The smartphone market has come a long way over the past couple of years with the introduction of Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android platform, joining the existing Microsoft Windows Mobile and Nokia’s Symbian platforms. The iPhone took a large portion of the consumer market with its touch interface and slick marketing but at the expense of user customizability – Apple are notorious for locking down what you can do on the iPhone to just what they want. Windows Mobile has long held the business market with a very capable very customisable interface which lacks finger touch capabilities and does not grab the same ‘fanboi’ cult following Apple have managed. The Symbian platform has also been around a long time and the S60 interface also provides plenty of customisations for the end user. A newcomer to this market is Google with its Android platform, initially launched in late 2008 with the T-Mobile G1 manufactured by HTC.
Recently HTC have released a couple of new phones based on the Android platform – the Vodafone Magic and the Hero (available on Orange or Sim Free as the Hero and on T-Mobile as the G2 here in the UK). Other manufacturers are also rushing to release Android based devices but the only other one available in the UK currently is the Samsung Galaxy which is available on O2 contract or Sim Free from companies like Expansys. For the Hero HTC have used the latest Cupcake (1.5) release of Android and added the own custom interface called Sense UI. This is an evolution of the TouchFlo interface HTC have used on their Windows Mobile phones for a number of years. This provides a multi screen interface which can have different widgets and application shortcuts added to it to provide a totally unique interface for each user.
In use Android is very slick with responsive actions to all finger presses. The current capacitive screens provide a finger friendly touch interface but do not support the use of a stylus. Personally I prefer to use a stylus as I find it more accurate and faster to type with but the current consumer market is demanding stylus free devices. For new users they probably are easier to learn and use.
Software wise Android comes with the Android Market (the Android version of Apple’s AppStore). This contains many thousands of applications and games, some for free and some which require a payment from a few pence to £30-40 for the latest SatNav applications. Some of these are useful and like all application stores, some are just for fun. My current favourites are Facebook (a Google written facebook app), KeePassDroid (for password management), Daily Dilbert (gives me my daily Dilbert fix), Handcent SMS (a replacement SMS application – miles better than the bundled versions) and Meridian (for playing music). Helpfully all these applications are also currently free of charge.
Using the Hero as a phone is also easy. Sense UI has a phone link always present at the bottom of the screen, which provides a large finger friendly keypad for typing numbers. This also searches your contacts as you type (so to bring up contacts called Paul all you type is 7285 and then pick from the contact list. Also helpfully these contacts can be automatically syncronised with your Google account, along with the Google calendar and email. Call quality on the phone is very good and in my experience the phone holds the call very well as you move between cells (both 2G and 3G).
Battery life on smartphones is typically quite poor and a common cause for complaint. Experiences users of them will know not to expect much more than a day or so without recharging but new users who are used to not having to recharge a phone for over a week are often surprised and annoyed by this . The HTC Hero is not uncommon with a battery life of a day under quite heavy use and a couple of days with average use. To increase battery life it is possible to turn off unwanted radio services (switch to 2G when not in a 3G signal area, turn of GPS and WiFi etc, turn off automatic updating/syncronising of software) which can substantially increase battery life but still not to the week standard phone users expect.
In conclusion I would suggest that users who are not looking for applications stick to a standard phone, but for existing smartphone users or those who are looking for smartphone features should actively look at the Android platform. It has matured well from the initial release and is now a very capable operating system. Like most though it is not for everyone so trying out the interface and usability in a shop would be a good idea.
Portions of this page (the Android images) are reproduced from work created and shared by Google and used according to terms described in the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution License.