Phoning it in

(19 comments)

Currently I own and use an iPhone 3G. I bought it almost two years ago, when the local phone provider LMT started offering the iPhone legally. I had a pretty good experience with it most of the time, but now it is showing its age:


  • The two year warranty will run out in September

  • The iOS 4 update left out most of the new features - my model cann't have multitasking or backgrounds or any of that new cool stuff that is exclusive to the new iPhone 4

  • The hardware itself is starting to wear - the speaker stopped working a few weeks ago (so I have to use the loudspeaker function or headphones) and also approximately around that time the phone stated to randomly lock up approximately one a week or two - it freezes and after a few minutes reboots and demads to be connected to iTunes and restored from backup

  • Also the battery does not last as long as it used to

I will try to send my iPhone in for repair hoping to extend its usefulness, but frankly it looks that I might have to get a new phone at or before Debconf.

So I am considering my options for a new phone and so far I have 3 main options each with some sub-options. The main options are: iPhone 4, MeeGo and Android. Each choice has its benefits and drawbacks and each also has several sub-options related either to specific phone models or to purchase methods.

What I need is a phone with: calling function, contact information synchronised to Google, support for Google Mail/Contacts/Calendar simultaneously with one Exchange account also providing mail/contacts/calendars, music, audiobooks - saving my place in the audio book and in the list of books, fully featured Twitter client with Twitpic and location support, encrypted password storage application (preferably open source), GPS with maps, ability to download maps for offline use, Geocaching support with offline cache info and logging, Skype client, ability to write in Latvian, English and Russian in all applications, reliable backup and restore of phones data including settings and data of installed apps. Optional features: last.fm streaming and reporting support, ebook applications with purchasable ebooks, high quality video and photo recording (for a phone), ability for me to write applications on the phone, ssh client, wireless data upload to the phone, ability to change the phones battery without loosing data in the phone (on the go), compass, physical keyboard, confidence in getting software upgrades and developer interest for the next 2 years.

I'll try to describe all of the options here to organise my thoughts and maybe also help someone else make the choice.

Option 1: iPhone 4

To get the iPhone 4 I have two options: LMT and unlocked.

The official arrival of iPhone 4 to Latvia is expected in September and it will likely be sold by LMT for the same prices as iPhone 3GS is now. If I choose this scenario, I will need to survive with my semi-broken iPhone for 2-3 more months. Total price over 2 years (LVL): 131 (purchase price) + 24 * 8 (surcharge) = 323 LVL.

Note: the surcharge is the extra cost of the iPhone call plan compared to a comparable regular plan (Vienādais 7 + Internets telefonā 5).

If I go and purchase an unlocked iPhone 4 in a country where such units are sold (UK is the most easily accessible choice, because a few of my workmates travel weekly to and from UK) then the total price over 2 years would be the purchase price: 499 GBP + 65 GBP (2 year warranty extension) = 505 LVL

Now lets go over the general benefits and downsides of the iPhone 4, first the positives:


  • It is a simple to use device that I am used to over the two years

  • The screen resolution is higher than any other option

  • It is smaller and lighter than Nokia N900 and the bigger Android devices

  • There is a huge number of free and paid apps as well as accessories for the iPhone - docks, headphones, chargers, ...

  • I know that it can do every thing that I need it to do (with apps) and most of the optional features too, except ... (see drawbacks)


Drawbacks:

  • The first thing that I hate about the iPhone is its umbilical cord like link to iTunes. iTunes is the sole purpose I still have a real Windows installation on my main computer (in a Sun VirtualBox, thankfully). iTunes is slow, clumsy and generally unusable piece of dog excrements. It can only do one thing at a time, mostly: if you are adding a folder to your library, you can't switch to another tab and see how the backup of your iPhone is going. The actions do happen in the background, but more often than not you cann't switch away from some actions. If you try to do multiple things in parallel, instead of resolving any process conflicts and queueing the actions iTunes will simply silently fails to do something, often leaving remains of the half-finished actions. It also does not bother to check if the backup or restore of the phone is complete before using it - in this way I have many time gotten into a situation where I connect the iPhone to the iTunes, it starts backing it up, then crashes and next time happily offers this half-done backup copy as a valid restore point. Or it crashes during restore and only writes some files and settings to the phone - other settings stay at their default values. It is also very cryptic, for example if you have a lot of music it can take hours to import it into iTunes (it spent 2 hours 'Analysing gapless playback information' of 5000 songs) and then you will be puzzled about how to put some of that on the iPhone. If you just tick the checkbox to sync your music you'll get an error stating that there is not enough free space, which is not very helpful. The magic combination was to check 'Manually manage music' and then go to music tab and choose 'Autofill' option. At that point iTunes will spend half an hour choosing which songs to put on the phone, before it even starts copying. And god forbid that you would use that AppStore application on the iPhone to actually install apps - sooner or later you will run into a 'backup bug' where creating or restoring a backup of your iPhone might take 2-3 hours instead of more normal 5-15 minutes. Only a factory reset of the phone followed by selective reinstallation of applications (loosing all their settings in the process) can work around this bug currently.

  • The closed nature of the iPhone means that I cann't install 'unapproved' software unless I jailbreak the phone and even then it is rather problematic to develop for the phone unless you have a Mac and shell out 99$ a year for participation in the developers program

  • The iPhone is a consumption device and not a productivity device. I would like to have a device on which I could be creative as a software developer as well

Option 2: Maemo/MeeGo

Some of my colleagues at work (in the Riga office of Accenture) have N900 phones and I have been exposed to people with raw enthusiasm towards the Maemo platform ever since the Debconf in Helsinki, where we saw the first N700 devices in the hands of some lucky Debian/Nokia people using it as an Internet tablet. N900 has been a strong leap forward for the platform, before its head was teleported sideways by the whole MeeGo merger/debackle.

Again I have two options here:

Get a N900 either here in Latvia for 325 LVL (that would be the total cost over 2 years) or get it from USA during Debconf for 399 USD (+129 USD for 2 year warranty) = 317 LVL. And additional option would be to wait until October/November and then buy the new Nokia MeeGo device, rumoured to be N9-00 and likely to be around the same price as N900 was when it was introduced (around 500 LVL).

Benefits:


  • A fully open and rooted Debian Linux based device with apt-get, X, pusleaudio, d-bus and Qt as core technologies

  • I can install software from anyone and can also write my own software either in Qt/C++ or even in Python

  • There is (or was) a significant hacker community that develops applications for N900

  • As far as I know most of the features that I need do work on N900, but I am unsure about:

    1. audiobook support - how easy it is to put a MP3 on the device and tell it is an audiobbok so that the device would remember position when playing the file and save it even if the player is stopped and the device is rebooted or backed up and restored from backup?

    2. can I have Google Mail, Contacts and Calendar and at the same time also have an Exchange account with mail and contacts and calendar active?

    3. how is the Geocaching.com support - is there an app already that makes it easy to geocache while offline?

    4. Multilingual keyboards - I've seen people having to reimplement the on-screen keyboard in their programs, and naturally they do not bother to add support for all language. So support for multilingual keyboard input is an open one.



Drawbacks:


  • All the uncertainties above - while I could write all the above software, it would be better if I would not have to, so that I could focus on something more productive

  • Also the whole position of Nokia on the MeeGo support on the N900 is kinda ... backwards. I am now used to the Apple way that if I get a device, then it will get software updates for at least next two years and will get the new software features developed in the next two years at least. If Nokia would have said - "All phone-oriented MeeGo releases will have a version for N900 until at least the end of 2012." Then this drawback would not have been there, but currently it is a mayor sticking stone for me. I don't want to buy a device that will be on a dead-end software platform that will die before the end of this year.

  • N900 is the largest and heaviest of all the options

Option 3 - Android

After looking trough the options for Android phones, I've narrowed the selection to the ones that are either available from local carriers or can be easily gotten unlocked also the phones need to have announced plans to have at least Android 2.2 version. Currently the choice is limited to HTC Desire (from carrier or unlocked) and Samsung Galaxy S (unlocked). The prices over 2 years break down as follows:

HTC Desire (locked to LMT): 69 + 9*24 = 285 LVL
HTC Desire (locked to Bite): 199 + 2*24 = 247 LVL (Note: only 500Mb of data per month available)
HTC Desire (locked to Tele2): 179 + 6*24 = 323 LVL
Note: all the above options would also require me to pay a 45 LVL early termination fee on my current iPhone contract if I choose to do this before September.
HTC Desire (unlocked): 311 LVL
Samsung Galaxy S (unlocked): 350 LVL (import from Germany)

Benefits:


  • As far as I could find, the features I need are out there in one way or another - there usually is an app for that!

  • Google looks poised to continue development at a rapid pace

  • There is an active hacker community and also an active commercial software community that offers cool applications for a few bucks

  • As far as I understand the phone backups onto itself - a backup of the phone is created onto a SD card in the phone and you can then copy that off the phone for permanent backup, it is a nice concept

  • There are literally thousands of sources for Android applications: from the official Market to Google Code to individual web pages and forums

  • The hardware looks solid, powerful and generic enough to last for a couple of years

  • It is likely that knowing how to program Android app will be useful for me at work

  • It is cheap and simple to start writing Android apps on Linux

Drawbacks:


  • Typical usability of Android apps is pretty low compared to iPhone

  • The Android environment is very unique and is not like anything else - it's not really much of a Linux system from an apps perspective

  • I would be relying on HTC to provide OS updates in a timely manner - it is quite likely that after a year or so the updates to new version will come slowly or even stop altogether and I will have to use hacked ROMs

  • I have a dislike for Java. I wish one could write fully featured Android apps in Python :(

Please correct me if I am wrong with something!!! And also it would be cool if you expressed your own opinions in the comments.

Currently I am very undecided about what I am going to do, but after completing this entry I am leaning towards an unlocked HTC Desire.

Update:
Olivier Crête shares a N900 vs. Nexus One experience

Edit 01-07-2010:

Handed my iPhone in for a warranty repair, got a dumbphone Nokia as a loaner during repairs. Very surprised about how long a battery can last on a low powered and cheap phone.

In the mean time from all the comments here and elsewhere I am starting to see that I am too annoyed with the iPhone platform (mostly iTunes) to stay there and that I am also not convinced in the direction MeeGo is going (a lot of community developers are annoyed and are jumping ship), so N900 is also out. I will need to see 2-3 MeeGo smartphones and also see how Nokia will treat their smartphone users and developers on this platform, in the long term, before I'll be ready to trust them with my money. Therefore, my choice is becoming pretty clear - look for the best Android phone (after my iPhone dies). We have this thing at Accenture, where we can get company phones at a discount and HTC Desire is on that list. If I can get that, it would slash 100 LVL (almost a third of the price!) off it, but to get there I either need to get a promotion (rather rare after just one year with the company) or prove the necessity of the phone for the needs of my project (kinda hard currently). Well, the situation will be a bit clearer next week when I get my iPhone back. (Apparently the Latvia's largest holiday - Midsummer Festivities or Jāņi/Līgo - with tons of traditional outdoor activities, caused a lot of phones to become broken and there is a backlog of warranty service :))

So at this point my plan is: get my iPhone repaired and get a promotion or a project where I can justify a company-paid HTC Desire and then hope that Nokia/Intel really get their stuff together and make MeeGo a great smartphone platform over the next year or two.

Update: Got my iPhone 3G back from the 'warranty'. It is in quotes because they just gave me a new iPhone 3G. The battery lasts for 3 days of minimal use and it has not crashed yet. The recovery process was a pain - again caused by iTunes: iTunes refused to restore my backup onto the new phone, because my backup was made on a iOS 4.0, while the new phone I got from the warranty has 3.1.3 on it. So I had to set this phone as a new phone, initialise it, make a backup, upgrade to 4.0, restore from the (empty) backup, then reset the phone to factory settings again and only then I could start restoring data from my original (pre-warranty) backup and start copying my data on to the device. All in all it took nearly 3 hours if iTunes doing something and almost a dozen reboots of the phone. Almost half of that time was spent doing completely unnecessary steps to work around the fact that iTunes is braindead.

I'll continue using my iPhone for now, keeping my eyes on the newest Android phones and also waiting for the long-promised first MeeGo phone from Nokia.

Currently unrated

Comments

Anonymous 7 years, 5 months ago

I personally own an N900, and I'd highly recommend it.

To answer some of your questions:

- You can sync with Google Mail/Contacts/Calendar using the "Mail for Exchange" support, and Google's emulation of an Exchange server. (Alternatively, you could manually run SyncML yourself, but automatic synchronization seems more ideal.) You can sync with any number of sources simultaneously, as far as I know. That said, I haven't tested that limit personally.

- The repositories have several geocaching apps available; a quick glance turned up "Advanced Geocaching Tool for Linux (AGTL)" which explicitly offers online and offline support, and GPXView, which also advertises offline support.

- The reimplementation of the on-screen keyboard occurs due to a lack of standard portrait-mode on-screen keyboard support; as far as I know you shouldn't have an issue with the landscape keyboards. Also, in addition to the standard layouts, you can create any layout you want with the on-screen keyboard editor available in the Maemo repository.

- The built-in media player will remember playlists when turned off, but not your position in the current song/audiobook/etc. For that, use Panucci, the "resuming audiobook and podcast player", available in the Maemo repository.

- I can't comment on the relative size and weight of the N900 compared to other phones, but I found it quite comfortable. It easily fits in my front jeans pocket, and it feels fine to hold and use.

- Regarding backups, the N900 has the same self-backup feature you mention Android having, and you can then save the backup to an SD card or another system. Alternatively, rsync/scp anything you want directly, just like you back up every other Linux system you own. :)

One thing you didn't mention in your comparison: the N900 has a hardware keyboard. Don't underestimate how awesome that is. :) It didn't take me long to gain the ability to touch-type on it, at least for letters, numbers, and the most common symbols.


Regarding the uncertainty about whether new versions of Maemo/Meego will run on the N900, as far as I know it looks like at least the initial Meego releases will run on the N900, and in any case applications can run compatibly on the N900 and newer phones. The N800/N810 couldn't run the N900's version of Maemo due to lack of hardware support. The same problem does not apply to the N900, since it has the graphics acceleration the N8x0 lacked. You won't keep getting support forever, and if you *really* feel uncomfortable with it you could wait for the next generation phone, but the same issue applies to any phone you buy; the situation with the N900 and new Meego seems quite similar to what you described with iOS 4 and older iPhones: support, but not necessarily every feature available. (Except that unlike the iPhone, what features you can get will depend on the capabilities of the hardware, not on what features the vendor wants to declare "exclusive" to the latest device to make you upgrade.)

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Obey Arthur Liu 7 years, 5 months ago

Regarding Android:
- Apps: right, and all the technologically daring apps that Apple fears, which benefit from amazingly deep and native (non-hackish!) integration into the system paradigm
- Backup: this is right. You have full 1:1 flash backup to SD card but also (in Froyo) full backup to the cloud.
- Programming: the SDK and OS API is amazing
- Usability: it's really a question of getting used to you know. As a Linux user, I don't like getting "sandboxed". I have this claustrophobic feel on iPhone when there's just too little flexibility to do things within apps. It's like Linux/Windows.
- Posix-ness: that's true, it's quite different, but then again mobile devices have very different requirements, you can't just dump a posix there. There are concepts like Intents and Activities that are very well thought out.
- Updates: just make sure you have a flagship/popular device and xda-developers will be your friend with dozens of custom Android "distributions", one more bleeding-edge than the others. No need to rely on HTC.
- The Dalvik JVM and the performance boosts of the past few releases have been amazing.

I suggest going for first-party devices, even if that might cost a bit more, for maximum community and Google support: Nexus One.

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Justin Dugger 7 years, 5 months ago

I own an n900, so I'll speak to that.

Panucci does audiobooks and bookmarking. Haven't tried it.

Calendaring is not to the point you would like. Last I checked you could have exchange or gmail, but not both. Worse, it doesn't support calDAV, which would have been very nice.

Finally, I'm not sure where Meego is travelling. They switched from .deb to .rpm, and I assume the only reason Intel signed on to a joint development is show how much better Atom hardware is than ARM. Either Nokia or Intel must have a trick up their sleeve, and while I don't know which the fact that such secrets exist doesn't bode well for consumer planning.

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Lafriks 7 years, 5 months ago

HTC Desire lietoju nu jau nedaudz vairāk kā mēnesi un esmu pat ļoti apmierināts.
* Ar Google servisiem un Exchange nekādu problēmu, viss ļoti smuki integrējas
* Parolēm - KeePassDroid (open source)
* GeoCaching - c:geo, manuprāt ļoti labs :)
* Ar LV klavieri nav problēmu (scandinavian keyboard ir LV layouts)
* SSH klients ir labs, cik ir sanākusi vajadzība viņu pielietot :)

Nav laika tagad sīkāk visu aprakstīt, bet nu patiešām ļoti labs iespaids par viņu :)

Ja nepatīk Java var softus rakstīt arī c, izmantojot Android NDK ;)

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lukian 7 years, 5 months ago

HTC Desire is my best option here (AUD$550 locally). Samsung Galaxy S is considerably more expensive (AUD$695 import + duties).

The N900 has a resistive touch screen, which is an instant turn off (for me). I'd probably recommend waiting for the "N9" if you can wait that long (first MeeGo phone).

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Udi 7 years, 5 months ago

I also dislike Java, mainly for two reasons:

1. Dependency hell - there never seem to be a reasonable way to manage classpath and jar usage.

2. The JVM feels like an independent OS that has to be managed independently from the host OS.

The first issue is not a problem in Android, since you are using the Android API and all the relevant dependencies are met by default.

The second issue also does not seem to be a problem. My impression is that the Dalvik JVM is well integrated into the Android OS.

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Ganneff 7 years, 5 months ago

Also take a look at the Motorola Milestone (or Motorola Droid, if you consider buying in the US). Includes a full hardware keyboard and is a pretty nice device. And will have android 2.2

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Dmitrijs Ledkovs 7 years, 5 months ago

Google sync via "Mail for exchange" is a bit dodgy, emails arriving late, and all labels become folders and you constantly redownload emails and at least on my phone (E71) the read/unread doesn't get synced. And via exchange only main google calendar gets synced which is imho pointless for any semi-active google calendar user. Because of this I will be ditching symbian and I not considering maemo/meego for myself.

I didn't have an iPhone yet myself. And it looks hot =)

PHONES IN LATVIA ON CONTRACT ARE CHEAP compared to UK...

Desire total cost of ownership 720GBP for 24 months, 1GB internet, unlim SMS and 500min.... but still I'd rather fly to latvia get desire contract and get a 5GBP/per month data plan (1GB + unlim skype) and pay for calls to legacy phones separately. maemo/

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Jo Shields 7 years, 5 months ago

Python developing for Android should soon be possible via IronPython and Monodroid.

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kero 7 years, 5 months ago

Im using a Desire and im fine with it. Its the best device i ever owned. The integration of google is amazing and fits all my needs. Update to 2.2 would be nice but i could live with 2.1. When i buy device i don't count on updates ;-). Desire is fun and the marketplace apps getting better and better.

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Alex 7 years, 5 months ago

"I have a dislike for Java. I wish one could write fully featured Android apps in Python"

http://code.google.com/p/android-scripting/

It's not going to be the same as creating full apps in Python, but it's certainly useful if you just want to write little scripts in your favourite language.

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Niks 7 years, 5 months ago

http://www.engadget.com/2010/03/05/entelligence-will-android-fragmentation-destroy-the-platform/ - unless Google has done something about that in the past 4 months, I really would be wary of Android especially because of its rapid development pace.
Since I`m a known stale software hater, I`d wait till the new MeeGo device (more like MeGoo, am I right?) or get something else (unfortunately Android based) but definitely not Apple as I, for one, could not live with such locked down system (and with anticipated lifespan of less than two years).

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Todd Troxell 7 years, 5 months ago

Just a note about Android- I have used both for 1 year+ think it is a misconception that android is less usable than iPhone-- do not understand where that idea comes from. Perhaps the older apps were not as good?

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Kai Hendry 7 years, 5 months ago

Can I sell you my Nexus One and I get a Iphone 4? ;)

I have a N900 at work and tbh I was dissapointed with it. I may be a mis-guided fool or it could be the other way around, though when it comes to apps I entirely think within the Web domain. One day I swear everything will be done within the context of a browser. Making calls, sending texts and er audiobooks.

Assuming Web browser developments to be a priority in a mobile platform, then we really just have Apple and Google pushing the envelope.

The trouble with the desire is god knows when it's going to get Froyo 2.2. It's always going to be a few months behind the curb I assume. And every big update Google does, the more likely the feeling I get is that they target better hardware.

Are you PC or are you Apple? The choice atm is Nexus One or Iphone 4. It's that simple. Tbh I think the Iphone 4 is much better, than I do have a Nexus One because I can build my own Web runtime and deploy it and play around a bit on the most decent Linux mobile runtime by a huge margin when compared to Meego etc.

I left out Palm/WebOS. I think it's bloody good, though they really fail to hit the EU market.

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Robert Hart 7 years, 4 months ago

I have an N900, like many people said, there are apps that deal with all the "uncertainty" you mentioned.

I'm generally happy with the N900, but it does have moments when it feels like running a 10-year old PC.
The media player for example, can be really sluggish at bringing up the album list, and often skips a lot in the first few seconds of a track (quite amazing given there is no rotating media involved). I can't imagine the iPhone with its heritage suffers in that way.

Likewise, although you can multitask as many applications as you like, you very quickly learn which ones use more memory than they ought to. e.g. Having gPodder open in the background (even if it is doing nothing) seems to bring the rest of the device to its knees.

Other than that, I love it, and the ability to run shell, perl or python on the fly is surprisingly useful.

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usinss 7 years, 4 months ago

About update- Oliver didn't have enough time to test Android. You can search just clicking search button on phone. You can take photo just clicking accept button. And one more thing- android 2.2 is very great os. But if you need aps, you need iPhone. Apple have better support for OS and apps.

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Petteri 7 years, 4 months ago

I don't really get your hate N900 hate. Maemo is nice platform which is getting bug fixes, new software dayly and have great community.

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aigarius 7 years, 4 months ago

I don't 'hate' N900. Quite the opposite - I like the device, but currently it is set to on an evolutionary dead-end, with it controlling company (Nokia) rapidly obsoleting the device almost as soon as it came out without working this out with the Maemo community beforehand. This has already alienated a lot of developers and stopped people from buying the phone.

I want a phone that is a flagship for the company that develops the software and developer community for it. N900 looked great when it launched, but then it was kicked to the curb.

I am sad about, it had great potential. Now, if Nokia get their act together and releases 2-3 MeeGo devices in a stable and predictable manner and does not force people to upgrade their smartphones more often than once every two years, then I'll start having some confidence in them again.

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CaptSolo 7 years, 4 months ago

dual.lv has HTC Desire for 300 LVL.

I was looking at it as an option for the next upgrade. The price is OK, though I am still wondering if to choose Android or iPhone. Agree that Maemo is/was nice, but lost its momentum.

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