Jeff Gelles: Smartphone revolution presents consumers with a fundamental choice

HTC Windows Phone 8X
HTC Windows Phone 8X
Posted: December 20, 2012

If I'd had any doubts I was living through a revolution - a technological one, that is - they would have vanished this week on a Philadelphia sidewalk.

I passed three people, huddled together but each staring at a smartphone. Two visitors from Chicago with a local friend, Remul Johnson, a West Deptford interior designer, all looking for a liquor store. Two Apple iPhones and a Samsung Galaxy Note II.

Johnson said the iPhones, even with iOS 6's much-criticized Apple Maps, were faster to the punch than the Galaxy. To be fair, financial analyst Michael Odulate had owned his mega-size Galaxy for only three days.

The point is that in a revolution you have to choose sides, but things may not be as clear as they first seem. Just 51/2 years after Apple's first iPhone triggered this upheaval, the computer-in-a-pocket comes in several distinct and increasingly attractive varieties. And nothing illustrates that better than two new HTC phones being promoted by Verizon Wireless: the Droid DNA and the Windows Phone 8X.

If you're a dedicated iPhone fanboy or girl, you may not want to look beyond the Apple ecosystem. But if not - or if you're among the half of America that hasn't yet bought a smartphone - these phones, each $200 with a contract, are worth a look. Here's what I found in recent tests:

Operating system. This is what separates today's smartphones, more than their actual capacities, and there's no denying that Apple's highly refined iOS 6 still leads the competition. But the DNA's Android 4.1 system - a.k.a. Jelly Bean - and the 8X's Windows Phone 8 system are also the product of continual improvements by Google and Microsoft.

Microsoft's latest refinement is "Live Tiles" - large icons that update with data from the underlying program, displaying your newest e-mails, tweets, or news feeds. Where it most lags the competition is in its selection of apps - the single-purpose programs that put the "smart" in smartphone.

A Microsoft official recently said its Store offers 120,000 smartphone apps - less than a third, charitably counted, than each of its two main competitors. The number designed for Windows Phone 8 is undoubtedly much smaller. If you want or need an unusual app, check availability before you make any switch.

Display. The DNA is the latest smartphone to push the boundaries between big phones and small tablets, with a 5-inch screen that's just a half-inch shy of the supersize Galaxy Note II. It boasts a progressive-scan 1,080-line display - specs that make it "Full HD" in marketing lingo.

The result? The DNA offers an outstanding image for photos or video, albeit in a field where great displays are lately the norm, not the exception. In a recent comparison of 14 Verizon smartphones, Consumer Reports found only two, a Motorola Droid 4 and an LG Lucid, whose displays were rated as low as "very good."

But if there are degrees of "excellent," HTC is clearly trying to push that boundary, too.

On a measure of pixel density, the DNA claims a best-in-class 440 pixels per inch - substantially more than the 326 ppi on the iPhone 5's vaunted Retina display. At 341 ppi - best among all current Windows phones, HTC says - the 8X also surpasses Apple's specs.

To be sure, Apple said lesser density was enough to surpass the human eye's ability to see individual pixels. But if seeing is believing, both these HTC phones' displays are top-notch.

Camera. The Droid DNA's HD display is complemented by an eight-megapixel camera with a wide-angle lens, suitable for HD video or high-quality photos, plus a continuous-shooting feature that can grab up to 99 shots at four per second. Both phones also boast an 88-degree "ultra-wide-angle" front-facing camera, enough to grab the whole family in a self-portrait.

Shortcomings. It's hard to find much fault with either of these smartphones, which also boast HTC's Beats Audio features, including a built-in amplifier.

One test of locational capabilities raised a question about the maps app on the 8X. A search near my office for "opticians" on the Droid DNA and two iPhones - including one running Apple's Maps - found 10 within a dozen-block radius of my Center City office. The 8X's maps app found only three.

Fixable? Absolutely, perhaps with just a tweak to its algorithms. Apple and Google have each shown an ability to refine their software and make increasingly impressive smartphones. Microsoft still has some catching up to do. Who knows where this revolution ends?


Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com.

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