Choosing a New SmartPhone

The G1 Moves to Canada

Android The first Android-basedphones available in Canada are the HTC Dream and Magic, bothrecently introduced by Rogers Canada. The Dream is better known inthe US as the G1 under its T-Mobile guise, where it has beenavailable since October of last year. The Magic is a newer phone,known in the US as the G2, offering a bit more internal memory andflash storage, and a sleeker, lighter design made possible becauseit doesn’t have the physical keyboard that the Dream sports.

The phones are a bit late to the moose party, but at least theyfinally made it. We tend to get these things a little slower herein the Great White North, as we’re a lucrative enough market thatthese companies want to pursue some sort of strategy toaggressively monetize us, yet we’re a small enough market thatthey’re in absolutely no rush to do so. We’re often stuck in a bitof limbo, embargoed out of play until some grand strategy isdeveloped.

Alas, the Android finally got their landed immigrant papers andmoved in.

Apple Goes and Spoils the Party

The Android launch has been rumored to be a big disappointmentfor Rogers, and they’ve already resorted to slashing prices. Thephones aren’t nearly as sexy as the iPhone, and their release inCanada came right as anticipation for the 3GS started swelling,exploding into a tumultuous wave of gooey pro-Apple fanaticism.

The poor reception isn’t all that surprising. For many end-usersthe iPhone really is a better product, an assessment made eventruer with the release of the 3GS. It was a close race with the 3G,but there seems to be a clear winner now that the 3GS isavailable.

The Dream, its 528Mhz processor purportedly underclocked to384Mhz* — presumably for thermal reasons — fell behind the iPhone3G, and is easily kicked around by the 3GS. The HTC’s design iscomparably stodgy, and the app support isn’t as robust or polished(especially here where inexplicably there is no access to thecommercial Android market apps. Instead we’re restricted to thefree software). The hardware saw no upgrades at all over itsyear-old G1, so there’s still a restrictively small amount ofon-phone storage, and yet Android 1.5 — the “cupcake” versioninstalled on the Rogers phones — has yet to support installing tothe SD card while they iron out the inevitably futile DRM efforts,so that remains a very real concern.

* – Note that the statement about the underclockedprocessor is based on information I discovered online while researching the phone, repeated acrossmany sites, not that repeated assertion gives it any further truth.However I can say that when playing around in the shell on thephone with the excellent and free connectbot app, thescaling_max_freq is set to 528000, implying that the Rogers buildof the phone will clock all the way up to the limits of theprocessor.

Rogers made the situation for the Dream worse by crippling theone meager advantage it holds over the iPhone (in my opinion ahuge advantage, but subjective opinons differ),which is that it has a real keyboard. For reasons that are hard tounderstand — I have a strong suspicion that it relates tobilingualism, which is the reason why we also don’t have voicesearch, a feature really sorely missed given how valuable it is inthe latest Google maps update — the Rogers build of the Dreamvariant of the phone has no onscreen keyboard, forcing you to pulla Transformers routine on the phone every single time you need toenter so much as a letter. This turns the physical keyboard into asmuch a liability as an asset, and if it ended at that I wouldrecommend that people go for the Magic and steer clear of theDream. Not only does it make it a pain to do quick interactionswith the device, but I’m sure the endless opening and closing(often in situations where you shouldn’t be trying to open andclose a device) isn’t optimal for the long term reliability of theunit.

Thankfully this terribly stupid decision can be easilyovercome, and you can get the incredible utility of both thesoftware keyboard and the physical keyboard, as each best fits.When you just want to punch in the start of a business name to lookit up in Google Maps, there’s no need to pull out the keyboard.

The HTC Android phones came to Canada with excellent ExchangeActiveSync support, so for corporate users it supports theirExchange installations with no unnecessary middleware software orservices.

Enough about the HTC phones, I recently had the desire toupgrade my smartphone, and as you can see above I firmly believethat the iPhone 3GS is the superior phone. It is impossible toargue otherwise.

The choice is clear.

So I went and bought an HTC Dream, signing upfor the 6GB / month data plan. Given that I’m usually around a WiFipoint, I doubt I’ll ever use even a fraction of that, but I’drather not even have to worry about it.

It’s All About Potential

I simply believe that the Android platform has a very brightfuture ahead. That it is poised to be unstoppable. I am of thebelief that gaining the developer knowledge and comfort with theproduct now beats using the faster, slicker (and definitely cooler)iPhone 3GS. And I like having a real keyboard.

I am convinced that in the next two years we’ll see the releaseof a variety of compelling and powerful products based on theplatform.

And while it isn’t an iPhone 3GS, and I wouldn’t recommend it tomy sister in-law, it’s still an amazing little phone in its ownright. It is far from perfect (there areWindows Mobile-like interface delays throughout, and severalapps have outright crashed on me), but it’s very decent andtechnically amazing.

The Google integration of the phone is a nice benefit of thedevice. A few years back I predicted the emergence of Satvertising,in particular as satellite imagery became available on navigationdevices, so it’s interesting to see it become a real possibilitywith Google maps on the Android. It’s pretty bizarre to pull up themap while sitting on the deck out back to find that Google maps hadme literally at the table that I was sitting at.

The deep Gmail integration, especially for Google Apps users(including “Standard Edition”), is excellent. The Exchangeintegration is close to perfect, and it certainly beats what theMotoQ, a Windows Mobile device, offers. Using both on the samedevice is painless, with excellent integration (e.g. calendarevents drawing and saving to either) and no confusion.

Several videos I encoded with h.264 AVC (one of the best codecsaround) played brilliantly, and I’ve read that it’s comfortablewith a number of other video formats. The included player is alittle buggy, so occasionally things like update spinners would getorphaned on the screen, overlaying your video for the duration, butits easy to get around. The unit plays MP3s well enough, so notmuch notable there. On WiFi some better YouTube videos lookamazing, though some arbitrary limits of the software has thequality declining to somewhere between atrocious and terrible whenyou fall back to 3G, not because 3G can’t feed the data quicklyenough, but instead because the YouTube app starts sending a”mobile” bit, telling the server to send the degraded versionregardless of the capacity of your pipe.

The onboard camera stinks, but so does the onboard cameraintegrated into any cell phone (yeah, I’m talking to you iPhoneusers as well. The lowest-end P&S camera does a much better jobthan your phone does). It works in a pinch to document some randomtaserings, but I wouldn’t convince myself that it replaces a realstill or video camera. It does allow for some pretty cool uses likeShopSavvy. TheGPS-like integration of Google Maps is very cool, and again worksin a pinch (and offers some really dramatic functionality likeoverlaid satellite imagery, and is great when walking in a bigcity), but I wouldn’t depend too much on it, or imagine that itreplaces a dedicated unit. Given that it’s downloading on anas-needed basis, a weekend trip to a conservation area outside oftown had it drawing a blank, and despite having a GPS lock, it hadno context to know where it was (having the constant need for adata connection). Maybe there are full-out GPS apps with real mapsyou can store on your SD card, making it usable for off-the-pipeusage — I’ve heard that BigPlanet is just such an app — howeverjust a warning for those thinking that this phone alone replacesthe need for a real GPS.

The short battery life of the device is well known, and issimilar to most other high-power smartphones. I grabbed a 1400mAhbattery to replace the included 1050mAh unit, and hopefullythat makes it a bit less of an issue.

The wireless speeds seem decent enough, but despite signing upfor a 6GB/month plan (which was a closely-held secret that youcould get for $30 up to June 30th), it goes out of itsway to ensure that it pretend that I’m on dial-up. YouTube, forinstance, has spectacular quality when connected to WiFi, but themoment you’re on the supposedly 7.2Mbps 3.5G network, itunnecessarily degrades to a garbage quality level (maybe there’s a“quit skimping on the bits” setting somewhere, but I’ve yet to findit, beyond ridiculous workarounds including downloading videosfully first and then viewing locally). This is one of thoseconsequences of illusions about throughput.

Other potential services like VoIP are simply servico-non-grata(err…), with vendors like Skype providing terse statements thatthey’ll never support pure VoIP, careful not to open that can ofworms. I’ve heard such a use of the service has even been madethey-come-and-cuff-you illegal in some countries, which isextraordinary. You’ll pay for those minutes and you’ll like it,damnit!

Developers, Developers, Developers!

Alas, what really compelled me to choose the anAndroid-based smartphone is my software developer urges. Whatincredible hacker fun the platform provides!

Getting started developing for the platform is surprisingly easy(I think I’m going to post a little “first steps” post about whatit’s like for a non-Java, non-Eclipse developer to get starteddeveloping for the Android), and the free development ecosystem isremarkably robust and feature rich. The normal complexities ofsoftware development present themselves as you try to buildsomething “real” — no magic bullet there — but there isn’t thedemotivating waste of time dealing with the typical nonsensewhen starting on a new platform. And you don’t have to go and buy aMac or agree to let Apple name your firstborn (iConsumer) just todevelop for it.

And you don’t have to stay in the stratosphere of the Davlikvirtual machine, but instead you can create native code, or evenalter that base platform itself. The whole thing is open source after all.

Excuse me, is that 600 million Dhrystones in your pocket?

It really is a powerful little computer in your pocket. In justa few more years I’m sure such a device will be central to a user’scomputing reality, on a need basis wirelessly connecting tokeyboards, displays, mice, and so on.

What an amazing time. To have such a remarkably powerful devicewith accelerometers, a compass, GPS, a very powerful littleprocessor, 3D hardware assists, WiFi, WiFi-like cellular networkspeeds, all targetable by anyone using extremely rich, yet free,development environments (the Eclipse integration isspectacular)…the potential is truly limitless.

Amazing things lie ahead.