If you believe the hype from Apple, the June 7 introduction of the iPhone 4 was roughly equivalent to the Second Coming. Steve Jobs, the high priest of technology, stood on the dais and presented his latest gift to the faithful. He explained to all who would listen just how cool it was, and then, for whatever reason, couldn’t get a signal.
The iPhone 4’s WiFi issues aside, it was a big deal because it comes from Apple. Until the iPhone 4 introduction, the iPhone had been passed on all sides by a number of competitors that managed to present devices that were faster and better, and had larger screens, higher download speeds and a set of their own believers.
In May it was the Sprint HTC Evo, a device that was the dream of the Android set. It has a screen larger than the one on the iPhone, and it has access to a 4G network, which theoretically means you can download stuff more quickly.
Before that, the darling was the Verizon Droid Incredible, which was designed to take on its older Droid stablemate and provide better operations, better hardware and some nicer features. But the reality is more complex than that. In addition to perceived coolness, carriers and phone makers are trying a number of approaches to creating a smartphone that will be the Next Big Thing with a wide range of customers.
Sprint’s HTC Evo launch contributed to the smartphone feature war with its introduction of the Android-based Evo that has a 4.3-inch screen, supports HD video and uses the company’s 4G network. It got a lot of hype, but how does it compare with T-Mobile’s HD2 device, which also has a 4.3-inch screen that does HD video and uses T-Mobile’s HSPA network that is theoretically faster than Sprint’s 4G?
Before you start sending comments about speeds, Sprint claims its 4G network is theoretically better than 10 megabits per second. T-Mobile is saying its HSPA network is theoretically capable of 14M bps. Yes, I know that HSPA is supposed to be 3G, not 4G. Meanwhile, T-Mobile is building out its HSPA+ network that is theoretically capable of about 21M bps. Where does all of this leave the iPhone 4, running on the decidedly non-4G network at AT&T?
Well, not nearly as badly off as you might think. The 7.2M-bps speed of the AT&T 3G network is also theoretical. The reality of all of these networks is that they don’t ever, and won’t ever, approach their respective theoretical speeds. The reality is that in a really good situation, with clean signals, few other users competing for bandwidth and your device in a good location, you might get 20 to 25 percent of the theoretical speed. In the real world it won’t be that good. And note that this isn’t just true of cell phone data signals-it’s true for nearly any wireless communications, including WiFi.
Based on these facts, it’s clear that the 3G versus 4G hype is almost certainly overstated. What else is there? Everything out there supports video, and three of the devices mentioned above support HD video.
Buying Decisions to Weigh Practicality Against Novelty
The iPhone 4 has a very nice pixel density, but it’s still not true HD, and that doesn’t matter because you’d never be able to tell if it were. What matters is that it’s close enough to look like HD when you watch something on it. But the Sprint and T-Mobile devices look pretty good too. They don’t have the pixel density of the iPhone 4, but most people won’t be able to tell the difference.
Most of the other features that matter to smartphone users aren’t actually part of the phones. They’re related to the networks they run on, the services they have available (is Apple’s store better than the Android store?) and perhaps the relative value of the operating system. This might explain why T-Mobile’s HD2 device got so little attention; it runs Windows Mobile 6.5, which is no longer very cool.
And the landscape is only getting more complex. There will be more devices that show HD video; there will be more devices that operate at higher speeds, whatever you may call them; and there will be more applications that will help you find ways to consume bandwidth. When Verizon starts delivering its 4G LTE network next year, it’ll offer theoretical speeds over 50M bps. You can assume that Verizon will have at least some of its Droid population able to use those speeds sooner or later.
So there’s no question that the recently introduced iPhone 4, or the Sprint Evo or the Verizon Droid Incredible, may be the coolest phone out there-for now. But there’s also no question that some of them will be superseded by new versions in the near future.
About the only thing we know for sure is that the iPhone is here for another year, at which point we’ll have another big introduction with lots of hoopla. The other sure thing is that by then it will have been passed by virtually every other device out there in terms of capability and performance.
But really that shouldn’t matter. All of that coolness shouldn’t matter if it doesn’t deliver what you need in a smartphone. So unless you actually need HD video on a phone, getting it is a waste of money. If you need to support two Exchange accounts, then it’s a waste to buy a device that only supports one.
So now that we’ve waded through this mass of chaos, there’s really only the bottom line: What do you really need, and which device actually meets those needs? Once you filter all of that out, then you, too, can ignore the hype and get what you need instead of what everyone else tells you, you need. But that’s probably a lot more boring than all the hype.