The Smartphones You Can Rely On

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Over the past two years, smartphones, and the iPhone in particular, have caused wireless Internet usage to rocket upwards. To better accommodate the demand, AT&T and other providers have been "tuning" their networks. As network resources are shifted to bolster one service, however, another service may suffer--in this case, voice service.

The findings of a new survey by Consumer Reports seem to agree with our results. Consumer Reports asked subscribers of the major wireless providers in 26 cities for their thoughts about their cell phone service, and found that AT&T subscribers were the "least satisfied" of all in 19 of those cities.

AT&T had the same general reaction to Consumer Reports' findings as it did to ours, saying neither study paints a true picture of U.S. wireless users' experience.

AT&T points to its own third-party research showing that its network is not only the fastest in the United States, but is also among the best regarding dropped calls. "In one of the most common measures of reliability--dropped calls--AT&T's national performance is within two-tenths of 1 percent of the highest score among major providers, with only 1.32 percent of calls dropped nationally," says AT&T spokesperson Jenny Bridges in an e-mail to PCWorld. She adds: "That translates to a difference of less than 2 calls out of 1000."

So far, AT&T has suffered most from the network-taxing effects of escalating data service usage, but it may be Verizon's turn in 2010. With the release of its impressive Droid phone (and others), Verizon might find its wireless customers demanding unprecedented amounts of Web connectivity.

Next: Ease of Use

Ease of Use: Comparing Apples to Lemons?

According to our survey takers, Apple's iPhone remains in a league of its own when it comes to ease of use. Part of the vast appeal of the device is its design--inside and out. Aesthetically pleasing, the iPhone's user interface looks simple and intuitive, helping owners access its many functions. (Click on the chart image to see our survey results on the ease of use of smartphones from various major manufacturers.)

We asked smartphone owners ten questions about the ease of use their handsets, including how satisfied they were with the ease of using nine of the most important functions--things like browsing the Internet, syncing data, sharing files, taking pictures, and playing music and video.

The iPhone scored higher than its peers in all but one of those areas (users gave the iPhone only an "average" score on the quality of the photos and videos it shoots). When asked about their overall satisfaction with their phone's ease of use, 82 percent of iPhone owners said they were "very" or "extremely" satisfied with their device.

Apple Will Be Challenged

But this state of affairs won't last. A new wave of Google Android-powered phones, such as Verizon's Droid, will almost certainly rival the iPhone in ease of use. At the time of our survey, however, the new Android phones were not in use in high enough numbers to affect our results. Next year's survey will likely tell a different story.

"According to the feedback I've gotten from companies that design user interfaces for smartphones, the consensus is that the iPhone interface has gotten a little dated," IDG mobile device technology analyst Will Stofega says.

With Android, Stofega adds, Google "has done a very nice job on its interface, and I expect it to be very popular, depending on how it's implemented."

And Android phones won't be the only ones gunning for Apple's ease-of-use throne in the coming months. Stofega points out that Nokia is pushing hard to develop its own Symbian operating system to meet and surpass the ease-of-use standard that the iPhone set. New phones using this updated and touchscreen-friendly operating system should begin appearing during 2010.

But today, Apple simply dominates its competitors in design. Apple's closest rival in this area was Nokia, which earned just one higher-than-average score--that for the ease of use of the cameras in its smartphones. Nokia placed second in "overall reliability," but with a paltry 59 percent of owners reporting high satisfaction with ease of use.

Among those fairing most poorly with survey takers in ease of use were HTC, Motorola, RIM (BlackBerry), and Samsung. Asked about the overall ease of use of their devices, 55 percent of BlackBerry users were completely satisfied, while just 45 percent of HTC owners, 43 percent of Samsung users, and 42 percent of Motorola phone users were completely satisfied.

Samsung owners gave their phones worse than average marks in all ease-of-use categories save two--both having to do with the video cameras in the phones. (Samsung chose not to release any comments on the results of our survey.)

Motorola users expressed frustration with the ease of setting up their phones, syncing data with computers, browsing the Internet, and locating and playing back music and video. Motorola phones also received below-average marks on the sound and video quality they produce on playback.

Common complaints among all users included difficult -to-use keyboards, slow-to-respond touchscreens, clumsy file management, hard-to-use cameras, poor sound quality, and difficult or slow syncing. Others complained of user interfaces that are hard to customize, cameras that take pictures when not asked to, operating systems that don't multitask, and browsers that won't play Flash content.

Next: Reliability

Reliability: Operating Systems Fail the Most

The more technology you pack into a device, the more things can break. And smartphones must be the poster child for carrying a dizzying number of bells and whistles inside the shell--microphones, speakers, touchscreens, cameras, an operating system, applications, an accelerometer, compasses . . . the list goes on. (Click on the chart image to see our survey results on device reliability from major manufacturers.)

With all that stuff in there, you would expect high rates of component and software failures. And you would be right. In our survey, 31 percent of smartphone owners reported one or more significant problems with their device before it was two years old.

And readers told us that when something fails in a smartphone, in about 35 percent of cases it's the operating system.

"My biggest complaint is that the response is slow and the interface is clunky!" says Sprint HTC Touch Pro user John Abercrombie. "Also, sometimes it 'locks up' the OS and the only way out is to remove and reinsert the battery."

Sprint customer and Palm Treo user Duane Calvin says his phone's OS "now reboots itself several times a day; I have no idea when it has shut down."

Of the major smartphone brands, HTC and LG phones had higher rates of OS failure than their peers. Of HTC owners who reported a problem, 44 percent said the culprit was the operating system software. Thirty-nine percent of problems with LG devices could be blamed on the OS.

After the OS, breakdowns in miscellaneous features such as BlueTooth connections or GPS radios and compasses were the cause of 24 percent of problems, surveyed smartphone owners said.

These failures, survey takers told us, were especially prevalent in HTC and Samsung smartphones. In HTC devices, a feature failure was the problem in 29 percent of cases; in Samsung phones, in 30 percent of total problems reported. Meanwhile, owners of Apple, LG and Palm phones reported lower-than-average numbers of feature breakdowns.

Battery issues accounted for about 11 percent of reported problems. Only HTC, LG, and Samsung had significantly higher incidences of battery problems than the average of all handset manufacturers. Apple and Palm owners reported marginally less battery trouble.

We also asked about severe problems that rendered phones impossible to use. Among all those who reported problems (regardless of the type of phone they use), about 13 percent said their problem was "severe" enough to flatline the phone.

LG owners reported fewer severe problems. LG phones developed just as many problems as other phones, but only 8 percent of those problems rendered the phone impossible to use. Palm users reported a higher incidence of severe problems, at 19 percent--or six points above the average.

Still, 64 percent of smartphone owners say they are "very" or "extremely" satisfied with the reliability of their devices.

Seventy-four percent of iPhone users said they were highly satisfied overall with the reliability of their phone--the highest score of any smartphone. Samsung owners, meanwhile, reported the lowest rates of overall satisfaction, at only 55 percent.

For Now, They're Still New Toys

Smartphones are a relatively new technology. The first iPhone, for example, hit the market only a few years ago--on June 29, 2007, to be exact. The devices, and the networks that connect them, have certainly improved since then. But as our survey results show, in many ways, they're still a work in progress.

Users report high numbers of technical breakdowns in their devices, a poor record of completely fixing those problems by tech support departments, difficult-to-use phones, and slow and/or unreliable wireless network coverage. Yet, as our survey also shows, satisfaction levels remain strangely high among users in those same areas.

Why is that? It may be that consumers are still a bit dazzled by the allways-on, connect-anywhere technology that smartphones are. So dazzled, perhaps, that they're willing to overlook a few basic shortcomings in the devices, as well as in the companies that make, sell, and support them--even as users pay a high premium every month to own one.

IDC's Will Stofega offers the classic example of this. The iPhone's OS does not allow you to cut and paste text or images--from an online news article to an e-mail, for example. This, of course, would never be tolerated in another type of computer. Are iPhone users caught in Steve Jobs' "reality distortion field"? Maybe so. But our survey suggests that that distortion field isn't the sole property of just one smartphone maker, but, perhaps, of all of them.

In short, smartphone owners should expect more. Here's hoping that, as smartphones become less novel, expectations will rise--and consumers will begin to see the same reliability and service levels that they routinely demand from other devices.

This story, "The Smartphones You Can Rely On" was originally published by PCWorld.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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