The iPhone 3GS vs. the Rest of the June Tsunami

Palm Pre, N97, Samsung i8910, HTC Ion
Left to right: Pre, N97, i8910, Ion

I got invited to a “Drinks with Nokia” event for local bloggers here in San Francisco yesterday. Ewan, tnkgrl, Matthew Bennett, folks from Ubergizmo, Mobile Burn and quite a few others were there.  Nokia brought at least three N97s and several E75, E7ix and 5800XM phones for us to try out. And when mobile geeks gather there are always loads of cool phones of all makes around too.  I took a couple of comparison shots of  tnkgrl’s Palm Pre,  one of the N97s, Ewan’s new Samsung i8910  and my HTC Ion.  I also got quite a bit of hands on with the Pre and N97.  It was pretty wild to have four of the five phones that make up what Matthew calls the “June Tsunami” in one place at the same time.  The missing one was  the iPhone 3GS announced today at WWDC. The June Tsunami marks the first wave of serious iPhone contenders.  All those touch dumb phones from Samsung and LG, while interesting, aren’t really the same class and the G1’s hardware is too clunky to challenge Apple’s ground breaking phone.  The 5800XM is  a nice phone, but I think even Nokia would agree it  isn’t really directly targeted at  iPhone    However, the Pre, N97, i8910 and HTC Magic are all phones that can seriously challenge the iPhone 3GS.

Here are my initial impressions of the five contenders:

HTC Ion, aka Magic, aka T-Mobile MyTouch 3G: Android came of age with this slick piece of hardware and the Cupcake OS release.  Fast, rock stable and the most open of the five, the Magic is a solid phone with excellent build quality. It feels great in the hand and pocket. The Android user interface is elegant and quite intuitive. The Android Market is a little rough around the edges but it does put all the Android apps in one place for easy discoverability and one click installation. With 4900 apps (compared with the iPhone’s 50,000 and Symbian plus Java’s tens of thousands)  most of my important application needs are covered. Geek tools like FTP and and SSH clients, file and task managers are well represented in the Android market as are games.  Content creation is a  weak area with no real word processor, spell checker or video editor.  Android is most inherently local aware platform.  Almost every Android application that  can possibly benefit from access to location uses it including weather, transit  and local search apps.  I also love the way Android alerts me whenever there is an update available for any of my installed apps, a feature that the N97 also implements. The Magic’s weakest points are the keyboard and flash-less 3 MB camera.  Neither are terrible, the camera is at the level of a good feature phone, the keyboard I rate the lowest of the five but it’s still much better than T9.

Palm Pre: The most pocket friendly of the five, I like the Pre’s shape when closed.  When the keyboard is opened  there are sharp edges at the top and bottom of the phone.  They aren’t dangerous but they do give the phone a slightly cheap and unfinished feel.  The Pre’s OS reminds me of the first Android rev, fast, with reasonable stability; it shows a lot of potential.  The UI is the most original since the first iPhone, task switching with a swipe of the finger is very cool.  The gesture system is a great power user feature but with so many new UI paradigms, WebOS does seem to have a bit  more of a learning curve  than the others.  I didn’t really try the camera but other reports seem to put it at least on a par with and probably better than the Magic’s.  The Pre keyboard has received some criticism but I thought it was pretty good.  The phone feels well balanced when typing.  The keys are tiny but are raised and well spaced  and I was able to achieve pretty high accuracy with it.  The Pre’s weak point is the initial application selection.  With an unfinished App Store and a mere 18 3rd party apps, early adopters will have to wait a bit. DataViz is working on an office suite but for now the Pre’s Ace in the hole might be “Classic” a third party app that lets you run many of the tens of thousands of legacy Palm OS apps.

Palm Pre, HTC Ion, Nokia N97, Samsung i8910
Top to bottom: Pre, Ion, N97, i8910

Samsung i8910 HD:  I didn’t get any hands on with this phone but at least on paper it looks like a winner. 8MP! camera, S60 5th edition with an 640×360 capacitive OLED touchscreen, 13mm thick. Appearance wise it does live up to the hype.  A beautiful phone with a gorgeous screen. tnkgrl was able to shoot some photos and videos with both it and the N97. To my eye the i8910 images look a hair sharper and more saturated than  the N97’s  but not by much. Stability was definitely an issue with this phone, it crashed and froze at least a couple of times during the two hours people were playing with it at the event.  There is no hardware keyboard on the i8910, like the Magic and iPhone it’s a pure touchscreen interface.  I’m not a fan of touchscreen keyboards but I’ll reserve judgment until I get to use this one.

Nokia N97: of the five, my clear favorite.  As a long time Symbian user I’m probably biased but knowing that all the S60 and Java applications  I use on my N95 will likely run on the N97 makes it hard to beat.  Add to that an excellent camera, Symbian’s proven multi-tasking and video capabilities and elegant, quality hardware and the N97 is an impressive package. The new active home screen widgets (bottom photo) are pretty sweet too. I didn’t expect to like the keyboard with only three rows of keys and the top hinged screen that I feared would restrict access to the top row.  I was surprised to find the keys were nicely raised, really large and well spaced and that there was enough space to squarely place the ball of my finger on the top row without bumping into the screen.  The keys don’t have a lot of travel but they give a nice bit of feedback when pressed.  I do have one quibble about the N97 though.  The phone comes in a white and a black version.  I prefer the look of the black one, however the keys are black with gray lettering which I found hard to read even in quite good lighting.  The phone I was looking at was a pre-release version, hopefully production models will be better in this respect. I had no legibility issues with the white N97 in the photos which uses white keys with dark lettering. The N97 is the only one of the five using a resistive screen.  It was a very good resistive screen but it required a noticeably firmer push for touches to be registered than the others.

iPhone 3GS : The iPhone is the gold standard when it comes to smart phones today. The ground breaking device rocked the mobile world with awesome industrial design and an incredible UI two years ago.  Today Apple raised the bar a bit with the 3GS. I bet Apple’s competitors are breathing a collective sigh of relief that Apple’s  changes are evolutionary rather than revolutionary.  If you’ve been living under a rock today, the 3GS keeps the 3G’s form factor with the only visible change being the option of a shiny black back. There’s a built in digital compass and Google Maps has been updated to use it.  The camera has been bumped up to 3 MP but it sounds like a really good 3 MP with auto focus including macro down to four inches. Mega-pixels are actually a small part of overall camera quality anyway. Other factors like sensor size and lens quality are at least as important.  It’s a video camera finally and there is a video editor in the 3.0 firmware. Memory, CPU speed and graphics processing speed all got a boost. Apple claims “everything” is 2 to 3 times faster and battery life has been improved too.  Nice trick if true.  In other areas the iPhone OS 3.0 software upgrade as previously announced fills in most of the iPhone’s missing features; cut, copy and paste, integrated search across all phone apps, parental controls,  OTA iTunes purchases and downloads, MMS (but not on AT&T until this summer!), tethering (but not on AT&T until some unspecified time well in the future), voice commands and dialing and turn by turn driving directions via an extra cost 3rd party  app. For mobile web lovers like me, Safari gets a significant upgrade with a 3X faster JavaScript Engine and a extensive HTML 5 support. The 3GS will be available June 19th. Pricing is $199/16MB, $299/32MB with the “old” 8GB iPhone 3G available starting today for $99.  All prices require a two year contract at a minimum of $70 ($80 with taxes and “fees”) per month. The iPhone OS 3.0 upgrade will be available June 17th, free for phones, $9.99 for iPods.

So what’s my overall assessment of the June Tsunami?

The N97 is the best overall for power users, current S60 users and anyone who wants to be able to create written and multimedia content on the go. If you are a writer, blogger, web developer or network admin who needs to monitor servers and fix broken sites 24/7 or anyone who wants the closest thing to a PC in your pocket, this is your phone. Symbian has the most powerful and compatible Microsoft Office document editing of any platform with the 3rd party QuickOffice software.  Turn by turn driving directions with voice are available from Ovi Maps.  The new Nokia Messaging  email client that ships with the phone handles HTML mail.  The built in browser is decent and there are a half a dozen 3rd party browsers that between them can handle any site, even those using Flash. It’s a stylish phone and the new  widgets give Symbian an extensible, customizable active home screen where you can monitor the Dow, Facebook and a lot more at a glance.

HTC Magic/T-Mobile MyTouch 3g – A very nice phone for two very different groups.  Hard core geeks who want complete control over their mobile software environment will be happy with the open development model with all apps self-signed and the ability to unlock and flash the phone without violating Google’s TOS.  Average users on T-Mobile will find it a powerful, elegant easy to use phone with excellent browsing, email and PIM capabilities. It is the carrier’s best phone and  provides the closest thing  to the iPhone experience on T-Mobile. The MyTouch launch date hasn’t been announced, but sometime this month is widely rumored.

i8910 – Lots of potential, the best screen and camera of the bunch plus the Symbian and Java software catalog. Almost as thin as the iPhone. Once the firmware is a little more stable this will be a good choice for the same demographic as the N97 plus anyone who wants the most advanced hardware package and the best camera available on a phone. That’s assuming you are OK with touch-only data entry and the keyboard approaches iPhone quality.

Palm Pre – for early adopters, Sprint and Palm  faithful and anyone who wants a unique, stylish phone with great browsing and social networking capabilities out of the box.  Not much app support yet but WebOS  and the user interface are the most ground breaking of the five. Give Palm a few months to get the SDK out to the mass of developers and the apps will start rolling in.  This platform could end up being the best of the bunch.  The Pre while not the most impressive  piece of hardware is not bad either with a form factor, including the keyboard, that is completely usable. It’s the smallest of the five, which is important for a lot of folks.

iPhone 3GS – A nice upgrade for the iPhone.  It is still the most elegant looking and easiest to use of the bunch and the best best choice for non-technical users.  The new camera and OS 3.0 features eliminate all the remaining gaps in the iPhone feature set except multi-tasking.  I expect the Safari  update will help it keep the title of the best built in mobile browser for a little longer.  Apple’s absolute control over software ecosystem to the point of even banning alternate browsers  bothers me and a lot of other techies but the average user could care less.

Mokia N97

There you have it, the June Tsunami, five great new handsets to droll over.  Overall they are quite well matched.  Each appeals to different types of users. For my own use, I’d pick the N97.  What about you?

8 thoughts on “The iPhone 3GS vs. the Rest of the June Tsunami

  1. LOVE the t-mobile HTC Magic/Google Ion/MyTouch whatever they decide to make it. I am holding on to a dying iphone that is jailbroken and unlocked on T-Mobile and can’t wait for this phone!

  2. Marc,

    All those alternate “browsers” are just skins for the built in Safari engine. They add a feature or two but take away others.

    I’m talking about browsers built from the ground up with different technology. Like Opera Mini which uses server side compression and rendering to dramatically improve performance on slow connections or Skyfire which has full support for Flash.

    Both Opera and Skyfire have said thaat they want to build iPhone browsers but can’t because Apple is still blocking alternative browsers that aren’t based on Safari.

    Of course Apple blocks a lot of other things on the iPhone; multi-tasking, access to many phone functions, game system emulators, and runtimes for Java, Python and other programming languages.

    The iPhone is an amazing and game changing device that has done more than any other product to advance the mobile platform. However, Apple’s draconian and often illogical restrictions on the iPhone application development and distribution process have seriously stifled innovation.

    It’s unacceptable to me for a device vendor to restrict what developers can build or users can install on their handset

  3. Great read. And also a good conclusion aka advise. I still think I’ll go for the N97, but the new iPhone looks nice too. It’s what device should have been at introduction.

  4. You underestimate the compass. If I can point at a shop and see what is on sale, or a restaurant and get its menu or any number of things where pointing is useful this is incredibly useful.

    Apple’s real strategy is to lock in behaviors that are sticky and unique. Why would you buy anything else if you can just point at stuff and make things happen.

  5. Definitely going with the N97 , already booked mine and will be getting it in 10 days when its released here.

  6. “…Apple’s absolute control over software ecosystem to the point of even banning alternate browsers bothers me and a lot of other techies but the average user could care less…”

    Apple actually allowed other browsers six months ago!
    You can choose between dozens of them…
    I think banning browser was a logistic issue: they simply reviewed other apps and then focused on browser. They approved a bunch of them at once.

  7. Great comparison article. That image of all of the phones is POWERFUL! I literally jumped back when I saw you had every phone from the “June Tsunami.” I look forward to seeing these phones and I think in the end, I’ll be an N97 user myself.

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