The Bad News

How do you even begin to compete with Apple or Google? Both companies have a knack for identifying the wrong way to do something and doing the exact opposite. The latter tends to give away much of its innovation while the former somehow makes it cool to charge handsomely for it. In fact, Apple is the first company I've seen to take the pace of innovation offered by Moore's Law and pair it with an equally aggressive expected upgrade cycle. These are formidable opponents.

As much as I believe that HP, Microsoft or Nokia will step up to the plate and retake marketshare from these two, I just can't see it - at least in the short term.

I'd love to be wrong about this as I believe we desperately need competition to prevent the mobile web from turning into Apple's web and Google's web. But I'm afraid for companies like Apple or Google to lose significant marketshare at this point, they need to screw up. They have to do something very wrong. And no, antennagate wasn't enough.

In the early days of 3D accelerators NVIDIA caught up to and eventually surpassed 3dfx by executing frustratingly well. Like clockwork, every six months NVIDIA would have a new GPU and eventually 3dfx was left in an uncompetitive position. Coincidentally the past three years of AMD's near flawless execution has caused NVIDIA a similar sort of pain.

Apple has adopted a 12-month product cycle for its iOS devices. Every summer Apple drops a new iPhone and I'm guessing every Q1 we'll get a new iPad. Sprinkle in a yearly OS update and you've got the makings of a good execution plan. So long as Apple sticks to the formula of quickly adopting new hardware and improving software, the iOS platform will be a difficult one to dethrone.

Google feels a little less structured but we've seen a steep ramp with frequent software updates. If anything Google gets to enjoy an even more aggressive hardware roadmap as Android smartphone manufacturers have typically been the first to adopt new SoC IP. The first dual-core smartphones will run Android and the first Moorestown based smartphones will run Android. Apple has only been similarly aggressive with adopting high performance GPUs in its phones but Samsung changed that this year with the Galaxy S.

And then we have Microsoft. Windows Phone 7 was much, much, much better than I expected. I imagined it being more like iOS 2.0 and what I got instead was something within striking distance of iOS 4. Sure there are some missing features: Hack-free tethering, copy & paste, multitasking and faster hardware, but if you actually use a Windows Phone it's really not bad at all.

A New Hope

Ever since I flew to NYC to grab my first Windows Phone, I haven't had a desire to go back to my iPhone. Looking at the core OS alone, Microsoft did a wonderful job. The OS is easily just as smooth and as fast (if not smoother, and faster) than iOS. Even the lack of iOS style task switching isn't all that bothersome thanks to WP7's back button. It's not perfect, but Microsoft did a great job at creating an appliance-like smartphone. Which, I might add, is impressive for a traditional PC company.

The shortcomings are enough to make me want to keep an eye on the platform, but not fully commit to it yet. As I concluded in our Windows Phone 7 review, the app story is disappointing. There are far more big name apps than I expected, but almost all of them are slow and none of them support background operation, notifications or anything that could make them feel like a part of the OS.

The performance of some 3rd party apps is particularly troubling. I'm not sure whether that's part of the developer learning curve or inherent to the current instance of Windows Phone 7. Either way, if you depend on a lot of 3rd party apps you're better off looking at Android or iOS today.

Since our review posted I've met a number of people who aren't sold on Android but refuse to buy an iPhone. Every one of them has been impressed by Windows Phone 7. It's honestly the iPhone for everybody else.

The only aspect of purchasing a Windows Phone that's more difficult than jumping on the iPhone bandwagon is choosing hardware. While the OS may be polished, nearly all Windows Phone manufacturers took the safe route and launched relatively uninspired designs for WP7. I'm sorry to say that none of them quite live up to the total package of the iPhone 4. You make sacrifices in battery life, material quality, camera quality or all of the above. The OS may be solid, but there's still a lot of work that has to be done to achieve perfection.

If you are planning on making the jump before the next generation of Windows Phone 7 hardware, there are reasonable options today. While the perfect Windows Phone may not yet exist, there are some devices that are good enough.

Unlike choosing an Android phone, performance and UI aren't differentiating factors for Windows Phones. They all run the same OS and use the same 1st generation Snapdragon SoC. As a result, they all perform identically. There are no OS level carrier/OEM customizations. The best either can do is supply preinstalled apps. Other than that, the difference is all in build quality, battery life and the hardware in general.

Brian posted our review of one of the more unusual Windows Phone 7 devices a couple of weeks ago: the HTC Surround. Today I want to provide a quick look at two other options: the very popular Samsung Focus and the LG Optimus 7.

Physical Comparison
  Apple iPhone 4 Samsung Galaxy S Fascinate LG Optimus 7 Samsung Focus HTC Surround
Height 115.2 mm (4.5") 106.17 mm (4.18") 125 mm (4.92") 122.9 mm (4.84") 119.7 mm (4.71")
Width 58.6 mm (2.31") 63.5 mm (2.5") 59.8 mm (2.35") 65 mm (2.56") 61.5 mm (2.42")
Depth 9.3 mm ( 0.37") 9.91 mm (0.39") 11.5 mm (0.45") 9.9 mm (0.39") 12.97 mm (0.51")
Weight 137 g (4.8 oz) 127 grams (4.5 oz) 157 grams (5.54 oz) 119 grams (4.2 oz) 165 grams (5.82 oz)
CPU Apple A4 @ ~800MHz 1 GHz Samsung Hummingbird 1 GHz Qualcomm QSD8250 1 GHz Qualcomm QSD8250 1 GHz Qualcomm QSD8250
GPU PowerVR SGX 535 PowerVR SGX 540 Adreno 200 Adreno 200 Adreno 200
RAM 512MB LPDDR1 (?) 512 MB LPDDR1 512 MB LPDDR1 (448 system, 64 GPU) 512 MB LPDDR1 (448 system, 64 GPU) 512 MB LPDDR1 (448 system, 64 GPU)
NAND 16GB or 32GB integrated 2 GB, 16 GB microSD (Class 2) 16 GB integrated 8 GB integrated 512 MB integrated, 16 GB (Internal Class 4 microSD)
Camera 5MP with LED Flash + Front Facing Camera 5 MP with auto focus and LED flash 5 MP with autofocus, LED flash, 720P video recording 5 MP with autofocus, LED flash, 720P video recording 5 MP with autofocus, LED flash, 720P video recording
Screen 3.5" 640 x 960 LED backlit LCD 4" Super AMOLED 800 x 480 3.8" LCD 800 x 480 4" Super AMOLED 800 x 480 3.8" LCD 800 x 480
Battery Integrated 5.254Whr Removable 5.55 Whr Removable 5.55 Whr Removable 5.55 Whr Removable 4.55 Whr

If you haven't read our Windows Phone 7 review I'd encourage you to do that before going forward as I won't touch on anything we've already covered there.

The LG Optimus 7
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  • sprockkets - Saturday, December 4, 2010 - link

    Or maybe you can comprehend that light that is picked up from an LCD in their measurements is the LCD trying to mask the BACKLIGHT and why they can never be as black as an OLED screen?
  • popej_ - Saturday, December 4, 2010 - link

    Do you know what is transflective LCD? That kind of screen can be perfectly visible in full sunlight without any backlight at all. You can get the same useless black measurement as for AMOLED :)
  • strikeback03 - Monday, December 6, 2010 - link

    My understanding was that transflective screens generally are worse on battery due to the need to power the backlight through the additional transflective layer. For a phone that was going to be used extensively outside it might be worth it, for a lot it wouldn't.

    Also I don't think most users are confusing reflections on a glossy screen with bad black levels.
  • banvetor - Saturday, December 4, 2010 - link

    Hi Anand, thanks for the great review, as always. These 2 phones are exactly the ones I was setting my eyes on, and I feel I'm leaning towards Optimus 7 (since I live in Italy).

    Anyway, I posted this on Brian's HTC Surround review, but I figure I should ask the same to you also... could you give some details on the usability of each mobile OS when you DO NOT have a data plan?

    I currently don't own a data plan, and actually don't plan on owning one... my main uses for my smartphone are music, taking photos, and some more occasional web browsing and e-mail checking when there is wi-fi or when I really need to (in which case I pay for the KB of data).

    My main issue when switching from my current Nokia N96 to WP7 (I think I sit exactly with the people you mentioned on the first page, not really sold on Android and not wanting to jump into the Apple ecosystem) is how dependent this modern mobile OSes are on a always-on data connection. For instance, I'm guessing that Zune Pass will not be so useful to me, but maybe you can store some songs on the phone to listen to while offline... On Nokia even the maps are offline stored, but I guess this is too much to ask to these new OSes ;)

    Anyway, it would be great if you could post some of your findings about this on your next reviews...

    Many thanks!
  • tipoo - Saturday, December 4, 2010 - link

    I'm surprised that even the BB Torch and the Dell Streak running 1.6 beat these phones on the benchmark page, despite their faster hardware. Since this is a new product for Microsoft I won't rag on them for this, but it does look like some browser performance optimization is needed.
  • JimmiG - Saturday, December 4, 2010 - link

    The poor battery life of the Focus makes it very hard for me to recommend it to anyone. I know how frustrating it can be, since I have an HTC Desire, probably comparable to the Nexus One... Not being able to use the phone for what you want because you need to take a call in the afternoon and need to make sure there's some battery left, or having the phone die on you after 3/4ths of the commute home in the afternoon...that can be very annoying.. and the Focus is even worse. If I were buying a WP7 phone right now, I'd go with the LG for the battery life.
  • Enrox - Saturday, December 4, 2010 - link

    3 are the apps preinstalled but there are 7 more available in the dedicated LG app store in the markatplace.
  • ltcommanderdata - Saturday, December 4, 2010 - link

    I'm just curious whether your performance benchmarks for Apple's devices have been updated to use the latest iOS 4.2.1? I was interested in seeing if iOS 4.2.1 improves performance and/or battery life compared to iOS 4.1. iOS 4.1 used a Safari based on Safari 4's WebKit while iOS 4.2.1 comes with Safari 5 so it should offer much improved JavaScript performance. It would be useful if you included the iOS version number in brackets for your charts as you do for Android phones.
  • VashHT - Saturday, December 4, 2010 - link

    I was wondering what brightness levels you guys used for the browsing test. On the focus I found that the low brightness level was a lot brighter than low on the HD7 and very usable for daily use (unless you're in the sun). I'd be interested to see how the the brightness level affects the battery life of the focus.
  • Esteban2 - Saturday, December 4, 2010 - link

    Anand, nice job with review. I think it is one of the best I've seen and I've seen just about every one.

    I think you left out one important missing feature--Visual Voicemail. I was about to buy a Samsung Focus (who cares about cut and paste??) when I realized there was no Visual Voicemail. Honestly after almost 3 years with an iPhone I had forgotten about voicemail was like but this brought back the horrors very quickly. Another important missing feature--a favorites list. When you want to make a phone to someone you frequently call you don't want to go to contact list and all the mess of facebook postings, etc that you're forced to with WP7.

    Anyway, I'm hanging on to my iPhone 3G for now and waiting to see when Microsoft updates and brings Visual voicemail. Honestly, I can't understand why this feature is missing it seems so basic but I actually like the OS so will keep watching and waiting for now. If not there in 6 months I may have to bite the bullet and go with iPhone 4.

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