Ultimate mobile deathmatch

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Although what distinguishes smartphones from cell phones is data access, smartphones still must function as phones and handle voice calls. Except for the iPhone, all have good voice and speaker quality. The iPhone stands apart: Even rabid fans complain about its poor voice quality and frequent dropped calls. It's tempting to blame AT&T for that, except that the BlackBerrys don't suffer these issues on AT&T's network.

All the devices integrate the phone with their address books and search functions. But the Droids' search capabilities are more primitive than those of the other devices, You can't search just your contacts, for example.

Usability

The iPhone set the bar for mobile usability upon its debut and has continued to raise it with the two major OS releases since. The gestures make sense, and the OS and apps are full of little enhancements that bolster ease-of-use, such as the quick-delete swipe and ability to bulk-delete and bulk-move messages, as well as the ability to add Web pages to the home screen's apps grid for easy access. More recently, the iPhone added very intuitive, "smart" copy and paste that works for text and graphics. Where the iPhone falls short is its lack of support for running multiple apps simultaneously, which means switching apps can essentially close an app rather than freeze its current state for later resumption; this one-app-a-time limitation prevents the iPhone from being able to open file attachments and edit them from e-mail, for example. As previously noted, the Pre is the only device that makes it easy to move among multiple apps simultaneously -- as if you're using Mac OS X or Windows.

The HTC Droid Erisis surprisingly easy to use and full of well-designed applications that come in very handy. HTC has created its own Sense UI that extends the Google Android UI. While there are a lot of naked rip-offs from the iPhone, the UI is no mere collection of robotically stolen features. As mentioned earlier, the many widgets bring capabilities together intelligently, with many pleasant surprises in terms of options and display. The Motorola Droid has none of these, using the raw Android UI instead. It's a decent OS, but rougher by comparison to what HTC has done. But do note that the HTC Drid Eris has a slower processor than the Motorola Droid, so it's not as snappy switching among or running complex apps.

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The Palm Pre's UI is clunkier than either the iPhone's or the Droids'. It shares many of the same principles, but is less consistent in, for example, its use of scrolling and menu access. Also, the separate swipe area for some gestures is confusing, as it's hard to remember which swipes work where on the split screen.

The BlackBerry UI is vintage, and not in a good way. Very reminiscent of Windows 3.0, it uses clunky menus, keyboard shortcuts, and primitive imagery. The trackball is jumpy and inaccurate, so scrolling, selecting, and zooming are imprecise activities. Keyboard aficionados like its extensive use of shortcuts, but there's no reason the BlackBerry OS couldn't retain those while introducing a modern graphical UI.

Beyond UI, the iPhone has also introduced some cool capabilities that let it and its apps do more. For example, an accelerometer allows player-style games and even tools such as carpenter's levels. Also, the built-in compass lets map-based applications become direction assistants. The Palm Pre and the two Droids have copied both capabilities, and the BlackBerry Storm has an accelerometer.

For some users, one major usability issue on the iPhone is the lack of a removable battery and memory card. I haven't had a need for more memory or to replace the battery on my two-year old device, but the proliferation of SD cards for storing and sharing photos -- even the newest Apple MacBook Pros have SD card slots -- makes the memory card omission a legitimate demerit for the iPhone's usability.

But the most divisive issue for usability is the keyboard. Many people hate touch keyboards, such as that pioneered in the iPhone. The BlackBerry Bold's QWERTY keyboard is much easier to use off the bat, though I became as proficient on the iPhone's touch keyboard as I am on the Bold's physical keyboard after several weeks.

The Motorola Droid's touch keyboard is similar to the iPhone's, lacking only the latter's multilingual capabilities. The HTC Droid Eris's QWERTY keyboard is easier to use than either the Motorola Droid's or the iPhone's, thanks to a cool hold-and-press feature to get fast access to common special characters such as numerals, $, and !. The Motorola Droid's physical keyboard is very hard to use, with low-travel keys and flat surfaces that make touch-typing difficult due to lack of tactile feedback. Using it slowed me down immensely, and I quickly abandoned it in favor of the much faster touch keyboard. The difference between the Motorola Droid's physical keyboard and the BlackBerry Bold's is night and day.

The Palm Pre's keyboard is similar to the BlackBerry Bold's, but the glossy keys and red-on-black print make it harder to use, especially when you're hunting for a symbol. The BlackBerry Bold's matte finish and clearer text avoid that problem. But the Storm 2's traditional multiple-characters-per-key BlackBerry keyboard is difficult to work with, as the device has to predict which letter you want on each key. There's no reason RIM couldn't use the Bold's keyboard on the Storm 2, and it should have, especially because its touch keyboard is unusable, due to how the screen must flex and rebound as you tap each character. That creates a delay for each and every character, so it's slow as molasses. (The original Storm's screen actually had to click for each character, and the flex action was meant to be less intrusive -- it isn't.)

The other major input advance from the iPhone was the use of a multitouch screen, which lets you do gestures involving more than one finger. The use of gestures opens up almost unlimited possibilities for what you can control via touch. Most of the other touchscreen competitors (the HTC Droid Eris, BlackBerry Storm 2, and Pre) have adopted the same approach -- with the glaring exception of the Motorola Droid, whose single-touch screen doesn't support gestures. That ill-advised decision puts the Motorola Droid at a major usability disadvantage.

Finally, the physical devices vary in size, shape, and button arrangement, but by and large, they all have good designs. The Palm Pre feels the cheapest of the bunch in terms of finish and materials quality, and its fuzzy screen is an issue. The Motorola Droid auto-adjusts for brightness, using a light sensor to determine the screen intensity, but I found that it often flickered as it continually adjusted brightness in naturally lit rooms. Its on/off buttton is also hard to access.

Personal technologies

Although these devices are attractive for potential business or professional use, they're also meant to be fun personal devices. The iPhone leans heavily on iTunes for access to music and videos -- after all, the iPhone is also an iPod. There's a reason the folks at Palm keep trying to hack iTunes to allow syncing to the Pre.

The other devices can all play music and videos, using Internet and carrier services for over-the-air access and USB syncing and SD cards for access to PC-based files. (Android users should get the DoubleTwist app for Macs and PCs that syncs Android devices with iTunes libraries.)

The Motorola Droid boasts a 5-megapixel camera with LED flash, giving it the most capable built-in camera based on the specs. But as my Chicago Sun-Times colleague Andy Ihnatko has shown, the iPhone 3G S's 3-megapixel camera takes better pictures most of the time, likely due to its software's correction capabilities. The Pre, BlackBerry Storm 2, and HTC Droid Eris have midquality 3-megapixel cameras, while the BlackBerry Bold has a low-quality 2-megapixel camera. All but the Bold's are capable of video capture as well.

The iPhone stands out for its gaming and entertainment capabilities. There are hundreds of cool games and playtime apps that can amuse you for hours. The other devices have a much more limited selection of playthings.

This story, "Ultimate mobile deathmatch" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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