Polished, and less than polished mobile phones and operating systems

As new gadgets come out on the market, with more features, options, and possibilities for personal and professional use, I like to try them out when I can. Rather than doing it in parallel, and somewhat superficially, my preference when possible is to actually live with the devices sequentially for an extended period of time, and make sure that I not only try those features that are either evident, or are pushed by their makers, but also have the chance to stumble upon unforeseen usage patterns by myself.

I did have the chance in the past months—after having used several Nokia devices for years and last a Nokia N82—to experience mobile life with an HTC Magic phone based on Android, and finally settle on the Apple iPhone 3G S (thanks, friends!).

As I twittered about passing from one phone to an other, several people asked for my impressions, and this post is a response to them. It would have been hard to fit it in 140 characters. It is however definitely not a comparative review of the phones, or the operating systems powering them. I don’t think I’d be good at that. It’s more a series of impressions, and subjective leaps of judgment from me… You are welcome to let me know what you think.

HTC Magic vs iPhone 3G S vs Nokia N82

Phones are much more today than just for calling and talking, of course. They are full-blown computers, and they have to recognize and embrace this. Still, they can’t sacrifice the call feature: quality, duration, signal stability are all fundamental in their use. I often drive for one or two hours, and very often call while in the car using the headsets that are available. (I am a fan of wireless devices, but the hassle of separately charging a bluetooth headset made me abandon them for the moment. I am ready to pick them up again eventually…) The best headset is the one with the Nokia N82: sturdy, feature rich, and very convenient to handle when not plugged in through its extra necklace-like strip. The HTC phone doesn’t come with one, so I probably used a generic headset… The iPhone’s headset has good voice quality, but the microphone’s background noise reduction is inferior to Nokia’s. The worst for me is its relative lack of sturdiness: it seems like I chew them up one per month or two weeks. And they are not cheap… I pull the cord too hard, it falls on the floor and I step on the headset. Something happens, and I have to by an other one. Should check if I can buy them bulk.

The quality of the voice call is probably best on the Nokia, but I don’t think I objectively can distinguish between them.

The best call stability—the capacity of the phone of keeping the call up at varying signal strengths—is again with the Nokia, with iPhone second and HTC Magic the third.

I also love the resilience of the Nokia hardware. During the years I did everything with Nokia phones, dropped them, went over one with a car, got them wet, etc. and they seldom broke. The typical scene is for the phone to apparently shatter on the floor, with a convincing noise, going to pieces, but in reality just quickly disassemble itself in three-four parts which can be easily snapped-back together. After the first two-three times I would not even ask myself if it would work when I’d turn them on. they always did.

I didn’t drop the HTC Magic or the iPhone (yet, as I know it will happen sooner or later), but I expect them to be much more fragile. At least they give that impression. I would have already dropped the iPhone, except that the headset plug is strong enough to hang the phone from it. Not good for the headset, but saves the phone from the impact!

As far as the phones’ hardware design and usability is concerned a lot has been said about the iPhone, much of it positively I think, so here are a couple of remarks about the other two:

In general Nokia’s extra buttons are a little ridiculous. Group calls, application lists, programmable, contextual, changing shape, icon, position with each model. Really annoying. Getting in the way, confusing.

The HTC Magic has fewer ones, and there haven’t been enough models to see if they have settled on something. The impression is however that there wasn’t too much thought put in the hardware design, and the button placements. No big mistakes, except a huge glaring one, which I am describing below.

As the phone is for more than just calling, its interface has to accommodate other activities, as unobtrusively as possible.

Here Nokia is not great. There are too many ways to accomplish the same task, there are different types of responses from the phone for apparently similar actions, and there are very, very painful but now fundamental activities, like browsing the web. Even with Opera Mini, which I recommend, the browsing is not a fluid and natural activity.

Many people have used Nokia phones for many years, so it could seem that it is easy to accomplish an action. But as you stray from the simple ones, and want to manage podcasts, snap photos and upload them to your Flickr account (this was actually fairly smooth on the N82), everything becomes cluttered and unintuitive.

So how is Android? Immature, unsettled, and very badly coupled with the hardware. One example, the major mistake:

When you search on the phone, on most applications you have three separate choices to start the search. The physical button on the bottom of the phone, a virtual button at the top of the screen, and a second virtual botton and the bottom of the screen. Looks like a minor issue. But the cognitive overload that results from the repeated decision that has to be made “which button do I want to push?” is a constant, nagging weight on the use of the phone, subtracting from, and almost negating the ease of use which probably was the starting consideration on designing it.

This is just one example, but the same spirit of apparent freedom that engenders overhead and frustration permeates the entire operating system.

An additional very surprising negative of the HTC Magic and Android was—and I am not sure which one is more to blame—the lack of speed and the inaccuracy of the virtual keyboard.While typing with your thumb on the iPhone is not as quick as it is on a physical keyboard, it is a rather pleasurable experience. On the HTC Magic it is invariably painful and frustrating.

Also the lack of multitouch support on the screen is laughable, with the map needing a zoom button, instead of the familiar two-fingered zoom gesture.

So once again, each of these phones are not just for calling, and their built-in applications don’t exhaust the range of possible activities either. Each of them has a store. And here, once again, the clear winner is the Apple App Store for the iPhone. The Android Store is very much at the beginning. Maybe it will quickly fill up with exciting, and unique solutions, but that hasn’t happened yet. The Ovi Store by Nokia is even more painful, as the phones don’t come with the store client software, so it has to be installed before you can get anything from the store, and the hardware differences of the phones make it so that not all applications are available on all the phones. You have to first choose your phone model, and then you can see what you are allowed to get…

It is evident that I prefer the iPhone… so I will try to collect in the next few months some negatives about my experiences with it as well. 🙂

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