Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A tale of two loves: iPhone 4S and Lumia 800

Those who know me are aware that I was a serial iPhone hater. Well, I still am, though my dislike for the platform has decreased somewhat. Having been using the iPhone 4S for a month now (courtesy of Three UK), I've changed my tune. The latest iOS 5 has brought a huge amount of features and maturity to a platform that a few years ago, I would never dream of using.

In the two months since I ditched Android and moved to using Windows Phone 7.5 Mango via the Nokia Lumia 800 as my daily driver, and then iOS 5 via the iPhone 4S, I have grown to appreciate the two OS platforms a lot more than I initially gave them credit for. The core design of the two devices as well as the OS that powers them could not have been more opposite, and yet in both cases, it was a joy to use both.
In terms of built quality, both phones are equally great. The Lumia 800 and iPhone 4S offers the best built quality of any premium smartphones on the market currently. In the case of the iPhone 4S, the metal frame gives it an unparelled premium feel. Even the volume buttons, silent switch and power button were given treatments that screams quality. On the Lumia 800, its unique unibody polycarbonate construction offers the phone a look quite unlike any other device on the market. While the camera shutter button lets the Lumia down a bit, the device as a whole feels like it was built with love behind it.

Design wise, both phones are completely opposite. The 4S retains the same design language as the iPhone 4, in that a metallic frame that doubles as the antenna for the various wireless functions, sits between two glass frames (the display and back frame). Some might complain that it doesn't feel as comfortable to hold as the curvier iPhone 3G, which is partly true, but it isn't a key issue. It is thinner, sharper and simply stunning in look. In their quest to create the most minimalist device, the iPhone 4S lacks any dedicated camera shutter of their competitors - but at least the volume button can be used as one.
With the Lumia 800, Nokia has gone for new design language quite opposite that of Apple's flagship. While it looks boxy from the front, the Lumia 800 is a very curvy device. The tapered side, along with the curved display, encourages the user to swipe the screen - a core philosophy behind Windows Phone 7 and Meego Harmattan (of which the N9 uses). Even the microSIM slot is well thought out, using a simple slide mechanism to access the slot - proving that you can build a microSIM slot that does not require a pin to access. My only complaint? The use of chrome at the back for branding purposes. It scratches as easily as an old school iPod Nano or silverback iPhone/iPod Touch.

As for the OS themselves, iOS5 is now a very mature mobile OS that is both powerful, and yet basic enough for everyone to use and master. The grid-based UI may look tired now, but iOS's biggest strength isn't its UI, but its huge repository of apps. There is little point in debating this: iOS is the world leader in apps, in terms of quality, quantity and value for money. If you value apps over anything else, an iPhone 4S is the smartphone to get. You would be kidding yourself if you think Android or Windows Phone comes even remotely close to iOS here.
My admiration for Windows Phone 7 is well documented on this blog, even during the pre-NoDo era. For good or bad, it is the platform of my choice for the foreseeable future and I am glad that Nokia has given the platform its backing. No, it isn't for everyone. I have issues recommending the platform to anyone who isn't on social networks, of which the platform excels at. While the number of apps continue to grow, I have also witness Microsoft letting down developers when it came to approving quality applications, even once rejecting a killer app without any apparent explanation. If Microsoft wants Windows Phone to be taken seriously as a smartphone platform, they can't rely only on fresh UI and speed. Developers are an important ingredient that they must not neglet.

In the midst of this love letter, it is quick to forget about Android, the number one smartphone platform in the world. Android is great in that it is hugely scalable, is 'open source' (loosely) and is available in all forms of flavors, and I don't mean just the codename of each versions. However, as much as UI has improved, Android is still a geek's platform. It also performs well only on phones with the highest spec. Try getting a cheap Android phone and the first thing you will be doing is hurl it onto a wall. But get something well spec'ed, like the Samsung Galaxy S II, and you will embrace it like it was the best phone of 2011 - which it was for many, including me.
Still, for better or worse, as Android is pretty much an 'open platform', manufacturers are free to do anything with it including embedding them into TV, notebooks, tablets and even watches. It is after all the new Windows of the 21st century. Google as a company may be in vogue now, but the same can be said of their ancestors, Yahoo!, Alta Vista and Lycos - all of which went or are going the way of the Dodo. But like how the proliferation of Windows eventually caused its downfall, the same fate may befall Android.

There really is no best phone for everyone. Give me the iPhone 4S, Galaxy S II or Lumia 800, and I will be happy using any of them, such are the maturity of the OSes each phone runs on. Each of these have their own strengths, either in the hardware or the platform. But what works for me might not work for you. My partner would not use the greatest Android device in the world even if you paid her, not because it is bad - it just isn't for her. Play the strengths of each device and find what works best of you.

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