Smartphone UI vs feature list, can any device excel in both?

Smartphone UI vs feature list, can any device excel in both?

Summary: The iPhone definitely sets the bar when it comes to a slick UI while devices like the Nokia N97 show that a manufacturer can pack it all into a single device and still not appeal to everyone. Here in this consolidated article I will take a quick look at the premier touch screen devices running each mobile operating system, even if that device has a keyboard as a major part of the device. You will see lots of articles comparing feature lists and people often shoot off to me that feature lists do not matter as much as the user interfacace. Do touch screen smartphone buyers have to pick one over the other or is there a mobile operating system and a device, or devices, that can give you both a slick UI along with all the latest specifications?

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There are debates in my Talkback sections, in discussion forums, and in other online venues about all the mobile operating system user interfaces versus device specifications and feature lists because so many smartphone users are passionate about their devices. The iPhone definitely sets the bar when it comes to a slick UI while devices like the Nokia N97 show that a manufacturer can pack it all into a single device and still not appeal to everyone. I previously posted my Clash of the Touch Titans series where I focused on just touch screen only devices. Here in this consolidated article I will take a quick look at the premier touch screen devices running each mobile operating system, even if that device has a keyboard as a major part of the device. You will see lots of articles comparing feature lists and people often shoot off to me that feature lists do not matter as much as the user interfacace. Do touch screen smartphone buyers have to pick one over the other or is there a mobile operating system and a device, or devices, that can give you both a slick UI along with all the latest specifications?

Before going into my comparison between the different operating systems and my thoughts on each platform, let me add my standard caveat that each of us has our own needs and desires when it comes to smartphones and I truly believe there is NO single device that will ever meet everyone's needs. Also, it is fine to be passionate about the gear we like (I know I am at times), but also keep in mind these are just phones and there is no reason to go after someone unnecessarily over a phone. Let's respect each other's opinions and try to learn from each other too.

I read a recent article over on Mobility Digest that brought up five dimensions regarding the user interface and why different user interfaces appeal to different people. The high end smartphones today mostly have just about the same set of specifications, but the user interface and capabilities can vary wildly by operating system and hardware.

iPhone 3GS (Apple iPhone)

The original iPhone showed the mobile world how a slick user interface can run on a phone and it definitely appeals to the masses as seen by the extremely good sales. The iPhone 3GS is the best iPhone to date with some outstanding specifications, but it still is missing a few things that keep it from satisfying those who want the best UI and full featured device with no limitations. As Joshua Topolsky pointed out in his recent article he found he could not use the iPhone 3GS to conduct all the work he wanted to while out and about. Here is my rundown for the iPhone 3GS, in regards to the interface, specs, and functionality:

Has

  • Fluid, slick user interface
  • Unparalleled available application selection
  • Good 3.2 megapixel camera with outstanding video capture capability
  • Powerful processor and ample memory

Missing

  • MMS capability (this is an AT&T limitation that will soon be corrected)
  • Any kind of home screen or status page for quick view of important data
  • Easy application switcher
  • Multi-tasking (push notifications is not the same)

IMHO, the only real stumbling block for the Apple iPhone 3GS is the lack of true multi-tasking for non-Apple applications. We can start a whole debate on whether or not a hardware keyboard is needed or not, but that is not the point of my current post.

Next up: the Nokia N97 »

Nokia N97 (Symbian)

The Nokia N97 is the new flagship product from Nokia, but they made some rather unusual decisions that prevented it from having all of the best specifications in a smartphone today. The device is quite expensive here in the US being priced at $600 to $700 (may be quite inexpensive in other parts of the world where carriers subsidize it) and as a result it will primarily be purchased by power users. Thus, the rather outdated ARM 11 434 MHz and anemic 40 MB or so of usable RAM leave something to be desired when it comes to running multiple applications. However, you actually can run multiple applications and get more work done than you might be able to on the iPhone 3GS. Here is my rundown for the Nokia N97, in regards to the interface, specs, and functionality:

Has

  • 5 megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics
  • 32 GB flash drive and microSD card slot (you can currently add a 16GB card)
  • True multi-tasking that lets you quickly bounce between apps
  • Usable home screen that provides real-time updates
  • Outstanding voice quality and RF reception

Missing

  • UI is outdated and menus run deep
  • Low amount of RAM, included phone memory, and slower processor than most high end smartphones today
  • Capacitive touch screen

I do enjoy using my Nokia N97 for the most part and find I am less limited with it than I am with the iPhone 3GS when it comes to working on the go. While the UI is familiar to me and highly customizable, it definitely could use an overhaul to bring it up to par with the current crop of smartphones. Also, capacitive touch screens on the latest crop of devices seem to show that a device can be easier for most people to use.

Next up: the HTC Touch Pro2 »

HTC Touch Pro2 (Windows Mobile)

I had a chance to spend a couple of weeks with an Euro HTC Touch Pro2 and think there are actually very few things that keep this device from being one that has a good UI and specification/feature set. The use of a miniUSB port for the headset jack is lame, but there isn't anything else I can knock about the device. The lack of capacitive touch screen does keep the UI from being as fluid as other devices even though HTC has done the best they can with Windows Mobile. Here is my rundown for the HTC Touch Pro2, in regards to the interface, specs, and functionality:

Has

  • Best slide-out QWERTY keyboard on a phone
  • Ample memory and a fast processor
  • Outstanding 3.6 inch 480x800 WVGA display
  • Slick and fluid TouchFLO 3D UI

Missing

  • Underlying operating system has older UI and menu system
  • 3.5mm headset jack
  • Capacitive touch screen

While the HTC Touch Pro2 does run Windows Mobile 6.1 Professional, HTC has built their latest generation TouchFLO 3D on top that lets most users stay out of the standard Microsoft interface and have an enjoyable experience. While the display is not capacitive, HTC has done a great job with enlarging the targets so that you get an almost capacitive experience, while still having the flexibility to use a stylus if you still want to. The device is a multi-tasking powerhouse with ample memory and for people who need to get serious work done on their phones there really is not a better device around. The good news is that all of the US primary wireless carriers should be carrying this device over the next couple of months so you can get one without worrying about which carrier you are on.

Next up; the HTC Hero »

HTC Hero (Google Android)

HTC recently announced the HTC Hero and based on my long experiences with the T-Mobile G1 (see my extensive review), the specifications shown on the HTC Hero page, and videos and hands-on experiences from smartphone writers I think the HTC Hero may be the one device that satisfies those looking for the best UI while also wanting the best specifications and functionality. Here is my rundown for the HTC Hero, in regards to the interface, specs, and functionality:

Has

  • HTC Sense user interface
  • Large selection of applications in a good on-device Android Market
  • Ample memory and a fast processor
  • Excellent 3.2 inch 320x480 HVGA display
  • Capacitive display and 3.5mm headset jack
  • 5 megapixel camera with auto focus
  • Awesome notifications system

Missing

  • Nothing

Looking at the detailed specifications and considering what I have experienced with the Google Android OS, it looks like the HTC Hero has just about everything. The only thing I might consider listing as missing is a hardware keyboard, but then that would be the same for the iPhone 3GS and BlackBerry Storm and since that is a very personal preference I won't take that away from those devices.

The amazing HTC Sense software and UI that HTC developed on top of Google Android may make this one device that rocks the smartphone world when it launches soon.

Next up: the BlackBerry Storm »

RIM BlackBerry Storm (BlackBerry)

The RIM BlackBerry Storm was a bit of departure for RIM and the first version of the firmware left something to be desired. The latest firmware has improved the stability and performance of the device, but similar to the Nokia N97 the underlying operating system is still readily apparent and antiquated compared to what we see from the Apple, Palm, and Google. Here is my rundown for the RIM BlackBerry Storm, in regards to the interface, specs, and functionality:

Has

  • Capacitive touch screen with SurePress technology
  • Brilliant 3.25 inch 480x360 display
  • Familiar BlackBerry OS
  • True multi-tasking

Missing

  • Underlying operating system has older UI and menu system
  • OS not optimized for touch screen input
  • WiFi radio

The BlackBerry Storm is a beautiful solid device and will appeal to those who need a BlackBerry device and want something with a large display and touch screen. However, like Symbian's S60 UI and Windows Mobile the RIM BlackBerry OS is getting a bit long in the tooth and needs an operating system overhaul. I really cannot stand the Settings area of the BlackBerry OS that still has the appearance of DOS and has parts that are very difficult to discern. The lack of WiFi is unacceptable for high end smartphones today and I understand the Storm 2 will address this issue.

Next up: the Palm Pre and Wrap-up »

Palm Pre (WebOS)

For the most part, I enjoyed my time with the Palm Pre and I like what Palm is doing with the operating system. However, the weak Sprint coverage in my area and the lack of 3rd party applications forced me to return the device. The hardware was also definitely first generation and will hopefully be improved in future releases. The Pre takes the slick iPhone user interface and makes it even better with true multi-tasking and is close to being a device (like the HTC Hero) that meets the needs of those looking for a pleasant UI and full functionality. If I would have had outstanding Sprint coverage then I would have kept the Pre and held out for 3rd party developers and applications. Here is my rundown for the Palm Pre, in regards to the interface, specs, and functionality:

Has

  • Super slick UI that makes great use of gestures
  • Beautiful 3.1 inch 320x480 HVGA display
  • True multi-tasking
  • 3.5mm headset jack
  • Synergy central contact management support
  • Cool Touchstone induction charger

Missing

  • Support for 3rd party applications
  • External microSD card with rather limited memory capacity

In my opinion, the only thing holding back the Palm Pre from being the device that meets the needs for a great UI and functionality/specifications is the lack of 3rd party applications to provide you with all the functions you need. The good thing is that this lack can be, and should be, addressed with future software application releases from developers.

Wrap-up

IMHO, there are two devices that can meet the needs of those looking for a smartphone that runs a fluid UI and gives them almost unlimited functionality and capability and those are the HTC Hero and Palm Pre. Hmm, it looks like a Linux-based mobile operating system may be just the ticket to have a winning device in the mobile space. I think the iPhone 3GS could get there with some added functionality, but doubt that Apple will add multi-tasking or a customizable home screen. While HTC has brought the Touch Pro2 close (and if you need a keyboard device this is the best) the OS will not change until Windows Mobile 7 is launched. Both the N97 (Symbian) and BlackBerry Storm (BlackBerry) also need OS overhauls to improve the UI.

I personally plan to pick up a Hero when it launches on AT&T and most likely also a Palm Pre (or other WebOS device) when it comes to AT&T because I really do think these devices will let you truly work on the go with an enjoyable experience to keep you fully satisfied.

What device do you think best meets the requirements of a slick UI and full functionality?

Go back to the beginning »

Topics: Software, Hardware, HTC, iPhone, Mobility, Operating Systems, BlackBerry, Smartphones

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