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.

 

New Windows 2 – The Ecosystem

windows 8 preview
A Glimpse Of The Future

Perhaps as early as next year you will be able to run Windows on the same sort of low-energy ARM processors that iPads and phones use. Interesting.

What exactly is the point though? By itself, Windows for ARM doesn’t change a lot. All the programs that we use on Windows were written for Intel chips. They won’t run on ARM. They would have to be “ported” to the different architecture, and there’s no guarantee that a heavyweight program converted for a nimble processor would be anything you’d really want to use. Apple didn’t get where it is by simply porting Mac programs to the iPad. Garage Band, to take one example, is pretty much a wholly new version written to take full advantage of the touch interface.

It will be up to the market to create the software that really suits ARM-based Windows, and that of course depends on the platform taking off, which depends on the market… The Catch-22 of new technologies. Microsoft can seed it for success, but a huge amount of the detail still remains to be seen. It will surely run many Windows Phone 7 apps, but will it be able to take on the full-fat version of Office? (Rumours that it already can are probably based on an Intel tablet demo.) What about all the software created in Microsoft’s .NET framework? In Java?

Will it even have a desktop? This may seem an odd idea – Windows without a desktop? But in Windows 8, the desktop has been demoted to the status of an app; just another program, rather than an integral part of the operating system. Instead, the default interface of all Windows versions will be Metro, the “live tile”, highly touch-orientated look pioneered on Windows Phone 7. It’s all about fast and attractive access to information feeds. To do traditional work, with one or more heavy-duty application program running at once, you first open out a desktop. So it’s at least a possibility that the ARM-based version of Windows will only run lighter apps purposely designed for the touch interface. I am sure that “heavier” Intel versions of Windows will run those too though; Microsoft wants touch to be ubiquitous.

At the moment, leaving aside special-purpose and older versions, there are basically two Microsoft operating systems: Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7, and in most respects they’re distinct, incompatible things. In the near future though there could be a pretty continuous spectrum of Windows 8, over not two but four distinct types of device:

  1. Phones that can run lightweight touch-based apps.
  2. Light ARM-based tablets that can run the same apps – and some traditional software?
  3. Full Tablet PCs that definitely can run traditional software as well, but are still totally touch-orientated.
  4. Laptops and desktops that have an optional touch interface.

Hopefully they should all blend well so that data (and perhaps apps) move from one device to another seamlessly, even by touching them together. One can turn to the device suitable for your situation – a phone for walking, a desktop for work, a slate for sitting back – and find little changed about the user experience other than the size of the screen. It’s easy to see that merging very gracefully with “Surface“-type touch- and object-aware furniture. It’s as interesting as Windows has sounded for a very long time. Perhaps ever.

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? 4 – The Business End

Let’s deal first with the fact that there are two kinds of Windows phone. Microsoft got into the smartphone business early on by adapting the OS they had created for PDAs to be phone-capable. This ran mobile versions of their Office applications, designed to integrate seamlessly with a workplace PC. Useful to some, but of little interest to the general public – especially as the intentionally desktop-like interface makes it the least finger-friendly OS available. The latest version of this is Windows Mobile 6.5, and you are not likely to want it unless you have specific business needs.

Appreciating that the iPhone had changed the game completely, Microsoft came out – surprisingly quickly – with a whole new OS. They started afresh, with one eye firmly set on a pleasant user experience, and the result is an interestingly different interface made up of ’tiles’ that both indicate the status of and act as shortcuts to services like e-mail, SMS, Facebook and calls. Argument will rage over whether it is aesthetically appealing, but it is clearly highly usable.

What else does Windows Phone 7 have? Pretty much everything the iPhone does actually, including an integrated market for music and video downloads. But though this may make it seem just an imitation of the Apple product, a Zune to their iPod, it does have some real advantages. Microsoft are better at games. Each Windows Phone 7 device is a little gaming console, connected to their Xbox Live service. And of course they have taken care to retain their key strength: mobile versions of the Office suite of apps.

So it’s like an iPhone but with some great advantages. Where’s the catch?

Well the big one: it’s not finished. Aside from the fact that there are far fewer apps yet than for iPhone or Android, it’s lacking features that fans of the old Windows Mobile or of Symbian take for granted, like full multitasking, video calling, VoIP (Skype, etc.), cut-and-paste, or tethering (using it as a broadband modem with a laptop).

Intriguingly, similar features were also lacking in the first iPhone. So it’s expected that they will be added fairly quickly. But unless you are a business user with a pressing need for Microsoft Office, it might be better to wait and see what happens. Things should really get interesting when the first Windows Nokias come out next year.

But if you are a business user – or if you just fancy a touch of that urban professional chic – you’ll also be considering the BlackBerry. Manufacturer RIM first made it big with those two-way pagers that send and receive text messages. (Remember them?) This genetic inheritance shows in the fact that BlackBerries as a rule sport full qwerty keyboards and are designed to integrate with your corporate email system. They’re trying to escape the business ghetto too though; the number of apps available is shooting up, and they’re advertising on TV. But for the general user it’s hard to see any real reason to prefer it over its rivals.

Except one: BlackBerries can make an unbroken encrypted link all the way back to their home base, wherever in the world that is, preventing any possible interception of communication. Which is why some governments have banned them as being far too useful to spies and criminals – or to dissidents.

Which, you have to admit, is cooler than most.

Well that’s the businessy stuff. Tomorrow let’s look at phones we might really buy.

Windows Phone 7