Magical, Revolutionary, Evolutionary, Upgrade
Lately I’ve been thinking about getting a new smartphone, so I went to survey the landscape. I’m keeping track of the Android phones and of course it’s impossible to ignore the iPhone 4 as a contender in the Arena. Apparently the difference between holding these phones in your hand and seeing them on a video is considerable, so I decided to take a look when I had some time to kill at a local mall which has both Apple and T-Mobile stores. I had already decided to look at the iPhone 4 because it has the retina display which is far and above better than everything else. The other phone I went out of my way to get 3-5 real-world minutes with was the Samsung Galaxy S series, specifically in this case the T-Mobile Samsung Vibrant.
Let me give some perspective on the whole “review” angle here, because I think that a history with smartphones and phones in general might tint the experience a bit. I was late to the cellphone game by my normal early-adopter standards, getting one when I first moved to the Twin Cities in 2002. My first cellphone was a Nokia brick which I could basically run a truck over and have no trouble with. After a few years, I was getting a bit more advanced, I got a Samsung SGH-509 which was my first camera phone. It was super thin which I was happy about.. people were commenting on the thinness of it a decent amount. I think I had another phone in between but it was just a basic flip phone from AT&T. I went from my super thin phone to a G1 when it came around, my first jump into the smartphone area. That was 2 years ago (actually a little bit longer now) and now I am up for a renewal of my contract, which means some serious subsidies on a phone.
I picked up the iPhone first, and it was immediately awkward in my hand. It felt about as thin as my SGH was, which is pretty damn thin. I know it isn’t because the specs don’t match up, but the G1 is a weighty phone in your hand, you really cup it. I have also been told I have reasonably sized hands, so maybe bigger phones are just for me. The other thing I noticed was that it was all glassy. I usually don’t like glassy, because I do tend to drop my phone about once a week. My G1 has held up admirably to the drops, landing mostly on it’s back but sometimes on the screen. I’ve seen some horror pictures of the glass on the new iPhone breaking but wanted to hold judgement. It may hold up to more abuse than it feels. I took a look at the screen, and it might just be because I am nearsighted, but I didn’t really see an immediate difference from the G1 that I am currently using. I went to the browser and zoomed in a bit just to see a smooth curve or something.. then I zoomed out and I kindof saw what people were talking about with the higher resolution, but it wasn’t immediately like “wow this will make my life better”. I’m also a guy who likes to code with Profont 9pt on a 1600x1200 or better screen, with coworkers regularly coming by and asking how I can even read the code that I’m writing, so it’s not like I don’t like me some high density display. It just wasn’t something that I was going to drop $200 on. On top of these, though, I can’t seriously consider the iPhone 4. It’s not because of AT&T (which is atrocious here) or because I’m an Android fan, but because if I’m going to buy an phone that’s practically a computer, I want to be able to program stuff for it, and the last Apple computer in my house got sold a month ago when it broke down.
So I walked around the corner (no really, the stores are about 50 feet apart) and picked up the Samsung Vibrant. It was much weightier in my hand, but it is still thin. It wasn’t as much hefty and large in my hand as it was just weird to hold the phone with the crazy security device that they had on it. I’ll give something to the Apple store, their security straps really don’t get in the way of you checking out the phone. The iPhones were held down with a small, silver sticker thingy on the back. All the phones in the T-Mobile store had the old stand-type security devices, meaning that if you want to hold it, you have a 1.5” pipe sticking out the back of the phone. Not exactly the best way to see if it’s the right size for your hand. I wasn’t serious enough in my designs to ask a clerk if I could hold one without a security thingy on it. It still seemed large. The other thing about this security device thing was that it made it seriously hard to find the hold / on button on the phone. It’s on the side, in a not so bad place actually because you could activate it with one hand and still be able to swipe your pattern in, but it was almost covered by the security thingy.
Enough complaining about the phone display quality. The Vibrant itself was quite snappy. Faster than my G1 by far, and the screen was bigger, but it doesn’t seem to be the same increase in resolution as size. I browsed to some of the same sites on the Android browser and did the multitouch zoom to the same curve as the iPhone 4, and it looked just as curvy as I had seen just minutes prior. The Vibrant display was more… well.. vibrant as well, it seemed like the colors were brighter and the backlight a bit brighter. It wasn’t any easier to read, mind you, just brighter. I’d probably turn it down in real life to save battery. It looked a lot like an iPhone 3, with a curved back and a nice big screen covering everything. It’s a good style, and I like it possibly more than the iPhone 4’s solid lines and such because it makes it easier to cup it in the hand. There was one big turnoff for me about the Vibrant though, and it was the useless tinkering that Samsung did with the launcher / home screen thing. It wasn’t overbearing or anything but it was obviously different. The most jarring was the browser, which had a new “home screen” which I wasn’t pleased with, and the browser was renamed “Web” which I have nitpicks about. Anyway it was a good phone, but it was also above $100 (there’s a deal for $150 that I know about) and I wasn’t ready to drop that kind of cash for what amounted to an upgrade.
That’s the deal with these phones now. The jump for me from a Nokia brick phone in 2002, to a flip phone in 2004, to a cameraphone in 2006 were just small steps in cell phones for me. Each phone had just a small difference that was completely approachable compared to the previous one. This one is easier to carry. This one has a camera. This one is thinner. They were all basically the same device though, a phone. The switch from a cameraphone to the G1 was such a change in how I conduct daily life it isn’t even comparable. It was a revolutionary change in my computing style. I carry a single device that handles my email, music, reading, todo lists, and on-the-go browsing. It’s a small computer, and that’s the problem with the new phones I was looking at. It’s just an upgrade from what I have already. Switching to an iPhone 4 now is not going to change my life again, even if it has a screen with 300 dpi. Switching to a Vibrant now isn’t going to change my life again, even if it is two times as fast. Those changes are evolutionary, not revolutionary. An upgrade is much less appealing.
Eventually my G1 will stop being upgradeable. (I’m currently running the 2.2 software on it, and it’s pretty snappy) Or maybe I’ll drop it and it will actually be broken one of these days. Then I’ll buy a new phone. Until then, I’ll continue having a great experience with a truly revolutionary phone, at least for me.