|Showdown: iPhone 4S vs Galaxy Nexus|
Monday, 23 January 2012 10:00
My summer holiday was characterised by not one, but two holiday flings. Now I'm not talking about the type of summer romance in the classic 'Summer Nights' song in Grease. No, these were flings of a technological kind.
My affections were torn between the latest Apple iPhone 4S and the Galaxy Nexus from Samsung. I even took the two handsets home for the holidays to meet my parents, before taking them on a getaway to Cape Town.
The iPhone 4S is (unsurprisingly) called the 'greatest iPhone ever', and has been named by many a tech-guru as the 'best smartphone on the market'.
Similarly, the Galaxy Nexus is the latest and greatest offering from the Android camp. It is the first handset to be powered by Android 4.0, or Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), and is widely considered to be a serious contender for the smartphone top spot.
Both phones come with some quite intimidating baggage. Now I'm neither an Apple fan nor an Android convert; in fact, I'm still quite attached to my BlackBerry Curve.
This translated into a morbid fear of writing this review. Just a quick skim over the cyber-wars that have been erupting online over the evergreen Apple versus Android debate firmly planted a mental block slap-bang between my keyboard and me. I even resorted to alternating between my MacBook Pro and my LG laptop while typing up my thoughts in an effort to remain objective. I also stopped reading the Steve Jobs biography halfway through, out of fear of being swayed by sentimentality.
But of course, such an irrational fear of a public lynching over my opinion of the smartphone juggernauts meant I was forgetting something very important – that smartphone choice is (at least mostly) subjective. What works for some, may not work for others.
So before we proceed, just bear in mind that this is not written by an iPhone nor Android expert, but rather by someone who, like the majority of South African smartphone users, enjoys the comfort of BBM and is somewhat caught in the headlights of the fast-approaching onslaught of other options.
The Galaxy Nexus is a good-looking phone: it's simple, sleek and easily identifiable as part of the Galaxy family. Unlike its predecessors though, the Nexus is all touch with absolutely no buttons on the front.
The home, back and multitasking keys are now built into the on-screen, all-touch interface of ICS (remember that ICS has been developed as Android's cross-device OS, so it's been designed with both smartphones and tablets in mind).
The handset is quite large as far as smartphones are concerned, with an impressive 4.65-inch screen and super(b) Amoled display. Of course, it doesn't quite compete with the awkward size of a 'phablet' (such as the Galaxy Note), but it does tower over the likes of the iPhone and the average BlackBerry.
While a big screen is great for media consumption, I felt it was just slightly too big (or perhaps my hands are just too small), especially when using it with one hand. Admittedly though, I found myself warming up to its size after playing Angry Birds and having video chats over Skype.
The textured plastic of the back of the handset adds some grip, but there is an unfortunate 'plasticy' feel to it when one tries to remove the back cover.
ICS looks good, great even. It's clean and lightning fast. Key features are the widgets and folders, which allow for extensive customisation of the home screens. The mobile version of ICS offers a great taste of things to come from the Android platform.
The multitasking interface is, without a doubt, the best I've encountered. The tabs show a preview of the open apps and pages, so you know exactly what you were doing and can pick up where you left off. Closing apps involves simply 'wiping' them off the screen.
I was quite surprised though by the fact that the only preinstalled social media service was Google+ (although I should have seen that coming). If I had more friends and family active on Google+, the mobile application would have been an ideal social hub. Perhaps that will come in time. Perhaps not.
The Galaxy Nexus does however provide easy sharing options for content across all platforms; so once I'd installed my favourite social apps, it was all very smooth.
Installing the apps though was initially a bit frustrating, as the Android Market refused to function properly without a decent WiFi connection. The initial lack of Facebook and Twitter sent me straight back to my BlackBerry on the first day.
Enter the iPhone
As mentioned before, I'm not an iPhone user, so this was my first real hands-on encounter with the highly regarded device.
Apart from the silver lettering on the box, there's nothing about the new iPhone that screams: "I'm the iPhone 4S!" at you. This may be disappointing to those who want everyone to know that they not only have an iPhone, but that they have the iPhone 4S.
The outward design is virtually identical to the iPhone 4 – I'm told it just has an antenna on the top, which its predecessor didn't – but to the untrained user's eye, they look exactly the same.
While the lack of a radical new design has been a cause of disappointment for many Apple fans, as an Apple newbie, I was still enthralled by the look and feel of the iPhone 4S.
I know reviewers have been wrung out to dry by the Android camp for saying things like "there's just something about the design” of the iPhone (and Apple products in general) – something that makes you just feel that what you're holding in your hands is of a higher quality and design ethic.
At the risk of being pelted with tomatoes by the anti-Applers, I can't say I disagree. The iPhone feels great in one's hands and it's undeniably easy on the eyes. One can understand why the design was a game-changer in the smartphone space.
But, and this is quite a big but, after spending time with the Galaxy Nexus before laying eyes on the new iPhone, the iPhone's screen struck me as being quite small, at 3.5 inches. While this is still a decent size, it's quite obvious that the next iPhone will have to increase its screen size if it's going to stay on trend.
Looks aside, the iPhone 4S is exceptionally quick and responsive. iOS is as intuitive as it is made out to be, and within the first hour, I had mastered downloading apps, talking to Siri and multitasking.
Perhaps it was the hype and the novelty of playing with the much-talked-about features, but I found myself spending a lot more time on the iPhone than the Galaxy Nexus in the beginning. This was also fuelled by fast application download speeds, which I enjoyed even without WiFi.
Since the unveiling of the iPhone 4S in October last year, I couldn't wait to test out the virtual assistant and put its artificial intelligence (AI) to the test.
Talking to Siri was not quite what I expected though, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it worked great on just a solid 3G connection – despite what had been said before about the need for WiFi. Secondly, for some reason, I had expected Siri to have a female voice, but was instead greeted by a man.
Of course, one of my first questions was: “Siri, why do you sound like a man?” to which he responded: "This is not about me, this is about you." Touché.
It turns out the gender of the virtual assistant is prescribed by one's language settings (I was using English-UK).
Siri was able to return results for an impressive range of general knowledge questions, thanks to its use of Wolfram Alpha.
However, a major disappointment was the lack of location-based services within Siri.
Nothing to do with finding places or distances is allowed outside of the US at this point.
So I amused myself by asking Siri about the weather, and the meaning of life.
More than once, I was answered with “I'm sorry, but I didn't get that” or “I don't know what you mean”. Whether that is an indication of my poor pronunciation or Siri's limitations, the jury is still out. Siri did improve at understanding my South African accent after some time though.
Obvious limitations, however, were the lack of integration with popular services like Twitter and Facebook – Siri was “unable to assist” with status updates and tweets.
It is worth bearing in mind that Siri is still in Beta, so there are many tweaks and updates to come. But one can't help but be a bit let down after all the hype.
Another thing one doesn't really think about until one actually has to do it, is just how awkward one feels when lifting the phone up to ask it something in public. But as the AI technology improves and becomes more mainstream, I'm sure it will just be a matter of time until we'll all be more comfortable having lengthy conversations with inanimate objects.
Both operating systems now have pull-down notifications (a first for iOS, not so new for Android). I'd have to say that iOS has the edge here though because of the context it adds to each notification, while on ICS, it simply lists “Twitter: new mentions”; “Gmail: new e-mail”.
However, the Galaxy Nexus has the extra feature of a breathing light that rhythmically flashes when one has a notification – this is something that I particularly like in a smartphone (again, the BlackBerry user in me refuses to die).
Using both the iPhone and Galaxy Nexus on prepaid was a challenge. They were both significant data and airtime guzzlers when not using WiFi. This was a bit of a reality check, and often sent me reaching for my BlackBerry and BIS.
It's not easy trying to divide one's time between three phones, but as the holiday got into full swing, I found myself using the different devices for specific purposes.
The Galaxy Nexus, for example, once I had WiFi and could download as many apps as I wanted, became my primary source of entertainment.
Playing Angry Birds on the phone's impressive screen kept me occupied all through delayed flights and long car trips. When using it to make phone calls and send messages though, it felt awkwardly big.
The rendering of the usual key apps such as Facebook and Twitter was also great, and the live wallpapers also provide for really beautiful interactive backgrounds.
There were some slight ICS glitches, however, such as the sticking of the screen in certain apps and, in some cases, the complete crashing of apps when trying to multitask. This happened quite rarely, but it was noticeable nonetheless.
Face to face
A novel feature of the Galaxy Nexus is its facial recognition technology for unlocking the handset. This wasn't as effective as I would have liked though. Perhaps it was my own fault for setting it when I had just woken up one morning and was looking decidedly unattractive, but I was quite offended to not be recognised by my phone unless I pulled a slightly awkward face at the camera.
I also became quite self-conscious when trying to unlock the phone in public and having to stare at myself on the screen while it tried to recognise me. It felt like I was being overly narcissistic and constantly taking self-portraits.
This seemed to improve over time though as the facial recognition technology started to develop a better memory of my face and the process speeded up. Thankfully though, the phone allows you to set a backup touch-pattern to unlock the device in the event that it doesn't recognise you.
Throughout the holiday, and the many visits to friends and family, it was always the iPhone that garnered the most attention, with everyone having heard about Siri, and saying they were planning on upgrading to an iPhone as their next handset.
A handful of Android users in the family though were enthralled by the Galaxy Nexus. My 12-year-old cousin, who is a Galaxy SII user, played with the phone with wide eyes for about 10 minutes, before exclaiming: "This phone is so cool you don't even know!" And apparently I didn't, because she showed me a few tricks that I wouldn't have even thought of.
Siri also provided endless entertainment. Even when it wasn't getting the answers right, it was still amusing. Another one of my cousins got a bit frustrated when Siri told him he didn't understand what he meant. He then proceeded to use some choice expletives, to which Siri promptly responded: “That's more a reflection on you than it is on me”.
While the Galaxy Nexus does come with Google voice recognition technology, when put to the test, Siri was still the winner in terms of speed and accuracy.
Throughout the holiday, I found myself reaching for the iPhone rather than my digital camera every time a photo opportunity came up. The 8MP camera is seriously impressive and the image stabilisation made just about every shot look crystal clear.
By comparison, the Galaxy Nexus offers a 5MP camera that was good, but not quite as impressive as the iPhone 4S'. The Amoled display also sometimes resulted in the over-saturation of images. The difference between the phones' cameras was especially apparent in low-light conditions, where the iPhone was the clear winner.
The native panorama feature of the Nexus is, however, a nice addition, and the phone also has a notably faster shutter speed. Both the iPhone and the Nexus record 1080p video, so there was not much differentiation there.
The battery life of both the handsets was not ideal. The iPhone, in particular, struggled to make it through the day, even when not being used. While the Galaxy Nexus lasted longer, it also struggled to keep going when Angry Birds and Facebook were involved.
Siri and facial recognition aside, both phones do have some other tricks up their sleeves. For the iPhone, iMessage is essentially Apple's answer to BBM. Sadly though, since the majority of people that I need to be in constant contact with are all using BlackBerrys, I had to resort to sending standard messages.
I did, however, enjoy using iCloud and the ease of access to my documents and content shared in the cloud. Of course, both iMessage and iCloud are iOS 5 features and can't be claimed as an iPhone 4S differentiator, but they are a definite draw card for Apple users.
The Galaxy Nexus features native NFC support and 'Android Beam', which allows for the transfer of content between NFC-enabled Android phones. Unfortunately though, a lack of any other NFC-enabled Android phones among my family, friends and colleagues meant we couldn't test it out.
So, at the end of the holiday, my affections were decidedly torn. On the one hand, the iPhone looks and feels great, has an impressive selection of quality applications (once you've worked around the SA limitations), and has an exceptional point-and-shoot camera. On the other hand, the Galaxy Nexus lends itself to customisation, is great for playing games and watching videos, and has better battery life.
While I would love to own either of these phones, if I was pressed to choose, I would lean toward the iPhone (cue pelting with tomatoes and other fruits, vegetables and random objects).
This is primarily because it fits more easily into my lifestyle, literally and figuratively, and the camera swings the vote for me. While the Nexus' size is great for games and media consumption, those activities are not my priorities.
Both phones, while currently the best on offer, are clear indicators of better things to come from Apple and Android. The special features of the phones also up the ante in the smartphone space considerably, and I'm looking forward to seeing the new devices that will pick up where these two juggernauts left off.
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