Thursday, 18 February 2010

Oooh, the shiny! Ooooooh, the SHINY!

This is a rambling tale of two superphones.

I'll use that term, obnoxious as I may usually find it, to highlight the fact the I am not talking about mere smartphones, with good hardware and maybe a specialisation or two, but the cream of the crop - two of the premier mobile devices on sale today.

From Finland, the N97 Mini. One of the best 5MP cameras on any mobile device, all the trimmings in the form of GPS, magnetometer, accelerometer, Bluetooth and high-speed everything, stereo FM transmitter, a big touch screen, a slide-out QWERTY keyboard and the latest iteration of one of the most flexible, evolved and powerful mobile operating systems - Symbian with the S60 user interface. Oh, and it has full, free, offline GPS navigation, something which did nasty things to Garmin's share price. The N97 mini, slightly more compact than the N97, has a more useful shape, was launched with decent firmware, and has better internal memory configuration than the infamously disappointing but slowly improving-in-firmware N97. Not the absolute flagship for Symbian - the Samsung i8910 is still a bit more impressive, even without a keyboard or Nokia's S60 tweaks - but pretty damn near.

From America, the Motorola Milestone - the non-USA version of the Droid, with different radio hardware. 5MP camera, everything else, gorgeous screen, slide-out QWERTY keyboard, and the newest and fastest-growing kid on the block, the open-source, Linux-based Android operating system from Google and, this being Google, an awful lot of functionality depending upon being online - maps, for example. The Milestone, when it was first released with Android 2.0, before Google trumped them with the HTC-built 2.1 Nexus One, was the absolute flagship of Androidness.

Problems? Well, the S60 5th Edition on the N97 Mini is a kludge, the screen is an unfashionable resistive (pressure sensitive), instead of capacitive (which uses the galvanic effect to measure the electrical conductivity of your skin), and Nokia have a not entirely proud history of using the efficiency strengths of Symbian to not entirely hide them skimping on CPU and RAM.

On the other hand, the Milestone has a suspect camera, and Android is still very much in development.

Now, I have toyed briefly with the Milestone, and find the interface to be more shiny than focused, but definitely cool and swish.

I have also handled an N97 mini, thanks to the fact that when I walked into the shop, they didn't have a fake display model.

The build quality was a sizeable step above my N95 (not really praise, that, let me start again...) The build quality was very good, with no wobbles anywhere, and the hinge on the keyboard rock-solid and snappy. The software environment is two evolutionary steps on from the ones I now know backwards, and the screen, although people complain about resistive screens being a pain to use after capacitive, seemed perfectly fine. The keyboard didn't seem too bad, needing only familiarity to be comfortable, and although I didn't agree with the default menu layout, that's nothing that a few minutes customising won't fix.

The Milestone is a very sexy black oblong indeed, from the clean and industrial school of design, well made and is of course very tightly integrated with all the Google services I already use.

Essentially, then, we have two comparable devices, with slightly different hardware philosophies, one with a software platform I know backwards and already have a solid set of tools for, and one which will be an exciting new adventure.

Symbian has a huge number of applications, some available via Nokia's stumbling Ovi Store, most straight from developer websites. Android has a rapidly growing marketplace and developer community.

Nokia consistently build the most comprehensively competent devices. Motorola put their all into the Milestone.

The N97 Mini keyboard looks a little finger-friendlier, the Milestone has a D-pad for precise cursor placement in text.

The N97 is an N-series Nokia and has an N-series camera with Carl Zeiss Optics. The Milestone doesn't.

So it's not exactly an easy choice.

And here's the three big factors:

The screen - One the one hand, the capacitive screen on the Milestone is more sensitive, and better/clearer/sharper (marginally!). On the other hand, it can't be operated in gloves, through plastic map pockets, or with fingers that are too wet/dry/cold. The N97 can be operated with anything you can push it with, including pens, glove fingers, and through water-proof covers. As I ride a bike, and may need it for GPS, or to control music, this last bit is rather important for me. Even if I get a holder, and it doesn't rain, I can't operate a capacitative screen while wearing gloves. Until someone introduces bullet-proof voice control that works with severe levels of background noise, that will continue to be a big issue for me. And no, I can't afford to buy a separate bike-specialist GPS system that acts as a control centre for phones and MP3 players, no matter how much they may impress me.

Support - Nokia have a great reputation for releasing half-finished firmwares, but a better one for steadily rolling out upgrades. Motorola still need to prove themselves, and the thriving third-party ROM scene that some devices enjoy is questionable for the Milestone.

Services back-end - I use Google, and although I don't trust them to ensure privacy, get everything right, make the best decisions or even not fuck up now and again, they know how to make services. Nokia, well... There are many reasons I don't use anything branded "Ovi" except the built-in mapping software, and the fact that I already use Google is not even very far up the list. Nokia I do not trust to build services at all. Although they have improved quite a lot lately, the web interface to Ovi Maps made me burst out laughing in incredulous disbelief last week when I had a quick look at it.

Now, for the less practical consideration: Android is more exciting. Symbian is a known quantity, very solid, with quirks and issues but something I know will give me a superbly functional device. But familiarity, unfortunately, breeds indifference. The touch aspects will be interesting, for a while, but Android is entirely new, and there will be so much to explore.

There is also the fact that Android is evolving fast, and may soon leave the Milestone behind if Motorola or the community don't keep up the firmware updates, while Symbian is rushing headlong towards Symbian^3, due out this year, which will see a progression towards a complete UI overhaul and a graphic toolkit change that will begin to introduce incompatibilities.

So there's not really much to pick between them on that front, I have to say.

Which brings me irrevocably back to the fact that picking between them is going to be a right bitch.

Price is not really an issue - the N97 Mini is $900-ish, the Milestone $700-ish (through Expansys, Motorola Australia went bankrupt), but go to eBay and you can find either device, claiming to be fully unlocked and Australian-compatible, for $600 plus extras thrown in, like car chargers and screen protectors.

It turns out that although I love having choices, I hate having to actually make one.

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