The Gifts of Christmas: the Procrastinator's Guide to Smartphones

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 2:21 AM

Trying to pick out a smartphone for someone for Christmas is a difficult task. There are now dozens of potential contenders, priced from free to hundreds of dollars. How can you pick out one that will delight your recipient and serve him or her well for years to come? OFB Labs has thoroughly tested ten of the most recent smartphone offerings from AT&T, Sprint and Verizon to help you sort out which are best for your gift giving this year – or for picking up as a gift to yourself with some Christmas money.

Smartphones have progressed a good deal in the last few years, which makes for an interesting situation as we analyze the current set of contenders. Any of them would be quite good in comparison to what was offered even a couple of years ago, hence our criticisms focus on areas of weakness in a very strong field of contenders.

Key to understanding the phone landscape this Christmas season is making sense of exactly what is meant by the term “4G.” All three of the carriers who are featured in this guide are moving to 4G LTE networks and all three claim the 4G label for most of the models we reviewed. Nevertheless, the only LTE phone included in our guide is Verizon’s Droid Bionic. This is no accident: Verizon is farthest along on rolling out LTE, having launched its 4G network late last autumn. While no 4G network covers anywhere near the area of a 3G network yet, Verizon certainly comes closest.

Sprint has not yet started to turn on its newly announced LTE network; instead, its current 4G models run on another 4G standard called WiMax. AT&T for its part, is currently rolling out two 4G networks, an improved version of its 3G network, known as HSPA+, that yields 4G-like download speeds along with moderately improved uploads, and a pure 4G LTE network that has just been activated in a few markets but will not be widely available until next year.

We covered the details of these 4G options earlier this year in our 4G network guide.

This year, the decision of which smart phone platform to pick is down to a two, maybe three, way race. The two main players remain Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS, although the Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 continues to offer an excellent, if not overly successful, “third option.” Sadly, HP-Palm’s WebOS is now sidelined, perhaps permanently, and RIM continues to struggle to put out a modern BlackBerry OS.

In this piece, we will look at iOS and Windows Phone; we also have a companion piece covering Android phones.

Battle of the Titans The Apple iPhone 4S, iPhone 3GS and HTC Titan (clockwise from left) square off.

Apple iPhone 3GS (AT&T)

The iPhone family has served as arguably the most iconic line of cell phones of the last decade. As wildly successful as these phones have become – typically nabbing the first few slots in any list of best selling phones – the iPhone line has avoided commoditization, and for good reason: the phones continue to set the bar for overall functionality and usefulness.

Unlike Android devices, which typically live a relatively short life on the store shelf before being shoved to the side by an army of newer devices, Apple’s one model per year policy has ensured that anyone picking up an iPhone can count on their phone remaining a current offering for some time. The iPhone 3GS has been on the market longer than any other iPhone so far. It has aged well thanks to how strong of phone it was upon release. When it first appeared in 2009, it took the basic form factor of the first two iPhone models and combined it with a much faster processor that cut down on lag within the system significantly.

Two and a half years later, it is still relatively easy to find new Android phones that feel much slower than the iPhone 3GS. The achievement of the 3GS is made all the more remarkable by a simple thought exercise: try to think of another phone launched as far back as June 2009 – before the original Motorola Droid even was announced – that people actually want to own. There isn't one.

So far, the iPhone 3GS continues to support the latest iOS updates, a significant advantage for Apple’s devices over the competition. Most Android devices fail to receive significant operating system updates, even if newer Android versions appeared within months of a device’s release. On the contrary, Apple has settled into a pattern of giving at least 3 years of updates to its iPhone users. (Given that the iPhone 3GS is still available for sale, it may be that Apple will offer an even longer support period this time around, though it has not confirmed anything yet.)

Speaking of iOS itself, despite a much slower pace of evolution than that of its Google-built rival, Apple’s offering remains the most mature, easy-to-use mobile operating system available hands down. Most iOS functions are all but self-explanatory and Apple has done a very good job of keeping configuration options simple, even as iOS has gained increasingly broad functionality.

Tied to a free iCloud account and iTunes synchronization, Apple’s phones remain the easiest to keep synchronized with one’s computer. Out of the box, and with no fuss, the iPhone will keep itself in sync with all of the most common e-mail, calendar and contact programs. Moreover, iOS 5, with its addition of more robust e-mail formatting tools, significantly faster web browser and Android-like pull down notification menu, has proven an excellent upgrade that addresses many of the areas where iOS appeared to be falling behind Android. Apple also added iMessage to iOS 5, a service that routes text messages to other iPhone users through iCloud, avoiding normal text messaging fees whenever possible.

While the newer iPhone 4 and 4S are easier to grip, the iPhone 3GS’s softly curved polycarbonate back remains extremely comfortable for holding on to. Despite the trend toward larger screens, we also appreciate its 3.5” display, both for yielding a more compact, easy to carry form factor and for keeping the phone much easier to manipulate using a single hand.

Battery life has never been the 3GS’s strong suit, but even with background e-mail checking and push messaging enable, the phone will last for several days, besting some of the current Android phones we’ve tested in this review series. And, AT&T’s evolutionary approach to 4G ensures that even this two and a half year old phone can download at speeds above 6 Mbps, well within the range we have grown accustom to seeing on 4G devices.

To be sure, the iPhone 3GS is showing its age, with an increasingly dated 3-megapixel camera, no flash and no front facing camera, combined with a relatively low-resolution screen. Yet, the now free-with-two-year-contract 3GS holds its own well against many current sub-$100 phones. All these points that make iOS devices in general worthy of recommendation continue to encourage us to suggest the iPhone 3GS as a great entry level iOS device (Apple, Inc., free with contract,

Apple iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S (AT&T, Verizon and Sprint)

Because of Apple’s minimalistic approach and solid policies for keeping older models upgraded, the similarities between the old-styled 3GS and newer 4 and 4S are significant, as we noted above. All three have the same basic button layouts, the same sized 3.5” display and the same iOS 5 operating system.

The iPhone 4 did introduce the first significant change to the iPhone form factor, thanks to its unique, and now infamous, external antenna that frames two pieces of glass. Despite overblown reports to the contrary, the original iPhone 4 offered some significant improvements in cellular reception, and the Verizon variant, along with the 4S offer even better reception, along with immunity to the iPhone 4 “grip of death” that sometimes caused users to lose connectivity.

While the change in the casing of the iPhone was notable, the real advance between the 3GS and 4 was the screen. The now-$99 iPhone 4 offers the highest density screen we have seen – Apple calls it a Retina Display. The pixels that form the picture are so small that they are indiscernible. The screen appears like a printed document that is somehow illuminated. Text that is beautifully crisp and photos pop with vivid colors and great dynamic range.

Speaking of photos, the iPhone 4 and 4S both offer impressive quality backlit camera sensors at 5MP and 8MP, respectively. Though neither phone premiered with the highest megapixel sensor on the market, as any photographer will tell you, light sensitivity matters more than the raw number of pixels captured and the iPhone excels on this count: the pictures generated by the iPhone are better than those captured by many point-and-shoot cameras, much less other phones. The iPhone 4S offers one of the best phone cameras we have tested so far. The Galaxy S II, which we will look at in our next piece, captured a bit more detail, but the iPhone 4S reproduced colors slightly more true to life.

The 4S also has a few other tricks up its sleeve that help to justify its higher $199 starting price. While both the 4 and 4S offer significantly faster processors than the 3GS, the 4S is exceptionally fast. The newest iPhone provides the most fluid experience of any phone we have tested so far. Moreover, now that the iPhone 4 is only offered in a 8GB configuration, those wishing to put significant quantities of music or apps on their phone will want the 4S for its added capacity.

However, the feature most people are most intrigued with is Siri. While voice control has existed in the realm of novelty on phones for some time, Siri seems poised to be the first such tool that is consistently useful. Despite some early bumps in offering the service, Apple’s Siri generally works well not just for telling the phone to call people from one’s address book, but also for checking the weather, stocks, sending text messages and various other tasks. Paired with a Bluetooth headset, it is possible to accomplish quite a bit with the iPhone 4S and Siri hands free. This may not quite be the Star Trek computer experience, but it comes close enough to be pretty amazing.

The iPhone line has been a continual favorite of ours for voice call quality, although the iPhone achieves a comparatively more natural sound in exchange for that sound being slightly muffled sounding. The Galaxy S II on AT&T produced clearer calls, and thus tops our list, though it did so at the cost of sounding more mechanical than the iPhone 4S.

Unlike the 3GS, both the iPhone 4 and 4S are also available at three different carriers in the United States: AT&T, Verizon and Sprint. We have tested the AT&T and Verizon variants and they are remarkably similar. Apple has used its significant weight to prevent its phones from being loaded with all the sorts of questionably useful carrier-specific software the other phones we reviewed sported. The result is not only a cleaner less confusing home screen, but also an entirely consistent appearance between iPhones from different carriers.

While the phones act the same, the network does influence what the phone is capable of doing. The AT&T iPhone 4 (and 3GS, for that matter), capable of sustaining 3G connections at up to 7.2 Mbps, and the AT&T iPhone 4S, which ups the ante to a “4G” 14 Mbps connection, can easily hold their own in most respects to the other 4G offerings on the market. Unfortunately, the CDMA iPhone 4 and 4S offered by Verizon and Sprint, remain tied to 3G Ev-DO Rev. A.

Those latter two models are significantly slower than the other devices we tested, however the rationale for Apple’s omission of 4G support for Sprint and Verizon is relatively easy to understand. As noted above, AT&T’s largest “4G” network is essentially an improved 3G network, which means it offers relatively competitive speeds while using more mature, lower-power 3G chipsets. Offering 4G HSPA+ support comes at little expense to battery life. On the other hand, the 4G WiMax and LTE devices we tested have extremely short battery life, a point of compromise Apple seems unwilling to make.

The pay off, in any case, seems worth it for anyone who wants to use a phone for e-mail, web browsing and other normal smartphone tasks: the 4S clocked in about the same place as the Windows Phone-based Titan, see below, for the best battery life on standby. With light usage, the iPhone 4S can go the better part of a week, even while synchronizing with multiple push e-mail services.

Limitations in speed aside, the Sprint model, which we did not test, has a nifty trick of its own: unlimited data. Like the other Sprint devices we tested, the Sprint iPhones still have unlimited data, unlike the phones from Sprint’s major rivals, all of which have moved to set, limited data plans (Apple, Inc., $99/$199,

Close Up Camera Comparison. The Apple iPhone 4S (left), iPhone 3GS and HTC Titan. You can find a comparison of the 4S and Titan against the latest Android contenders in our Android review piece.

HTC Titan

The last year has not been particularly kind to the Windows Phone platform: it remains an also-ran with little market share and a relatively small app store. Despite the struggling giant Nokia’s plan to throw its weight behind the system, 2012 does not look much more hopeful. That’s a shame.

When a Windows 7 Phone first crossed our labs last year, we praised its interface for offering an innovative, sensible design. In many ways, Microsoft has managed to craft a platform that rivals Apple’s iOS for ease-of-use, but without ever coming across as a mere imitator – unlike Android. When paired with HTC’s excellent craftsmanship, which is readily apparent with the Titan, Windows Phone is the sort of product that deserves to succeed.

As we noted in our review last December, Microsoft has designed an interface that appears at first blush very simplisitic and yet deceptively so. The company sweated over the details, giving little visual cues of the sort we have only seen on iOS, with lists squishing when one reaches the end and screen transitions making using the phone feel as natural and smooth as flipping pages in a book. A year later, the user interface has changed little, but still feels fresh and unique.

Thoughtful features such as automatic muffling of the phone’s ringtone when one picks the device up or a speakerphone that activates when you flip the phone face down make using Windows Phone 7 a pleasure. A feature absent from our previous interaction with Windows Phone – cut and paste – is happily present in the current iteration, and is implemented in the same sort of easy to use manner featured in Apple’s iOS.

HTC's Titan has a very good 8MP camera. Though we found the iPhone 4S and Samsung Galaxy S II captured more details than the Titan, the Titan had excellent color representation paired with minimal noise. The phone's camera interface is easy to use and offers convenient swipe-to-view access to previously captured pictures. Windows Phone 7 also offers an interesting twist to the camera's touch-to-focus feature, automatically snapping a shot as soon as focus has been achieved on the point the user designates.

Microsoft continues to have the lead on social network integration, too. While Android and iOS can synchronize certain functions with major social networks and cloud services to greater or lesser degrees, Windows Phone manages to blend Facebook support directly into the home screen, creating a level of seamlessness we have not seen previously. While Android does a good job of displaying Facebook contacts within its address book, viewing most social networking events still requires a trip to a distinct Facebook application. On Windows Phone, even one’s newsfeed is integrated into the core OS.

To be sure, the Titan, specifically, is an acquired taste given its gargantuan size. With a 4.7” display, the Titan’s name is a perfect descriptor for this phone – it is hard to say whether the device feels more like a giant phone or a small tablet. Yet, despite the huge display, the Titan is neither overly heavy nor particularly bulky. The beautiful display provides plenty of room to get things done and Windows Phone makes good use of the space.

Battery life was very respectable on the Titan, discharging about 18% per day on standby, putting it in the company of the iPhone 4S as a phone with superior battery life. (Power management is another place where Microsoft has tried to improve on the status quo, incidentally, providing not only tracking of how long the phone has been on since the last charge, but also an attempt to estimate how long the remaining charge will last.)

All in all, the phone may not be the best choice for those who want to be able to download lots of applications, but for someone primarily interested in web, e-mail and social networking, the HTC Titan does a great job of pairing a superb mobile operating system with excellent hardware (HTC/AT&T, $199,