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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The iPhone Killer (for Android fans)

Limited edition white Samsung Galaxy S2 Skyrocket

Not long after my recent post regarding the flood of ultra-powerful smartphones on the market, AT&T announced the December 4th release of the white version of their first 4G LTE phone, the Samsung Galaxy S2 Skyrocket. Luckily, my upgrade eligibility came just before its release so I was able to get my hands on it and if there ever was an "iPhone killer" it is this phone!

After seeing photos of the non-LTE Galaxy S2 in white overseas, I began scouring the Internet for news of a U.S. release. The Skyrocket had already been released in black but the lack of LTE coverage in my area had me leaning towards the non-LTE Galaxy S2, until the white version arrived. Of course there were other factors that went into my choice to go for the Skyrocket, mainly the fact that I was able to get it for $149 ($100 less than most retailers) by purchasing from Parrot Cellular (price valid through the month of December), and once the LTE network is up, I'll instantly benefit from it while others have to wait to get an LTE-capable phone (no, the iPhone 4S is not). Oh, who am I kidding, I just had to have it in white!

Now, in all fairness, I came from an iPhone 3G to the Skyrocket, so the obvious reaction would be that the iPhone is completely inferior. The only fair way to put these phones up against each other is to compare the Skyrocket with Apple's latest, the iPhone 4S. Side by side, the casual user would not notice much difference at all in terms of performance. My wife has the iPhone 4S and we tried our own "benchmark" test, by aiming our browsers at the same site and launching in unison, and there was a negligible difference. Most hardware specs matter only to technology insiders who use programs to measure performance to a much higher standard than the vast majority of phone users.

Here is a breakdown of the key performance and design factors for both phones.

Skyrocket - 4.5-inch Super AMOLED Plus display with resolution of 800 x 480 pixels and 207 ppi pixel density.
iPhone 4S - 3.5-inch TFT Retina multi-touch display with resolution of 960 x 640 pixels at 326 ppi density.

Skyrocket - 129.8 x 68.8 x 9.5 mm dimension and weighs 130.5 grams
iPhone - 115.2 x 58.6 x 9.3 mm and weighs 140 grams

Skyrocket - 1.5 GHz Scorpion dual-core processor, Adreno 220 GPU, Qualcomm APQ8060 Snapdragon chipset with 1GB RAM.
Phone 4S - A5 chipset, powered by 1GHz dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 CPU, 512MB RAM, PowerVR SGX543MP2 GPU.

Operating System:
iPhone 4S - iOS 5 with 200 new features including the Siri virtual assistant and iCloud.
Skyrocket - Android 2.3.5 Gingerbread*.
*It is expected that Skyrocket can be upgraded to the latest version, Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, in early 2012. Ice Cream Sandwich is a combination of Gingerbread and Honeycomb in one unit.

Both phones sport a rear-facing 8-megapixel LED flash camera with 1080p HD video capture.
or video calls, Skyrocket sports a 2-megapixel front-facing camera while iPhone 4S comes with a secondary VGA camera.

Skyrocket - HSDPA 21.1 Mbps, HSUPA 5.76 Mbps and 4G LTE support.
iPhone 4S - HSDPA 14.4 Mbps, HSUPA 5.8 Mbps support and 800, 1900 MHz technology.

Skyrocket - fixed 16 GB internal SD, external microSD card support of up to 32GB.
iPhone 4S - fixed 16/32/64 GB internal storage.

Skyrocket - Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, DLNA, Wi-Fi Direct and Wi-Fi hotspot, Bluetooth 3.0 version with EDR stereo along with mini USB 2.0 version.
iPhone 4S - Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n and Wi-Fi hotspot, Bluetooth version 4.0 with A2DP along with USB version 2.0.

iPhone 4S - Li-Po 1420 mAh battery, with 8 hours of talk time on 3G networks, up to 14 hours on 2G networks (GSM) and a standby time of 200 hours.
Skyrocket - Li-ion 1850 mAh battery.

What do these specs mean?
Here's a more summarized breakdown which explains how these specs translate to the user experience.

The retina display on the iPhone 4S is an inch smaller but remarkably crisp thanks to greater pixel density and resolution, which just means it's closer to HD quality. The larger size of the Skyrocket display makes everything appear larger but not necessarily better, although the deeply saturated colors on Samsung's Super AMOLED Plus display are very impressive. For most users, it's a matter of size preference because both displays offer excellent quality. The larger size for me was immediately appreciated, but I had no idea just how much of a difference it made until I picked up my old iPhone and suddenly found myself squinting to see the content; I'm officially spoiled by the extra inch of screen! Of course the larger screen on the Skyrocket also leads to a considerably larger phone overall. It has been mentioned that the Skyrocket is too large to use one-handed and I suppose for those who have smaller hands that can be true. The difference in weight is considerable, and has led to criticism for the Skyrocket for having a "cheap, plastic feel" compared to iPhone's solid metal and glass outer shell. I enjoy how light the Skyrocket is and I don't agree with those who think that weighing less despite a significantly larger frame translates to inferior quality.

The 8 megapixel camera on both phones features an LED flash and both produce very sharp pictures. The iPhone seems to have an edge thanks to image stabilization, as the Skyrocket suffers from lack of focus with slight movement, and a bluish tint on pictures that are not taken in well-lit areas. The front-facing camera on both allows for video chat, but the Face Time app that comes on the iPhone cannot run over the cellular network so if you do not have WiFi at home, download Tango from the App Store, also available on the Android Market. The Tango app is free and allows for video calls without requiring a WiFi connection.

Regarding processor speed and RAM, on paper the Skyrocket comes out way ahead but to the majority of users, both phones will be remarkably fast and only by using Quandrant benchmark apps will you see a visual indicator that one is superior to the other. In fact, even with a slower clock speed at 1.2GHz, the non-LTE Galaxy S2 repeatedly beats the Skyrocket on benchmark tests but you would never know the difference otherwise.

Putting performance aside, it all comes down to the operating system to decide which phone is the right choose. For those who do not need to customize more than their wallpaper, and like a simple user-friendly interface, Apple iOS is the best choice. The Android OS is the clear winner for those who like to have full control of all settings on their phone. There are many features on the Android OS that lead to a much fuller user experience, such as Social Hub which merges Twitter, Facebook and email accounts into one convenient location. There is also Media Hub, which allows the user to rent or buy full length movies to watch at their convenience. On the other hand, the Siri virtual assistant, a new feature for the Apple iOS 5, provides a great deal of entertainment for Apple fans. Siri can complete a number of tasks, from setting alarms and birthday reminders to scheduling meetings, but most users are impressed by how intuitive and humorous Siri can be. When asking Siri a question like "guess what", you may get a response of "you won the lottery, right?", or if you ask "what are you wearing", Siri responds "Aluminosilicate glass and stainless steel. Nice huh?".

One key difference between the two phones is the expandable memory available on the Skyrocket. Some argue that the iPhone wins because its 64GB configuration means more available memory than the Skyrocket's internal 16GB with a 32GB external micro SD, for a total of 48GB. However, once you reach the limit on any of the configurations you choose for the iPhone, you have to start chipping away at installed media. If you fill up your micro SD on the Skyrocket, pull it out and start a new one. As someone who used my iPhone as an iPod as well, the ability to throw in additional space for music basically guaranteed I'd be switching to an Android-based phone.

Of course, the most important factor is battery life since no measure of performance matters if your phone dies halfway through the day. Both phones are challenged in this area, as my wife and I find ourselves plugging in our phones during the day with normal use. Both OS providers have claimed to have updates that address battery usage issues, but let's face it, these are basically mini-computers that are performing a number of memory intensive tasks at any given time. The Skyrocket is more powerful than some desktop computers I've owned, so to expect long battery life if you're using your apps and web browsing throughout the day is unrealistic.

To summarize, if you want a phone with full customization ability, a large beautiful display, expandable memory, and the ability to take advantage of greatly increased speed when the LTE market arrives in your area, the Skyrocket is the winner. If you like a more simplified experience, with enough settings available to feel like you have adequate control of your phone, also with a beautiful display, and the entertaining Siri assistant to crack jokes with, you can't go wrong with the iPhone 4S. Both phones provide enough power to make web browsing and applications very enjoyable, as long as you're not viewing pages with Flash-enabled videos (sorry Apple fans, no Flash support for iPhone).

**UPDATE 12-21-2011**
After having some time to play with the Skyrocket, I'd like to share a few tips/tricks and some feedback on what I love about the phone, as well as areas for improvement. For the first few days I was constantly tweaking settings, downloading apps and moving them around, playing with wallpapers, games and tools so I was getting into low battery territory by early afternoon. This was a cause for concern but I learned how to maximize battery life with a few tricks. Using the settings widget, I can toggle GPS and Wireless off with one-touch, so I can leave them disabled until needed. This saves a lot of battery life, because with those functions on, the phone is constantly tracking location and searching for available networks even if you are not in need. Live wallpapers are very nice to look at, especially one like Koi Pond, but of course they will constantly drain battery, as they are running even when the phone is locked and the screen is "off". Auto-brightness is also not a feature to leave turned on, as your phone will constantly be adjusting brightness based on the ambient light in your surroundings.

Regarding apps and running processes, Android allows users to control what is running on the phone with Task Killer. From within any app, by hitting the "home" button you are not exiting the app to get to the home screen. However, using the "back" button all the way to the home screen will exit out completely, which you can confirm by checking the running applications. Another trick, which most Android users probably know already, is the swipe feature available in Contacts. Whether in the Contacts folder or while viewing your call log or messaging screen, you can swipe to the right on the contact's name to call them (using whatever is set as their "default" number), or swipe left to send a text message. I've conveniently configured my seven home screens to feature most of what I would need to access an app for so a quick swipe across my home screens provides a quick fix of information. Direct dial and Direct message shortcuts are real time savers as well, which are available by holding your finger on any of the home screens and choosing the shortcut option.

One feature I use regularly is the Power Saving mode, which you can set to engage specific battery-saving actions once you reach a certain point in battery life. This helps save your phone from dying if you're a few hours away from a charger when you get the low battery warning.
For music, I use Winamp which allows me to import my iTunes playlists to WinAmp on my desktop and then wirelessly sync to my phone (while both are connected to the same network). Of course, with the use of the microSD, I can just copy mp3's straight over, but it seems that WinAmp does not recognize artist information. That's my update (for now).