So another mobile phone OS has hit the shelves in the shape of Windows Phone 7 – now smartphone fans are spoilt for choice so we decided that an epic five-way fight to the death was the only way to decide whether Windows’ new approach is really a contender.
So join us as we journey to the depths of each OS and examine which is the best for what to help you decide what’s right for you.
If you’re only interested in specific features, here are some handy shortcuts:
Design is one of the most important elements of an OS. You’re going to be stuck looking at it for a year, if not longer, so you want something that doesn’t raise your heckles the way that Comic Sans does.
Android hands full control over to you when it comes to design, although some manufacturers like HTC have taken things into their own hands. The freedom is great, live backgrounds are a boon but it can sometimes feel a bit scrappy.
Apple was the first to go with the rows of icons and it’s a design move the company has stuck with, introducing folders to group apps together. The unassuming fonts and well-designed native app icons are familiar the world over now. We gained the ability to change the boring black background to any image we like this year too.
BlackBerry OS 6 has some rather snazzy line-drawn icons and makes good use of semi-transparent icon backgrounds giving the whole system a kind of ethereal feel.
Symbian is the definite loser when it comes to design. Those out-dated mid-’90s dawn of the internet fonts and floating black boxes on the homescreen make us want to rip our eyes out and hurl them back through time to when Symbian handsets were good.
Windows Phone 7 has definitely put the most work into its design, completely rethinking the OS layout. To be fair, Microsoft has had the benefit of hindsight, being the latest one to come out and all. Still, the big live tiles on the homescreen and panoramic layout of apps and hubs is really lovely.
Bonus breakdown: Each OS likened to furniture brands
Symbian is the cheap yet functional pine Ikea book case to Windows Phone 7’s beautiful Habitat coffee table. Android is custom-made shelving unit which you designed yourself (could be awesome, could be awful). BlackBerry is Heals – it’s good quality but the design is quite basic, while iOS is the classic antique that’ll never go out of style.
WINNER: Windows Phone 7
RUNNER UP: Apple iOS
Ah, the humble address book. Remember the days of painstakingly replicating contacts by hand when you got a new phone? Thank god those days are over. But who can claim the contact book crown? [Image]
Android automagically populates your contact book as soon as you enter your Gmail account details anywhere on the handset – it can be a little disconcerting if you’re not expecting it but the fact that it remembers contact images and saves you having to do literally anything is superb. It’s basic but functional and not very beautiful – but favourite contacts can be saved to your homescreen for easy access.
Apple falls into the functional-not-beautiful category too. Although it’s not linked to any email accounts, if you’ve got an address book on your Mac or have had an iPhone before it’ll sync all your contacts when you first plug into iTunes. Although the address book is super easy to use, it’s very, very basic. Linking other accounts is tricky too – Facebook, for example, is done from within the app and there’s no option to get this process going from the phonebook itself.
BlackBerry makes importing Facebook contacts a simple, integrated process from within the contact book. On the 6.0 version, you can save contacts to a homescreen, just as you can with Android and Windows Phone 7; the address book itself is another boring list-based one, although smart-dial makes it easier to jump straight in and search for a number using the Qwerty keyboards that are usually part-and-parcel of the BlackBerry experience.
Symbian‘s latest iteration of the phone book isn’t all that bad. It’s snazzed up a bit with the inclusion of contacts’ photos in the list, which makes it a bit more interesting. The contacts book also integrates quite handily with social networks using Ovi Social, although we’d rather not have to go through a third party for this.
Windows Phone 7 contacts, again, look beautiful. The list is populated with contact images and you can even click through to see their recent Facebook and Windows Live updates as well as write directly on their wall.
Bonus breakdown: Each OS re-imagined as a book
Android is one of those books you get printed specially for kids, where they become characters in the story, whereas iPhone is like a really boring user manual for a drill you bought in the Ukraine in 1992. BlackBerry is a Judy Blume book – familiar, sensible and occassionally brilliant. Symbian is a book with pictures in the centrefold which you just skip to instead of reading the actual story, and Windows Phone 7 is a big coffee table book you leave out to show off but never really read.
WINNER: Windows Phone 7
RUNNER UP: BlackBerry
Browsing the internet
Despite the success of apps, browsing the web is still a key element of any smartphone – so it’s a bit surprising that so many of our OSes’ proprietary browsers aren’t yet up to scratch.
Android‘s native browser has vastly improved since the Froyo 2.2 update – although not all Android users are lucky enough to have this. A pretty standard browser, the upgrade has simply made things faster and thus more pleasurable to use. And, of course, you get Adobe Flash 10.1 support with the 2.2 update, so you can enjoy Flash content on your handset ’til the cows come home.
Apple offers its proprietary Safari browser, which is nothing special really. It does have to receive special kudos for being the first one to feature pinch-to-zoom and for just, well, working. Tabbed browsing is another pro but points must be lost for the absence of Adobe Flash 10.1 support.
BlackBerry‘s WebKit-powered web browser on OS 6 is an incredible improvement on the previous iteration which had us all running for Opera Mini as fast as our legs could take us. The upgraded browser renders image-laden pages with ease and offers tabbed browsing. And if you’re still not impressed, you can always go back to Opera.
Symbian‘s latest web browser also has Flash 10.1 support, but it’s about as elegant as a teenage clown. Navigating through options isn’t intuitive while rendering speeds are frustratingly slow. It’s not a devastatingly awful, but it certainly doesn’t meet the standards set by other smartphones.
Windows Phone 7 has an Internet Explorer for Mobile web browser – but wait! Come back! It’s not as awful as those who have been burned by IEM before may think. The rendering engine is powerful and sites load quickly and effortlessly. Pinching to zoom reveals beautifully rendered text as well, not a stray pixel in sight. There’s no Flash support here though, and you can only have six tabs open at any time.
BONUS BREAKDOWN: Each internet browser as a form of transportation
Apple’s Safari is the Volvo of web browsers – no matter how much product placement they invest in, it’ll always be the safe, boring option. Meanwhile, Symbian is a tractor – infinitely frustrating. Android’s a kit-car – if you build it right and have 2.2 then it’s an excellent sports car; if not, it’s a waste of time and money. Windows Phone 7 is the Skoda of the internet browsers – it used to be atrocious but a revamp has left it with a better reputation. Finally, BlackBerry; it’s the sedan car of the group. Reasonably fast and reliable, we’re happy with it but we’d probably trade it in if we could afford it.
RUNNER UP: Windows Phone 7 and Apple
Music, media and photos
A phone is not a phone these days unless it can play music, videos and show you your camera photos in a well-populated image gallery. But which OS offers you the best overall media experience? Let’s find out…
Android offers tip top organisational skills, arranging images by the app you took the photo with and storing downloads in a separate folder (this makes setting wallpapers a doddle). It’s rather cheesy arrangement of oh, I just dropped this pile of photos in this scatty arrangement is kind of annoying but it’s better than a long list of thumbnails, we suppose. The music player is quite a standard affair, having taken a serious leaf out of Apple’s book.
Apple‘s gallery is pretty basic – it’s the long list of thumbnails we just insulted, to be fair. Still, scrolling through them is easy and fun, and it stores all images in the same place so there’s no searching through a bunch of folders. We also like how easy it is to delete or share multiple images. The iPod feature is tip top, however; all the features we want, including shuffle and the ability to build playlists are present and correct.
BlackBerry has given its media gallery a revamp in OS 6, but it’s sill quite basic. Photos are all stuck together in one big folder which makes finding what you want a scroll-y chore. The music and video players aren’t much better, despite the Black-Eyed Peas tie-ins. Without dedicated software for syncing and purchasing music, it’s a real pain to get anything on to the handset.
Symbian has gone for an Apple-esque cover flow look for its music library, so there’s points docked for copying – but we do like the homescreen widget that shows you what is playing, complete with album art. Transfering music and video from a computer is a breeze, as is creating playlists. The photo gallery is acceptable but there’s no quick shortcut to reach your photo store, so it’s not ideal.
Windows Phone 7 – and forgive us for the repetition – has created something rather lovely in the media hub. The panoramic backgrounds are populated with photos of the artists you store in your music collection and the album art is displayed nicely too. The downsides are the lack of features; you can’t create a playlist on the handset, nor can you import playlists from anywhere other than the Zune PC software. The photo gallery is equally lovely to look at, even pulling in your Facebook galleries.
BONUS BREAKDOWN: Media capabilities on each OS as pieces of music
BlackBerry is a plodding hymn while Windows Phone 7 is a soaringly triumphant Beethoven masterpiece – except it’s one of the ones that ended up unfinished. The iPhone is whatever Apple has recently decided is cool enough for their iPod adverts while the Symbian media section is one of those songs that sounds a lot like the one that Apple used in its latest iPod advert but isn’t quite as good. Android is an X-Factor winners’ first single.
RUNNER UP: Windows Phone 7
Android will be hard to beat when it comes to customisation. From OEM-created skins like the much-loved HTC Sense to simple user customisation of the multiple home screens using widgets, animated backgrounds, favourite contacts, apps and more, no two Android phones can possibly be alike.
Apple’s iOS is less flexible when it comes to customisation; although arranging your apps is a doddle, you’re stuck with those rows and rows of app icons and folders. You can now change the background of your home screen, however this isn’t scrollable and has to be a fixed image.
BlackBerry is a funny one. On the surface, the best you can do is re-arrange your apps. But you can go further by going all out and investing in a whole new theme for your handset. This can be fun or it can also be disastrous if you have the design equivalent of two left feet. You can get ready-made themes, but the good ones will cost you a bit of cash. Still, it’s a surefire way to ensure you’ve got a slightly snazzier handset than your other BlackBerry wielding pals.
Symbian, like Android, allows you to place widgets on your homescreens so you can choose what apps and information are most important to you. Aside from this, you can adjust the background but sadly you can’t ditch that awful ‘90s font.
Windows Phone 7 is a little disappointing in the customisation arena. Microsoft bleated and bleated about how each handset can become ‘wonderfully mine’ and yet we can’t actually do anything with anything. All the information is automatically pulled in – so your upcoming calendar appointments, what images show from your picture gallery on the start screen and what artists appear in the media backgrounds are all decided on by the handset. So although you do get your own information and images popping up all over the place, you don’t get to do anything yourself, other than change the colour of the start screen tiles and the lock screen background.
BONUS BREAKDOWN: Customisation as tetris blocks
Observe the image above. The green block on its way down the screen is Windows Phone 7 – these annoying little shapes are sometimes really handy but they’re not very flexible.
The long red block is Android – always brilliant whether you’ve got a space waiting for it or not. BlackBerry is the pink L shaped block – often very useful for slotting in and dashing off several lines at once, but it takes a bit of effort to set that scenario up.
The big fat blue cube is Symbian in tribute to its blocky homescreen widgets, while the orange T shaped cube is Apple: it’s not very exciting but it fits anywhere.
RUNNER UP: BlackBerry
Email and keyboards
If you’re going to be tapping out heart-felt messages and serious business emails on your smartphone, you’ll be after one that can handle all your misspellings and your forty-three email accounts.
Android’s onscreen keyboard divides the masses. I, personally, hate it. Landscape, portrait – either way I think it’s awful. Full time Nexus One user and Recombu-ite, Tom Newton, harbours irrational hatred for the Smiley key. Luckily for us and our blood pressure, you can use other text input methods, like Swiftkey and Swype. But that doesn’t change the fact that Google needs to do something about its default text input before we chuck all our Androids out the window and opt for something better. Email, on the other hand, is dreamy. Multiple accounts, incredible Gmail integration, push email… you name it, we love it.
Apple takes the crown when it comes to autocorrect – it’s so good that it’s kind of creepy. Has Steve Jobs implanted special mind-reading chips in all iOS devices? We wouldn’t put it past him. Anyway, that keyboard is good – unless you’re a hardcore potty mouth, in which case you’ll most likely hate it. Email is done pretty well too – again, multiple accounts are a boon and the easy set-up makes us cry tears of joy.
BlackBerrys tend to come with physical Qwerty keyboards, which is brilliant as RIM does rule the roost in that particular hen house. BlackBerry is also known for it’s fabulous email facilities and, although there’s not much between BlackBerry and other OSes any more, you’ll hear no complaints from us – email is fast, reliable and easy to set up, while viewing and sending attachments are easy as pie.
Symbian’s latest iteration on the N8 offers a landscape Qwerty keyboard which is responsive enough, but it’s annoying that you’re stuck with T9 when in portrait mode because of the width of the screen. Email set-up is straightforward for webmail and Exchange accounts, but although you can have multiple email accounts, you can’t amalgamate them all into a single inbox.
Windows Phone 7 gives you quite a nice touch-screen keyboard with a full Qwerty layout even in landscape mode. Instead of just auto-correcting your mistakes, it offers you a lengthy list of options, which is generous of it. Setting up email is super easy, but there’s no option to receive emails from all accounts in a single inbox, or even a single app. Instead you end up with multiple email tiles on your start screen, one for each email account.
BONUS BREAKDOWN: Text input as musical instruments
With its physical Qwerty keyboards, BlackBerry is the piano of the text input world. It’s flexible and satisfying to play, but can sometimes cause dischords with its less-than-brilliant autocorrection software. The muted trumpet is how we see the terrible Android keyboard, while the generally-annoying but sometimes quite beautiful piccolo steps up in place of Symbian. The iPhone is a beautiful harp, seemingly effortlessly correcting our mistakes, while the Windows Phone 7 keyboard is an over-complicated church organ.
The big daddy. The smartphone make-it-or-break-it. If an OS can’t offer you a plethora of brilliant apps, is it even worth having?
Android apps are great and getting better all the time. We’ve got a lot of time for the Android app market although finding what you want can be a bit of a chore, and top ten lists don’t change much from week to week. Design can also be awfully hit and miss, particularly with such a lot of free apps. The paid apps are generally quite expensive but you’ve got 24-hours to claim a refund if you don’t like the app.
Apple has led the way when it comes to apps, and it’s almost impossible to imagine any other OS actually surpassing it. The App Store is well stocked, but militant approval criteria from Apple means that you won’t see many risqué apps and the more juvenile ones are coming under the banning stick too. But, you can get a lot of brilliant functionality without spending much money – and as the app ecosystem with the greatest number of users, all the biggest apps end up on the iOS store so you won’t miss out on anything.
BlackBerry doesn’t exactly have a glowing reputation when it comes to apps, but it’s certainly improving. Many of the apps will set you back a lot more money but they do tend to be very good quality. The major downside is that the range of apps is quite narrow because many developers don’t see BlackBerry as a priority.
Symbian apps tend to be Nokia Ovi Apps. They aren’t brilliant, but it’s clear that Nokia is putting a lot into getting the app store up to scratch; choice is a little limited and there’s usually quite a ‘Symbian’ aesthetic (i.e. they look a bit rubbish) but it’s definitely on the up. The problem is, will it ever catch up to the likes of Apple and Android? We doubt it.
Windows Phone 7 is a fledgling OS so we’ll cut it a bit of slack when it comes to the app store. There’s already a good range in there even on the day after launch and Microsoft has put a lot of time and money into ensuring that a range of big brands are represented. Because design is one of the elements that Microsoft uses to approve or reject apps, the standard is quite high.
BONUS BREAKDOWN: Apps as funfair prizes
Apple’s apps are the jackpot – the enormous cuddly unicorn or the roll of twenties you managed to get your hoop over against all the odds. Windows Phone 7 is a goldfish in a plastic bag – it looks cool and it’s going to grow as soon as it gets a bigger tank. Symbian’s apps are like the ugly nerf gun your brother wins and won’t stop shooting you with, while BlackBerry is like the painfully average teddy bear it took you two hours and £20 to win in the claw machines.
RUNNER UP: Android