Feature Articles

HardwareZone's Smartphone Buying Guide Essentials

HardwareZone's Smartphone Buying Guide Essentials



Operating System

Which Platform is Right for You?

Like their tablet siblings, smartphones are defined by their operating system and hardware specifications. There's no "one" OS to rule them all; all of them cater to specific target groups who happen to have differing needs and priorities. Deciding what are these important needs and priorities will make it easier for you to settle on the OS of your choice. In this section, we take a quick look at the top four operating systems in the market:-

 

Apple iOS

Without 'le', Apple' is just 'App'. Bad joke aside, at the heart of Apple's iOS or rather, at the heart of an iOS user is a vast and superior collection of apps. The iOS has many great and well-designed apps, ranging from photography, games and social media to kid-friendly apps. By all accounts, iOS looks like it will continue to grow because of its viability as a moneymaker for developers.

Plus, its no-frills grid-based user interface and clear stance on synergy across all iOS devices (be it iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch) makes it one of the two most popular and user-friendly smartphone operating systems in the market right now. The learning curve for an iOS device is low even if you are new to the device; if you already have an iPad or a Mac, you will definitely be at home with an Apple iPhone.

Things are looking even brighter for the Cupertino-based company with the recent iOS 5 update; some of these 200 updates included an iOS-wide messaging service called iMessage, a cloud-based storage and syncing system known as iCloud and a new Notifications Center that's similar to the pull-down notification bar on Android devices. As a side note, iOS devices come with a wide pool of accessory support from various brands, so if you are looking to vamp up your device, you will be presented with a huge selection that includes docks, car stereos, handphone casings and more.

In short, the Apple iOS smartphone is the one for you if apps, accessories and a no-frills user interface is what you're looking for.

If you already happen to be an owner of a iOS device, it makes more sense to stick with it as it will provide a unified experience.

Reasons to Choose Apple iOS

  • A 'tried-and-tested' mobile platform
     
  • Intuitive and no-frills user interface
     
  • Extensive apps ecosystem
     
  • Great cross device synergy
     
  • Already own an iOS related product

 

Google Android

It's no exaggeration to say that there are Google Android phones everywhere; prominent manufacturers like HTC, Samsung, Acer, Motorola, Panasonic, Sony Ericsson, Huawei and more have hopped on board to join hands with the open-source OS. Why so? Due to its nature, manufacturers can easily slap their software on phones without much reworking. At the same time, they are able to retain their own unique smartphone designs, user interfaces and hardware configurations.

Unfortunately, there's a downside to all that freedom. People looking to get an Android smartphone face more difficulty as they are dealing with a highly fragmented and diverse market of Google Android phones running on different OS versions with different hardware specs, user interfaces, price bands and so on. More often than not, because of the user interface "skins" manufacturers use on top of the Google Android OS, it takes a fair amount of time before they are able to release updated OS versions.

Bottom line is this: Google Android gives you freedom of choice and customization, but be prepared for software updates that could take months even after the source code is released.

Nonetheless, the key to the Google Android experience is not only in its myriad nature but also in its extensive Google-related services and customization. The Android OS was built to work seamlessly with a Gmail account; if you are a heavy user of Gmail (contacts, documents, calendar) and other Google services like Maps, your best bet would be investing in a Google Android handset.

The other prominent aspect of the experience is tied to customization and tailor-making your own home page(s). The Android OS features several home screens that can be tiled with widgets that tell the time, show the contents of your messages/emails/newsfeeds/social media accounts, favorite contacts, calendar events - the list just goes on. Some widgets and tools are manufacturer-specific; others can be easily gotten via app downloads in the robust Android Market.

For advanced users, the benefit of the Android platform comes from rooting. Simply put, rooting gives users full access to their Android devices. While there are many reasons to root your Android phone, the most common reason is to load customized ROMs and experiment with other user interfaces outside of the manufacturer's vanilla option.

At the end of the day, choosing and setting up a Google Android smartphone might be a tedious process (research is imperative; you need to know what exactly you want) but once the choice is made, you are more or less set for a phone that you can truly call your own.

Reasons to Choose Google Android

  • Spoiled for choice; many Google Android smartphones in the market at various price bands
     
  • Tight integration with Google services such as Gmail, Calendar and many more
     
  • App selection only second to iOS
     
  • Customization via tools and widget-placing
     
  • Advanced customization via rooting to gain full access to Android devices and loading customized ROMs

 

Windows Phone 7

The Windows Phone 7 (WP7) operating system started with much fanfare, sporting an entirely new (and minimalist) look compared to the older Windows Mobile OS. The relatively new WP7 OS was also a long awaited update to its dated mobile platform, sporting an entire new look and a stronger focus on providing integrated and connected user experiences.

Real-time connectivity is the key to describing the WP7 platform.

The WP7 presents a vastly unique user experience, one that's centered around Live Tiles, squares that are present and can be placed on your device's homescreen. These squared tiles are constantly animated and updated with information, allowing users a glance at what's happening real-time on their smartphone.

Built around the concept of Hubs and Facebook social feeds, the operating system emphasizes much on connectivity, which is prominently seen strongly in its People Hub, a place where contacts can be synced with your Windows Live, Google or Facebook account, allowing users to see their friends’ Facebook status updates in a single place. (With the WP7.5 Mango update, Twitter and Linkedin integration has been added as well.)

The other unique selling point for the platform is its integration with Microsoft's services like Bing and Office. Microsoft also did a smart thing with its Xbox Live services by integrating them with the WP7 platform. WP7 smartphone users can download and try games before purchasing (these are also tied to your existing Xbox Live personal account) or keep track of their in-game achievements and chat with their fellow Xbox Live peers. The app selection might be modest compared to the likes of Android and Apple, but it hosts a respectable amount of popular apps for a new OS.

Leveraging on an app-friendly environment aided by both Xbox Live services and Windows Phone 7 Marketplace, the WP7.5 Mango update saw the introduction of a new multi-tasking feature in the form of a tile system that will present thumbnails of the apps that are running in the background.

The WP7 is a unique platform but it is relatively new as well, so there's a degree of risk if you are planning to invest in it. Interested buyers have a small selection of WP7 phones to choose from, including HTC, Samsung and LG devices.

With Nokia on board (and subsequently, all eyes will be on them), the OS should be able to get more traction when more Nokia WP7.5 devices make their appearance.

Reasons to Choose Windows Phone 7

  • Unique Live-Tile user interface / Constant "connectivity"
     
  • Strong integrated social media experience with People Hub
     
  • Xbox Live integration and growing app selection

 

BlackBerry

BlackBerry smartphones have been definitive business mobile devices for one good reason: business communication. The other selling point of a BlackBerry smartphone is its proprietary and free BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) service. The recent push for BBM apps makes the service more appealing on a social and interactive level, without distracting users from its key functions. BlackBerry devices typically come with small screens (2 to 3-inches, many with no touch screens) and physical QWERTY keyboards.

With the introduction of BlackBerry 7 OS, improvements have been made to provide users with an experience that extends beyond business. One significant improvement is in the web browser performance, which BlackBerry handsets are traditionally weak in. The implementation of a new feature called Liquid Graphics allows the BlackBerry browser to render web pages faster with seamless panning and zooming. The addition of HTML5 elements also contributes to an overall enhanced user experience.

As mentioned, the BlackBerry devices are made for productivity and business emailing. Services like BlackBerry Enterprise Server 5.0.3 and BlackBerry Balance allow IT departments to manage data and usage (such as keeping corporate data secure via app usage restriction) on BlackBerry devices owned by employees. BlackBerry users also get to enjoy the full version of Docs To Go, which allows editing of Word, Excel and PowerPoint files on the phone. App selection is poor compared to its contemporaries so if on-the-go mobile entertainment is what you are looking for, you are better off looking at the other OS based devices.

The BlackBerry smartphone is clearly made for users who need a device for messaging, productivity and corporate purposes.

However, with the introduction of a new OS called BBX in 2012, BlackBerry is clearly steering towards a less enterprise-centric direction. The bad news is: we don't know enough about BBX to recommend it to readers and BBX devices are only slated for launch in late 2012.

Reasons to Choose BlackBerry

  • Good physical QWERTY keyboards
     
  • Business emails and security
     
  • BlackBerry Messenger