Though it shocks a lot of people when they find out, the truth is I have never spent much time with an iPhone. Sure I’ve used one on an occasional basis as friends and colleagues have let me play with theirs, but my primary device has always been a BlackBerry.
But my good ol’ BlackBerry Curve is beginning to show its age in a big way and I’m gearing up for my next mobile device. The question is, do I stay with the King of the Keyboard or do I throw caution to the wind and join the legions of people who have ditched physical buttons for touch screens? As luck would have it, both Samsung and Apple were kind enough to lend me their flagship smartphones to perform a head-to-head comparison. I’ve now had the Samsung Galaxy S Vibrant for a month and the iPhone 4 for two weeks. And though we don’t have room here to discuss every aspect of these two high-tech marvels, here are my thoughts on how they stack up in a few key areas.
The first thing you notice about the Galaxy S Vibrant is how it lives up to its name. The Super AMOLED touch screen which measures 4” and has a 480×800 resolution is truly stunning. The blacks are deep; the colours are rich and jewel-like. I’ve always preferred OLED to LCD when it comes to HDTV displays (though sadly this use of the technology has yet to catch on at the manufacturing stage) and the same is true when it comes to the mobile arena. The iPhone 4 uses an LED-backlit IPS-LCD screen at 3.5” with an astounding 640×960 resolution which they refer to as a “Retina Display”. Though the specs are impressive, in comparing the iPhone 4 to the Galaxy S, I didn’t find that text was any easier to read on the iPhone or that images were any sharper. Both phones have excellent screens, but the Galaxy S’s larger and brighter display makes for a better viewing experience.
The obvious benefit to touch screen phones over their physical-keyboard brethren is the larger display area and easy, gesture-based interaction. But when it comes to typing, many people find that real buttons can’t be replaced with soft ones. I’ve always been one of those people and it’s been the biggest reason for sticking with my BlackBerry. As I had suspected, typing on the iPhone 4 – even in landscape orientation with a wider keyboard layout – was difficult and required a lot of backspacing. Over the years, my thumbs have developed such familiarity with the location of letters on my BlackBerry Curve that I can often watch the screen and not the keys while maintaining a very good level of accuracy. I recognize that I might get there with the iPhone given enough practice and there are plenty of iPhone users who demonstrate superb typing skills. But the thought of having to go through the inevitable months of pain while I condition myself to a totally different system depresses me.
And then I discovered Swype. And the world changed just a little. Swype is software that ships with the Galaxy S Vibrant and it gives users a completely new way to interact with the soft keyboard on their phone. Instead of trying to accurately hit those little keys, Swype only asks that you trace a path on the keyboard from one letter to the other. You don’t even have to be all that accurate. At the end of the word, remove your finger from the screen and voila – the word you were typing, er, swyping, automatically appears.
It sounds like magic and most of the people who I show Swype to have the same reaction: “No way!” It’s that good. So good in fact that when I switch from the Galaxy S back to the iPhone, I’m even more irritated by the iPhone’s keyboard. Every touch screen phone should come with Swype.
The two phones are fairly similar in outward appearance: Black slabs that are all-screen with a few physical buttons on their front and sides. The Galaxy S is slightly larger in width and height but is lighter in the hand than the iPhone. To some this will feel good – especially if you plan to carry it in your pocket, while others will prefer the iPhone’s heft and its solid feel. The iPhone claims to be the thinnest smartphone on the planet, and while that might be true, you’d need a magnifying glass to be aware of the difference between these devices.
The Galaxy S keeps its power/wake-up button on the side near the top of the phone while the iPhone maintains its traditional top-mount location. While I prefer the iPhone layout, it’s not a big deal. More impactful are the Galaxy S’s three navigation buttons at the bottom of the phone. Nowhere else does the Android vs. iOS experience become so similar to the PC vs. Mac debate. Apple has always maintained that a one-button mouse should suffice when using a computer while PC mice typically feature two or more buttons. And so it goes with the iPhone – a single “home” button that performs several tasks, while the Galaxy S offers the same physical button, but flanked by two dedicated soft-touch keys: “menu” on the left and “back” on the right.
I’m going to take a guess that if you agree with Apple on the whole mouse design issue, you will have no problem with their single home button – instead relying on the operating system to provide you with all the navigation options you need. I’m not in that camp. I like my computer to have a two button mouse (with a scroll wheel!) and coincidentally, I really like having a menu button and back button available to me whenever I want them on a smartphone. Can you get by without them? Sure – the iPhone works just fine without them. But they sure are handy.
Despite the entire furor over “Antennagate”, I didn’t experience any issues with dropped calls on either the iPhone or the Galaxy S. But there was a noticeable difference in the quality of the sound itself. On the iPhone, voices sounded rich and natural – at times it was hard to tell I was talking on a mobile phone. The Galaxy S on the other hand, sounded tinny and distant. This wouldn’t be a deal-breaker for me as voice calls are something I do only rarely, but if you’re a big talker, the iPhone wins hands-down.
This is one area where I wish I could combine the strengths of each phone into one device. The Galaxy S gives you great control over your inbox, letting you perform bulk actions like multiple-delete, something the iPhone lacks. [Update: the iPhone 4 can do this too, but you need to jump into an edit mode to do it – Thanks Robert for the clarification in the comments section]. Whereas the iPhone does a better job of rendering HTML emails to preserve their original format. The Galaxy S lets you access all of your mailbox subfolders (inbox, sent items etc) from any screen, but the iPhone lets you see message threads as a single item, so you can more easily see how a conversation has progressed over a series of replies.
Photos & Video Recording
Both devices have 5 megapixel cameras capable of capturing 720p high-def video at 30 frames per second. Both have software zoom capability. But the iPhone takes a slight lead in this category, based solely on improvements to the iOS. The iPhone 4 can capture HDR (High Dynamic Range) photos which significantly improve the look of images that would otherwise have washed-out areas or poor detail. In video mode, you can trim the video clips you just shot and immediately upload them to YouTube via Wi-Fi.
iTunes Vs. Samsung Kies
Though most smartphone buyers are going to judge their next device based on what it can do when you’re out and about, some consideration should be given to how easy it is to transfer content to and from the device using your PC or Mac. When using an iPhone, iTunes is the de facto standard for device management. Though there are certain weaknesses (e.g. you can’t import or export photos and videos via iTunes on a PC) iTunes is a very polished piece of software with two undeniable strengths: 1) The built-in store gives you super easy access to a wealth of first-rate content including music, movies, TV shows and Apps. 2) You can back up every app, video and song you have bought from the App Store so that if your iPhone dies you haven’t lost your investments in content.
The Galaxy S line of phones has an equivalent to iTunes known as “Kies”. What’s odd is that this very useful piece of software is largely unpromoted by Samsung. There’s no mention of it in any of the product manuals that accompany the phone, and I only happened to stumble upon it by accident when googling an unrelated search. Kies is essentially a virtual desktop program. When launched on a PC, the program simulates a desktop complete with a “My Computer” icon in the top left corner and a dock area that contains icons for the program’s various functions such as “media player” and “photo viewer”. Anyone who has worked on a Mac will immediately see the similarity to MacOS. When you connect your Galaxy S device via USB, it shows up as a mounted icon in the upper right corner. The reason for the desktop interface is that Samsung is trying to provide an all-in-one environment for duplicating the functions of the smartphone. Instead of jumping from one app environment to the other the way you would on the actual phone, these functions appear as windows on the Kies desktop. It’s a system that works surprisingly well. The ability to fully back up your phone is absent as is any connection to an e-commerce platform to buy content, but I expect that Samsung will be adding this soon, given their recent announcement of their iPad competitor, the Galaxy Tab and its associated storefront known simply as the “Media Hub”. While Kies may still lack the sophistication of iTunes, given that it is still early in its development cycle compared to the more mature iTunes (now in version 10), there’s plenty of reason to think it will get better as long as Samsung doesn’t abandon it.
If you’re a BlackBerry user, battery life is one of the big differences when it comes to using other smartphones. My Curve has been known to go for three days without a charge and I have never had the battery die on me during regular use. I’d already heard the complaints about the iPhone 3G and 3GS batteries so when I got the iPhone 4 I was prepared for regular charging. Much to my surprise, I was able to get two days out of the iPhone before needing to charge, and that was with fairly liberal use of Wi-Fi, 3G and calling. No massive hour-long conversations or anything, but neither did I hold back. The Galaxy S on the other hand was never able to go more than 24 hours on a full charge, and even then, I wasn’t able to use it as hard as the iPhone. A few people in the office were quick to blame things like the Samsung’s larger AMOLED screen, but I don’t think the difference is a result of power-hungry components. I suspect the reality is that Apple put a much higher capacity battery in the iPhone 4 than in previous models. Apple has made enormous strides in battery life since the first iPod models hit store shelves and I think they have finally achieved a balance between weight, cost and longevity. Not being able to replace the battery on the iPhone is no longer a reason to avoid it, if ever it was.
The Galaxy S Vibrant and the iPhone 4 are both incredibly sophisticated and powerful smartphones that are ideal companions for people who want complete control of their digital lives while on the go. Which one you choose will likely boil down to how you answer the following questions:
- Are you already hooked into the Apple ecosystem because you own devices like the iPad or iPod Touch? If so, you may as well get the iPhone 4 as it will allow you to maximize your existing investments.
- Are you frustrated by the inaccuracy of touch screen keyboards? Samsung’s embedded Swype application largely takes the pain out of this experience and 2 minutes of playing with it will make anyone feel speedy.
- Are you swayed by fashion and trends? Get the iPhone 4. You’ll get tons of admiring glances and you’ll have a virtually unlimited choice when it comes to accessories for dressing up your phone.
- Do you prefer to exert more control over your technology instead of going with the default settings? The combination of Samsung’s TouchWiz 3.0 interface and the Android 2.1 OS gives you lots of choice in how you interact with the Galaxy S.
As for me? Well, I’m waiting to try out RIM’s BlackBerry Torch before making my final decision. But if I had to choose right now, I’d probably go with the iPhone. While I preferred the overall user experience of the Galaxy S, having an iPad at home has made me an App Store junky and I’m reluctant to give up on our collection of apps even if it means a few more typos.