What Phone Is Right For You? – Index

Articles I’ve written to help you choose a phone.

 

English: Windows Phone 7 powered LG Panther(GW...
The Outsider - Windows Phone 7

1 – The Scene

Why are there so many competing kinds of phone now?

2 – But First…

Remember you don’t have to get a high-end smartphone.

3 – Enter The Gladiators

A quick overview of the types available.

4 – The Business End

Phones for work: Windows Mobile, Windows Phone 7, and Blackberry.

5 – Apple Changes Everything

It’s the biggest thing to happen to mobile phones – and perhaps even computing – for years. What makes the iPhone so special?

6 – Paradigm Shift Hits The Fan

An aside on the present and future of mobile computing, and what the rise of the smartphone really means.

7 – I, Android

Only Google it seems were able to learn from what Apple did and react fast enough. Have they actually beaten them at their own game?

What Phone Is Right For You? 8 – Nokia Not Dead

Yeah, I think some people will enjoy using a phone that looks like this

I started this guide to choosing a phone not long after Nokia announced their game-changing deal with Microsoft. It seems fitting to conclude the series with the first fruit of that alliance.

Was the wait worth it? Yes. Not, alas, because the new Nokia phones are perfect. It would be wonderful to be able to say your phone-choosing dilemmas were all over, but there is still a way to go. They should be the last major development for a while though, so we know now what the real choices are.

And they are very promising. A few months back Nokia brought out the N9, their first phone with the Linux-based MeeGo operating system. It was a thing of beauty, with a genuinely novel all-touch interface and a unique body moulded and milled from hard polycarbonate and curved glass, but it seems certain now that the operating system is a dead end. It was pleasant if not wholly unexpected therefore to find that their new Lumia 800 is in many respects just a Windows Phone 7 version of the N9. (See them compared point-by-point here).

Or rather, Windows Phone 7.5 – the Nokia is one of the first phones with the new version of the Microsoft OS. And its greater polish, in combination with the the hardware refinement Nokia bring to the party, make the Microsoft system seem for the first time a credibly sexy alternative to iOS and Android.

This phone isn’t going to blow the iPhone 4S or the Galaxy S II away though. Its gestation has taken a long time, and consequently it isn’t right on the cutting edge when it comes to specifications. But I think it will be the first Windows phone to have real mass-market appeal, certainly in Europe. It’s different and eye-catching. In the US Nokia will need to find the good relationships with carriers that have eluded it until now, but with Microsoft at its back that seems eminently possible. Rumour has it indeed that they’re holding back the Lumia 800 so that they can launch with a version capable of using LTE (that is, 4G) on AT&T or Verizon’s network. That would quickly correct the impression most Americans have of Nokia as a maker of only low-end phones.

So though the Lumia may not quite be a world-beater yet, it probably does enough to put both Nokia and Microsoft on track. It lags way behind both Android and iPhone in terms of apps, but going a long way to counter this there’s a huge amount of excellent stuff built right – Office 365, Nokia Drive, XBOX Live, Bing Vision. And the interface, particularly in its bright and curvy Nokia incarnation, is very arguably better than even the iPhone’s. It’s certainly prettier. Would I buy it? I don’t think so. It’s delicious looks sorely tempt me, but I’ll wait for what they’ll come out with next. If they can get back onto the front line of hardware specs we will have a real three-way battle here.

But you should forget Nokia if you want a smartphone right now? No; don’t forget Symbian. Nokia’s previous operating system may have been around for a long time but – unlike MeeGo – it’s not about to go away. They’re still improving on it (the latest version is called Symbian Anna) and there are a great number of apps available. Yes it seems clunky and awkward alongside its younger rivals, but its maturity means there is damn all it can’t do. And if battery life is a high priority for you, a Symbian with a keyboard is probably impossible to beat.

 

Coming soon: The final phone round-up.

 

What Phone Is Right For You? 8 – Nokia Not Dead

Yeah, I think some people will enjoy using a phone that looks like this

I started this guide to choosing a phone not long after Nokia announced their game-changing deal with Microsoft. It seems fitting to conclude the series with the first fruit of that alliance.

Was the wait worth it? Yes. Not, alas, because the new Nokia phones are perfect. It would be wonderful to be able to say your phone-choosing dilemmas were all over, but there is still a way to go. They should be the last major development for a while though, so we know now what the real choices are.

And they are very promising. A few months back Nokia brought out the N9, their first phone with the Linux-based MeeGo operating system. It was a thing of beauty, with a genuinely novel all-touch interface and a unique body moulded and milled from hard polycarbonate and curved glass, but it seems certain now that the operating system is a dead end. It was pleasant if not wholly unexpected therefore to find that their new Lumia 800 is in many respects just a Windows Phone 7 version of the N9. (See them compared point-by-point here).

Or rather, Windows Phone 7.5 – the Nokia is one of the first phones with the new version of the Microsoft OS. And its greater polish, in combination with the the hardware refinement Nokia bring to the party, make the Microsoft system seem for the first time a credibly sexy alternative to iOS and Android.

This phone isn’t going to blow the iPhone 4S or the Galaxy S II away though. Its gestation has taken a long time, and consequently it isn’t right on the cutting edge when it comes to specifications. But I think it will be the first Windows phone to have real mass-market appeal, certainly in Europe. It’s different and eye-catching. In the US Nokia will need to find the good relationships with carriers that have eluded it until now, but with Microsoft at its back that seems eminently possible. Rumour has it indeed that they’re holding back the Lumia 800 so that they can launch with a version capable of using LTE (that is, 4G) on AT&T or Verizon’s network. That would quickly correct the impression most Americans have of Nokia as a maker of only low-end phones.

So though the Lumia may not quite be a world-beater yet, it probably does enough to put both Nokia and Microsoft on track. It lags way behind both Android and iPhone in terms of apps, but going a long way to counter this there’s a huge amount of excellent stuff built right – Office 365, Nokia Drive, XBOX Live, Bing Vision. And the interface, particularly in its bright and curvy Nokia incarnation, is very arguably better than even the iPhone’s. It’s certainly prettier. Would I buy it? I don’t think so. It’s delicious looks sorely tempt me, but I’ll wait for what they’ll come out with next. If they can get back onto the front line of hardware specs we will have a real three-way battle here.

But you should forget Nokia if you want a smartphone right now? No; don’t forget Symbian. Nokia’s previous operating system may have been around for a long time but – unlike MeeGo – it’s not about to go away. They’re still improving on it (the latest version is called Symbian Anna) and there are a great number of apps available. Yes it seems clunky and awkward alongside its younger rivals, but its maturity means there is damn all it can’t do. And if battery life is a high priority for you, a Symbian with a keyboard is probably impossible to beat.

 

Coming soon: The final phone round-up.

 

MeeGo – Born On Death Row?

It's the only phone in the world to be made entirely out of licorice

A few days ago I suggested that Nokia’s lovely N9 might be the last as well as the first phone to use the MeeGo operating system. Now it would seem that speculation is confirmed. Well, it is if you want to go by a single short article in a Finnish daily paper, but that’s the sort of scrap of information people are grabbing at – particularly people in the MeeGo development community, who of course are desperately invested in this.

It isn’t true. Not on a literal level at least, because there are in fact two MeeGo phones. And though the N950 will be available to developers only and not the general public, why would they be releasing a phone to help people develop apps if they don’t plan to have anything to run them on? I think CEO Stephen Elop means only to counter the opposite rumours – that the good reception the N9 received was going to make Nokia switch back to MeeGo as its main strategy. That was only ever a fantasy.

I strongly suspect however that Nokia plan to keep MeeGo going as a little back-burner project – much as it was until quite recently. Remember, MeeGo is not a new thing but just the latest in a line of semi-experimental products based on Linux: the 770, N800, N810 and N900. These were never big sellers either, but Nokia is a company that has done well in the past by fielding a range of niche products.

Is there any point in buying one though when, no matter how good the hardware is, it lacks the ingredient that makes or breaks a phone in the world today; If MeeGo isn’t going to be a commercial product, who’s going to make apps for it?

Well they don’t necessarily have to. Don’t forget that all software for Symbian phones – which are going to be with us for some years yet – is actually built for Nokia’s Qt framework, also used on MeeGo. Maybe Symbian apps haven’t exactly set the world on fire, but good recent phones like the N8 have revived them somewhat. Then of course, under the MeeGo skin the OS is basically Debian Linux. The Open Source community will be able to provide many heavy-duty applications, just as are currently available for Nokia’s earlier Linux devices.

And, it has Java. OK, big whoop. Java on phones has always been a should-have-been. Except… Android apps are basically Java, aren’t they? Running on a version of Linux too. With that similar basic structure, it should be fairly easy to port Android apps to MeeGo.

Easy, or even trivial – if an application that rejoices under the name of Alien Dalvik fulfils its promise. This is not an emulator; it allows Android apps to run natively under MeeGo. Now that would be something; the vast supply of Androids apps, on mobile Linux, on Nokia hardware. The user would have to assemble it themselves I guess, but they’d get a combination that could easily rival the official Windows product. The only question, I suppose, is whether it will be allowed to happen.

Nokia’s Last Hurrah

N9 © Nokia

There’s no argument, the N9 is a beautiful device. It’s almost hypnotically attractive, better perhaps than even the iPhone at the magical trick of making you feel that this is how phones were always meant to look. Sculpted from curved glass and a single block of matte polycarbonate, graced with a simple, powerful new operating system, this is the most radically restrained design that Nokia has ever produced. Aesthetically, that is; from a feature viewpoint it’s downright exuberant. All in all, a tour de force of phone engineering.

Only one question really: What exactly is it for?

This is not the first of Nokia’s new Windows phones, rather it is the first with MeeGo. First, and quite possibly last. For MeeGo is the operating system that Nokia were developing to take on the iPhone. Until they lost their nerve, decided it couldn’t possibly be done in time to save the company, and let themselves be bought into Windows Phone 7 instead.

And yet here’s a MeeGo phone, somehow ready before any Windows one. What exactly happened there?

It had to be this way. If the Windows device had come out first, MeeGo might have been allowed to drift on without ever becoming finished product, and MeeGo was the one chance Nokia’s designers had to prove to the world – and to their boss – that they could have taken on Apple and won.

Launching an already doomed product might seem a bizarre expense for an already beleaguered company, but not bringing MeeGo to fruition also had a price – one that might have been paid in resignations. The N9 may best be understood as a magnificent gift; from Nokia’s management, to Nokia’s talent.

What Phone Is Right For You? 6 – Paradigm Shift Hits The Fan

Siemens "Fernscheiber 100" teletype....
Humble, and Deeply Unattractive, Origins

Though the iPhone changed personal computing forever, its significance was not immediately grasped even by Apple’s competitors – perhaps particularly by them. Sure, the likes of Nokia and Blackberry probably appreciated the threat it represented in the high-end smartphone sector. Almost beyond doubt, Google saw the potential it had to control a huge slice of the market for Internet services. Microsoft would have recognised a major new extension of Apple’s many-tentacled marketing strategy.

What may have taken longer to sink in was the fact that Apple was taking them all on at once… As the iPad and its imitators demonstrate, the iPhone was harbinger of a new and very significant generation of devices – one that would break personal computing free from its clumsy origins.

For half a century, computers have followed essentially the same design paradigm. This is strange when you think about it, because they could really use almost any. All the operator is doing fundamentally is putting numbers in and getting numbers out, there must be a million ways to do that. Many were explored in the early years: dials, punched cards, paper tapes, patch cables, levers, bells, rows of switches and lights. The possibilities were endless – and deeply unstandardised.

Then some pioneer had the brilliant idea of using a teleprinter. You may not even remember these, they’re now almost extinct, but the teleprinter (also called teletype or telex) is essentially a networked, motorised typewriter. You type on your terminal, the one at the recipient’s end rattles off a printed message. The bright idea was to wire one of these up to a computer so its keyboard could be used for input and its printer for output. Using a pre-existing technology not only meant a big cost saving, but harnessed a recognised interface metaphor that users could grasp immediately. Replacing the printed paper display with text on a TV-like monitor made it all the more familiar and friendly. This metaphor was so effective that it has basically gone unchanged ever since. Even devices as svelte as the iMac or petite as a netbook are, under the skin, just fancy telex machines – like a shape-changing alien from a SciFi cartoon, unable to prevent hints of its true nature showing through its disguise.

There have been attempts to break the mould; perhaps the most effective was the use of pen input on devices like the PDA or Tablet PC. But that was just swapping the restrictions of one metaphor for those of another. What Apple realised was simple but profound – you could design a device without metaphor. Let the application in use dictate the interface; the device itself should come with as few restrictions or presuppositions as possible. Beyond the necessary limitations of form factor – it must be this size if you want to carry it as a phone, this size if you want to read comfortably and so on – it should be as reconfigurable as possible. Thus the iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad family is a device as rich in possibility as we have ever had, and perhaps ever will until we figure out how to make shape-changing hardware.

But just because it’s revolutionary, that doesn’t necessarily mean the iPhone is the best phone you can get. And while some rivals still seem to be in shock even now, one company was ready to respond to and rival Apple’s innovation. One company may already be beating them at their own game.

What Phone Is Right For You? 6 – Paradigm Shift Hits The Fan

Siemens "Fernscheiber 100" teletype....
Humble, and Deeply Unattractive, Origins

Though the iPhone changed personal computing forever, its significance was not immediately grasped even by Apple’s competitors – perhaps particularly by them. Sure, the likes of Nokia and Blackberry probably appreciated the threat it represented in the high-end smartphone sector. Almost beyond doubt, Google saw the potential it had to control a huge slice of the market for Internet services. Microsoft would have recognised a major new extension of Apple’s many-tentacled marketing strategy.

What may have taken longer to sink in was the fact that Apple was taking them all on at once… As the iPad and its imitators demonstrate, the iPhone was harbinger of a new and very significant generation of devices – one that would break personal computing free from its clumsy origins.

For half a century, computers have followed essentially the same design paradigm. This is strange when you think about it, because they could really use almost any. All the operator is doing fundamentally is putting numbers in and getting numbers out, there must be a million ways to do that. Many were explored in the early years: dials, punched cards, paper tapes, patch cables, levers, bells, rows of switches and lights. The possibilities were endless – and deeply unstandardised.

Then some pioneer had the brilliant idea of using a teleprinter. You may not even remember these, they’re now almost extinct, but the teleprinter (also called teletype or telex) is essentially a networked, motorised typewriter. You type on your terminal, the one at the recipient’s end rattles off a printed message. The bright idea was to wire one of these up to a computer so its keyboard could be used for input and its printer for output. Using a pre-existing technology not only meant a big cost saving, but harnessed a recognised interface metaphor that users could grasp immediately. Replacing the printed paper display with text on a TV-like monitor made it all the more familiar and friendly. This metaphor was so effective that it has basically gone unchanged ever since. Even devices as svelte as the iMac or petite as a netbook are, under the skin, just fancy telex machines – like a shape-changing alien from a SciFi cartoon, unable to prevent hints of its true nature showing through its disguise.

There have been attempts to break the mould; perhaps the most effective was the use of pen input on devices like the PDA or Tablet PC. But that was just swapping the restrictions of one metaphor for those of another. What Apple realised was simple but profound – you could design a device without metaphor. Let the application in use dictate the interface; the device itself should come with as few restrictions or presuppositions as possible. Beyond the necessary limitations of form factor – it must be this size if you want to carry it as a phone, this size if you want to read comfortably and so on – it should be as reconfigurable as possible. Thus the iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad family is a device as rich in possibility as we have ever had, and perhaps ever will until we figure out how to make shape-changing hardware.

But just because it’s revolutionary, that doesn’t necessarily mean the iPhone is the best phone you can get. And while some rivals still seem to be in shock even now, one company was ready to respond to and rival Apple’s innovation. One company may already be beating them at their own game.