I’ve been wanting itching a new cell phone, something with applications, with internet access, enough storage space to store my music, the ability to play movies, with access to my RSS feeds so I can read them while out walking, and most importantly, something I could use to write on the go. In other words, I needed a smartphone.
Editor’s Note: I know. This is a long article. 3900 words. That’s a lot. Maybe it should have been split into multiple small ones, but I left it this way because it’s how I read best. Also, I don’t like to click on “next page” very much. For comfort’s sake, here’s a Table of Contents:
- The Carrier
- The Phones: Pre-Requisites
- Palm Pre
- BlackBerry Tour 9630
- HTC Hero
- Samsung Moment
- Postscript: Why Not an iPhone?
Before looking at phones, I had to find a carrier. AT&T, who I’m currently with, suffers from bad network quality around these parts, so it was time to switch. After looking around at all the carriers available to us which offered good service in our area, it turned out that I had two choices: Verizon, which gets spectacular coverage everywhere except the middle of the Everglades (by which I mean, not on the roads) and Sprint, which I keep wanting to call U.S. Sprint. (Was that the old name?)
For this piece, I decided to study all the available Sprint phone options, since it looked like that might end up being my carrier. (Family member works for Verizon and by using her discount both Verizon and Sprint match up pretty closely in features and price.) The plan I was looking at was a 1500 minute family plan which included unlimited 3G internet, unlimited texting and MMS, free mobile-to-mobile regardless the carrier (Verizon, AT&T, Boost–it’s all good), as well as a great sports and streaming video package. All this for about $165 (including insurance on the phones and taxes). Not a bad deal. Not a bad deal at all.
The Phones: Pre-Requisites
Sprint’s lineup of smartphones is possibly the best of any company out there right now, so narrowing down my choices wasn’t easy. Fun, but not easy. Before getting started, I made a list of what was important to me. Note that this is the criteria by which I judged all phones:
- Writing: I need something which will let me write relatively comfortably on the go. At the beginning of this search I didn’t have a preference as to whether the keyboard was physical or software, so long as it allowed me to type fairly quickly, fairly accurately. After my search, I’ve come to the conclusion that a physical keyboard is usually (although not always) better than an on-screen one.
- Internet: I need something with which I can access the Internet, specifically (and most importantly) something I can use to read my RSS items on the go (I like to read while walking) and something I can use to blog on the go, or at least write drafts while waiting in line at the store. Any other internet functions, such as YouTube and ESPN are great additions, but not by any means necessary.
- Reading: eBooks, PDF and Word documents. All musts.
- Music/Video: My iPod’s with me almost ALL the time. It’d be nice if I could carry my media without dedicating pocket space strictly to it. When I go walking or to the gym or on a plane, the last thing I want is to have to carry my iPod and my cell phone. If one device will suffice, why bother with two?
- Camera, preferably one that takes video: This is obvious. I like to take pictures in random places, and don’t always want to carry my Fujifilm s5100. Oh, and the Camera should have flash. Believe it or not, that was one of the big selling points with my current phone, mostly because using it as a flashlight has saved me more than once.
- GPS/Maps: One of the biggest reasons to have a cell phone these days is to have a map available to you at any time. Face it, it’s no fun getting lost somewhere you don’t want to be, and sometime a GPS can make the difference between getting home and spending the night on the side of the road in the middle of a town you don’t know. (By the way, I hate South Carolina. Thought I’d just, you know, drop that in there.)
- Applications: Smartphones are palm-top computers. There’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to expand a phones functionality by adding new, useful applications to it. While the iPhone is the king of apps, no doubt, they’re not the only game in town. Google’s Android has a thriving app community and from the looks of it, Palm is developing a homebrew club itself. Of course, Blackberry has access to a ton of applications, so it too offers a number of options. Whatever phone I pick should run on a platform on which there exists some type of active development community, even if it’s fledgling. (It wouldn’t be at all surprising if I decided to write a few apps for whatever platform I end up going with.)
So with all that in mind, I went on the hunt for phones. After much searching, I’ve been able to narrow things down to a few contenders. The following is a preliminary review on each of the phones I’m considering. One of these phones will be at my side sometime in November.
The first phone that comes to mind as a possible iPhone replacement is the Palm Pre. That’s because it was built from the ground up by Palm to be exactly that. Well, that and a Hail Mary back to relevance. Seriously, when was the last time you heard the name “Palm” and didn’t think, “What, they’re still around?”
- Physical keyboard standard (slideout) and home-brew digital keyboards.
- Great size: It’s smaller than an iPhone and considerably more comfortable in the hand.
- Because of its onboard memory (8GB) it can handle more apps being installed than either the Blackberry Tour or the HTC Hero, two of the other phones mentioned here.
- Browser runs off of WebKit, which is the same engine as the iPhone’s Safari. In other words, it’s a full browser.
- It has a flash camera of good quality.
- Keyboard feels cramped. Even to my wife, who has dainty, little hands, it felt somewhat cramped. Not anything we couldn’t get used to, but still, not comfortable for us out of the gate. Luckily, there’s a homebrew app which allows users to install a software keyboard.
- Early reports indicate this is prone to breakage.
- Feels cheap, plasticky. A phone that is potentially this good should feel considerably better, sturdier.
- No Adobe Flash. Uses app for YouTube videos. Seeing as I rarely watch YouTube, you can file this app under “I” for “I don’t care.”
- On again/off again integration with iTunes. If you didn’t know, Apple and Palm have been having a bit of a fight over the Pre’s capability to integrate with iTunes using what’s tantamount to reverse engineering. It’s easy to argue on both sides’ behalves, but the only thing that matters to the consumer is this: It’s freaking annoying to have your phone sync one day then not sync the next.
- 8GB of integrated RAM, non-expandable. I would have filed this under a “Con”, but considering you can install more thatn 512MB’s-worth of applications–a limitation found in all other phones considered–this moves from “Con” to “Maybe. The fact that it’s 8GB, non-expandable makes it mostly a Con. Despite what the Sprint rep tried to convince me of, 8GB is nowhere near enough space for my media.
One thing I left out of this list is Palm’s new operating system, WebOS, which they debuted on the Pre. There’s a lot to love about WebOS, and if they can create more excitement about it they might have a winner on their palms.
Just for kicks, here’s a video from PreCentral.net. You can find a TON of these online, including comparisons with some of the phones mentioned here.
I gotta tell you, WebOS seems like a very a well constructed OS. If you like it but only sort of like the Pre then maybe you should check out the WebOS-based Palm Pixi.
Blackberry Tour 9630
To be honest, I’m really surprised this phone is even being considered. After all, the screen is small compared to most smart phones, it doesn’t have a touch screen, and it runs BlackberryOS, which I’m not crazy about. But what it lacks in those features it makes up for in usability. The phone has by far one of the best keyboards I’ve used, and were it not for some of its flaws, I might be writing this from a Tour already.
- The keyboard. It’s phenomenal. My Blackberry-loving friends were 100% on the money with this one. Although it seems small at first, the keyboard on the Tour (as well as other Blackberries I tried) was by far the most accurate and easy to use of any keyboard I tried, nearly-matched only by the keyboard on the Samsung Impression (more on that later). Even with my fat, squishy fingers, it was beautiful. This alone makes the phone worth considering, despite any other flaws. Seriously, I can’t say enough about how awesome this keyboard was. Guess that’s what happens when you have low-to-no expectations.
- 3.2MP camera with flash. Let me repeat that part, WITH FLASH. It seems manufacturers don’t find this to be a particularly important detail lately, for some reason.
- Storage is expandable to 16GB via MicroSD card.
- Trackball is extremely comfortable for use, which makes up for the lack of touch-screen capabilities.
- No WiFi. This right here is by far, hands down, the phone’s biggest and most horrid flaw. As someone who would prefer to use WiFi while at home (Sprint allows this option) instead of using my minutes, this is almost a deal-killer. Seriously, if not for this there’s a pretty good chance I’d be telling you about my first days loving the Crackberry.
- No touch screen. Although the trackball makes up for this, a touchscreen would still have been nice.
- Applications can only run from onboard ROM (512MB). Limits larger apps, like games.
- No Adobe Flash
- The BlackberryOS. I’m not quite sure how I feel about this, so I’ll just leave this detail here. The fact that it’s proprietary is a big negative for me, but its quality is great, so it evens out, sort of like fish sticks that are burnt on the outside but frozen on the inside. I don’t know anything about its development community, however, the software available for it, or any of that jazz.
Basically, the phone seems awesome, ESPECIALLY (and almost exclusively) because of the keyboard, and has just about everything I’d need, though not necessarily everything I’d want, with the elephant in the room being the missing WiFi, which is a deal-breaker. Probably. Maybe. Again a video, this time from WireFly.com:
Probably the most anticipated phone in Sprint’s lineup is the HTC Hero, which runs Google’s Android operating system (the same one as in the first Google phone, T-Mobile’s G1, as well as the MyTouch3G). Unlike other Android phones, this one has HTC’s Sense UI interface.
Here are the goods, bads and in-betweens.:
- Sense UI. Seriously, this alone is a reason to buy the phone. To quote @TeddFox, everthing from mail to the dialpad is awesome.” He wasn’t exaggerating. And for you iPhone folks, as an Apple guy myself, let me tell you, the iPhone has NOTHING on this. It is beauty insoftnate. (Yes, that’s a made up word.)
- Phone handles Adobe Flash, which means you’re not limited to YouTube for videos, but can also [Edit: IN THEORY*] watch Hulu and other video services, as well as be bugged by the billion ads Sports Illustrated puts up on its web page. (I won’t link to it in order to spare you the browser crash.) *After testing it again for a second, time, I found that some videos would load while others wouldn’t. Seems to be a hit-and-miss with video players.
- It’s Linux under the hood. That means a Linux file system. For anyone who knows their way around the Linux directory architecture, this is a big plus. The fact that it’s Android also means there’s a thriving development community.
- Storage is expandable to 16GB via MicroSD card.
- Phenomenal construction. This phone is thin but feels very sturdy. Not quite an iPhone, but not far from.
- 5MP camera. Beats just about anything out there.
- Like the Blackberry, applications can only run from onboard memory. (512MB ROM.) Limits larger apps, like games. All media is stored on the SD card, however.
- Camera doesn’t have a flash. Sad to see when HTC goes to the trouble of packing in a 5MP camera on this thing.
- The trackball sticks out. A lot. I can see this thing accidentally clicking way too often, meaning the screen is turned on when it’s not in use and siphoning the battery when it shouldn’t.
- Digital keyboard only. Don’t get me wrong, the digital keyboard is pretty darn good, right up there with the iPhone’s and more spacious than the Pre’s physical keyboard. But in testing out phones I’ve come to realize how important this is to someone who plans to do a lot of writing in this thing. For me, this falls as a maybe since it’s not as good as the Blackberry’s keyboard, but better than the Pre’s, even though the Pre takes advantage, as all physical keyboards do, of tactile memory, and not needing to always look at your keyboard when typing. This is not the case with ANY software keyboard, not even the Blackberry Storm’s (not reviewed here). For most people this wouldn’t be a huge deal. For me, it’s a deal killer.
- Lag: (Added on Oct 17, 2009) The phone was responsive, for the most part, but there were times where the lag got in the way of usage. I can see this being an annoyance.
Here’s the short of it: If this phone had a halfway decent physical keyboard and a flash camera I would have bought it immediately, no questions asked. Want a video review? Check out this CNet review:
As of this writing, you can only get the Hero from Sprint for $180 with a 2-year contract or from Best Buy for $599, no strings attached. You can also get the unlocked European version from Amazon.com.
The last phone currently under consideration is one slated for release on November 1, the Moment (formerly the InstinctQ). Like the HTC Hero, this runs Google’s Android operating system. Unlike the Hero, however, it sticks to the basic Android experience which is a bit on the boring side, to say the least. Don’t get me wrong, it’s just as useful, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from using both OS X and Ubuntu is this; aesthetics count for a LOT.
More information on this phone will be forthcoming, I think. Honestly, the best place to keep up with all of this, is via my Twitter account, though I will warn you, I tend to get very politicky there, and sometimes post very frequently, so if you’re not into that then do yourself a favor and avoid it.
As you can see, everyone of the phones has its ups and downs, and if one of these were chosen for me, then I’d probably be quite happy with it. My only real concern is regarding Sprint, mostly because a few years ago I heard nothing but complaints about them. This seems to have improved.
My chief complaint from all phones was this: not enough choice in writing applications. While Documents To Go is one option, I’d love to see an online editor become available, something like Google Docs or Zoho Writer. Online documentation formatting would be spectacular, as it would allow for some editing work to be done on the road, without having the hassle of uploading/downloading work directly to your computer. Of course, then there’s the issue of Blackberry Thumb, but still, this is something to consider.
I hope you found this somewhat useful. I’d like to thank @jdwangnet and @jdwangnetnews for all his (their?) help in gathering some of this information, particularly when it came to the Blackberry Tour.
So that’s it. If you want to chime in (and for this topic, I’d really, REALLY appreciate it), please do so. I’d love to see your thoughts and comments. Who knows, maybe your opinion will be the deciding factor in helping me determine which phone I’ll end up getting.
Postscript: Why Not an iPhone?
In four words, one acronym: AT&T.
When I first started researching new phones, my mind was pretty much made up: I wanted an iPhone. I’d used it before and loved it. I own a Mac (which I adore), have an iPod, and have been slowly brainwashing my family into the Cupertino Cult since I got the thing. (Really, it was my sister’s fault. She was the first Cupertino Cult member in our family.) Nevertheless, while there were recent moves by Apple which bothered me from a philosophical standpoint, it was AT&T, my current carrier, which all but made the decision on the matter for me.
When living in south Florida, having AT&T was great, but soon after we moved to Land O’Butter we noticed that things were no longer that great. In fact, they weren’t even all that good. Every day I have multiple dropped calls. Every day, I have problems connecting. Every day. Multiple times a day. This has made my phone somewhat unusable (and for anyone who has tried to call my cell phone, you know exactly how futile of an act that is these days).
So when I started comparing prices between AT&T and other companies, I knew immediately that this would be the end. No more AT&Tn and no chance of an iPhone. (To paraphrase Ronald Reagan: “Mr. Jobs: Tear down this partnership!”)
AT&T’s prices are quite high. Highest in the industry, in fact, right up there with Verizon’s (if I don’t count the discount I talked about). By and in large, this is for good reason: their coverage area is huge, even though their overloaded, underpowered network has gotten more than enough complaints. Yet while all my friends in South Florida with iPhones bragged about being able to use the 550 minute family plan for not much more than we currently spend for ours, I had to contend with the following realities:
Unlike in South Florida, the big company here is Verizon. As popular as they are, there’s not one dominant cell phone company in the area, and everyone I know uses all kinds of carriers: my wife’s friends use MetroPCS, our parents use Verizon, my siblings use T-Mobile and Sprint, and my friends use everything from Boost to AT&T. Most of the people I know who brag about being able to use AT&T’s 550 minute plan have the distinct advantage of either not talking on the phone much or knowing mostly people who also have AT&T, meaning they can more readily take advantage of the unlimited in-network mobile-to-mobile. Not so here.
After some thinking I realized that there was still one slim ray of hope: at 1400 minutes, AT&T offers a calling circle. The vast majority of all our calls are made to 10 people! Ironically, with a calling circle, we wouldn’t use more than 550 minutes anyway, and we’d have about 800 roll-over minutes a month. If we could have that feature at the 550 minute mark, we’d be within budget. But no, AT&T wouldn’t budge, and at the 1400 minute family plan level, in addition to a texting plan ($5/month for 200 messages) the costs shot up from the expected $150/month to $182, even after the discount we get through The Wife, who works for the county.
Sorry, but the iPhone isn’t worth THAT much to me.
In the end, after searching, there were only two real options to us: Sprint or Verizon. While this article was based entirely on Sprint’s offerings, Verizon is closer to getting the nod, mostly because of costs (again, with the discount, which brings our total cost to around $145/month after taxes). The downside, of course, is that Sprint has a considerably more impressive smartphone selection. Maybe the next few months will change that, though. After all, it looks like Big Red is getting the HTC Hero. Considering The Wife fell in love with the Samsung Rogue, perhaps there is hope for Verizon after all.